At a Glance:
Bird names: 1
Western North America
Content note: this profile contains discussion of genocide of Indigenous people.
Scott’s Oriole (Icterus parisorum)
Sometimes, you want to show a friend that you care, but your way of doing it doesn’t quite hit the mark. Presumably something like this is what was going through Darius Couch’s head when he decided to name a bird he believed to be undescribed in honor of his fellow military man, Winfield Scott. Given that Scott was in no way an ornithologist, and seems not to have even had a passing interest in natural history like many of his contemporaries stationed on the fringes of the expanding United States, this remains one of the more puzzling honorifics on the list of North American birds.
Winfield Scott (1786-1866) was, by all accounts, a military man to his very bones. Nicknamed “Old Fuss and Feathers” by presumably out-of-earshot comrades, he was known as a stickler for military protocol, and was well-regarded as a strategist in the early days of the Civil War as he fought for the Union Army despite his Southern roots. But like many of his era- such as Couch and Hammond, to name a few- his career was made long before the Civil War, in the bloody conflicts of Manifest Destiny and the genocidal theft of lands from Indigenous peoples.
The full scope of Scott’s career, spanning from the War of 1812 to the Civil War, cannot be covered in full detail here, but his involvement in several key events deserves special focus. Throughout the 1830s, he played a pivotal role in multiple wars with Indigenous nations as they fought, largely unsuccessfully, to retain their lands. These wars are often ignored in the history presented to many Americans during their education, despite their brutal toll and their impacts on the Indigenous people caught up in waves of broken treaties, land speculation, and violence.
The first of these conflicts was the Black Hawk War, a short conflict in 1832 that cast a long shadow. Black Hawk (born Makataimeshekiakiak), a Sauk leader, had previously fought for the British in the War of 1812, hoping to push back against the settlers moving into Sauk territory in what is today Illinois and Wisconsin. In the spring of 1832 he gathered a group of warriors that had been forced along with him across the Mississippi, seeking to take back their homelands. This was likely to have met with harsh retaliation in any time, but as it took place under the incredibly anti-Indigenous administration of Andrew Jackson, the US Army was tasked with swiftly and brutally ending the war. When the commander in charge couldn’t deliver that, Jackson sent Scott in to relieve him and take control. Scott, however, ended up not seeing any combat: the commander on the ground, hearing he was to be replaced, was determined to not let another person claim credit. In the end, Scott’s only notable contribution to the war itself was the loss of two-thirds of the men he brought with him to cholera and desertion.
But the Black Hawk War, despite not giving Scott direct combat experience, did in a way set up the rest of his pre-Civil War career. The war spurred Jackson and others to aggressively pursue enforcement of 1830’s Indian Removal Act. Initially, this law was not designed to authorize forced removals of Indigenous peoples, relying instead on treaties and “voluntary removal”. As most of these treaties were forced upon Indigenous nations at gunpoint, there was in reality little choice for them to refuse; but the Black Hawk War led to the US government increasingly abandoning that meager pretext. Using fears stoked by the war, Jackson, reelected by a landslide in the fall of that year, began to push ever harder to force Indigenous nations that still remained east of the Mississippi westward.
The most well-known (although still largely as a footnote in many Americans’ educations, unfortunately) act of ethnic cleansing that resulted from this came to a head in the years following the Black Hawk War. The Cherokee Nation stretched across a large portion of the southeast, mainly in Georgia, and by the late 1820s, had enacted a constitution, developed a written form of their language and achieved higher literacy rates than the white settlers in the area, and started their own newspapers. Their lands had been eroded over the years, but they still retained control over a region rich in agricultural and mineral resources.
It is sadly no surprise that this was seen as a threat by the white settlers. Georgia in particular, who claimed the bulk of remaining Cherokee lands within its borders, was determined to steal this land and dispossess the Indigenous people who lived there. Despite federal recognition in theory of Cherokee sovereignty, Georgia figured that they would simply ignore that fact until the federal government went along with them. They claimed jurisdiction over Cherokee citizens and lands, while refusing to grant them the same rights as white settlers. Eventually, this led to tragedy, as the Cherokee, along with several other Indigenous nations of the southeast, were forced out of their homes and forced to move to Oklahoma. Thousands died en route.
Then-President Martin Van Buren asked Scott to lead the ethnic cleansing efforts against the Cherokee in 1838. It is easy to take Scott’s acceptance of this as a given, but he in fact did so against the urging of several of his friends. Under his command, his soldiers were known for treating the Cherokee harshly, forcing them “like cattle, through rivers, allowing them no time to take off their shoes and stockings”. Despite this casual brutality, many Southerners in fact resented Scott for being “too gentle”, which has allowed a myth to persist that Scott was somehow commanding a humanitarian mission. Make no mistake- even if he was less harsh than other commanders, he still, against the counsel of friends who could see the immorality of the orders, willing carried out genocide.
This alone would be more than enough to stain Scott’s name permanently, but he still had a lot of steam left. There could be discussion of his involvement in multiple other wars against Indigenous people, but we will limit ourselves to his career during the Mexican-American War. Scott was placed in command of the invasion of Mexico, launching a deadly assault on the port of Veracruz before marching on Mexico City itself. The capture of the capital allowed the US to force Mexico to agree to cede huge portions of land, and helped carry Scott to nomination as the Whig Party’s presidential candidate in 1852.
It would be hard enough to justify a bird bearing the name of such a willing commander of the forces of Manifest Destiny if he were, like many soldier-naturalists, actually making contributions to describing the flora and fauna of the places he was conquering. In Scott’s case, even that is absent. His contribution to ornithology remains solely that one of his subordinates apparently wanted to impress him, leaving his name as a monument with a bird he probably didn’t care all that much about.
Eisenhower, John SD. 1999. Agent of destiny: the life and times of General Winfield Scott. University of Oklahoma Press. [link]
McMillon, Ovid Andrew. 2003. Cherokee Indian removal: the Treaty of New Echota and General Winfield Scott. Thesis, East Tennessee State University. [link]