Townsend, John Kirk

At a Glance:

Naturalist, ornithologist



Bird names: 2

Region studied:

Western North America

John Kirk Townsend, ca 1830s. [link]

Content note: this profile contains discussion of grave desecration and phrenology, including quotes discussing stealing Indigenous remains.

The Birds:

Townsend’s Solitaire (Myadestes townsendi)

Townsend’s Warbler (Setophaga townsendi)

Townsend’s Solitaire [link]
Townsend’s Warbler [link]

The Name:

For North American birders and ornithologists, the name Townsend is familiar, even if the details are slightly hazy. Most know that John Kirk Townsend (1809-1851) was a naturalist in western North America in the early 1800s. Those who have dabbled in mammalogy will probably add that he didn’t just study birds. A few might remember his death– arsenic poisoning from his own specimen preparation method– as a cautionary tale. But his name is still mostly just that: a name frequently heard, but without a strong sense of the man behind it.

Townsend was a naturalist from a young age, and got his big break when he was invited in 1833 to join Thomas Nuttall and Nathaniel Wyeth on an expedition across the Rocky Mountains. At the time, this was still an extremely unfamiliar area to most white settlers, and Townsend jumped on the opportunity. His collections of birds and mammals included many that were unknown to white scientists, and both Audubon and Bachman drew heavily on his collections in their work cataloging the animals of the continent.

However, it wasn’t just birds and small mammals that Townsend avidly collected.

One of Townsend’s friends from Philadelphia was a physician by the name of Samuel George Morton. Like many well-off men of the day, Morton also considered himself a scientist, with a particular interest in the variety within humanity. His magnum opus, Crania Americana, was a dense catalog that sought to define all of the races of humans by their cranial characteristics and place each as its own distinct species. It became a foundational text for the burgeoning fields of phrenology and scientific racism.

A diagram from Morton’s Crania Americana, illustrating and describing one of the skulls Townsend stole.

Morton had a morbid desire to measure as many skulls from around the world as possible, particularly from Indigenous people in North America. Crania Americana catalogs dozens of specific examples. So when his young friend set out west, Morton made a request: could he bring back any human skulls he might procure? Townsend agreed.

Townsend describes in his memoirs several occasions in which he desecrates the graves of Indigenous people for their skulls. In one passage when the party finds the burial ground of a local group, he says:

“I have been very anxious to procure the skulls of some of these Indians, and should have been willing, so far as I alone was concerned, to encounter some risk to effect my object, but I have refrained on account of the difficulty in which the ship and crew would be involved, if the sacrilege should be discovered; a prejudice might thus be excited against out little colony which would not soon be overcome, and might prove a serious injury

Townsend 1839, p 181

In a letter to Morton, he says of an epidemic (almost certainly of a disease introduced by colonists):

“There is an epidemic raging among them which carries them off so fast that the cemeteries will soon lack watchers. I don’t rejoice in the prospect of the death of the poor creatures certainly, but then you know it will be very convenient for my purposes.“

APS Library, Mss.B.M843. Quoted on Matthew Halley’s blog

It’s easy, now that we nearly two centuries of distance between Townsend and ourselves, to rationalize and minimize these actions. It was for science, after all, right? And it was a different time, with different standards, surely we can cut these men some slack. Men of their time, et cetera, et cetera.

But the Chinook and other Indigenous people were also people of their time– yet we don’t defer to them when trying to excuse the actions of Townsend. How presumptuous to presume that we are the ones that can forgive him, when we are not the ones he wronged. Townsend at some level knew what he was doing was wrong– “if the sacrilege should be discovered”, he said above– and that he did not have any sort of approval of the community to take their loved ones’ remains. He describes resorting to subterfuge and digging up graves under the cover of darkness, knowing that his actions would bring retribution if he were caught.

Even if somehow, by some strange moral alchemy, we could excuse Townsend for these thefts– and, again, I believe that we cannot– his actions still would require a reckoning for their long afterlife. Morton’s work, which Townsend contributed so much to, was groundbreaking not for its scientific rigor, but for its usefulness in backing up white supremacy. See, one of Morton’s main tasks was to quantify the cranial capacity of the different races he defined, and from that argue for the obvious natural superiority of white people. His work was a cornerstone in the development of scientific racism in America, giving an air of legitimacy to arguments for slavery, the suppression of Black and Indigenous voting rights, the genocide of Indigenous peoples, Jim Crow, eugenics and forced sterilization– Morton’s work is part of the foundation of all of this, and his legacy lingers like a foul stench up to this day. This is what Townsend enthusiastically contributed to– and it has affected far more lives than what good he brought to ornithology ever could make up for.

J.F. McLaughlin


Fabian, Ann. 2010. The skull collectors: race, science, and America’s unburied dead. University of Chicago Press. pp 63-66. [link]

Fischer, Dan Lewis. 2001. Early southwest ornithologists, 1528-1900. University of Arizona Press. pp 19-21. [link]

Halley, Matthew. 2020. “The (literal) skeletons in the closet of American ornithology”. Blog post. [link]

Townsend, John Kirk. 1839. Narrative of a journey across the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River, and a visit to the Sandwich Islands, Chili, etc., with a scientific appendix. [link]

Morton, Samuel G. 1839. Crania Americana: or, a comparative view of the skulls of various aboriginal nations of North and South America. Dobson. p. 208 [link]