Inspired by the plight of the American Bison, he started a Collection, a Zoo, and a Movement
This 1860s tintype photograph shows William T. Hornaday at age six with his parents, Mary and Calvin Hornaday.
“I was mostly ‘raised’ on a fine, big farm in the beautiful rolling prairie country of south-central Iowa, three miles south of the Des Moines River.” This area and its natural surroundings afforded Hornaday the opportunity to see wildlife in its most natural setting.
Modern American Environmentalists: A Biographical Encyclopedia
edited by George A. Cevasco, Richard P. Harmond
Billy “is an awful bad boy,” Martha wrote in exasperation to her son David. He “knows how to hold his own in a quarrel as well as common boys does (sic) at 10 or 12 years old and no wonder for he has a great sum of practice.” William Temple’s streak of stubborness was a defining characteristic of his personality, and it would prove just as exasperating to his allies, employers, enemies, and friends alike over the next seventy years as it had his mother.
In 1876 Hornaday undertook a two year expedition to the East Indies, of which his friend Frederick Lucas would later write:
"Our museums have an enviable reputation for the manner in which they hold the mirror up to Nature, and yet I feel that the (Ward's Natural Science) Establishment may justly claim a large share of the credit for this. The expeditions sent out by our museums to gather specimens were foreshadowed by those made for the Establishment, notably by Mr. Hornaday's two years' trip around the globe, an expedition made by one man, with very limited expenditure of money, with results, considering men and money, that have never been equalled."
Lucas, Frederic A. (Frederic Augustus), 1852-1929; American Museum of Natural History.
In the 1880s, William Temple Hornaday (center), Taxidermist and Zoo Keeper, Andrew Forney, and another unidentified man, work in the taxidermists' laboratory located in a shed in the South Yard behind the Smithsonian Institution Building. A bird hangs from the ceiling, and mounted animals line the shelves. Skulls and animal skins are scattered throughout the room.
In this letter to Professor George Brown Goode, Director of the National Museum, Hornaday expresses his inspired commitment to saving the bison from extinction.
Respectfully referred to Professor Langley, Secretary SI.
G. Brown Goode
Please return to GBG
Noted and acted on. S.P.L.
UNITED STATES NATIONAL MUSEUM
Washington, Dec 2, 1887
Prof. G. Brown Goode.
Assistant Secretary Smithsonian Institution
In charge of the National Museum
I desire to respectfully call your attention to the fact that the United States Government has thus far taken no special measures whatever for the preservation of the Great American Bison, either in confinement or on a public reservation. Until very recently we have had reason to believe that the band of buffaloes know to be in the Yellowstone Park was adequately protected, and that the animals composing it were breeding in real security. From the reports
that have been published we have been led to believe that there are between 100 and 125 head of buffaloes in the Park.
While recently in the vicinity of the National Park I learned from competent and reliable sources that the buffaloes in the Park have been killed off as they wandered out or were drive out of the Park limits, until now it is the general belief amongst those most interested that not over twenty head remain! It is a well known fact that a number of hunters, some of whom distinguished themselves in past years in the slaughter of buffalo, have been, and are now living along the Park boundaries on the East and South for the purpose of killing buffaloes and other game that wanders out of the reservation, or can be safely frightened out. In Mandan, Dak. I saw the heads of two Park Buffaloes, and in Helena, Montana three out of a lot of six more, that
had been killed by those worthies, some of whom I could name. The six heads in Helena had been hidden in the snow all winter, in order to keep them from the eyes of law officers, and had been mutilated by coyotes.
The fact that the game in the Park is not adequately protected, is notorious. While there is no doubt that the troop charged with police duty is vigilant and active, and well directed, the force is entirely too small, and not sufficiently provided with posts of rendezvous to cover the ground which should be covered. In winter the men all retreat to the hotels, which are the only winter quarters provided, and the best game districts of the park are thus left entirely without protection, and for quite a long period. It would seem that a wire fence eight feet high is imperatively needed around the entire park.
and I respectfully submit the question whether it is not the duty of the Smithsonian Institution to memorialize Congress on this point at the next session. With the entire park so enclosed, it would be a comparatively easy matter to make of it the greatest game preserve in the world.
In view of the fact that thus far this government has done nothing to preserve alive any specimens of the American Bison, the most striking and conspicuous species on this continent, I have the honor to propose that the Smithsonian Institution, or the National Museum, one or both, take immediate steps to procure either by gift or purchase, as may be necessary, the nucleus of a herd of live buffaloes. Having been spared the misfortune, thanks to the Smithsonian Institution, of being left without a series of skins and skeletons of the species suitable for the wants of the National Museum, it now
seems necessary for us to assume the responsibility of forming and preserving a herd of live buffaloes which may, in a small measure, atone for the national disgrace that attaches to the heartless and senseless extermination of the species in a wild state.
There are quite a number of buffaloes alive in captivity in the hands of private individuals, and a few more in publics parks and gardens. Those in the hands of private owners are in many instances being allowed to cross with domestic breeds, and it is to be feared that it will soon become a difficult matter to find a buffalo of absolutely pure breed. Is it not only desirable but imperative that we should have a herd fit to be shown as one belonging to the National Government, and one not to be equaled by that of any private individual? It is unnecessary for me to do more than refer
to the painstaking and severe manner in which the last surviving herds of Aurochs has for years been protected in the forest of Bialowskza, in Lithuania, by the Emperor of Russia, to prove the degree of interest which other governments manifest in such questions as that now before us.
It seems to me that we should have from six to ten buffaloes as a nucleus for a herd worthy of the name, and also that the animals should be procured immediately. I have ascertained by correspondence the various prices at which private parties would sell some of their stock, and I submit a few letters herewith which will serve well to show the high value already set on these animals. While several parties ask $500 each for buffaloes, and some refuse to sell females at any price, I believe that by prompt action it will be possible to secure what we need at about $100. per head, plus
the expenses of transportation. But the price is steadily & very rapidly advancing, and in another year it may be impossible to find a buffalo of any size for sale at less than double its present price.
In view of all the foregoing facts, I now respectfully urge that immediate steps be taken in the matter. I am ready to undertake the task of procuring the animals needed, and providing for them here, if called upon, and provided with the funds that will be necessary.
I think it might prove profitable, in case anything can be done, to engage Mr. M.C. Rousseau (see letter) at once, at a maximum cost of $15. to visit the man mentioned in his letter and ascertain the lowest price at which ten head of buffaloes can be bought on the spot. In order to definitely present the matter, I have
The live animals proved even more popular than taxidermied animals, leading to the founding of the National Zoological Park as part of the Smithsonian in 1888, with Hornaday as its first director.
- Here Secretary Langley, center, facing camera, with Hornaday to his right, surveys the property in northwest Washington, DC with the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. The home of George Brown Goode, the Director of the National Museum, can be seen in the distance on the right.
In 1889, Hornaday published The Extermination of the American Bison, a popular work that created public support to save this species.
"In 1896, the newly chartered New York Zoological Society (known today as the Wildlife Conservation Society) enticed Hornaday back to the zoo field by offering him the opportunity to create a world-class zoo. Hornaday played a commanding role in selection of the site for the New York Zoological Park—he hated the nickname “Bronx Zoo”—which opened in 1899, and in the design of early exhibits. He served in the triple role of Director, General Curator, and Curator of Mammals until he retired in 1926. Among his several activities, he established one of the world’s most extensive collections, insisted on unprecedented standards for exhibit labeling, promoted lecture series, and offered studio space to wildlife artists. In the Bronx, Hornaday changed the perception of zoos from amusing curiosities to centers for education about wildlife and their protection."
"In 1905, William T. Hornaday and others organized the American Bison Society and demanded that the buffalo be given care and protection. Through the efforts of the American Bison Society and the New York Zoological Society, an offer was made to donate 15 bison to the Wichita National Forest and Game Preserve in Oklahoma. Congress set aside $15,000 for this purpose, and on October 11, 1907, 15 of the finest buffalo from the New York Zoological Park were shipped by rail to Oklahoma."
Here Zoo Director WIlliam Temple Hornaday stands on the left.
"Seven days later, these six bulls and nine cows had safely returned to the plains and mountains.
There was great excitement in the little southwestern Oklahoma town of Cache when the train pulled in with the heavily-crated buffalo. The great Comanche Chief Quanah Parker was among those who came to the station. The crates were transferred to wagons and hauled the 13 miles to the Wichitas. People from the whole countryside flocked into the Wichita Forest to see the shaggy beasts. Mounted braves and their families rode in to see the bison of the plains that had provided meat and teepee skins for untold generations of their ancestors."
Such monumental efforts to survey wild populations, manage and breed sustainable collections in zoos, lobby to preserve large swaths of habitat, and finally to reintroduce animals into the wild or nearly wild spaces that were their former range, is a hallmark of modern species conservation efforts; an undertaking pioneered by conservation visionary and activist William Temple Hornaday.
Exhibit Text from the
Smithsonian Institution Archive
Exhibit by Marc Bretzfelder
Office of the Chief Information Officer