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Henry Henshaw: The National Geographic Founder Who Helped Save America’s Birds

The thirty-three founders of the National Geographic Society were an adventurous and accomplished group.  They included scientists, explorers, a journalist and a superintendent of the National Zoo.  In recognition of the National Geographic Society’s recent 130th anniversary this series takes a look at their stories. By Mark Collins Jenkins On August 27, 1870, a young,...

The thirty-three founders of the National Geographic Society were an adventurous and accomplished group.  They included scientists, explorers, a journalist and a superintendent of the National Zoo.  In recognition of the National Geographic Society’s recent 130th anniversary this series takes a look at their stories.

By Mark Collins Jenkins

On August 27, 1870, a young, amateur ornithologist by the name of Henry Henshaw took a lucky shot at a peep in Boston Harbor. After retrieving the bird, he recognized it as being a Baird’s Sandpiper, a bird of the Great Plains that had only been acknowledged as a separate species less than a decade earlier. This was the first time this particular sandpiper had ever been seen, much less taken, east of the Mississippi River, and anxious to confirm his identification, Henshaw sent it to Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology for approval.

It turned out that he was right.  The specimen eventually found its way from Harvard into the hands of the Secretary of the Smithsonian, Dr. Spencer Baird, (whom the bird had been named after) and that was how the name of Henry Wetherbee Henshaw surfaced among what came to be called the nation’s “Ornithological Dignitaries.” A young man with an eye sharp enough to distinguish a Baird’s sandpiper from its notoriously confusing kin was surely a naturalist with considerable promise.

The result was that in July 1872, Henry received a telegram from Spencer Baird himself, inquiring whether or not he might like to join the “Geographical Explorations and Surveys West of the 100th Meridian,” better known as the Wheeler Survey, outfitting in Utah. Henry would be a naturalist collecting under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution.

The surprised recipient telegrammed back for more information. In reply he simply got: “Report immediately at Salt Lake City; pay transportation and take receipts.”

It was the sound of opportunity knocking.  The 22-year old would-be ornithologist went out, bought a train ticket on the new Transcontinental Railroad, kept the receipt, and embarked on the journey of a lifetime.

Into the West

After about a week of travel, Henshaw found the Wheeler Survey’s camp pitched a mile or so outside the sprawling village that styled itself after Salt Lake City. From there Henshaw was launched upon the life that would define his years as a young naturalist: summers and autumns spent in the West, collecting everything that flew, prowled, crawled, or grew rooted in that dry and mountainous terrain; and winters in Washington, D.C., where in the Smithsonian Institution he would classify his collections and write up his annual reports.

The summer and fall of 1874 proved to be his greatest collecting season. Henshaw’s little six-mule team party left Santa Fe and made its way southwest across the Gila River into the Apache country of southern Arizona. The numerous roadside graves they passed were mute testimony to the violence that had recently plagued the area and kept naturalists from exploring the high, forested ridges that loomed above the surrounding desert in serried ranks. The party’s interactions with Indians in the territory were peaceful though.  Henshaw’s skill with the shotgun impressed the Indians and in return, their ability to spot birds humbled him. “One or more is always accompanying me collecting,” he wrote a friend. “Walking along I often hear a low ‘coosh-coosh’ and turning, find one of them pointing at a bird in a tree top that I can hardly see.”

This idyllic time in the wilderness didn’t last.  In a time of tightening appropriations, funding of the Wheeler Survey was being cut and Henshaw eventually returned to Washington to search for other prospects

Henshaw wasn’t on Washington’s crowded sidewalks long, however, before John Wesley Powell, the nation’s most powerful scientist approached him with a proposal:  how would Henshaw like to work for the new Bureau of Ethnology Powell was forming under the auspices of the Smithsonian? Henshaw’s lack of ethnological experience was of no consequence, for Powell was convinced that biologic training was a prerequisite to ethnological studies. Should Henshaw find the work congenial,  it might become a permanent position.

Powell was more than an influential scientist.  He was a persuasive man.  Henshaw couldn’t help but accept his offer.

The Great Diversion

Henshaw may have been a novice in anthropology, but he displayed a mastery in writing up his results and compiling reports, eventually taking on the task of organizing for publication nearly all of the Survey’s various papers.  But the fieldwork, which involved the patient accumulation of vocabularies, soon turned tedious and exasperating and his projects at times seemed overwhelming.  The pressure was intense. Though not yet 40, his pulse was always on the fly and he was already running his hands nervously through his thinning hair.

That didn’t keep him from participating in the scientific organizations that were proliferating in the nation’s capital at the end of the 19th century.  On the evening of January 13, 1888, Henshaw attended  a discussion about forming yet another society, this one devoted to geography. Alongside Powell, Karl Grove Gilbert and C. Hart Merriam he duly voted aye, and the new National Geographic Society was officially formed.

But aside from attending the occasional meeting, Henshaw was too busy a man to be as active as some of the Society’s other early members. And then, in 1891, his health broke. The collapse was likely accelerated by overwork, but it was influenza that attacked his already-weak lungs and put him in the hospital for six weeks. Recovery was slow, then slower, and eventually, he was forced to ask for an indefinite leave of absence.

His work, unfinished though it was, did not go to waste.  What material had already been assembled would eventually be rounded out with a mass of unrelated data and published as the two-volume Handbook of North American Indians North of Mexico, a landmark in American ethnology and a lasting tribute to Henshaw’s genius.

Henshaw himself, now in his early forties, was a very sick man. At times he could barely stand. He tried collecting Indian artifacts or natural history specimens, but he couldn’t sustain the effort. He had but one last chance to find a health-giving climate, and so in 1894 he embarked on what would prove to be a very long sea voyage to the Hawaiian Islands.

The Snows of Mauna Kea


He disembarked instead on the big island of Hawaii, limping ashore in the port of Hilo, sheltered among coconut palms and banana groves beneath the volcanoes Kilauea, Mauna Loa, and Mauna Kea, which at nearly 14,000 feet was the highest peak in the islands.

He did not arrive as a tourist. He came preparing to die there. That he never expected to return to the mainland seems indicated by his decision to become a citizen of the island republic. “Here, where no man is treated as a stranger but always as a welcome guest,” he wrote a friend, “is found the kindliest climate in the world, beautiful scenery on all sides, and a contentment with life unknown in less favored regions.”

Hawaii was so picturesque that he soon found himself standing on wobbly legs beneath a focusing cloth, making photographs of tree ferns, outrigger canoes, grass huts, great wooden calabashes, and primitive spear fishermen. Before long thousands of his prints were being sold in Hilo and Honolulu, many of which eventually found their way around the globe.

As his strength slowly began returning, ornithology inevitably displaced photography. His legs now steady, he was soon crossing the belt

Hawaiian children photographed by Henry W. Henshaw in 1900.

of sugar cane plantations and plunging into the island’s rain forests. Above tangles of fern and vine loomed massive ohi’a and koa trees; beneath them lurked dangerous “blow holes,” hidden crevices in the ancient lava. Here he sought the oma’o and elepaio, the alala and akialoa, the I’iwi and amakihi and akakani and other of the evocatively-named birds of Hawaii.

More of Hawaii’s native birds would go extinct than in any comparable place on earth. Overhunting, habitat destruction, and alien rats and mongooses were destructive enough, but avian malaria, just being recognized at this time, was the most lethal scourge. Many species had no inborn resistance to it, and once a parasite-carrying mosquito species was accidentally introduced around 1820, their doom was sealed.

By early 1904 Henshaw was packing up his camera and his negatives of a Hawaii already fast fading away, and preparing to turn his back on the snows of Mauna Kea. This would not be the place where he would die, after all. Since the United States had annexed the islands in 1898 he was once again a de facto American citizen, and he was going home. “I am prepared to resign all claims to invalidism,” he wrote to his fellow National Geographic founder, Merriam, “and trust to be able to join the battle at the front.”

The Chief

And Merriam was indeed embattled. Since 1886 he had been the chief of the U.S. Biological Survey, building it up from a staff of two to one of the premier scientific bureaus in the government. Yet certain politicians did not care for Merriam’s preference for basic research instead of emphasizing projects with practical economic benefits.  These congressmen, backed by economic interests, would not brook scientific expertise that crossed Big Business.

It was clear that his friend’s days were numbered. In 1910 Merriam resigned to pursue his own research, and Henshaw was appointed in his place.

He had learned his lesson from Merriam.  As new chief, Henshaw was polite, prudent, diplomatic, and careful.  But in 1914 the last passenger pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoo. Four years later the last Carolina Parakeet died in the very same cage. Once again Henshaw faced the possibility that plummeting numbers in certain species could mean their extinction. And incredible as it might have seemed to one who knew them in their myriads in the Charles River marshes of his boyhood, the numbers of migrating ducks and geese were then in free fall.

So he began working with a friend of his, an ex-Congressman and pioneering wildlife photographer named George Shiras. Together they pushed the Weeks-McLean Act.  The Act was better known to history as the Migratory Bird Law, and it was a landmark in conservation history. Henshaw’s finest moment as Chief of the Biological Survey came on October 1, 1913, when, appropriately enough, it was he who handed President Woodrow Wilson the quill pen with which the Chief Executive signed that act into law.

The Survey’s prominent role in those negotiations, which soon resulted in an uptick in the numbers of migrating ducks and geese, increased its aura of authority. Eventually Henshaw wrung permission from the Secretary of Agriculture to produce a popular monograph on the subject.  The result was Farmers Bulletin 513, “Fifty Common Birds of Farm and Orchard,” published in March 1913.

Illustration excerpts from Henry W. Henshaw’s bookS

Astonishingly—and gratifyingly – the edition of 200,000 copies was quickly exhausted. Then an unexpected opportunity came knocking at Henshaw’s office door, in the person of Gilbert H. Grosvenor, editor of the National Geographic magazine. The editor had recently bought an old farm on the city’s outskirts and had been bitten by the birding bug.

The two men talked and the upshot was that Grosvenor reprinted Farmers Bulletin 513 in the June issue of the National Geographic, which, since the Society’s membership was then approaching a quarter of a million, effectively doubled the bulletin’s distribution. It also had a major impact on the fortunes, even the future destiny, of the magazine.  “There’s no doubt that article ‘Fifty Common Birds of Farm and Orchard’ marked a turning point in our Magazine,” Grosvenor later recalled. “It was received with tremendous interest and approval, resulting in my printing more series like it.”

Henshaw would have been happy to know that the ultimate sequel, the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, would routinely be considered the best one-volume guide by serious birders everywhere. He wrote, “My dream was thus made a reality by Mr. Grosvenor who deserves the thanks of all bird lovers for these popular bird treatises.”

Bird of Passage

When he wasn’t pestering Henshaw for another article, Grosvenor was seeking his advice, or tossing him suggestions, or even soliciting an old stuffed owl for use at his farm. The ornithologist answered each query with his customary grace. In January 1916, however, his reply came not from his office in the Agriculture Department, but rather from Bethel, Maine.

“I am up here rusticating for a time,” he wrote, “and trying to get rid of the effects of grippe…”

That was ominous news to his friends. Henshaw was nearly 66 years old and though he continued his work, he knew that his strength was ebbing, probably for good. On December 1, 1916, he resigned as Chief of the Biological Survey, leaving as his legacy not only the Migratory Bird Bill but also the Migratory Bird Treaty with Great Britain, the mother of all subsequent pieces of international conservation legislation, which he helped his successor Edward Nelson negotiate. He left nearly 70 bird sanctuaries, nearly all of them established between 1905 and 1916.  But above all, he had saved the Bureau of the Biological Survey itself from extinction.  In 1940 it would join with the Bureau of Fisheries to become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

There would be no final journey to the Mecca of California, no return to the paradise that was Hawaii. Henshaw lived out the remainder of his life within walking distance of his former office, just up the streetcar line in today’s Adams Morgan neighborhood.  His building overlooked his old collecting grounds along Rock Creek; but now his cane gun had been finally relinquished, thanks to the influence of Florence Merriam, Hart’s younger sister. She had been one of the first ornithologists to abjure the gun in favor of opera glasses, or binoculars, in the study of birds. “Although a late, I am a sincere convert to her creed,” Henshaw admitted. Now, in the spring the migrating warblers could snip and chatter unmolested in the tops of the trees.

He lived as he had always lived, unmarried, alone, a frail little man with a gracious smile. As the years fluttered by, visitors might find him bent over his microscope, for he had found in diatoms, the minuscule single-celled algae of pond and ocean, a “little world of inexhaustible interest and beauty.” It was like looking upon another planet, he would explain delightedly, so little known yet of such “infinite variety of form, and ornamented with bead and scroll work so as to be of surpassing beauty.”

That was the Henry Henshaw his friends preferred to remember when after August 1, 1930, they heard that this bird of passage, who had lived some 81 years among them, had finally flown away.

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Meet the Author

Alyson Foster
Alyson Foster works in the National Geographic Library where she purchases books for the Library’s collection and assists NG staff with finding research materials.