Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 428

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 428


This is the grave of William Temple Hornaday.

Born in 1854 in Avon, Indiana, Hornaday’s family moved to Iowa when he was young and while there, he basically watched the destruction of the passenger pigeon in real time. He graduated from Iowa State University (then Iowa State College) in Ames. Interested in biology, he managed to go to Europe for more study there. He got a job working for the famed naturalist Henry Augustus Ward as a taxidermist for a bit and then went to India and Sri Lanka to collect specimens, a fancy way of saying he was traveling to kill a lot of animals. On that trip that included most of 1877 and 1878, he also made it through southeast Asia and down to Borneo. On his return, now one of the nation’s foremost naturalists and taxidermists, he become the head of taxidermy at the United States National Museum in the Smithsonian in 1882. While there, he also wrote Two Years in the Jungle, published in 1885, telling the story of his travels and gaining a lot of attention from a public increasingly interested in an exoticized other, especially in Asia.

While at the Smithsonian, Hornaday became very interested in the bison, being hunted to the edge of extinction. People would just send animal specimens there and to other museums, wanted or not, so he had a lot of them to work with. He was able to estimate that in 1867, there were about 15 million bison roaming, but by the mid-1880s, there were almost zero. Believing the animal about to go extinct, Hornaday ventured out to one of the last surviving herds in the U.S., in Musselshell region of Montana, to kill some of them so that future generations would have excellent specimens to examine. All of this turned Hornaday into a conservationist, concerned more with preserving species than killing them as specimens. It was sometime after 1884 that he had this change of heart and by 1888, it was complete. What taxidermy had to happen would be strictly for educational purposes, with an ideal of creating exhibits of living animals for people to visit. He started bringing back living animals from the West instead of dead ones. In November 1887, he returned from one trip with three foxes, a bear, a few deer, five prairie dogs, two badgers, a golden eagle, and a bobcat. He opened a living museum and it became very popular with the public. The American zoo movement was born. Hornaday helped establish the National Zoo in 1889, but left the Smithsonian entirely the next year after arguing with the institution’s head. The conditions in these early exhibits for the animals were definitely not great.

In 1899, Hornaday helped establish the New York Zoological Society and the Bronx Zoo, one of the nation’s premier zoos. He headed it until 1926. He used it to promote conservation, lectures, and early forms of environmental education. Not surprisingly, he also used it to promote white supremacy. There was one cage where he brought a pygmy from the Congo and caged him with the monkeys. The pygmy would shoot at targets with a bow and arrow and wrestled an orangutan. This led to major protests from New York’s African-American community. A group of ministers demanded to meet with the mayor of New York. Unfortunately, the mayor was George McClellan’s son, George McClellan, Jr. Clearly imbibing the spirit of his awful father, McClellan blew them off. Hornaday thought this was hilarious, writing, “When the history of the Zoological Park is written, this incident will form its most amusing passage.” Oh yeah, so funny. In all of this, he was working with another lovely man in the Zoological Society named Madison Grant, who would later write The Passing of the Great Race, an influential tract on Hitler. Of course, both were good friends with Theodore Roosevelt, who also believed in this grotesque and toxic white supremacy. Hornaday later wrote that he and Grant felt it was “imperative that the society should not even seem to be dictated to” by black people. The pygmy, whose name was Benga, really wanted to get back to the Congo. He finally thought he was going to in 1916. When his return was delayed by World War I, he committed suicide.

Hornaday continued in his bison protection efforts during his time with the Zoological Society. Working with Roosevelt, he created the American Bison Society in 1905 and brought about 40 bison to roam a 10-acre bison park in the zoo. He bred them and over the years established nine new herds around the country with his animals. In 1913, he published Our Vanishing Wildlife: It’s Extermination and Preservation, as an attempt to push for legislation for hunting laws to save the nation’s last big game animals. His work helped push through laws that protected migratory birds and other species. Just a few years later and all of these animals would have been gone.

On the other hand, this conservation movement was part and parcel with white supremacy. Despite the fact that it was your everyday white settler and capitalist who was responsible for the decline in American wildlife, Hornaday, Roosevelt, Grant, and friends blamed people of color and immigrants. Hornaday frequently railed against Italian immigrants harvesting songbirds for food, for example. He wrote in 1913, “The Italian is a born pot-hunter, and he has grown up in the fixed believe that killing song-birds for food is right!” Instead, killing animals would be something for rich people to rejuvenate the white race.

Like many other conservationists of the time, Hornaday also worried about the future of American manhood in an industrial society and saw the Boy Scouts as part of a solution. Getting young boys outside, allowing them to be rejuvenated by healthful American nature, teaching them patriotism and survival skills–all of these things helped prepare boys for war, the ultimate reason to have strong men in the nation.

Hornaday retired from the Zoological Society in 1926 and lived another 11 years, dying in Stamford, Connecticut in 1937. He was 82 years old.

William Temple Hornaday is buried in Putnam Cemetery, Greenwich, Connecticut.

If you would like this series to cover other leading conservationists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Madison Grant is in Sleepy Hollow, New York and Henry Augustus Ward is in Rochester. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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