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Clinton Hart Merriam: From Teenage Taxidermist to National Geographic Founder

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 upcoming 125th anniversary this series takes a look at their stories.

Always happiest when in the field, C. Hart Merriam was one of America’s leading naturalists and one of the thirty-three founders of the National Geographic Society. Merriam parlayed his medical training and lifelong love of nature into a career as Chief of the U.S. Biological Survey which later evolved into the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Clinton Hart Merriam was born in New York City, Dec. 5, 1855, the son of a prominent citizen, Clinton Levi Merriam and his wife, Caroline Hart. With the same first name, the junior Clinton only used his first initial to avoid confusion. Besides his business interests, the elder Merriam served in Congress from 1871-1875.

The younger Clinton spent most of his time investigating every inch of “Locust Grove,” the family farm in Leyden, New York. His father encouraged his pursuits and gave the boy a muzzle-loading rifle for hunting and an old storeroom to preserve his trophies. His mother had previously voiced objections to dead animals being brought into the house, and so a retired Army surgeon began teaching the boy the basics of taxidermy. Nothing is recorded of his poor sister Florence’s reaction when she discovered one of her pet cats preserved for posterity after having been ensnared in one of the many wildlife traps in the woods nearby, but one hopes he at least had to make amends and do her chores for awhile.

In 1871, Congressman Merriam introduced his son to Spencer F. Baird, then Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Baird was impressed by the teenager’s collection and put his father in touch with someone who could refine his taxidermy skills. The following year Baird invited the 16 year-old to join the Hayden Survey as a naturalist. In the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, he began his bird collecting for the survey. As the summer wore on, the expedition traveled through Montana Territory and the newly-established Yellowstone National Park. In September, the weather turned fierce, snowing on the party and threatening them with starvation. Little game had been found save one lone antelope and the men made a forced march back to Fort Hall.

Merriam’s “Report on the Mammals and Birds of the Expedition,” appeared in the sixth annual report of the Hayden Survey. During this time, he found himself unexpectedly in the middle of a long-running feud between Hayden and Lt. George Wheeler, head of another of the Great Western Surveys. Wheeler tried to poach Merriam for his team, and it fell to Baird to step in and resolve the dispute, recommending that Merriam should accompany neither but instead return to school in preparation for college.

At Yale, Merriam immersed himself in natural history courses but also took a keen interest in dissecting cadavers. Dissecting human remains was a risky business, so he and his lab partners took care that shipments be labeled as “books.” And, as always, any poor stray cat that wandered their way lost one of its nine lives to science.

After graduating, Merriam proceeded to New York City, enrolling in Columbia’s College of Physicians & Surgeons. Upon earning his medical credentials, he embarked upon a busy career but one that he found he did not enjoy and left him little time for natural history. So he simply quit, with no other means of supporting himself and began writing descriptions of Adirondack wildlife. In 1883, his old friend and mentor Baird got him a surgeon’s position aboard the steamer Proteus bound for Canadian waters. The crew hauled in a tremendous catch of seals, giving Merriam a wealth of specimens to choose from for the Smithsonian’s collection.

Still, he had no income and found himself back at Locust Grove. His Washington career did not begin in earnest until 1885 when he was nominated to be ornithologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. From then on, he would be at the mercy of Congressional budget committees for which he had little patience. He managed to weather the politics, however, and expanded his professional scope to include mammals. Thus would be the beginnings of the U.S. Biological Survey and one of its primary duties included the enforcement of the Lacey Act, the first federal law protecting wildlife. Merriam served as Director from 1900-1910 and incidentally hired his future brother-in-law, Vernon Bailey. Florence shared her brother’s love of the outdoors and became an accomplished ornithologist in her own right, authoring several books and traveling with Bailey on his expeditions. Eventually, the Survey would be combined with the Bureau of Fisheries and renamed to the Fish & Wildlife Service in 1940.

In 1886, Merriam married his secretary, Virginia Elizabeth Gosnell. He loved her and thought highly of her but also expressed qualms about marrying someone he considered beneath him socially. He fretted about her poor grammar and encouraged her learning in a way that his biographer, Keir B. Sterling, found reminiscent of Henry Higgins and his attempts to refine Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle. The couple kept house on 16th St., just north of the White House, and eventually, Merriam’s friend and colleague, Henry Gannett, would come to live there after the death of his wife.

Merriam was thought by many to have a good chance of taking over George Brown Goode’s position as Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian; however, Samuel Langley seemed to hold Merriam in low esteem. Merriam wrote to a friend that

“Professor Langley has found me out. He has not only discovered that I am an ignorant incompetent ass but tells the Regents that I am a tyrant and do not allow my assistants to publish independently. Not only this, but he says my assistants write much that I publish under my own name.”

While Merriam could be tactless and somewhat demanding, there is no explanation given for Langley’s extreme views of Merriam, who was well-regarded by his other colleagues and described as someone whose enthusiasm could be infectious. However, he did show signs of exhaustion and mental strain, often overcommitting himself. Fieldwork always seemed to rejuvenate him and he kept traveling until his 80s. Colleagues considered him “a splendid fellow” to camp with despite his tendency for serving questionable meals consisting of eagle (his favorite), wildcat, and skunk.

In 1887, Merriam and Gannett teamed up for a collecting trip in the Appalachian Mountains, having previously worked together on the Hayden Survey where Gannett served as cartographer. Merriam recalled that flooding along the Tuckiseegee River in North Carolina gave them some close calls. However, this trip paled in comparison to the one he would make in 1899 as scientific head of the Harriman Alaska Expedition. Although railroad magnate Edward Harriman knew he wanted Merriam, the deal came close to never being realized as Merriam had no idea who Harriman was and initially suspected him of being a crank.

Harriman bankrolled a luxury expedition that included 25 scientists. The photographer chosen by Merriam was an unknown Seattle studio owner named Edward S. Curtis. Curtis, an avid outdoorsman, had rescued the “tenderfeet” Merriam and George Bird Grinnell on a hike on Mt. Rainier after they had become lost. Curtis found his life’s calling on this voyage, taking thousands of images, and from then on spent the rest of his life documenting the disappearing ways of life of the Native American tribes west of the Mississippi.

Other names that echo throughout the Society’s history were also aboard the George W. Elder as it steamed its way through Alaska’s Inside Passage: William H. Dall, whose name graces so many things Alaskan, as was Grove Karl Gilbert and George Kennan.

The splendid success of the Harriman Expedition secured Merriam lifelong backing from the family and gave him freedom to pursue field research. However, despite being one of the pre-eminent biologists of his day, eventually his ideas on speciation were deemed inaccurate, and he and Teddy Roosevelt frequently argued the point of what constitutes a species. Merriam’s explanation of “Life Zones,” seven categories based on temperature and humidity, was nevertheless an important idea that he developed after an expedition into the Painted Desert, which is located in a high basin 4,000 – 6,000 feet above sea level. As one climbs San Francisco Mountain, the air gradually becomes colder and more humid. He extrapolated from the data to come up with a map for all of North America, but although valuable, ultimately the “Life Zones” theory was deemed too simplistic. Unfortunately, he never produced the magnum opus of natural history that Roosevelt believed him capable of. Merriam enjoyed easy access to Roosevelt, especially during his years in the White House, but eventually the president had little time for debates over the finer points of wildlife biology.

Harriman’s widow set aside a yearly stipend for Merriam, enabling him to retire and spend more time in California, often accompanied by his younger daughter, Zenaidah, whose lovely name is the same as that of the genus for mourning doves. Merriam became increasingly engrossed in anthropology, studying little-known Indian tribes in remote areas of the state. He retreated into his research, still spending time in Washington and taking part in the affairs of the Society, but mainly living at the family’s cottage in Lagunitas. Merriam died on March 19, 1942, in Berkeley, California.