08 June 2009

Naturalists Note New Harmony Avifauna in 1832-1833

The importance of the journals of Maximilian Alexander Philip, Prince of Wied for historic ornithology have been apparent ever since having read a modern translation for the Nebraska region of the 1832-1834 travels that was published by William J. Orr and Joseph C. Porter in 1983. There were so many notes about the bird life prevalent along the Missouri River. With continued delving into this topic, next read was the loosely translated version by Reuben Gold Thwaites, done more than a century ago. There was lots of information on birds along the entire route of the travels, that provided an idea of occurrence, but obviously lacked many details, as indicated by a modern version. Finally, last year the authoritative translation for a third of the journey was issued by Joslyn Museum in Omaha, which has the original journals in its collection (The North American Journals of Prince Maximilian of Wied; volume I, May 1832-April 1833, as edited by Stephen S. Witte and Marsha V. Gallagher, with numerous other contributors). The new edition is done in the thorough manner of modern translations, with copious footnotes and interpretations by a variety of experts. This version present daily bird notes and other fine details that are especially suited to an analysis of species noted where and when during the overland voyage of the Prince and his compatriots. Volume contains the following information from one particular area, where the numerous observations make it readily possible to develop a list of noted species. Future editions will provide similar opportunities, and once the third volume is available, the immense value of the natural history information that can be derived from a close study of the texts, will be readily obvious and notably significant for the breadth and extent of pertinent details. The journals can certainly be recognized as one of the premier sources to study when researching historic ornithology for North American during its period of western expansion.

View of New Harmony. By Karl Bodmer.

Copious notes on the winter season birds that occurred among the environs about New Harmony were scribed by Prince Maximilian, age 50, during his western travels as soon as he arrived at this enclave on the Wabash River, at the western edge of Indiana. Maximilian, and his two compatriots, Karl Bodmer the illustrator, and David Dreidoppel the hunter, were to reside here for a months during the winter of 1832-1833.

It was an obviously fine choice on the western frontier. Residents included Thomas Say, with his distinct and unique history for studies of natural history in the west, including an exploration along the Missouri River with Stephen Long in 1819-1820. He had arrived at New Harmony in 1825 and continued his scholarly studies.

Also, there was Charles-Alexandre Lesueur — originally from France — and a naturalist and illustrator whom also arrived in 1825.

With the usual practice of a daily journal entry, Prince Maximilian wrote in the first pertinent entry of his tagebush, or journal, the details given for 19 October 1832: "At the edge of the forest, one very soon reaches the rather sightly, friendly town of New Harmony on the level land on the bank of the Wabash." The entry also mentioned something about the some birds noted by the members of the party that were walking, specifically the parakeets seen by Bodmer.

The party stored their baggage at the inn, which was apparently where they were to stay during subsequent days.

In his first journal paragraph for the place, Mr. Say was mentioned. Say then visited Maximilian twice the next day — and sent the Prince some wine — obviously as a welcoming gesture when a resident has a new visitor on the scene who shows an intense interest in similar subjects. Maximilian wrote that Say was a "well known and highly regarded as a writer on natural history."

Say and Maximilian went to visit Lesueur on 21 October: "His studio, a hall on one side of the empty church, is most curious. Directly before the entrance there is a view of New Harmony, painted after the manner of a theater setting that, with curtains, forms, so to speak, a small theatre. ... On the pillars beside this small theatrical-perspectival view hang natural history objects: on one side, a Grus Americana and an Ardea herodias; on the other, hunting equipment. On the walls, all kinds of instruments, natural history objects on benches, tables, and chairs. There a squirrel was just being stuffed. Here there are rows of enormous Unio from the Ohio, Wabash, and Mississippi; there, beautiful bird skins. Elsewhere the owner's drawing and painting equipment and the various cartons he had accumulated on his journeys around the world and on the Mississippi and other North American river. We richly enjoyed looking over the sketches of various kinds. The collections of small views of the Ohio and Mississippi was lightly sketched in pencil."

Maximilian visited Say again the next day, giving particular attention to interesting plants in his garden, which he maintained on property of William Maclure, the owner of the village site.

The two accomplished naturalists made their first foray afield together on 24 October, going on a short hike to the nearby hills, and walking along the colorful Wabash river. The Prince shot a cardinal, noted blackbirds, and was out-witted by a large bird of prey.

It was a difficult time for these men, as they were afflicted by ailments. Maximilian was continuing his treatment for a sickness. Bodmer was taking medicine. Say was also in a sickly manner.

Several scenes were captivating for Karl Bodmer at this late-autumn time in the western wilds. Maximilian wrote in his journal for the day, that Bodmer had "made several preliminary sketches of several forest scenes with vines."

Layout of New Harmony. In 1834; from travels of Lesueur.

Watercolors rendered for the vicinity include:

  • Confluence of the Fox River and the Wabash
  • Mouth of the Fox River
  • Fox River near New Harmony
  • Wabash near New Harmony
  • Cutoff River, Branch of the Wabash
  • depictions of New Harmony

Some of these watercolors included the colorful Carolina Parakeet in the depicted scene, with the Bald Eagle and Wood Duck also shown.

New Harmony was owned by a wealthy Scot, Mr. Maclure, who lived in Mexico, and had established a library, printing press, and engraving and printing shop, Maximilian explained. There were about 600 residents at the time, and "is pleasant and built in a rather regular manner with broad, unpaved streets," according to his journal entry on 29 October.

Maximilian visited Maclure's orchard several times during the months of his visit from latter October 1832 to mid-March 1833.

An especially notable outing, in a birdly sense, was November 1st when Maximilian walked along the banks of the Wabash.

"I often stood and listened attentively for various birds, while urubus soared in wide circles high above the forest; far away, at the edge of the cornfields, one heard the shrill cry of the wary crows, only one of which we had been able to bag during our entire stay in America. The forest resounded with the tapping of the woodpeckers: Picus auratus, carolinus, pubescens, varius, and others; their calls very closely resemble those of German woodpeckers. But close to us, tits were climbing and pecking: Parus bicolor and atricapillus, the nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) with the black crown, and the small brown creepers (Certhia), which I added to our bird collection. Several other small birds were fluttering in the very crowns of the trees, which my bird shot could not reach. The heat was great. At twelve thirty we had a temperature of 16 1/2oR (69.1oF), in the shade."

Maximilian returned home fatigued, he wrote, having just recovered from his disposition. There were several others in the same condition, he noted in his journal. Any maladies did not stop Maximilian, Lesueur and Say from climbing to the local pinnacle of a building which had been a church. Then they went to Lesueur's house and viewed his "superb collection of drawings of mollusks, frogs and mammals... ."

During this time, Karl Bodmer was out and about on forays to view the local scenes, and depict them in sketches. The hunter David Dreidoppel went in pursuit of animal's that became carcasses for the natural history collection.

Outings to the local natural haunts and visits to the residents of the naturalist's continued to be the theme for subsequent days. Say was known to regularly work in his little house in his garden.

Maximilian's journal provides the exquisite details of the visits and conversations. On November 7th, he visited Say in the afternoon, and Lesueur in the evening to see his sketches. The diary is most interesting with its naturalist prose.

An entry for 27 November wrote about the westward journey of three days by Karl Bodmer to the prairie lands: "At about noon Mr. Bodmer and Mr. Twigg (General) returned from Albion, a small town on the boundary of the so-called prairies of Illinois. These regions are only half-open, and everywhere fringes of forest can be seen in the distance. ... They saw the wide circle of fire when the prairie was burning. Also, there are various bird species not found in the forests: during the migratory season, for example, the great white crane (whooping crane), Grus americana, a splendid bird. Furthermore, the prairie hen (Tetrao cupido), which can be obtained in large number, however, only when there is snow, and none of which they shot. In addition, Falco furcatus, the beautiful white-and-black kite. Mr. Bodmer shot a large earless owl (Strix nebulosa), and the beautiful rust-red squirrel ... Mr. Bodmer had drawn some very nice sketches, including the head of a white heron. They brought back various seeds as well. On the way back, they lodged for the night in a house about 4 miles from Harmony, where they were told that during the migration season there were swans, geese, ducks, and cranes in such numbers that one could not hear gunfire because of all the clamor."

On 29 November, the words were: "Walk with Mr. Say in the direction of the prairies at two o'clock. At the entrance to the forest, we found a pretty little nest of the red-eyed flycatcher, Wils. We saw several small birds, especially Fringilla hudsonia and Fringilla canadensis as well as the small winter wren, the nuthatch, and other titmice creeping around on the fallen trunks. Several woodpeckers." Lesueur was sick. While Bodmer was out making a sketch of the Fox River, "in a true wilderness area, and wild ducks, especially Anas sponsa and Mergus cucullatus."

In early December, Maximilian noted for each day the birds noted when they were observed or collected. On the 2nd, Dreidoppel shot a "Loxia cardinalis, a Sitta carolinensis, a Sylvia sialis, and a Fring. Hudsonia. ... Russel the hunter brought a turkey hen and a young Ardea herodias. I made a short excursion and found only Picus auratus, pubescens, Parus bicolor, and Fringilla hudsonia."

The next day, only a "nice colorful duck, a crow, a bluebird, and a snowbird" were noted during a stroll with Say, after their initial visit. There was a raw wind blowing. The Prince spent the evening with Lesueur, and noted that he got to see some interesting copperplates.

Maximilian received a number of books on the 4th from Maximilian for reading, a preferable pastime on the tempestuous days of early winter.

On December 5, with Bodmer and Maximilian on the Wabash in a boat, going past Cutoff Island and Fox Island, the Prince was impressed with the setting: "In this romantic wilderness, forcing my way through dense cane beneath the tall trunks and climbing over countless fallen trees, I scoured the tall, wild forest almost until evening. Here I found especially many woodpeckers and brown creepers (Certhia familiaris), Sitta canadensis, as well as titmice, cardinals (Loxia carolinensis), several finches, and winter wrens (Troglodytes hyemalis), and shot several of these. The urubus often hovered above me, something one immediately notices from their passing shadows. There were numerous woodpeckers of all kinds here, in particular Picus auratus, carolinus, and pubescens, but especially the large, beautiful Picus pileatus, which is very large and black as a crow, with several beautiful white markings and a blood-red crest, which one readily recognizes at a distance. I shot three of these beautiful birds since they are not very shy. When the sun had set, we got into our boat again and, with no little difficulty, rowed up the Wabash against the current toward New Harmony."

The daily events unfold in the prose of the Prince. Notable would be an outing to some local haunt. Perhaps it was an evening at Say's house, once and again. Or just walking in the local nature, appreciating the parakeets or stalking a duck.

December 18: "In the afternoon, walk up along the Wabash in the tall forest. Here there were all kinds of woodpeckers: Picus pileatus, auratus, carolinus, villosus, pubescens, but no erythrocephalus, which are never seen here this time of year. In addition, Sitta carolinensis, Fringilla hudsonia and canadensis. Parus bicolor and atricapillus, Muscicapa coronata, and also a tiny bird, as well as Troglodytes and several large birds of prey opposite me."

Christmas Eve was "welcomed with heavy charges of powder by the young people on the streets of Harmony. ... Only by drinking, hunting, singing, and dancing does the wild and somewhat course population of this area celebrate the most solemn festivals of Christendom. In the evening Mr. Lesueur visited us. His foot has grown worse again; he can scarcely walk."

On the day of the holiday, a crowd of local people and others from nearby Albion gathered in the evening at the house to celebrate. "Our landlord frequently brings some of these strange guests up to us to show them the strange, marvelous creatures and their zoological collection." Maximilian — spending the interlude at his temporary home — continued: "... underneath me a wild dance had been raging since nightfall, with the large drum and several violins and pipes or flageolets creating an uninterrupted music that resounded in the ears, because the huge hollow kettledrum, too, did not remain silent for one moment."

Confluence of the Fox and Wabash Rivers. By Karl Bodmer; note the Carolina Parakeets shown among the branches of the Plantanus (Sycamore) tree.

The next day, the Prince was about toward noon, visiting Say and Lesueur, then walked to the Wabash. Towards the end of the year, Maximilian and unnamed helpers worked to prepare crates of natural history specimens for shipping to New Orleans, and then onward to the estate in Europe.

On New Years eve, the German spent the time in with Say: "That evening, the last one of the year, I spent in pleasant conversation at the home of Mr. Say."

On the first day of the next year, the three naturalists' must have compared their maladies. Maximilian's stomach was out of order. Lasueur and Say both complained about a certain indisposition. The Prince did take a walk and noted the Anas clangula on the Cutoff River.

The evening was more time for naturalist talking: "Spent the evening at the home of Mr. Say, that is, the last evening of that year and the first one of the new year."

Maximilian was out the next morning, along the Fox River and near Turkey Island making natural history observations, which was a feature of nearly every day for his party at the Wabash.

The evening of January 2nd, was spent having an "interesting conversation about natural history" with Lesueur and Say. Now that would have been one more of the many fascinating talks on the western frontier, considering the men involved. Topics mentioned in the Prince's diary included turtles, the geologic formation in the region, as well as the strange weather and "the fact that at this temperature almost all people experience deviations from their usual healthy condition and unpleasant feelings in the viscera. The atmosphere seems to have been very unhealthy during the past year, for even injuries, as many persons assured me, were far more difficult to heal."

January 8: "... found a whole flock of parakeets, which flew about with a loud cooing call and perched on the high, white branches of the Platanus trees. They darted about as swiftly as an arrow but soon disappeared in the tall forest. The bright green flock afforded a most delightful sight."

January 13: "In the afternoon I went out and set a mousetrap. It was extraordinarily wet in the tall grass and the withered plants. A beautiful female kite (probably Circus cyaneus) skimmed past me. A flock of Alauda magna Linn. was perched on isolated tall trees but did not let us get close to them. I saw two prairie hens, which made a wide sweep for the tall timber. The small birds included Loxia cardinalis, Fringilla hyemalis, Sitta carolinensis, Parus (both species), and several woodpeckers. The weather is mild; the snow will mostly disappear during the night. Visit that evening from Mr. Say."

January 25: "Early today Dreidoppel and I left Harmony to shoot some parakeets (Psitt. carolinensis). We crossed the Wabash and immediately saw two splendid Aquila leucocephala but could not get close to them. They hovered over the river looking for fish. Dreidoppel shot the agile Troglodytes ludovicianus. From there we went to Long Pond, which is connected to the Fox River.

"Dreidoppel first found flights of parakeets, of which he killed fourteen, sometimes several of them with one shot. Then they came towards me, and I also shot three of them. These most delightful creatures are not at all timid and alight immediately after they have been shot at. When winged, they very quickly become tame."

On February 23rd, Maximilian drew up a bird calendar, or list of birds in Harmony, noted during the previous four months of his stay. The species were in categories for: 1) resident birds throughout the entire winter, 2) still present in November, 3) individual birds in November, 4) in the second half of January, 5) returned in February, 6) those species that appeared again in Harmony at the beginning of March.

Though his site list was prepared, there were more days that followed with ongoing opportunities to watch and perhaps collect by shooting, additional examples of the local avifauna.

February 25, during a walk in the afternoon by Maximilian and Dreidoppel: "We saw few birds, just woodpeckers, titmice, and nuthatches. On the Cutoff River, I watched a flock of Anas rufitorques for a long time as they dived near a sandbar with willows, where the water was shallow, but they did not come within range. In the orchard I found large numbers of bluebirds. ... That afternoon I received a live Strix asio, a nice rust-red little horned owl that, when perched, resembled a ball with ears."

March 6: "Dreidoppel and I went out and, with Duclos' icebound boat, broke through the ice, which was 2 1/2 inches thick, a task that detained us for half an hour. Dreidoppel went up along the Wabash; I went downstream. I shot a wild dove (Columba migratoria) and, farther on, an especially fine wood duck. High in the sky, three flights of cranes headed northeast. Skeins of wild geese and ducks over the Wabash. Duclos, who had concealed himself, shot a female mallard. Today several small birds let their songs be heard at noon, when it was pleasantly warm.

"After lunch I entered Mr. Maclure's orchard, where Achilles was pruning the apple trees. There I saw bluebirds and robins. Mr. Lesueur returned from hunting; had shot a duck, which he did not get. Last evening young Duclos shot a wild goose (Anser canadensis). I spoke for a few minutes with Mr. Say and obtained some interesting bits of information from him."

Maximilian and his entourage left New Harmony on March 16th.

New Harmony Places

About New Harmony on the Wabash, there were a number of geographic places where the naturalists and hunters noted birds. Mentioned in the narrative by the Prince are the confluence of the Fox and Wabash rivers, Maclure's orchard, Fox Island Wabash Island, Cutoff river and Cutoff hills, Long Pond, Owen's orchard, Turkey Island and obviously locally near New Harmony.

Bodmer's vivid paintings stylistically convey a profound few of places much appreciated during their extended stay.

Birds of Historic New Harmony

A compilation of the assorted sightings and notations given by the journal of Maximilian comprises more than 550 separate records, with a vast majority based upon a sighting made on a particular day's outing or derived from a journal entry that alludes to carcasses brought back by Dreidoppel or other hunters.

The species list includes more than 70 species, with each noted to a variable extent. Waterfowl were commonly observed, as New Harmony was sited along the Wabash River, and the Fox River, with a variety of habitats so suitable for these fowl.

Greater White-fronted Goose - 2
Brant - 1
Canada Goose - 14
Trumpeter Swan - 1
Wood Duck - 13
Mallard - 17
Blue-winged Teal - 1
Northern Pintail - 2
Garganey - 1
Green-winged Teal - 4
Ring-necked Duck - 16
Common Goldeneye - 10
Hooded Merganser - 8
Common Merganser - 7
Red-breasted Merganser - 1
Ruffed Grouse - 2
Greater Prairie-Chicken - 14
Wild Turkey - 27
Northern Bobwhite - 7
Pied-billed Grebe - 2
Great Blue Heron - 3
Turkey Vulture - 18
Osprey - 2
Bald Eagle - 6
Northern Harrier - 3
Sharp-shinned Hawk - 1
Red-shouldered Hawk - 3
Red-tailed Hawk - 7
Golden Eagle - 1
American Kestrel - 4
American Coot - 2
Sandhill Crane - 8
American Woodcock - 1
Mourning Dove - 3
Passenger Pigeon - 5
Carolina Parakeet - 16
Eastern Screech-Owl - 4
Barred Owl - 2
Belted Kingfisher - 7
Red-headed Woodpecker - 3
Red-bellied Woodpecker - 7
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - 4
Downy Woodpecker - 8
Hairy Woodpecker - 7
Northern Flicker - 10
Pileated Woodpecker - 7
Blue Jay - 7
American Crow - 17
Black-capped Chickadee - 8
Tufted Titmouse - 12
White-breasted Nuthatch - 15
Brown Creeper - 8
Carolina Wren - 4
Winter Wren - 7
Golden-crowned Kinglet - 2
Eastern Bluebird - 18
American Robin - 5
Yellow-rumped Warbler - 4
Eastern Towhee - 5
American Tree Sparrow - 8
Song Sparrow - 3
White-throated Sparrow - 5
Dark-eyed Junco - 20
Northern Cardinal - 19
Red-winged Blackbird - 4
Eastern Meadowlark - 3
Rusty Blackbird - 5
Common Grackle - 3
Baltimore Oriole - 1
Purple Finch - 1
American Goldfinch - 2

It is also appropriate to include the Whooping Crane, based on a local specimen record.

Species noted most often were the Wild Turkey, 27 known instances; Dark-eyed Junco or snowbird, 20; Northern Cardinal, 19; Turkey Vulture which were most often noted as the "urubus," 18; Eastern Bluebird, 18; American Crow, 17; Mallard, 17; the colorful and vivacious Carolina Parakeet, 16, with numerous specimens collected as well as a bird with an injured wing that was kept as a captive for a few days until it died suddenly in the evening, "undoubtedly it had burned itself by the fire, because these birds have very sensitive beaks," Maximilian wrote in his journal; Ring-necked Duck, 16; White-breasted Nuthatch, 15; Greater Prairie-Chicken, 14; Canada Goose, 14; Wood Duck, 13; Tufted Titmouse, 12; Northern Flicker, 10; and, Common Goldeneye, 10.

There are a number of records where the identity of a specific species cannot be realized, as the designation generically referred to ducks, geese, hawk, merganser, owl, shorebird, or finch which in most instances could have actually been a species of sparrow, and many mentions of woodpeckers with none of the details required for a valid identification. There were also entries - classified as unidentified birds or Passeriformes species - which mentioned "several other birds" in some cases singing their morning song.

With the visit extending in early March, the first bird movements of late winter and early spring provided additional, notable species.

These bird records reveal an essential importance of New Harmony for studies of natural history during a decade from ca. 1825 to to 1834, based upon the so notable writings of Say, illustations of Leseuer and journal entries of Maximilian. The history for the place should always have this topic as a prevalent feature because its synergy was unique but readily apparent in the published history for the period. There is no other place comparable or having such a unique meld or people focused on furthering an understanding of the outdoors and its flora and fauna. There could be a complete tome written on the subject and this place during this particular time, as other expeditionists also visited, impressed with the setting and the men focused on natural history studies. Each recorded effort is essential.

This brief view of the historic ornithology is but one simple view of a grand, topical effort so worthy of celebrating, and most appreciated when the writer's words — the original, precious writings available from a variety of sources — are read with focused enjoyment and then studied to understand what they convey more than 15 decades after being written.

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