William T. Hornaday: From Preserver of the Lifelike to Preserver of Life

In May of 1886 Miles City, Montana was visited by a small expedition from the Smithsonian.  Led by the chief taxidermist of the Institution, William T. Hornaday, the group was in search of the last remaining buffalo.  The impetus for the venture arose out of alarm over the condition of the current buffalo specimens at the museum.  The museum had a very poor assortment, consisting of one mounted specimen, a couple of mounted heads, two skeletons and assorted fragmentary skulls.  After Hornaday brought this sad state to the attention of Spencer F. Baird, secretary of the museum, an expedition was quickly arranged [1].  The venture marked the beginning of the transition from taxidermist to restorer for Hornaday.

William T. Hornaday

William Temple Hornaday, born in Avon, Indiana in December of 1854, was educated at Oskaloosa College, Iowa State Agricultural College (today known as Iowa State University).  He married Josephine Chamberlain in 1879 remaining married for 58 years until his death in 1937.  Together they had a daughter, Helen [2].    

After graduating in 1873, Hornaday was hired by Ward’s Natural Science Establishment of Rochester, New York where he worked as a taxidermist.  He was only in Ward’s employ for a brief time when he headed off to India and Ceylon in 1877-78 and then moved on to Malaya and Borneo, collecting specimens.  This journey inspired his first publication, Two Years in the Jungle (1885) [3].  In 1882 he was appointed as chief taxidermist of the United States National Museum, the Smithsonian, a position he held until he resigned in 1890.  During that time, Two Years in the Jungle and The Last Buffalo Hunt (1886) were published [4].

In his position as chief taxidermist at the Smithsonian, he became aware of the decimation of the buffalo, which led him to inventory the Smithsonian’s collection, and to conduct a census of the remaining bison to estimate  the number of these majestic beasts still alive.  The results were alarming, prompting Hornaday to quickly notify Dr. G. Brown Goode, Hornaday’s immediate superior.  These actions promptly led to the expedition to the Musselshell River region of Montana—a region still occupied at that time by the Crow, Paiute, and Blackfoot—to collect bison specimens for the Smithsonian’s exhibit.  The irony in the decision was the Faustian bargain often faced by science—a few specimens would have to be sacrificed to preserve some vestige of a vanishing species for the sake of future generations [5]. 

The initial expedition in May of ‘86 was a failure.  When the expedition team arrived in Miles City, they were told their chances were next to nothing in finding any buffalo.  Besides the best time for buffalo hides was in November and December.  Though he expected to see evidence of the decimation of the herds, he was stunned by what he actually observed—no live buffalo, only skeletons as far as the eye could see.  He would have to return three months later to collect the specimens he needed [6].  When he returned in September, Hornaday fortunately had run into rancher Henry Phillips who reported that buffalo were still roaming around his ranch.  This time the expedition was successful.  Hornaday returned to Washington, D.C. with 24 hides, 16 skeletons and 51 skulls [7].

The impact of near-extermination was not lost on Hornaday, however.  He resolved to not only preserve the bison in museum exhibits, but also as a living herd in captivity.  His goal was to educate Americans and perhaps atone, in some way, for the atrocity that had been committed.  With this in mind Hornaday launched a plan with the Smithsonian’s Department of Living Animals to establish a breeding program to save the buffalo.  The Smithsonian acquired 6 buffalo, and from that the plan was executed. 

Hornaday’s efforts did not rest there.  He went on to advocate for a National Zoological Park for the conservation and study of wild animals sacred to the national heritage.  In 1889 this became a reality with Hornaday appointed as the Park’s head.  He soon left that position to become the founder and director of the Bronx Zoo.  It was during this time Hornaday’s work Extermination of the American Bison was published—considered to be the first important book of the conservation movement [8].  During his tenure at the Bronx Zoo, Hornaday published almost two dozen books and hundreds of articles advocating for the conservation of wildlife, stirring up public support which moved Congress and aided his efforts.  In addition, he lobbied tirelessly for protective legislation, national parks, wildlife refuges, and international treaties to conserve and protect wildlife [9]. 

The Extermination of the American Bison by William Hornaday

Hornaday was not alone putting forth ideas for preserving the buffalo.  Ernest Harold Baynes, a naturalist, presented the notion of an organization dedicated to the preservation of the bison to Hornaday.  Hornaday embraced the idea and along with Pres. Theodore Roosevelt cofounded the American Bison Society in 1905.  Just prior to the formation of the Society, Hornaday offered, on behalf of the New York Zoological Park, to give a small number of buffalo to the federal government if the government agreed to start a herd on the National Wichita Forest Reserve in Oklahoma.  Then once the American Bison Society was established, work was initiated to create another reserve.  The Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana was proposed.  Within two years Congress had purchased the necessary land and by 1909 the National Bison Range had been established, being populated with bison purchased by the American Bison Society with a few donated by Mrs. Alicia Conrad of Kalispell, Montana and rancher Charles Goodnight of Texas.

Bison on the National Bison Range in Montana—picture from the US Fish and Wildlife Services

The establishment of the herds on the National Wichita Forest Reserve and the National Bison Range marked the beginning of serious efforts by the federal government to preserve the American Bison.  The Society, though, continued working to establish other reserves.  In 1913 the Society helped create a herd on the Fort Niobrara Reservation in Nebraska, and a few months later, a herd on the Wind Cave National Game Reserve in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  The last herd the Society helped establish was near Ashville, North Carolina in the Appalachians, but this herd did not prosper and eventually died out.  The Society continued to be active into 1930s primarily involved in educational efforts, and unfortunately, it, too, quietly died out by 1940.  But the original mission set out by Hornaday, Roosevelt, Baynes and others was achieved [10]. 

Always a lover of wildlife and dedicated to conservation, William T. Hornaday was a critical player in the preservation of the American Bison.  His singular vision of establishing herds on reserves was instrumental in averting the near-extinction of the majestic creature that once blanketed the Great Plains and the Prairies.  A proven crusader for wildlife, Dr. William T. Hornaday died in 1937 at the age of 82 in Stamford, Connecticut.

End Notes:

[1] Dary, David. 1989. The Buffalo Book: The Full Saga of the American Animal. [Swallow Press/Ohio University Press]. 198.

[2] Betchel, Stefan. Mr. Hornaday’s War: How a Victorian Zookeeper Waged a Lonely Crusade for Wildlife That Changed the World. 2012. Beacon Press. 3-10.

[3] William T. Hornaday.  Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Temple_Hornaday.  Retrieved 16 March 2020.

[4] Betchel.

[5] Betchel.

[6] Kurn, Richard. American Bison: A Story of Near Extinction and Conservation. July 26, 2017. The Great Courses Daily. https://www.thegreatcoursesdaily.com/american-bison-a-story-of-extinction-and-conservation/.  Retrieved 6 March 2020.

[7] Dary. 199.

[8] Kurn.

[9] William T. Hornaday. Portraits and Museum Notes. The American Museum Journal. 15 (5): 202, 260. May 1915.  American Natural History Museum Digital Library. http://digitallibrary.amnh.org/handle/2246/6339  .  Retrieved 22 March 2020.

[10] Dary.  234-240.

3 thoughts on “William T. Hornaday: From Preserver of the Lifelike to Preserver of Life

      1. After some digging, I have not found anything specific. David Dary in his book, The Buffalo Book (p. 239), only indicates that some of the original herd died after eating poisonous weeds in the first year. The initial herd only consisted of 3males and 3 females which were delivered to Hominy, Buncombe County, North Carolina by the American Bison Society in 1919. Despite the birth of two calves and an addition of a few cows and a bull later, the herd died out by 1930. There were no further attempts to restock. The only other source I have found so far to have a report on this is from the Ashville Citizen (newspaper at the time). The Citizen only reported in 1921 that the original herd “…suffered severe depletion through deaths due to the difficulty of speedy acclimation.” Not sure what that means. I have reached to someone at the American Prairie Reserve to see if they had any insight. I am waiting to hear back. If I do, I will post more.


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