Fort Verde, Arizona 1884-1888
Piranga flava, collected Oct 3, 1884
After finishing medical school (and getting married to Ella Wittich of Circleville, Ohio), Edgar Mearns took the Army medical examination. He passed, and received a commission to become an army surgeon at Fort Verde in Arizona Territory. He spent the fall and winter of 1883 at the American Museum of Natural History as a temporary curator, and while in New York, attended the inaugural meeting of the American Ornithologists Union. The following spring, Edgar, Ella, and their daughter, Lillian, not quite two at the time, set out for Arizona. (Edgar documented birds and botanical observations from train windows and wagons along on the way.)
Mearns was sent West to serve in the Indian Wars, a series of military campaigns against Native American tribes and groups that stretched across the second half of the nineteenth century. Mearns’s new post placed him under the command of General George Crook, an experienced leader (in both the Civil War and the Indian Wars), and an accomplished outdoorsman. Crook valued the kind of natural history work that interested Mearns. As a surgeon assigned to a place (Fort Verde) and not to a command or a regiment, Mearns already had more chances to explore than the average officer, but Crook increased these opportunities by including Mearns on expeditions traversing the Arizona Territory on military business. Mearns’s first two years on the job were a period of relative peace in the Apache campaign—a detail which may have further enabled his collecting.
Even with peace and the flexibility of a surgeon’s schedule, collecting specimens wasn’t easy. Though Mearns’s particular situation—as a surgeon serving under a sympathetic general—created plenty of chances to see and gather new material, day-to-day military life presented plenty of obstacles: rough terrain, a range of weather conditions, possible conflict, even the march itself! Mearns described the particular challenges of marching in an entry written on October 3, 1884, while en route to the San Carlos Indian Agency. He wrote, “The objection to rapid marching in field collecting and observation is that nearly everything that is small, inconspicuous or shy is almost certain to be overlooked. My horse pleases me, however. I tried shooting from his back to-day and find that he stands very well, and that I am even able to kill birds on the wing from his back.” Mearns continued praising his horse, Daisey, a “lean cadaverous beast” who has the honor of a prominent place in many of Mearns’s entries and letters during his service in Arizona.
Mearns “carefully explored the pine woods” near Mud Tanks, and shot this Liver-colored Tanager (Piranga flava) before beginning the day’s sixteen-mile march to Baker Butte. He probably placed this bird in a saddle bag for preparation later, once camp was made for the night. After recording several measurements (see Mearns’s notes for this specimen in the bottom right hand corner of the image below), he’d begin the process of making a scientific skin, which would preserve the bird for later study. There are many different bird preparation techniques, and much has changed since the late nineteenth century, but the basic outline is still the same: remove the insides (organs, bones, fat), add stuffing, and allow the bird to dry. Perhaps Mearns might have placed the birds he collected in the ambulance (a wagon) in specimen boxes for safe keeping? Even for those people and specimens traveling in the ambulance, the route was quite rough.
The expedition’s route followed much of Crook’s Trail, named for Crook because he and his men had built it themselves roughly a decade earlier during Crook’s first assignment in Arizona. Martha Summerhayes, in a memoir she published about her adventures with the army (her husband was an officer with the 8th Infantry), described a wagon-journey via this route in 1874:
"It did not surprise us to learn that ours was the first wagon-train to pass over Crook’s Trail. For miles and miles the so-called road was nothing but a clearing, and we were pitched and jerked from side to side of the ambulance, as we struck large rocks or tree-stumps; in some steep places, logs were chained to the rear of the ambulance, to keep it from pitching forward onto the backs of the mules. At such places, I got out and picked my way down the rocky declivity."
Conditions weren’t much better for Mearns and Daisey, though these challenges aren’t at all visible in many of the specimens Mearns sent to the Smithsonian from these overland journeys. Crook’s Trail is now General Crook Trail Road (also known as Route 260), but the wagon ruts are still visible in places if you know where to look.
The road climbs up out the Verde Valley (where Fort Verde is now Fort Verde State Historical Park) and heads across eastern Arizona to San Carlos, and there is even a contemporary guide for covering the route on horseback. And while Mearns collected several specimens while seated on Daisey’s back, his notes from this expedition suggest frequent wanderings from the group and the path in pursuit of new —or perhaps simply shy—species.
"Notes on the Natural History of the Expedition conducted by Brig. General George A. Crook, U.S.A., commanding the Department of Arizona from Whipple Barracks, Prescott, A[rizona] T[erritory], to San Carlos Indian Agency, via Forrest Dale and Fort Apache, and thence back to Whipple Barracks via Globe City, Fossil Creek, etc., between the dates of October 1st and October 27th, inclusive, 1884." Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7083, Mearns, Edgar Alexander, 1856-1916, Edgar Alexander Mearns Papers (held at National Museum of Natural History, Division of Birds), Box 12 folder 1.
Crook, George, and Martin Ferdinand Schmitt. General George Crook: His Autobiography. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.
Summerhayes, Martha, and Milo Milton Quaife. Vanished Arizona: Recollections of My Army Life. Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1939.
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