Conurus carolinensis, collected Apr 18, 1901
In the fall of 1900, Mearns reported to Washington, D.C. to sit for army medical examinations. On November 12, he wrote a letter home celebrating the completion of his exams, as well as President McKinley’s re-election. Mearns wrote, “Am well pleased with my professional examination, at the conclusion of which the Board was exceedingly cordial and sympathetic. They placed a sheet of paper before me, and directed me to make application for twelve months’ sick leave.” It seems that Mearns was still suffering from the malaria he contracted earlier in his career. In this letter, he describes part of his treatment: “Dr. Osler will complete my case and send me to NY or Philadelphia to be fitted with an elastic corset apparatus to support my stomach and abdominal viscera which are dragged out of place by malarial enlargements (principally of the spleen) and relaxations from malnutrition.” Rest, and some relaxation — in the form of bird collecting, of course, were also part of Mearns’s plans for his upcoming sick leave.
While in Washington, Mearns spent time with friends, scientists, and curators at the Smithsonian, as well as time planning an expedition to Florida, his first funded by the Smithsonian. (Though various museum associates had supported Mearns’s collecting work with advice and supplies, this trip was significant because Mearns was on leave, and had no military medical obligations to prioritize.) Preparations for the trip were well underway in early January when Mearns wrote home, spirits high, to Ella in Rhode Island: “Dearest Ella: I spent the day in the departments of the Smithsonian and Nat’l Museum. Called on Ridgway first and he has given me 3 letters to Florida people in the vicinity of Kissimmee, so if I Kissammall it’ll keep me busy.” Mearns met with Robert Ridgway and Charles Richmond at the Division of Birds, Gerrit Miller in Mammals, as well as curators in the Bureau of American Ethnology. In fact, Mearns wrote that he ran into WG McGee, who “had recently returned from a trip in Sonora and L. Calif., where he met Miguel, my Coco Pah chief who came to me at the mouth of the Colorado River.” Meetings about past and future collecting, news of old friends, and the chance to spend time studying specimens: a busy vacation day for Mearns, to be sure.
A few weeks later, Mearns found himself enjoying the southern sunshine. To Ella, he wrote, “Florida is certainly the finest State in the union for a naturalist!” And to his daughter Lillian the following week, “A boating trip on a Florida river has always been my idea of perfect human delight.” Mearns’s letters home are filled with descriptions of an abundance of bird species, as well as wishes to see and collect particularly desirable birds: ivory-billed woodpeckers and carolina parakeets. Historian Mark Barrow writes that “Florida became a mecca for naturalists seeking to capture the few surviving examples of this rapidly diminishing bird.” This trip was Mearns’s pilgrimage.
On April 12, Mearns wrote a letter to his daughter Lillian from Kissimmee detailing his adventures. He described alligators and water lillies, cranes and quail. And he outlined plans to head to Blue Cypress, “where we will rusticate for a week or more shooting parrots and ivory-billed woodpeckers.” The trip was a partial success. Though Mearns did not collect any Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, he added six Carolina Parakeets to the museum’s collection. In his notes for April 18, 1901, he described these birds: “These six birds were part of a flock of 12 found feeding on cypress balls on Padgett Creek near Blue Cypress Lake. Stomach also contained other seeds. Ovaries of females undeveloped functionally. It is not their breeding season.” All six of these birds are in the collection at the Division of Birds, part of the record of this now extinct species.
Though on leave and in Florida, Mearns was still following the news, especially as it pertained to military action. To Lillian, Mearns wrote, “I am so glad Funston caught Aguinaldo, because Funston is a naturalist and hunter…” In 1901, the United States Army was actively pursuing Emilio Aguinaldo, the leader of Philippine forces. Funston devised a daring mission after intercepting key messages from Aguinaldo: he disguised Macabebe Scouts (on the American side) as the reinforcements Aguinaldo had requested, and then posed as a prisoner of war to gain access to Aguinaldo’s compound. Though celebrated for this key victory, Funston’s tactics made him a controversial military leader. Mearns has a different reason for appreciating Funston: his background in botany. In fact, before his first military service in Cuba and his later successes in the Philippine-American War, Funston had studied and collected plant specimens as part of a federal survey in California. Mearns took note of soldiers and officers with interests and expertise in the natural world. Little did he know that he’d soon be joining the ranks of those stationed in the Pacific.
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 17, folder 13.
Letter, Edgar Mearns to family, November 7, 1900, Box 1, Correspondence-Family, 1900, Edgar Alexander Mearns Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
Letters, Edgar Mearns to Ella, January 7, 1901, and Edgar Mearns to Lillian, April 12, 1901, Box 1, Correspondence-Family, 1901, Edgar Alexander Mearns Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
Edgar Alexander Mearns Field Books 1901, Courtesy Division of Mammals, National Museum of Natural History.
Barrow, Mark V. A Passion for Birds: American Ornithology After Audubon. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998, 103.
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