Colorado River, Mexico, 1892-1894
Sterna caspia, collected Mar 28, 1894
“On December 20th, 1891, I reported my arrival to the commanding officer of Fort Snelling, Minnesota, after an absence spent in exploring the border region between Canada and the United States, and he at once handed me a telegram from the Surgeon General of the Army which read as follows: ‘Do you desire service as surgeon and naturalist of the party being organized by the State Department to survey the Mexican boundary line?’”
These words come from a talk Mearns gave at the Newport Natural History Society in Rhode Island. His lecture, “The Natural History of the Mexican Boundary Line,” is undated, but it seems likely that Mearns would have been invited to present on his experiences with the Mexican Boundary Commission while he was stationed at nearby Fort Adams in 1899-1900.
Continuing, Mearns described his reaction and decision to participate. He had already been planning an extended and parallel investigation into the flora and fauna of the nation’s northern perimeter, but was thrilled at the chance to head south again. Mearns did not hide his pleasure as he recounted that “the humid forests, the endless coverlid of snow and ice, and the long winter night of the Arctic were happily exchanged for high dry plains and almost constant diurnal sunshine, while at night the full moon reflected sufficient light to enable one to read an ordinary newspaper with ease.”
A new boundary with Mexico was described in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in 1848 at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War, but on-the-ground surveying was required to map, mark, and then manage the international border between the United States and Mexico. The initial survey (1849-1855) required six years of hard work by surveyors from both nations, who moved eastward from the Pacific to locate and settle the boundary. In the decades that followed, settlement increased in the borderlands, and in 1882, both the United States and Mexico agreed that there was more work to do: the line needed to be resurveyed and the markers needed to be identified, replaced, or rebuilt. Mearns was offered a position as the medical officer and naturalist on this second International Boundary Survey.
In Mearns’s Newport lecture, he outlined the trip’s significance as a biological survey — and although his primary responsibility was to serve as the expedition’s medical officer, it was the opportunities the journey presented for natural history that he was most excited about. Indeed, though the group faced all sorts of challenges, Mearns reported that “a healthier party never took the field,” and even shared an anecdote that surely made his Newport audience chuckle: Mearns described overhearing a conversation between a stranger and the head of the survey. When asked about the group’s health, the survey leader replied, “No one sick but the doctor.” Mearns had contracted malaria earlier in his career, and dealt with recurrences (paroxysms, he called them) all his life.
Between January of 1892 and September of 1894, the survey team located and established or rebuilt monuments along the border with Mexico. Mearns and his assistants collected 30,000 specimens: birds, plants, mammals, fishes, insects — with the intent to examine the range and interaction of species along the parallel on the east-west axis. At the Newport meeting, Mearns’s remarks illuminate what he understood, several years later, to be the most important scientific findings of the extensive fieldwork they conducted along the boundary line: variation in individual species. Mearns explained that “in following certain species across the continent, we find them varying in color almost from black to white, in accordance with the laws of protective coloration and other natural causes; while in form and proportions a single species often differs more geographically, in two parts of its range for instance, than two species of one genus differ from each other in one and the same locality, where both are subject to precisely the same conditions. That is to say, geographic or subspecific differences in a single species are frequently greater than specific differences.” Though his military career created opportunities for Mearns to experience quite a bit of regional variation, his boundary commission work allowed for more systematic biological surveying than any of his previous military assignments.
This particular bird, Sterna caspia (labeled Sterna maxima in Mearns’s notes), was shot on March 28, 1894, in Sonora, Mexico. Mearns included it in a list titled, “Birds of the Colorado River.” He wrote: “Small flocks on the Col. River about the mouth of Hardy River. Two afterwards seen (April ) on Gardner’s Lagoon, Salton River, L. Cal. Note: Miguel, my Indian, said there were a great many small Terns about the shipyard at Port Ysabel.” This list, which looks to be Mearns’s first attempt at organizing his notes on birds observed and collected in this region, includes other details furnished by Miguel, who appears to have served as a local guide for at least part of the journey through Lower California. Local — and often indigenous— guides are crucial contributors to expedition success.
Looking only at specimens from the Mexican Boundary Commission might have rendered Miguel entirely invisible, but here, his knowledge adds value to the study of gradual change Mearns is tracking. This is not to say that Mearns’s papers and letters are free from the kinds of characterizations often made of native people in this time period; they are not. At times, Mearns employs stereotypes — handsome women, simple lives, musical laughter — to describe some of the people he encounters, but his observations often move beyond these tropes to include admiration of local burial practices and attempts to document local and indigenous names for birds and mammals. Mearns’s notes add depth to the process of locating and collecting materials along and across national and cultural boundaries.
Dear, Michael. “Monuments, Manifest Destiny, and Mexico.” Prologue Magazine Summer 2005, Vol. 37, No. 2
“The Natural History of the Mexican Boundary Line,” 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 16, folder 3.
United States-Mexican International Boundary Survey Field Notes and Journal, August-September 1894, 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 15, folder 8.
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