Fort Snelling, Minnesota 1888-1891
Porzana carolina, collected May 22, 1891
After four years at Fort Verde, Arizona Territory, Dr. Mearns requested a leave of absence from Fort Verde, perhaps to give his scientific work his full attention. In a letter dated March 15, 1888, a representative from the Surgeon General’s office wrote, “Your application for a leave of absence for six months has been received at the Office, approved all the way up; I am very much afraid that it will be impossible for the Surgeon General to recommend favorable action because of the great dearth of medical officers, which deprives us of any surplus and makes it impossible to grant indulgencies to those who have won the right to them by hard work on the Frontier.” The author, who asks that Mearns keep this information private, tells him that Fort Snelling, Minnesota is probably where he’ll be sent next. A letter dated a few weeks later confirms these orders, and suggests that there might be opportunities to travel eastward for museum work; after all, it had been done before. The letter concluded on a positive note: the medical director at Fort Snelling, a Dr. Smith, was “a warm supporter in the pursuit of [Mearns’s] favorite studies.”
Later that year, Mearns, his wife Ella, and their two children, Lillian (by now, almost seven) and Louis di Zerega Mearns (born at Fort Verde in 1886) made their way to Fort Snelling, and settled into what seems to have been a quieter routine. (Mearns had been in Arizona for the conclusion of the campaigns against the Apache, which resulted in the transport of several Apache prisoners, including Geronimo, eastward to Florida.) Though Mearns’s field notes offer little description of life at Fort Snelling, his bird notes seem to indicate a schedule that kept him closer to home.
Mearns found this bird, a Sora (Porzana carolina) in his backyard, ready to be prepared, no shooting required. In his notes on the specimen, he wrote that it was “one of two (the other a male too stale to skin, this one fresh) picked up dead under telegraph-wire back of my house.” Reading further, it seems that this isn’t all that unusual: “Last fall several were killed against lamp at canteen (now used as commissary building).”
When considering the scope of Mearns’s career, it might be easy to understand his natural history collecting as something he did primarily when he traveled. This Sora reminds us that for Mearns, collecting was as much a home practice as an expedition practice. Not only did he collect everywhere he journeyed; he also collected everywhere he lived, whether overseas and away from Ella and the children, or in the United States and surrounded by relatives. In fact, there’s evidence that at times, it became a family practice. Both Lillian and Louis collected specimens at some point in their lives; in fact, some of Edgar’s specimen lists from a later posting at Fort Clark are written in Louis’s handwriting. And though Louis might not have been old enough to help his dad collect and document specimens at Fort Snelling, it seems quite clear that birds, whether found beneath a telegraph wire or observed on the wing, were a regular part of post life for Mearns and his family.
Field Journal, specimen lists, and miscellaneous notes, Fort Verde, Arizona, and Fort Snelling, Minnesota, 1888-1891. 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 21, folder 12.
Letters from Surgeon General’s Office dated March 15 and April 3, Box 10, Military correspondence-1888, Edgar Alexander Mearns Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
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