Buluan River, Philippines, 1902-1904
Megalaima haemacephala mindanensis, collected May 27, 1904
After four months in Florida, Mearns spent additional leave time collecting in Yellowstone National Park before a return assignment at Fort Snelling. And then Mearns received new orders: he was to report to the Philippine Islands. The letters that remain from this period in Mearns’s life suggest surprise. Mearns had already spent twenty years as an army surgeon, and now he was headed to another frontier, further west even than California. Members of his vast network sent encouraging words — think of what he’d see in the Pacific! — and others offered advice on gathering and preparing specimens for transit around the world. (Yes to freshwater shells, no to “large and showy marine shells”; “herbarium wants plants of all kinds, large and small”; and yes, of course, to birds, as evidenced by the detailed instructions Richmond sent on specimen preparation in the tropics.) The Smithsonian put together a collecting outfit to aid Mearns in continuing to pursue his work as a naturalist, even (or especially) in the unknown scientific, political, and cultural environment he’d soon be entering.
The Spanish-American War almost immediately stretched across the Pacific to the Philippines where Admiral Dewey defeated the Spanish in the Battle of Manila Bay on May 1, 1898. Soon American troops were en route not only to Cuba, but to the Philippine Islands. What began as a war against the Spanish transitioned into an all-out war for control of the Philippines, first against forces led by Emilio Aguinaldo, leader of the Philippine Republic, and then against a more diverse range of groups opposed to American control. Though President Theodore Roosevelt declared the war to be over on July 4, 1902, guerilla warfare continued in some parts of the Philippine archipelago. In fact, Roosevelt’s announcement included an exception for the homeland of the Moro people, indigenous Muslim groups whose resistance to American colonial authority stretched well into the first decade of the twentieth century.
Both of Mearns’s tours of duty in the Philippines occurred after Roosevelt’s remarks, and after a brief period on Luzon, Mearns was sent to the island of Mindanao— Moro territory. The pages of Mearns’s small field books hint at daily life in a combat zone. Not the carefully organized specimen registers Mearns put together as a young man, these books are smudged, filled with checkmarks and strike-throughs. Sometimes he wrote in pencil; at other times, pen. For some dates, Mearns offered a brief narrative of the day’s activities; for others, a bird list. And sometimes, you turn the page to find another kind of list — not birds, but bodies, fifteen American soldiers killed in action and requiring the surgeon on duty to prepare their bodies for transport home.
Mearns offers some context for their death: “Dr. Patterson and I superintended the preparation of the above soldiers’ bodies for transportation to Cottabata, where they will be placed in sealed caskets and sent to the U.S. They were killed together in a fight here at Simpitan with Ali’s forces, whose desert camp is here, Datto Ali [a Moro leader] having escaped to parts unknown. Two scouting expeditions are out trying to locate his trail, but it is probably that his party fired the greater part of their ammunition and partly dispersed, Ali + his personal following having probably moved in boats through esteros + the lakes.” In other words, very hard to find.
What was involved in preparing a body? And how might Mearns have thought about the connections between this task and his careful preparation of the birds he collected? His papers are silent on questions like these. But the details Mearns recorded for May 27, 1904 serve as a reminder that Mearns’s work — as both a surgeon and a naturalist— are linked.
The entry begins with a barbet, “Feet red, Claws plum…This Barbet was in a deciduous tree acting like an ordinary bird.” Troop movements are mingled with bird observations: “Left Pandog at 4 P.M. Flight of ten Hydrochilidae, one only having white underparts. At Pandog were many Ring-necked Towhee-tails.” The men reached Butig Hill, site of the fight with Datto Ali. They recovered gear belonging to the soldiers who had died. They found Lieutenant Woodruff’s compass, and skirmished with some Moros. And Mearns encountered lots of birds: “Many Snake Birds, Black Herons. Saw many Rails with double white stripe on head…”
This is the Coppersmith Barbet Mearns collected on the morning they found Woodruff’s compass. Its coloring is beautiful; green, yellow, vibrant red. The tag offers the data necessary for this specimen to have scientific value (place and time of location, key measurements, etc.), as well as the Moro name for this bird: “Co-pah’-pook.”
But the tag doesn’t tell the story of the Philippine-American War, or of Lieutenant Woodruff’s defeat, even though the collection of this particular barbet on May 27, 1904, has everything to do with the losses at Butig Hill and the route taken to pursue Datto Ali. These details — the particular stories of specimens, the experiences of individual collectors — shape the contours of scientific collections. What is gathered (and when, and how) is shaped by forces that aren’t immediately visible from the specimens themselves. Field books and bird lists, correspondence, itineraries, and specimen registers: not only do these kinds of sources often reveal additional specimen measurements and scientific data; they also offer insight into the historical, political, and cultural factors that influence the shape of natural history collections. Field notes tell collecting stories, and when we combine them with the specimens they describe, we can figure out not just what is in a collection, but a bit more about why it is there.
1904 Mearns Field Books, 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, Charles Richmond to Edgar Mearns, May 14, 1903, Box 13, Correspondence, Biological and Ornithological, 1903, Edgar Alexander Mearns Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
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