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George Bird Grinnell, Conservationist


George Bird Grinnell, a respected authority on the Plains Indians, passed away on this date in 1938; he was 88 and had led a vigorous and amazingly productive life.

In 2004, the Bugle published a story by Shane Mahoney, who wrote, “He was many things: scientist, hunter, explorer, naturalist, entrepreneur and author. Above all else, however, George Bird Grinnell was and remains the most influential conservationist in North American history. He seldom took and never sought credit for his achievements, though, and as a result his reputation is often overshadowed by the more powerful and directed personalities of Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot.”

Grinnell was born in 1849 in New York, where he had a unique upbringing. His father was a successful businessman who, among other things, provided investment banking for the likes of the Vanderbilts and other wealthy families. But, the defining phase of George’s childhood began when he was seven years old; his family moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan, where they lived in Audubon Park, a wilderness estate owned by John James Audubon’s widow.

As a child, Grinnell was allowed to play in a barn that Audubon built to house his collections. George was greatly impressed by the specimens and oddities Audubon had gathered during his world travels, and he was able to discuss them with Audubon’s sons, Victor and John. He was also invited to attend a small school that “Grandma” Audubon ran in her home.

Grinnell took his first trip west after graduating from Yale. As part of a paleontology expedition, he marveled at the wealth of wildlife he encountered on his journey. In Nebraska, his train was halted for three hours by migrating buffalo. He escaped a prairie fire, he saw his first beaver, and was able to closely observe the hunting and trapping techniques used by frontiersmen. The experience was so gratifying, Grinnell returned to the Great Plains again and again to hunt, fish, collect fossils and visit his wide circle of Native American friends.

In 1874, Grinnell accompanied General Custer from Fort Abraham Lincoln to the Black Hills. His official role was as a fossil collector, but he learned the true nature of the expedition when one of Custer’s prospectors confirmed the Black Hills had gold. Grinnell soon realized how the gold strike would devastate his Sioux and Cheyenne friends, and his subsequent writings on Native American culture earned him the respect of many.

Grinnell was also concerned for the region’s wildlife. He became increasingly alarmed by the senseless slaughter of buffalo and realized other species were quickly disappearing, too. Many ignored his warnings that migrating waterfowl were also in grave danger, and he began writing stories for nature magazines, eventually becoming editor of Field and Stream. Working with other concerned hunters, Grinnell waged a bold campaign to conserve wilderness areas and protect wildlife while simultaneously encouraging sustainable use of wildlife through a common-sense attitude toward hunting and fishing.

Grinnell’s idyllic childhood, science education and frontier experiences provided him a unique understanding of how industry and naturalism could work together for the common good. Long before Teddy Roosevelt began establishing national parks, Grinnell was already criticizing destructive deforestation practices and subsequent loss of wildlife habitat. In fact, Grinnell was so far-sighted that he predicted many environmental concerns the world is just now facing.

Source: Shane Mahoney, George Bird Grinnell: The Father of American Conservation, Bugle, Nov/Dec 2004

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm