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George Bird Grinnell


George Bird Grinnell, a respected authority on the Plains Indians, passed away on this date in 1938 at the age of 88. In 2004, conservationist Shane Mahoney wrote this of Grinnell: “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.”

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, when 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 for his collections. George was greatly impressed by the specimens and oddities Audubon had gathered, and he discussed them with Audubon’s sons, Victor and John. He was attended 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. In Nebraska, his train was halted for three hours by migrating buffalo. He escaped a prairie fire, saw his first beaver, and closely observed hunting and trapping 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, which is just south of present day Mandan, to the uncharted Black Hills. His official role was that of fossil collector, but he learned the true nature of the expedition when one of Custer’s prospectors confirmed the presence of gold. Grinnell realized the gold strike would devastate his Sioux and Cheyenne friends. 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 also quickly disappearing. 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 and protect wildlife while simultaneously encouraging sustainable hunting and fishing.

Grinnell’s idyllic childhood, science education and frontier experiences provided him a unique understanding that allowed him to predict many of our modern environmental concerns.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

Source: Shane Mahoney, George Bird Grinnell: The Father of American Conservation, Bugle Magazine (Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation), Nov/Dec 2004