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Grinnell had extensive contact with the terrain, animals and Native Americans of the northern plains, starting with being part of the last great hunt of the Pawnee in 1872. He spent many years studying the natural history of the region. As a graduate student, he accompanied Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer's 1874 Black Hills expedition as a naturalist. He declined a similar appointment to the ill-fated 1876 Little Big Horn expedition. (Punke, p. 109)
In 1875, Colonel William Ludlow, who had been part of Custer's gold exploration effort, invited Grinnell to serve as naturalist and mineralogist on an expedition to Montana and the newly established Yellowstone Park. Grinnell prepared an attachment to the expedition's report, in which he documented the poaching of buffalo, deer, elk and antelope for hides. "It is estimated that during the winter of 1874-1875, not less than 3,000 Buffalo and mule deer suffer even more severely than the elk, and the antelope nearly as much." (Punke, pp. 102) His experience in Yellowstone led Grinnell to write the first of many magazine articles dealing with conservation, the protection of the buffalo, and the American West.
The Salamander Glacier and Lake Josephine, Glacier National Park. The Salamander used to be part of Grinnell Glacier but was named in the mid-20th century after Grinnell dwindled and split in two. Lying immediately beneath the Salamander, Grinnell Glacier is not visible in this photograph.
Grinnell made hunting trips to the St. Mary Lakes region of what is now Glacier National Park in 1885, 1887 and 1891 in the company of James Willard Schultz, the first professional guide in the region. During the 1885 visit, Grinnell and Schultz while traveling up the Swiftcurrent valley observed the glacier that now bears his name. Along with Schultz, Grinnell participated in the naming of many features in the Glacier region. He was later influential in establishing Glacier National Park in 1910. He was also a member of the Edward Henry Harrimanexpedition of 1899, a two-month survey of the Alaskan coast by an elite group of scientists and artists.
Grinnell was prominent in movements to preserve wildlife and conservation in the American West. Grinnell wrote articles to help spread the awareness of the conservation of buffalo. For many years, he published articles and lobbied for congressional support for the endangered American buffalo. In 1887, Grinnell was a founding member, with Theodore Roosevelt, of the Boone and Crockett Club, dedicated to the restoration of America's wildlands. Other founding members included General William Tecumseh Sherman and Gifford Pinchot. Grinnell and Roosevelt published the Club's first book in 1895. Grinnell also organized the first Audubon Society and was an organizer of the New York Zoological Society.
With the passage of the 1894 National Park Protective Act, the remaining 200 wild buffalo in Yellowstone National Park received a measure of protection. It was nearly too late for the species. Poaching continued to reduce the animal's population, which reached its lowest number of 23 in 1902. (Punke, pp. 218-219) Grinnell's actions led to ongoing efforts by the Department of Interior to find additional animals in the wild and to manage herds to supplement the Yellowstone herd. This ultimately led to a genetically pure viable herd, and the survival of the species.
Grinnell's books and publications reflect his lifelong learnings about the ways of northern American plains and the Plains tribes. Along with J. A. Allen and William T. Hornaday, Grinnell was a historian of the buffalo and their relationship to Plains tribal culture. In When Buffalo Ran (1920), he describes hunting and working buffalo from a buffalo horse.
In 1928, Grinnell explored the story of brothers Major Frank North and Captain Luther H. North, who led Pawnee Scouts for the US Army. In other works on the Plains culture area, he focused on the Pawnee and Blackfeet people: Pawnee Hero Stories (1889), Blackfoot Lodge Tales (1892), and The Story of the Indian (1895).
The Boy Scout's Book of True Adventure: Fourteen Honorary Scouts. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1931.
Hunting on Three Continents, by George Bird Grinnell, Kermit Roosevelt, W. Redmond Cross, and Prentiss N. Gray (editors). New York: The Derrydale Press, 1933. -- The seventh book of the Boone and Crockett Club, this wide-ranging collection includes accounts of Expeditions toward the North Pole and to the south of the Equator, articles relating to wild animals, and other pieces that speak the perils of hunting game to the brink of extinction.
Guide to the George Bird Grinnell Papers (MS 1388). Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library. The George Bird Grinnell Papers consist of letterpress copybooks, correspondence, subject files, and other papers documenting the life and work of George Bird Grinnell, particularly his pioneering efforts in the American conservation movement. The papers highlight Grinnell's interest in wildlife preservation and the American West and its Indians and his role as a prolific author of books and articles on these subjects. While the papers date from 1859, they contain relatively little material from Grinnell's family, childhood, student days, years teaching at Yale, and first years with Forest and Stream. The bulk of the material represents Grinnell's career from his mid-thirties until the end of his life.