Friday, July 15, 2016

Naturalist John Kirk Townsend Describes Fort Hall Area [otd 07/15]

Naturalist Townsend.
Oregon Historical Society.
On July 15, 1834, naturalist John Kirk Townsend described the site selected by Nathaniel Wyeth for the Fort Hall trading post [yesterday's blog].

Townsend wrote, "This is a fine large plain on the south side of the Portneuf, with an abundance of excellent grass and rich soil. The opposite side of the river is thickly covered with large timber of the cottonwood and willow, with a dense undergrowth of the same, intermixed with serviceberry and currant bushes."

The Philadelphia-born Townsend was one of two naturalists who accompanied Wyeth's second trip west of the Rockies. He had been invited along by Thomas Nuttall, a well-known naturalist who had resigned a position at Harvard University to join the expedition. The much younger Townsend – he was 25, Nuttall 48 – had a growing reputation as an ornithologist. The year before, he had collected a previously-unknown species, which was later called the Townsend's Bunting.

The primitive conditions of the march made sample preservation difficult. Even so, Townsend recorded many detailed observations, not just of birds but also other natural history features. About a week before the party reached the Fort Hall site, he recorded his first observations about Idaho birds.

Camped near Beer (Soda) Springs [blog, July 8], he wrote, "in a thicket of common red cedars, near our camp, I found, and procured several specimens of two beautiful and rare birds which I had never before seen – the Lewis woodpecker and Clark's crow, (Picus torquatus and Corvus columbianus.)"
Audubon Society image, audubon.org

Townsend left Fort Hall with Wyeth's party early in August. He wrote, “We crossed the main Snake or Shoshone river, at a point about three miles from the fort. It is here as wide as the Missouri at Independence, but, beyond comparison, clearer and more beautiful.”

His Narrative records many natural history features observed as they marched west across Idaho. On August 19, after a “hard days travel," they descended into the Boise Valley and camped along the river, which he described as "a beautiful stream."

He also wrote, "it is literally crowded with salmon, which are springing from the water almost constantly. Our mouths are watering most abundantly for some of them."

He recorded nothing about birds until they reached the Columbia River in Oregon. There, Townsend commented, “The mallard duck, the widgeon, and the green-winged teal are tolerably abundant in the little estuaries of the river. Our men have killed several, but they are poor, and not good."

The descriptions that Townsend, and Nuttall, made of southern Idaho flora and fauna were the first recorded by trained observers. Based at Fort Vancouver, the ornithologist traveled extensively in Oregon and southern Washington, collecting numerous bird specimens.

He took ship in 1836 and returned to Philadelphia by way of Hawaii and Cape Horn. To defray costs, Townsend sold over ninety specimens to John J. Audubon. In fact, Townsend collected over one-seventh of the species shown in Audubon's famous Birds of America book. Townsend died in 1851, apparently poisoned by an arsenic-based specimen preservative he had concocted.
                                                                                 
References: John Kirk Townsend, Narrative of a Journey across the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River (1839), reprinted, Reuben Gold Thwaites (ed)., in Early Western Travels, Vol. VIII, Arthur H. Clark Company, Cleveland (1905).
“John Kirk Townsend (1809-1851),” The Oregon History Project, Oregon Historical Society (2002).

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