Wolfe Publishing Group

    George Bird Grinnell

    Hunter & Conservationist

    Those of us who are members of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation are well acquainted with the catch phrase “Hunting Is

    Conservation.” The subject of this article was among the foremost hunters to promote and work tirelessly for conservation. And, he was a black powder cartridge shooter!

    George Bird Grinnell was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1849. As a young man he lived in Audubon Park, which had previously been the estate of John James Audubon. He attended the school conducted by Mrs. Lucy Audubon and it was she who encouraged young Grinnell’s interest in the natural world. Grinnell graduated AB from Yale College in 1870, and earned his Ph.D. at Yale in 1880, with a thesis on the osteology of the road runner. He accompanied the first expedition of Professor Othniel Charles Marsh, whose research first revealed the wealth of tertiary fossils entombed in the deposits of Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming and Utah in 1870.

    After he became Assistant in Osteology at the Peabody Museum of Yale College, Grinnell spent summers accompanying several other important scientific expeditions west of the 100th meridian. They dug up a great many bones on the Great Plains including those from native people’s sacred burial grounds. Grinnell, who would become best known for his friendship with American Indians, got his start as a grave robber.

    Luther North as he looked in 1872, on Grinnell’s elk hunt in Nebraska.
    Luther North as he looked in 1872, on Grinnell’s elk hunt in Nebraska.
    On a buffalo hunt with the Pawnee and Chief of Scouts, Luther North, in 1872, Grinnell was lucky enough to see a way of life that would soon be gone. The memory of it stayed with him the rest of his life. The horseback Indians, stripped to near nakedness, armed with short bows and feather-fletched arrows, thrilled him. “Armed with these ancestral weapons they had become once more the simple children of the plains,” he wrote. “Here was barbarism pure and simple. Here was nature. I am thirty yards of the hindmost (buffalo) when a young Indian mounted on a beautiful but evidently untrained horse passes me and in a few jumps is alongside of the game. He discharges an arrow, but before he has time to do more, his horse, terrified by the enormous bull, carries him by and the (bull)…becomes now the pursuer. I put spurs to my horse, and as soon as I get within easy distance, fire, and the ball entering near the root of the tail ranges diagonally forward and comes out at the shoulder. The huge beast drops to the shot, and I pull up to admire my first buffalo. I marvel at his monstrous size and vast strength, and admire his massive horns and hoofs…and as the Indians prepare to skin the game I ride off, musing sadly upon the future of the Indian and the buffalo.”

    As an old man going way back in his memory, he recalls that first meeting with the Cheyenne that same summer of 1872. The hunters were riding down a wide, dry valley near the Republican River one afternoon when a party of hostiles streamed out of the hills. The hunter’s horses are unfit to run, and there is no place to fort-up, so Luther North orders the men to dismount and bring their horses into a kind of triangle, and he tells them to stand inside this triangle with their rifles pointed outward over the saddles. The Cheyenne start riding around them in a circle. There are perhaps 15 riders, but only two or three have guns. Grinnell can see dust puffs from where the bullets fall short of the mark. There is a commotion in his mind as he describes it in his memoirs and he supposes this is the same as having one’s heart in one’s throat. No matter. The shooting is desultory. “Lute” wings one of the Cheyenne ponies. The hostiles do not seem to have much heart for this fight, and presently they move off…so do the hunters. And who would have guessed that of all the white-eyes in the world, one of these hunters, in little more than a quarter century, would be the Cheyenne’s best friend?

    Custer showed him a different view of that “nature,” on an excursion into lands in the northern Plains that had been promised by treaty to the Sioux. Grinnell served as Naturalist for that expedition in 1874, an apparent breach of sovereignty that led to a gold rush, and eventual loss of land that the Sioux considered “the heart of everything that is.” Of Custer (killed two years later at the Little Bighorn), Grinnell would write that he “knew nothing about Indians and was anyhow a harum-scarum fellow.” He also wrote that Custer did “no shooting that was notable” during the Black Hill Expedition. However, his good friend Luther North killed three running deer with three shots from horseback, and when Grinnell told Custer, Custer said “Huh, I found two more horned toads today.”

    Grinnell standing second from left in wide brimmed hat, holding an antelope and Springfield Trapdoor rifle.
    Grinnell standing second from left in wide brimmed hat, holding an antelope and Springfield Trapdoor rifle.
    Following is from his reminiscences when he was the Naturalist in General Custer’s expedition to the Black Hills in 1874:

    This truly is a spectacle out here beyond the gates of the fort. Here is Custer astride his rosewood bay, in buckskin shirt and gray felt hat, the red kerchief around his throat, staghounds trotting jauntily beside their master’s jingling spurs. Here is young Grinnell with the scouts and the headquarters unit, and the sixteen brass-band musicians – all on white horses – playing “Garry Owen”, and the rows of cavalrymen with their guidon pennants snapping in the dry Dakota breeze, and the four long columns of canvas-topped wagons, and the Rodman cannon and the Gatling guns, and the close-ranked foot soldiers powdered chalk white in a billowing plume of alkali dust. There are twelve hundred men and one woman. She is hiding back there behind the infantry, eating dust in a lice-ridden suit of men’s clothes. They call her Calamity Jane. Custer’s orderly will note that the men avoid Jane. It is said that she smells disagreeably.

    It is August. The column has penetrated deeply into the Black Hills. Grinnell is writing in a little black notebook. He is employing the narrative style of a storyteller. Four men are seated around a campfire: Grinnell, the mustachioed scout Charley Reynolds, Luther North (riding this time out as Grinnell’s assistant, and the prospector Horatio Nelson Ross. These are Grinnell’s words, though Reynolds is speaking:

    “No,” said Charley, “this is a right pretty place and the hills here are a nice country. Lots of wood, and water and grass.”

    Grinnell concurs: “I don’t wonder the Indians hate to have the white man come in, for of course if anyone should come in here and settle, the game would all be driven off pretty quick and like enough the hills burnt off too.”

    Ross: “I reckon the white people are coming all right. Shall I show‘em that little bottle of mine, Charley?” he said, as he felt in his pocket.

    “Of course,” said Charley.

    “’Well now, boys,” said Ross, addressing North and myself, “don’t say anything about this, but look here,” and he drew from his pocket a little vial which he passed over to me and which we both examined.

    “It was full of small grains of yellow metal which we of course know must be gold dust.

    “That’s gold I suppose,” said North, as he handed it back to the miner.

    “Yes, said Ross, “that’s gold . . . Of course, I’ll have to report it to the general, but he’ll keep it quiet until we are out of the Hills. There’ll be lots of men in here this winter, I guess”

    Grinnell: “Well, that will mean an Indian war I expect, for the Sioux and Cheyenne won’t give up this country without a fight.”

    Years later, pursuing his ethnological studies of the Plains tribes, Grinnell would hear the following story from an old-timer Cheyenne. It was recalled as occurring the year after the killings on the Washita, which was long before the fight at the Big Horn. The Cheyenne were camped on a fork of the Red River, minding their own business. Then in rode Yellow Hair, that Custer Man, with his bloody troopers. The Cheyenne took Yellow Hair into a lodge to pass the pipe. Medicine Arrow said to Yellow Hair: “You are a treacherous man. If you come again with a bad purpose, as you did at the Washita, we will kill you with all of your men.” As Yellow Hair listened, a Cheyenne took a stick and loosened the ashes in the pipe they had been smoking and sprinkled the ashes on the toe of Yellow Hair’s boot. It was a Cheyenne custom. The ash was to bring the blue-eyed visitor bad luck.

    Grinnell was also the Naturalist in Col. William Ludlow’s expedition to Yellowstone Park in 1875. On these early expeditions to the West, Grinnell often lived with Indian tribes who came to regard him as their friend. Grinnell’s own knowledge of three tribes of the Plains – the Pawnee, the Blackfeet and the Cheyenne (who named him “wiki” or bird, because like a migrating bird, he came and went with the seasons), would expand with every summer he spent out West. As an author, he was considered the premier ethnologist of these people. But his tone would have made his subjects wince. While advocating for the people of Indian country, while learning their languages, customs and religious ways, and explaining it to the rest of the world, he still sounded like a cultural interloper from Manhattan.

    He wrote that Indians had “the stature of a man with the experience and reasoning powers of a child.” This sentiment was common among even the most progressive voices of the time. But when considering the alternative – the plunderers, robber barons and overt racists who tried to wipe the native imprint from the land – Grinnell was ahead of his time. “The story of our government’s intercourse with this race is an unbroken narrative of injustice, fraud and robbery,” he wrote in 1892.

    He became an advocate on their behalf in the East and was instrumental in having dishonest Indian agents removed and more humane policies adopted. In the 1890s, in recognition of his friendship, White Calf, chief of the Blackfeet, chose Grinnell as head chief! President Grover Cleveland made him Commissioner in charge of dealing with the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap Indians in 1895. And later President Theodore Roosevelt asked him to mediate a land controversy with the Sioux at the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota.

    The Custer Wagon Train entering the Black Hills in 1874.
    The Custer Wagon Train entering the Black Hills in 1874.
    As it turns out, he will be remembered for this more than for anything else. Encyclopedias will barely allude to his conservation achievements in order that there might be space to list his books and monographs on the American Indian. The first is Pawnee Hero Stories and Folk Tales (1889), then Blackfoot Lodge Tales (1892); The Story of the Indian (1895); The Indians of Today (1911); The Fighting Cheyennes (1911); The Cheyenne Indians (1923); By Cheyenne Campfires (1926), among other titles. It is important to remember that the first of these books appeared a full year before the frozen hearts of the massacred Hunkpapa Sioux are buried at Wounded Knee; and that, to most white Americans of the period, Grinnell is espousing foul heresy even to suggest that Indians “are human like ourselves; that they are fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, men and women with emotions and passions like our own.”

    In 1876, Grinnell became editor of Field and Stream magazine and senior editor and publisher in 1880. He remained with the magazine until 1911, all the while continuing his efforts to influence progressive legislation regarding conservation and environmental issues. He campaigned vigorously against market hunting and for realistic game laws.

    As Editor of Field and Stream, his investigative reporting of game poaching in Yellowstone National Park, led Congress to pass the Yellowstone Park Protection Act of 1894. It became the cornerstone of subsequent National Park legislation. After hunting in the area with James Willard Schultz in 1885, Grinnell originated the idea of a Glacier National Park. His articles about the area in Field and Stream were very influential in its inclusion in the National Park system that was initiated in 1910.

    In 1886, he founded the Audubon Society of New York, which was the forerunner of the National Audubon Society. He also served as president of the National Parks Association and as trustee of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He served on the first advisory board for the Federal Migratory Bird Law and was awarded the Theodore Roosevelt Gold Medal of Honor in 1925, for his lifelong contribution to conservation and environmental concerns. During his lifetime he authored or co-authored numerous writings from adventure books to scholarly works on Indian life customs. Many of these are still in print and available on Amazon.

    George Bird Grinnell was a gifted naturalist who was able to foresee the dangers in store for the natural resources and wildlife of the United States if the “fallacy of the inexhaustible” were not disproved. He was leader in conservation movements which began with the urging of a few enlightened citizens and which played an enormous role in the conservation movement in America. It hurts me as a Westerner to say that some Easterners like Grinnell were better stewards of the big land on the sunset side of the continent than many who lived there. Grinnell helped to block a plan by knuckleheads in Idaho to build a dam in Yellowstone National Park. And his fighting words kept the timber, mining and grazing interests from getting total control over our public lands. Grinnell’s memory lives on in the wild.

    His biographers have been far less interested in his hunting than we are, and they have not indicated what weapons he may have used on the 1870 Fossil Expedition to the central plains. We see that at least one Henry firearm and two of the .50 Springfield Trapdoor rifles were present in one photograph. It was what Bill Cody used and Grinnell said that when shooting from the ground with a rifle, Cody was a very ordinary shot, “but he was the finest horseback rifle shot ever known.” On March 29, 1872, Grinnell ordered Sharps Sporting Rifle C.53864, a .50 with 30-inch barrel and Military Rifles C,51168; C,52772, as well as Military Carbine C,53192 (Marcot et.al 2017, page l69.)

    Buffalo Bill Cody, 1870.
    Buffalo Bill Cody, 1870.
    Evidently these worked well for the 1873 elk hunt on the Cedar River in Nebraska, and for the 1874 Black Hills and 1875 Yellowstone Park Expeditions. As the Editor of Forest and Stream he ordered a .40 caliber Sharps with a 28-inch octagon barrel and single trigger (C,53645) on Feb 9, 1874. By the late 1870s, he was experimenting with his Sharps Model 1874 Sporting Rifle (C,52276) a 45-110 loaded with a special 340-grain bullet at 1830 fps (Garavaglia and Worman 1985:146). The gun was ordered July 20, 1878, had double set triggers and a 30-inch barrel with a cleaning rod mounted underneath.

    About two years later he had a “.40-90 Sharps Business rifle. I had furnished a 225-grain hollow-pointed ball. The cartridges were loaded with 100 grains C&H powder. At short range, the effect of this bullet was apparently as killing as my .45 caliber.” (Garavaglia and Worman 1985:155).

    British sportsman Charles A. Messiter traveled the West 1862-1878. Hunting grizzly bear with Grinnell in the Judith Mountains of Montana in 1878, Messiter carried a British double-barreled express rifle. After the hunt Grinnell wrote that “I was shooting a 450-grain solid ball with 90 grains of powder and this penetrated the willow brush admirably. On the other hand, Messiter’s rifle, carried a 160-grain express bullet with 120 grains of powder. This bullet was too light to penetrate far.” (Gilbert 2001:11-12). A bullet that light might be found in a .360 cartridge, but none known would hold 120 grains of powder. It seems possible that Messiter’s Express was a 450-3¼ with a 270-grain bullet and 120 grains of powder. Grinnell found further fault with British express doubles in a letter that he wrote to the Sharps Rifle Company: “I was glad that I selected the straight stock instead of the pistol grip, as the latter would not have withstood the bad usage received. I met some English gentlemen out there with the finest double express rifle with pistol grip stock, but in each case the stock was shattered and patched up.” (Gilbert 2001:11-12).

    In September of 1885, Grinnell traveled to Montana to hunt with James Willard Schultz, who had submitted several stories for Forest and Stream. Schultz subsequently published an account of their hunting adventures in his book, Blackfeet and Buffalo. We take up an excerpt from that here in Schultz’s own words:

    “He arrived on the mail stage- a slender, quiet, fine looking man of medium height; in outing clothes that showed much use; his baggage a canvas-covered bedroll, a war sack, a Sharps .45 caliber rifle, and a fly rod. No tenderfoot he, we thought, and so were not surprised when we learned that he owned a fine ranch (in the Shirley Basin of Wyoming) and that he had been the naturalist with General Custer’s Black Hills expedition in 1874.”

    Schultz introduced him to the important Blackfeet leaders as the man who had managed to have food sent to them the previous winter when so many were starving, and they named Grinnell “Fisher-Hat” in honor of a highly esteemed Blackfoot. Then Schultz took Grinnell hunting and we take up his account:

    “As we sat there at the edge of the cliff, Yellow Fish, close at my left, suddenly whispered to me: “Don’t move suddenly; slowly a little turn and look back; five big heads are nearing us.” In turn I translated to Grinnell, and cautiously we looked back over our shoulders. Sure enough, coming from we knew not where, five big goats in a single file were walking slowly toward us. We did not move until they were so near that we could see their eyes; then as Grinnell slowly and with ready rifle turned to face them they stopped and stared at us, and again I noticed how vacuous, silly was the expression on their faces. Slowly bringing his Sharps rifle to his shoulder, Grinnell took careful aim at the leader, fired; it dropped, the others bounding off, and we hurried to examine the kill, a big male. Then as we carefully skinned it, Grinnell told us in terms that I could only partly understand, and Yellow Fish not at all, just what the animal was: Oreamnos Montanus (now Oreamnos americana) of the sub-family Rupicaprine – neither a goat nor an antelope but having characteristics of both of them…

    “With its hide and head, we brought to camp a little of the meat of the goat, broiled it, but found it too tough and musky flavored to eat. So, in the morning we set out to get meat that we could eat….We had not gone far when a couple hundred yards ahead of us, a lone bighorn ram bounced out from a depression in the shale and went leaping swiftly on; at a distance of about three hundred yards he stopped, turned sidewise and stared at us, head proudly up, his perfectly circled horns, like washtubs, carried as though they had no weight at all. No more had it stopped than Grinnell brought his heavy rifle to his shoulder, quickly sighted it, fired, and the ram made one high leap, plowed down into the shale and was still. Cried Yellow Fish, in Blackfoot, “Oh, Ho, Hai! This Fisher Hat, he did not kneel and rest his gun; just stood and aimed it, and with one shot killed a very far off big-head.” Translating that for Grinnell I added: And so appropriately this is where we get its name: It is Singleshot Mountain.” That is the name it bears today.

    “The ram proved to be full grown and very fat. Its head and horns alone were a heavy burden for one man. With it and all the meat we could carry, we turned back down to camp and had a feast of well-broiled ribs.”

    Days later after discovering the glacier that bears his name, Grinnell and Schultz are out hunting again when Schultz wrote that “We had not gone far when a lone bighorn ram suddenly appeared…and stood rigid, tense, staring at us. It was a long shot, but my faith in Grinnell’s marksmanship was justified; with careful aim he fired his heavy Sharps, and down fell the ram and with a few convulsive kicks was still. Said Jack Monroe as we came to the kill and sharpened our knives to butcher it: “What luck! What good luck! All in one morning, we discover a glacier and kill a fat ram upon it.” “Not luck but a result of Old Red Eagle’s prayers for a long and successful life for Fisher Hat.” Said I. Grinnell, smoking his pipe, happily smiling, said, “Many are the believers in the efficacy of prayer.”

    We are reminded that Grinnell lived to the age of 90.

    In early September of 1887, like a migratory bird, Grinnell returned to Montana to hunt again with Schultz: “…on the shale slope of Singleshot Mountain he killed another fat bighorn, a ram of four years, a welcome addition to our larder…

    “At last I got out my telescope and focused it at the upper reaches of the mountain along which we had come, and so discovered one after another three bands of goats going along it. The first and nearest one, a band of eleven old males, was resting upon the shelf of a cliff-one of them sitting doglike upon his haunches and peering at the slope below. The two other bands were females and their young, yearlings and two-year-olds. …Grinnell shot at an old female, she fell and the others hunched together, stood looking this way, and I had to laugh, so vacuous, silly was the expression on their faces. Twice more the old Sharps rifle boomed; a yearling and then a kid fell; and at that the others took to the cliffs, climbing, jumping up them where it seemed no living animal could secure footing, and soon passed out of sight over the jagged summit of the mountain.

    “We were long in measuring and skinning the goats, for Grinnell was to give them to the Smithsonian Institution. It was dusk when we got the heads and hides down to the horses and turned camp-ward on the trail; and in the fading light we saw two more bands of goats coming down off the cliffs toward the north end of the mountain.”

    Grinnell’s next hunting trip with Schultz began when he arrived on September 3, 1888. He brought along William H. Seward III, grandson of President’s Lincoln’s Secretary of State who was instrumental in the acquisition of Alaska; and Henry L. Stimson, who would become President Hoover’s Secretary of State.

    Schultz reports the last game that Grinnell shot that trip: “On our way back (to camp) we discovered low down on the south slope of Red Eagle Mountain, a band of goats… and climbed toward them as Grinnell still had a number of requests for them from various museums. We had no difficulty approaching the band, and he killed two: a mature female and her little one. By the time we got their heads and hides down to our horses it was dark. So again we gathered a lot of down timber for a fire and stopped for the night. Needless to say that we were very hungry when, at about eight o’clock the next morning we arrived in camp.

    “Grinnell had for some years, on and off, been with the Pawnee Indians getting from them their history as they knew it, their religion, and social customs. He told me that in the succeeding summer he would visit the tribe for the last time, to complete a book that he had in mind about them. So, I should not expect him to be with me in the succeeding autumn.”

    Thus, ends a remarkable account of hunting with a remarkable man by to me an equally remarkable man. James Willard Schultz (1859-1947) authored 36 books in addition to his autobiography My Life As An Indian. Sharps rifle collectors will find his life to be a rich treasure trove of life in early day Montana

    1. Garavaglia, Louis A. and Charles G. Worma
    1985 Firearms Of The American West 1866-1894. Univ. New Mexico Press
    2. Gilbert, Miles
    2001 Double Guns and British Sportsmen in the American West. Double Gun Journal Vol 12 (3): 7-15.
    3. Marcot, Roy et. Al.
    2017 Sharps Firearms Vol. II
    4. Mitchell, John G.
    A Man Called Bird. Article from an undated Audubon or Natural History magazine.
    5. Reiger, John F.
    1972 The Passing of the Great West: Selected Papers of George Bird Grinnell. Winchester Press.
    6. Schultz, James Willard
    1962 Blackfeet and Buffalo. Univ. Oklahoma Press.
    7. Taliaferro, John
    2019 Grinnell; America’s Environmental Pioneer and His Restless Drive to Save the West.
    Reviewed by Timothy Egan in the July 24, 2019 New York Times

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