One of the great uncanny moments in the history of American conservation occurred at the Smithsonian Institution in 1887. Taxidermist, naturalist, and wildlife activist William Hornaday (1854-1937) was fussing over the last adjustments on his avant-garde glass box diorama that would display what he called “the finest and most complete series of buffalo . . . ever collected for a museum.” Hornaday was something of a prima donna. He had hung heavy curtains all around the glass box. Absolutely nobody would be permitted to see his taxidermical masterpiece until he determined that the bison display was ready for public viewing.
On an otherwise quiet day an uninvited stranger with an emphatic manner and a falsetto voice started asking questions from outside the protective curtains. The unknown meddler was extremely annoying, and he would not desist from peppering the prickly artist with impertinent questions about where he obtained the bison, with what sort of rifle, when and under what circumstances. Finally, enraged, Hornaday swept open the curtain to confront the intruder.
That’s when Hornaday met U.S. Civil Service Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, a man who had killed his first buffalo in September 1883 just a few miles north of today’s Marmarth, North Dakota.
Roosevelt was 28 years old. Hornaday was 32.
Just a year before this improbable and consequential meeting, which produced an enduring friendship between a future president of the United States and the future director of the New York Zoological Society (The Bronx Zoo), Roosevelt and Hornaday were both wandering around the northern Great Plains between today’s Malta, Montana, and Dickinson, North Dakota. Roosevelt returned from New York to the Little Missouri River Valley in late March 1886. That was the year when he pursued the boat thieves, led by Red Headed Mike Finnegan, and marched them to justice overland from the mouth of Cherry Creek northwest of the Killdeer Mountains to Dickinson, a distance of sixty miles, reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace to keep himself awake on an adventure that was part ordeal, part peak experience.
In the wake of that adventure, Roosevelt was invited by the doctor who treated his blistered and bruised feet, Victor Hugo Stickney, to deliver the first-ever Independence Day oration in the frontier village of Dickinson. That was the occasion of Roosevelt’s famous, “Like all Americans I like big things” speech, on a hot and windy 5th of July, during which TR said, “I am myself at heart as much a westerner as an easterner; I am proud indeed to be considered one of yourselves.”
Later that day, Bad Lands Cow Boy editor A.T. Packard, accompanying Roosevelt back to Medora on the train, predicted that Roosevelt would one day be the President of the United States.
Young Hornaday, meanwhile, visited much the same ground twice in 1886. In May he ventured from Washington, D.C., to Fort Keogh near today’s Miles City. His mission was simple: to obtain a group of bison to display at the United States National Museum. Though he was told locally that it was too late to find anything more than a few pathetic and scattered stragglers, Hornaday refused to abandon his quest. At the time of Lewis and Clark (1804-06), there were an estimated 50-60 million buffalo in North America. By the time Hornaday reached Miles City, there were fewer than one thousand buffalo left on earth, probably fewer than 350.
Somewhere northwest of Miles City, in the barren plains drained by Little Dry Creek and Big Dry Creek, Hornaday experienced what must be described as a conversion experience. After seeing scores of dead bison strewn over the countryside, most of them killed wantonly without even their tongues or robes harvested by the killers, Hornaday determined to dedicate part of his life’s energy to the preservation of the buffalo from extinction.
After seeing scores of dead bison strewn over the countryside, most of them killed wantonly without even their tongues or robes harvested by the killers, Hornaday determined to dedicate part of his life’s energy to the preservation of the buffalo from extinction. Hornaday later described his road to Damascus: “Just as a care-free and joyous swimmer for pleasure suddenly is drawn into a whirlpool—in which he can swim but from which he cannot escape—so in 1886 was I drawn into the maelstrom of wild life protection.”
The Hornaday Bison Group, as it became known, remained on display in Washington, D.C., until 1957. Then, after serving for 70 years as one of the principal treasures of the Smithsonian, the bison display was dismantled and the bison sent back to Montana. There they were dispersed and for a time forgotten, even lost. Then, in 1996, they were gathered up from several Montana sites, including commercial businesses, and restored to something like their original group configuration at the Museum of the Northern Great Plains in Fort Benton, Montana.
Think of these two giants of the American conservation movement wandering around some of the most isolated landscapes of America in 1886, at times within 150 miles of each other, still strangers, but on a certain, if a little erratic, collision course towards friendship, collaboration, and a deeply significant role in bringing the bison back from the brink of extinction.
It was 1886, Roosevelt’s last happy year in the Dakota badlands, just months before the killing winter, the year he remarried and turned his attention back towards New York and politics, the year that Hornaday began to emerge as one of the eccentric giants of American conservation. 1886 was also the year Coca Cola was born, the Haymarket Riots occurred in Chicago, the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in New York harbor, the Apache warrior Geronimo surrendered for the last time, and Robert Louis Stevenson published Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde.
by Clay S. Jenkinson
Clay Jenkinson is the principal humanities scholar associated with the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library. He is working on a book on Hornaday, Roosevelt, and 1886, “the year the modern conservation movement was born.”