The (literal) skeletons in the closet of American Ornithology

It’s time to have a frank, long-overdue discussion about the history (and future) of racism in American ornithology.

John Kirk Townsend (1809–1851) was a pioneer ornithologist whose atrocities against Native Americans (and Hawaiians) remain poorly known by the legions of birders who regularly speak his name. In 1834, with the financial backing of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (ANSP) and American Philosophical Society (APS), Townsend joined the second expedition of Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth, which crossed the Rocky Mountains and reached the Pacific coast via the Columbia River. His collections of mammals and birds were subsequently illustrated by John James Audubon (1785–1851) and many species were named in his honor including Townsend’s Warbler (Setophaga townsendi), Townsend’s Solitaire (Myadestes townsendi), Townsend’s Big-eared Bat (Corynorhinus townsendii), Townsend’s Mole (Scapanus townsendii), Townsend’s Chipmunk (Neotamias townsendii), and Townsend’s Ground-squirrel (Urocitellus townsendii).

Audubon, as you know, has practically been deified.

What most people do not remember, however, is that both Townsend and Audubon also collected the remains of humans during their expeditions. Townsend literally dug up the graves of Native American chieftains, men, women, and children, and decapitated them to secure his prize. In 1836, Audubon collected a few skulls of Mexican soldiers from the battlefield of San Jacinto, Texas, which I imagine needed to be cleaned up before they were ready to travel. [Update 27 July 2022: Audubon also “[took] off the head of a three-years dead Indian chief, called the White Cow,” one of five Native American skulls he collected in 1843 near Fort Union, in modern day North Dakota; Fabian 2021].

Audubon’s donations to Morton’s human skull collection, listed in the first edition of Catalogue of Skulls of Man and the Inferior Animals (1840).

Their goal was to fill the cabinet of the ANSP corresponding secretary, Dr. Samuel George Morton (1799–1851), who was planning to rank the human races by cranial “capacity” (volume). Don’t fool yourself: Townsend and Audubon knew what Morton was up to. Morton’s books Crania Americana (1839) and Crania Aegyptiaca (1844) are now considered by most scholars to be foundational contributions to scientific racism (see Gould, S.J. 1981. The Mismeasure of Man). Morton’s work was an inspiration to the false and racist ideology that infected the southern secessionists, who claimed that science was on their side (my boldface):

“Our new government is founded … upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science.” — Alexander H. Stephens, The Cornerstone Address (March 21, 1861)

Skull of a Chinook man collected illicitly by Townsend while encamped on the Columbia River, and published in Morton’s Crania Americana (1839).

While studying primary materials in the APS Library in Philadelphia, I found a letter addressed to Morton in which Townsend described his grave-robbing activities in detail. He also made several telling racist comments, including a remark that the death of Native Americans via disease would be “very convenient for [his] purposes”. To my knowledge, this letter has never been discussed or mentioned by historians or scientific scholars. I believe that its contents need to be read and discussed by the public, especially those who regularly use Townsend’s name when discussing North American birds and mammals. My personal transcriptions of the relevant portions are provided here (boldface mine):

“…I was enjoying the society of civilized beings again, and believe me my dear Doctor this was no small treat to me after having been compelled to sojourn for such a length of time among savages little better than brute beasts…”

“I send you a few sculls – one of a Clickitat Indian (you will observe the characteristic flat occiput) and some quadrupeds & birds. It is rather a perilous business to procure indians’ sculls in this country. The natives are so jealous of you that they watch you very closely while you are wandering near their mausoleums & instant & sanguinous vengeance would fall upon the luckless wight who should presume to interfere with the sacred relics. I have succeeded in hooking one however, such as it is, & no doubt in the course of the winter I shall get more. There is an epidemic raging among them which carries them off so fast that the cemeteries will soon lack watchers. I don’t rejoice in the prospect of the death of the poor creatures certainly, but then you know it will be very convenient for my purposes.

“A few more words about the crania. The one which I last procured is, as I have told you, of a Chenook. The sculls as you will observe, do not differ materially in appearance, all the tribes in this vicinity being in the habit of compressing the frontal bone in infancy. This is done, you have perhaps heard, by applying a board to the head of the newly born infant, attached at the back by thongs to a similar one, & made to bear obliquily on the fron of the head while the child is in a recumbent posture. To the forward edge of the head board other thonds are attached & passed, through holes made in that upon which the young subject is lying. As the child grows the thongs are drawn tighter & tighters, the board consequently pressing more closely upon the occiput until the head assumed the curious shape which you see. The Chenook usually keep the healthy children in durance for about 2 months, the Clickatats about one or two weeks longer. I have occasionally seen men of both tribes with round, or ordinarily shaped heads, sickness having prevented the usual contortion while young, but such can never obtain any influence, or rise to any dignity in their tribe & are not infrequently sold as slaves by their enemies. The scull of the Chenook is that of a high chief as was known by the superior style in which his canoe was decked out, the unusual firmness of the wrappings with which the body was covered, & the evident care & attention which had been bestowed upon the whole business. I regret that I was not able to find the lower jaw. I groped about among the dry bones for half an hour but could not find it. The few sculls that I send & those I may hereafter be so fortunate as to procure, I of course intend for your private collection. I presume I have a right to the disposition of such things.


The skulls mentioned in this letter (and others stolen by Townsend and Audubon) were in the collection of the ANSP until the mid-20th century, when they were transferred to the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Museum. The institutions that were culpable in the assembly of the Morton collection (ANSP, APS) have not publicly apologized, to my knowledge, to the tribes that the materials were stolen from. Rather, they have “passed the buck” of responsibility. Penn, unsurprisingly, considers the collection “an exceptional historic resource” and has delayed the repatriation of the materials. According to The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), institutions that take federal funding (as Penn did in 2005: $238,664.00 from the National Science Foundation, NSF, DBI/BIO-0447271, for the “Expansion and Improvement of the Penn Cranial CT Database”) must repatriate materials with provenance at the tribes’ request. It is true that some remains from the Morton collection have been repatriated (see, e.g., Federal Register 82:37112), but nearly 30 years have passed since NAGPRA was signed into law! Penn is moving at a glacial pace considering the magnitude of the infraction, and the institutions that helped to assemble the racist skull collection are tight-lipped.

And, of course, the names of the naturalists who collected the skulls—Townsend and Audubon—continue to be widely celebrated by organizations claiming to be concerned about diversity and inclusion (e.g., Audubon is the “namesake and inspiration” of the National Audubon Society); and that is in addition to Audubon’s scientific fraud, which I have recently exposed. Meanwhile, birders are compelled to speak the disgraced names aloud, every time they want to share their experiences with peers; to attach them to nature itself, bound by the whims of (largely white and male) nomenclature committees. This, my friends, is the very definition of systemic racism. Here we are. Do we have the courage to change, to purge American ornithology of its original sin? Nous verrons.

For more about this, see my previous post that includes a bill of sale for a Black woman named Jenny, signed by the ornithologist William Bartram.

Categories: American History, History of Science, Ornithology, Philadelphia

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