The George Newbold Lawrence Correspondence Collection

When I first began sorting through the hundreds of letters between Lawrence and his friends and colleagues in this collection, I expected the majority to be highly scientific—difficult for the average person to understand, loaded with terms and concepts foreign to non-ornithologists, and concerned with personal and institutional avifauna collections. Upon deeper inspection, many of the letters confirmed these suspicions. Some of Lawrence’s closest friends, including Baird and Cassin, held important positions in museums just beginning to establish their ornithology departments at the turn of the century. They dedicated their lives to bird study, and much of their correspondence reflects that. Though short, a letter from Robert Ridgway, Curator of Ornithology at the Smithsonian Institution and founding member of the American Ornithologists’ Union, packs in the scientific names of multiple new specimens found by their mutual friend Frederick A. Ober, discusses and compares the descriptions and habitats of the species, and references the exact pages of a source book to support his research.

Letter from Robert Ridgway to Lawrence, September 20, 1872

In another letter from A.L.J.F. Sumichrast, a naturalist and collector, a list of bird species is included in dense letter written completely in French. References are made to small differences between scientific names and other ornithologists like Baird are cited in his discussion. Lawrence’s correspondence with John Grant Wells, an ornithologist, contains more of the same highly specialized talk.

Letter from A.L.J.F. Sumichrast to Lawrence, April 6, 1874

Letter from John Wells Grant to Lawrence, February 22, 1881

But not all of the correspondence in this collection was so serious. In one of many letters to Lawrence, John Porter McCown shares his love of “wandering through the woods and making the acquaintance of the birds.” He talks about eliminating potential predators from his property– “I allow no cats about my shanty and I extend protection to the feathered tribes…The result is that my premises abound in birds – quails raise their young in my yard” — and goes on to note that he refrained from starting a collection of birds as he had “seen none but old friends.”

Letter from John Porter McCown to Lawrence, April 17, 1877

Letters like these display the dual-nature of ornithologists like Lawrence. Fascination with birds, often cultivated from a young age, led many to pursue the science and partake in the rigors of studying, naming and exhibiting species found all around the world. But, when possible, these men also protected birds in their natural habitats and resisted the compulsion to kill and collect for the advancement of science.

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