Baird, Spencer Fullerton, 1823-1887

Alternative names
Birth 1823-02-03
Death 1887-08-19

Biographical notes:

Spencer Fullerton Baird was a naturalist and inaugurated the method of field study of botany and zoology in the United States.

From the description of Letters, 1869-1874. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122578634

American zoologist, naturalist and ornithologist, principal founder of the marine laboratory at Wood's Hole, Mass.

From the guide to the Spencer Fullerton Baird letters, 1852, 1881, (The New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division.)


From the description of Spencer Fullerton Baird correspondence, 1846-1874. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 79449962

Author was then assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

From the description of Letters, 1859-1860, Washington, D.C., to Samuel C. Eastman. (Brown University). WorldCat record id: 122384174

Zoologist; Assistant Secretary, then Secretary, Smithsonian Institution, 1850-1878, 1878-1887.

From the description of Letter to Charles Mayer Wetherill, Dec. 12, 1867. (University of Pennsylvania Library). WorldCat record id: 122637415

Charles Lucian Bonaparte was a naturalist and ornithologist.

From the guide to the Correspondence, 1824-1855, from American scientists, 1824-1855, (American Philosophical Society)

Spencer Fullerton Baird, 1823-1887, zoologist and professor, graduated from Dickinson College in 1840. He taught natural history at Dickinson College (1846-1850), then served as assistant secretary of the Smithsonian (1850-1878) and as secretary of the Smithsonian (1878-1887).

From the description of Collection, 1839-1916, bulk dates 1839-1886. (Dickinson College). WorldCat record id: 17640849

Stephen Bowers (1832?-1907) was a geologist, archaeologist, journalist and Methodist minister, who maintained an interest in southern California, including area fossils and artifacts. His geological and archaeological work was financed by the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Department of the Interior. In 1997 a California archaeologist and Simi Valley, California resident Arlene Benson published Bowers’ field notes, collected by Smithsonian field ethnologist John Peabody Harrington, under the title The Noontide Sun: The Field Journals of the Reverend Stephen Bowers, Pioneer California Archaeologist.

Bowers was born near Wilmington, Indiana on March 3, 1832 to David and Esther Bowers. One of thirteen children, the family moved to a farm eight miles north of Indianapolis when he was one year old. A studious lad, he walked or rode on horseback several miles to a small rural schoolhouse. Poor health kept him indoors as a child during the winter months. Realizing that he was not cut out to be a farmer, Bowers decided at an early age to pursue the ministry, and at twenty-three was ordained a Methodist minister, affiliated with the Indiana Conference. He was dispatched as a Methodist circuit rider ninety miles west of his birthplace in Lawrence County, Indiana. In November 1856, just ten months after beginning his ministry, Bowers married the seventeen-year-old Martha Cracraft from the farming community of Greencastle. Their first son, Hayden, was named for Bowers’ hero Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden (1829-1887, APS 1860), the leader of U.S. government surveying expeditions to 109 western territories in 1859-60.

From his youth Bowers became a lifelong collector of artifacts and geological specimens. Although he dedicated himself to the pastorate and later also pursued a second career as a newspaper publisher, his primary interest was always archaeology. With the exception of military service with the 67th Indiana Volunteers during the Civil War, Bowers spent several decades in pastoral ministry that took him to churches in Kentucky, Oregon and finally (because of his wife’s failing health) to California. In 1874 he moved from his first pulpit in Napa City to the city of Santa Barbara. There Bowers found the lure of the Indian burial grounds on the Santa Barbara channel irresistible.

In the summer of 1875 Bowers accepted an assignment as guide for several survey parties of the Army Corp of Engineers, working on both sides of the Santa Barbara channel. Wheeler’s party included archaeologist Paul Schumacher, botanist Joseph Trimble Rothrock (1839-1922, APS 1877) of the University of Pennsylvania and Henry Wetherbee Henshaw, an ethnologist and ornithologist with the Smithsonian Institution. The Wheeler survey occupied all of Bowers’ time, except Sundays, for three months and Wheeler’s notes make sixteen references to him. It was through Henshaw that Bowers came to the attention of Smithsonian professor Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-1887, APS 1855), who carried on an extensive twelve-year correspondence with him. Through Bowers’ excavations the Smithsonian would acquire thousands of California and Midwestern fossils and native American artifacts for its collections-seventeen accessions over twenty-nine years.

Since no trained archaeologist had ever visited the native American burial grounds on the San Nicholas and Santa Rosa Islands before Bowers’ 1875 excavation, he was the first to examine the remains of these settlements, and remove the skulls, implements and artifacts for shipment to the Smithsonian and other museums, as well as to private collectors. Most of the skeletons and artifacts were from the Chumash tribe. During his three-year tenure as pastor of the Santa Barbara Methodist congregation at the corner of De la Vina and De la Guerra streets, made one trip after another to the islands, usually accompanied by correspondent Simon Peter Guiberson of the Ventura Free Press and sometimes by his wife Martha and Dr. Lorenzo Yates of Centerville.

Although methods of archaeological excavation were crude at the time, and Bowers was not the only untrained archaeologist doing field work, modern historians and archaeologists, who are familiar with his activities generally regard him as “a meddler who destroyed fully as many artifacts as he preserved-and rendered the site scientifically useless as well.” They find his “flagrant disregard for orderly methods and his failure to preserve sites” inexcusable. It is unclear how many barrels of native American skulls, utensils and implements Bowers sent to collectors in New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and the District of Columbia, but the Smithsonian alone credits 2,200 to 2,500 of its native American relics to his excavations between 1876-1905. Harvard’s Peabody Museum recorded 826 and hundreds made their way in public and private collections from Philadelphia to Los Angeles.

No doubt, Bowers used questionable methods and was generally too impatient to exercise care in his excavations. Dr. Baird of the Smithsonian and Professor Josiah Dwight Whitney (1819-1894, APS 1863) of Harvard, two of his primary customers, were probably unaware of Bower’s methods, although the former was definitely impressed by him. Bowers completed his excavations for the Smithsonian in September 1877, and moved to Indianapolis to accept a temporary call. Sometime in 1878 he returned to California and resumed his excavations. But after his wife and son Hayden died within months of each other in October 1879 and April 1880, he could not bear to continue excavations. Instead, he departed from Santa Barbara to launch a new career as a newspaper publisher in Beloit, California; Platteville, Wisconsin; and Falls City, Nebraska. By October 1883 he had returned to California with a new wife Margaret Dickson to become publisher of the Ventura Free Press. Also serving a the Methodist pastor in the nearby town of Santa Paula, he launched another daily newspaper he called the Golden State. As a Prohibitionist and a Republican Bowers became involved in political controversy in his newspapers and in the pulpit, often teetering on the edge of libel. All the while he found time to continue digging artifacts in the Santa Barbara Channel!

In 1899 the aging Bowers was appointed State Mine Examiner by California Governor Henry T. Gage. He had attracted the attention of one of the governor’s aids by some earlier pamphlets he had written for the state mineralogist, as well as reports that made use of some of his geological contributions on rocks, fossils and oil-bearing strata. During his tenure Bowers endured the heat of the San Diego County desert to dig fossils in thirteen different counties and also undertook an assignment from the U.S. Geological Survey to survey fossil around Riverside.

Bowers enjoyed excellent health into his mid-seventies, and was accustomed to delivering two sermons weekly. However, in the final hours of 1906 while on a New Years vigil, he fell ill and three days later suffered a stroke from which he died. He was survived by his wife Margaret, his son DeMoss, and daughters Anna Bailey and Florence Cooper.

The American Philosophical Society’s holdings of his letters show that he corresponded with major nineteenth century American naturalists, including Asa Gray (1810-1888, APS 1848) and Joseph Le Conte (1823-1901, APS 1873), as well as the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Museum of Natural History, the National Geographic Society and the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Geographical Survey. Bowers also received an honorary doctorate from Willamette University in Oregon.

From the guide to the Stephen Bowers correspondence, 1860-1915, 1860-1915, (American Philosophical Society)

Spencer Fullerton Baird was born in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1823 and graduated from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 1840. The next year Baird made an ornithological excursion through the mountains of Pennsylvania, walking (says one of his biographers) 400 miles in 21 days. While still in college Baird met noted naturalist John James Audubon, who gave part of his own collection of birds to the young man and inspired in him a lifelong interest in ornithological studies.

Baird became professor of natural history at Dickinson College in 1845; he was also chair of the chemistry department and taught physiology and mathematics. In 1850 he was appointed assistant-secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C., where he encouraged the work of the young naturalists in the Megatherium Club. On the death of Joseph Henry in 1878 he became secretary of the Institution, and from 1871 until his death he was also U.S. Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries.

Baird's studies and publication topics include iconography, geology, mineralogy, botany, anthropology, general zoology, and, in particular, ornithology. For several years he edited an annual volume summarizing progress in all scientific lines of investigation, and between 1850 and 1860 he supervised a number of government scientific explorations of the western territories of the United States, preparing for them a manual of Instructions to Collectors.

According to a bibliography by George Brown Goode, from 1843 to 1882 Baird published over a thousand pieces of writing, 775 of them being short articles in his Annual Record . Among the most significant works were his Catalog of North American Reptiles (1853, with Charles Frederic Girard); Birds (1858); Mammals of North America: Descriptions based on Collections in the Smithsonian Institution (Philadelphia, 1859); and the impressive History of North American Birds (Boston, 1875-1884; 5 vols, with Thomas Mayo Brewer and Robert Ridgway).

Baird died in 1887 at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, an institution which was largely the result of his own efforts and which continues to play an important role in ochthyology today.

[Portions of this biographical sketch adapted from "Spencer Fullerton Baird" Wikipedia article.]

From the guide to the Spencer Fullerton Baird Collection, 1858-1882, (Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries)

At only 27, the ornithologist Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-1887) was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, a precocious appointment that suited a precocious scientist. Born into a well to do family in Reading, Pa., and raised in Carlisle, Baird acquired an interest in natural history even prior to enrolling at Dickinson College at age 13. Although he was not an outstanding student, he was unusually committed to his course in life, keeping meticulous notes of naturalizing expeditions, collecting specimens of birds and animals, and teaching himself preservation techniques by the age of 16.

Baird's primary interest rapidly settled on ornithology, and by 17 he had initiated a correspondence with the best known ornithologist in America, John James Audubon. After graduating from Dickinson, Baird entered medical school at his family's insistence, a practical decision to ensure his future employment, but he soon dropped out and settled into a quiet life of private study at home, focusing, of course, on natural history, roaming widely over the countryside, often with his brother William, and amassing a huge collection of bird specimens. Having sent Audubon a new species of yellow-bellied flycatcher, Audubon, in return, sent the majority of his personal collection of birds to Baird and also named a species of bunting after him. Baird used this period, too, to further his contacts in the field, arranging meetings with Louis Agassiz, Asa Gray, John Cassin, and Thomas M. Brewer, and working for James Dwight Dana in identifying the crustacean collected on the Charles Wilkes expedition. His persistence paid off in the fall of 1846 (the year he married) when he earned an appointment as Professor of Natural History and Curator of the Museum at his alma mater, while still barely older than the students he was teaching.

In 1850, Baird was recruited to become Assistant Secretary at the new Smithsonian Institution, brought in by Dana (who had become one of its Regents) and seconded by his old correspondents, Audubon, Agassiz, and George Perkins Marsh. It took two boxcars to transport his collections of birds and mammals, pickled reptiles and fish to Washington, but the collections he brought were only one of the several benefits he brought to the institution. Baird's family connections served the institution materially. A Biddle on his mother's side, Baird had married the daughter of the Inspector General of the Army, which gave his a perfect entree to the military, enabling him to solicit specimens from officers stationed in the west, but more importantly to attach naturalists to Army exploring expeditions. Through his connections with the military, Baird added over 6,000 specimens to the Smithsonian collections. During his time at the Smithsonian, the collections increased from approximately 6,000 specimens to over 2.5 million. Baird was promoted from Assistant Secretary to Secretary in May 1878, continuing in that capacity until his death on August 17, 1887. He also served without salary as head of the United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries from its founding in 1871 until his death, and helped establish the Marine Biological Station at Woods Hole, Mass.

A remarkably prolific scientist, even by the standards of the day, Baird's list of publications extends to almost 1,100 titles on a wide range of subjects. Although most of these are relatively brief notices, he completed three monumental works, The Mammals of North America (Philadelphia, 1859), Birds of North America (Philadelphia, 1860), written with John Cassin; and the History of North American Birds (Boston, 1874-1884), 5 vols., with Brewer and Robert Ridgway. Baird was elected to the APS in 1855.

From the guide to the Spencer Fullerton Baird Collection, 1869-1874, 1869-1874, (American Philosophical Society)


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  • Reptiles
  • Ornithology
  • Zoology
  • Fossils--Collection and preservation--California
  • Mammals--Pictorial works
  • Zoological specimens
  • Printers--Massachusetts
  • Arctic regions--Discovery and exploration
  • Zoology, Arctic regions
  • Reptiles--Pictorial works
  • Birds
  • Life science publishing
  • Indians of North America--California--Antiquities
  • Natural history--pictorial works
  • Zoologists--United States
  • Natural history museums, United States
  • Science and medicine
  • Zoological museums, United States
  • Birds--Research
  • Natural history--Study and teaching
  • Zoological specimens--Collection and preservation


  • Naturalist
  • Naturalists--United States
  • Zoologists
  • Scientists


  • North America (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Mexico (as recorded)
  • North America (as recorded)
  • California (as recorded)