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date: 13 November 2019

Grinnell, George Birdfree

(20 September 1849–11 April 1938)
  • John F. Reiger

George B. Grinnell.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-72116).

Grinnell, George Bird (20 September 1849–11 April 1938), conservationist and ethnographer, was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of George Blake Grinnell, a businessman, and Helen Alvord Lansing. Grinnell grew up in an upper-class home and lived in several locations in his earliest years: Brooklyn, lower Manhattan, and Weehawken, New Jersey. In 1857 the family moved to “Audubon Park,” the former estate of artist-naturalist John James Audubon on still-rural upper Manhattan. There, Grinnell’s first teacher was Audubon’s widow, Lucy Bakewell, who helped to develop his affinity for nature.

In 1866 Grinnell’s father sent him, against his will, to Yale. A poor student, he barely graduated with an A.B. in 1870. In that same year, Yale paleontologist Othniel C. Marsh accepted him as a volunteer assistant on a “bone hunting” expedition that would travel west over the recently completed tracks of the transcontinental railroad, eventually reaching the Pacific coast. During the trip, he became acquainted with such figures as William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody and the leader of the Pawnee Indian scouts, Frank J. North. His lifelong romance with the West had begun.

He returned to Yale in 1874 to assist Marsh at the Peabody Museum and to pursue graduate studies. Also in 1874, as a naturalist, he traveled with George Armstrong Custer’s reconnaissance to the Black Hills of the Dakotas, and the following year he joined William Ludlow, an army engineer, on his survey of the Yellowstone region, preparing zoological reports for the expedition. In 1876 Grinnell became natural history editor of the hunting-and-fishing weekly Forest and Stream. In 1880 he submitted a dissertation entitled “The Osteology of Geococcyx californianus” (roadrunner) at Yale and was awarded the Ph.D. Deciding not to pursue a scientific career, he acquired control of Forest and Stream and assumed the position of editor in chief.

Although Grinnell continued to live in the New York City area, he tried to spend a portion of each year in the West. Starting in 1885, he made regular trips to hunt and climb in the St. Mary Lakes region of northwestern Montana, where he discovered the ice mass later designated as Grinnell Glacier and named much of the prominent topography in what became the eastern portion of Glacier National Park. In 1899 he went with the Edward H. Harriman expedition to Alaska, compiling data on the salmon industry and on Alaskan natives.

Grinnell also edited (with Theodore Roosevelt and others) a series of books containing articles by members of the Boone and Crockett Club, an exclusive sportsmen’s organization, on hunting, natural history, and conservation. His American Duck Shooting (1901) and American Game-Bird Shooting (1910), written for “the higher class of sportsman-naturalist,” became classics. He also appealed to young readers, publishing seven novels in the so-called “Jack” series between 1899 and 1913—examples being Jack the Young Ranchman (1899) and Jack among the Indians (1900)—which were based on his own (or friends’) experiences. In the same vein were his historical studies, Trails of the Pathfinders (1911) and Beyond the Old Frontier (1913).

Becoming increasingly interested in Plains Indians, he made summer trips to reservations and patiently recorded Native American history and culture. In 1895 President Grover Cleveland, aware of Grinnell’s knowledge of Native American customs, had sent him as a special commissioner to help obtain a treaty with the Blackfoot and Fort Belknap Indians. Later, as President Roosevelt’s personal emissary, he negotiated a land controversy on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. Over time, the number of his publications on Plains Indians steadily increased. In addition to articles in the American Anthropologist and the Journal of American Folklore, his collections of myths appeared in Pawnee Hero Stories and Folk Tales (1889), Blackfoot Lodge Tales (1892), The Punishment of the Stingy and Other Indian Stories (1901), and By Cheyenne Campfires (1926). The Fighting Cheyennes (1915) focuses on the clash between Native Americans and Euro-Americans, while The Cheyenne Indians (1923), his major monograph, is devoted primarily to cultural description. Scholars have criticized Grinnell for the “patronizing air” in his ethnographic writings, even in the 1923 work, but anthropologist Ruth L. Bunzel contended in 1960 that no book on any other tribe “comes closer to their everyday life than Grinnell’s classic monograph on the Cheyenne” (Mead and Bunzel, p. 114).

Although best known for his publications on Plains Indians, Grinnell made his greatest impact on American history in the conservation of natural resources. As editor of Forest and Stream, he called attention to the rising dissatisfaction among sportsmen over the destruction of wildlife and channeled it into a crusade to husband both wildlife and habitat. He used his journal to launch successful campaigns to protect (and define) Yellowstone National Park, to end commercial hunting, to force the federal government to adopt European methods of scientific forestry, and to grant the president of the United States the right to set aside forest reserves. In an article in the September 1901 issue of Century Magazine, he initiated a campaign that ultimately resulted in the establishment by Congress of Glacier National Park in 1910. During these years, Theodore Roosevelt, a close friend, came to incorporate Grinnell’s views into his own conservation philosophy. The New York Times, in listing Grinnell’s accomplishments, later referred to him as the “father of American conservation.”

Grinnell retired as editor of Forest and Stream in 1911 but otherwise remained active in environmental affairs. Earlier, he had founded the first Audubon Society group (1886) and cofounded the Boone and Crockett Club (1887); in 1911 he helped organize the American Game Association. He served as a director of the National Association of Audubon Societies; chaired the Council on National Parks, Forests, and Wildlife; and in 1925 succeeded Herbert Hoover as president of the National Parks Association.

By 1929, when he was struck down by the first of a series of heart attacks, Grinnell had played a significant role in most of the environmental campaigns of his day. He died of pneumonia at his New York City home. He was survived by his wife, the former Elizabeth Kirby Curtis Williams, whom he had married in 1902; they did not have children. Grinnell was representative of an elite group of educated easterners who went west when huge bison herds and native cultures remained intact on the plains. His writings as a naturalist and ethnographer are important legacies, for much of what he saw and heard soon vanished forever. Grinnell helped awaken the nation to the beauty and significance of the West, and he lived long enough to see his preservation efforts fulfilled.


Grinnell’s papers are in Yale University and the Southwest Museum Library, Los Angeles. His early life and western expeditions are covered in John F. Reiger, ed., The Passing of the Great West: Selected Papers of George Bird Grinnell (1972), supplemented by Reiger, ed., “With Grinnell and Custer in the Black Hills,” Discovery 20 (1987): 16–21. The first book-length work that traces his entire life, and provides a good bibliography, is Cynthia Parsons, George Bird Grinnell: A Biographical Sketch (1992).

For Grinnell’s conservation efforts to 1901, see Reiger, American Sportsmen and the Origins of Conservation (1975), and after 1901, James B. Trefethen, Crusade for Wildlife: Highlights in Conservation Progress (1961), and Stephen Fox, John Muir and His Legacy: The American Conservation Movement (1981). His campaign to preserve the St. Mary Lakes region of Montana is discussed in depth in Gerald A. Diettert, Grinnell’s Glacier: George Bird Grinnell and Glacier National Park (1992).

Other major ethnographic works by Grinnell are The Story of the Indian (1895), The Indians of Today (1900), and When Buffalo Ran (1920). Historical studies include “Bent’s Old Fort and Its Builders,” Kansas State Historical Society, Collections 15 (1923): 128–91, and Two Great Scouts and Their Pawnee Battalion: The Experiences of Frank J. North and Luther H. North … (1928).

For analyses of Grinnell’s ethnographic contributions, see Margaret Mead and Ruth L. Bunzel, eds., The Golden Age of American Anthropology (1960); Omer C. Stewart’s foreword in the 1962 reprinting of Grinnell’s By Cheyenne Campfires (1926); and Jarold Ramsey’s introduction in the 1982 reprinting of Grinnell’s Punishment of the Stingy and Other Indian Stories (1901). See also Andrew Giarelli, “An Indian Understanding of the Nature of Things: One Man’s Education in the Field,” Yale Alumni Magazine 45 (1982): 18–22, and Richard Levine, “Indians, Conservation, and George Bird Grinnell,” American Studies 28 (1987): 41–55.

Detailed, unsigned obituaries of Grinnell can be found in the New York Times and New York Herald Tribune, both 12 Apr. 1938. Other useful obituaries are by John P. Holman in the Journal of Mammalogy 19 (1938): 397–99, and Albert K. Fisher in The Auk 56 (1939): 1–12.