Glacier Centennial: George Bird Grinnell

“Far away in Montana, hidden from view by clustering mountain-peaks, lies an unmapped northwestern corner- the Crown of the Continent. The water from the crusted snowdrift which caps the peak of a lofty mountain there trickles into tiny rills, which hurry along north, south, east and west, and growing to rivers, at last pour their currents into three seas. From this mountain-peak the Pacific and the Arctic oceans and the Gulf of Mexico receive each its tribute. Here is a land of striking scenery.” — George Bird Grinnell, “The Crown of the Continent” in The Century Magazine, 1901

Fish and Wilflife Service Archive Photo
Dr. George Bird Grinnell (1849 – 1938) was a hunter, anthropologist, naturalist, publisher, Audubon Society founder, and Indian rights advocate who has been called the Father of Glacier National Park and the Father of American Conservation. While he specialized in studies of the plains Indians, visitors to Glacier National Park during this centennial year will hear of his association with the Crown of the Continent and will see his name linked to a lake, mountain, point and glacier in the Swiftcurrent Valley.

When George was seven, the Grinnell family moved into Manhattan’s Audubon Park neighborhood, the estate of John James Audubon (1785-1851) managed by the ornithologist’s widow Lucy. George was fascinated by the specimens of birds stored in the barn and was lucky enough to become one of the children tutored by Madam Audubon.

In his 1939 tribute to Grinnell in “The Auk – A Quarterly Journal of Ornithology,” Albert Fisher wrote that “Madam Audubon gave Grinnell his first conscious lesson about birds. One of his early recollections was being called from the breakfast table one morning to look at a large flock of Passenger Pigeons that was feeding in a dogwood tree twenty-five or thirty feet from the house. There were so many of the birds that all could not alight in it, and many kept fluttering about while others fed on the ground, eating berries knocked off by those above.”

Speculating about the workings of fortune and fate, one can only wonder how the future of conservation and Montana’s Rocky Mountains were impacted by the pivotal moment encompassed by pigeons and a dogwood.

Also pivotal in Grinnell’s life were his volunteer experiences at 21 on a paleontology expedition to Nebraska. In his 2004 article in Bugle Magazine “George Bird Grinnell: The Father of American Conservation,” Shane Mahoney wrote: “His writings from this time also reflect his deep love of the hunt and his capacity to appreciate the sheer beauty and grandeur of wild and unspoiled lands. His memories of fireside gatherings after a vigorous day afield are testimony to his love of the land and the cultures of men who made it their obsession and home. While his keen scientific eye was always turned to gathering new insights, his soul and heart were expanding in the western frontier, beginning to form in him a fevered commitment to the preservation of wildlife and the hunt.”

Grinnell served as a naturalist on an 1874 Black Hills expedition led by General Custer and on an 1875 expedition to Yellowstone. He found himself drawn west not only as a hunter of big game, but as a man impressed by the natural wonders he saw and by the lives and stories of the Pawnee, Blackfeet and other tribes he encountered and befriended. President Grover Cleveland would later appoint Grinnell as a commissioner to liaison with the Blackfeet and the Belknap Indians.

Grinnell’s articles about his experiences began appearing in “Forest and Stream,” a magazine he would later edit and then publish. He wrote not only of hunting but of the need to curtail the wholesale slaughter of animals for market purposes. His report of conditions in Yellowstone showed that game and timber were being stolen away by commercial interests.

As Mahoney noted, “Grinnell returned from the [Yellowstone] expedition determined to provide better protection for the park and to set before the American people a platform of discussion regarding just what a national park should represent. In so doing he was to lay the foundation for the national park system we have today.”

Century Magazine Sketch
Grinnell coined the phrase “Crown of the Continent” in his 1901 article in The Century Magazine. He included a sketch of the area that would ultimately bear a very close resemblance to the park that would be created nine years later. Luckily, the geologists and promoters who swarmed through mountains seeking gold, copper and oil found no viable deposits.

While Grinnell, with his high-level contacts and his reputation as an advocate for conservation, had been pushing for protected status for the Montana mountains for almost 20 years, he would say later that the Great Northern Railroad deserved most of the credit. Taking little or no credit for his accomplishments was a long-time Grinnell attitude that, even now, causes him to be overlooked in many assessments of early conservation activities.

At the time, Grinnell spoke to “Empire Builder” James J. Hill of the Great Northern about the benefits of a park. Hill, whose views leaned more toward the kind of playground the railroad might develop there than toward conservation, pressured Montana’s Congressional delegation to support the park. Ultimately, the legislation passed with little debate, and President Taft signed the legislation in May, 1910.

According to historian C. W. Buchholtz in Man in Glacier, George Bird Grinnell wrote that “the people of the Great Northern were entirely responsible for the creation of Glacier. In 1929, Grinnell stated: ‘Important men in control of the Great Northern Rail road were made to see the possibilities of the region and after nearly twenty years of effort, a bill setting aside the park was passed.'” In the years that followed, Grinnell would wonder if Glacier Park was truly safe, for he saw more commercialization there than he thought was proper.

Without the railroad as the final powerful catalyst, Glacier National Park might never have been created; the railroad saw a tourist destination where the natural resources could be managed and used. Grinnell had greater vision, one developed over the long term and one that has sustained us well for the last 100 years.

Copyright (c) 2010 by Malcolm R. Campbell, author of “The Sun Singer,” a mythic adventure novel set in Glacier National Park.

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4 thoughts on “Glacier Centennial: George Bird Grinnell

  1. Thank you, Smoky. There’s so much out there about Grinnell–so many facets–that containing it all within a reasonable post is interesting. He was, by the way, also invited to go along on Custer’s expedition that ended up less optimally at the Little Big Horn. Fortunately, he declined.


  2. Pingback: Glacier Centennial: James Willard Schultz « Malcolm's Round Table

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