Nelson, Edward William, 1855-1934

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Biographical History

Described by Theodore Roosevelt as ". . . one of the keenest naturalists we have ever had . . .," Edward William Nelson was born in Manchester, New Hampshire. He developed an interest in the outdoors around his boyhood home in New England, and in Chicago where his family moved in 1868. Shortly after enrolling in Cooke County Normal School in 1872, Nelson was invited to join Edward Drinker Cope and Samuel Garman on a fossil collecting trip to the Badlands of Wyoming. After returning to Chicago, his interest in natural history continued to grow as he became acquainted with Joel Asaph Allen, Robert Ridgway, Stephen A. Forbes, Henry W. Henshaw and others. In the winter of 1876, Nelson traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet Spencer F. Baird, Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and enlist his help in securing a position as a field naturalist. Through Baird's influence, Nelson traveled to Alaska as a weather observer in the Signal Corps of the United States Army in April 1877. From June 1877 to June 1881, he was stationed at St. Michael on the Bering Sea coast of Alaska with a charge to ". . . secure an unbroken series of meteorological observations, and, in addition, to obtain all the information possible concerning the geography, ethnology, and zoology of the surrounding region." Nelson made several dog-sled excursions around the region, compiling data on the lives and customs of the native people, and making ethnological and natural history collections for the Smithsonian. The results of his work were published in "Report upon Natural History Collections Made in Alaska between the Years 1877-1881," 1887, and "The Eskimo about Bering Strait," 1900. In June 1881, he accompanied the revenue steamer Corwin on its search for the missing arctic ship Jeannette. The expedition was the first to reach and explore Wrangell Island. Nelson spent most of the period from 1882 until 1890 in Arizona recovering from pulmonary tuberculosis contracted in Washington, D.C., while preparing his report on the birds of Alaska. In 1890, he accepted an appointment as a Special Field Agent with the Death Valley Expedition under C. Hart Merriam, Chief of the Division of Ornithology and Mammalogy, United States Department of Agriculture. This was the start of a career with the Division and its successor, the Bureau of Biological Survey, that would continue until 1929. In January 1892, Nelson received orders to conduct a three-month field survey in Mexico with Edward Alphonso Goldman, whom he had recently hired as an assistant. The trip evolved into an exhaustive, fourteen-year biological investigation of the entire country. After concluding the Mexico work, Nelson's duties with the Bureau of Biological Survey gradually shifted from scientific to administrative. He was Chief Field Naturalist, 1907-1912; Assistant in charge of Biological Investigations, 1913-1914; Assistant Chief, 1914-1916; Chief, 1916-1927; and Senior Biologist, 1927-1929. Nelson was also an honorary Research Associate of the Smithsonian Institution from 1930 until his death. During the decade in which he led the Biological Survey, Nelson was actively involved in most of the major conservation issues of the era. He helped negotiate the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1916 with Great Britain and was an enthusiastic supporter of the Public Shooting Grounds-Game Refuge Bill, the Alaska Game Law Bill, and the Migratory Bird Conservation Act. He was also instrumental in developing policies to improve conditions of domestic reindeer herds in Alaska, and the promoting of bird-banding as a method of ornithological research. In the field, Nelson was an all-round naturalist, observing and collecting most things that he encountered. He was a prolific author, and his bibliography included over two hundred titles, mostly concerning birds and mammals. Over one hundred animals and plants were named in his honor. Nelson Island and Nelson Lagoon, along the coast of the Bering Sea, and Nelson Range, a short mountain range in California, also bear his name. Nelson was President of the American Ornithologists' Union, 1908-1909, the Biological Society of Washington, 1912-1913, and the American Society of Mammalogists, 1920-1923. He received an honorary M.A. from Yale University in 1920, and an honorary Doctor of Science from the George Washington University in the same year. Nelson was involved with the Goldman family in the operation of fruit orchards in California and Arizona. He was a co-owner and director of the Nelson-Goldman Orchard Company, 1911-1934, and the Arizona Orchard Company, 1921-1923. For more detailed biographical information on Nelson, see Edward Alphonso Goldman, "Edward William Nelson - Naturalist," The Auk, April 1935, vol. 52, no. 2; Margaret Lantis, "Edward William Nelson," Anthropological Papers of the University of Alaska, December 1954, vol. 3, no. 1; and William W. Fitzhugh and Susan A. Kaplan, Inua. Spirit World of the Bering Sea Eskimo, (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982).

Related entities

  • Goldman, Edward Alphonso, 1873-1946: Colleague
  • Sheldon, Charles, 1867-1928: Friend and colleague
  • Joseph Nelson Rose Botanical Explorations in Ecuador: Nelson participated in this expedition

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