W. T. Hornaday Note about Bison Specimens

ID: MAH-44711

Creator: Unknown


Date: 1957

Citation: Smithsonian Institution Archives, Accession 11-006

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  • In 1957 this note was found in the base of an exhibit of American bison in the US National Museum/National Museum of Natural History when exhibits were being taken down as part of an Exhibits Modernization Program. The famed taxidermist, William Temple Hornaday, had prepared the display in the late 1880s for the National Museum, and it was considered a masterpiece of taxidermy. After over sixty years, the exhibit had lost some of its luster and was scheduled to be discarded. As the display was dismantled, the exhibits staff found a metal box which contained the magazine with Hornaday's note. On March 7, 1888, he had written the note on a copy of the October 1887 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine with his article, "The Passing of the Buffalo -- 1" about collecting the bison specimens in 1887. It reads: "To my illustrious successor: Dear Sir, Enclosed please find a brief and truthful account of the capture of the specimens which compose this group. The Old Bull, the young cow, and the yearling Calf you find here were killed by yours truly. When I am dust and ashes, I beg you to protect these specimens from deterioration and destruction. Of course they are crude productions in comparison with what you may produce, but you must remember at this time (A.D. 1888. March 7.), the American School of Taxidermy has only just been recognized. Therefore give the devil his due and revile not. Wm. T. Hornaday. Chief Taxidermist, U.S. National Museum."
  • In an oral history interview, taxidermist Watson Perrygo recalled that the note had given them pause, and they decided to send the specimens to the University of Montana at Missoula, rather than destroy them. Eventually they went off display in Montana until 1988 when wildlife biologist Douglas Coffman, intrigued by the story, set out to find them. They were scattered in basements and storehouses around the state but he found all six of them, secured funding to repair them, and the majestic group went back on display in 1990 at the Montana Agricultural Center and Museum in Fort Benton, Montana. After collecting and preparing the specimens for display, Hornaday had spent the remainder of his life as a passionate advocate for the conservation of native American species such as the American bison.


  • Hornaday, William Temple 1854-1937
  • National Museum of Natural History (U.S.)
  • United States National Museum
  • Exhibits Modernization Program United States National Museum


Historic Images of the Smithsonian


  • The issue of Cosmopolitan with Hornaday's note has not been found despite repeated searches. Fortunately, a photograph was taken of it, so a facsimile still exists.
  • See Douglas Coffman's book, Reflecting the Sublime: The Rebirth of an American Icon, Fort Benton, Montana: The River & Plains Society, 2013.
  • For images of the bison on display in the National Museum, see negatives NHB-5470 and MNH-4323 and 4475 and 2002-12153 and 2004-10370.

Contained within

Smithsonian Institution Archives, Accession 11-006

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20024-2520, SIHistory@si.edu



Restrictions & Rights

No restrictions


  • Taxidermy
  • Animals
  • American bison
  • Endangered ecosystems
  • Specimens
  • Exhibitions
  • Mammals
  • Buffaloes
  • Buffalo
  • Endangered species

ID Number


Physical description

Number of Images: 1; Color: Black and White; Size: 8w x 10h; Type of Image: Document; Medium: Photographic print

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