From The Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania
By John C. French
Their Prehistoric Environment
Results and Examples of Conjecture, Investigation and Imagination
Among the earliest legends of the human race, there survive frequent references to doves and pigeons. Noah sent forth an inquiry concerning the state of the world, before his ark rested upon the peak of Armenia’s highest mountain. The descendants of Cush, son of Nimrod, the Hamite, carried into Mesopotamia the memories of the splendid bird of Bactriana, in their forms of worshipping the deity they revered; and the Assyrian queen, of the race of Cushites, expelled the Babylonia the race of Shemites, ruled by Joktan’s dynasty in Arabia; for which glorious proceeding the happy people of her prosperous domain consecrated the pigeon, as her beneficent representative, and throughout Chaldea and the rich Mesopotamia plain the dove, or pigeon, became sacred to Semiramis, their queen. At an earlier date Menes, a Cushite, or redman, led his migration to Egypt and founded the dynasty on the Nile that remained forty-five centuries, until the “vile race of Cushites” was expelled from the whole land, in 527 B.C., and to them a pigeon represented Athor, daughter of the sun.
Primitive men, no doubt, developed faculties of conjecture, imagination and investigation; they conceived of Time as an unbounded duration, without beginning and without end, and they name it Zervane Akerene, and other names, in their spoken languages, to denote an attribute of deity. By imagination we might behold a planet in evolution, as moving picture from a film upon which scenes have been recorded. The science of geology reads the records of past ages from rock-films as they were written and preserved. From remote points of the universe, the rays of reflected light from our planet are now beheld by the omniscient eye, as though the scenes they reveal were now being enacted upon the earth – a veritable picture of the past ages, showing past scenes in panorama, as the same rays of reflected light revealed them to the finite eye, at close range, in the long ago. So we are enabled to reconstruct some of them, imperfectly, by imagination, from what investigation has revealed in the exposed strata of earth-film.
In like manner, we may conceive that all the experiences of finite senses may be revealed to the omnipotent senses of infinite personality, as the sounds, perfumes, flavors and sensations of the prehistoric forests radiated from the earth to traverse the boundless spaces around us. The pigeon tribes were in America, we have been told by the great geologists, at a remote period, when the forests were young, after the carboniferous period, when the great araucarian pine forests spread out over this continent. The araucarians are extinct now, except a few in South America, and only two varieties of the sequoias remain in North America, restricted to California. They were the first families of our great forests and left records upon the Triassic rocks, before the existing mountain chains were upheaved from the Tertiary plains. Changes of climate eliminated many families of the trees, and finally the deciduous forms were evolved.
This is merely an academic illustration, in an effort to explain the manner in which the changes upon the earth occur; to give the reason for disappearing races of animals and birds; because of their food supplies are affected, as a family of trees or plants declines and new forms are born. There are such changes, progressing toward consummation, all around us all the time; but many are not observed in time to help reform the conditions, in order to preserve a useful species. My father often preached protection for grouse, pigeons and many other birds. He taught his sons the virtue of leaving them undisturbed at the nesting season, arguing, as the red-men did, that they were entitled to peace, quiet and protection from their enemies, at that time. From the great changes we have witnessed and the history of ages gone, so briefly referred to above, may we not conjecture that the creative force still dominates the earth?
During my youthful years, I was familiar with the passenger pigeons and their nesting cities in McKean and Potter counties, in Pennsylvania. When they returned, in the spring of 1886, I saw many scouting flocks and, upon hearing that they were gathering along Pine Creek and the Kettle Creek tributaries, I went to observe them and make a careful investigation. From Coudersport I drove over the hills, before dawn of day, and reached the forest they had selected, about 8 o’clock on the morning of their disappearance. There was not a live bird to be seen, along my route of thirty miles; but young men were coming from the woods with bags full of dead birds. Many of them were lumberjacks, with high, spiked shoes on their feet; gray trousers, with legs chopped off at the knees, tucked into high-topped socks; mackinaw coasts of bright red and brown, and gray, in large checks; silken scarfs around their necks and high hats, of the vintage of 1851, in the Knox pattern that was known as the Jenny Lind.
The men explained their regalia by saying they had been out “sporting for pigeons with the big-bugs and tried to dress up some!” The old store at Oleona had been purchased by the timber firm and the attic emptied of such venerable relics of the long ago, when Ole Bornemann Bull, of Norway, violinist, had founded a Scandinavian colony in that forest, in 1852; and the reminder of the “Swedish Nighingale” had been purchased by the romantic enthusiast, Ole Bull, to supply the demand for silk hats in the Potter County forest. They had been stored in the attic for a generation; but at last, they graced a most disgraceful occasion. A thrifty clerk had found the hats and sold them to the teamsters, log cutters and bark-peelers, for a dollar each, to decorate the festal holiday at the pigeon city. In 1850, the great showman, P.T. Barnum, staged, at Castle Garden, New York, a reception to the celebrated prima donna, the proceeds of the first concert being donated to the public charities, after her custom. Mr. Barnum, however, realized handsomely by selling to the highest bidder, in various manufactures, exclusive rights for making a style, to bear the name “Jenny Lind.” Mr. Knox paid $5,000 for the hat privilege, and ole bought $500 worth of the beautiful hats for his Oleona store, opened in 1852. The last of them were sold in 1886 at a farewell scene for the Passenger Pigeons. That is an example of what investigation revealed.
During the month of March, 1892, I camped in the forests of eastern Oklahoma, looking for some walnut timber for export to Liverpool, England, from which to manufacture gunstocks. My guide was the dignified Osage Indian, John Aurochs, sometimes called, in lighter vein, “Johnny Redox.” I told the Indian the story of the pigeons, the men, the hats, and of the “Swedish Nightingale” and Ole Bull, inquiring if there had been any pigeons seen in the Indian country since the spring of 1886. He said that he had seen only a few pigeons during five years, and that the Osages then revered the Red-bird, the Texas Cardinal, as their celestial patron, because the passenger pigeons returned to them no more, as they formerly did at their early nesting period. Then he became quiet and thoughtful, gazing into the camp-fire for a long time, after I had “rolled up” in my blanket to enjoy a long cool night of sleep. After breakfast next morning, he was as cheerful as usual and asked many questions about the hats and coats the lumberjacks had worn, when the pigeons fled from Pennsylvania.
At our camp-fire that night, he confided to me his great, secret belief; that the pigeons would never return; that they had abdicated in favor of the Red-birds – the Nightingales of America. That the Cardinal wears a high hat, as the men did; and red and brown and grey coats; and they sing sweetly, as did the Swedish lady. Their flute-like notes are like the ones Ole Bull once charmed Oleona forest with, on his violin. The scientists will shake their heads, saying, “Conjecture!” To me, it was a good example of splendid imagination.