Thomas Say's Coyote

Thomas Say's view of the "Prairie Wolf"

black silhouette of a howling coyote

Hear the coyotes howl:

It is instructive to compare Meriwether Lewis's description of the coyote with the definitive work done by Thomas Say (1787-1834). Lewis was primarily a soldier and explorer who incidentally was endowed with the experience and intellectual capacity that enabled him to function effectively as an amateur naturalist. Thomas Say, thirteen years younger than Lewis, was a professional scientist. Although self-taught, as was common in his day, he became a charter member of the Academy of Natural Sciences at the age of twenty-five. One of his two major achievements was the trail-breaking American Conchology, or Descriptions of the Shells of North America (Philadelphia, 1836). The other was American Entomology, or Descriptions of the Insects of North America (3 volumes, Philadelphia, 1824-1828), which held major importance for the future of both medicine and agriculture in the U.S. In 1819 Say was chosen as a member of one of Stephen Long's government-sponsored expeditions.1

The expedition commanded by Major Stephen S. Long in 1819-20 was initiated by John C. Calhoun (1782-1850), the secretary of war under James Monroe's administration (1817-25). It was conceived mainly as a means of consolidating American power and influence in the West in the face of continuing efforts of Great Britain to undermine the American fur trade. For that purpose an advance military contingent numbering about a thousand men set out up the Missouri in steamboats in 1818. Like Lewis and Clark's expedition, it was represented publicly as a scientific undertaking, and included a team of naturalists—a botanist, a geologist, and two artists. Titian Ramsay Peale, a son of the portraitist Charles Willson Peale, served as illustrator and assistant naturalist; Samuel Seymour was the landscape artist.2 The zoologist was Thomas Say.3

The scientists originally were expected to donate their services. All were encouraged to perform "in such a manner, as to add both to their own reputation and that of our country." To supplement those intangibles, each was eventually offered an honorarium of two dollars per day, a respectable sum in the context of the times. Unfortunately, the expedition fell considerably short of the achievements of Lewis and Clark, owing to a succession of misjudgments and misfortunes, plus a Congressional budget cut that reduced its duration and revised its objectives. The revised plan was to divide the expedition into two contingents in order to explore "the Missouri and its principal branches," including the Arkansas River, the Red River of the South (whose source Jefferson's Freeman-Custis excursion of 1806 had failed to reach), and the Mississippi above its confluence with the Missouri.

Major Long's original orders, issued by Calhoun, amounted to a one-page summary of those Jefferson sent to Lewis in June of 1803, and concluded: "The Instructions of Mr. Jefferson to Capt. Lewis, which are printed in his travels; will afford you many valuable suggestions, of which as far as applicable, you will avail yourself."

Say's studies of Indian ethnology were important accomplishments for his time. His contributions to the biological sciences during the expedition were the first definitive descriptions of eight passerine birds new to science, plus the swift fox, the mule deer, the timber wolf and Canis latrans.

Say conducted his study of the prairie wolf in September of 1819 at the expedition's winter encampment on the site of Lewis and Clark's Council Bluffs, fifteen miles up the Missouri River from the mouth of the Platte. He had the first edition of the Lewis and Clark journals in hand, which contained Biddle's edited version of Lewis's observations dated May 5, 1805.

Say's description of Canis latrans, together with the rest of his taxonomies, were published in 1823 as an annotation to the report compiled by Edwin James, who also served as a botanist and geologist for the expedition.4

Say's description

Canis latrans. Cinerous [gray-black] or gray, varied with black above, and dull fulvous [dull brownish-yellow], or cinnamon: hair at base dusky plumbeous [dull gray], in the middle of its length dull cinnamon, and at tip gray or black, longer on the vertebral line; ears erect, rounded at tip, cinnamon behind, the hair dark plumbeous at base, inside lined with gray hair; eyelids edged with black, superior eyelashes black beneath, and at tip above; supplemental lid margined with black-brown before, and edged with black brown behind; iris yellow; pupil black-blue; spot upon the lachrymal sac [tear duct] black-brown; rostrum [snout] cinnamon, tinctured with grayish on the nose; lips white, edged with black, three series of black seta [whiskers]; head between the ears intermixed with gray, and dull cinnamon, hairs dusky plumbeous at base; sides paler than the back, obsoletely fasciate [flattened] with black above the legs; legs cinnamon on the outer side, more distinct on the posterior hair: a dilated black abbreviated line on the anterior ones near the wrist; tail bushy, fusiform [tapering at both ends], straight, varied with gray and cinnamon, a spot near the base above, and tip black; the tip of the trunk of the tail, attains the tip of the os calcis, when the leg is extended; beneath white, immaculate, tail cinnamon towards the tip, tip black; posterior feet four toed, anterior five toed.

Feet Inches
Total Length, (excepting the hair at tip of tail) 3
Trunk of the tail 1 ½
Hind foot os calcis [heel bone] to tip of claw,  
Four [fore-]foot, elbow to tip of claw, 1 ¾
Ears from top of head,   4
Rostrum [snout] from anterior canthus [corner] of the eye  
Taken in a trap, baited with the body of a wild cat.
The line on the anterior side of the anterior feet, near the wrist, is wanting in a second specimen.
This species varies very much in size, another specimen measured in total length, excepting the hair at the tip of tail 3
Tail [excepting the hair at tip of tail]  
Ear, from top of head to tip   3 5/8
The snout was narrower than in the preceding specimens, but in colour similar

Another specimen was destitute of the cinnamon colour, excepting on the snout, where it was but slightly apparent; the general colour was, therefore, gray with an intermisture of black, in remote spots and lines, varying in position and figure with the direction of the hair.

The prairie wolves roam over the plains in considerable numbers, and during the night, the principal season of their hunts, they venture very near to the encampment of the traveler. They are by far the most numerous of our wolves, and often unite in packs for the purpose of chasing deer, which they very frequently succeed in running down, and killing. This, however, is an achievement attended with much difficulty to them, and in which the exertion of their utmost swiftness and cunning, are so often unavailing, that they are sometimes reduced to the necessity of eating wild plums, and other fruits, to them almost indigestible, in order to distend the stomach, and appease in a degree the cravings of hunger.

"Prairie wolf in distress"

by Titian Ramsay Peale (1819)

A small coyote howling at the sky

American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 1144-153.

The role that Major Long's two artists shared was to illustrate various scenes and situations in the expedition's written record. In this instance, as gruesome as it is, Peale captured one aspect of exploration and discovery at a more dramatic moment than was typically portrayed in a scientific depiction of an animal.

Their bark is much more distinctly like that of the domestic dog, than of any other animal; in fact the first two or three notes could not be distinguished from the bark of a small terrier, but these notes are succeeded by a lengthened scream.

The wonderful intelligence of this animal, is well worthy of note, and a few anecdotes respecting it may not be amiss. Mr. Peale constructed and tried various kinds of traps to take them, one of which was of the description called "a live trap," a shallow box reversed, and supported at one end, by the well known kind of trap sticks, usually called the "figure four," which elevated the front of the trap upwards of three feet above its slab flooring; the trap was about six feet long, and nearly the same in breadth and was plentifully baited with offal. Notwithstanding this arrangement, a wolf actually burrowed under the flooring, and pulled down the bait through the crevices of the floor; tracks of different sizes were observed about the trap. This procedure would seem to be the result of a faculty beyond mere instinct.

This trap proving useless, another was constructed in a different part of the country, formed like a large cage, but with a small entrance on the top, through which the animals might enter, but not return; this was equally unsuccessful; the wolves attempted in vain to get at the bait, as they would not enter by the rout prepared for them.

Peale's objective in attempting to trap a coyote was to acquire a live specimen for a model. Unfortunately, the only trap that worked was a deadfall, which killed the animal.

1. Patricia Tyson Stroud, Thomas Say, New World Naturalist (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992).

2. Samuel Seymour (1774-1823) accompanied the detachment of Long's expeditionary force that explored the upper Platte River. Two of his watercolors, "Distant View of the Rock Mountains," and "View of the Rocky Mountains on the Platte 30 Miles from their Base" (1820), which were included in the final report, were the first known images of the Rockies to be published. Little else remains of Seymour's total output.

3. Major Thomas Biddle, brother of Nicholas Biddle, was to serve as journalist for the expedition. Another member of Long's expedition was a nephew of William Clark, Major Benjamin O'Fallon, who had recently been appointed agent for Indian Affairs in the Missouri Territory. Traveling with the advance party, O'Fallon's responsibility was to pave the way for friendly receptions of the expeditionary force by Indian tribes along the Missouri, and ultimately to establish the new policy for Indian-American Trade: No British Allowed. Stroud, Thomas Say, 85-86.

4. Account of An Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains performed in the years 1819 and '20, by order of the Hon. J.C. Calhoun, sec'y of war: under the command of Major Stephen H. Long. From the notes of Major Long, Mr. T. Say, and other gentlemen of the exploring party. Comp. by Edwin James, botanist and geologist for the expedition. (2 vols., Philadelphia: H. C. Carey and I. Lea, 1822-23), 1:172. "Mr. Peale" was Rembrandt Peale, a son of artist Charles Willson Peale, of Philadelphia.

Funded in part by a grant from the Idaho Governor's Lewis and Clark Trail Committee