System, Model & Legacy

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone,
"it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master – that's all."

– Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland


deer highway sign

In 1815 the American naturalist William Guthrie commented on the current status of the science of zoology: "The naturalists of Europe and America, with a commendable zeal, have directed their attention to the zoology of the western Hemisphere; and their labours in this interesting and useful branch of natural science have been rewarded with success. But still their nomenclatures of the Quadrupeds of North America are very imperfect."1 Thirteen years later the situation was not much better: "The writings of naturalists exhibit great confusion relative to the North American species of deer," John Godman complained in 1828.2 The reason for the confusion was simply that the sciences of zoology and wildlife biology were still in their infancy, and it would take several more generations of field exploration and laboratory study before the picture was in focus and the right names emerged. The instrument that would provide the structure for that work had been put in place in the middle of the 18th century.

Nature's System

The science of the orderly classification of all living and extinct organisms is called taxonomy – from the Greek words taxis (TAX-iss; "arrangement") and nomos (NO-mohss; "law"). It was initially formulated in 1735 by Carl Linnæus (1707-1778) of Sweden, in his Systema Naturæae, or "A General System of Nature." It comprised a hierarchical outline of descriptors extending between the most general and the most specific – kingdom, phylum or division, the class, order, family, genus, and species. Each one of those terms signifies one or more features, usually anatomical, that are common to the group it identifies, and species, the ultimate classification, embodies the qualities of each preceding classification, or taxon, to which it is said to belong. Each taxon's definition is agreed upon by scientists who are devoted to the detailed study of individual species. As Humpty Dumpty would say, each means what scientists choose it to mean, "neither more nor less." Many of the terms are drawn from Classical Latin, especially for generic and specific classifications, because, being a dead language, its definitions are universal and permanent, whereas Indo-European words are subject to variations in translation from one language to another, and from one generation to the next.

Linnæus revised his system during his own lifetime, and other scientists subsequently contributed new ideas to it. With the steady increase in scientific knowledge and understanding since then, enhanced by new analytical tools such as DNA, many aspects of today's taxonomies may tomorrow be expanded or replaced by radically new propositions, more or less tempered by disagreements between the "splitters" who emphasize differences and the "lumpers" who concentrate on similarities.

In contrast to formal zoological taxonomy, common names of animals seldom have anything to do with hidden hierarchical relationships among species, but are simply descriptive, are used in everyday discourse in specific regions or localities, and may change over time. Again, Humpty Dumpty's dictum applies. The common names Lewis and Clark used referred to clearly visible features such as shapes or colors, or resemblances to familiar species. These circumstances were the roots of the confusion in the captains' accounts of the deer they saw. They were trying to be "splitters," to identify, in Lewis's words, "distinct species," using only common names based either on their own prior knowledge, on features they could see, or on hearsay. Ultimately, they decided they had found three different deer species in addition to the one they knew back east, but they built from their observations and comparisons a lexicon of expressions such as "common deer," "mule deer," "fallow," "common fallow," "common fallow or long-tailed," "long-tailed," "black-tailed," "black-tailed or mule," "black-tailed fallow," "long-tailed red deer," and "common red deer."

No American president has been more interested in the sciences than was Thomas Jefferson, yet none has been more conservative in his attitude toward them. His personal library, which was to become the nucleus of the Library of Congress, contained most of the major scientific works then extant, including those of Linnæus, but his personal interest was basically utilitarian. Consequently, he regarded systems of nomenclature and classification as theoretical constructs that were vain and pointless. He deplored the efforts of the few who sought to improve the system already established by Carl Linnæus. One system was enough.3

Common names were better; they were plain talk. In his one and only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, for example, Jefferson listed three species of deer that were said to thrive in Virginia as well as in Europe: the "fallow deer," or "Diam" (French for dama, the Latin word for deer); the "roe" or Chevreuil (French for "roe deer"); and the "Red Deer" or "Cerf" (Cervus elaphus; sir-vus, meaning "stag" or "deer"; el-a-fuss, "large").4 Jefferson relied chiefly on studies of North American wildlife that had been carried out by European naturalists such as Mark Catesby, Peter Kalm, and Thomas Pennant. Kalm, for example, declared that "The thick forest of America contain numbers of stags; they do not seem to be a different species from the European stags."5 All three of Jefferson's deer were strictly European or Eurasian species; none were to be found anywhere in the Western Hemisphere.

This, then, was Lewis's model. It is thought that he included a reference work on taxonomy in the expedition's portable library,6 although there is little evidence that he studied it much. The copy of Owen's Dictionary he carried would have been of even less help.7 The only relevant entry is under "Cervus, the stag or deer-kind":

. . . in zoology, a genus of quadrupeds of the order of the pecora, the characters of which are, that they have deciduous horns, at first hairy, and afterwards naked and smooth; add to this, that there is only one dog-tooth on each side of the upper jaw, and that placed at a distance from the other teeth. Under this genus are comprehended the camelo-pardalis, the alce or elk, the rangifer or rein-deer, the capreolus, and the stag and fallow-deer. See the articles Camelo-pardalis, &c.
The cross-references are virtually dead ends, each being no more than a sentence in length. But then, Owen's Dictionary followed Linnæus's Systema Naturæ by only 20 years.

Even if Lewis had learned to place the new animals and plants he discovered into Linnaeus's system, he knew his commander-in-chief would not especially have appreciated any of those dry, pragmatically irrelevant Latin binomials. Common names – plain talk – would suffice. So, although his often extremely detailed descriptions of animals reflect his remarkable talent for thorough and precise observations, including important topics such as habitat and life-season, there are none among them that approach the scientific precision and objectivity of his quasi-Linnæan analysis of the salmonberry on April 8, 1806. Thus, as a zoologist Lewis was on the fringe of the 18th- and early 19th-century fraternity that included the poet-naturalist John Godman and John James Audubon – men who viewed plants and animals as integral parts of the human landscape. Their approach was to yield, by the end of Jefferson's life, to the first generation of professional scientists who focused on studiously objective technical descriptions and catalogues of orders, families, genera, and species.8

Lewis's Legacy

Publisher John Conrad's "Prospectus of Lewis and Clark's Tour to the Pacific Ocean through the Interior of the Continent of North America," issued in April 1807, announced that one of its proposed three volumes would be devoted "exclusively to scientific research, and principally to the natural history of those hitherto unknown regions." Most exciting of all would have been the promise that "every subject of natural history which is entirely new, and of which there are a consideral number, shall be accompanied by an appropriate engraving illustrative of it."9 Had the promise become reality, that volume might well have occupied a permanent place among the monuments of literature on American flora and fauna, such as Alexander Wilson's American Ornithology, and John James Audubon's Birds and Quadrupeds of North America, or perhaps even the first issue of National Geographic Magazine (1888). But it didn't.

Nicholas Biddle condensed all of of Lewis and Clark's descriptions of about 125 species of plants and animals into 56 pages of concise summaries. Twenty of those pages were devoted to quadrupeds, including one page containing a few original references to deer. "The deer are of three kinds," wrote Biddle: "the common red deer, the black-tailed fallow deer, and the mule-deer." Remarks on the first two were copied almost verbatim – except for two significant errors of Biddle's – from Lewis's manuscript journal entry for February 19, 1806; the third was condensed from Clark's entry for the twentieth.

1. The common red deer inhabit the rocky mountains, in the neighbourhood of the Chopunnish, and about the Columbia, and down the river as low as where the tide-water commences. They do not appear to differ essentially from those of the United States, being the same in shape, size, and appearance. The tail is, however, different, which is of an unusual length, far exceeding that of the common deer. Captain Lewis measured one, and found it to be seventeen inches long.

2. The black-tailed fallow deer are peculiar to this [Pacific] coast, and are a distinct species, partaking equally of the qualities of the mule and the common deer. Their ears are longer and their winter coat darker than those of the common deer. The receptacle [sic] of the eye more conspicuous, their legs shorter, their bodies thicker and larger. The tail is of the same length with that of the common deer, the hair on the under side white, and on its sides and top of a deep jetty black; the hams [Lewis: "horns," i.e., antlers] resemble in form and colour those of the mule [Lewis: "mule deer"], which it likewise resembles in its gait. The black-tailed deer never runs at full speed, but bounds with every foot from the ground at the same time, like the mule-deer. He sometimes inhabits the woodlands, but more often the prairies and open grounds. It may be generally said that he is of a size larger than the common deer, and less than the mule-deer. The flesh is seldom fat, and in flavour is far inferior to any other of the species.

3. The mule-deer inhabit both the seacoast and the plains of the Missouri, and likewise the borders of the Kooskooskee river, in the neighbourhood of the Rocky mountains. It is not known whether they exist in the interior of the great plains of the Columbia, or on the lower borders, near the mountains which pass the river above the great falls. The properties of this animal have already been noticed.10

Notwithstanding Biddle's unfortunate omissions (such as the long description of the mule deer, which will be taken up in a subsequent page), these summaries comprised all that zoologists knew of the expedition's discoveries about deer for the next 90 years. At best, they served as springboards to further studies aiming to fill in the apparently missing details, beginning with William Guthrie's New Geographical, Historical, and Commercial Grammar; and Present State of the Several Kingdoms [in the Linnæan sense] of the World, published in 1815, a year after Biddle's History appeared.

In the following pages we will get acquainted with several of the men who worked during the remainder of the first half of the 19th century to breed scientific sense out of the scant generalizations Nicholas Biddle had gleaned from the original journals. We will also introduce the work of a few of the zoologists who covered the ground that had been lost when Lewis abandoned his plan to publish a volume on natural science. We will try to thread our way through the murky jumble of makeshift, informal names of species that the Captains left behind, being aware that they were not authorized to publish official epithets. Finally, we shall examine some illustrations that subsequently illuminated verbal pictures with more or less lifelike imagery.11


1. William Guthrie (1708-1770), A New Geographical, Historical, and Commercial Grammar; and Present State of the Several Kingdoms of the World, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Johnson & Warner, 1815), 290.

2. John D. Godman, M.D. (1794-1830), American Natural History, 3 vols. (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Carey, 1828), 2:273-74.

3. John C. Greene, American Science in the Age of Jefferson (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1984), 27-36.

4. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, first American edition (Philadelphia, 1788), in Merrill D. Peterson, ed., The Portable Thomas Jefferson (New York: Penguin, 1975), 82-86. Cervus elaphus was once the binomial designation for the North American elk, which is now called Cervus canadensis – "of Canada " – to underscore its being native to this continent.

5. The italics are Kalm's. Peter Kalm (1699-1777), Travels into North America (London, T. Lowndes, 1770), 2:196. Thomas Pennant (1726-1798), History of Quadrupeds (London: B. White, 1781); Mark Catesby (1683-1749), The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (London: B. White, 1771).

6. Possibly An Illustration of the Sexual System of Linnæus, by John Miller, ed (1715-1790?). (London, 1779). See Stephen Dow Beckham, The Literature of the Lewis and Clark Expedition: A Bibliography and Essays (Portland, Oregon: Lewis & Clark College, 2003), 29, 41, 47-48.

7. A New and Complete Dictionary of Arts and Sciences; Comprehending All the Branches of Useful Knowledge . . . (London: Printed for W. Owen, 1755).

8. Greene, American Science, 318-19.

9. Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1783-1854, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 2:395-96.

10. Nicholas Biddle, ed., History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark, . . . 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1814), 2:176-77.

11. Recent treatments of the species discussed here can be found in standard reference works such as the following, one or more of which may be found in most public and academic libraries: Adrian Forsyth, Mammals of North America: Temperate and Arctic Regions (Buffalo, New York: Firefly Books Inc., 1999); Grzimek's Encyclopedia of Mammals 5 vols. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990); David Macdonald, The Encyclopedia of Mammals (New York: Facts on File, 1984); Leonard Lee Rue III, The Encyclopedia of Deer (Stillwater, Minnesota: Voyageur Press, Inc., 2003); John O. Whittaker, Jr., National Audubon Society Field Guide to Mammals, rev. ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996).

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