Say's Mule Deer

Mule Deer

Peale's Lithograph

Peale's mule deer

American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia. 1144-235

This drawing, "Lithographed from Nature by T. R. Peale,"1 and labled "Cervus Macrotis ["large-eared"], Black-tailed or Mule Deere," appeared in the official report of Long's expedition of 1819-20.2 The buttes in the background suggest the region where this specimen was acquired—on the upper Arkansas River, probably in the Texas panhandle. The preorbital gland Lewis remarked upon is conspicuous. The "slingshot" forks of the antlers are the mule deer's signature.

Nicholas Biddle's 1814 paraphrase didn't include the 745-word description Lewis wrote on Friday, May 10, 1805, but the brief reference he accorded the discovery was sufficient to draw later zoologists' and illustrators' attention to this new species. The first scientific account was published in 1819 by Thomas Say.

The brownish spots on the page, called foxmarks, are discolorations frequently caused by fungal or chemical reactions in 18th- and early 19th-century papers.

Drawing from live models was the way Titian Peale preferred to work, but he resorted to dead specimens as an expedient when capture was impractical. In the case of the mule deer, however, he was compelled to accept a further compromise. With the encouragement of a cash bonus, one of the hunters finally brought in the carcass of a full-grown buck "possessing all the characters of the perfect animal"—one that would satisfy the requirements of a type specimen. But the entire 17-man party was on the verge of starvation in the game-scarce desert, and getting their teeth into the meat was urgent. So, while the rest of the party stood by impatiently, Titian Peale drew a working sketch by the light of the evening campfire, and Thomas Say wrote a few notes and took the measurements he needed. Then they surrendered the meat to the hungry, and preserved the hide and head to be taken back east, where it was to have been mounted in Charles Willson Peale's museum. There, unfortunately, another hangup developed, according to Say:

Since our return to Philadelphia, the following description of the animal has been drawn out from the dried skin, which, however, is so much injured by depredating insects, that it has not been judged proper to mount it entire. The head has therefore been separated from the remaining portion of the skin, and may be seen in the Philadelphia Museum, placed under the foot of a Prairie wolf, (Canis latrans. Say.) which has been well prepared by Mr. T. Peale.


Thomas Say (1784-1834)

by Charles Willson Peale (1818)

19th-century portrait of a young man

Oil on canvas, 23½ x 19½ in. Ewell Sale Steward Library. The Academy of Natural sciences of Philadelphia.

Say, who was self-educated in the field of taxonomy, devoted his studies principally to insects, in view of their importance to agriculture. Born in Philadelphia, at age 25 he was among the founders of the Academy of Natural Sciences in 1817. After traveling the off-shore islands of Georgia and Florida with several other members of the Academy to study mollusks, he was appointed zoologist for the federally funded expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1819-20, under the command of Major Stephen H. Long.

After spending the winter of 1819-20 in camp at Council Bluff, Long led a 23-member party overland to the Rockies in the area now in the state of Colorado, then southeast to explore the sources of the Arkansas and Canadian Rivers.

Say's description began:

Antlers slightly grooved, tuberculated [knoblike protuberances] at base, a small branch near the base, corresponding to the situation and direction of that of C. Virginianus [the "common deer" of Virginia]; the curvature of the anterior [forward] line of the antlers is similar in direction, but less in degree, to that of the same deer; near the middle of the entire length of the antlers, they bifurcate [divide] equally, and each of these processes again divides near the extremity, the anterior of these smaller processes being somewhat longer than the posterior one.

The ears are very long, extending to the principal bifurcation, about half the length of the whole antler; the lateral teeth are larger, in proportion to the intermediate teeth, than those of the C. Virginianus are; eyelashes black, the aperture beneath the eye is larger than that of the species just mentioned . . . ; the hair also is coarser and is undulated and compressed, like that of the elk (E. major.); the colour is light reddish-brown above; sides of the head, and hair on the fore portion of the nose above, dull cinerous: the back is intermixed with blackish-tipped hairs, which form a distinct line on the neck, near the head: the tail is of a pale reddish-cinerous3 colour, and the hair at the tip of the tail is black: the tip of the trunk of the tail is somewhat compressed, and is beneath almost destitute of hair; the hoofs are shorter and wider than those of the Virginianus, and more like the those of the Elk.

He proceeded to chart the shape and size of the antlers in more detail, then concluded:

This is probably the species mentioned by Lewis and Clark, vol. i. p. 77, under the name of Black-tailed deer, and more frequently, in other parts of the work, by that of Mule deer. It is, without doubt, a new species, not having been hitherto, introduced into the system.

The reference to Lewis and Clark's journals on the page cited by Say is, of course, to the 1814 paraphrase by Nicholas Biddle, where the sentence reads: "Our game this day consisted chiefly of deer, of which four were black-tails, one a buck with two main prongs of the horns on each side, and forked equally." The first reference to the mule deer in the original journals occurred on April 23, 1805, near Williston, North Dakota; on May 10 Lewis wrote a detailed description.


Black-tailed Deer (Mule deer)

Drawn from Nature by J. W. Audubon


Courtesy Special Collections and Archives, University of Idaho Library, SPEC QL715A9 1849

On Stone by Wm. E. Hitchcock; Lithograph Printed & Colored by J. T. Bowen, Philadelphia" Original size, 8 x 4 in.

A black-tailed (mule deer) doe, struggling to keep her head up, staggers through her last steps toward death, her flank dripping with blood from a through-and-through bullet badly aimed by a hunter (background, right). Her blood has risen in her throat and has already stained her lip. She bends her right ear to read the path ahead of her, and cocks her left one toward the witnesses to her tragedy—the artist and the viewer. In the background, framed by the parentheses of her legs, is her fore-ordained point of destiny, the campfire where the hunter and his companions will soon savor fresh venison.

The 20th-century doctrine of "fair chase" would have had her drop in her tracks in a "clean kill" such as we see on televised sportsmen's programs. Audubon's pictorial scene, however, dramatizes his empathy for a wild creature caught in the crossfire of civilization. More than any of his other paintings this one links him with the generation of Guthrie, Godman, Lewis, and Clark, whose zoological descriptions were often partly anecdotal.

John Bachman, who wrote the narratives for Audubon's paintings of quadrupeds, described the mule deer's geographical distribution, documenting the growth in zoologists' understanding of the new species as of the middle of the 19th century:

The Mule Deer range along the eastern sides of the Rocky Mountains, through a vast extent of the country; and according to LEWIS and CLARKE [sic] are the only species on the mountains in the vicinity of the first falls of the Columbia River [Celilo Falls]. Their highest northern range, according to Richardson, is the banks of the Saskatchewan, in about latitude 54°; they do not come to the eastward of longitude 105 in that parallel. He represents them as numerous on the Guamash [camas] flats, which border on the Kooskooskie River. We found it a little to the east of Fort Union on the Missouri River. It ranges north and south along the eastern sides of the Rocky Mountains, through many parallels of latitude until it reaches north-western Texas, where it has recently been killed.4

Lewis and Clark were still on naturalists' minds.


1. Titian Ramsay Peale (1799-1885), the youngest of the seven sons of Charles Willson Peale. C.W. Peale was the leading portraitist of the Revolutionary War era and the early republic.

2. Edwin James, comp., Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains Performed in the Years 1819 and 1820 by Order of the Hon. J. C. Calhoun, Secretary of War, Under the Command of Major Stephen H. Long (Philadelphia: Carey and Lea, 1823). See also Roger L. Nichols and Patrick L. Halley, Stephen Long and American Frontier Exploration (Norman: University of Oklahoma University Press, 1995), 101-35; Maxine Benson, ed., From Pittsburgh to the Rock Mountains: Major Stephen Long's Expedition 1819-1820 (Golden, CO: Fulcrum, Inc., 1988).

3. Properly cinereous, gray tinged with black.

4. John James Audubon and James Bachman, Quadrupeds of North America, 3 vols. (Philadelphia, 1849-54), 2:263.

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