"We have heard it said that the Rocky Mountain Sheep
descend the steepest hills head foremost, and they may
thus come in contact with projecting rocks, or fall from
a height on their enormous horns." – John Bachman (1845)
The Other Sheep
Despite the priority of George Kearsley Shaw's description of the bighorn sheep, and his classification of it as Ovis canadensis, there was disagreement over the animal's proper scientific identity, and as the 19th century wore on, the picture steadily grew murkier. The few observations on the subject by Lewis and Clark that Nicholas Biddle included in his paraphrase of their journals only served to deepen the confusion.
In the description he edited from Lewis's Fort Clatsop journal for February 22, 1806, Biddle wrote:
Of course, Lewis was not referring to the bighorn sheep at all, but rather to the mountain goat. Nevertheless, Biddle's version of Lewis's description was convincing enough to mislead George Ord, a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, into naming it Ovis montana in his contribution on the new species to Guthrie's Geography in 1815.3 Moreover, Biddle had overlooked some small details Lewis provided in his journal entry for the same date, referring to this "sheep's" coat and horns.
Apparently Lepage was thinking of the bighorn sheep, not the mountain goat. Lewis added, "I should be much pleased at meeting with this animal," evidently meaning the mountain goat. In fact, they did see the next best thing, although it was not in the flesh, to be sure. On April 10, in a small village of Clahcleller Indians (a branch of the Watlala Chinookans) on the bank of the Columbia where the captains had stopped for breakfast, a resident offered them "a sheepskin for sail, than which nothing could have been more acceptable except the animal itself." What is more, Lewis recalled,
Unfortunately, the Indians sensed the Americans' eagerness to buy it and, aiming to bargain for a better price, "declared that they prized it too much to dispose of it." Those people, Lewis continued, "informed us that these sheep were found in great abundance on the hights and among the clifts of the adjacent mountains. and that they had lately killed these two from a herd of 36, at no great distance from their village." That partly explains the captains' description of the animal's habitat, since the village was a short distance below the Cascades of the Columbia; the "adjacent mountains" would have been the Cascade Range. The Clahclellers' hunters must have bagged it that spring, when mountain goats congregate in large groups at salt licks.
Two days later, on the twelfth of April, the captains gained further evidence from some congenial Jehuh Indians. They purchased another "sheepskin" from the man who had sold them one on the tenth, who assured them that those animals were "abundant among the mountains and usually resorted [to] the rocky parts."
John Godman: Sheep and Goat
The first naturalist to publish an honest admission of uncertainty over the respective identities of the wild sheep and goat of North America was John Davidson Godman (1794-1830), an anatomist, physiologist, physician, and naturalist whose three-volume American Natural History did much to answer Buffon's theory that the United States was bereft of new native species (fig. 18).
It is much to be regretted," Godman wrote, "that we are not better acquainted with the peculiar history of this animal drawn up by some one who has studied it in its native wilds,"
One imagines Godman would have been delighted and edified by Lewis's original description, if only he could have seen it. Godman continued:
Although Alexander Rider was one of the best known illustrator-artists in Philadelphia at the time, the "figure" he drew to accompany Godman's "diagnosis" is still, like Edward Savage's drawing for Mitchill (Fig. 6) and Frederick Nodder's for George Shaw (Fig.7), just another "ram's head on a deer's body." But what else could they do, deprived as they were of a flesh-and-blood model to work from?
Godman cited four prior references to argali by contemporary European naturalists. One had named it Ovis fera Sibiricae (Wild Sheep from Siberia). Another called it Ovis montana (sheep of the mountains); a third, Monflor d' Amerique. Shaw, according to Godman, called it Monflor argali in his fourteen-volume General Zoology (vol. 2, 1800-01); the obsolete generic name, Monflor, is of uncertain source and meaning, but it may once have referred to a Mediterranean subspecies.
His 515-word diagnosis contains brief but accurate descriptions of the species' habitats, the horns of males and females, and their summer and winter pelages. It includes McGillivray's measurements of the type specimen from which he wrote his notes in the field. Yet several questions remain that seemingly are unanswerable today. First, why didn't Godman know of George Shaw's 1804 binomial, and if he did know of it, why did he reject it? Second, on what grounds did he classify the bighorn sheep as an argali? Was he influenced by Thomas Jefferson's wild guess? Or was it his own shot in the dark?
The Mountain Goat Capra montana Ord (1816)
Now Oreamnos americanus
Drawing by Charles Lesueur (1778-1846)
Engraving by G. B. Ellis
Dr. Godman's Description
Audubon and Bachman: All in the Family
We have no truer mission here," chanted a pious New York critic in 1846, as if echoing Carl Linnaeus's epigraph, "than that of Commentators upon, and Illustrators of, God's first revelation to us–'the Bible of Nature!' and it would be very difficult to find a Family whose deeds and history more entirely illustrate their recognition of such an Apostleship. They may be called the Levites of a new order of Priesthood in the Temple of Nature!"9 The patriarchs of the family were the unsaintly John James Audubon, inernationally famous for his recent Birds of America (1840-44), and Dr. John Bachman, the Lutheran pastor and scholar who became Audubon's partner and the author of the texts that accompanied the paintings. The Audubon-Bachman familial connections were intimate. Audubon's two sons, John W. and Victor G., married Bachman's two daughters, Mary and Maria,10 and their Levitical destiny, as we shall soon see, was occasionally fulfilled by the narratives Bachman supplied to accompany the paintings.
Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep
I know no animal which encourages pursuit so much as this. In his flight he frequently turns back, and stares at the hunter with a kind of stupid curiosity, which is often fatal to him.
Ovis canadensis canadensis Shaw
Drawn from Nature by John James Audubon (1785-1851)
Lithographed and colored by J. T. Bowen, Philadelphia, 1845
Original size, 5-1/2 x 8 inches
Audubon and his party encountered a flock of nearly two dozen bighorn sheep near the mouth of the Yellowstone River on June 12, 1843, and had the same experience as the Corps of Discovery's Private Joe Field had in the same vicinity thirty-eight years earlier: "Notwithstanding all our anxious efforts to get within gun-shot, we were unable to do so."11
"The Rocky Mountain Sheep are gregarious," Audubon observed,
Bachman was right. Bighorn rams are not sheepish in the colloquial sense of timid or weak. Indeed, they fight more than any other ruminants, says biologist Valerious Geist.
As usual, Audubon's manneristic style emphasized the subcutaneous musculature of his subjects. He placed them in a realistic setting of the western landscape they inhabited, which was derived from pencil and watercolor sketches by a young assistant, Isaac Sprague. In this case Audubon placed the bighorns at the edge of a cliff high above a verdant mountain park, to suggest their alternate preferences. He enlivened the dead specimens that served as his models with physical beauty and bodily grace, and portrayed them in their typically alert, cautious reaction to the artist's approach. The ram's right front hoof is poised, perhaps to paw the ground in a characteristic expression of alarm; the ewe is braced for a leap toward refuge on some narrow rock shelf below.
Why was the preposterous Medieval legend about the purpose of those big horns (See Fig. 4.) still around in the 1840s? Perhaps, in the absence of more extensive observations of the animal's habits, it just seemed more reasonable than imaginary animal rage, frustration, or clumsiness. After all, a bighorn ram looks heavy in its forequarters, and the law of gravity would ordain that in a fall the head end would hit first, with that emergency landing gear bearing the brunt. Then there's that resonant thwock of hollow horns when pairs of fighting rams butt foreheads at a combined speed of perhaps forty miles per hour! It all still seemed to add up.
Some research during the 1960s seemed to suggest that horns in all bovids function as thermoregulatory organs, emitting body heat during exertion or in summer temperatures, and conserving it in winter, but it now appears more likely that the large horns probably evolved as symbols of rank and breeding success.12 Similarly, certain Indian tribes once recognized rams' horns as status symbols too. Lewis and Clark nicknamed the Nez Perce leader We-ar-koomt "the bighorn Cheif from the circumstance of his always wearing a horn of that animal suspended by a cord to [his] left arm."13
The bighorns that Audubon and Bachman – and Private Joe Field nearly forty years earlier – saw at the mouth of the Yellowstone were identified as a subspecies of O. c. in 1901 by zoologist C. Hart Merriam (1855-1942), who named it Ovis canadensis auduboni in the artist's honor. Audubon's sheep was extirpated from its native range, chiefly by overhunting, sometime between 1910 and 1925. However, mitochondrial DNA studies at the turn of the twenty-first century suggested that Audubon's bighorn was genetically identical to Ovis canadensis canadensis (Ovis canadensis Shaw).14
Sheep by the Dozen
A few of the nearer animals in this band of rams peer over the rumps of several heads-down grazers toward photographer Eric Kottmann, as if to estimate the degree of threat he might pose.
Bighorns are able to spot movements as much as 1,000 yards distant, but their vision is not good at resolving lines or shapes. If an intruder holds still they will stare at him for ten to twenty seconds, then either resume feeding or move away. They can smell a human 350 upwind yards away.15
These wild sheep were crossing a meadow on the lower eastern slope of Castle Reef Mountain west of Augusta, Montana, in mid-March, 1994. Lewis passed within sight of that mountain in late July of 1806 on his exploration of the shortcut between Travelers' Rest and White Bear Islands, but he didn't mention seeing any of this herd's ancestors.
Seasonally, as forage changes, bighorns migrate from precipitous rocky ridges and cliffs, or alpine meadows, to grassy valley floors, ranging perhaps 20 miles or more. When competitors challenge them, they nimbly retire to less accessible realms. Today their migratory habit accounts for the relatively high mortality rate from collisions with vehicles wherever their travel routes cross public highways.
For example, historically there has been a herd of bighorns numbering as many as 200 head that range across Montana Highway 200 near Thompson Falls, in the heart of the Northern Rockies. Each spring they descend from the nearby cliffs to graze on the green grass along the road's shoulders. In winter they congregate on the pavement to lick the salt-based mixture that maintenance crews use to de-ice the tortuous two-lane mountain highway. Their need for salt being greater than their fear of motor vehicles, they periodically stop traffic. Most traffic, that is. An average of more than 16 bighorns have been struck and killed every year since record keeping began in 1985. However, on the morning of November 10, 2007, the driver of a trailerless semi truck from Butte nominated himself for a Meanest-Man-of-the-Year trophy. He ignored the warning on the flashing readerboard sign at the east end of a straight stretch, and barreled at full highway speed through a herd of about 50 bighorns, some probably weighing upwards of 200 pounds. He killed at least seven instantly. More may have died later from injuries. Down the road a ways he stopped his blood-spattered truck at a state Fish, Wildlife and Parks hunter checkpoint to complain about the damage the sheep had done to the bumper, a headlight, and the right fender of his vehicle. He didn't seem to regret having raised the calendar year's kill-count from 18 to 25 within a space of about two seconds.16
Oreamnos americanus (Blainville)
Drawn from Nature by James Woodhouse Audubon (1812-1862)
lithographed and colored by J. T. Bowen, Philadelphia, 1847
Original size, 5-1/2 x 8 inches
So wrote Audubon's partner, The Reverend John Bachman (1790-1874), who provided much of the text for Quadrupeds of North America. He continued with a reverent meditation on the species:
During the next 50 years the natural sciences were gradually dissociated from such doctrinaire pronouncements.
In contrast with bighorns, mountain goats are resource defenders, remaining in one habitat the year around, usually in alpine or subalpine zones. That explains why Lewis and Clark didn't see any during the entire expedition, although they knew from Indian accounts that they were numerous in the Cascade Range, and they judged from the skins the Indians wore as clothing that the live animals were "of the size of our common sheep, and of a white color." Furthermore, they judged, "the wool is fine on many parts of the body, but in length not equal to that of our domestic sheep." Otherwise, they didn't have any reason to enter the alpine areas in the Bitterroot Mountains. "We have nevertheless," Lewis declared, "too many proofs to admit a doubt of their existence in considerable numbers on the mountains near the coast." 18
Mountain goats are not true goats of the genus Capra, but belong in the goat-antelope group, in a tribe called Rupicaprids, of the subfamily Caprinae in the order Artiodactyla (two-toed ruminants). They and their distant relatives, the bighorn sheep, evolved during the recent ice ages along with certain other species, such as the musk ox, that adapted to the extreme cold of the Arctic tundra and the precipitous margins of the ebb and flow of glaciers during the Pleistocene. For that reason, despite the obvious dissimilarities between their coats, their horns, their habitats, and their social habits (goat rams do not butt heads, but may inflict serious damage with their sharp horns), they "occupy the same mountains, endure similar weather, eat much the same food and escape from the same predators."19
Figure 26Nanny and Kid
Typically favoring rugged mountaintop terrain in the subalpine and alpine zones, especially where nearby cliffs provide safe havens for retreat from predators, this nanny and her kid were photographed on a sunny morning in early August at roughly 11,500 feet above mean sea level, in the Beartooth Mountains, a range that Clark would have observed from the banks of the Yellowstone River, but did not enter.20 This photograph underscores the main reason Lewis and Clark and their party never saw any live "fleecy goats." As challenging as their crossing of the Bitterroot Mountains was, they never had reason to pick their way through such inhospitable rock gardens as this, even though Indians had told them that there were "a great number of white buffaloe or mountain sheep [that is, mountain goats] of the snowey hights" of the Bitterroot Mountains.
1. Biddle erred; Lewis had written "particularly on the upper part of the neck." Lewis's description was based on samples of the skins he had first seen in the possession of Shoshone Indians in August of 1805.
2. Coues, History, 3:850-51.
3. Biddle-Allen, 2:170-71. William Guthrie, James Ferguson, and John Knox, A New Geographical, Historical and Commercial Grammar and Present State of the Several Kingdoms of the World, 2nd American ed., improved (Philadelphia: Johnson & Watner, 1815).
4. John D. Godman, American Natural History, 3 vols. (Philadelphia: H. C. Carey & I. Lea, 1826-38), 2:329-31. Godman married Charles Willson Peale's granddaughter Angelica. Many of the illustrations in Godman's American Natural History were based on mounted specimens to be seen in Peale's Museum. Rider's drawing was based on a sketch made by Titian Ramsay Peale during the Stephen Long expedition in 1819. Carolyn Gilman, Lewis and Clark Across the Divide (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2003), 174.
5. Born in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1794, John Davidson Godman was orphaned by age six when first his mother, then his father, and finally his appointed guardian, died. Thereafter he was raised by an older sister in Baltimore. As a youth, soon after he took an apprenticeship with a printer, he began to show symptoms of tuberculosis, the disease that would claim his life in 1830, at the age of thirty-six. He served in the U.S. Navy for a short time in 1814, then began the study of medicine at the University of Maryland, and even lectured on anatomy before graduating in 1818. Failing to receive an appointment to the faculty at his alma mater, he settled in Philadelphia and quickly established a reputation as a specialist in anatomy and physiology, which led to an invitation to join the faculty at the Medical College of Ohio as a professor of surgery. On the very day he left Philadelphia for Cincinnati he married Angelica Kauffman Peale, a daughter of Rembrandt Peale.
In 1821 Godman was appointed to the staff of Charles Willson Peale's Museum as a physiologist, along with zoologist Thomas Say and comparative anatomist Richard Harlan. At about that time his youthful fascination with nature seized all his energies and led him quickly to produce what one critic hailed as "the first work by a citizen which has any just claim to the title of an American Natural History." Godman, the critic continued, "must be admitted as the first who united the 'System' of Linnaeus, the charming anecdotal Biographies of Buffon, with the precise anatomical definitions of Cuvier." His illustrations, however, were considered of comparatively little value, the majority having been "copied from every direction, though Lesueur, a French Artist of some cleverness, did many for him."
During most of his short life Godman professed to be "an established infidel," which earned him the disdain of many orthodox Christians because, as one of his eulogists pointed out, he had succumbed to the aetheism of the leading eighteenth-century French naturalists, and thus was "guided alone in his investigations by perverted reason." In the winter of 1827 he experienced an epiphany at the deathbed of a friend, and embraced Christianity. Nevertheless, in his last scientific essays – in which he introduced the concept that would much later become known as "urban wilderness" – he hewed strictly to the objective scientific methods he had practiced all his life. Sources: Dictionary of American Biography; John D. Godman, Rambles of A Naturalist; with a Memoir of the Author (Philadelphia: Association of Friends, 1859), 18-19; Charles Wilkins Webber (1819-56), review of "Audubon's Quadrupeds of North America," The American Review, A Whig Journal of Politics, Literature, Art and Science, Vol. IV (December 1846), 625-38.
6. Stephen Harriman Long (1784-1864), an officer in the U.S. Army Engineers, was sent west in 1819 in command of an ill-fated military expedition to find the sources of the Platte, Arkansas, and Red rivers. It was he who called the Plains from Nebraska to Oklahoma the "Great American Desert." (Compare Clark's journal for May 26, 1805.)
7. Among the Shoshones, during late August of 1805.
8. Godman, American Natural History, 1:327-28.
9. Charles Wilkins Webber (1819-056), "Audubon's Quadrupeds of North America," The American Review, A Whig Journal of Politics, Literature, Art and Science, 4 (December 1846), 629.
10. Robert McCracken Peck, "Audubon, Bachman, and the Quadrupeds of North America – John James Audubon and the Reverend John Bachman, Environmentalists," Magazine Antiques, (November 2000).
11. Alice Ford, ed., Audubon's Animals: The Quadrupeds of North America (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1951), 300.
12. Geist, Mountain Sheep, 176-83.
13. Lewis, May 3, 1806.
14. J.J. Beecham, Jr., C.P. Collins, and T.D. Reynolds. (2007, February 12). "Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis): a technical conservation assessment." [Online]. USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Region. http://www.fs.fed.us/r2/projects/scp/assessments/rockymountainbighornshe.... Accessed June 21, 2007.
15. Geist, Mountain Sheep, 12-13.
16. Vince Devlin, "Bighorn Blockade," Missoulian.com, Friday, November 30, 2007.
17. Bachman has quoted two lines from "The Universal Prayer," by Alexander Pope (1688-1744). The most popular English poet of the eighteenth century, Pope is still remembered for his Essay on Criticism (1711), his mock-heroic epic The Rape of the Lock (1714), and his satiric The Dunciad (1728).
18. Biddle-Allen, 1:170.
19. David Macdonald, The Encyclopedia of Mammals (New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1995), 586.
20. See Clark's journal entries for July 15, 18, and 24, 1806.
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