Kennicott grew up in Northfield, Illinois, near Chicago. As a youth his health was fragile so he was not sent to school and was informally but well-educated. His father was a professional horticulturalist so the son's interest in nature developed at home. In 1852-3 the teenage Robert was sent to Cleveland. There he studied natural history with family friend Dr. Jared Kirtland (of warbler fame), probably the Midwest's leading naturalist in the 1850s. He learned botany and zoology and became an acute field observer. Dr. Kirtland, of course, knew Spencer Baird at the Smithsonian. Baird was the great museum man who collected collectors, they in turn sent their finds to the Smithsonian. Kirtland connected Kennicott to Baird via mail and the result was inevitable. During two successive winters from 1857-59, young Kennicott went to Washington where he worked for Baird at the Smithsonian, largely helping classify animals collected on the western frontier by Army personnel involved in railroad surveys. He became quite close to Baird's family and circle of young protégé naturalists.
Through Baird's connections, with Smithsonian backing and that of the newly founded Chicago Academy, Kennicott went into northern Canada to collect. He left Chicago in 1859. Baird's political connections got Kennicott his entrée to the Hudson's Bay Company and from there he tirelessly and successfully built his own collection of collectors. Baird himself slyly approved of his pupil's winning ways, at a time when liquor was used to preserve specimens. Hudson's Bay banned drink from their trading posts, but Baird noted:
Most importantly Kennicott became a close friend of Hudson's Bay's chief trader, Bernard Ross, himself an avid natural scientist. Ross wrote to Baird:
Before he returned to the United States in 1862 in the midst of the Civil War, Kennicott visited Hudson's Bay posts across northwestern Canada. He collected around the Great Slave Lake and in the valleys of the Mackenzie and Yukon Rivers, covering thousands of miles on foot and dogsled. During the long days of the brief Arctic summers he would often work collecting and preparing specimens until he dropped from fatigue.
One of Kennicott's journal entries from May, 1860, is especially poignant today: "Shot Numenius Borealis (Eskimo Curlew). The base of the bill is not yellowish in life, but brownish flesh color." It is unlikely that any of us will ever again see a living Eskimo Curlew to confirm his observation.
Back in the U.S. because of his father's ill health, Kennicott was dissuaded from joining the Army and so went back to work at Smithsonian. He also became curator of the Chicago Academy. The indoor life did not please him as he wrote to a friend at one of the Hudson's Bay posts:
So it was that Kennicott headed back north right after the Civil War. This time Baird sent him as lead scientist with a Western Union Telegraph survey party into Russian America. Along with him Baird took a team of energetic young scientists, including William Dall who would become a leading expert on Alaska's natural history. Kennicott himself suffered a second and fatal heart attack near Nulato, Alaska, dying at age 30 in 1866. His team's field reports gave Baird much information that was used to justify the American purchase of Alaska that was completed in 1869.
It was that Alaska expedition which collected a small owl near Sitka and sent the specimen back to the Chicago Academy. There it was examined by Daniel Elliott who recognized a new species naming it Otus kennicottii (Western Screech-owl): " I simply express the desire which I am sure is felt by all ornithologists, to render honor to him who, combining the intrepidity of the explorer with the enthusiasm of the naturalist twice penetrated the forbidding cheerless districts of the far north, in order to extend the knowledge of his favorite science."
From the specimens sent by Kennicott to the Smithsonian, teenager Elliott Coues (1842-99) in 1861 recognized a new sandpiper. He named it Calidris bairdii (Baird's Sandpiper) for his mentor.
It was John Cassin who finally gave the little white goose its place in science, after examining specimens sent to the Smithsonian by Bernard Ross with Kennicott's encouragement. Ross's letters to the Smithsonian had insisted that the little goose was a separate species. It was not until 1930 that another Hudson's Bay man found the first Ross's Goose nest.
The next time you hear the call of a Screech-owl or watch a line of Ross's Geese cross a wintry marsh, perhaps you can offer a silent salute to Robert Kennicott who loved our Arctic and noted the color of an Eskimo Curlew's beak.
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