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GEORGE K. CHERRIE (1865-1942)

Born and raised in Iowa, Cherrie had a fairly typical Midwestern upbringing, full of work and religion.  He studied mechanical engineering, but, finding the subject and the resulting employment uncongenial, he moved to Rochester, New York, where he learned the basics of taxonomy and taxidermy at Ward’s Natural Science Establishment.  From there he wandered around the West Indies and then finally settled for a time in Costa Rica, where he became fluent in Spanish. His earliest published observations date from early 1889; he described himself as “Taxidermist and Ornithologist of the Costa Rica National Museum.” In 1892 he returned to the United States to become assistant curator of birds at the Field Museum in Chicago, but, he said, “Wanderlust again seized me. From 1897 to 1899 I did natural history collecting for Lord Rothschild’s Tring Museum and the British Museum.  The Brooklyn Museum then put me on its staff. From there I joined the staff of the American Museum [of Natural History]” (Cherrie 1930, 7). He claimed to have taken over 125,000 specimens on forty expeditions, mostly in South America. By the time he was selected to accompany Theodore Roosevelt on his famous “River of Doubt” expedition in 1913, he had to be called out of semi-retirement on his farm in Vermont.  He had already lived a life rich with experience, and as he put it, “Having just returned from my twenty-fifth trip to that country [South America], my enthusiasm did not break bounds” (Millard 2005, 36).

His autobiography, Dark Trails, is aptly titled, because his work could be dangerous, and Cherrie was not a man to be crossed. Sometimes his descriptions of adventures seem like something out of the Wild West. Once, he walked into a saloon ready to kill or be killed by an offended local as the other patrons backed out of the room. In that instance cooler heads prevailed, but another time he was grievously wounded in a gunfight (he killed his assailant), and one of the more harrowing sections of the book relates his nearly fatal struggle to find medical help for his wound. On another occasion he coldly shot a man for trying to steal his collecting equipment; the local authorities did not molest him, concluding the dead man was one who needed killing. (As reported in The Cloud Forest [New York, 1960], when Peter Matthiessen went to South America in 1959, things had not much changed in the interior of Brazil: Men were generally armed, justice was arbitrary, and the “wildowest” admired and emulated.) Cherrie also had a softer side, however, displayed in a generally sympathetic attitude toward indigenous people. And he retained the respect of his peers; Frank Chapman called him the “prince of tropical American bird collectors” and relied upon his skills when they were on expeditions together (Chapman 1933, 241).