The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1974, Volume 20, Number 2

Book Reviews
David J. Weber, Book Review Editor

A Soldier-scientist in the American Southwest, Being a Narrative of the Travels of Elliott Coues, Assistant Surgeon, U.S.A., with his Observations upon Natural History, 1864-1865. By Michael J. Brodhead. Tucson: The Arizona Historical Society, 1973. Illustrations. Map. Notes. 74 pages. Softbound. $4.75.

Reviewed by Robert W. Frazer, Professor of History, California State University, Long Beach, author of Forts of the West (1965) and New Mexico in 1850, a Military View (1968).


When Elliott Coues explained in 1864 that he had been ordered west to “shoot up the country between the Rio Grande and the Rio Colorado” he was referring to the fauna rather than to the Indians who were harassing so much of the area. Coues, who had been interested in birds since childhood, formed an association with the Smithsonian Institution and gained something of an international reputation as an ornithologist while he was a student at Columbian College. He entered the army as a medical cadet in 1862. Shortly before he was commissioned assistant surgeon in May, 1864, he was assigned to the Department of New Mexico, apparently as much to pursue his interests as naturalist as to perform his medical duties.

When Coues set out on his first western venture, he was still some months short of his twenty-second birthday. He traveled from Washington, D. C., to Fort Leavenworth by rail, then proceeded by mail coach over the mountain branch of the Santa Fe Trail to Santa Fe, arriving in mid-June, 1864. General James H. Carleton, commander of the department, assigned Coues to the newly established Fort Whipple, Arizona Territory, because its location in an area largely unstudied by the ornithologist made it “the most eligible spot for collecting.” Coues accompanied a detachment of three companies over the route laid out by Lieutenant Amiel W. Whipple in 1853, reaching his station on July 29.

Coues’ enthusiasm for gathering specimens, admittedly before conservation was a matter of concern, made notable inroads on the avifauna of the country through which he passed and took a lesser toll of mammals and reptiles. Most of the specimens were sent to the Smithsonian where Coues and his associates made use of them to write “groundbreaking monographs” in various branches of the natural sciences. Coues remained at Fort Whipple for fifteen months, but before half that time had expired he requested a transfer to the East, in part because of the absence of facilities for his scientific work. While he was stationed at Fort Whipple, he had the opportunity to visit forts Mojave and Yuma, and thus to gather examples of the bird life along the lower Colorado. His requested transfer finally approved, he left Fort Whipple in October, 1865, and traveled by army ambulance to Drum Barracks at Wilmington, California. Among the last specimens collected by Coues were some sanderlings which he shot in the surf of San Pedro Bay, mistaking them for snowy plover. He sailed from San Francisco on December 9, 1865, returning to the East Coast via Panama.

Professor Brodhead deserves more credit than he admits to for piecing together the story of Coues’ first western tour of duty. Although Coues kept a diary, its present location seems not to be known and he destroyed the manuscript which he had prepared on the natural history of Arizona, thus making it necessary to rely on his correspondence and his later writings. The inevitable gaps have been filled satisfactorily by the author. Emphasis is entirely upon Coues’ activities as a naturalist, obviously his own primary interest, and provides some indication of the difficulties and opportunities confronting the soldier-scientist in the still untamed Southwest. On the other hand, there is very little information about army activities, even though indian hostilities were rife throughout virtually all of the area involved in Coues’ tour and his medical duties must have usurped a significant part of his time. There is very little about the towns and villages through which he passed and found generally distasteful, little about the military posts he visited, little even about Fort Whipple. Largely ignored also are Indians and Spanish Americans, who were held in low esteem by Coues at this time.

Coues spent part of his later army career in the West, including service with the Hayden surveys from 1876 to 1880, and was again, “much to his disgust,” stationed in Arizona in 1880. He resigned from the army in 1881 to devote his time to scientific writing, Theosophy, and teaching anatomy. However, in the 1890’s his attitude toward the West underwent a complete reversal. In 1892, with his third wife, he visited Arizona and now found it delightful. He helped to found the Prescott Historical Society and was its first honorary president. It was during this decade that he edited the journals of Lewis and Clark, Pike, Garcés, and others for which he is best known to historians of the West. In 1899, while engaged in research in Santa Fe, he fell ill and died in Baltimore on Christmas day of the same year.

The book contains neither bibliography nor index, but the text is adequately documented, although the notes are placed inconveniently at the rear. The illustrations, most of them drawings of birds mentioned by Coues, are attractive.