The Condor Legacy of Alexander Taylor

Almost nobody today knows the name of Alexander Taylor of early California, yet almost everybody who has written a book, magazine story, or newspaper article about California condors has used information that originally came from Taylor. Unfortunately, most of what Alexander Taylor had to say about condors was wrong, probably wrong, or sheer nonsense. All prospective writers about condors should know a little about the man, I think.

[The following was originally published as a chapter in: "Nine Feet from Tip to Tip: the California Condor through History." (Gresham, Oregon: Symbios Books, 2012). If you would like a free copy (PDF) of the entire book,send me an e-mail.]


"Doctor Taylor of California,"

Chapter 8 of "Nine Feet from Tip to Tip"

Gresham, Oregon: Symbios Books, 2012

Through the first third of the 1850s, with the exception of whatever condors may have been acquired by Indians for their social and religious needs, no one was specifically seeking condors. Explorers and naturalists killed condors randomly and opportunistically, in the same way they collected other specimens of fauna or flora they encountered. Early miners, ranchers and homesteaders shot condors not because they were condors, but because they were big and made good targets, or because they were big and curiosity demanded a closer look. In the 1850s in Monterey, California, the first two true "condor people" emerged, Alexander Smith Taylor and Colbert Austin Canfield. Chapter 10 is devoted to Canfield.

Taylor, born in Charleston, South Carolina 16 April 1817, son of Alexander Taylor and Mary Chapman, was first on the scene. His grandfather, Capt. James Taylor, emigrated from Aberdeen, Scotland, and had settled in Charleston, South Carolina, by 1785 [1]. His father was apparently born in Charleston about 1786, but married in England in 1812. He gained some fame in the War of 1812 when the privateer Saucy Jack captured a major British cargo ship, Pelham, and Taylor was named prize master [2]. The father died in either 1821 or 1823 [3]. Almost the total of what is known about Alexander's first thirty years of life was given by him in one long sentence in a letter he wrote to the American Antiquarian Society 22 July 1866:

"I left my native city of Charleston, So. Carolina, in 1837 (only returning for a few days in 1839), when in my 21st year, and since that time have wandered over the West Indies, England, India, the Red Sea, China, Singapore and Ceylon" [4].

What he did in those places, and how he made a living, remains unknown. Considering that his grandfather, father, and three uncles were all mariners, it seems reasonable to assume he was shipboard much of that time. Finally, on the brig Pacific, coming from Hong Kong, he landed at Monterey 8 September 1848 [5]. He lived at Monterey until 1860, then relocated to Santa Barbara, California. There he married Josepha Hill (daughter of Daniel Hill and Rafaela Olivera de Ortega), sired at least six children, and died 27 July 1876 [6].

If it's possible for a person to be both well-known and unknown, Alexander S. Taylor fills the bill. Other than in the works of Hubert Howe Bancroft, his name is nearly absent from early histories and biographies of coastal California. His occupation in the 1850 census was given as "physician" (hence, "Dr. Taylor"), but no record has been found that he actually practiced medicine. The 1860 census labeled him a "druggist," and he did indeed have an apothecary on Alvarado Street in Monterey from 1849 to 1860. He also served as local agent for the Pacific Express Company [7], and was a clerk in the U. S. District Court at Monterey [8]. He was nominated by the Democratic Party in Monterey County for State treasurer [9], but did not make the ticket.

Sharply contrasting with his little-known private life, for many he was the voice of the west coast of North America in the 1850s. He wrote for newspapers; he corresponded with scientists, historians and politicians. He gathered information on Indians, on the Spanish and Mexican periods of California history, on agricultural history, and on geography. He sent natural history specimens to England and to the museums of the eastern United States. He was one of the organizers of the first California historical society [10], was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society, and was made an Honorary Member of the California Academy of Sciences [11]. There were no limits to his interests [12]. One result of this shotgun approach to life and learning was that he became the first widely-quoted "authority" on the California condor.

Apparently, Taylor's first communication about California condors came in 1852, when he wrote a brief newspaper note, describing a condor killed near Monterey [13]. (In 1851, a letter he wrote to England about the animals of California mentioned "the red-headed buzzard" - likely the turkey vulture - but not the condor [14].) He followed with a newspaper series in "The California Farmer and Journal of Useful Science," covering the California condor, Andean condor, and king vulture [15]. The California condor information, supplemented by other articles and new observations, was published nearly simultaneously as a new series in "The Overland Monthly" [16]. Parts of his writings were republished widely in other newspapers, in books on birds and natural history, and even in scientific journals.

Hubert Howe Bancroft, the renowned California historian, called Alexander Taylor "a literary and historical dabster," who "knew much; but credit was given him for knowing much more than he did know" [17].

"[It was] as an investigator and writer on the ethnography, bibliography, and history of Cal. that he deserves particular notice; and in these respects he was a remarkable man. Without having any special aptitude by nature or education for such work, he developed a fondness for it almost amounting to a mania. His zeal in face of the most discouraging obstacles is worthy of all praise, though it must be confessed that the result was wellnigh valueless. He was not content with being a collector or even translator and narrator, but had a most unfortunate passion for working the results of his observations and study into what he regarded as a scientific form, the result being too often an absurd jumble of bad Spanish, worse Latin, and unintelligible affectations" [18].

Few matched Bancroft's style of criticism that sliced to the bone but, unfortunately, agreement was general that Taylor's work was prodigious but mostly of little usefulness [19]. Interestingly, one modern-day reviewer believed that "'The Great Condor of California' was a careful study in naturalhistory, and is yet of considerable value" [20]. Oh, if that was only true! Actually, Taylor's writings on condors are the same hodgepodge of fact and fancy that characterized most of his work. He shares with the botanist David Douglas honors for introducing a most amazing amount of nonsense into the early record of condors [21].

Taylor was quoted liberally on both sides of the Atlantic for 30 years in the second half of the 19th century, when no other "authorities" were writing about condors. Few zoologists or historians recognize his name today - and almost everything he wrote has been shown to be either incorrect or unlikely - yet his writings still color the way that the history of the condor is perceived. Because his is the principal influence behind modern-day pronouncements on subjects as varied as condor poisoning, and storing gold in condor quills, we need to look closely at his sources of information and his presentation.

Taylor seems not to have traveled far from Monterey during his years there (1848-1860), and his personal realm of condor reference included little beyond Monterey and Santa Cruz counties. Other than his descriptions of condor specimens he had in his possession, and an occasional comment on a bird or two seen by him in the wild, everything came from other sources. His principal written reference was John James Audubon's 1839 "Ornithological Biography" [22], with its extensive quotes from David Douglas and John Kirk Townsend. He cited Thomas Jefferson Farnham [23], but Farnham had merely quoted David Douglas. Although not identified by name, some version of Goldsmith's "A history of the earth and animated nature" - with its potpourri of writings on the Andean condor [24] - appears to have been one of Taylor's sources. Word of mouth information came from "a hunter," "a fifteen year resident of California," "a friend," and various unidentified vaqueros and rancheros. The "fifteen year resident" told him that the condor's egg was pale blue with brown spots (they are white and unmarked), and that it was placed on the ground "in the ravines in the mountains, and generally near the roots of the red-wood and pine trees." The "hunter" reported that the clutch consisted of two eggs, which condors "sometimes lay on the ledges of high rocks, but quite as often on tall trees, in the old nests of hawks and eagles." The same informant told Taylor that the female condor was smaller than the male, "and this is without doubt, as he has often observed them" [25].

When a large number of sea lions died, Taylor reported that "a friend of ours informed us that he saw a few days ago, as many as three hundred of these creatures (condors) near such feeding ground" [26]. This is perhaps not impossible, but no one but Taylor ever reported hundreds of condors at one location. Taylor used the number 300 on another occasion, in even more improbable circumstances: "A friend of ours engaged in the cattle trade, informs us, that in going from the Mission of Santa Clara towards San Francisco, in 1850, he accidentally dropped a quarter of fat beef from his cart, while a number of the Condor were in sight. On discovering his loss, after a

Figure 6. Typical Alexander Taylor piece, 1853.

few minutes, he turned back and observed the Condor in numbers, which he estimated at over three hundred, hovering over and near his lost beef. On coming up with it, he was surprised to find that the fat and kidneys of the quarter, with all the inner meat, had completely cleaned off the bones, and the piece of meat had lost more than half its weight" [27].

Miscellaneous vaqueros and rancheros allegedly told Taylor that condors were captured by hiding in animal skins, and grabbing the condors' feet when they landed; that condors were often pitted in cock fight-like circumstances against bears, dogs and eagles (he had "never had the opportunity to witness any of these fights;" neither did anyone else, at least as documented in print); that a group of condors separated a calf from its mother, then killed it; and "they are often known to kill lambs, hares and rabbits" [28].

Some of Taylor's more bizarre statements seem to have no basis anywhere in the historical record. Take for example his comments on condor feeding habits: "It [the condor] is particularly fond of fish, and is often found on the sea-shore watching for fish thrown on the beach, or even steals from the Indians when catching salmon and mountain trout in the lakes and rivers of the Great Plains and of the Coast. A dead whale thrown ashore is sure to bring some of them in sight, and a hunter killing a deer in the mountains is confident of their appearance as soon as the beast is wounded. They are also said to attack wounded deer and other animals, and kill them, and sometimes carry off alive smaller creatures. They are also stated to carry off fish caught in river, sea and lake shallows; and though they will eat dead meat, they will not, like a buzzard, eat carrion - but the last is a mistake" [29].

To add to Taylor's problems of general credibility, he often contradicted himself, and made no effort to reconcile or explain differences. For example, when he was presented with an authentic condor egg (the first certain one known), his description made a point of refuting Douglas' famous black egg information [30]. Yet, in an accompanying article in the same magazine, he presented the egg as pale blue with spots, as told to him by the "fifteen year resident of California" [31]. Perhaps this was just an example of the "kitchen sink" approach [32] that was common in natural history writing in information-starved 19th century America; i.e., everything ever said or written about a topic, with no attempt to evaluate, correct, or criticize. However, it may also be another of several instances in which it is clear that he melded several articles without bothering to edit. This shows up in his comments on condors feeding on sea lion carcasses. The language he used in his 1859 article - "A friend of ours informed us that he saw a few days ago..." (my underlining) - is exactly the same as he wrote in that same story in a newspaper article in August 1855 [33]. Even considering the shortage of good information on condors in the second half of the 19th century, one wonders how his writing could have been taken seriously in natural science circles. Yet, he was quoted extensively in the work of the leading ornithologists in both the United States and Europe [34].

* * *

Bird study didn't seem to be one of Alexander Taylor's strongest interests. I've only been able to find one article he wrote on a bird - the roadrunner - that wasn't a vulture [35]. Although it appears that he personally collected invertebrates, reptiles, and small mammals on occasion, there is no evidence that he shot any birds. I have wondered how his interest in condors developed, and how he came to send seven California condors and three turkey vulture specimens to England (the only bird specimens I have found that are attributed to him). The answer seems to rest in his long-time friendship with John Henry Gurney.

Gurney (1819-1890), renowned for his collection of raptorial bird specimens at England's Norwich Museum, in 1851 published some notes on California wildlife that he had received "from a friend of mine, who is resident at Monterey" [36]. The friend was not named, but the writing style is clearly Alexander Taylor's. "Friend" could have been merely a form of address for a correspondent, but I think the evidence is good that Gurney and Taylor actually were friends. Taylor, who was only two years older than Gurney, wrote that he left South Carolina in 1837, sailed to the West Indies, returned home briefly in 1839, and then traveled to England [37]. Gurney's father, Joseph John Gurney, toured through the eastern United States and Canada 1837-1840, visiting various establishments of the Society of Friends. Before returning to England, he sailed to the West Indies and visited a number of islands, then returned to the United States before sailing home. "Accompanied by his young friend Alexander S. Taylor, Joseph John Gurney embarked on board the 'Roscius,' on the twenty-sixth of the seventh month [July 1840]" [38]. I have found no details of what brought Alexander Taylor and Joseph Gurney together, but a subsequent meeting between Alexander Taylor and Joseph's son John seems inevitable. When Taylor "discovered" the condor, and Gurney began to build his collection of raptorial birds into the largest in the world, they would have developed a clear mutual interest.

Taylor probably sent Gurney his first California condor in early 1853; that was also the year that Gurney reportedly began to actively build his "bird of prey" collection [39]. One story is that Gurney had no special interest in raptors when he began to stock the Norwich Museum, but fate stepped in with the auctioning off of the Zoological Society of London's museum collection. Gurney sent an agent to the sales "with some money to buy a selection of the birds for the Norwich Museum. The sale commenced in scientific sequence with the Accipitres, and the agent bid with diligent persistence until all his money was gone, with the result that he bought only Birds of Prey. With this foundation Gurney determined to devote himself to a special study of these birds, and made the collection of Accipitres at Norwich the most famous in the world" [40]. Whether or not the story is true, it is a fact that Gurney put the major share of his efforts into the raptor collection, and by his death it had grown to include almost 5,000 specimens, representing almost 600 species and subspecies [41].

Only one of the Taylor-Gurney condors remains at Norwich today, the skeleton of one of the first two birds obtained by Taylor [42]. The others, including the first California condor egg and the first nestling ever collected [43], are now in the Natural History Museum (Tring, United Kingdom). Two condors were transferred in an exchange before 1874 [44]; the rest came in the 1950s [45]. From Taylor's newspaper stories it is possible to identify approximately when condors were killed. Unfortunately, no specific collection data accompany the specimens, so one can only guess which bird goes with which news story, based mainly on age or sex. Given that Gurney reportedly "did not care much for duplicates at any time unless they were from different countries" [46], one could speculate that the first two condors exchanged out of the collection were the last two that Taylor sent to him. Alas, we will probably never know.

Chapter Notes

1. Anonymous (Alexander Taylor?). 1868. Something about the "Saucy Jack." Charleston (South Carolina) Courier, 19 August 1868.

It isn't yet clear when James Taylor actually arrived in North America. He married Margaret (Davies) Laidler in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1779.

2. Niles' Weekly Register (Baltimore, Maryland), 6(144):225.

3. Pages 743-744 in: Bancroft, H. H. 1890. History of California. Volume V - 1846-1848. San Francisco, California: The History Company.

Anonymous. 1855. The late Admiral Price and the Saucy Jack. Charleston (South Carolina) Courier, 13 March 1855.

4. Death notice pages 263-265 in: Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, New Series, Volume 3 - October 1883 to April 1885. Worcester, Massachusetts.

5. Cowan, R. E. 1933. Alexander S. Taylor, 1817-1876: first biographer of California. California Historical Society Quarterly 12(1):18-24.

6. Bancroft 1890 op. cit.; Cowan 1933 op. cit. Also, U. S. Federal censuses: 18 September 1850, Monterey; 2 June 1860, Monterey; 25 September 1870 Santa Barbara; and 21 June 1880 Santa Barbara.

7. Information provided October 2011 by Dennis Copeland, Museum and Archives Manager, City of Monterey, California.

8. Page 74 in: Barrows, H. D., and L. A. Ingersoll. 1893. Memorial and biographical history of the coast counties of central California. Chicago, Illinois: The Lewis Publishing Company.

9. Anonymous. 1857. Monterey County Democratic nominations. Daily Alta California. San Francisco, California. 11 August 1857.

10. Howell, W. R. 1942. News of the Society: meetings. California Historical Society Quarterly 21(2):183-184.

11. Cowan op. cit.

12. Taylor's larger efforts on Spanish history, Indians, the literature of Alaska and California, etc., are discussed in Cowan op. cit., and Bancroft 1891 op. cit. Just a sampling of some of the other fields in which he gained recognition:

Ahearn, C. G. 1995. Catalog of the type specimens of Seastars (Echinodermata: Asteroidea) in the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Contributions to Zoology, Number 572 - Page 9, Taylor credited with providing two specimens of echinoderms to the National Museum.

Cope, E. D. 1900. The crocodilians, lizards, and snakes of North America. Report of the U. S. National Museum for the year ending June 30, 1898 - Page 676, two specimens of legless lizard from Taylor.

Gill, T. 1862. Description of a new species of Alepidosauroidae. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 14:127-132 - Page 131, Taylor credited with discovering a new fish in Baja California, Mexico.

Gray, J. E. 1866. Notes on the skulls of sea-bears and sea-lions (Otariadae) in the British Museum. Annals and Magazine of Natural History 18:228-237 - Page 232, Taylor provided a sea lion skull to an English museum.

Hanna, G. D. 1956. Distribution of West American deposits of fossil diatoms. Bios 27(4):227-231 - Page 228, "beautifully preserved diatomite collected near Monterey" sent to England.

Lyon, M. W. Jr., and W. H. Osgood. 1909. Catalogue of the type-specimens of mammals in the United States National Museum, including the Biological Survey collection. United States National Museum Bulletin 62 - Page 290, Taylor provided the type specimen of a bat species.

13. San Francisco (California) Herald, 12 December 1852, widely reprinted in newspapers around the United States in the following several months.

14. Gurney, J. H. 1851. Notes on the zoology of California. The Zoologist 9:3297-3299.

15. Taylor, A. S. 1859. Condors of Chile and California. California Farmer and Journal of Useful Science (San Francisco, California): 20 May (page 122), 27 May (page 132), 3 June (page 138), 10 June (page 146), 17 June (page 156), 24 June (page 162), and 1 July (page 170).

16. Taylor, A. S. 1859a. The great condor of California. Hutching's California Magazine 3(12):540-543, 4(1):17-22, 4(2):61-64.

Taylor, A. S. 1859b. The egg and young of the California condor. Hutching's California Magazine 3(12):537-540.

17. Pages 497-498 in: Bancroft, H. H. 1891. Literary industries, a memoir. San Francisco, California: The History Company.

18. Bancroft 1890 op. cit., page 743.

19. Davis, H. 1886. Alexander S. Taylor. The Overland Monthly 7(41):553-554.

Also: American Antiquarian Society op. cit.; Cowan op. cit.

20. Cowan op. cit., page 21.

21. Douglas, D. 1829. Observations on the Vultur californianus of Shaw. Zoological Journal 4(1):328-330. Despite his excellent work overall as a naturalist, Douglas will always live in condor annals as the man who passed along the hearsay that California condors build large stick nests like eagles; lay two spherical, jet-black eggs; and are most numerous and soar the highest just prior to (Oregon's non-existent!) hurricanes.

22. Pages 240-245 in: Audubon, J. J. 1839. Ornithological biography, or an account of the habits of the birds of the United States. Volume 5. Edinburgh, Scotland: Adam & Charles Black.

23. Pages 388-389 in: Farnham, T. J. 1844. Travels in the Californias, and scenes in the Pacific Ocean. New York, New York: Saxton & Miles.

24. For example, pages 62-70 in: Goldsmith, O. 1840. A history of the earth and animated nature. Volume III, Part I. Edinburgh, Scotland: A. Fullarton and Co.

25. Taylor, A. S. 1855. Notes on the great vulture of California. Zoologist 13:4632-4635.

26. Taylor 1859a, op. cit., page 19.

27. Taylor 1859a, op. cit., page 19.

28. Taylor 1859a, op. cit., pages 17-22.

29. Taylor 1859a, op. cit., page 541.

30. Taylor 1859, op. cit.

31. Taylor 1859a, op. cit., page 541.

32. This is an Americanism dating back at least to World War I, used in any situation in which more was done than was needed or justified; e.g., when they went on vacation, they took everything but the kitchen sink; the enemy attacked with everything but the kitchen sink.

33. Anonymous [A. S. Taylor]. 1855. The California condor. Daily Placer Times and Transcript (San Francisco, California), 9 August 1855.

34. For example: Baird, S. F. 1870. Ornithology of California. Sacramento: Geological Survey of California.

Cassin, J. 1856. Ornithology of the United States: the American Vultures. United States Magazine 3(1):18-29.

Gurney, J. H. 1855. Note on the great vulture of California (Cathartes vel Sarcoramphus Californianus), by Alexander S. Taylor. Zoologist 13:4632-4635.

35. Anonymous. 1854. The California snake-bird. Friends' Intelligencer 11(36):575-576.

36. Gurney 1851 op. cit.

37. American Antiquarian Society op. cit.

38. Page 378 in: Braithwaite, J. B. 1902. Memoirs of Joseph John Gurney: with selections from his journal and correspondence. London, England: Headley Brothers.

39. Page 58 in: Reeve, J. 1905. Norwich Castle Museum: the arrangement of the collections. The Museums Journal 4(2):57-62.

40. The story is on page 378 of: Sharpe, R. B. 1906. Birds. Pages 79-515 in: The history of the collections contained in the Natural History departments of the British Museum. Volume II. London: Trustees of the British Museum.

41. Southwell, T. 1891. Memoir of the late John Henry Gurney. Transactions of the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists' Society 5(2):156-165.

42. Taylor 1859a, op. cit., page 63; Dr. A. G. Irwin, Senior Curator of Natural History, Norfolk Museums personal communication 2 November 2009.

43. Sclater, P. L. 1860. Note on the egg and nestling of the Californian vulture. Ibis 2(7):278, Plates VIII and IX. Also, Taylor 1859b, op. cit.

44. Page 29 in: Sharpe, R. B. 1874. Catalogue of the Accipitres, or diurnal birds of prey, in the collection of the British Museum. London, England: Trustees of the British Museum.

45. Pages 51-53 in: Knox, A. G., and M. P. Walters. 1994. Extinct and endangered birds in the collections of the Natural History Museum. London, England: British Ornithologists' Club, Occasional Publications No. 1.

46. Page 7 in: Gurney, J. H. 1894. Catalogue of the birds of prey with the number of specimens in Norwich Museum. London, England: R. H. Porter.


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