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George Gordon Cantwell

Like many of his generation, George Gordon Cantwell seems to have felt the pull of the west. Born in New York, in November of 1870, by the mid-1880's he'd moved to the Minnesota/Wisconsin area, where he regularly contributed articles and photos to publications for sportsmen, ornithologists, and egg-collectors. After 6 years of amassing data, he published "A List of the Birds of Minnesota" in 1890.

The West drew him on. Cantwell moved to Colorado, to the Puget Sound area, and on to Alaska. He continued to publish amusing articles about his adventures and observations. From Juneau in 1897, he famously sent the Smithsonian the first egg ever collected from the Marbled Murrelet and noted that the native people believed the bird nested in tall trees. Incredibly, it took ornithologists more than 70 years to confirm this! (For the whole tale, see Maria Mudd Ruth's book, Rare Bird: Pursuing the Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet.)

Cantwell advertised himself as a naturalist and taxidermist, but by the time he reached Alaska, he had also become a skilled outdoor photographer. When the Klondike Gold strike drew thousands of prospectors in 1898, he was ideally positioned to record the event for posterity. His photographs of the gold rush (in his book, The Klondike: A Souvenir ) are some of the most iconic ever published.

During this short period, The Osprey lamented the absence of news from Cantwell: "The Klondike gold craze may prove of material injury to The Osprey. Shortly before the outbreak of excitement Mr. Geo. G. Cantwell promised us a series of Alaskan photographs, but as nothing has been heard of him of late we fear that he has taken the 'gold fever.'"In the first two decades of the new century, Cantwell moved back and forth from Alaska to the Puget Sound area. He served as game warden in Seward, wrote the screenplay for a silent film ("The Golden Heart"), worked for the Federal bird refuge system along Washington's Olympic coast, and spent 5 years doing field work for the Biological Survey in the Cascades. In this last capacity, he collected many small vertebrates, among them a subspecies of meadow mouse later named "cantwelli".

In 1929, George Willett, curator of the ornithology department of the L. A. County Museum brought Cantwell in to help with the bird and mammal collections. Thus began a decade-long collaboration. Cantwell seems to have stayed in the Los Angeles area until his death in 1948.

Given a life so devoted to the work of a naturalist and taxidermist, it may seem odd that George Gordon Cantwell is most remembered for two short years during which he produced his remarkable photographic record of the Klondike Gold Rush. But one need only look at his image of a line of hundreds of prospectors trudging up the Chilkoot Pass to understand why.

Information for the biography and picture were collected from the following resources:

The Condor, V.48 no. 2 (1946) p.61 (Photo)
The Osprey, V.2 no.1 (1897) "Note and Comment"
The Klondike, a Souvenir, (1900), George G. Cantwell
The Auk, V. XV (1898) "Notes on the Egg of the Marbled Murrelet" (Geo. G. Cantwell)
Journal of Mammology, V1 no.4 Aug 1920: A New Meadow Mouse from the Cascade Mountains of Washington (by Walter P. Taylor)
The Condor, V24, May 1922 (notice of Cantwell's resignation from US Biological Survey)
The Condor, V48, no2 (1946) obituary of George Willett
Rare Bird: Pursuing the Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet, (2005) by Maria Mudd Ruth

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