The birdman of Fort Burgwin
Many years ago the late Jack D. Rittenhouse, noted author and Southwest bookseller, called my attention to an interesting aspect of 19th century military history in New Mexico.
In his vast reading, he had observed that eastern-born army officers assigned to this arid and sparsely settled corner of the country had sometimes engaged in scientific or scholarly research on the side, as time allowed.
I readily called to mind, a leading example of such men: Lt. John G. Bourke, who was stationed at Ft. Craig in south central New Mexico after the Civil War. He became fascinated with the Native inhabitants and from ethnological data he collected wrote about lifeways of Apaches and Pueblos.
Remembering Rittenhouse’s observation, I recently came upon another army officer who made his own small mark, this time in the field of natural history, specifically ornithology (bird study).
His name was William Wallace Anderson, an assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army’s Medical Department. Born on a plantation in South Carolina, he had completed his medical studies by 1849 and been assigned to duty on the frontier.
Following four years of service, Anderson went on leave and briefly returned to South Carolina where in 1855 he married his fiance Mary Virginia Childs. New orders sent him, accompanied by his bride and her piano, off to a new duty station in New Mexico, Cantonment Burgwin (unofficially called Fort Burgwin).
The post, located 10 miles south of Taos, had been named in honor of Capt. John Burgwin, who died of wounds while putting down the Taos uprising of 1847.
The couple traveled the Santa Fe Trail to reach New Mexico. The grand piano, Mrs. Anderson’s prize possession, rode crated in one of the heavy freight wagons common in the overland trade.
On arriving at its destination, the instrument was found to be a perfect wreck, owing to the severe jolting it had sustained en route. Attentive to his distressed wife, Dr. Anderson set about to restore and tune the piano himself. And he did so with considerable success.
At this period, the Smithsonian Institution (founded in 1846), whose mission embraced all branches of science relating to the U.S., was eagerly extending its activities into the far Southwest.
A number of medical officers, among them assistant surgeon Anderson, were invited to collect assorted specimens related to the natural sciences. These were to be sent to Washington along with written reports.
Upon Anderson volunteering his services, he was contacted by the Smithsonian’s professor Spencer Baird, who delegated him to work in the field of ornithology.
The only thing we know about Dr. Anderson’s bird collecting and study comes from a letter sent him in the early fall of 1860 by professor Baird. It acknowledges the receipt in Washington of two boxes, one containing specimens from the Burgwin area and the second with more from Texas. Note that the sparse information about the physician’s activities does not reveal how or when he managed to obtain the Texas material.
Of the contents of the Texas box, though, the professor excitedly wrote that it included a species of hawk and the eggs of two other hawks lacking in the Smithsonian’s collection. “Think of that,” he bubbled joyously.
As for the items acquired in the vicinity of Burgwin, he lauded examples of Cassin’s Purple Finch, Colorado Raven, and Maximilian Jay.
With the firing on Ft. Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, April 12, 1861, by Confederates, the Civil War erupted. Assistant Surgeon William Wallace Anderson, at receiving the news, promptly resigned his commission and went home to join the Southern cause.
For the entire war, 1861-1865, he served as a field surgeon for the armies of the Confederate States of America.
Anderson died in 1911 at the age of 87, which perhaps tells us something of his innate toughness. So far as I can determine, he never revisited New Mexico.