“The Big Four” Early Texas Naturalists


Eileen Berger, Indian Trail Master Naturalist

Today we take for granted the access to instant information about any subject.  A few minutes of searching on the internet can produce more than you or I could read in a lifetime.  However, at some point in the past, individuals suffered hardships and unpleasant journeys in order to learn about new and undiscovered plants and animals in Texas.

With the start of a new training program for Indian Trail Master Naturalists, I couldn’t help but remember my own training last fall. One of the most challenging tasks for us as new Master Naturalists in-training was remembering the names of the men and women who blazed the trails of natural Texas. For simplicity’s sake, our trainer spoke in terms of “The Big Four” Texas naturalists from the 19th and 20th century.

John Kern Strecker was born in 1875 in Illinois but moved to Waco, Texas at the age of 13.  His main interest was reptiles, especially snakes.  At 16, he was publishing articles in the Waco newspaper; and two years later, he was hired as curator of the museum at Baylor University. He had very little formal education; yet, he was well respected.  Soon he began to travel widely and collect specimens for the museum. He published scholarly papers on birds, mammals, and mollusks, as well as reptiles and amphibians, and wrote many popular newspaper and magazine articles until his death in 1933. Strecker is known as the “Father of Texas Herpetology”.

The second of the four early naturalists is Joseph Daniel Mitchell (1848-1922).  He was born in a Texas town that is now called Mitchell’s Point. As a rancher and cowboy, he became interested in cattle ticks that produce a deadly cattle disease called Texas Fever. This was Mitchell’s introduction to entomology, the study of insects. He retired in Victoria where he collaborated with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There he began collecting Texas native specimens including Indian relics, minerals, birds’ eggs and nests, insects, reptiles and mollusks. Ultimately his interest in cattle ticks led to the solution for Texas Fever.  He is also recognized for helping eliminate boll weevil damage in cotton.

Harris Braley Parks was not from Texas, but arrived in 1917, while working with the United States Department of Agriculture. Then, after a brief stint with the Texas Agricultural Extension Service, he transferred to the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station; and in 1922, he established the Apicultural Laboratory near San Antonio.  Park’s work with pollen-producing plants as part of the beekeeping laboratory contributed greatly to his knowledge of botany.  Because of his combined knowledge and experiences, he became the director and botanist at Tracy Herbarium at Texas A&M University. One of Parks’ most noteworthy accomplishments was publishing the Catalogue of the Flora of the State of Texas with V.L. Cory.

The last of the four early naturalists is actually two people, a husband and wife team, Vernon Orlando Bailey and Florence Merriam Bailey. Vernon was born in Minnesota in 1864, and developed an early fascination with nature. He corresponded with C. Hart Merriam, the head of the U.S. Biological Survey, who ultimately hired him as a field naturalist. Mammals, especially pocket gophers, were Vernon’s primary interest. In the 1890’s he collected birds, reptiles, plants, and mammals in the Trans-Pecos, north central and northwest Texas. After Vernon and Florence married, they traveled by train and covered wagon to collect specimens in south Texas. Florence was an ornithologist, and wrote numerous scientific and popular books and articles. Although the pair never lived in Texas, they continued to travel to Texas each year to collect and study in the Big Bend area, the Guadalupe and Davis Mountains and the Panhandle.

These naturalists, and many others who followed, helped document and describe Texas’s native species that we can now can so easily study and view on our computers without getting a sunburn or a chigger bite!

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