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Martha Maxell - 19th Century Naturalist
By Luann Waters


Martha Maxwell, 1800s naturalist
and celebrated taxidermist,
poses next to her work.


One of most notable taxidermists of the golden age of sport hunting was Martha Ann Dartt. Martha who was born in 1831, grew up in Pennsylvania and Baraboo, Wisconsin. She learned to shoot a shotgun and a rifle from her stepfather, Josiah Dartt and developed a deep appreciation for wildlife and nature as a young girl from her grandmother Abigail.

Upon her graduation from Lawrence College, she married James A. Maxwell in 1854, and they had a daughter, Mabel, in 1857. After the financial crash of 1857, James and Martha moved to the Colorado Territory in 1860 while their daughter stayed with Martha's family in Wisconsin.

The Colorado Territory, a veritable wildlife haven, stirred Martha's passions as a naturalist. Soon after, she became intrigued with taxidermy after seeing mounts that a Colorado man had done. Then, during a long visit in Wisconsin, Martha learned the art and science of taxidermy from a Mr. Ogden.

Later, back in Colorado, she kept tamed wild animals to learn more about their habits and harvested specimens as well on hunts in the Middle Park region of Colorado and the Black Hills of Wyoming.

Though she was a petite woman, at 4 foot 11 inches tall and weighing 120 pounds, she was fearless in her pursuit of specimens. She was once trapped by a herd of buffalo, but still managed to shoot the one she wanted for her collection. While Martha was an accomplished hunter, she preferred the title of naturalist to huntress.

Her reputation as a taxidermist grew quickly amongst the area sport hunters. Eventually, her taxidermy skills led to an invitation to represent the Territory with her natural history collection at the St. Louis Fair in 1870 and again at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. As the first female field naturalist who obtained and prepared her own specimens, she pioneered the idea of putting animals in lifelike poses amongst their natural habitat. Her work directly influenced the design of later museum dioramas.

It's reported, though, she grew impatient with the questions she was often asked such as: How did she stuff 'em? Did she kill them all? What sort of woman is she? How could a woman do it? And I don't believe them critters was shot. I've looked 'em all over, and I can't see any holes. Did she pisen 'em? So, her response was to put up a sign that read, "Woman's Work."

Her work as a naturalist was praised by Smithsonian ornithologist Robert Ridgway in the introduction to a published list of her collection of 234 birds. And her skill in mounting specimens in their natural habitat was commended by Elliott Couse, who made a list of the 48 species of mammals in her collection.

Her other achievements included discovering a subspecies of screech owl, which Robert Ridgway named after her - Scops asio maxwelliae. In addition, she positively proved the existence of the black-footed ferret by collecting several. Prior to that, they had only been mentioned previously by Audubon.

After years in the Rockies, she moved east, first to Philadelphia and in 1880 to Rockaway Beach, New York. By 1881, her physical health began to suffer, and she died May 31, 1881 from an ovarian tumor.

You can learn more about this extraordinary woman at an exhibit hosted by the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The Martha Maxwell, Colorado Huntress exhibit runs from Jan. 16 to July 12, 2009. Opt for a fun change-of-pace at this exhibit by using 3-D glasses to view some of the photos.

Many photos from her collections were stereographs, which means they were taken with a special camera that had two lenses. The photos were manipulated to create anaglyphs, which can be viewed using 3-D glasses.

For more information about the exhibit, visit, www.nationalcowboymuseum.org

If you can't make it to Oklahoma City anytime soon check out the following two books to learn more about Martha Maxell:

Women in the Field-America's Pioneering Women Naturalists

By Marcia Myers Bonta, publ. 1991 by Texas A&M Univ. Press, College Station. The book features 25 women from colonial to current times.

Hunting the American West

Available from Boone and Crockett Club and from book retailers nationwide. This hardcover book measures 12 x 8.75 inches with 416 pages and 425 color and B&W photos and illustrations. Call toll-free 888-840-4868 to order.
 
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