Bell, John Graham

John Graham Bell (1812-1889) was the taxidermist from Tappan, New York, who taught young Theodore Roosevelt how to preserve animals for collection and display and who may have first mentioned to him the bison roaming the Dakota prairies.

Before Theodore Roosevelt was born, Bell had established himself as one of the premiere collectors and taxidermists of his day. He worked closely with the great American ornithologist John James Audubon. In 1843, with Audubon, nature artist Isaac Sprague, and others, Bell explored the birds and animals near Fort Union (near what is today Williston, North Dakota). Fort Union was a private fur trading post built by John Jacob Astor, where Native Americans came to trade pelts (from buffalo and bear to beaver and mice) for goods from around the world. Bell sought, discovered, located, and shot birds for Audubon, and served as his main field taxidermist, preparing their specimens. Audubon called Bell “an excellent companion in our not unperilous rambles,” and he named a newly discovered species of bird after him: Bell’s Vireo. Audubon credited Bell with discovering the Smith’s Lark-Bunting while they were on an earlier expedition in southern Illinois. Throughout his career, Audubon gratefully received specimens of other birds and waterfowl sent him by Bell which Audubon used to identify and classify species more precisely.

Bell later became the proprietor of a taxidermy shop in Manhattan. As a present for his fourteenth birthday, Theodore Roosevelt’s father gave him taxidermy lessons from Bell. In his 1918 article “My Life as a Naturalist,” Roosevelt recalled that Bell taught him “the art of preparing specimens for scientific use and of mounting them.” Some of these early attempts—a snowy owl, Egyptian plovers, a spruce grouse—found their way into the American Museum of Natural History.

Roosevelt remembered Bell as “a very interesting man, an American of the before-the-war type. He was tall, straight as an Indian, with white hair and a smooth-shaven clear-cut face; a dignified figure, always in a black frock coat. He had no scientific knowledge of birds or mammals; his interest lay merely in collecting and preparing them.”

With Frank M. Chapman, Theodore Jasper, and Jacob Henry Studer, Bell authored The Birds of North America (New York: Natural Science Association of America, 1888). In addition to Smith’s Lark-Bunting, Audubon recognized Bell as the discoverer of Baird’s Bunting, Bell’s Sparrow, Bell’s Vireo, Lawrence’s Goldfinch, Leconte’s Sparrow, and Nuttall’s Whippoorwill.

Audubon’s quote is from The Birds of America, Vol. VII (New York: J. J. Audubon, 1844), 333. Roosevelt’s quotes are from “My Life as a Naturalist,” The American Museum Journal, Vol. XVIII, No. 5 (May 1918), 322 and 323.