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William T. Hornaday papers

Identifier: 1007

Scope and Contents

This collection of correspondence, manuscripts, scrapbooks, and printed matter, created between 1888 and 1937, deals primarily with William T. Hornaday's role as a conservationist. Documented in detail are his activities as administrator of the Permanent Wildlife Protection Fund, which he founded in 1913-1914 and directed until his death. Conservation issues discussed in these papers include the passage of the Bayne Law in New York State, the status of the fur seal herds, wildlife censuses, excessive hunting, the importation of wild bird plumage for millinery purposes, and the protection of migratory game and wildlife through bag limits, closed seasons, and sanctuaries.

Other subjects include the planting of shade trees for the streets of Buffalo, New York, 1893-1895; notes on mountain sheep, 1901; and a survey of zoology in schools, 1905-1910. Also present is correspondence concerning real estate in Buffalo and publication of Hornaday's Taxidermy and zoological collecting (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911). A short series of miscellaneous writings includes a portion of a photocopy of Hornaday's unpublished autobiography, Eighty fascinating years.


  • 1888 - 1937


Access Restrictions

Some scrapbooks in series 4 are too fragile to be physically accessed, although the first ten scrapbooks have been digitized and are available at Please contact the WCS Archives regarding other possible access restrictions.

Usage Restrictions

Please contact the WCS Archives regarding possible usage restrictions.

Biographical Note

A passionate defender of wildlife, William T. Hornaday was well known during his lifetime for his closely linked roles in the worlds of zoos, natural history writing, and wildlife conservation. He served as the first director of the New York Zoological Park, known today as the Bronx Zoo, from the time of its planning in 1896 until his retirement in 1926.

William Temple Hornaday was born December 1, 1854 outside of Avon, Indiana. In 1856, his family moved to a farm in southern Iowa surrounded by extensive, virgin prairie, and Hornaday was drawn to native wildlife at an early age. He attended Oskaloosa College in 1871 and then went on to Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University). Later, he received three honorary degrees, including one from Yale University.

While at Iowa State, Hornaday served as taxidermist for the college museum, but he left in his sophomore year, November 1873, for a position with Henry Augustus Ward’s Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, NY. Hornaday’s work with Ward led to opportunities for extensive travel on collecting trips and allowed him to develop his reputation as a field naturalist. His travels in the Caribbean, West Indies, South America, and Asia—along with the experiences of his youth and his later confrontation with the bison slaughter—shaped his philosophy toward wildlife.

Hornaday’s work with Ward also furthered his interest and expertise in taxidermy. In his taxidermy work, he moved the field away from presenting animals as isolated in static, unnatural poses. He introduced the concept of displaying them surrounded by their natural element, and he refined new techniques to present animals in more naturalistic attitudes. He founded the National Society of American Taxidermists in 1880, and he was named Chief Taxidermist of the US National Museum in 1882.

It was in this capacity that Hornaday was sent on a collecting trip to the American west in 1886. With the American bison on the brink of extinction due to overhunting, he hoped to preserve them for posterity through taxidermy. The trauma of personally witnessing the deliberate decimation of the bison herds, and the general public indifference to it, set Hornaday on the path for a 50-year struggle dedicated to protecting wildlife and educating the public about the plight of wildlife.

With these goals in mind, Hornaday spent the late 1880s lobbying for the bill that would eventually establish the National Zoo in Washington 1889. After leading the design of the new national zoo and promoting a vision of captive breeding programs for endangered species, Hornaday resigned in 1890 because he was not made director. He spent the following six years working in real estate.

In 1896, the newly chartered New York Zoological Society, now known as the Wildlife Conservation Society, enticed Hornaday back to the zoo field by offering him the opportunity to create a world-class zoo. Hornaday played a major role in selection of the site for the New York Zoological Park (he hated the nickname “Bronx Zoo”), which opened in 1899, and in the design of early exhibits. He served in the triple role of Director, General Curator, and Curator of Mammals until he retired in 1926. Among his many activities, he established one of the world’s most extensive collections, insisted on unprecedented standards for exhibit labeling, promoted lecture series, and offered studio spaces to artists. In the Bronx, Hornaday changed the perception of zoos from amusing curiosities to centers for education about wildlife and their protection.

After his retirement, Hornaday was appointed Director Emeritus and continued to write and advocate for wildlife up until the week before his death on March 6, 1937, at age 82, in Stamford, Connecticut. He was survived by his beloved wife of 58 years, Josephine, and a daughter, Helen.

Hornaday’s advocacy is generally credited with preserving the American bison from extinction. On returning from his 1886 trip to the American west, he published The Extermination of the American Bison (1889), both a scientific work and a call for social action, and began speaking publicly on the subject. He created the bison exhibit for the National Museum which helped to galvanize public opinion on the slaughter. He began his advocacy for a national zoo, hoping to propagate bison in captivity, and he began to plan, with Theodore Roosevelt, a society for the protection of the bison. Years later, as director of the Bronx Zoo, Hornaday acquired bison, and by 1903 there were 40 bison on the zoo’s 10-acre range. In 1905, the American Bison Society was formed at a meeting in the Bronx Zoo’s Lion House, with Hornaday as its president. When the first large-game preserve in America was created in 1905—Wichita National Forest and Game Preserve—Hornaday offered 15 individuals from the Bronx Zoo herd for a re-introduction program. He personally selected the release site and the individual animals. By 1919, nine herds had been established through the efforts of the American Bison Society.

At the start of Hornaday’s career, wildlife conservation was a little-known concept and federal legislation on such matters was unknown at the time. Yet the bison was not alone in its plight: the passenger pigeon was in its final decline, and hundreds of thousands of birds were being slaughtered all over the world to decorate women’s hats. During his lifetime, Hornaday published almost two dozen books and hundreds of articles on the need for conservation, attempting to present it as a moral obligation. Most notable was the 1913 publication—and distribution to every member of Congress—of his book Our Vanishing Wildlife. This indictment of the overhunting of American wildlife, and the legislation that failed to protect it, profoundly influenced public opinion. Throughout his career, he lobbied and provided testimony for several congressional acts for wildlife protection laws and the establishment of preserves. In 1913, he established the Permanent Wildlife Protection Fund as means to agitate for wildlife protection.

Today, Hornaday is often remembered not for his considerable achievements but for his shameful decision to present the Congolese pygmy Ota Benga as a zoo exhibit in 1906. Although his thinking on non-human life was progressive and even revolutionary, his thinking on his own species was racist. His racism was not remarkable for his time, but it was far from universal, and the exhibit was met with immediate outrage and discontinued. Famously irascible, Hornaday never apologized for the incident nor apparently for any criticism ever offered him.

In 1914, Hornaday created the Wildlife Protection Medal for significant contributions to conservation. The Boy Scouts of America carried on this tradition after his death, and they continue to present the William T. Hornaday Award to those who make significant contributions to conservation and environmental protection.


8.8 Linear Feet (22 Hollinger boxes)

11.2 Cubic Feet (33 oversize flat boxes)

Language of Materials



Derived from the personal activities of William T. Hornaday (1854-1937), rather than his official duties as Director and General Curator of the New York Zoological Park, this collection of correspondence, manuscripts, scrapbooks, and printed matter deals primarily with Hornaday's pioneering wildlife conservation work between 1888 and 1937.


This collection is arranged into five series:

Series 1
General papers, 1888-1937, divided in 21 subseries:
(1A) Correspondence, 1888-1891
(1B) Shade trees for the streets of Buffalo N. Y.
(1C) Mountain sheep notes
(1D) Zoolology in schools, 1905-1910
(1E) Correspondence and notes, 1899-1936
(1F) Fur seal campaign, divided in two sub-suberies:
(1F1) Correspondence and subject files
(1F2) Papers and publications
(1G) Wild life protection
(1H) Acknowledgments
(1I) Plumage millinery campaign
(1J) Animal subject files
(1K) Permanent Wild Life Protection Fund, divided in four sub-suberies:
(1K1) Accounts
(1K2) Campaigns and correspondence
(1K3) Campaigns
(1K4) Administration
(1L) United States Department of Agriculture, divided in two sub-subseries:
(1L1) Subject files, 1915-1930
(1L2) Subject files, 1932-1934
(1M) T. G. Pearson and Audubon Society, divided in two sub-subseries:
(1M1) General
(1M2) Audubon Society correspondence
(1N) "Fight for less killing," 1934
(1O) Lawsuits, 1925-1929
(1P) Mailing lists
(1Q) Frank Winch project records
(1R) Writings by William T. Hornaday
(1S) Photographs and other special formats
Series 2
Outgoing correspondence regarding wildlife protection, 1911-1926, collected in 24 letterpress books and arranged chronologically
Series 3
Outgoing correspondence regarding Junior Naval Reserve, collected in one letterpress book and arranged chronologically
Series 4
Scrapbooks, circa 1906-1935 in two subseries: (5A): Scrapbook Collection on the History of Wild Life Protection and Extermination, 1906-1935 (5B): Additional scrapbooks of materials written by Hornaday, circa 1910s-1930s
Series 5
Additions, 1888-1937

Acquisition Information

Internal transfer.

Digital Copies

Volumes 1-10 of Hornaday's Scrapbook Collection on the History of Wild Life Protection and Extermination (see Series 4) have been digitized and can be accessed at

Guide to the Papers of William T. Hornaday, 1888-1937
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
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Repository Details

Part of the Wildlife Conservation Society Archives Repository

WCS Library/Archives
2300 Southern Blvd
Bronx New York 10460 United States