Martha Maxwell

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Martha Maxwell

Martha Maxwell (1831–1881) was a self-educated naturalist and artist born in Pennsylvania[1][2] who traveled to the Colorado Territory with the first wave of the Pike's Peak Gold Rush in 1860. She helped found modern taxidermy. Martha was the first woman to collect and prepare her own skins and mounts, teaching herself from books after her husband James Maxwell refused, fearing she would do a better job than him because women were considered better with their hands. She collected the first specimen of Otus asio maxwelliae (the Maxwell Owl) as well as a number of other species not previously known to live in the Colorado Territory. She represented Colorado at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.[2] Martha Maxwell was also a vegetarian throughout her life.[3]

Life and Work[edit]

Born in Tioga County, Pennsylvania, Martha was educated about nature from a young age by her grandmother Abigail, who would take her on walks in the woods, identifying birds, squirrels and wildlife in general. In 1842, she, her mother and religious step-father Josiah Dartt, along with her grandmother Abigail and three brothers, set off for Oregon with the aim of converting Native Americans to Christianity. As with many pioneers, Abigail died of Malaria on the journey, and the family only reached Wisconsin, settling in Baraboo.

She studied at Oberlin College in Ohio, though unable to continue funding her studies, was forced to move back to Baraboo to teach for a living. She married the relatively wealthy store and mill owner, James Alexander Maxwell, in 1853. James was ruined by the panic of 1857, and leaving her daughter Mabel behind in the care of her parents, she and James joined the Colorado Gold Rush of 1860, eventually settling in Nevadaville, Colorado, with James herding cattle, and her running a boardinghouse and eventually a mining claim.

Unfortunately, the boardinghouse burned down in 1861, and James and Martha moved to a cabin on land they had bought with savings. They were claim-jumped by an itinerant German taxidermist who took over the cabin. They took back the cabin, filled with the taxidermist's work, and returned the German's property to him. Martha was inspired by this episode and her opportunity to study the German's work, and resolved to take up taxidermy herself. Writing to her family shortly afterwards, requesting a book on illustration "I wish to learn how to preserve birds and the other animal curiosities in this country".

On a long visit to Baraboo between 1864-1868, she studied taxidermy under a local man named Ogden, who had experience of stuffing animals. She developed new techniques, such as molding the shape of the animal in plaster before stretching the skin over. She also insisted that replica backgrounds portraying the animals' natural habitat were used.

Eventually she returned to Colorado with her daughter Mabel, where she began taking long camping and hunting trips to further her work and study nature. Reporting back to Robert Ridgway at the Smithsonian, she sent specimens which he named Scops asio var. Maxwellae (The Rocky Mountain Screech Owl) in her honor. She also gathered specimens later identified as the Black-footed ferret.

She showed bravery in her dangerous expeditions, once climbing a high mountain in a thunderstorm in order to capture a Rock Ptarmigan. Once she was almost shot by a man who mistook her for a Native American.

Martha was a strict vegetarian when at home, and took no joy in killing animals, writing "All must die sometime; I only shorten the period of consciousness that I may give their form perpetual memory."[4]


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b "Martha Maxwell". Boulder History Museum. Retrieved 2009-01-02. 
  3. ^ "Martha Ann Dartt Maxwell". Colorado Women's Hall of Fame. Retrieved 2009-01-02. 
  4. ^ Bonta, Marcia Myers (1991). Women in the field : America's pioneering women naturalists (1st ed. ed.). College Station: Texas A & M University Press. p. 30-39. ISBN 0-89096-489-0.