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    Charles Sheldon

    Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

    001      |      Vol_XV-0690                                                                                                                  

    (Townsend Whelen)


            Charles Sheldon (1867-1928), zoologist and conservationist, was born in

    Rutland, Vermont, October 18, 1867; he died in Nova Scotia, September 21, 1928.

            From boyhood days in central Vermont, Charles Sheldon had been an ardent

    lover of nature and a keen hunter. He was graduated from Yale in 1890; was

    Assistant Superintendent of the Toledo Division, Lake Shore and Michigan South–

    ern Railway in 1893; General Manager of the Consolidated Car Heating Company of

    Albany, New York, 1894 to 1898; and with the Chihuahua and Pacific Railroad in

    Mexico from 1898 to 1902.

            While in Mexico, Sheldon had many opportunities to enjoy the study of wild

    life and hunting in primitive country, and his first experience in hunting wild

    sheep was in northern Mexico. There he became fascinated with this sport and

    study, and determined to follow these animals in other regions and to learn

    something of their life histories and habits, including the distribution of the

    various species and subspecies.

            Accordingly, in 1903, Sheldon retired from active business, and from then

    until his death in 1928 he devoted all his time to the study of American fauna

    and to the conservation of the natural resources of the North American continent.

            In 1904 he made contact with Dr. E. W. Nelson, Chief, United States Biologi–

    cal Survey, with whom he formed a close friendship lasting until his death. This

    contact opened to him the meaning and the purpose of many phases of research in

    wild life and its conservation, and in this connection he made many expeditions

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    EA-Biography. Whelen: Charles Sheldon

    and reconnaissances into the subarctic regions of North America, among which

    the following are the most notable.

            To continue his study of the mountain sheep, Sheldon, in company with

    Carl Rungius, a celebrated painter of big game, and Dr. Wilfred H. Osgood of

    the United States Biological Survey, left Dawson, Yukon Territory, on July 9,

    1904, to study mountain sheep and other mammals in the Ogilvie Rockies north–

    east of that town. They were accompanied by Charles Gage and Ed. Spahr as

    packers, and had five pack horses. They ascended Coal Creek to its source in

    the Ogilvie Rockies (Coal Creek enters the Yukon River about 60 miles below

    Dawson). There they were successful in finding sheep ( Ovis dalli ), caribou,

    moose, grizzly bear, and smaller mammals, and made valuable collections and

    studies. This particular region, so far as known, had not previously been

    visited except by trappers and prospectors.

            Returning to Dawson, Sheldon joined Frederick C. Selous, the famous big–

    game hunter and African pioneer, in an expedition to the headwaters of the

    MacMillan River, a tributary of the Pelly River in Yukon Territory. Leaving

    Dawson in August 1904 with Louis Cardinal and Charles Coghlan as canoemen and

    packers, they ascended the Pelly and MacMillan rivers in a small steamer as

    far as such navigation was possible, and then with canoes they farther ascended

    the North Fork of the MacMillan River almost to its source. Here Sheldon again

    found sheep ( Ovis dalli ), and studied their habits and collected specimens.

            The MacMillan River was discovered in 1843 by Robert Campbell, a pioneer

    of the Hudson's Bay Company, and he named it after one of the chief factors of

    that company. During and after the Klondike Rush of 1898 a few trappers and

    prospectors had ascended the MacMillan, but it was not until the summer of 1902

    that it was explored and mapped by Richard George McConnell and Joseph Keele

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    EA-Biography. Whelen: Charles Sheldon

    of the Canadian Geological Survey. Except for this initial mapping, the re–

    gion was practically unknown when Sheldon and Selous entered it in 1904.

            In July 1905 Charles Sheldon, with Tom Jeffries as a helper, ascended

    the Pelly River, Yukon Territory, in a small steamer as far as Nahanni House

    at the mouth of the Ross River. From there, with one pack horse, they ascended

    the Lapie River to its source, this river entering the Pelly from the south

    about 8 miles below Nahanni House, a small one-man trading-post. This was

    probably the first ascent of the Lapie by white men. Here in the heart of the

    Pelly Mountains Sheldon found sheep ranging in color from pure white and typical

    dalli to the much darker and typical fannini and stonei , and in the same bands

    thus proving that Ovis fannini and O. stonei are subspecies of O. dalli , or

    perhaps more properly southern color phases of O. dalli , and not distinct species

    as formerly believed.

            Following his ascent of the Lapie River, Sheldon returned to Nahanni House,

    and from there in a canoe, starting on August 18, 1905, he began the ascent of

    the Ross River which enters the Pelly from the north at Nahanni House. The Ross

    River was discovered by Robert Campbell of the Hudson's Bay Company in his trip

    down the Pelly River in 1843 and was named by him after Duncan Ross, one of the

    chief factors of that company. Four years before Sheldon's ascent several trap–

    pers had ascended the river a short distance and had spent the winter there, but

    otherwise the Ross was unknown when Sheldon made his journey almost to its source.

    In 1907, two years after Sheldon, Joseph Keele ascended and mapped the Ross.

    Near its head, on Mount Sheldon, one band of sheep ( dalli ) were found. The

    valley of the Ross is generally not suitable for sheep.

            Wishing to study the white or Dall sheep of Alaska, Sheldon decided to

    visit the northern slopes of the Alaska Range in the vicinity of Denali - com–

    monly called Mount McKinley. Leaving the junction of the Tanana and Kantishna

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    EA-Biography. Whelen: Charles Sheldon

    rivers July 14, 1906, with Harry Karstens and Jack Hayden as helpers, he

    ascended the latter river as far as small steamer navigation was possible,

    and then with pack horses continued the ascent of the Kantishna to the small

    mining camp of Eureka, and then across the mountain range to the south to the

    Mount McKinley Fork of the Kantishna, and the northern foothills of Denali.

    The party then turned northeast along the foothills of the Alaska Range to

    the headwaters of the Toklat and Taklanika rivers where they found sheep in

    large numbers. Here Sheldon continued his study of the sheep all summer, and

    then returned to Tanana, reaching that town on September 1, 1906.

            In this study Sheldon had been impressed with the inadequacy of observa–

    tions confined to one season, and was convinced that in order to obtain a

    reasonable knowledge of the life history and habits of these interesting animals

    the investigation must be continued over the entire year. With this in view he

    revisited this region the following year and remained from July 1907 until the

    middle of June 1908. He was accompanied again by Harry Karstens as helper. Two

    other men, Wilson and Merrifield, were engaged to help pack in. A cabin was

    built on the Toklat River 3 miles below the junction of the upper east and west

    branches of that river. Here Sheldon remained for an entire year, spending

    most of his days and many nights, summer and winter, high up in the ranges

    studying the sheep. The studies which he made there are the basis for our pres–

    ent knowledge of the habits and life history of these animals.

            While this portion of the Alaska Range had previously been penetrated by

    trappers and prospectors, and possibly by a few mountain climbing parties, and

    while Alfred H. Brooks of the United States Geological Survey had made a recon–

    naissance of this country in 1902, yet, so far as known, Charles Sheldon was

    the first to examine it critically and report on the topography, geology, and

    fauna of the region around the sources of the Toklat and Taklanika rivers.

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    EA-Biography. Whelen: Charles Sheldon

            In addition to the above expeditions, Sheldon made shorter reconnais–

    sances in the Watson River country, Yukon Territory, 1904; Vancouver Island,

    B.C., 1904; and in Alaska - Montague Island, 1905; Queen Charlotte Islands,

    1906; and Admiralty Island, 1909. In later years he made many trips to north–

    ern Mexico, including Tiburon Island for the study of sheep and other desert


            Sheldon was essentially a pioneer and explorer. In most of the countries

    where he hunted there was no one to tell him where or how to go, or what to

    expect when he got there. It was not possible to obtain guides, for there

    were none. He not only had to find the way into the mountains, but he also

    had to find the ranges that were occupied by sheep, the latter a long and ex–

    hausting undertaking in which he risked his life hundreds of times scaling

    canyons and cliffs, and fording mountain torrents. He always hunted entirely

    alone, being intolerant of the distractions, annoyances, failures, and physical

    handicaps of companions.

            Dr. W. W. Nelson, who was probably his most intimate associate, writes of

    Sheldon: "He was a man of forceful personality and outstanding ability, with

    a most unusual gift of clear-headed, well-balanced judgment. These qualities,

    combined with his high personal integrity and the evident pleasure he took in

    being helpful by counsel and advice to his friends, led to the devotion of much

    of his time during many years to calls upon him of this character. The great

    debt the public owes him for his forceful assistance in building up the con–

    servation of our wild life resources, the National Forests and the National

    Parks will never be fully known and appreciated. This is due largely to the

    fact that with all his masterly ability, Sheldon was one of the most self-effac–

    ing men I have ever known when it came to his own part in work with which he was


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    EA-Biography. Whelen: Charles Sheldon

            "Like former President Theodore Roosevelt, who was his close friend,

    Sheldon was a hunter-naturalist of the finest type. Since boyhood he had been

    a keen observer of wild birds and mammals. From the time he came in contact

    with the Biological Survey in 1904 he devoted himself during numerous hunting

    trips for big game in Alaska, Yukon, British Columbia, the United States and

    Mexico to gathering information and specimens for the scientific study series

    of the Biological Survey.

            "Sheldon had a constructive mind as may be indicated by three projects

    accomplished as the result of ideas he first formulated. One was the establish–

    ment of the Mount McKinley National Park, in which he had an intense personal

    interest due to his personal knowledge of the splendid wilderness area. Another

    was the National Conference on Outdoor Recreation, of which he saw the need in

    order to build up teamwork in conservation and outdoor recreation among many

    scattered organizations having similar desires at heart, but often working at

    cross purposes or ineffectively as individuals. His last idea in practical con–

    servation through the help of associates has resulted in the organization of the

    'Wild Fowlers League.'"

            At the time of his death c arles Sheldon was an officer of or otherwise

    active in many organizations of scientists, sportsmen and others who concern

    themselves with natural history and especially with big game. His city residence

    was in Washington, D. C., and his summer home in Nova Scotia.


    Sheldon, Charles Wilderness of the Northern Pacific Coast Islands . Charles

    Scribner's Sons, New York, 1912.

    ----. Wilderness of the Upper Yukon . Charles Scribner's Sons,

    New York, 1913.

    ----. Wilderness of Denali . Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1930.


    Townsend Whelen

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