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Charles Sheldon: Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Charles Sheldon

(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

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

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

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.

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

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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