The Enduring Specimen
First published in the May 2009 edition of Solander magazine – copyright remains with the author.
Jorge Contreras is currently a professor of law in Washington DC. In addition to the District of Columbia, he has lived in New York, Florida, Texas, Massachusetts, Missouri and London, England. Professor Contreras’s historical fiction, including The Enduring Specimen is set primarily in nineteenth century Britain and the United States. His novel Inventor’s Fire will be published by Inside Pocket Books and is scheduled for release in November 2012.
11 January 1831
Prof. Charles Wilson Kilgore
Curator of Avian Collections
University Museum of Zoology
Dear Professor Kilgore,
I hope you will forgive my writing to you without formal introduction. My name is Paul Vankirk and I have been referred to you by Professor Julius Steerbridge of Harvard College, who once had the privilege of viewing your magnificent avian collection at Cambridge. Having no other connection in the field of avian anatomy, I write today in the hope that you may be able to assist me in solving a puzzle, one that I hope may be of some small interest to yourself.
First, some background: My surname, Vankirk, is of Dutch origin. My great-grandfather, Antonius Vankirk, arrived from Haarlem in the last century to settle the region then known as New Holland. He, along with a group of fellow settlers, founded a colony along the upper banks of the Hudson River. There, he kept a small farm and raised a sizeable family. After the American Revolution the farm passed to my grandfather, Jan Vankirk. Unfortunately, the winter of 1785 was particularly harsh, and most of my grandfather’s livestock perished, along with the orchard. The farm was ruined, and my grandfather had no choice but to sell all that remained.
After settling his debts, Jan Vankirk moved east with his wife and three young children. He found employment in one of the great textile spinneries. Without burdening you with the details, I note that my grandfather eventually rose in the mill and became a co-owner of the enterprise. Thus his children, my father and his two sisters, who were born into near-poverty, entered adulthood in comfort.
Last month, my grandfather passed away. As my parents are abroad with our missions in Africa, the task of arranging his affairs fell to me. Though I was sorely inadequate to the task, I have done my best to put the estate in order. A few weeks ago, while reviewing some of his papers, I came across the legal instruments evidencing the sale of his old farm on the Hudson. It appears that the land and buildings were purchased by a neighbor and the remainder of the chattels and livestock were sold separately at a pittance.
The list of items thus liquidated was not large, but what it lacked in length it provided in specificity. My grandfather enumerated every spade, rake and feedbag that he sold, as well as the age, weight and description of each of the animals. With nothing better to do one idle afternoon, I read through the entries in which he cataloged the remnants of this long-dispersed homestead. I had nearly finished when one of the carefully-penned lines caught my eye. It read:
Dodaerfen (6) – 41, 45, 47, 49, 50 52 lb., wit, grijf – volgorei
I read enough Dutch to understand that my grandfather was describing six mature animals, white and grey, weighing between 41 and 52 pounds apiece. I did not recognize the word “dodaerfen“, but attributed this to my limited knowledge of both agriculture and the language of my forbearers. As the mysterious creature was grouped together with the hens (hennen), geese (ganzen) and turkeys (kalkoenen), I assumed that the dodaerfen must be some sort of fowl. But having no reason to inquire further, it quickly slipped from my mind.
Then last week, I received a visit from an elderly Dutchman who called himself Pieter Vierhoot and claimed to be the neighbor who had purchased my grandfather’s farm. He first apologized for missing the funeral, explaining that a sudden illness had caught him unawares. Now, however, he was fully recovered and wished to pay his respects. I was happy for the diversion, so spent the greater part of the afternoon with Mr. Vierhoot, showing him my grandfather’s personal effects and listening to his colorful reminiscences. When he mentioned the winter of 1785 and the brutal conditions that drove my grandfather from the Hudson Valley, I recalled the ledger detailing the sale of property and the puzzling entry that I could not translate.
I asked the old man whether he knew the English word for dodaerfen. At first he did not understand me, but when I showed him my grandfather’s ledger he laughed and explained. These birds, he said, my grandfather raised for some reason he could never understand. Their meat was tough and stringy, they laid very few eggs, and the smell, he pinched his nose, was indescribable. I was intrigued by his description and became even more curious about the nature of the animals. Vierhoot could not recollect the English name of the fowl, but at my urging was able to produce a crude sketch of its general outline and form.
I am, as you have probably gathered, no student of natural history. However, even an amateur like myself cannot remain wholly unaware of the discoveries being made of late in this field. After seeing the sketch made by my grandfather’s friend, I recalled a lecture that I attended last year in New Haven. The speaker was a flamboyant Frenchman who claimed to have discovered a new cache of fossil bones in the vicinity of Paris. His subject was the theory of extinction, which holds that over the ages, certain animal species have, for reasons unknown to us, disappeared entirely from the earth. He cited examples in support of this fantastic theory, including that of a certain bird, named doudo by the Portuguese, which inhabited an island somewhere in East Indies. This bird was apparently well-known to sailors in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Yet, the Frenchman claimed, sometime during the middle of the seventeenth century the creature vanished completely, and no living specimen has been seen since. I still recall the Frenchman’s almost comical illustration of the island bird. To my mind, it bears a striking resemblance to the fowl sketched by old Mr. Vierhoot in my father’s study.
And now to the point of this rambling missive: I know that it must sound farfetched, but I write today, Professor Kilgore, simply to ask whether it is possible that the dodaerfen birds raised by my uncle on the banks of the Hudson could have been descendants of this East Indian doudo.
I have enclosed a copy, by my own clumsy hand, of Mr. Vierhoot’s drawing. I would be grateful if you could provide me with your opinion, as the foremost modern expert in avian anatomy and taxonomy, whether there is enough of a resemblance to warrant such a hypothesis, and whether you have heard of any similar occurrences of the bird in other regions of the globe.
Your assistance with this inquiry would mean a great deal to me and to my family.
Your humble servant,
P. J. Vankirk, M.Div.
18 February 1831
Prof. Charles Kilgore
Curator of Avian Collections
University Museum of Zoology
Dear Professor Kilgore,
I thank you for your thorough and well-considered response to my letter, and appreciate your skepticism at the unlikely possibility that I have raised, particularly on such scant evidence. I hope, however, that you will indulge the fancy of an imaginative young man for just a few moments more, as I attempt to address some of the questions that you raised.
First, the engraving of the doudo that you enclosed is most informative. I admit that it deviates in some regards from the drawing made by Mr. Vierhoot, but please bear in mind that he is an old man whose hand and eye are no longer steady. Moreover, he was working from a memory of a creature he last beheld nearly a half century ago. In my humble estimation, the overall form of the two birds appears to be similar, and their large hooked beaks, stout legs and clawed feet bear enough resemblance at least not to refute my theory outright.
Second, you asked whether any member of my family has ever traveled to the East Indies. To my knowledge, they have not. My great-grandparents emigrated to the United States (then New Holland) from the Dutch town of Haarlem. My great-grandfather was a shoemaker, and his first and only sea voyage was the one that brought him to the New World. It is thus doubtful that he would have encountered the doudo in its native land, which you have kindly identified as the island of Mauritius, and even less likely that he would have acquired any of the birds during such a voyage.
But here is a fact of which you may not be aware: today’s Hudson River, which formed the primary conduit for the Dutch settlers of upper New York, was not originally known by this name. No, when Henry Hudson first navigated that mighty watercourse two centuries ago, he named it not for himself, but in honor of his patron, the Prince of Orange, Maurits van Nassau. Thus, the river’s first European name was Mauritius, precisely the same as that borne by the East Indian island also discovered under that prince’s flag, and which was home to the strange bird of which we speak.
Thus I pose the following scenario to you: imagine that my great-grandfather Antonius Vankirk, shoemaker of Haarlem, heard of the good living to be made in the lush valleys of New Holland, particularly along the banks of the River Mauritius. Is it not possible that this uneducated man encountered a sailor in the marketplace selling a pair of birds recently brought back from the Indies? And is it not possible that my great-grandfather, upon hearing that the fowl were native to a land called Mauritius, of which he knew nothing, would have thought them ideally suited to the climate along the great American river of the same name, of which he knew only slightly more? Could he not have purchased these birds, or won them at dice, or received them as a dowry, or acquired them in any of a thousand different ways, and then transported them across the ocean to his new home in New World? Such a theory may seem fantastical, but surely not impossible.
Yours in faith,
Prof. Chas. Kilgore
Mus. of Zoology
Dear Prof. Kilgore,
Thank you for the further information concerning Raphus cucullatus, commonly known as the “dodo”. I did not realize how scarce the creature’s remains are, nor how difficult even to find a reliable likeness. Are you quite certain that no other preserved specimen exists? (Of course you are certain, else you would not have written it!)
What a loss to science that the last exemplars of this curious bird have been consigned to the ash heap. I can only assume that the well-intentioned curators at Oxford who disposed so summarily of the poor creature’s remains (such a depredation would never have occurred at Cambridge, I am sure) did so out of ignorance, and am astonished that no other specimen survives in any museum of Europe or America. Perhaps the foot and skull that reside at Oxford will someday be reunited with the rest of the elusive creature’s body.
But how much greater a boon to science than some moldering, stuffed bird in a glass cabinet would be a living, enduring specimen of the species? Pure fantasy, I admit – but more on this later.
Yours very truly,
July 14, 1831
Professor Chas Kilgore
Curator — Avian Collections
Museum of Zoology
Dear Prof. Kilgore,
Regrettably, a series of familial obligations has kept me from my correspondence, so I beg your forgiveness for my tardy reply.
I thank you for the additional information regarding R. cucullatus. I must admit that the plight of these awkward fowl has become something of a hobby for me. I am particularly troubled by the fact that so many learned scholars, yourself among them, believe that the doudo has vanished entirely from the earth. Or that it has become, in the words of the Frenchman, extinct.
This theory of extinction has always struck me as suspect. God created all creatures according to His divine plan. Why, then, would he permit an entire species, no matter how insignificant, to perish completely? Such a result would imply that the Creator had erred in creating the creatures at all, a conclusion that is unthinkable. Or, to consider the question from a different perspective, we have learned, from ancient times, that every creature, from the meanest insect to the angels above, forms a link in His great chain of creation. Breaking any link in this chain would cause the entirety of creation to become unstable, for if one race of creatures could so disappear, why not others? Why not all? Nature replenishes itself when replenishment is needed. A state in which entire species may vanish is contrary to the natural and the divine order of things.
If man can no longer find exemplars of certain species, then the absence must be due to some failure of man, rather than of God. Perhaps the creatures have retreated to deeper reaches of the jungle, or to lands still unseen by human eyes. Here in America we are continually amazed by reports of the endless forests, mountains and deserts that lay to our west, unexplored and unknown. Every expedition yields discoveries of birds, plants and animals never before encountered. Why should we not also find the brethren of those species that scholars have given up as extinct? Is it not possible that the vast plains, valleys and mountaintops of our continent, not to mention the darkest reaches of Africa, the primeval jungles of Amazonia and the countless islands of the Pacific, have sheltered these shy members of God’s creation from our prying eyes? Perhaps even our friend R. cucullatus, through the unlikely intervention of my great-grandfather, may have found sanctuary somewhere on these virgin shores.
Yours in faith,
7 Beaufort Square
Prof. Chas. Kilgore
My dear Prof. Kilgore,
No apologies are necessary! I took nothing amiss in your latest correspondence. I understand that you are a man of science and that nothing will persuade you to my viewpoint but hard, cold facts. It is for this reason that I am eager to tell you about an astonishing discovery that I have made in connection with our friend the doudo. To wit: the elusive fowl may, in fact, still be alive and well, perhaps as near as Virginia!
I beg your indulgence while I relate some recent facts that have come to light in this matter. The gentleman who purchased my grandfather’s livestock was named in the deed as J.Q. Morley of Morley & Sons, Philadelphia. As it turns out, one of my companions from college, Mr. James Whitfield, belongs to an old Philadelphia family. Upon recalling his connection to the city, I wrote to my friend inquiring about Morley & Sons. To my surprise, he informed me that the firm still exists, today dealing primarily in the export of tobacco and cotton. Feeling that a visit was due to my friend, I promptly removed to the “City of Brotherly Love”, from which I write today.
Upon arriving in Philadelphia I paid a visit to Morley & Sons. With some effort, I persuaded the clerk to show me a thick, dust-laden folio whose calfskin binding was engraved with the barely-legible year 1785. The book was the company’s ledger of all transactions effected during the year in question. After becoming accustomed to the style of mercantile entries, I quickly found the ones pertaining to the purchase of my grandfather’s assets.
The ledger revealed that the farm’s contents were conveyed from New York to Norfolk, Virginia. In Norfolk they resided at a warehouse for some weeks, until they were sold at auction to a man named Thomson. Beyond his name and the price at which he purchased the inventory, I found no information regarding this Mr. Thomson. Nevertheless, I intend to follow this trail as far as it will take me, and shall keep you apprised of my progress.
Your humble servant,
October 15, 1831
Professor Charles Kilgore
Dear Prof. Kilgore,
I believe that we are now closer to the doudo than ever before! I write to you from Norfolk, Virginia, where my rooms overlook the sad remnants of what was once a bustling harbor. From my small window I can see the docks where, fifty years ago, the remains of my grandfather’s bankrupt farm were unloaded. Nearby is the site of the warehouse where his goods were auctioned and sold to Mr. Thomson.
Unfortunately, the warehouse and its surrounding buildings were destroyed by fire some years ago. All that remains on the site is a barbarous open-air market, where the commodities for sale are human. Yesterday, my friend Mr. Whitfield and I had the misfortune to witness an auction conducted at this location. The miserable wretches who stood captive on the platform, men, women and children alike, were bound hand and foot, their skin blistered from the lash. The plantation buyers poked and prodded them like cattle, the auctioneer announced their bodily attributes with the compassion of a mule trader. We left in disgust after witnessing only a few minutes of this shameful spectacle.
Our immediate goal was to discover the identity of Mr. Thomson, the purchaser of my late grandfather’s flock of dodaerfen. In this, at least, we had some luck. There are several families named Thomson living in the vicinity of Norfolk and Hampton Roads. After speaking with a knowledgeable clerk at the county records office, however, it became clear that most of these arrived in the area more recently than 1785. What’s more, the few Thomson families living in the region prior to this time were not engaged in agriculture, making it unlikely that they would have purchased the animals and equipment from my grandfather’s farm.
The clerk did, however, recall a man named William Thomasson, a British deserter who settled in the area after the Revolution. He married the daughter of a prosperous cotton merchant and purchased a farm some twenty-five miles south and west of Norfolk. Thomasson did a thriving business with the British who remained in Norfolk and his farm quickly grew into a sizeable plantation. We agreed that this William Thomasson might well be the Mr. Thomson appearing in the records of Morley & Sons.
If this is the case, we are in luck. Although William Thomasson died a few years ago, his son still runs the plantation. And while the family fortunes have fallen on hard times, they still produce a sizeable crop of tobacco every year.
I have just written to this son, Thaddeus, requesting an audience. Given the slow pace of change in this region, I would not be surprised if the descendants of the original livestock procured by William Thomasson still survive on the plantation, not only hens and geese but the enigmatic doudo as well. If I am correct, then we may be close to identifying the first live specimens of R. cucullatus to be so recognized in nearly two centuries, and dealing a mortal blow to the theory of extinction!
I shall let you know as soon as we hear a response from the current Mr. Thomasson, and what we discover upon visiting his farm.
Sincerely yours in faith,
12 January 1832
Prof. Charles Wilson Kilgore
University Museum of Zoology
Dear Professor Kilgore,
particularly given my earlier enthusiasm. I fear that I have not kept my promise to report promptly on the results of my expedition to discover the doudo. I can only hope that, once you have read this letter, you will understand my inability, until now, to face the memory of those awful days, let alone to write about them in any coherent manner.
I believe that my last correspondence to you was in mid-October, just after my friend Mr. Whitfield and I arrived at Norfolk, Virginia. As you may recall (and there is no reason that you should), we identified a certain William Thomasson as the likely buyer of my grandfather’s chattels in 1785. We wrote to the current Mr. Thomasson requesting an interview, but after two weeks we had still received no reply.
Despite the planter’s silence, Mr. Whitfield and I decided to pay a visit to this farm, which is known locally as Mare’s Head Manor. We encountered expressions of surprise and dismay as we tried to hire a coach to convey us to the plantation, and only succeeded in this effort through a combination of determination, charm and a reasonable outlay of cash. We thus managed to engage a deaf mute with a pair of nags and a vegetable cart to convey us to the place. Not knowing what to expect, we borrowed a pair of revolvers from an army captain known to Mr. Whitfield and set out on a rainy morning in late October. We splashed dejectedly along the muddy road west from Norfolk, the odor of rotting vegetation still pungent within the cramped interior, for what seemed like an interminable day. The storm worsened as we progressed, requiring us to spend the night at a decrepit roadside inn.
The next morning we rose early to a withering sun that turned the muddy road into a bog thick with mosquitoes and fleshy toads who marked our progress with their guttural croaking. The oppressive heat and the steam rising from the rain-soaked ground drenched us in sweat, and by the time we reached the narrow path that led to Mare’s Head we presented such an unsavory picture that we feared being turned away as brigands.
We had little to fear. As our carriage crested a small hillock bordering the plantation, we beheld a scene of unprecedented desolation. Where we expected to see fields brimming with tobacco ready for the harvest, we saw only unkempt weeds. A dilapidated series of outbuildings clustered to our right, most sorely in need of repair and a few evidencing signs of recent fire. Smoke, in fact, still wafted eastward from the remains of a collapsing pig sty, its porcine inhabitants now rooting freely through the fields. A once-proud plantation house stood a few hundred yards distant, but even at that range we saw visible signs of neglect and, perhaps, violence. Several of the windows had been broken, shutters hung crookedly on their hinges and seemingly recent scorch marks marred the white clapboard near the servants wing. Other than the pigs and a few stray geese, there were no signs of life on the plantation.
We approached the house with some trepidation, ordering our nervous driver to wait with the carriage nearby. The majestic front door of the manor house stood slightly ajar, its polished mahogany surface, carved with two finely-executed mares, was marred by more than a few deep gouges. Bullet holes, my friend Mr. Whitfield observed. We checked our own pistols and knocked loudly. After a few minutes of silence, we cautiously opened the door and entered the house.
The great hall was empty, its tapestries laying in remnants on the marble floor among dried leaves and dirt that had blown in from outside. The rest of the mansion was in no better condition. As we wandered through its empty halls, now little more than trespassers, we encountered once-grand chambers filled with crumbling plaster, broken glass and shattered furnishings. We finally found Thaddeus Thomasson, the master of the ruined plantation, in an oak-paneled library where he lay slumped over an imposing desk. He was not dead, only dead drunk.
It was a while before Mr. Thomasson acknowledged our presence, and even longer before he realized that we meant him no harm. I do not think that the planter ever fully understood our purpose in visiting his estate, but he tried to be helpful in answering our questions. His cooperation increased once Mr. Whitfield offered him a flask of bourbon, upon which Mr. Thomasson declared that his plantation had been subject to a slave uprising.
He explained, between sobs and deep swallows from the flask, that the simple minds of the servants who had worked the land since his father’s day had been poisoned by a young firebrand purchased in Richmond only recently. This man, the leader of the revolt, had somehow persuaded the rest of the plantation workers that their lot would be improved by casting off their shackles and fleeing into the great swamp that bordered the estate. Thomasson could not understand their ingratitude or their reprehensible disregard for his property. What could they hope to accomplish, he asked, by fleeing into the swamp? Did they expect to spend the rest of their days living in mud hovels eating snakes and tree slugs? Why would they do this when he had given them shelter and food and civilization enough? Perhaps he should have beaten them more.
We did not have the heart to interrupt Mr. Thomasson’s drunken musings. When he paused, however, to take another draught from the flask, we recalled the purpose of our expedition and inquired about the animals. Mr. Thomasson stared at us with incomprehension. We showed him our renditions of the doudo, both a copy of the sketch made by Mr. Vierhoot, as well as the engraving that you so kindly provided. The planter regarded us with bleary eyes. “The turkeys?” he asked. “You’ve come about the damnable turkeys?” When we nodded he began to laugh, but was quickly seized by a fit of coughing that brought up strands of speckled mucous from his polluted lungs. I offered him a handkerchief which he refused and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He told us that the remains of the turkey coops were among the outbuildings, but that the mutineers took all the animals with them. He was left with nothing but a few pigs.
My dear professor, if you have concluded at this juncture that our only rational course of action was to thank our pathetic host and return to Norfolk, you would have been correct. However, for reasons that I cannot fully explain, Mr. Whitfield and I did not elect the rational course. Perhaps my desire to find an enduring specimen of the doudo had become an obsession; perhaps I simply could not face the return empty-handed; perhaps the doudo had become emblematic of something more to me. But for whatever reason, instead of finding our driver and attempting to make Norfolk before nightfall, we borrowed a pair of horses from Mr. Thomasson and set off into the swamp, in pursuit of the mutineers.
I shall not trouble you with the details. Suffice it to say that the Great Dismal Swamp well-deserves its appellation, and that Dante, had he visited America before penning his epic Inferno, would have based at least one of his circles of hell on that desolate place.
We found the mutineers just a half-day’s ride from the plantation. Even through the swamp, their trail was broad and clear. They were, of course, all dead. Strung from the sagging willows one after another, naked, like meat in a butcher’s display. May God have mercy on their souls.
We should have realized that they had no chance. The federal troops, armed and on horseback, had shown no mercy. Children swung limply beside their parents, women beside their husbands. The remnants of a large bonfire, disposing of their clothing and scant possessions, still smoldered nearby. Overhead the crows had already begun their grisly feast. I became sick and required the assistance of Mr. Whitfield to remount.
As you have probably surmised, there was no sign of the doudos anywhere at the site. Perhaps they had been confiscated by the troops, or roasted on the fire, or set free into the swamp where they continue to wander today. In any event, neither of us had the stomach to continue the search. The fate of the elusive bird became suddenly insignificant in the face of that gruesome spectacle. We had hoped to discover an enduring specimen of the doudo to settle the debate over the creature’s fate; what we found revealed far more about own blighted race.
Thus, Professor Kilgore, we returned. First to Norfolk and then to Philadelphia, empty-handed. It was a long time before we could speak of the dreadful scene that we had encountered. Eventually, when our silence became too overbearing, Mr. Whitfield left for Europe, and I returned home to Massachusetts.
I do not know whether a specimen of that ancient fowl, the doudo, endures somewhere in the deep swamps of Virginia or in some other hidden refuge unknown to man. Perhaps the Frenchman and the other men of science are correct. Perhaps the bird is extinct, every last representative of its species eradicated from the face of the earth. At this point, dear Professor, I can no longer pretend to know God’s plan for our world or the miserable creatures who dwell upon it. I can only pray for us all, and fervently hope that you shall do the same.
Yours in faith,
Paul J. Vankirk, M.Div.
Editor’s Note: The curious letters reprinted above are catalogued among the scientific papers of Professor Charles Wilson Kilgore (1771-1846), Distinguished University Professor of Comparative Zoology and Curator of the Cambridge Avian Specimens collection (Cat. Nos. CWK.1830.15 et seq.). Professor Kilgore’s correspondent, Reverend Paulus Joseph Vankirk (1807-1859) is reported to have died in an outbreak of yellow fever while conducting missionary work in Tangiers. His wife, Judith, and only child, Amanda, are believed to have died at or about the same time. There are no known descendants. Professor Kilgore’s return correspondence to Rev. Vankirk is presumed lost.
Posted by Richard Lee