Though not yet recognized nationally, today is American Eagle Day, the anniversary of the eagle’s inclusion on the Great Seal of the United States on June 20, 1782.
Despite also becoming our national emblem in 1789, for decades at the end of the last century the eagle was in dire circumstances. The effects of DDT use and other human interventions wreaked havoc on the country’s eagle population, and it was a rare event to see one in the New York area. But these days, anyone who spends much time in less developed areas near the city may have noticed that eagles are once again becoming a common sight.
Naturally, we look to the eagle’s return from the ravages of DDT but sometimes forget to acknowledge the earlier efforts that led to the passing of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940. While enforcement may then have lagged behind the legislation, it remains the basis for existing protections.
Providing some insight onto the 1940 act is a cache in the papers of former New York governor, William Sulzer, documenting his own letter campaign. In one of his more stirring references, Sulzer highlights Alaska’s bounty on eagles, a law he describes in early 1940 as “iniquitous and criminal.” According to him, the bounty had resulted in hundreds of thousands of eagles being killed. This was almost certainly hyperbole but over time the number was pretty significant nonetheless, and hunting eagles was not uncommon in other parts of the country. More troubling was the reason for the bounty; many mistakenly believed that eagles were guilty of taking young livestock, and potentially young children, among other assumed transgressions. All of this was wildly exaggerated, if not outright falsehood.
Compounding things, the Territory of Alaska was also not subject to the 1940 legislation which did not sit well with Sulzer who had close connections there. In November 1940 he commented: “To desecrate the flag is a crime, but to kill our emblem in Alaska is rewarded with a bounty of $1.00 for every eagle slaughtered.” Fortunately, that changed by the time Alaska gained statehood in 1959.
What becomes very clear from Sulzer’s papers is the eagle’s symbolic role as a consistent argument in supporting its protection. One publication argued that with its adoption as a national symbol, the eagle “ceased being merely a member of a biological species to be dealt with according to human convenience and whimsicality, and became so enthroned in the hearts and minds of all true patriots as to lift it above the sphere of technicality.” Such patriotic declarations remind us that while the eagle is undoubtedly an important example of successful conservation practices, its unique stature has played no small role in broadening appeals for its survival.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe that an animal that for so long has enjoyed such a prominent place in the nation’s iconography could have faced such an uncertain future. Yet its history is nothing if not complicated. With hindsight, a young New Yorker, James F. Maury, managed to capture the essence of the eagle and its long relationship to America after a trip to the Central Park menagerie, in 1865:
Nothing remains of their grandeur but their eyes, plumage is ruffled, torn, dirty by the wires of the cage; but the eye is the same, bold, piercing, undaunted, defiant, & unsubdued, “it has not lost the flash of freedom.”
This post is by Edward O’Reilly, Curator of Manuscripts.