GAMBEL, William

From Islapedia

GAMBEL, William (1823-1849), naturalist born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the oldest of three children and only son born to William Gamble and his second wife, Elizabeth Richardson, after his first wife died. During his teens, the young William Gambel (who apparently preferred this spelling of his last name), was befriended by naturalist, Thomas Nuttall, with whom he traveled on extended natural history expeditions to the south and to New England.

William Gambel was the first naturalist across the Southwest. In the spring of 1841 Gambel headed to the west coast via Independence, Missouri, and then by caravan to Santa Fe, where he arrived in July. Gambel joined the Rowland-Workman party, which followed the Old Spanish Trail into the Los Angeles basin. In mid-February 1842 and again in April 1842, Gambel visited Santa Catalina Island, where he observed both Bald Eagles and Osprey. At the time, the island was still owned by the Mexican government. Gambel later joined the American Pacific Squadron aboard the U.S.S. Cyane, an 18-gun sloop-of-war, which was patrolling the Mexican coast of Alta California. Gambel remained aboard in a secretarial capacity, during which time he traveled along the North and South American coasts and to the Sandwich (Hawaiian) islands. In 1845, the ship was ordered to return to Boston, and Gambel arrived back in Philadelphia in mid-August, 1845.

October 12, 1848 Gambel, by now also a physician and in his mid-twenties, married Catherine M. Towson in Philadelphia. They had no children. May 27, 1849 Gambel resigned his duties as Assistant Curator at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences [ANS] and on April 5 he departed overland once again for the west coast, a trip which would prove to be his last.

On December 13, 1849 William Gambel died of typhoid fever at Rose’s Bar on the Yuba River, Alta California at 27 years of age. Gambel was one of the first naturalists to do important natural history work in what was to become the state of California in 1850. His surviving specimens are at Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, and include a bald eagle skin from California with no collection location listed. Gambel’s quail (Callipepla gambelii) and the Mountain chickadee (Parus gambeli) are named for Gambel.

Gambel collected on:

He was the first to collect botanical specimens on a California Channel Island.

GAMBEL, William “Born in New Jersey (?) about 1919; died of typhoid fever at Rose's Bar, on Feather River, California, December 13, 1849, while attempting to cross the Sierra in mid-winter. Gambel was a protégé of Nuttall and crossed the continent in 1841 via the Santa Fe Trail and then from Utah to California via the Mormon Trail with the Workman Party. In 1842 he was employed by Com. Jones as clerk on the Cyane and spent several years in California collecting at various points along the coast, chiefly in the vicinity of the Missions, as far north as San Francisco Bay. He was the first ornithologist to spend any length of time in the state and his papers are the most important of the early publications on the birds of California. He described several characteristic birds including the Elegant Tern, Buttall's Woodpecker, California Thrasher, Plain-crested Titmouse, Wren-tit, Cassin's Auklet, Blanding's Finch or Green-tailed Towhee, and Mountain Chickadee. Three of his names have proved to be synonyms. His Mergulus cassini, as Cassin suspected, was a synonym of Ptychoramphus aleuticus, Fringilla blandingiana described in 1843 proved to have been named F. chlorura by Audubon four years previously, and his Parus montanus was preoccupied and has been renamed P. gambeli. In addition to the Mountain Chickadee, four other birds have been named in his honor: a Goose (Anser gambeli), a Quail (Lophortys gambeli), a White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia gambeli) and a Shrike (Lanius gambeli). The sub-generic name Gambelia, proposed for a group of lizards, Crotaphytus (Gambelia) wislizenii, was dedicated to him by Baird in the report on the Reptiles of the Mexican Boundary Survey, but apparently has never come into use.”

  • 1847. Gambel, William Remarks on the Birds observed in Upper California Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 3:154-158, 1847

  • 2006. Beidleman, Richard C. William Gambel: The First Naturalist Across the Southwest California's Frontier Naturalists, Berkeley: UC Press, (2006).

October 23, 2006 in a letter to the Santa Cruz Island Foundation, author Richard Beidleman notes:

With respect to Gambel serving with the U.S. Navy, you may be able to find more specific details than I put in the book, namely that he joined, thanks to efforts of the United States' assistant surgeon, R. T. Maxwell, the crew of that ship under Cap. Catesby Jones in late October or during November 1842. At any rate, when the United States left for Hawaii on November 22, and Jones moved his pennant to the Cyane in Monterey, Gabbel was definitely with Jones as his 'clerk.' On January 21, 1844, when Jones in Callao left for the USS Constitution and headed for the East Coast, Gambel transferred to the Savannah, presumably leaving the navy by March, 1845, to return to Philadelphia. In National Archives the specifics might exist in naval records. Gene Smith's book on Jones is helpful, but Gambel is never mentioned!
Typically, Gambel's plant collections went to Nuttall in England (eventually) via Philadelphia. But in Nuttall's letter of July 2, 1845 to Gambel (Hist. Soc. Penn.), Nuttall wrote: 'Your collection of dried plants I can get sold for you, here as well possible, as skins of birds, &c...' By the way, Nuttall had returned to England, more or less permanently, in 1842. Personally, I doubt that any birds were sent to Nuttall in England! I'll have to add another tidbit about shipping things to Nuttall from Gambel. Nuttall wrote a letter to Geroge Englemann in St. Louis ca. 1841 at the time of Gambel's first trip west, that Gambel was to ship to Englemann by the last express from Santa Fe in the fall of 1841 the plants which he had collected so far for Nuttall. Believe it or not, before 1965 (!) I had jotted the note after the above information that 'It would seem probable that Gambel shipped specimens of animals as well as plants to Englemann on this express.' This was penned by me when I was writing an article for Smithsonian Proceedings on lizards Gambel had collected from New Mexico. But I still think no way birds from Gambel to Nuttall in England.
Now, re the Bald Eagle nest. In Gambel's article in Proc. Adac. Nat. Sci. Phila. Vol. 3, 1846-47, p. 45. 'I have found the nest on high balanced isolated rocks along the coast, containing eggs as early as the middle of February.' He was on Santa Catalina Island during February! In his write-up on the Osprey, he wrote (same page — 45) 'At Santa Catalina I have found them (= Osprey) nesting on the precipitous cliffs in February, along with the Bald Eagles.' In late January (ca 21st 1942) Gambel left San Pedro on the Alert for Monterey, returning to San Pedro early in February. Did Alert stop in Santa Barbara (check log). Gambel was in Santa Barbara April-May, on is way to live with Hartnell. If he did visit one of the Channel Islands, it could have been during these two periods, but I have never encountered any statement to that fact... Dick Beidleman [Dr. Richard G. Beidleman]

In the News~

February 16, 1842: “Morning cloudy. Wind light at SE. Boating off hides and tallow, Dr. Gamble, a young gent from Philadelphia, who lately crossed the Rocky Mountains for the purpose of Botanizing and picking up ‘nice things’ in California, met me on shore this morning and came on board to dinner.” » Busch, B. C. (ed.) Alta California 1840-1842. The Journal and Observations of William Dane Phelps, Master of the Ship Alert (p. 266). Glendale: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1983.

June 15, 1842: “Morning foggy and calm. Employed in taking on board provision and vegetables. 4 PM fresh breezes from West. Got under weigh. Passengers Messrs. Robinson, Mellus & Gamble, the latter a young Philadelphian (una naturalista). Midnight pleasant. Ship near Santa Cruz [Island].”  » Busch, B. C. (ed.) Alta California 1840-1842. The Journal and Observations of William Dane Phelps, Master of the Ship Alert (p. 304). Glendale: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1983.

February 1842 [or 1843? ~check]: The earliest historical notice of a bald eagle on the California Channel Islands was recorded by William Gambel on his trip to Santa Catalina Island in February, 1842 (Gambel 1846); he reported bald eagles nesting on “precipitous cliffs.”