The Immigrants Who Supplied the Smithsonian’s Fish Collection

Featured image: A fishmonger at the Chinatown Fish Market in San Francisco c. 1900. Image from Flickr.

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Editor’s NoteThis is the first post in the Seeds 2: New Research in Environmental History” series co-sponsored by NiCHE and Edge Effects, publicising the work of early-career environmental historians. This series serves to highlight new work being done in the field of environmental history and connect this research to other fields and contemporary issues.

by Jessica George

In December 1856, Spencer Fullerton Baird cataloged the Smithsonian Institution’s very first fish specimen: a longnose sucker caught at Lake George in New York state. Less than thirty years later, the Smithsonian had over 30,000 fish entries.

While official histories of North American ichthyology and the Smithsonian’s fish collection credit men like Baird who were responsible for directing the museum and conducting the scientific expeditions that funneled specimens to the museum, there are many now-forgotten collaborators who also contributed to the collection. Working-class fishermen were among the crucial laborers who helped build the national fish collection—though they remain largely invisible in official histories.

By examining the Smithsonian fish collection through the lens of the California fish market, we can see how nineteenth-century fish science flourished thanks to collaborations with racially and ethnically diverse groups of fishermen — despite being a field led by scientific racists like Louis Agassiz and David Starr Jordan. The fishermen who sold Jordan fish for his collection, however, did not always benefit from the work of the fish survey.

Read the rest of this article at Edge Effects here… 

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Jessica George

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