© April 20, 2021 by Wisconsin Historical Society Press
Barnes and Noble
About the Book: Thure Kumlien was one of Wisconsin’s earliest Swedish
settlers and an accomplished ornithologist, botanist, and naturalist in the
mid-1800s, though his name is not well known today. He settled on the shore of
Lake Koshkonong in 1843 and soon began sending bird specimens to museums and
collectors in Europe and the eastern United States, including the Smithsonian.
Later, he prepared natural history exhibits for the newly established
University of Wisconsin and became the first curator and third employee of the
new Milwaukee Public Museum.
For all of his achievements, Kumlien never gained the widespread notoriety of Wisconsin naturalists John Muir, Increase Lapham, or Aldo Leopold. Kumlien did his work behind the scenes, content to spend his days in the marshes and swamps rather than in the public eye. He once wrote that he was not “cut out for pretensions and show in the world.” Yet, his detailed observations of Wisconsin’s natural world—including the impact of early agriculture on the environment—were hugely important to the fields of ornithology and botany. As this carefully researched and lovingly rendered biography proves, Thure Kumlien deserves to be remembered as one of Wisconsin’s most influential naturalists.
A poignant, heart-felt prologue featuring the recollections of Thure (TOO reh) Kumlien’s (koom-LEEN) young friend Edward Lee Greene opens this outstanding biographical account of scarcely known Swedish-American naturalist. In Wisconsin’s early European settlement period, mid to late nineteenth century, several personalities took a dedicated interest in identifying and recording Wisconsin’s unique natural features, including flora and fauna. One particular plant, the elusive Linnea borealis, was a cherished signal of what once flourished in the state, and could so easily be lost. This life-long memory sets the tone for Bergland’s biographical account.
Kumlien might not have been the most famous, but the dedication of this farmer educator naturalist to documenting and sharing Wisconsin’s wildlife enriched museums and scientific collections around the world, including the Milwaukee Public Museum, one of my favorite places. “The specimens that men such as Kumlien gathered in the 1840 are even more valuable today than they were then—something these naturalists at least partially understood but probably not the extent that we do now,” for the vast data they reveal about birds and environment. They provide resources for the study of “the effects of industrial pollution, climate change, and genetics.”
Using several samples of Kumlien’s letters and artwork of birds, nests, feathers, and flora, the biography is richly embellished with his own few words, historical photographs and accounts from family members and friends. Details, such as newspaper advertising text for ship passengers emigrating to America, and brief articles about departures and the ports of call enliven the story. Careful attention to fact, such as what was inscribed on tombstones, and not only the date of the Kumlien’s wedding but the future of the Justice of the Peace who married them show the depth of Bergland’s research.
After establishing Kumlien’s well-to-do upbringing in Sweden and the development of his passion for ornithology through the first third of the book, the author divides the chapters into short segments of years from Kumlien’s emigration, marriage, and settlement in Wisconsin in 1843. The sight of Milwaukee, the rawness of the young city being cut from wilderness on the shores of Lake Michigan, may have influenced Kumlien of the need to preserve aspects of nature which could quickly be destroyed. The early section of the book is richly documented through a surviving diary of the era. Kumlien was a gentleman scholar from Sweden, highly educated but not learned about pioneer living. Early struggles and losses dominate Thure and Christina Kumlien’s life at Lake Koshkonong where they lived in a poorly constructed shanty for the first six years of their marriage. Of Kumlien’s introduction to American ornithology, he sold six bushels of potatoes and fees for appraising neighboring property he purchased to pay for a $3 copy of Wilson’s Ornithology, being unable to afford works by Audubon. To earn cash, he used his taxidermy skills and sold mounted birds to friends, neighbors, collectors, and museums. He also collected samples of native flora and seed, small mammals, and insects which he carefully preserved, identified and shipped to universities and museums around the world.
In 1850, as a result of a Janesville Gazette article about Kumlien, he was introduced by letter to Thomas Mayo Brewer of the Boston Society of Natural History. Kumlien began to supply nests, eggs, and bird skins as well as detailed descriptions to Brewer and a large number of other collectors. These years of collecting, observing, identifying were intense times for American ornithologists as they classified and corrected each other and themselves, and occasionally Audubon, when errors were noted. Eventually Kumlien secured a teaching position at a nearby school after the Civil War. The Kumleins had four surviving children and took up various interests, such as tobacco farming, art, and career government offices in fisheries, besides the constant collection, preservation, and sale of various species of wildlife. Kumlien worked on and off during his final years as a conservator and enthusiastic guide at the Milwaukee Public Museum.
Complementing the biography with art from Thure’s great-great-grandson, Bergland’s text is written in a friendly style, including the reader in exploration, discoveries and excitement, tragedy, and joy of life in a new country. Kumlien may never take his rightful place next to Increase Lapham or Aldo Leopold, but I am grateful to have gotten to know him better through this biography.
About the Author: Martha Bergland is the coauthor, with Paul G. Hayes, of Studying Wisconsin—a Society Press biography on famed Wisconsin naturalist Increase Lapham, which won the Milwaukee County Historical Society’s Gambrinus Prize. She taught for many years at Milwaukee Area Technical College, and lives in Glendale, Wisc