Gambel's Life: Brief but Brilliant
Dr. William Gambel (1821-1849) may qualify as the most important 19th Century figure in California ornithology. He was the first trained naturalist to spend extensive time on California soil. Before Gambel's arrival, naturalists in California were confined to naval expeditions or brief stays, like Thomas Nuttall's two months in the spring of 1836. Gambel arrived by foot in 1841, and left California at the end of 1843, having experienced all seasons, and visited many parts of the state.
His namesake legacy is a rich one: Gambel's Quail [Callipepla gambelii] and Mountain Chickadee [Poecile gambeli], both of which Gambel first discovered for science. Both are California residents. Named for him are a subspecies of White-crowned Sparrow, and a formerly recognized subspecies of White-fronted Goose both winter in California. Also named for him are a genus of lizard and Gambel's oak, both of which he discovered. In addition he first collected and scientifically described several California birds.
How did a man who died before his 27th birthday accomplish so much?
Gambel was born into an impoverished but educated Irish family near Philadelphia. His father died when young William was nine. His mother began teaching to support her four children. Eldest son, William, followed his interests toward nature study and began working for the aging Nuttall (1786-1859) who was busily writing up his findings on the Pacific Coast. Nuttall was also starting a work on American trees, making collecting trips along the Atlantic seaboard. Thus in the late 1830s young Gambel went along on field trips to the Carolinas, then to New England, as far north as Maine. They surely spent much time discussing what Nuttall had seen in California in 1836, and what Nuttall imagined he had not seen. Gambel was an able student and apprentice collector, his primary interests were minerals and birds. He was also learning plants and mammals from one of the top field naturalists in American history, Nuttall. In 1840 the elder man finished a revised edition of his Ornithology. At that time it was the only complete, popular priced book about American birds, revised to include most of Nuttall and Townsend's observations from the Pacific Coast. Gambel would have known this book by heart.
On page 664, Nuttall credits his young assistant with observations on a Northern Flicker nest:
"My Friend, Mr Gambel, observed
a burrow of this kind in Cambridge [Mass], excavated out of the living trunk of a Sassafras about 15 feet from the ground
Thus, Gambel was well-prepared when he got the chance to travel west with a group of traders in 1841, at age eighteen. He was going as a collector for his mentor, Nuttall.
Gambel travelled via Saint Louis and Independence, reaching Santa Fe on July 2, 1840. Near there that he first saw the Mountain Chickadee. Also nearby, he discovered his namesake oak growing along the upper Rio Grande.
By September he had joined trappers heading to California via the Mormon Trail through Utah. He was the first naturalist to visit that area. Gambel wrote to Nuttall of his quail discovery:
"We met with small flocks of this handsome species some distance [east] of California, in the month of November, inhabiting the most barren brushy plain
here, where a person would suppose it to be impossible for any animal to subsist
By November, 1841, Gambel was on the southern California coast. He collected botanical and zoological specimens there. In November, 1842, he asked the U.S. Navy for protection (this was still Mexican territory) from local Indian tribes. Instead, Gambel was hired as secretary to Commodore Ap-Catesby Jones. (He has a San Francisco street named after him.) When Jones lost his command for mistakenly seizing Monterey, Gambel stayed with the ship and the new commanders. Thus he moved as far north as San Francisco and Monterey and as far south as South America. All with Navy protection.
In 1842 Gambel sent Nuttall a letter from Pueblo Los Angeles with descriptions of 11 southwestern birds, four were new to science: Wrentit, California Thrasher, Oak Titmouse and a bird named for his friend, Nuttall's Woodpecker. The first three were collected near Monterey. By the time he got back to Philadelphia, Gambel was reknowned among natural scientists. John Cassin wrote Spencer Baird in 1845:
"Eureka, Gambel is here with his California birds
some of the most magnificent specimens I ever saw
decidedly the gem of his collection is a most superb specimen of
a beautiful cuckoo-like bird which walks on the ground
The Roadrunner had been previously described from Mexican collectors, but had not been seen by U.S. scientists.
Back in Philadelphia, Gambel was befriended by leading scientists of his time: Cassin, Adolphus Heerman, Spencer Baird, Edward Harris, even meeting the legendary Audubon. Gambel published a series of papers culminating in his list of 176 species seen on the western trip. Much of his information was incorporated into Cassin's book on birds of the Pacific Coast. Gambel drew three plates for Nuttall's book on trees, but the friends would never meet again for Nuttall returned to England in 1842.
Gambel completed medical training, married and planned to begin his medical career in California where the Gold Rush was on. In 1849 he started across country with a group of settlers. His record was already brilliant, his future looked even brighter. En route he made a serious mistake, joining a slower-moving group that promised more time for field collecting. Gambel's party reached Nevada at the end of a very dry fall, losing most of their cattle and horses. Then they hit the east edge of the Sierra after the first snows. Gambel was one of the few survivors of the ill-fated group that made it through the mountains, reaching Rose's Bar on the Yuba River. There, while helping a group of sick gold miners, Gambel himself caught typhoid and died, December 13, 1849. Gambel's bones and Rose's Bar were both sluiced away by hydraulic mining. But he left a legacy worthy of a great naturalist: the Mountain Chickadee and Gambel's trove of original bird observations and one of our most beautiful birds, Gambel's Quail, survive.