Oregon Historical Quarterly/Volume 1/Dr. Elliott Coues


The untimely passing of Dr. Elliott Coues, scientist and historian, has deprived the Historical Society of Oregon of the pleasure of making acknowledgments to the living man of its appreciation of the invaluable work he has done, touching the history of the Northwest, and particularly of Oregon, in the latter part of the eighteenth and early part -of the nineteenth centuries. Doctor Coues' personal bias was towards the natural sciences, in which he was distinguished, both as to the quantity and quality of the matter produced, on ornithology, mammalogy, herpetology, comparative anatomy, natural philosophy, psychical research, etc.[1] Incidentally, through his researches in natural history, which led him to explore wilderness regions, he became a historian of more than ordinary value, for he was never satisfied with his work until he had gone to the very bottom of his subject. The books and manuscripts which he edited became original histories in his hands, from his almost incredible industry in bringing to light facts to verify or disprove the author's statements. With all the care of a genealogist he followed a clue leading to the identity of the persons mentioned in the writings before him, or the places named. His insight into, and industry in exploiting the fading records of the past was extraordinary, amounting to genius. His editorial revision of the journal of Lewis and Clark, has added immensely to the value of that work, so interesting to Oregonians, and should revive our zeal for the study of early history.[2]

But of all the work done by Doctor Coues none has interested me more than his abridgment of and notes upon the journal of Alexander Henry and David Thompson, two of the leaders of the Northwest Fur Company, almost a century ago, extending over a period of fourteen years, and covering the ground from Lake Superior to the mouth of the Columbia, whose ruthless waters at the last swallowed up Henry, May 22, 1814.

This journal was at Astoria at that date, and we hear in it of the carpenter making an oak chest for it, or "for my papers," as Henry writes it. Covering so long a period, it was very voluminous. It was carried to Hudson's Bay, but perhaps because of this, and because its author was dead, it was never made public. When Doctor Coues found it the paper was much worn, and the writing in places illegible; but that did not deter him from entering upon the task of preparing it for publication. Not only is the journal itself of great interest, but the notes and explanations attached to almost every page are wonderfully complete. The enormous bulk of Henry's matter is reduced by its editor, together with his notes, to 916 pages, in two volumes, without the sacrifice of facts, giving us a clear account of the country's history not obtainable in any, or all other, writers.

A little more personal notice may not be out of place here as significant of the man. In January, 1898, I received a letter from Doctor Coues desiring me to send him a copy of the River of the West, "with any erroneous passages it may possibly contain corrected in your (my) own hand," and asking me to give him information on some subjects which he named, and among them, the origin of the name "Lawyer," as applied to a Nez Perce chief; also asking the meaning of the word "Lo-Lo," whether it was a personal name, etc.[3] He understood that an author is pretty sure to find "erroneous passages" in books that an honest writer must be willing to correct; besides, he wished to avoid quoting others' errors.

From that date to his death we were in frequent correspondence, and when the Oregon Historical Society was formed, he was made acquainted with the fact, on which he expressed a desire to be made a member. It is not too late to thus honor the man who has given the state a chapter of its history hitherto unrevealed.

Mrs. Coues, in a letter replying to one of mine, says: "His home life and ways would hardly interest the public, they were so simple and quiet, with a wonderful appreciation of any little thing that was done for his comfort. I think the one characteristic that stands out the most prominently was, 'Now, I have finished that piece of writing. I have begun another.'" To finish a work was not an occasion for rest, but to put forth fresh energy for other effort. Francis P. Harper, his publisher, says: "He had a capacity for work that was almost beyond belief, and was always prompt and business-like. He was a firm and trustworthy friend, and an ideal author for a publisher to have business relations with." His printer (in the Osprey office, Washington), adds: "I have had years of experience with various authors and editors, and can truthfully say his genial friendship and appreciation stands out markedly beyond all others.' "He never neglected a letter," says Mrs. Coues, "although from a total stranger, asking for assistance. He gave it if he could, most generously, and if unable, gave a courteous answer, and a reason. I myself have counted sixty letters he had written in about six hours not merely a reply of a few lines. His one great desire in life was a search after truth, and kept his mind receptive to all that could give him a clue."

Doctor Coues spent the summer of 1899 in New Mexico, making researches in his usual energetic fashion "forgetful of his fifty-seven years" as he wrote me after returning home ill. It was not years, however, that bore so heavily upon him; but the crowding of five yearswork into one. This it was that deprived the world of his incomparable services in the very fullness of his intellectual powers.

Doctor Coues was the son of Samuel Elliott Coues and Charlotte Haven Ladd Coues, born at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, September 9, 1842. His literary tastes were inherited from his father, who was a writer on scientific subjects. He was educated at Ganzaga College and Columbia University, Washington, D. C., from which he graduated in 1861. He continued to reside at the capital, and his life was spent in contact with all that was strongest and best in a nation which his talents helped to make conspicuous in the fields of science and literature. His death occurred at Johns Hopkin's Hospital, Baltimore, December 25, 1899. The State of Oregon cannot fail to place his name high among the fathers of her early history.


  1. Principal Works: "Key to North American Birds," '72; "Field Ornithology," '74; "Birds of the Northwest," '74; "Fur-Bearing Animals," '77; "Monographs of North America Bodentia (with Allen)," '77; "Birds of the Colorado Valley," '78; "Ornithological Bibliography," '78-'80; "New England Bird Life (with Stearns)," '81; "Check List and Dictionary of North American Birds," '82; "Avifauna Columbiana (with Prentiss)," '83; "Biogen, a Speculation on the Origin and Nature of Life," '84; "New Key to North American Birds," '84; "The Daemon of Darwin," '84; "Code of Nomenclature and Check List of North American Birds (with Allen, Bidgway, Brewster, and Henshaw)," '86; "A Woman in the Case," '87; "Neuro-Myology (with Shute)," '87; "Signs of the Times," '88. Also author of several hundred monographs and minor papers in scientific periodicals, and editor or associate editor for some years of the Bulletin of the United States Geological Survey, Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club, American Naturalist, American Journal of Otology, Encyclopaedia Americana, Standard Natural History, The Auk, The Biogen Series, Die Sphinx (Liepsig), The Century Dictionary of the English Language (in General Biology, Comparative Anatomy and all departments of Zoology), The Travels of Lewis and Clark, &c.
  2. See the "American Explorers Series," published by Francis P. Harper, for Coues' work in this line. His last was "On the Trail of a Spanish Pioneer."
  3. I have since learned that Lolo is not an Indian word, but is the Indian pronunciation of the word Lawrence—the letter r not being sounded in the native tongue. A mingling of the French sound of the other letters in the word produces the word as pronounced by the Indians.