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Memorial

Joseph Beale Steere
The Michigan Alumnus 345, 352

Joseph Deal Steere - Naturalist, 
 Explorer, Educator
By Frederick M. Gaige, '14, 
Director, Museum of Zoology



Michigan's Dean of Naturalists Passes His Ninetieth Birthday - The Story
 of His Scientific Pioneering Is a Romance of Adventure


In faded writing on the worn 
pages of Journal B of the Uni
versity Museum—log book of its
 middle history—under date of Oc
tober 23, 1875, is the following entry: 
 "J. B. Steere, our collector, arrived Thursday eve
ning, October 21, after an absence of more than five
 years. He brought with him three packages as follows. 
 His number 76 is a basket with insects and birds from 
the East Indies. 75 is a can filled with insects and
 fruits. 78 consists of 2 paper boxes with 16 New 
Guinea bird skins."


A simple entry, yet it meant a new naturalist had
 completed a project calling for a high degree of skill 
and courage and which was to make his name familiar 
to the scientific world; it meant that a young man had 
fulfilled a desire born in him to study nature in its 
many aspects, an interest that would never leave him; 
and it meant that the Museum of the University had
 definitely entered the field of world exploration and
 research. 


The need of space for the study, storage and display
 of the thousands of specimens assembled by Dr. Steere
 in his five years of collecting was to hasten the erection
 of a museum building by the University, the first 
building of its kind in a state university. The presence 
on the Campus of these collections still interest the
 people of the state has widened the viewpoint of gen
erations of students, and the researches carried on with 
this material have contributed substantially to scientific 
knowledge. The impetus given by this expedition to 
the activities of the Museum is evident to this day. 


Honors have come to him from many sources, he 
has been member of some of the great learned societies
 of the world, and his writings in their journals and else-
where have played important parts in the literature of 
his fields of interest. To list these, and the publications 
that have resulted from studies upon the great collec
tions he has formed, is impracticable in this place. We are proud of the foundations he has laid for us to build upon, proud of his continued association with us and the chance to carry on his work.


On February 9, 1932, Professor Joseph Beal Steered spent his ninetieth birthday in his home near Ann Arbor welcoming friends, neighbors and colleagues who came to his home in a continual stream to bring their expressions of affection and esteem for a great citizen and naturalist. Alert, vigorous and happy in his big low ceilinged study Dr. Steere met his friends; saw letters and flowers accumulate by the basket full among the books and re
minders of far-off places of the world. He "swapped" snake stories with President Ruthven, who himself has directed the museum for nearly thirty years and has also done his work among the animals of the tropics, recalled events of the long ago seventies, dropping into Spanish if the phrase was better. 


"It is good to be ninety years old," he said. And it is when you have ninety such years as his to look back upon, when your interests are untarnished with living, when your whole family is about you and a host of friends is eager to greet you. It was a gala day for us all and we look forward to many more years of pleasant associations with our grand Dean of Naturalists. 


Tall masts were still competing with funnels for 
ocean traffic on the twentieth of September 1870, 
when Professor Steere and a companion went down 
to the ship that was to start them on a five-year expedition to some unknown lands. New York harbor 
showed both sails and smoke in profusion, but no 
steamer went to Para, and the two men boarded a little
 Gloucester fishing schooner engaged in the rubber
 trade to the Amazon. Low in the water, tiny against 
the pier she lay, and before sailing time the companion
 had said, "Joe, I'm not good enough for this. I'm going 
home." Forty days to Maranhao, Brazil, the little vessel 
required. Baffling head winds were encountered so
 that at times she was almost as close to the African 
coast as the South American, and many days of calm
 passed with the captain vainly setting his sails for each
 suggestion of a faint breeze, drinking water bad and 
growing worse. 


Professor Steere was studying Portugese and Span
ish, gathering great clumps of Sargasso Sea weed over
 the low sides of the schooner in the calms, examining
 and collecting the multitude of animals that live in the
 weed, noting the bird life when it was present. In 
latitude 24° 13' north, longitude 46° 47' west, nearly 
a thousand miles from land, a grasshopper flew aboard. 
 "He seemed strong enough to fly another thousand
 miles, but I pinned him in the name of Science."


Maranhao was reached on the evening of October
 20; forty days out from New York the schooner was, 
 and out of sight of land for thirty-eight. Professor 
Steere began to apply his knowledge of Portugese and
 Spanish—it would be five years before his mother ton
gue would be of much service to him—and start his collections, zoological, anthropological, botanical. After 
a month about Maranhao he proceeded to Para and 
from there, until early June, he carried on extensive 
explorations on the mouths of the Amazon, especially 
on the great island Marajo, where he excavated some of 
the huge burial mounds of prehistoric man and made
 other important finds. His first shipment home seems
 to have been made December 18 by the schooner "Vic
tor," whose captain "offered to carry my collections and
 mail for home."


During the stay in Para, Professor Steere had
 made the acquaintance of another young man who
 had arrived from the states, and the two had planned
 to continue the expedition together. But again Dr.
 Steere was to go on alone. Yellow fever, the then
 terrible, uncontrolled scourge of the tropics, broke out
 in Para. The two men had separated, Professor Steere 
to go up the Amazon to Santarem—a region made fa
mous by the English naturalists Wallace and Bates—
the other man to make a few further excavations on 
Marajo. Weeks later word arrived at Santarem of the 
companion's death in Para from the fever. For the 
rest of the journey Joseph Steere was entirely alone. 


Then followed months of travel by boats on the
 Amazon and some of its tributaries, to Manaos, up the
 Rio Purus to Ituchy and Marranhan, back to Manaos
 and up the main river to Pebas, Peru, where he arrived
 on Christmas day, 1871. He continued on to Barrancas
 and Pongo Manseriche at the very foot of the Andes, 
then turned back to the mouth of the Huallaya and as
cended to Yurimaguas, which he reached in March, 
1872. Here travel by boat ended. A great number of 
specimens had been accumulated and, as opportunity
 offered, packed and sent down the Amazon for shipment home. He had encountered little known tribes
 here and there, collected their weapons, implements 
and manufactures, observed their manner of living. He 
had seen an endless number of strange animals of many 
sorts, collected them liberally and had proved himself 
able to take his place as an explorer. 


Overland by foot and horse he made across the
 Andes by Tarapota, Moyobamba, Rioja and Caxa
marca, to the Pacific, where he came out at Truxilla on
 the Peruvian coast, a long trip of hardship and dis
comfort with the most meagre transportation facilities 
for travel. Then along the coast to Tutnbez, studying 
the unique animals of western Peru, to Guayaquil, Ecu
ador, up to Quito, down and on to Lima, Peru, by Callao, up the Rio Rimac and over the Andes to Cerro
de Pasco, back to Callao. From Callao he sailed in May, 
 1873, for China and the Philippines, where, to quote 
from P. L. Sclater and Osbert Salvin of England, 
 writing in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of 
London in 1878, "he made those great discoveries in
 ornithology which have rendered his name well known 
to ornithologists."

Across South America he had collected, with thou-
sands of other items, nearly a thousand bird skins of
362 species, of which 22 species were new to science. This had been done in spite of the fact that he was continually travelling and that some of his time was 
spent in regions where other scientists had labored. 
He had endured hardships and dangers, gathered a 
great store of information and data, and characteris
tically had made friends everywhere.


Fifty days out from Peru in the Peruvian sailing ves
sel "Isabella," engaged in the coolie trade and carrying
800 coolies in spite of her 1,300 ton burden, brought the
 Ladrone Islands in sight. Professor Steere had caught 
the ship by straddling a bundle of poles and paddling 
it through the water, a primitive mode of water trans
port, simple rather than satisfactory. Twenty-two days 
later, August 3, 1873, seventy-two days out from Cal
lao, and the ship dropped anchor among the junks off
 Macao, China, where another Peruvian sailing ship lay-
dismasted from the recent hurricane, with nearly a 
thousand coolies aboard. Followed trips to Hongkong 
and Amoy, from which place a ship was finally found 
sailing for Formosa. Dr. Steere arrived at Takow, For
mosa, early in October 1873. Five months were spent
 in that almost unknown island, long trips were made 
into the interior, weeks were spent living with tribes
 of headhunters, where a single man—a very proficient
 one no doubt—had twenty-four human skulls displayed
 as his trophies of the chase. An article in the sixth
 volume of the Journal of the American Geographical
 Society by Mr. Steere gives a detailed and interesting 
account of several of the tribes, with a vocabulary of 
eight dialects, a word list, and is illustrated with pictures 
showing natives and their manner of tatooing. In addi
tion many studies were made of the geology of the is
land, its fauna and flora. Some rare Formosan manu
scripts are in the museum now as real treasures from 
this sojourn on the island. Dangers from hostile and 
suspicious tribes lurked in the forests and at least once 
flights of spears and arrows nearly ended the expedi
tion, but the work was brought to a splendid conclusion. 


A trip was made to the Pescadores Islands to the
 west of Formosa, where a half-ton of corals, thou-
sands of shells and gallons of fish were collected and
 carried back to Takow in a tiny native fishing junk. 
 Professor Steere left Formosa March 16, 1874, for
 Canton and Hongkong, where he caught a steamer-—
something of a luxury—after two weeks wait at the lat
ter port, and took passage for Manila, Philippine Is
lands, reached after four days of very rough sea.


Here in the Philippines, on June 10, 1874 he began 
the work that was to make him one of the out-
standing scientists of his day, and which has linked 
his name with the natural history of the Philippine Is
lands forever. He first crossed Luzon Island by way of
 Mauban and Lucban to the Pacific, ascending Mt. Ma
jaijai, spending some time on its flanks enroute. In
 July he took a little steamer to the colony of Puerto
 Princes a on the island of Palawan and after a month 
of hard work there, where no naturalist had ever been 
before, crossed to Balabac Island, where he nearly died 
of pernicious malaria. He was able to cross to Min
danao at last, where he had to spend some six weeks recuperating at Zamboanga. The island of Basilan was next
 visited, again virgin ground to a naturalist, and proved of high 
interest with many new and peculiar species to be taken. After 
this work, he returned to Zamboanga and vicinity, where he
 again extraordinary success in his collections of birds and
 mammals. This was early in December 1874. The work here 
and on Basilan was done under most precarious conditions, as 
the Moros were continually at war with the Spanish garrisons
 and engagements were common. 


During this period Dr. Steere was surprised to receive a 
letter from Professor Thompson on the English deep sea
 exploring the "Challenger,'' forwarded by the local Spanish
 governor, inviting him
 on board. The "Chal
lenger," one of the
 most famous of all exploring vessels, lay off 
Zamboanga, due to
 sail in the morning; 
Professor Steere was 
able to find a horse 
and reached the city 
in time to make the 
visit. He spent a 
pleasant evening with 
Dr. Thompson, Cap
tain Nares and a
 group of English sci
entists on the ship. 
 The craft was won
derfully appointed for 
its work on the ocean 
depths and marine life, 
there were comforta
ble quarters for the
 men, but most of all 
Professor Steere com
ments on the great
 library the ship afforded, in compari
son with the few vol
umes he could carry 
in his own arduous 
travels. It is not hard 
to imagine how pleas
ant an evening it must 
have been for the nat
uralist to come out of 
the jungle with its hostile inhabitants for an evening's conver
sation with English speaking scientists in their laboratories. 


A few weeks more work about Zamboanga and a Spanish 
bark from the Moluccas came into port and Dr. Steere took 
passage to Manila. Unfavorable weather was encountered; food 
ran low and the terrible fever, which had seized him at Balabac
, recurred. When Manila was finally reached he again had to 
spend some time in recuperation, then went south to Ilo Ilo on 
Panay Island, where he made a difficult trip to the mountains 
of the interior. He then crossed to Negros Island, by way of
 Guimaras Island in Guimaras Strait and explored the north
 coast, traveling mostly by horseback. Cebu Island was reached 
by means of a little native fishing boat; he crossed the island
 several times, returned to Negros at Dumaguete, visited Bohol
 Island and finally went back to Manila. Before leaving Cebu
 he had visited the little island of Mactan in front of the old 
city of Cebu, where the first circumnavigator of the globe, Magellan had been killed by hostile aborigines in 1521

The Philippine work was rawing to a close. Dr. Steere had visited islands where no scientist had ever worked; he was observing and recording the extraordinary life of the archipelago and its distribution on the islands. Before leaving he spent some time with the wild Negritos north of Manila Bay, and then 
sailed for Singapore. There he transhipped to a vessel for Ma
cassar, Celebes, where a severe cholera epidemic was raging, on 
his way to the Moluccas. At Macassar he found a Moluccan
 steamer filled with sick and wounded soldiers going home from
 the Atchinese war and took her to Amboina in the Moluccas, 
 collecting on the Celebes coast enroute, visiting Ternate and
 Tidore of the Molucca group. After collecting on Amboina he 
went north again to Ternate, climbed the volcano and collected 
some days on its flanks. After eight days he caught a ship for 
Manado, Celebes, from which point he proceeded south to Ma
cassar and found transportation to Surabaya, Java. 


An American ship was in the harbour, and Dr. Steere spent 
four days packing his collections, which by then included many 
birds of paradise as well as other rare specimens, for shipment
 home. Eight days more sailing and he was back in Singapore; 
he made a hurried trip to Malacca and upon his return to Sinapore took, on August 15, 1875, the French liner "Iraonoddy"
—the first big ship that had been available on his travels—for 
Marseilles and home by way of London and the British Mu
seum. We have seen he arrived in Ann Arbor on the evening 
of October 21, 1875. 


The expedition had been a tremendous success. Professor 
Steere had accumulated an enormous amount of material in 
natural history. Zoological specimens included birds, mammals, 
 reptiles, fishes, shells, corals, and insects. His botanical speci
mens showed plants, woods, flowers and fruits. Anthropological 
material embraced a great number of specimens of pottery, 
 weapons, implements, ceremonial pieces, clothing and so on. A 
truly rich collection in new and little known items of all kinds. 
 He had gathered a great store of first hand observations and 
new data on these items and much more. Everywhere he had
 made friends, friends for science, for his native country, for 
his institution and for himself. To this day he is known and 
kindly remembered in the Philippines: it is no rare occurrence 
to have newly arrived students from the Islands ask first for
 Professor Steere when they arrive in Ann Arbor.

To sum up the work, in birds alone he had added sixty species 
to the known Philippine avifauna, most of them new to sci
ence, had contributed materially to the solution of the problem 
of animal distribution in one of the most complex regions of the
 world, he had visited and studied fifteen wild tribes, to many of
 which he was the first, or one of the very first white men they 
had seen, and had added largely to the fields of archeology and
 ethnology. In his work with them he had stimulated investi
gations in a manner still operative. 


A typical quotation from one of his colleagues of the time, 
R. Bowdler Sharpe, F.L.S., F.Z.S., etc., of the British Museum, 
one of the greatest ornithologists, writing in the Transactions
 of the Linnean Society of London in 1877, "Knowing that Dr.
 Steere had visited several islands hitherto untrodden by the
 naturalist, I was prepared to see several new species; but I was 
indeed surprised at the large number of novelties which he had 
brought home with him. —The results are most considerable; 
 and Dr. Steere will receive the hearty applause of all naturalists 
for the vigorous way in which he combatted the difficulties of 
climate and personal danger in pursuit of science, and reaped
 such an abundant harvest in the face of these trials. The dan
ger from pirates alone may be estimated from the fact that he
 collected many of his specimens in the company of native hunt
ers and their dogs—the latter being indispensible on an expedition, to give warning of the approach of piratical Malays. 
 Again, in Basilan, it was impossible even to bathe under the
 shelter of the Fort without keeping firearms at hand for personal defense."


Mr. Rice A. Beal of Ann Arbor had made this expedition 
possible and by action of the Board of Regents in 1879 the col
lection is officially designated as the Beal-Steere Collection. 


Professor Steere had graduated from the University of
 Michigan in 1868, in 1870 he had taken the degree of Bachelor 
of Laws. In 1875 his Alma Mater honored him with the degree
 of Doctor of Philosophy in recognition of his scientific achieve
ments. In the Proceedings of the Board of Regents for March 
1876, occurs the following: 


"Resolved that Joseph Beal Steere be and hereby is appoint
ed 'Assistant Professor of Paleontology and Curator of the 
Museum' to commence April 1, 1876."


This same year Dr. Steere journeyed to London, as it was
 only there that books and specimens were available from which 
to work up parts of his collections. He worked in the British 
Museum, associated with leading naturalists of the day, and 
formed lasting friendships with them.


In 1877 his appointment was changed to Assistant Professor of
 Zoology and Paleontology and again in 1879 to Professor of 
Zoology, the position of Curator of the Museum continuing with 
the advances in academic rank. Under his curatorship a museum 
building was erected to house collections previously stored in 
the north wing of University Hall. The great Chinese collection, 
 that had formed the Chinese exhibit at the World's Industrial Exposition held in New Orleans in 1884-5, was presented to 
the University by the Chinese Government through Robert Hart. 
 Many other important accessions to the collections were made 
in all the branches of natural history. 


The summer of 1879 saw Professor Steere again on the
 Amazon, where he spent three months at the mouth of the
 river collecting about a thousand botanical and zoological speci
mens, which he presented, to the University in June 1880. 


Then followed a number of busy years in the University, 
engaged in his teaching, curatorial and research duties, and con
tinued observations in local natural history. But in May 1887, 
 we find him asking for and obtaining one year's leave of absence
 to return to the Philippines. 


This time Dr. Steere took five younger men with him and 
the chief purpose of the expedition was to make zoological
 collections, mainly birds, mammals, reptiles and fishes, from
 as many islands as possible, with the view not only of adding 
to the species of the Archipelago but to gain a better under
standing of the zoo geography of the region and the origin of 
the faunas. Fifteen of the major islands were visited in the year's expedition, as follows: Paragua, August and September, 
1887; Mindanao, October; Basilan, November; Mindanao again 
in December; Guimaras, December; Panay, January 1888: 
 Negros and Siquijor, February; Cebu and Bojol. March; 
 Samar and Leyte, April; Masbate and Marinduque, May; 
 Mindoro, June; Luzon, July. 


Very large and valuable collections resulted from this in
tensive expedition, more than fifty species of birds new to sci
ence were discovered and collected, a number of new species 
of mammals were taken and most important results on specia
tion and animal distribution were published. Over three hundred species of birds were collected, as well as large amounts of 
insects, shells and other invertebrates, including a huge lot of
 corals. A mass of notes recording observations on animals of 
many kinds encountered are an important part of the work. 


An incident occurring during the visit to Masbate is of inter
est. The little sailing brig had anchored off the harbor of 
Palanoc at night, and Dr. Steere and the captain went ashore. "The captain introduced me as 'Un senor naturalist a Ameri
cano' and the grizzled old officer in half military dress began 
to tell remarkable stories of a young American naturalist whom
 he knew in the islands many years before. I finally made out 
to recognize myself in one of these stories, and the old man was
 an officer I had met and stopped with on the Basilan in '74. 
 He was Acting Governor of Masbate now, and the next morn
ing put the whole establishment at our service." He even
 turned over the thatched schoolhouse to Dr. Steere and his 
party. As ever when Dr. Steere had visited a region once, there
 were friends awaiting his return. 


The year 1890 saw Professor Steere again on the Amazon, 
this time in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institution, to
 study certain wild tribes of the upper Amazon region. This time 
he ascended the river by an English steamer, reaching Manaos
 at the mouth of the Rio Negro to find the little Indian village 
of 1870 a city of 30,000 people, with electric lights and street
 cars. Five ocean steamers lay at anchor off the city, a thou
sand miles from salt water, and a fleet of river steamers we re
-engaged in trade on the many tributaries. It was now March
1, the rainy season had set in and the rivers were in flood stage. 
 Dr. Steere ascended the Rio Purus for several hundred miles
 to the Bolivian frontier and found the tribes he sought, some 
sadly depleted in contrast with their condition when he had lived 
with them in the early seventies. His trip, as usual, was success
ful. Elaborate and valuable studies were made on the Hypu
rinas, the Jamamadi and Paumari. A well-illustrated article 
was published by Dr. Steere on a part of this investigation, with
 word lists of the several tribes and interesting discussions of 
their lives and customs. 


This was the last of Dr. Steere's expeditions. He returned to
 Ann Arbor, where he was active in teaching and studying 
until 1894, when he resigned from the University and retired 
to his home and farm near the city. He has never lost touch 
with his chosen fields of study or with us, his successors in the 
departments he guided for so long. Hardly a year has passed 
that he has not brought to the Museum interesting specimens 
and observations he has made in the region about Ann Arbor. We look forward to his visits. Only a few days ago he came 
with specimens and told us of exploration of a cave in Gui
rnaras where he sought edible swift's nests in the utter black
ness. He had a specimen for us in his hands. 


The foregoing account of his travels is a bare and lifeless
 skeleton, a rapid catalog of a naturalist's wanderings up and 
down the world. It is only by talking with Professor Steere 
that any realization can be had of his extraordinary work, his 
keen powers of observation and deduction, his unlimited energy 
and enthusiasm, and peeping out now and then, his invincible 
disregard of hardship and danger. No more interesting com
panion than he is possible; how many young naturalists have 
been thrilled and enthused by his precepts and example cannot 
be known, but he has been a source of inspiration and encour
agement to students and colleagues for many, many years.