C.H. Tyler Townsend – Early Swashbuckling Professor 

Image of record book of C.H. Tyler Townsend

C.H. Tyler Townsend’s record book of field notes from his time as entomologist for the New Mexico Agricultural College, 1891-1892. (UA050, Box 15)

The University Archives here in the NMSU Library contain some real gems of the early history of the college. These include papers of early administrators (most notably founder and first president Hiram Hadley), manuscript minutes of the earliest meetings of the Board of Regents, real estate deeds and records on the initial land acquisitions for the college, and an assortment of original research notes and manuscripts of the college’s earliest faculty. One of these faculty members, Charles Henry Tyler Townsend, was the first entomologist for the college, and possibly the first professional entomologist in New Mexico. His handwritten record book and field journal from 1891-1892 is filled with 400 pages of interesting notes on desert insects, including details on how, where, and why he collected them.

I imagine most of the early professors at the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts must have been interesting characters, with so many moving from their homes in the Midwest or east coast to the exotic Southwest, but Townsend appears to have been a true character among characters. His life story, filled with adventure, travel, and eccentricity, is a ready-made Hollywood script. Born in Oberlin, Ohio in 1863, Townsend took an early interest in entomology (the study of insects). With no more than a high school diploma, at the age of 20, he published his first professional paper on insects in The Canadian EntomologistBy 1888, he was working in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Entomological Division in Washington, D.C. (now part of USDA Agricultural Research Service)He worked for Charles Valentine Rileya pioneer of entomology in the United States. On a strong recommendation from Riley, the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts hired Townsend in March 1891, at a salary of $1,800 per year. Understanding insects and their behavior plays a critical role in successful agricultural practiceso the College needed a recognized leader in the field to conduct research, publish, and teach. Townsend instructed NMCA&MA students in entomology and physiology from 1891 to 1893. 

Photograph of three men with horses hunting in near Organ Mountains, New Mexico

C.H. Tyler Townsend, left, out hunting near the Organ Mountains with other professors from the Ag College, 1892. (00010025)

Coming to the Southwest, and particularly the borderlands region, at the age of 27, with a young family in tow, was an adventurous move for a Midwesterner in 1891, and for Townsend it seemed to be the beginning of a lifelong wanderlust. Not long after his arrival in Las Cruces, he made a trip to Mexico City, with an excursion to the volcano of Orizaba in Veracruz. In the summer of 1892, he traveled by wagon with college botanist Elmer Otis Wooton and a student to the Grand Canyon to collect insect and plant specimens “in the interests of the New Mexico Agricultural College.” Townsend described the trip in colorful detail in a February 1893 article titled “A Wagon Trip to the Grand Cañon of the Colorado River,” published in Appalachia, the Journal of the Appalachian Mountain ClubThey reached the canyon after more than three weeks of rough travel from Las Cruces through remote parts of New Mexico and Arizona.  

Page from C.H. Tyler Townsend record book

One of Townsend’s entries for a specimen collected in the Grand Canyon, July 11, 1892. (UA050, Box 12)

Townsend’s record book in our collection contains notes on the specimens collected during the summer journey to the Grand Canyon. It also contains notes on his research and collecting work in the Las Cruces area during 1891-1892, much of it carried out in the orchards, vineyards, and fields of his associates from the college and prominent agriculturalists in the Mesilla Valley. Townsend was working on practical matters that directly affected agriculture here, such as the eradication of various species that were particularly damaging to local crops. He studied and tried several methods for reducing the impact of leaf hoppers in the vineyards of Las Cruces and Mesilla. Regarding the leaf hopper, he noted, “Mr. Bull [Thomas Bull of Mesilla] tells me he has known of them [leaf hoppers] for the last 20 years here. He heard the Mexicans tell of them when he was having ground dug for planting his vineyard in 1869. He says his vineyard has never suffered, and he attributes it to clean cultivation.” Townsend personally sprayed the vineyards of college president Hiram Hadley with a kerosene emulsion, which effectively eliminated the pests.

After just two years at the Ag College, Townsend made arrangements with entomologist T.D.A. Cockerell to swap positions. Cockerell came to Las Cruces, and began a long, illustrious academic career in New Mexico and Colorado, and Townsend filled Cockerell’s position as museum curator at the Institute of Jamaica in Kingston. He spent a few years of job bouncing – Yucatan, Veracruz, South Texas – and by the end of the decade he was back in El Paso. Among other jobs he held there, he was co-owner of the Townsend-Barber Taxidermy and Zoological Co., which offered field trips for entomologists, botanists, zoologists, and archaeologists to the Sierra Madre of northern Mexico. From 1904 to 1906, he taught biology in the Philippines. His adventurism then led him to South America, first to Peru for about five years between 1909 and 1914, then in 1919 to Brazil. He remained largely in Brazil and Peru for the rest of his life working on various government projects to eliminate agricultural parasites, publishing, and traveling. His adventures and fanciful writing from South America, including a series titled “South America Under the Equator” published in the Brazilian American, which in part recounts an expedition up the Amazon River, were plentiful and more than I can even begin to go into here. However, Dr. Neal Evenhuis, of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, wrote a marvelous article for the April 2013 issue of Fly Times that goes into great detail about Townsend, his life and adventures. I’ve borrowed much of my information about Townsend from Dr. Evenhuis’ informative articlebut this short post is no substitute for reading his well-researched piece 

C. Scott Bundy works with entomological specimen at the NMSU Arthropod Collection

Dr. C. Scott Bundy, director of the NMSU Arthropod Collection, examines a butterfly specimen collected by C.H. Tyler Townswend around 1891. At right, specimens collected in part by Townsend.

As I prepared to write this blog post, I thought I would get in touch with the folks at the NMSU Arthropod Collection, which contains the university’s historic entomological specimens. I called the director of the collection, Dr. C. Scott Bundy, and he graciously agreed to meet me and show me some of the very specimens collected by Townsend in 1891-1892, still preserved in the collection. To reciprocate, I took Townsend’s book to Skeen Hall so Scott could see the original notes. He was not aware the record book existed. The Arthropod Collection has more than 150,000 meticulously documented specimens with the earliest being those of C.H. Tyler Townsend. Dr. Bundy and his team make the collection available for research, use it for instruction at NMSU, and do extensive outreach to the public schools and the community. It is a tremendous resource.

Opening a box in the archives is like opening a door. Stepping through the door, one enters unexpected landscapes of information about lives once lived right here in Las Cruces and right here on this campus. As we walk around the university, it’s good to remember we are walking the same ground that so many interesting individuals walked before us – people like C.H. Tyler Townsend. 

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