HMNS@100: Henry Attwater – Naturalist

One of the founding collections of the Houston Museum of Natural Science came from Henry Philemon Attwater.  Born April 28, 1854 in Brighton, England he would become, as did many nineteenth century gentlemen, a naturalist.  But not in his native country.  In 1873, he immigrated to Ontario, Canada where he tried farming and beekeeping.  His growing interest in natural history led him to the preparation and exhibition of natural history specimens.  He worked with John A. Morden collecting specimens in Bexar County, Texas in 1884.  The following year he and Gustave Toudouze were hired to prepare and exhibit specimens in the Texas pavilion at the New Orleans World Fair.

Attwater married Lucy Mary Watts, a widow with two children, on December 31, 1885.  They never had children together and the family moved to London, Ontario.  We get the first inklings of Attwater’s enthusiasm for museum exhibits when he opened a small museum in 1886.  Unfortunately, it did not prosper and closed the following year.  During those few years in London, Ontario he must have found time for singing.  A review in a local paper there singled him out as a fine soloist.

railroad
Creative Commons License Photo credit:
Beaverton Historical Society

In 1889, the family finally moved to Texas where Attwater again tried beekeeping for a short while in Sherman before settling in San Antonio.  The next decade saw Attwater really start to come into his own as a naturalist.  He collected specimens throughout the state and lectured and wrote on agriculture and natural history.  He found employment preparing exhibits of Texan wildlife and natural products at fairs and expositions.  When he became the agricultural and industrial agent for the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1900 the Attwaters moved once again, this time for good, to Houston.

By the time Attwater had relocated to Houston he had already gained recognition and respect from other naturalists and scientists.  In particular, the ornithological collections he made in Bexar County in 1892 received a great deal of attention.  His field notes were published in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History and he provided notes for several other books. 

He was elected a director of the National Audubon Societyin 1900 and re-elected for another five year term in 1905.  It was also during this time that Attwater became known for his conservation efforts.  He was instrumental in the passage of the 1903 Model Game Law.  Four years later he served on the game-law committee which recommended hunters’ licenses be required for resident and non-resident hunters and that the revenue from the licenses and fines be restricted exclusively for game protection and propagation.  When he retired from the railroad in 1913 he immersed himself completely in the study of natural history.

Surprisingly, Attwater was not a 1909 charter member of the Houston Scientific Society, which I wrote about in an earlier post as the organization that would one day become HMNS.  But at some point, he sent out brochures for the sale and disposal of his self-titled “Museum of Natural History and Other Specimens.” Today, HMNS has several copies of this undated brochure and also a copy of another undated brochure simply titled “Exhibit of Products and Resources of South Texas.” 

I mention the second brochure because it solicits a larger Texas audience, while the first targets Houston specifically.  What is certain is that in January 1916, there was an exhibition of “The Attwater Exhibit: Texas Samples and Specimens” at City Hall here in Houston.  (A confusing note adds that it is the gift of The Progressive League to the city.  I’ve not yet discerned if the exhibit fee perhaps was borne by the Progressive League or if the League actually bought the collection exhibited, though I lean towards the former.) 

In the July 28, 1917 edition of The Houstonian, an unsigned editorial pleads for Houstonians to not lose the valuable “Atwater (sic) Museum” to Dallas or San Antonio.  The founders of the Witte Museum in San Antonio purchased a collection from Attwater in the 1922/23.  I’m still researching which collection went to San Antonio.  But I did find notes from the Houston City Library dated June 2, 1922 which contain the first mention of Sigmund Westheimer offering to purchase the Attwater collection (whichever one it was) and donate it to the Library and the City of Houston.

prairie-chicken
Creative Commons License Photo credit: Designatednaphour

H.P. Attwater died September 25, 1931; his grave is at the Hollywood Cemetery on North Main.  The Attwaters lived at 2120 Genesse Street and although it’s known that his widow was still living there in 1940, sadly no house stands at that address today. 

However H.P. Attwater’s collections and legacy live on.  From a quick and very unacademic Google search I found specimens that he collected in the collections of the Witte, Smithsonian, Field museum, Dallas Museum of Natural History, Los Angeles County Museum, American Museum of Natural History, the British Museum, and of course here at HMNS.  His field notes and articles can be found online.  Several species were named in his honor, the most well-known in Texas being the Attwater’s Greater Prairie Chicken.  Today, conservationists continue Attwater’s early conservation work in ongoing efforts to conserve the Prairie Chicken and its natural habitat.  This early naturalist and his work loom large still.

3 thoughts on “HMNS@100: Henry Attwater – Naturalist

  1. H.P. Attwater was my grandmother’s (Eunice Mary Watts) step grandfather. We have several items that belonged to him that are very interesting. Sadly the house you mentioned was torn down. It was quite beautiful. His step daughter (Olive Watts) lived in the house after his death. Thank you very much f posting this. I am always looking for information on this amazing man.
    Regards,
    Shannon Ainsworth
    Oklahoma City

  2. Ms. Ainsworth –
    What a delight to hear from you! Please let us know when/if you plan a visit to HMNS. It would be great fun to hear what you think of the growth of the museum since your great-great (I think that’s the right generation) grandfather’s original collection. Thank you for reading and commenting on my post.
    Donna Meadows

  3. I would LOVE to see the museum!!! Hopefully I will get to someday. My mother and my aunt own a gorgeous collection of different species of hummingbirds that is enclosed in a glass dome and I am trying to convince them to put it in your museum. It is a collection of hummingbirds that he found and maybe named, not sure. I am going to show them this information on the museum and hopefully they will let go of it. I will definitely keep you posted :o)
    -Shannon

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