Preconfederation Ornithology

A compilation of transcriptions relating to Canadian preconfederation ornithology, 1534-1867

Joseph Delafield


Joseph Delafield

Major Joseph Delafield was the author of an interesting early 19th century diary entitled "The Unfortified Border". Unfortified was his personal diary of experiences with the International Boundary Commission 1817-1823. Unknown to historians, the diary was discovered in the 20th century and published in 1943. The Commission was set up after the War of 1812 to settle long-standing issues between the United States and Canada over the location of the boundary.

Delafield must have grown up with considerable wealth and privilege but little is known of his early life. He graduated from Yale in 1808 then, while studying for a law degree, was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the New York Fifth Militia. Delafield graduated in 1811 and entered into a partnership in a law firm with Ogden Hoffman in New York. In 1812 he was promoted to Captain in the Militia and in the same year joined the US army with the same rank. In 1814 he was promoted to the rank of Major.

Delafield was interested in natural history and a devotee of the French naturalist George Cuvier (1769-1832). Cuvier was a major figure in natural science research in the early 19th century. He was instrumental in establishing the fields of comparative anatonomyand paleontology through his work comparing living animals with fossils. Delafield sought out a position with the American Boundary Commission. He saw this assignment as an opportunity to do field work in a geographical area "whose natural history was almost completely neglected". (Unfortified p. 35). In his Diary are regular descriptions of the geology of places he visited and collected specimens, most often minerals and geological samples.

The joint commission was set up under the Treaty of Ghent. In 1817 Delafield was secretary to Hawkins, the American agent, later he was appointed to the position of acting Agent, and finally, in 1821, Agent. The actual survey work was under his personal direction throughout. His portion of the survey covered the area between St. Regis Reserve on the St. Lawrence River and Lake of the Woods in extreme northwestern Ontario, effectively the entire Great Lakes.

In may, each year, from spring through fall, Delafield accompanied his surveyors in the field. Entries in his diary commence on May 13, 1817, and end on October 24, 1823, Starting on the St. Lawrence the survey party made its way west with each successive year.

His Diary is full of the observations of an educated and discerning observer, interested in many things besides the important business at hand. This is nicely summarized in a review of his book by Mary Berthel in Minnesota History 24: 341-343:

He describes in detail the country he passed through and the people he met. His observations on geology, mineralogy, and natural history, on Indians, voyageurs, fur traders, and others, among them individuals well known in Canadian and American history, are many and illuminating.

Delafield was mostly interested in geology and mineralogy. His rock collection was eventually donated to New York University in 1890. Very occasionally his observations included mention of unusual birds, mammals and fish that he encountered. On occasion he also collected samples but the ultimate repository of his natural history collection, if it survived, is unknown.

His observations on birds are generally short, not always interesting, and point to his limited knowledge of ornithology. Despite his inexperience, not uncommon at the time, some of his sightings contain important early Ontario ornithological records.

All his observations are transcribed and set out below followed by my comments:

May 30, 1817

(At the St. Regis Reserve near Cornwall, Ontario p. 141)

Maple and elm prevail in this neighbourhood. Observed on the island a field of evergreen such as is planted in our gardens for ornament -- and noticed a bird of the hanging or woodpecker kind not recollected to have been seen before --gray back, black wings, yellow head on its top -- tail forked and long talons -- bill not long.

This passage best describes the Yellow-rumped Warbler.

May 28, 1818

(Near Cornwall, Ontario p. 183)

Morning cloudy, wind S. W., temperature moderate. Continues pleasant most of the day. Engage Terah Poor as a boatman. Spend the morning shooting wild pigeons which have just made their appearance. A few years back the pigeons generally appeared in this part of the country in April, and were depended upon as a measure of subsistence....

In the early 19th century Passenger Pigeons were still common in Ontario.

Friday August 11, 1820

(Manitoulin Island, Georgian Bay Ontario p. 293)

Capt. Gillett shoots a female grouse on the Manitoulin Island, the first of this species that I have seen or heard in this part of the country. It is unknown to all the men and others, residents around Lake Erie &c, and only known to such of us had seen the grouse of the New York market. We are afterwards told by Mr. Stevenson that this bird is well known in lower Canada as the swamp partridge or beech partridge. It feeds in the beech tree and is easily taken, and sometimes without shot. He states it to have a very bitter taste.

Delafield's discussion of this grouse is confusing. On Manitoulin Island the most likely grouse in the early 19th century was the Sharp-tailed Grouse. There is a passage in Charles Fothergill's manuscript (see Birds of Upper Canada 1840) which suggest this species was present on the Ontario shore of Lake Huron. The grouse referred to from lower Canada, based on the name swamp partridge and the bird's tameness suggests Spruce Grouse. Delafield adds further confusion by including the name beech partridge, which by the range of the American beech almost certainly refers to the Ruffed Grouse.

Tuesday August 5, 1823

(Near Fort Francis, Ontario p. 432)

Encamp at the mouth of Rapid River, and shortly after Mr. Ferguson arrives and encamps. Mr. Whistler brings me one of the black-bodied gulls [Black Tern] of this region which I skin and preserve.

Temp at 7 a.m. 65 F

Temp at sun set 67 F

Saw flocks of turkey buzzards this day.

It would seem certain that "black-bodied gull" must refer to the Black Tern first described in Canada by Pennant from the Hudson Bay territories in the 18th century. Charles Fothergill's first record for Ontario dates from May 30, 1823. The observation of Turkey Vultures from Fort Francis in August is a first sight record from Ontario. Plant collector, David Douglas, observed them at Sandwich, Ontario, a month later, in September, 1823.

Friday August 15, 1823

(Savanne River, halfway between Thunder Bay and Ignace, Ontario p. 440)

I arrived at an old camping ground [Riviere de Savanne near Mille Lac] which proved dry & was covered with a thick carpet of grass, which afforded more than a commonly good place. The water of the river is very fowl and the mosquitoes terribly annoying. At twilight the singular bird that cries at this hour, perched about the tent, and was identified with one seen by me at the Sault in Mr. Schoolcraft's possession (see Annals of Lyceum No... [Annals of the Lyceum of New York (1825)] where it is described by Cooper as a new species as Fringilla Vespertine.)

The Schoolcraft record was from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan; Delafield's is the first record of this species in Ontario and Canada; the Boreali record was from a bird collected on the Saskatchewan River in 1829.

Over four survey seasons, from June, 1820 to October,1823, Joseph Delafield was in the field from the west end of Lake Erie north through the upper Great Lakes. This was an early largely pre-settlement period in the ornithological history of Ontario. It is unfortunate that there are no bird observations in his diary from the extensive oak savannah habitat in extreme southwestern Ontario, the only area in Ontario where prairie species were likely breeding.


  • Berthel, Mary Wheelhouse. 1943. Reviews & Short Features: The Undefended Border. Minnesota History 24:4.St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press
  • Delafield, Joseph. 1943. Edited by Robert McElroy and Thomas Riggs. The Unfortified Border. New York: Privately Printed
  • Swainson, William and John Richardson. 1831. Fauna Boreali Americana II: The Birds. London: John Murray