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  • Writer's pictureJared Oakleaf

An Interloper, a Captivity Journal, and an Irruption: a mule deer memoir

Updated: Dec 17, 2018

Part 2, of a 3.5 part series on the history of the "youngest" member of the deer family.

Part 1 is available at:

From The deer of all lands, 1898, Richard Richard Lydekker (Image: Public Domain/WikiCommons)

A Captivity Journal:

Today it is commonly held that Lewis and Clark were the first explorers to document the mule deer. Lewis’s detailed description occurred April 23, 1805 near Williston, North Dakota. A passage from this 800 page writeup follows: “we beleive ourselves fast approaching a hilly or mountainous country; we have rarely found the mule deer in any except a rough country; they prefer the open grounds and are seldom found in the woodlands near the river; then they are met with in the woodlands or river bottoms and are pursued, the[y] invariably run to the hills or open country as the Elk do. the contrary happens with the common deer....” Meriwether Lewis 1805

Lewis’s account was the first comprehensive documentation of mule deer. But, John Colter killed the first one seen by the party in 1804 near the White River in today’s South Dakota. From William Clark’s journal: "Colter Killed a Goat, & a Curious kind of Deer, a Darker grey than Common the hair longer & finer, the ears verry large & long a Small resepitical under its eye its tail round and white to near the end which is black & like a Cow in every other respect like a Deer, except it runs like a goat. large." William Clark 1804

A bit of a donnybrook swirls around Colter’s own legacy. At some point, during grade school, I remember learning that John Colter discovered Yellowstone. Naturally we were taught that the area was nicknamed Colter's Hell. Come to find out, Colter's Hell refers to a place on the Shoshone River west of Cody, Wyoming.

There is no debate of the fact that Colter dealt in baddassery, and in his time, the dealing was good. The man was captured by Indians, stripped naked, and forced to run for his life. He got away by hiding in a beaver lodge, then traveled some 200 miles in his birthday suit before arriving at a fort. I wonder, did this trip match similar migrations of mule deer? No matter, it was certainly a time when human fortitude was equally matched by the resilience of the landscape.

So it is that John Colter was the original badass mule deer hunter, with special thanks to Lewis and Clark. The official account of the Lewis and Clark expedition was not published until 1814. This version did not include most of the description of mule deer.

The mule deer was originally scientifically named and described as a new species in 1817 by Constantine Samual Rafinesque [5]. Rafinesque himself carries a colored past. His naturalist career seems to carry parallels to pop culture icons-more appreciated in death than in existence. See Gene Wilder.

Meme likely created by Russian operatives

The world wasn’t ready for Rafinesque. At the time, the naturalist world believed species to be unequivocally fixed. In contrast Rafinesque believed species were able to mutate. He believed these mutations manifested anywhere isolated populations existed. This was 27 years before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

If species splitting were a drug, Rafinesque was a fiend of the highest order. He often split species without justification or description. Rafinesque was so reckless with his naming endeavors that John James Audubon duped Rafinesque into documenting several fake species [6].

Rafinesque’s disregard for convention did benefit him, in that it gave him priority. A practice where the first person to scientifically name a species receives credit. Once a naturalist identifies a species, all other proposed names are invalid. Thomas Say realized the sharpness of this convention. Upon return from an expedition to the Rockies in 1820, Say intended to name mule deer Cervus macrotis [7]. As was the case with many other species documented by Say, his name for mule deer was not accepted. Rafinesque’s name of Cervus hemionus held priority [7].

Crediting Rafinesque, the scientific community now knows the mule deer as: Odocoileus hemionus [6]. A fitting name meaning: "deer that is half-mule" [8]. Was this a simple scientific play on words, or allusion to Rafinesque's belief as to the species origin? I am not sure we will ever know.

As with everything Rafinesque, his naming of mule deer does not carry the “kerfuffle free” label. However, his mistake was not due to his splitter nature nor his belief in evolution. In fact, Rafinesque had never seen a mule deer. He based his description on a Journal by Charles Le Raye, a French-Canadian fur trader [6].

The captivity journal of Charles Le Raye was first published in 1812. The journal was a chapter in: A Topographical Description of the State of: Ohio, Indiana territory, and Louisiana. Jarvis Cutler authored the book.

In his journal, Le Raye claimed to be a captive of a band of Sioux Indians. The journal documents travelling across the same area as Lewis and Clark. However, Le Raye claimed to travel the area before Lewis and Clark. At the time, captivity and abduction journals were popular in the eastern US. Several had become best sellers.

The holes in Le Raye’s journal became perverse, and it is now regarded as a fake. Le Raye never existed. It is likely that Cutler created the captivity journal to lift sales of his book [6]. However, the description of mule deer in the false journal is accurate. Most believe the information came from an unpublished Lewis and Clark account [6].

Rafinesque’s dependence on the Le Raye Journals taints his reputation, but his naming of mule deer holds today. In an odd twist, had many of his names not been disregarded by his peers, and the order of priority followed, Rafinesque would be credited with establishing 160 genera [9]. As it were, the remainder of his life was spent trying to prove his worth to sceptics. Ironically, he misidentified a plant containing a known carcinogen. Constantine Samual Rafinesque later died of cancer. He would receive some credit from Charles Darwin for sowing the early seeds of evolution.

Think back to the debate about the origin of mule deer. The alternate theory is that barriers (likely glaciers) isolated the deer species. This isolation allowed each species to be influenced by separate landscapes. Mule deer in the southwest, whitetail in the east, and black tail in the north[8]. Over the period of isolation, mutations occurred and the mule deer DNA arose. Sound familiar? If this theory is true, Rafinesque had a proving species in his lap when he named and described mule deer. The mule deer could have been to Rafinesque as the finches of the Galapagos are to Darwin. Regardless, I am sure Rafinesque was quizzical about the differences among the deer species. However, he did not have DNA testing to fuel his inquiry and so he probably added the mule deer to his growing anecdotal proof.

Time has softened its blows and most now regard Rafinesque as an eccentric genius. I am not sure that history has yet to identify a genius who was not married to similar adjective.

As is always the case, the mule deer continued being mule deer, unaware of the human controversy surrounding it. Nor would it foresee the change that was about to come to its landscape. The western landscape had a new interloper, but unlike the mule deer, this interloper had the motivations and means to alter the landscape to fit its needs. An era of resource exploitation and settlement took hold.

Continued in part 3, available at:


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