Tiger-Eye Review—War Damn Eagle Edition
With football season about to start and the fact that I recently saw (and correctly identified – see below) a War Eagle flying above my house the other day here in Charlotte, NC, I thought I’d share a story I wrote six years ago on this very site, updated with some minor corrections. This was originally entitled ‘Eureka‘ back in 2012.
Enjoy and as always, War Damn Eagle.
I found it. The Holy Grail of obscure southern football lore. The reason and root of the famous War Eagle battle cry of Auburn football fans.
The keys to the legend are in the traditional origin stories, which I personally believe are full of half truths. According to various sources, there was once a Confederate soldier who found a young golden eagle on a Civil War battlefield and captured it. He later attended Auburn and was at a famous early football game in 1892 when the old bird broke his restraints and flew around the field where the game was being played. Fans cried “War Eagle” in recognition of the bird, and the team won the game. Another story linked to the battle cry is that a young golden eagle became caught in a farmer’s bean lines on his farm in the summer of 1930, and it was subsequently adopted by some Auburn students who brought it to football games.
In any case, the practice of shouting “War Eagle” at Auburn has been shrouded in mystery since the early 1900’s or before. Only now, I think I solved at least one part of the puzzle. Whatever the origin of the eagle, I at least can describe WHY the use of the term “War Eagle” was applied to either or both of these birds.
This discovery evokes an elation only an Auburn fan can truly appreciate.
It started innocently enough. As an amateur historian, I am always on the lookout for first-person accounts. While I will often concentrate my efforts on a given era or geographical location, I’m still on the prowl for references from anywhere else. The more obscure (and cheap), the better. This means I will often stop in used book stores and fairs to see what there is to find.
So, some years ago my high school-aged daughter mentioned she was out of summer reading material and pointed to a large charity book fair of donated books. I complied, and we spent an hour perusing the stacked tables for likely looking titles. I picked up a couple in the era I was looking for plus a few more that I didn’t really care about, but at a $1 a book, it was hard not to pick more than I needed.
Later that following spring, I finally got around to one of the last books in the bag from the previous summer, a series of letters by the legendary artist George Catlin written during his visit to the upper Missouri during the 1830’s, entitled North American Indians (actually a reprint of his original work Letter and Notes on the Manners, Customs and Conditions of the North American Indians).
Much to my surprise, in the tenth letter, entitled “MANDAN VILLAGE, UPPER MISSOURI”, he states the following:
“Being on shore, and our canoe landed secure, we whiled away the greater part of this day amongst the wild and ragged cliffs into which we had entered; and a part of our labours were vainly spent in the pursuit of a war eagle. This noble bird is the one which the Indians in these regions value so highly for their tail feathers, which are used as the most valued plumes for decorating the heads and dresses of their warriors. It is a beautiful bird, and, the Indians tell me, conquers all other varieties of eagles in the country; from which circumstance, the Indians respect the bird, and hold it in the highest esteem, and value its quills. I am unable so say to what variety it belongs; but I am sure it is not to be seen in any of our museums ; nor is it to be found in America (I think) until one gets near to the base of the Rocky Mountains. This bird has often been called the calumet eagle and war eagle; the last of which appellations I have already accounted for; and the other has arisen from the fact, that the Indians almost invariably ornament their calumets or pipes of peace with its quills.”
Now as any true fan who has shouted “War Eagle!” countless times at football games and upon meeting fellow Auburn fans far and near, I could not resist researching such a clue from history. For one thing, this account was well before any hint of a university in Auburn (not established until 1856) and at least 30 years before the celebrated story of that wounded Civil War veteran and his eagle. That soldier was likely not even born at the time George Catlin first heard the term War Eagle on his journey along the upper Missouri.
So was this a singular event, or were there any other references? Who else went up the Missouri River in the early 19th Century? Well, Captains Lewis and Clark were the obvious and most celebrated answer, so I looked there.
Ever to conquer, never to yield
Sure enough, there is an entry in the journal of Captain Lewis talking about the “Calumet Eagle.”
Wednesday, March 12th 1806
“I have Some reasons to believe that the Calumet Eagle is Sometimes found on this Side of the Rocky mountains from the information of the Indians in whose possession I have Seen their plumage. Those are the Same with those of the Missouri and are the most butifull of all the family of the Eagle of America. Its colours are black and white with which it is butifully varigated. The feathers of the tail which is so highly prized by the Indians is composed of twelve broad feathers of equal length. Those are white except about two inches at the extremity, which is of a jut black. Their wings have each a large circular white Spot in the middle when extended. The body is variously marked with white and black. The form is much that of the Common bald Eagle, but they are reather Smaller and much more fleet.”
Unfortunately, although very observant, neither Captain Lewis nor George Catlin were skilled ornithologists. I’m not one either, but luckily the internet grants superb references to the ignorant. When I googled the “calumet eagle,” I found there is no such bird. What was seen by both men was the golden eagle at a particular point in its normal life—early adolescence. The coloration change and the behavior from fledgling to adult bird in that species is so striking as to have confused early settlers and pioneers into thinking it was an entirely different bird, especially since the natives even had a different name for it—the War Eagle.
Why the special name? Captain Lewis points to it himself in the same excerpt from March 12, 1806:
“Two tails of this bird is esteemed by Mandans, Minnetares, Ricaras, &c. as the full value of a good horse, or Gun and accoutrements. With the Osage & Kanzas and those nations enhabiting Countrys where this bird is more rare, the price is even double of that mentioned. With these feathers the nativs deckerate the Stems of their Sacred pipes or Calumets; whence the name of Calumet Eagle, which has Generally obtained among the Engages. The Ricaras have domesticated this bird in many instances for the purpose of obtaining its plumage. The nativs in every part of the Continent who can precure those feathers attach them to their own hair and the mains and tail of their favorite horses by way of orniment. They also deckerate their own caps or bonnets with those feathers.””
That’s where George Catlin’s works come into play—google his works and take a good look at the headdresses of the Indians: white feathers tipped in black. The exact coloration of the tail feathers of juvenile golden eagles, termed “war eagles” because that particular feather was used as ornamentation in war bonnets and to denote bravery in battle.
Further proof of my theory is provided by Captain Lewis:
“This bird (the Calumet Eagle) is feared by all his carnivorous competitors, which, on his approach, leave the carcass instantly, on which they had been feeding. The female breeds in the most inaccessible parts of the mountains, where she makes her summer residence, and descends to the plains only in the fall and winter seasons. The natives are at this season on the watch; and so highly is this plumage prized by the Mandans, Minnetarees, and Ricaras, that the tail-feathers of two of these eagles will be purchased by the exchange of a good horse or gun, and such accouterments.”
And from still another reference: The Souix by Royal B. Hassrick:
“The Indian method of capturing a “war-eagle” was for the hunter to dig a pit large enough to crouch in. He covered the pit with brush and logs, and tied atop it some part of a small animal’s carcass, such as a rabbit’s. When an eagle landed to seize the bait, the hunter deftly reached through the blind, grabbed it by its legs, and either wrung its neck or, if it was a very young specimen, tied it securely to keep it from injuring itself or him, and carried it home to raise until its tail feathers grew into the right size and colors,”
Why is this significant? Because of the method used to capture the birds. Adult eagles, either bald or golden rarely eat carrion. They are both very large and skilled hunters with many years’ experience by the time they reach adulthood. Besides that, bald eagles have an entirely different predatory range, being predominantly a fish-eating bird, so they concentrate near rivers, streams and lakes. Only juvenile golden eagles regularly eat carrion, specifically in the summer, fall and winter of their first year and in much wider ranges than they later do as adult birds (after mating for life and settling down in a specific hunting area). It is this wide ranging and scavenging behavior that is the key to understanding both the mistaken identity of the species and the ease of its capture.
This behavior is singular trait of the juvenile golden eagle. From a research paper found online:
“We suggest that Golden Eagles’ ability to feed on carrion (Gil-Sánchez et al. 1994, Watson 1997) might play an important role in the unfolding of the first stages of their juvenile dispersal (Watson 1997, Halley & Gjershaug 1998, García-Ripollés et al. 2004), and explain the differences in ranging behavior with Bonelli’s and Spanish Imperial Eagles (although both may occasionally feed on carrion as well). For example, whereas in every year of their study García-Ripollés et al (2004) observed one-year-old juvenile Golden Eagles feeding on carrion during the autumn and winter in the ‘vulture restaurant’ they studied, no juvenile Bonelli’s Eagle was observed feeding there (despite both species breeding nearby).”
When you consider the classic Indian portraits of George Catlin, the feathers used in the native headdresses are white with black tips and are always referred to as eagle feathers. In my ignorance, I always assumed they were bald eagle feathers decorated on the tips with black eagle feathers or those of some other bird.
But they are not from any other bird. There is only one source of such feathers: the tails of juvenile golden eagles. By juvenile, I mean birds in their very first year. Though the coloration may still appear in older birds up to age five, it is most clearly defined in the first year. The visual effect is dramatic, especially in flight. The wider range of the juvenile would bring it into areas that did not normally see the older birds hunting, thus adding to the mystery of its origin.
How is this significant to Auburn and its battle cry? Simple. In nearly every case of the origin story of a live captured eagle associated with Auburn, it is one in which a young bird is caught, whether in the battlefield story (where the bird was likely after a carrion meal) or by an Alabama farmer. Since the coloration only lasts a year or two of an eagle’s long life, the phrase “War Eagle” might still stick long after the distinctive color scheme fades to the more uniform pattern of adulthood.
Additionally, the ease by which these eagles at this particular age could be caught is also illustrated by Captain Lewis on June 9, 1806:
“The Cutnose or Neeshneeparkkeeook borrowed a horse and rode down the Kooskooske River a few miles this morning in quest of some young eagles, which he intends raising for the benifit of their feathers; he returned soon after with a pair of young Eagles of the grey kind; they were nearly grown and prety well feathered.”
In this instance, the term “Grey Eagle” is used. That is yet another term for the same juvenile golden eagle, just after the fledgling stage when the feathers are greyish. Note the date of the entry: June. It is late spring or early summer before the white feathers have appeared for the birds. Yet the feeding habits made the capture of the bird easy for the native, who evidently was well practiced in the craft. Unlike the relatively ignorant observation by Captain Lewis, the native knew full well what he had in his hands. This was the same species that would have white tail feathers in the fall, which he could barter for a good horse, all for half a day’s work.
A google image search for what a young golden eagle looked like in flight cemented my suspicion about the bird. Using “juvenile golden eagle” gave me the following:
And that my friends, is what a real War Eagle looks like and, in my mind at least, satisfies how the term became associated with Auburn.
This is what the original birds of either origin story looked like when they were captured and stayed that way throughout the fall of that first year (i.e., football season!), either by that soldier on the battlefield, or by the Alabama farmer. Perhaps it was both. In any case, I’m assuming someone looked up in a library why the bird was colored the way it was when found and discovered the same or similar references that I just did. They referred to the bird as a War Eagle, and the name stuck even after the birds grew older and their white feathers were replaced by the golden brown plumage of adulthood.
Who knows? Perhaps this little curiosity of the golden eagle’s distinct coloration, ever widening hunting area and proclivity to feed on carrion as a juvenile was the origin of the famous “Thunderbird” of native legend. It’s entirely likely as the juvenile bird is solitary yet still migrates and hunts in a very wide area of the North American continent. It would fit both the rarity of the bird’s appearance and the singular pattern of its feathers.
But I’ll leave that one for others to speculate on and research. For myself, I think I’ll put on a video on from Auburn’s undefeated 2010 season and sit back with a beer to enjoy a quiet moment of smug satisfaction of a small historic riddle answered.
War Damn Eagle, indeed.
One detail I also left out of the original article was the writing of the Auburn Fight Song. Al Stillman, a New York lyricist, wrote the lyrics, but he had to have inspiration from somewhere, right?
Compare his lyrics to George Caitlin’s letter:
Auburn Fight song
“War…Eagle, fly down the field,
Ever to conquer, never to yield.”
“It is a beautiful bird, and, the Indians tell me, conquers all other varieties of eagles in the country; from which circumstance, the Indians respect the bird, and hold it in the highest esteem, and value its quills.”
To tell the truth, this is what first caught my attention more than anything else: the word “conquer” associated with “War Eagle” long before there was ever a university at Auburn.
Perhaps is it pure coincidence, perhaps not. In any case, I think that someone, Al Stillman, the people at Auburn who commissioned him to write, whomever, read this very letter by George Caitlin, and that is how that particular word was placed in the fight song.