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 key is in the traditional stories, which I believe are full of half-truths. According to various sources, there was a 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 is that a young golden eagle became caught in a farmer's bean lines on his farm in the summer of 1930 and was adopted by some Auburn students who brought it to football games.
In any case, the practice of "War Eagle" at Auburn has been shrouded in mystery since the early 1900s 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 when my high school aged daughter mentioned she was out of summer reading material last year 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.
Early this 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 1830s, 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 n 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 American (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 br; 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, Lewis and Clark was the obvious answer, so I looked there. 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 it's 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 CPT 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
tailfeathers 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, 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 behaviour 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.
The ease by which these could be caught is also illustrated by CPT 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."
How is this significant to Auburn and their battle cry? Simple. In
nearly every case of the story of a live captured 'War Eagle'
associated with Auburn, it is one in which a young bird is caught.
Either in the battlefield story (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 a more uniform pattern.
In this instance, the term 'Grey Eagle' is used. That is yet another term for the same golden eagle, just after the fledgeling stage when their feathers are greyish. Note the date of the entry - June. 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 CPT 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 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 the 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 was the origin of the famous 'Thunderbird' of native legend. It's entirely likely, as the 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 and research. For myself, I think I'll put on a video of 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.<g>