Building Community through Shared History - A KU Memorial Union Program

Arranging Dyche’s Chair On Mount Oread

Lewis Lindsay Dyche, the Kansas naturalist who would become renowned as an explorer, lecturer, and taxidermist was appointed to a chair in biological sciences by the Board of Regents on this day in KU history.

Born on March 20, 1857 in Bath, Virginia (present-day Berkeley Springs, West Virginia), Dyche’s parents moved to Kansas when the future Jayhawk was only three months old. Settling near the now-defunct Shawnee County town of Ridgeway, south of Topeka, the Dyches started a farm on 160 acres of land for which they agreed to pay the US Land Office $150 after the first year. Dyche’s mother Mary became ill on the journey to Kansas and the infant Lewis was cared for by women in a nearby camp of Sac and Fox Indians.

The oldest of 12 children, Lewis grew up on the frontier of Euro-American society. He later wrote that he “did not think much about Indians being different from other people. We used to go to the Indian camps and . . . ate turtles roasted in the fire, muskrats, and I am not sure but that I ate snakes and many other things I did not know much about.” He attended the Auburn village school as a child, but by his 13th birthday he was reluctant to give up his outdoor life to attend school with younger children.

In 1874, Dyche sold a small herd of cattle and used the money to pay for an education at the State Normal School at Emporia (now Emporia State). While there, Dyche had the responsibility of leading visitors on tours of the school, and during one of these such tours he met one of the three original professors at the University of Kansas and his mentor-to-be, Francis Huntington Snow. Like Dyche, Snow was a man of the outdoors and yet had impressed Dyche with his learned style. When Dyche graduated from the Emporia school in 1877 he was determined to attend KU and “take every course offered” before accepting a diploma. Also at Emporia, Dyche met his future bride, Ophelia Axtell.

Snow recognized that Dyche not only possessed a rare intelligence, but was a kindred spirit as well. He took Dyche under his wing, sending him out to collect insects and spend time studying nature directly. By age 20, the buckskin-clad student, who often camped near the University, had brought Snow so many samples of insects and otherwise impressed him that Snow told his wife to “tog him out with proper clothes” so as to ease the way for his employment at the University.” Dyche followed Snow on numerous collecting trips out onto the plains and into New Mexico and Colorado. Such expeditions would become a way of life for him.

Dyche had long been adept at providing food for himself and his companions with his rifle. In 1882, he began to collect mammals for scientific study. That summer, Dyche’s shooting skills bagged a steady stream of skeletons, skulls, and skins, beginning a process that would continue for the next 30 years. That fall, while still an undergraduate, Dyche became an instructor in the Natural History Department. After receiving both Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Sciences degrees in 1884, Dyche traveled to New York to study taxidermy with the well-known conservationist, William T. Hornaday.

The results of this state-of-the-art training can still be seen today in KU’s Museum of Natural History in Dyche Hall. This unique collection ranges from the Kansas pavilion’s diorama at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 to the horse “Comanche,” once considered the sole US survivor of the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

Douglas Harvey
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: Dyche Papers; Francis Huntington Snow Papers; Record of the Proceedings of the Board of Regents; Dyche’s column, “Scientific Notes,” in the University Courier, 20 October, 2 December 1882, 6 February, 24 September, 10 October, 1883; all housed in the University of Kansas Archives, Spencer Library. See also Clarence E. Edwards, Camp-Fires of a Naturalist, (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1893). Secondary sources include William Sharp and Peggy Sullivan, The Dashing Kansas: Lewis Lindsay Dyche, the Amazing Adventures of a Nineteenth-Century Naturalist and Explorer, Kansas City, MO: Harrow Books, 1990, 1-63; Clifford S. Griffin, The University of Kansas: A History, (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1974), 114, 145, 148-149, 185.]