Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

This webpage reproduces an item in the
Louisiana Historical Quarterly

published by the
Louisiana Historical Society

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

By Stanley Clisby Arthur

In 1803 occurred the Louisiana Purchase. In March of the following year Thomas Jefferson approved an act of Congress providing for the government of the "territory of Orleans," for such was Louisiana known before it acquired the dignity of Statehood. By this act the legislative power was invested in a governor and thirteen fit and discreet citizens of the new territory, these men to be appointed annually by the President of the United States.

The first legislative body, or council as it was termed at that time, convened in New Orleans during December of that year but it was not until the 19th of April, 1805, that an act was passed providing for a public seal, reading "to better authenticate the acts of the government of the territory of Orleans, there shall be a public seal thereof, with such device and inscription as the Governor shall determine on, an impression whereof shall be affixed to all official acts executed under his signature, except the laws of the Territory."

Governor William C. C. Claiborne evidently decided that this new part of the United States should have on its seal that emblem which the national government had already adopted — the eagle, for on the State documents of that period it appeared.

Seal of the Territory of Orleans

The first seal of Louisiana was an eagle. Why? Our few records on this subject give us no light. Yet perhaps there were very good reasons for Claiborne adopting the eagle for the new territory's device as the reproduction of a very interesting old map has shown. It is a view of this city from the plantation Marigny, drawn by Boqueta de Woessera.​a It will be recognized that the bird there flying over the Crescent curve of the river is an eagle bearing in its bill a ribbon carrying the phrase "Under my wings every thing prospers." Therefore, it now seems probable that this device was in favor at that time and possibly swayed the first American governor in his choice in selecting a device for the first seal.

The eagle seal remained in force and effect for some years until Louisiana was admitted to Statehood, being the 18th State. The constitution of the State of Louisiana, adopted in 1812, provided in  p249 Section 5: "The governor of this State shall make use of his private seal until a State seal shall be procured." Did this mean that Claiborne had a private seal — a seal for his personal use that was deemed superior to the seal that had authenticated the State papers of the Territory of Orleans? Documentary evidence is lacking, at least I have been unable to unearth any, as to the why and wherefore of a change in the device on the seal but a change did come and this brings us to the topic of the evening — the pelican.

It is an interesting fact that between the date of the admission of Louisiana into the Union in April of 1813, until December 23rd of that year, the State was without a seal except that which the governor might be inclined to choose. When Mr. Henry L. Favrot delivered his interesting lecture on "The State Seal" before this bodyº in 1901, he pointed out the fact that he had in his possession a commission dated June 28, 1813, and the seal showed what was evidently a pelican above its nest, in which were about a dozen nestlings, and around the design were the words "Justice, Union and Confidence," and pendant in the design was a pair of scales. This was the first State seal.

The bird was interpreted as being a pelican, although a close inspection of the line drawing would indicate that it is more like an eagle, especially if the head and beak are to be taken into consideration.

The fact that this seal was officially used in June and yet the act permitting him to select such a seal was not passed until December, would indicate that the governor had already chosen his seal or, what may be more to the point, he used "his private seal" mentioned in the act, and later adopted no other.

At any rate this seal remained the seal of Louisiana from 1813 until 1864 — 51 years elapsing before any governor saw fit to have a new die made and a new seal cast. It is the original pelican seal and marks the first appearance of our queer old friend on any seal. The drawing I saw does not exactly reproduce the seal itself, being in fact but the exact fac-simile of a design found on many printed commissions issued from the Governor's office as will be noted by the reproduction of a State paper in its entirety.

The line drawing, or woodcut, does not faithfully reproduce the seal proper as it appears on the aged documents treasured in the Cabildo but is used for the sake of clarity. A photographic reproduction of the clearest impression of the State seal will be found in the State Museum. This was affixed to a commission issued during  p250 Governor Villere's term and there are 16 little pelicans in the nest.

Now we are face to face with an interesting ornithological question. Is the bird now presented on its nest over 16 babies really a pelican? Did we have nature fakers in those days or were draughtsmen merely inferior artists? Audubon might have thrown some light on the subject but a careful search through the chapters devoted to the pelicans in his Ornithological Biographies fails to disclose even a mention of the fact that the infant State of Louisiana had adopted the pelican and that the seal was graced with its likeness.

However much we may make light of it, it was undoubtedly meant to be the counterfeit of a pelican for Mr. Favrot testified that he had in his possession a copy of the Nashville Examiner of October 23rd, 1813, (two months before the act just alluded to had been passed) wherein a paragraph told that "the new State of Louisiana had chosen a pelican for its seal because it had the reputation of tearing its breast to feed its young." Now you have the bird and the tradition! Yet "the private seal" of Governor Claiborne was being used to authenticate the State papers.

Louisiana joined the Confederacy and the legislators marched out of the chamber under a flag that had emblazoned upon it a single red star and the figure of a pelican in the traditional attitude of feeding its young from its breast, but the State seal on the documents of that period remained unchanged from Claiborne's original die. In 1864, when Governor Allen set up the executive mansion at Shreveport, a new die was cast and a new seal appeared on the State papers of that momentous period.

Unquestionably the mother bird is a pelican this time. The wording on the seal is the same, the scales are there and so are the stars but on the Allen seal we have but 15 stars while Claiborne's original had 18. Then too, and this is important, the head of the adult pelican turns to the left.​b

As to babies in the nest there are a nestfull, that is a certainty and of the impressions that I have examined none of them have been clear enough to make the count sure.

Now comes Michaelº Hahn, first Republican governor in the early reconstruction days. Evidently not satisfied with Mr. Allen's efforts in improving on Claiborne's original design he changed the seal but kept the pelican. While Governor Hahn clung to the tradition handed down by the first governor he again reversed the head of the parent bird so that it turned to the right, as in the original seal, allowed but 4 babies in the nest, placed the words "State of  p251 Louisiana" under the nest, inscribed "Justice, Union and Confidence" over the top, retained the scales but eliminated the stars.

This seal remained in force and effect for a great number of years. Not longer after its adoption a slight change was made, "Justice Union and Confidence" being changed to "Union, Justice and Confidence," and while it was said that this change was made during Governor Warmoth's term the governor denied this in a letter to Mr. Favrot.

About 1870 there was another change in the seal. The words "State of Louisiana" were placed above the bird, the scales erased, "Union, Justice &" appearing just over the pelican's head and the word "Confidence" just below the nest. This seal is especially noteworthy because it is the first seal having but three babies in the nest, and some people will tell you that the pelican has but three young and no more, and based on this assertion, that this is the first ornithologically correct seal. As to the correctness of this we shall see later.

In Louisiana today we have many and divers kinds of State seals. Every State office displays, or should display, the pelican in its nest on its official paper or letterheads. The State Treasurer has his seal, the Secretary of State his, even the State Land office has a seal. Not all the seals are alike, nor were they alike in the old days. Some had three young in the nest, some had four, some had twelve, such as the Flying pelican. This design made its appearance on official documents about the Civil War period and became quite popular not only on Governor Wells' State commissions, but with notaries and business houses that emblazoned their stationeryº with the State emblem. A singular seal was that one used by General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Beauregard when he was adjutant general. The pelican is well drawn but we do not know his authority for using "non sibi sed suis."

It was not until April, 1902, that Louisiana had the pelican seal adopted by act of legislature and with all the frills and furbelows that go with legislative action. This took place during the administration of Governor W. W. Heard. At the same time the State flag was adopted, a blue field with the pelican in the traditional attitude in white; as was the magnolia selected as the State's flower.

Section 3471 of the revised statutes says that the seal shall consist of "a pelican with its head turned toward the left; in a nest three young; the pelican, following the tradition, in act of tearing its breast to feed its young; around the edge of the seal to be inscribed 'Union, justice,' etc.; under the nest of the pelican to be inscribed 'Confidence.' "

 p252  In the frontispiece of the report of Secretary of State John T. Michel, appeared the State seal, but while the language of the statute said that the pelican's head should be turned to the left the head wrongly turns to the right. In matters of this kind it is the object's right or left that is designated and not the observer's. Then, too, the Heard pelican, ornithologically speaking, is a composite. It has the body of a goose, the neck of a swan and the bill of a heron.

Let us consider just how a pelican should look in life in this attitude. There is a photograph of one of the pelicans in the Audubon Flying Cage in the attitude of picking his breast. It took months of waiting for the time, the place and the pelican before I succeeded in securing this pose. Of course I was materially aided by a friendly cootie,​c and this is the nearest I have come to photographing a pelican in the act of tearing its breast to feed its young.

I feel that the seal now used by the Department of Conservation comes nearer being the actual likeness of a pelican, in the traditional attitude, with the head turned to the left, and with the wording provided for in the legislative act. You will note the correct absence of the word or figure "and" — the act does not call for it.

Now we have considered the seal from its first design to the present one. Why is the pelican in the act of tearing its breast to feed its young? We know that it is a most abundant bird along the vast Louisiana coast. It attracted the attention of the early writers. Le Page du Pratz, writing in 1758, calls the pelican the Grand gosier and prints its portrait. "The Grand-gosier," says du Pratz, "derives his name from his big head, large bill and especially his big pocket, without feathers or down, that hangs from his neck. He fills this pocket with fish that he afterwards empties to feed his young. The sailors kill them along the sea shores where they are always to be found so as to get this pouch in which they place a cannonball and suspend it so as to shape it into a bag in which they place their tobacco."

Captain Bossu, writing in the early days, says: "the pelican is called the grand-gosier in Louisiana by the inhabitants because of its big pouch,"º and further that the grease from the bird was used to thicken indigo paste.

The presence of this bird in such numbers doubtless suggested to the minds of the religious Catholics the place the pelican has in ecclesiastic history.​d The pelican occupies an important place in the old testament, but as far as I have been able to ascertain, is not mentioned in the new. In the eleventh chapter of Leviticus is contained the directions for regulating the food of the Israelites  p253 so as to keep them from defilement by contact with any sort of dead flesh which they were not permitted to eat. Of the bird nineteen were prohibited by name and the pelican is among that number — as is also the bat, which is not a bird, by the way.

While the pelican in its adult stage is a bird without a voice, it is very strange to find the sweet singer David comparing his groans and lamentations in the 102nd Psalm to "the cries of a pelican in the wilderness."​e

The pelican has a secure place in symbolism and the writings obtainable today contain references to the pelican and show that this bird was well known to the ancients as certain crude likenesses of it have been found in many ancient writings. The word pelican comes from the Greek pelekan or pelekinos or the Latin pelecanus, and there are about 13 separate species found in all temperate portions of the world. North Americaº has but two kinds, the white pelican, that is wholly a northern breeder; and the brown pelican, that is a resident of the southern Atlantic and Gulf States and of the California coast.

Being so widely distributed, a bird of size, and of peculiar habits it is no wonder that the bird easily obtained a place in tradition and symbolism. Throughout the world "The pelican in its piety," as the heralds call this symbol, is to be found. Whether over the entrance to an English cathedral such as the carving over the perpendicular of south porch,º S. Austell, Cornwall, Eng., or in the stained glass window of Bourges cathedral, where it is to be seen with other types of the Resurrection, viz., the lion raising its whelps; Jonah delivered from the whale, and Elijah restoring life to the widow's son of Sarepta. The symbolism of the pelican seems to be closely connected not only with Christ's passion but with the Christian resurrection as well.

An insert in the pulpit at Aldington, Kent, England, contains a remarkable wood carving of the "pelican in its piety."

Canon Cheyne in referring to the pelican as the emblem of the atoning work of Christ, in the Encyclopedia Biblica, writes that the common fable about the pelican giving its life for its young ones comes originally from Egypt, and the Bestiaries say that the pelicans are fond of their young, but when the latter grow older, they begin to strike their parents in the face. This enrages the parents, who kill the young in anger, but at last one of them comes in remorse and smites its breast with its beak so that the blood may flow and raise the young to life again.

 p254  It hardly seems necessary to state here that there is no foundation for the venerable legend of the mother pelican feeding her young with blood from her own breast which has given this bird such an important place in ecclesiastical history and a tradition in Louisiana that is believed by some even to this day as being a fact. This is the legend generally recounted as typifying the great love of the mother for her young, but in my researches for bits of lore anent this strange old bird that graces our State seal, I have stumbled on a curious legend that antedates the one usually heard.

Epiphanius,º Bishop of Constantia, wrote in his Physiologus in 1588,​f that the female bird in cherishing her young wounds them with loving by piercing their sides with her beak and they die. After three days the male pelican comes to the nest and finds his little ones dead and his heart is pained. He smites his own side with his bill and as he stands over the dead nestlings the blood trickles from his self-inflicted cuts into the open wounds of his dead little ones and they are made to live again. In this pious act of reviving his offspringº was found the common subject for the fifteenth-century emblematic books, and thus the pelican became the symbolism of self-sacrifice, the type of Christian redemption and of Eucharistic doctrine.

Antedating by 300 years the device of the pelican on the State seal of Louisiana is the adoption of this device for one of the colleges of the University of Oxford, for Bishop Fox, in 1517,º adopted the design of the father pelican making his young alive again for the then new college of Corpus Christi.

We will now leave the pelicans of the past and tradition for the pelicans of the present and reality. There are two species of pelicans native to Louisiana — the brown pelican, a resident bird and a breeder along our coasts, and the white pelican, a winter visitor but not breeding in Louisiana. Therefore it seems to me that we should designate the brown pelican as the State Bird, as it is found along our shores at all times of the year and, as we have adopted the design of a pelican with its young for our State seal, we should, to be consistent, select the species of pelican that actually raises its young within the confines of the State.

While it is true that a few members of the great white pelican flocks that come to this State during the winter months remain here during the summer or breeding season, it is nevertheless an absolute fact that the white birds that spend the summer with us do not breed, as the white pelicans that have come under my observations during the past five or six years do not have the characteristic breeding  p255 horn on the top of the upper bill. The white pelican differs in appearance in a number of respects from our so‑called brown pelican. It is a bird that is of pure white plumage with the exception of the black primary feathers of the wings, and the feet, bill, and pouch are of a vivid yellow color; but its most peculiar adornment is a horny excrescence seen on top of the bill in the spring and early summer. This is purely a sexual adornment and is found on both sexes during the breeding season, after which it drops off. This fact is conclusive evidence that the few white pelicans that stay in Louisiana during the summer, not joining the annual northward flight, are non-breeders.

The brown pelican differs to a marked degree from its relative the white pelican inasmuch as the back and sides are of a silvery gray-brown effect composed of many different tints. In winter the head and neck is white, tinted with yellow at the ends of these feathers. The bill, pouch, and feet are of a dull bluish-green color.

As the breeding season comes on, the back of the neck and the top of the breast turn to a very rich seal brown color, leaving the front of the neck pure white. Because of a brown neck stripe our pelican received its common name of "brown" pelican and this plumage change approximates the sexual breeding ornament of the white pelican, i.e. the horny excrescence on the top of the bill. This rich coloring of the nap of the neck and breast does give a distinction to our pelican although "gray" pelican would seem a more fitting popular name.

As to the number of young that should be in a pelican's nest, to make it ornithologically correct, it is a fact that the white pelican lays but two eggs and hatches but two young. As to the brown pelican: I have personally investigated a number of breeding colonies of brown pelicans in Louisiana, I have seen them on everyone of the islands they have selected for reproduction purposes and these islands lie practically all along the Louisiana coast. The largest colony ever investigated was on the mud lumps at the mouths of the Mississippi river. There over 50,000 breeding birds were assembled in 1919. I have seen nests that contained one, two, three, four, five, and six eggs. I have seen young pelicans in the nests numbering three, four and five babies and, as a result of my personal investigation, I would say that the normal number of eggs laidº approximate four as the general average. Although great numbers of them have four young, while five young must be counted on as a rarity, three young is not quite an average. These observations just enumerated  p256 must then explode the oft-heardº theory that our pelican has three young and no more.

While more than three eggs are laid and more than three young are hatched, my investigations led me to believe that on an average our brown pelican raises to maturity but two young, as from different causes there is quite some mortality among the young of this bird. Young pelicans when they are hatched come from the egg absolutely naked, in a week or ten days a fuzzy down makes its appearance and by the time they are a month old they resemble nothing more than little woolly lambs. While the adult pelican is absolutely voiceless, this does not hold as to the vocal accomplishments of the young ones for the racket 200,000 baby pelicans can make when they clamor for their fish food can be best described as deafening. The young ones are great hulking babies and like most young ones, bird or human, are hungry all the time, and to feed the appallingly capacious pouches that they are continually opening and displaying the emptiness thereof, the parent birds are kept busy from sun up to sundown, and the care and attention shown these hungry little ones by the old birds is worthy of emulation by parents, bird or human.

The brown pelican in the air is a most graceful bird. A strong flyer and a wonderful diver, for the brown pelican gets its food by making an abrupt plunge from a great height into the water, sometimes going below the surface, while the white pelican swims on the surface and scoops its food without going beneath the water or plunging. Our State bird is a most amiable member of our vast avian race. It harms no one and should make no enemies, although two years ago an effort was made on the part of the fishermen in Florida, Texas and some parts of Louisiana to exterminate these birds on the ground that they annually destroyed many thousand tons of fish useful to man as food. When this movement was under way to so interest the U. S. Food Administration that it would pronounce rules that would permit their extermination, the Department of Conservation came to the defence of our emblematic bird and sent out an expedition along the Louisiana coast to investigate its food habits. This expedition I had the privilege of heading and as the result of our finding we absolutely ascertained that the pelican's food was over 97% menhaden, a fish that is not used by man as food, and the other 3% of its diet was made up of silversides, another fish that is not used by man as food, therefore our State Bird has a 100% record, because of the hundreds of stomachs secured in not one did we find a single food fish.

 p257  Louisiana has adopted for her insignia on the State seal a bird that is plus in every particular; true in appearance the pelican is ungainly when on the land; when swimming it loses this awkwardness; and when in the air it is a bird of exceptional grace, and to see a number of pelicans flying over our waters, lends a fitting adornment to our characteristic Louisiana coast line and waters.

I bespeak a word of praise and admiration for our State Bird from everyone. The pelican's devotion to its little one is not exceeded by the devotion of any other bird. It is absolutely harmless toward man in every respect. The pelican is charged with being ugly — homely — awkward — quite true, yet Abraham Lincoln was not the handsomest president of these United States.​g

Thayer's Notes:

a The view, with its eagle and banner, are reproduced in Kendall's History of New Orleans, p76; it was sufficiently emblematic of that author's view of Louisiana history that I used that eagle as my icon for the entire work. The original drawing is in the collections of the Chicago Historical Society.

[decorative delimiter]

b Heraldically, the direction in which the bird faces does matter. As the author will point out further on, the direction is viewed from the bird's standpoint, or more properly, from the standpoint of a man who would carry the device on a shield, and would therefore be standing behind it. It would have been clearer to use the unambiguous blazon terms: dexter for what Arthur calls right (left as we look at it) and sinister for what he refers to as left (right as we look at it).

Heraldic charges are almost always represented facing dexter, which is the honorable direction, as for example in the Great Seal of the United States. The matter is important enough — if a seal is a symbol, you might as well get it right — to have engaged the attention of the national government several times: for example, although in the Great Seal the American eagle had always faced dexter, in the Presidential seal from its inception in 1880 he faced sinister until he was reversed by President Truman in 1945. Similarly, in the arms of the United States Military Academy at West Point the main device, a helmet, faced sinister for many years but was eventually corrected to dexter; as it happens, I use that device as a decorative delimiter thruout my American history site, so you see it immediately after this note. As of writing (Mar 2006) the seal of the State of Louisiana has not been corrected, and the bird continues to face sinister.

[decorative delimiter]

c Here especially, it is to be regretted that, presumably because of the cost, the article in the Quarterly is unillustrated. I will keep my eyes peeled for depictions of the seal, and needless to say, for pelicans in interesting poses; but if you can help, I would be grateful: please drop me a note, of course.

[decorative delimiter]

d It's a bit much to expect a scientific ornithologist, as our author will reveal himself on p256, to give solid details on the Christian symbolism of the pelican "vulning" (for so the bird wounding itself is often blazoned); for a much better and more thorough summary, referencing the primary sources that underlie the secondary work mentioned by Arthur a bit further on, see Sir Thomas Browne, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, V.1, Of the Picture of the Pelecan; the further page there, On Images of Pelicans, gives some examples, mostly from English cathedrals.

[decorative delimiter]

e Nowhere does David mention "the cries of a pelican in the wilderness." The King James Version of Ps. 102.5‑6 comes closest:

5 By reason of the voice of my groaning my bones cleave to my skin. 6 I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert.

If other translations sometimes vary in their translation of the bird,

Douay-Rheims: "pelican of the wilderness . . . night raven"; Revised English Bible and New English Bible: "desert-owl . . . owl"; New World Translation: "pelican of the wilderness . . . little owl"; Segond: "pélican du désert . . . chat-huant"; Ostervald: "pélican du désert . . . chouette"; Reina-Valera: "pelícano del desierto . . . buho".

none gives it a voice.

[decorative delimiter]

f Saint Epiphanius of Constantia (Salamis in Cyprus) lived in the 4c, and almost certainly did not write the Physiologus. The article Physiologus of the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia places the work in the 2c or 3c, which is then contradicted, if rather vaguely, by the article Epiphanius, which states that it belongs to the 6c. Epiphanius of Salamis, however, was another man altogether, whose article in the Encyclopedia says nothing of the work. The current generation of scholars are also almost unanimous in dismissing any specific author­ship, as well as any earlier than the Middle Ages: see for example David Badke's electronic reprint of the 1588 edition; and that year 1588, sure enough, merely marks the date of the editio princeps, by Plantin at Antwerp, of the Physiologus, whoever wrote it.

At any rate, the Christian symbolism of the pelican already appears in Isidore (Etym. VII.26, incontestably dated to the 7c) and was firmly entrenched by the early 13c, appearing for example in ps‑Jerome and the Aberdeen Bestiary, both no later than 1200, and in the Ancrene Wisse. That much is easy: determining the ultimate source(s) of the symbol is much harder and would require the exercise of more scholar­ship than I have in me, to say nothing of long and careful investigation.

[decorative delimiter]

g Given the time and place this paper was first read — the Cabildo in New Orleans, within living memory of the brutal occupation of the city by Federal troops — what a brave or crazy simile for the author to throw at his audience! Even today, when hard feelings have had a further ninety years to fade, people can be found in the American South who think of the Union president as a war criminal.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 2 Dec 17