William Stamps Cherry

William Stamps Cherry

Birth
Clark County, Missouri, USA
Death 8 Mar 1927 (aged 58)
Panama
Burial Body lost at sea
Memorial ID 111898166 · View Source
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Museum Graphic Los Angeles Museum Vol. I May-June 1927 No. 5
William Stamps Cherry -- An Appreciation

WILLIAM STAMPS CHERRY, whose African collection has long been a featured exhibit in the Los Angeles Museum, was lost at sea March 8, 1927.

His career calls for more than a passing tribute. When he returned from Africa in 1901, after five years in the heart of that continent, he was widely acclaimed an explorer second only to Henry M. Stanley in the romantic interest of his adventures and the scientific importance of his discoveries.

It was his second expedition. On his first trip he spent three years in the Congo Basin, returning in 1893 with a large collection of curios illustrating practically every phase of native life along the Congo. It was gathered for the World's Fair at Chicago and was exhibited in the Anthropological building. Experts pronounced it the finest collection of the kind ever brought to this country, and the medal he received was one of his cherished possessions. At the close of the Fair the exhibit was loaned to the Armour Institute. Later, augmented greatly by the trophies and specimens collected on his second and more important trip, it was placed in the Field Museum at Chicago. Here it remained until fifteen years ago, when it was brought to California for the Los Angeles Museum.

The collection is a notable one, carefully classified and filling more than a dozen large cases in addition to a large extent of wall space. It includes a native smelter for the production of iron. It also includes Mr. Cherry's proudest trophies as an African hunter,-the skull of his biggest hippopotamus and the tusks of his largest elephant. The latter weigh respectively 165 and 167 pounds. The huge beast to which they belonged was not only the largest he saw during his eight years in Africa, it was also the largest of which the natives had ever known. The encounter proved one of the most dangerous and thrilling episodes in his life, as related in his own words later in this article.

Mr. Cherry was born February 14, 1869, in Clark County, Missouri, but spent the years of an orphaned boyhood in the little river town of Warsaw on the Illinois side of the Mississippi. Here he received his public school education, and here at the age of nine his native genius for adventure had its awakening. Stanley had returned from Africa, where he found Livingstone, and published the now famous tale of his travels. The nine-year-old boy was a fascinated listener. Then word by word, child-fashion, as our forefathers learned to read the Bible, he pored over Stanley's book for himself. From that time it was his fixed resolve to go to Africa and be the first white man to explore some new region of the Dark Continent.

Later he went to live with relatives in South Dakota, and spent four years in the State college at Brookings. Two incidents at this period of his life evinced his spirit for adventure. One was a visit with two companions to a reservation where the Sioux Indians were holding a ghost dance just prior to one of their last, savage uprisings against the whites. The other was a trip alone in a canoe down the Missouri River from Pierre, S. D., to St. Joseph, Mo., during which he lived on the game that fell to his gun along the way. From St. Joseph he went to Hannibal, where he spent the next two years in a machine shop, gaining a practical knowledge of mechanics and saving his wages to finance his expedition. Then at the age of twenty he started to Africa.

He bought a modest outfit in London and, despite the gloomiest forecasts of disaster, cheerfully expended the remainder of his savings to pay for his passage to the Congo. He arrived with a single English shilling in his pocket, but with an inexhaustible fund of Yankee pluck. A slender youth of somewhat less than medium stature, without letters of introduction or the backing of an organization, a more daring dreamer never lived.

An engineer for a Dutch trading company, who had brought with him from England a small steamer in sections-one of the first ever taken to the Congo-had recently died of coast fever. No one could be found to complete the assembling of the steamer. Mr. Cherry, with his knowledge of mechanics, offered to attempt it. He accomplished the task with such celerity and skill that he was promptly engaged to run it. He made numerous trips on the Congo and its tributaries, trading with the native tribes from Stanley Pool to Stanley Falls. He learned to communicate with the natives, and acquired a reputation amongst them for his prowess with the gun. He exchanged the flesh of the elephants, hippopotami and other game which he killed, for ivory, supplies and curios. At the end of three years he returned to America with his collection for the World's Fair, and a quantity of ivory sufficient to finance his further studies and his next expedition.

He had been a keen observer. At the African Congress held in connection with the World's Fair he proved himself, notwithstanding his youth, the peer of any explorer present in his grasp of African conditions and possibilities. His early confidence had been vindicated. He had gained a practical knowledge of the things which he now needed for a career of serious and independent exploration. And so he devoted the next three years to special study. Chemistry and assaying, zoology and botany, the use of the sextant and theodolite, - these were among the subject upon which he concentrated. He perfected himself in legerdemain to increase his prestige with the natives. He learned what a layman could in medicine. Then in 1896, with an ample equipment of guns and cameras and scientific instruments, he returned to Africa. His objectives were definite: to carve out of the unknown interior a new region for the map of Africa; to collect data of scientific and commercial interest; to prove the feasibility of domesticating the elephant; to study the whole African problem from the inside, and by letting in the light to pave the way to the civilization of that continent.

He arrived to find the French under Major Marchand organizing a military expedition to connect their possessions on the Congo with the Nile,-the Fashoda episode which nearly brought England and France to war. Marchand needed boats to transport his supplies. Mr. Cherry found a half-submerged, abandoned steamer, which he floated and restored to service. He brought it to the French docks and tendered it to Marchand, who at once engaged him to be chief of his marine engineers. He was put in charge of a second expedition to follow with supplies. At the farthest point of navigation on the interior route to the Nile, the steamer was taken apart, transported in sections to the nearest tributary of the Nile and there reassembled. Mr. Cherry had fulfilled his commission and left the French service, returning to Brazzaville near the mouth of the Congo, and prepared for his real work in Africa.

He bought two native canoes 60 feet long, hardly wider than a man's body, manned them with a crew of natives, put-in his rifles and outfit, and set out for the wilderness above the equator, following the upper Mobangui and its tributaries. He made numerous trips up the Kotto river above the rapids which had stopped every previous traveler. Three times he lost almost everything he had through the capsizing of his canoes in the rapids. He went several hundred miles further up the river and opened up an unknown region equal in extent to the state of Illinois. He explored the watersheds of the Bahr el Gazahl and Chari rivers, making maps of the region and gathering much information. He was far north of the central Africa with which Stanley made the world familiar. For several years he did not see a white face. For twenty months he received no mail. Three years he slept with his clothes on, much of the time heavily armed, in a region where cannibalism was extensively practised. He discovered three new tribes, two new species of antelope and a species of tuskless elephant. The country teemed with elephants and the rivers swarmed with hippopotami. It was a hunter's paradise, and Mr. Cherry kept the natives supplied with meat in exchange for ivory. His fame was great in a region that had never seen firearms. At one village in his travels he found a chief of enormous size who roared with skepticism when he saw how small a man the white hunter was. Mr. Cherry calmly walked down to the river where he killed five hippopotami in seven shots. He was the hero of the feast that ensued and whatever the tribe possessed was thereafter his for the asking.

It was in this region that he had the encounter with the great elephant whose tusks. were his proudest African trophy. Let him tell the story in his own words:

"One morning at Rafai a black man came and told me of an enormous elephant which had been seen near one of the villages. For a long time the natives had been trying to kill this giant beast, but he was so tough and powerful that he always managed to get away, though his huge body was full of spears like a pincushion. He labored under one great disadvantage, though: his tusks were so large and heavy that he could not run very fast; and he could not carry them any great distance without stopping to rest, putting them down on the ground, and leaning his head upon them, as if they were a sort of two-legged portable stool. All this the native told me in an excited way; he made wild gesticulations; by pantomime he tried to convince me that the elephant was as tall as a tree, and that his tusks were strong enough to plow a couple of deep ditches in the ground. At first I thought the native was lying, and merely wanted to lure me to his village to kill some meat for him and his natives-the natives are not above little tricks to gain advantage from the white man's deadliness of aim. But his story was so interesting that I decided to look into it. So I loaded some heavy brass shells with 23 grams of powder and 160 grams of lead. This was a heavier charge than I had ever used before, but if the native was telling the truth this was a most extraordinary elephant, and I could well afford to get kicked over by the butt of my gun if I could only do as much to the big fellow from the muzzle."

"We set out in the early morning and soon came upon the trail of the great elephant. I could put my two feet, heel to toe, in his tracks. We also found holes in the ground where he had planted his tusks for a rest, like a crippled man leaning on his crutches. We saw the wide swath he had cut where he had forced his way through the bushes. The chase from this on was an eager one. I felt that I was on the trail of perhaps the biggest elephant in Africa, and naturally I was determined to follow him to the bitter end. A little after noon my men pleaded fatigue and wanted to go home. But I forced them to take up the trail again after we had stopped for a bite to eat. Soon after we came to an open spot with a few big trees in it and the grass not more than knee-high. I was just thinking what a fine place that would be for the encounter, when the scouts came running back with the news that they had seen his lordship in an open grass plain a little farther on. In a few moments I saw him, too. He was surely great. His tusks were on the ground, and he appeared like some huge structure, something too enormous to be a living animal, as he stood with six columns supporting his massive body. He was calmly eating grass. His big ears were flapping off the flies. I got around back of him, advanced within fifty yards, and cut a quarter circle around to his side without his discovering me."

"He was still eating grass and flapping flies when I knelt, took careful aim, and pulled the trigger. The recoil threw me over, but in an instant I was up again. The great beast staggered; his hind legs gave way; he came down on his knees; then he fell all in a heap. Immediately starting to reload, I had trouble in getting out the shell. It seemed an age before I had loaded up again. By this time the giant had struggled to his feet and had turned facing me. He was furiously angry, for his tusks had almost broken his neck when he collapsed. He started for me, slowly, cumbersomely; he looked like a big steamship in dry dock. He had not gotten up headway when I aimed at his trunk and fired both barrels together. The double concussion was too much for me. I was so stunned that I scarcely knew' what had happened or where I was. Presently someone picked me up, and I heard the natives moaning, 'White man killed! White man killed!' But the white man was not killed. Gathering myself together, I went to have a look at my big elephant, for I had not the slightest doubt he was lying out on the grass. By this time my eyes were filled with blood and I could see nothing; the natives told me the elephant had run away, bellowing. Then I took an inventory. The stock of my gun was broken. The hammer had hit me in the forehead, going almost through the skull. Blood was running down my face in a stream .. I was just able to walk assisted by the natives. It was ten o'clock that night when I crawled into the hut which I had made my headquarters."

"For several days I was unable to get about, but I had resolved to find that elephant, dead or alive, if it took me a month. Forty-eight hours later the natives reported that they had come upon his carcass out in the woods. I lost no time in going to see him, but he was in an advanced stage of decomposition, and I could not get satisfactory measurements of him. He was, however, the largest elephant I ever saw, considerably larger than Jumbo. His tusks I secured, and they are now in my collection in America-the largest tusks in this country." (McClure's, October, 1901).

But Mr. Cherry was not merely an elephant hunter. He captured several baby elephants and proved that they could be tamed and trained for domestic service as readily as in India. Then, with his various objectives accomplished, he turned his face homeward. In Paris he reported to the French government on the Fashoda incident. In Antwerp he disposed of his commercial collection of ivory at a handsome profit. In England he had a visit with Stanley, to whom he showed his maps, and whom he found intensely interested in his adventures.

He arrived in America early in 1901 with a more valuable collection than he had brought in 1893. He was sought by scientific societies, and wrote numerous newspaper and magazine articles. He lectured in St. Louis and other cities and at the summer assembly at Lake Chautauqua. He addressed himself to the task of writing a book and produced a mass of manuscript. Unfortunate divergences of judgment among his literary advisers prevented its publication before its author lost interest. Undoubtedly from his manuscripts and journals a posthumous volume will be compiled.

Mr. Cherry was married February 14, 1902, to Miss Olive Isabelle Harvey of Chicago, Illinois. The writer, who was then the family pastor in the Morgan Park Congregational Church, assisted his predecessor, an old friend of the Harvey family, in the marriage service. The tusks of his greatest elephant formed a striking part of the setting for the ceremony. After an extended trip, he brought his bride to Southern California, locating at Santa Ana, where he engaged in ranching and later opened a machine shop.

When America entered the War in 1917, although he was past military age, he came to Los Angeles to volunteer. Because of defective vision (an accident in childhood destroyed the sight of one eye) he was rejected. But undaunted he walked across the street to the recruiting station of the Canadian army, where he passed an easier examination and was accepted for the Royal Engineers. Two weeks later he was on the Atlantic bound for the training camp in England. His first assignment was for dredging operations off the coast of Kent, in the course of which a Roman galley of the time of Caesar's invasion was discovered and excavated. Later he was assigned to service as a marine engineer and attached to Tug No. 333, which was loaned by the British government to the American Expeditionary Force in France, for service on the river Seine towing barges loaded with ammunition and supplies, from the coast to the military bases in the interior. He was mustered out in May, 1919.

Since the war he followed more or less steadily the vocation of a marine engineer, making voyages to Alaska, Hawaii, South America and elsewhere. He was returning from his first voyage to New York by way of the Isthmus at the time of his death.

During the last few years of his life his active mind was interested in the artifacts of prehistoric man, so many of which have been found in Southern California. He wanted to discover the process by which fracture had been controlled. During his military service in England near the Chalk Cliffs of Dover, with their strata of flint, he carried on his researches. He came to definite conclusions and was able to reproduce any artifact he had seen with astonishing facility. It is an interesting coincidence that his fellow townsman, Mr. Joseph Barbieri, should have pursued for many years the same line of investigation, with results that are destined to bring him fame. Neither Mr. Cherry nor Mr. Barbieri ever knew of the other's existence, but if they had been intimate collaborators they could not have reached completer agreement.

While in New York on his last voyage Mr. Cherry spent his time at the American Museum, discussing the problems of prehistoric art. On the return he was spending his leisure time writing a report for the Smithsonian Institute. He was engaged upon this report at the hour of his death. The ship was three days north of the Canal on her way to San Francisco. It was in the zone of high temperature. He had eaten dinner after a hard, hot day below deck, and was writing in his room. A page of his report blew out of the window and lodged just over the rail. He rushed out and recovered it and started back to his room, when he was seen to hesitate for a moment, then to sway as if stricken with sudden vertigo. The next moment he collapsed and disappeared Over the rail. A sunset calm was on the sea. The signal for a man overboard was instantly given and the boats were lowered, but his body never came to the surface. It was a strange close to a singularly adventurous life-strange, but solemnly poetic!

Mr. Cherry's home was in Pasadena. He leaves a widow and two worthy sons. James Harvey is a junior in the Dental College of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.


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  • Created by: Kim Betts
  • Added: 6 Jun 2013
  • Find A Grave Memorial 111898166
  • Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed ), memorial page for William Stamps Cherry (14 Feb 1869–8 Mar 1927), Find A Grave Memorial no. 111898166, ; Maintained by Kim Betts (contributor 48145988) Body lost at sea.