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Bell Museum of Natural History records

Identifier: ua-00876

Scope and Content

The records of the University of Minnesota's Bell Museum of Natural History cover the period 1872-2017 but center around the period when Dr. Thomas Sadler Roberts served as the Museum's director. In addition to the departmental records, the collection also includes many of Dr. Roberts’ personal papers. Because of the continuity of subject matter and correspondents, it was decided that the personal papers would not be separated form the departmental records.

Correspondence and diaries of Thomas Roberts, both professional and personal, makes up a large portion of the collection. These materials are arranged in chronological order. Teaching materials, including lectures, field trip notes, and tests, of Roberts' bird class are also included. A small collection of manuscripts and talks are represented in the collection. The manuscript for Birds of Minnesota, but five scrapbooks regarding the book, as well as the book's plates are included in the collection.

A small collection of Dr. Walter Breckenridge's papers from his time as museum curator and director, consisting mainly of correspondence and writings, are represented in the collection, as are the papers of Donald K. Lewis. Lewis served as naturalist and audio-visual adviser for the Bell Museum. His materials contain scripts from various Bell Museum productions.

Both Roberts and Breckenridge were avid photographers and captured birds, animals, plants, and Midwestern landscapes during their field studies. Over 6,000 negatives, produced from 1898 to the mid-1940s, are present within the collection.

The collection also contains diaries and manuscripts of people not officially connected with the Museum but who contributed information regarding the natural history of Minnesota, particularly reports an birds and bird migrations.

The Minnesota Historical Society holds several of Dr. Thomas Roberts' diaries. Another section of the records document the public education programs of the museum circa 1970s to 2017. Exhibition posters, catalogues, and museum newsletters and publications are widely documented within the collection.


  • 1849-2017
  • Majority of material found within ( 1915-1946)

Language of Materials

Multiple languages

Language of Materials

Collection material in English and Norwegian

Use of Materials

Items in this collection do not circulate and may be used in-house only.


Researchers may quote from the collection under the fair use provision of the copyright law (Title 17, U.S. Code). Requests to publish should be arranged with the University of Minnesota Archives.

Historical Note

The Bell Museum of Natural History had its roots in the formation of the Minnesota Geological and Natural History Survey organized in 1872. A museum was mentioned in the original plans but no formal action was taken until 1875 when Newton Horace Winchell, Survey Director, brought up the subject in his annual report. As a result, quarters were allotted to the Museum collection in Old Main where the material remained until 1889, when the collection was moved to the newly built Pillsbury Hall.

Professor Winchell, as director of the Geological Survey, was also appointed as director of the Museum (1872-1889). In 1890 the survey was separated into three divisions: Geological, Zoological and Botanical. The Museum collection was also divided, the zoological material falling under the direction of Henry Nachtrieb. The work of the Zoological Survey came to a halt in 1903 when the funds from the sale of state lands, which had been the Survey’s financial support, ran out. The Museum continued to exist but no material was added to it except by gift, with the exceptions of the purchase of the Albert Lano collection of bird-skins in 1912. On May 6, 1915 Thomas Sadler Roberts was appointed associate curator of the Zoological Museum and professor of ornithology in the Department of Animal Biology. Henry Nachtrieb remained director until 1919 when Roberts assumed this position.

In 1916 the Zoological Museum was moved to the Animal Biology Building (later named the Zoology Building and razed in 1994) where it remained until 1939 when the Museum of Natural History was built. The Zoological Museum was a separate unit of the University of Minnesota. Its only tie with a college or department was through the Ornithology class, established in 1916, which was offered through the Department of Animal Biology. From 1903-1919, the Museum was largely by donations and a small supply fund maintained by the University. On December 9, 1919 a conference was held in President Burton’s office; for the first time, the Museum was given a budget for maintenance and staff salaries. Dr. Roberts was able to have William Kilgore, Jr. appointed curator of the Zoological Museum in 1921.

The Museum is referred to in the University President’s reports as the Zoological Museum of the Zoological Survey until 1928 when the name was changed to Museum of Natural History. In 1967 it was renamed the James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History to honor James Ford Bell who was one of the Museum’s greatest benefactors.

Thomas Sadler Roberts remained as Director of the Museum until his death in 1946. He was succeeded by Walter J. Breckenridge who had been on the Museum staff since 1926. Breckenridge served as museum director from 1946-1970. William Kilgore, Jr. retired two years after Roberts’ death. A more detailed history of the Museum can be found in T.S. Roberts’ Annals of Museum of Natural history, University of Minnesota, 1872-1939. In addition to Dr. Roberts’ account of the Museum’s early history, the book contains a chronological list of the more important events in its history from 1872-1939, as well as the annual reports of the Director from 1918-1938. [Additional description to complete museum history from Roberts' tenure to present day is pending and will be added when completed.]

Biographical Sketch of Thomas Sadler Roberts (1858-1946)

Thomas Sadler Roberts, M.D. (1885) University of Pennsylvania. Professor of pediatrics (1901-1913), clinical professor (1906-1913), professor of ornithology (1915-1946), and director of the Bell Museum of Natural History (1915-1946) at the University of Minnesota. Expert in ornithology and author of Birds of Minnesota.

Thomas Sadler Roberts was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, on February 16, 1858, the son of John Roberts. His family moved to Minnesota in 1867 hoping to find a healthful climate for the elder Roberts who was suffering from tuberculosis. Inspired by his father, Thomas Roberts began his interest in natural history at a young age. In 1875 Roberts and some of his friends formed a club which they named the Young Naturalists’ Society.

In 1877 Roberts attended the University of Minnesota but was forced to withdraw in his second year due to ill health. He spent four years in the field as a surveyor in the land department of Northern Pacific Railroad. He attended Medical School at the University of Pennsylvania receiving his medical degree in 1885. After interning in Philadelphia, Dr. Roberts returned to Minneapolis and started a general practice. He retired from active practice in 1915. In addition to his medical practice, Dr. Roberts had been appointed professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota in 1901. In 1906 he became a clinical professor, a post he held until 1913 when he retired from teaching medicine as Professor Emeritus.

Dr. Roberts’ contact with the Museum began long before his appointment in 1915. He had written several reports on birds and botany, which appear in the reports of the Minnesota Geological and Natural History Survey. When P.L. Hatch, who had been State Ornithologist since 1876, left his post in 1892 or 1893, Roberts more or less took over the direction of research in this area under Henry Nachtrieb, the State Zoologist. Whether or not he was ever officially appointed State ornithologist is uncertain but from 1893-1898 he used the title while directing a survey of the birds of Minnesota.

His acquaintance with many of the area’s wealthy citizens, especially James Ford Bell, was an important factor in the solicitation of donations, which enabled the Museum to carry on some its more ambitious projects. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment, however, is his monumental Birds of Minnesota, published in 1932 and revised in 1936. This book still stands as the source book for information on Minnesota birds. Thomas Sadler Roberts died on April 19, 1946.

Additional biographical information regarding Dr. Thomas Roberts can be found in the following articles: “Among Those We Know” by Harry Woodworth which appeared in the Minneapolis Golfer and Sportsman in December 1938, and an obituary on Dr. Roberts by W.J. Breckenridge and William Kilgore, which appeared in the October 1946 Auk.


180 boxes (Hollinger, record carton, oversize, card boxes, etc.)


This collection contains departmental records, reports, correspondence, publications, and scrapbooks of the Bell Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota. The materials primarily center around the period with Dr. Thomas Sadler Roberts served as director (1915-1946), but also includes items from Dr. Walter Breckenridge's tenure. Because of Dr. Robert's long relationship with the Bell Museum, the collection also contains some of his personal papers. The collection also contains records about the museum's public education programs as well as publications, exhibit catalogues, and posters for exhibitions.


The papers are arranged into the following series:
  1. Minnesota Geological and Natural History Survey, 1886-1912
  2. Thomas Sadler Roberts Papers
  3. Bell Museum of Natural History Records
  4. Walter Breckenridge Papers
  5. D.K. Lewis Papers

Source of acquisition

The collection was deposited in multiple donations to University Archives by the Bell Museum of Natural History.

Related Materials at the University of Minnesota

Henry Francis Nachtrieb papers

University Archives holds many reel to reel films produced by the Bell Museum. Most films do not have a reference copy available. Films in good condition can be transferred at researcher expense.

In 1979 two portraits of T. S. Roberts received with the collection were transferred to the Weisman Art Museum.

Related Material at Other Institutions

The Minnesota Historical Society holds the Thomas S. Roberts and family papers, 1857-1947. The papers include diaries, correspondence, and other papers of Roberts. Thomas S. Roberts' diaries (1925-1946) briefly note appointments, lectures, the weather, and his health. Letters to Roberts by Nathan Butler, George Bird Grinnell, Alfred J. Hill, and others contain information on Indian mounds, natural history, and archaeology. Other correspondents were Franklin Benner who first taught Thomas how to collect and prepare bird skins, Cyrus Chamberlain, and E. S. Hall.

Individuals Represented in the Collection

  1. This list is comprised of people whom there is significant or considerable amounts of correspondence. Those names marked with an asterisk are individuals with whom Dr. Roberts had close personal relationships. The dates indicate the period in which correspondence occurs. The folder numbers indicate the section in which they occur. Most of the correspondence is arranged alphabetically. Folders in which outgoing letters occur have not been indicated.
  2. Allen, Arthur A., 1921-1940 (Folders 174-249)
  3. Allen, E. Floyd, 1926-1932 (Folders 193-219, 428, 424)
  4. Armstrong, Herbert, 1898 (Folders 12,134)
  5. Avery, Carlos, 1915-1930 (Folders 153-211, 449)
  6. Bailey, Bernard, 1916-1932 (Folders 156-220, 434-435, 658-673)
  7. Barker, Fred, 1898-1912, 1932 (Folders 156-219, 643-684)
  8. Barrett, S.A. (see Milwaukee Public Museum)
  9. Beard, Richard Olding, 1903 (Folder 107)
  10. *Bell, James Ford, 1911-1942 (Folders 1, 149-258, 425, 428-433)
  11. Benner, Franklin, 1875-1897 (Folder 113-193, 449, 453-456)
  12. Bent, A.C., 1912-1937 (Folders 150-223, 429-433, 653)
  13. Berthel, Russell M., 1936-1943 (Folders 457-469, 695-698)
  14. Blair, Frank, 1915-1920 (Folders 154-170)
  15. Bovey, Charles C., 1916-1933 (Folders 156-223, 424, 428, 434)
  16. Bovey, Martin, 1941-1946 (Folders 365-368)
  17. *Breckenridge, Walter J., 1926-1947 (Folders 193-277, 471)
  18. Brown, E.L., 1889-1908 (Folders 193-277, 471, 474-485, 638-651)
  19. Chapman, Frank and Marie, 1919-1930 (Folders 134-272, 429-434)
  20. Commons, Frank and Marie, 1919-1930 (Folders 177-212, 424, 428, 488-515, 659, 662)
  21. Cooke, Clinton J., 1893-1900 (Folders 1,16, 639-645)
  22. Cooke, Wells W., 1898-1917 (Folders 34-162)
  23. Cope, Edward Drinker, 1879 (Folder 117)
  24. Coues, Elliot, 1879, 1881 (Folders 117, 119)
  25. Cox, William T., 1916-1933 (Folders 157-223) See also Minnesota Department of Conservation, Minnesota Forestry Association, Minnesota State Forest Service and the Society of American Foresters.
  26. Dart, Leslie O., 1894-1919 (Folders 108-167, 517-520, 640-649)
  27. Deane, Ruthven, 1878-1934 (Folders 115-226)
  28. *Densmore, Mabel, 1899-1945 (Folders 108-272, 433, 522, 644-694)
  29. Dutcher, William, 1898-1909, 1915 (Folders 134-147, 154, 623)
  30. Dwight, Jonathan, 1900-1915 (Folders 137-154)
  31. Everett, E.A. and Constance, 1898-1938 (Folders 186-242, 450, 523-536, 643-684)
  32. *Finley, William, 1919-1945 (Folders 167-272, 434)
  33. Fisher, A.K., 1887-1942 (Folders 129-259) See also U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Biological Survey.
  34. Forbush, E.H., 1900-1929 (Folders 137-207, 652)
  35. Fryklund, P.O., 1912-1945 (Folders 162-274, 431-433, 450, 653-693)
  36. Funk, Nettie S (Mrs. A.B.), 1923-1931 (Folders 182-216)
  37. *Gleason, Herbert, 1895-1937 (Folders 137-239, 450, 641-642)
  38. Grant, U.S., 1886-1898 (Folders 1, 450, 643)
  39. Gray, Asa, 1880 (Folder 118)
  40. Harrison, Whitfield, 1898-1923 (Folders 15, 134-183, 450, 647-659)
  41. Hatch, P.L., 1874-1896 (Folders 1, 450, 542, 639, 641)
  42. Henderson, W.C., 1918-1933 (Folders 165-224) See also U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Biological Survey.
  43. *Herrick, C. Judson, 1897, 1939-1942 (Folders 1, 246-259)
  44. *Herrick, Clarence L., 1881-1897 (Folders 1, 92-97, 119-141, 450)
  45. Hickey, Joseph, 1937-1947 (Folders 239-277)
  46. Hornaday, William T., 1898-1917 (Folders 134-162) See also New York Zoological Society.
  47. Horsfall, R. Bruce, 1923-1926, 1930 (Folders 183-195, 428)
  48. Hvoslef, Johan Christian, 1890-1920 (Folders 127-171, 450, 545-601)
  49. *Jaques, Francis Lee, 1907, 1924-1945 (Folders 187-273, 650)
  50. Johnson, Charles E., 1919-1922 (Folders 168-178)
  51. *Kilgore, William, 1917-1947 (Folders 163-277)
  52. *Lakela, Olga, 1922-1947 (Folders 179-276, 662-697)
  53. Lano, Arthur, 1897-1928 (Folders 150-204, 451, 603, 642-655)
  54. Lincoln, Frederick C. (Folders 428-436) See also U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Biological Survey.
  55. Lofstrom, Lawrence, 1912-1928 (Folders 151-208, 653-655)
  56. Luedtke, G.H., 1916-1942 (Folders 158-259, 451, 658-695)
  57. Lyon, William T., 1923-1938 (Folders 183-243, 432) See also Inland Bird Banding Association.
  58. McAtee, W.L., 1920-1932 (Folders 172-221, 429-434). See also American Ornithological Union, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Biological Survey.
  59. Merriam, C. Hart, 1884-1932 (Folders 122, 127-221, 623, 638-647)
  60. Miller, Thomas, 1888-1899 (Folders 14, 126-137, 451)
  61. *Nachtrieb, Henry Francis, 1881-1941 (Folders 1, 19, 119-255)
  62. Nelson, E.W., 1897-1932 (Folders 133-221, 434-435) See also U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Biological Survey.
  63. *Nord, Robert, 1941-1944 (Folders 255-270)
  64. *Nord, Warren, 1941-1944 (Folders 255-270)
  65. Oberholser, Harry, 1893-1945 (Folders 129-274, 434, 650-658)
  66. Oldys, Henry, 1913-1923 (Folders 151-184)
  67. Palmer, T.S. 1899-1937 (Folders 136-240, 428-434) See also American Ornithologists Union, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Biological Survey.
  68. Peabody, P.B., 1897-1933 (Folders 133-225, 609)
  69. Pearson, T. Gilbert, 1901-1943 (Folders 138-266, 430) See also National Audubon Society.
  70. Peterson, Alfred, 1919-1933 (Folders 169-222, 434, 451, 660-687)
  71. Peterson, Mrs. Charles E. and Charles E., Jr., 1924-1945 (Folders 187-274, 431, 673-698)
  72. Peterson, Roger Tory, See National Audubon Society
  73. *Pettingill, Olin Sewall, 1934-1945 (Folders 236-274, 438)
  74. *Plattes, Cyril W., 1935-1945 (Folders 232-274)
  75. *Reif, Charles, 1942-1945 (Folders 262-274)
  76. *Richardson, Jenness, 1916-1925 (Folders 160-192)
  77. Roosevelt, Kermit, See National Audubon Society, 1935
  78. *Rysgaard, George, 1934-1945 (Folders 240-274, 451, 690-698)
  79. Sage, Jonas, 1893-1918 (Folders 129-165)
  80. Seton, Ernest Thompson, 1930 (Folder 428)
  81. Stevens, O.A., 1918-1946 (Folders 165-276, 429-433, 615-618, 667-697)
  82. Stone, Witmar, 1899-1937 (Folders 136-241, 429-432)
  83. Surber, Thaddeus, 1919-1945 (Folders 169-274, 429, 451, 660-661)
  84. Sutton, George Miksch, 1922-1945 (Folders 180-274, 442)
  85. *Swanson, Gustav, 1934-1944 (Folders 229-271)
  86. Van Tyne, Josselyn, 1933-1941 (Folders 225-257)
  87. Velie, Charles D., 1911-1928 (Folders 225-257)
  88. Vincent, George E., 1918-1929 (Folders 165-210)
  89. Warren, Oscar Bird, 1893-1898 (Folders 17, 135, 152, 623-628)
  90. Washburn, F.L.
  91. *Weber, Walter A., 1929-1942 (Folders 210-262, 443)
  92. Williams, Robert S., 1879-1921 (Folders, 92, 117-130, 155, 176-197, 452, 633-637, 640)

Organizational Correspondents

  1. Correspondence with the following organizations are found throughout the collection. The folder lists refer specifically to other sections of the collection. Dates are included when the correspondence does not occur generally throughout the entire collection.
  2. American Association of Museums
  3. American Museum of Natural History (see also Frank Chapman)
  4. American Ornithologists’ Union (Folders 381-385)
  5. American school of Wildlife Protection and Propagation, MacGregor, Iowa, 1920-1931
  6. Boy Scouts of America
  7. Emergency Conservation Committee, 1932 (see also National Association of Audubon Societies for 1932)
  8. Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago
  9. Inland Bird Banding Association, after 1923 (see also William T. Lyon)
  10. International Association of Game, Fish and Conservation Commissioners
  11. Izaak Walton League, after 1923
  12. Massachusetts Audubon Society, after 1920
  13. Massachusetts Department of Agriculture, Division of Ornithology (see also E.H. Forbush)
  14. Milwaukee Public Museum
  15. Minneapolis Audubon Society (Folders 386-387)
  16. Minnesota Audubon Society (Folder 388)
  17. Minnesota Bird Club (Folder 389)
  18. Minnesota Department of Conservation (see also Carlos Avery)
  19. Minnesota Forestry Association
  20. Minnesota Game Protective League (Folder 390)
  21. Minnesota Historical Society, after 1919
  22. National Audubon Society [also called National Association of Audubon Societies until 1941] (see also T. Gilbert Pearson and Williams Dutcher)
  23. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Biological Survey (see also E.W. Nelson, Harry Oberholser, and T.S. Palmer)
  24. Wilson Ornithologist Club, after 1919 (Folders 391-393)

Processing Information

The original collection donation was processed in 1968, encompassing 74 boxes. Folders were numbered in consecutive order. Additional accretions were processed in 2009. Folders were not numbered and there was no attempt to physically integrate the accretions into the original donation. Materials falling under each series from all donations are listed together in the finding aid. The lists of "individuals represented in the collection" and "organizational correspondents" refer only to the original donation.

Digitization funds were provided by the State of Minnesota from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the Minnesota Historical Society (2013-2014).

An additional accretion was added and processed in 2017.
Bell Museum of Natural History records, 1849-2017
In Progress
Penelope Krosch
June 1968
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English

Collecting Area Details

Contact The University Archives Collecting Area