Attwater, Henry Philemon (1854–1931)

By: Stanley D. Casto

Type: Biography

Published: November 1, 1994

Henry Attwater, naturalist and conservationist, the son of Thomas G. and Rose Ellen (Woolbit) Attwater, was born in Brighton, England, on April 28, 1854. He was educated at St. Nicholas Episcopal College at Shoreham, Sussex, and in 1873 immigrated to Ontario, Canada, where he engaged in farming and beekeeping. Attwater soon became interested in natural history, and during 1883 he and John A. Morden prepared and exhibited natural history specimens. During 1884 the two men collected specimens in Bexar County, Texas, where Attwater made the acquaintance of Gustave Toudouze, a naturalist and taxidermist from Losoya. During the latter part of 1884 and early 1885 Attwater and Toudouze were employed to prepare and exhibit natural history specimens in the Texas pavilion at the New Orleans World's Fair.

Attwater was married on December 31, 1885, in Chatham, Ontario, to Lucy Mary Watts, a widow with two children. No children were born to Henry and Lucy Attwater. In 1886 the Attwater family moved to London, Ontario, where he opened a small museum at the Mechanics' Institute. This enterprise did not prove successful, and the museum was closed in the summer of 1887.

In 1889 the family moved to Sherman, Texas, where Attwater briefly engaged in the bee industry before moving to San Antonio. During the 1890s he collected throughout the state as well as lecturing and writing on natural history and agricultural subjects. He was also employed at various times to prepare exhibits of Texas natural products and wildlife at fairs and expositions. In 1900 Attwater moved from San Antonio to Houston to become the agricultural and industrial agent for the Southern Pacific Railroad. In this position he continued to expand his collections and to promote the agricultural and business interests of the state, in addition to assisting the work of commercial clubs, fairs, and farmers' organizations.

Attwater's major contributions to natural history were in the areas of ornithology and conservation. His three ornithological papers deal with the nesting habits of fifty species of birds in Bexar County, Texas, the occurrence of 242 species of birds in the vicinity of San Antonio, and the deaths of thousands of warblers during a blue norther in March 1892. Attwater also contributed specimens to the Smithsonian Institution, collected birds for George B. Sennett, and provided notes for W. W. Cooke's Bird Migration in the Mississippi Valley (1888) and the mammal section of Vernon Bailey's Biological Survey of Texas (1905).

Attwater was elected a director of the National Audubon Society about 1900 and was reelected for a five-year term in 1905. Through his influence with farmers, the Texas Audubon Society had by 1910 gained affiliation with the Texas Farmers' Congress, the Texas Cotton Growers' Association, and the Texas Corn Growers' Association. In April 1910 Attwater and Mervyn Bathurst Davis, secretary of the Texas Audubon Society, secured the endorsement of the Conservation Congress, which met in Fort Worth.

Attwater worked diligently for passage of the 1903 Model Game Law and, following its passage, arranged for warning notices from the National Audubon Society to be distributed in railroad facilities throughout the state. In 1907 he served on the game-law committee that recommended not only that the 1903 Model Law be reenacted, but also that a license be required for both resident and nonresident hunters and that revenue from licenses and fines be used solely for game protection and propagation. Attwater was also active in the promotion of legislation to protect the mourning dove, which was rapidly declining during the early 1900s. His most important conservation works include Boll Weevils and Birds (1903), Use and Value of Wild Birds to Texas Farmers and Stockmen and Fruit and Truck Growers (1914), and The Disappearance of Wild Life (1917).

In 1913 Attwater retired as industrial agent with the Southern Pacific to devote his entire time to the study of natural history. During the 1920s he sold his collection to the Witte Museum in San Antonio, and after his death his papers were deposited in the Houston Public Library. Attwater's greater prairie chicken (Tympanuchus cupido attwateri), Attwater's white-footed mouse (Peromyscus attwateri), Attwater's wood rat (Neotoma floridana attwateri), Attwater's pocket gopher (Geomys bursarius attwateri), and Attwater's swamp rabbit (Lepus aquaticus attwateri) are named in his honor, in recognition of his major contributions as a scientist and conservationist.

H. P. Attwater joined the American Ornithologists' Union as an associate in 1891 and became a member in 1901. He was also a member of the Texas State Horticultural Society, the Scientific Society of San Antonio, the Order of the Eastern Star, and Holland Lodge, A.F. and A.M. He died on September 25, 1931, and is buried in Hollywood Cemetery, Houston.

Houston Post-Dispatch, September 26, 1931. T. S. Palmer, Biographies of Members of the American Ornithologists' Union (Washington, 1954). Bess Carroll Woolford and Ellen Schulz Quillin, The Story of the Witte Memorial Museum (San Antonio Museum Association, 1966).
  • Museums, Libraries, and Archives
  • Museums
  • Patrons, Collectors, and Philanthropists
  • Peoples
  • English
  • Science
  • Scientists and Researchers

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Stanley D. Casto, “Attwater, Henry Philemon,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 27, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

November 1, 1994