Barker, Elliott Speer (1886–1988)

By: Martin Donell Kohout

Type: Biography

Published: November 1, 1994

Elliott Speer Barker, conservationist, author, and the "father" of Smokey Bear, was born in Moran, Texas, on December 25, 1886, the son of Squire L. and Priscilla (McGuire) Barker. When he was three years old the family moved to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in New Mexico for his asthmatic mother's health. When he was thirteen his mother moved to Las Vegas, New Mexico, from the family ranch near Sapello so that he and those of his ten siblings who were of school age could attend school there. He finished high school in three years and graduated in 1905, then took a six-month course at a college of photography in Effingham, Illinois. He worked briefly with his brother-in-law, a photographer, in Texico, New Mexico.

Barker worked as a professional guide and hunter near Las Vegas for two years before passing the United States Forest Service ranger examination in April 1908. He worked as an assistant forest ranger in the Jemez National Forest in Cuba, New Mexico, in 1909. In November of that year he was transferred to the Pecos National Forest in Pecos, New Mexico, and promoted to ranger. In November 1912 he was transferred to the Carson National Forest near Tres Piedras, New Mexico, where he worked under the famous American conservationist Aldo Leopold. In the fall of 1914 Barker was promoted to deputy forest supervisor and moved to Taos, New Mexico. He spent a year as acting supervisor, then transferred to the Coconino National Forest in Arizona as forest supervisor.

During World War I he was a first lieutenant in the National Guard, a deputy United States marshal, and the chairman of the Taos County Red Cross. He almost died during the flu epidemic in 1917. He resigned in April 1919 and acquired 640 acres, including the old family homestead, near Las Vegas. He ranched from 1919 to 1930 and worked as a guide for deer and cougar hunts. Barker went broke at the onset of the Great Depression and sold out. In April 1930 he went to work for Harry Chandler, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times-Mirror, as wildlife and predator-control manager at Chandler's Vermejo Park Ranch. A year later, however, Barker was appointed state game warden and director of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. He held that position until 1953, when he retired to devote himself full-time to writing.

His first book, When the Dogs Bark "Treed": A Year on the Trail of the Longtails, was published in 1946. His other books included Beatty's Cabin: Adventures in the Pecos High Country (1953), Ramblings in the Field of Conservation and Eighty Years with Rod and Rifle (both 1976), and Smokey Bear and the Great Wilderness (1982). Barker also published two books of poetry, A Medley of Wilderness and Other Poems (1962) and Outdoors, Faith, Fun and Other Poems (1968). His best-known book was Western Life and Adventures, 1889–1970, originally published in 1970 and reprinted in 1974 as Western Life and Adventures in the Great Southwest. It won the Golden Spur Award from the Western Writers of America for the best nonfiction book of the year.

The best-remembered monument to Barker's memory, however, had nothing to do with his literary accomplishments. In May 1950 a huge fire broke out on Capitan Mountain, New Mexico. A fireman rescued a small bear cub, badly burned, clinging to a charred tree, and the cub was flown to Santa Fe and nursed back to health. On behalf of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, Barker donated Smokey to the Forest Service in Washington, D.C., specifying that the cub should become a symbol of forest-fire prevention and wildlife conservation. Smokey lived for more than twenty-six years at the National Zoo and became the most recognized animal in the world.

Barker married Ethel M. Arnold on May 17, 1911, and they had one son and two daughters. Barker was a member of the International Association of Game, Fish, and Conservation Commissioners, the Western Writers of America, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Western Association of Game and Fish Commissioners. He received a meritorious-service citation from the New Mexico Wildlife Conservation Association in 1953, and the National Wildlife Federation named him conservationist of the year in 1965. In 1966 the United States Game Commission dedicated a 5,000-acre wildlife area to Barker in recognition of the assistance he had given to the regional Girl Scout council. In 1976 he received an honorary doctorate from New Mexico State University. Barker died at the age of 101 on April 3, 1988, in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Contemporary Authors, Vol 89.
  • Writers, Authors, Publications, and Literature
  • Literature
  • Historians
  • Nonfiction
  • Poets

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

Martin Donell Kohout, “Barker, Elliott Speer,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 24, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

November 1, 1994