On March 13, 1881, around 60 Chinese ring-necked pheasants arrive in Port Townsend aboard the ship Otago. United States consul general Owen Nickerson Denny (1838-1900) and his wife Gertrude Jane Hall Denny (1837-1933) have shipped the pheasants, along with other Chinese birds and plants, from Shanghai in hopes of establishing a population in their home state of Oregon. Most of the pheasants succumb as they are transported from the Olympic Peninsula to Portland. A few survivors are released on the lower Columbia River, but accounts differ as to whether this population survives. However, the Dennys ship more pheasants in 1882 and 1884, successfully introducing ring-necked pheasants into Oregon's Willamette Valley and on Protection Island in Jefferson County near Port Townsend. The colorful game birds prove prolific and popular. Ring-necked pheasants spread throughout Oregon and Washington and are introduced in states across the country, becoming so common that they seem more a native species than one first established in the United States in 1881.
Both Owen and Gertrude Hall Denny were pioneers who traveled the Oregon trail as children to new homes in the Northwest. Several accounts, including Virginia Holmgren's 1964 history, Chinese Pheasants, Oregon Pioneeers, make a direct connection between the Dennys' pioneering spirit and desire to improve the land they settled and their decision to introduce the pheasant pioneers to the new world.
Gertrude Hall's childhood pioneer experience was particularly dramatic. As a 10-year-old who had just crossed the continent by wagon train, she was staying at the Waiilatpu mission at the time of the attack that became known as the Whitman Massacre. Gertrude's father, Peter D. Hall, is listed among the 14 killed, although his precise fate remains a mystery. He escaped from the mission and made it to the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Walla Walla, but was denied entry and never seen again. Gertrude and her mother and four sisters, like most of the women and children, were unharmed but held captive for a month before being ransomed. By the time of her death 86 years later, Gertrude Hall Denny was the final survivor of the Whitman Massacre.
Owen Denny was born in Ohio and traveled west with his family in 1852, the year he turned 14. (There is no indication that his family was closely related to the Denny family from Illinois that landed at Alki one year earlier, helping found the city of Seattle.) Owen's father died soon after his family reached the Willamette Valley, and his mother took a land claim near Lebanon in Linn County, Oregon. Owen worked his way through school and "read law" with practicing lawyers. After passing the state bar exam in 1862, he was a prosecutor and then a judge in The Dalles.
Owen Denny and Gertrude Jane Hall White married in 1868 -- Gertrude was amicably divorced from her first husband, Columbia River pilot Captain Leonard White, and had a 12-year-old daughter. The Dennys lived briefly in California and then settled in Portland, where Owen was elected police court judge and later worked as Collector of Internal Revenue. In 1877, Denny was named United States consul in Tientsin, China.
After three years in Tientsin, the Dennys moved to Shanghai in 1880 when Owen was promoted to the post of consul general. By that summer, they were considering an attempt to introduce to Oregon some of the exotic birds and plants they had encountered in China. The ring-necked pheasant, a large dramatically colored wild bird that frequented the farms and fields around Shanghai, was an obvious choice. Males have shimmering gold and green plumage on the back, an iridescent dark-green neck above a dramatic white collar ring, red eye wattles, ear-like feather tufts, and a long sword-like tail. Females are a more subdued brown and black but also have the distinctive pointed tail. In addition, Owen Denny wrote to a friend, "These birds are delicious eating and very game and will furnish fine sport" (Holmgren, 15).
Recounting his decision later, Denny described how he obtained the pheasants:
"The Chinese farmers ... take them with nets and market them alive, but the fact that they were often poor and thin induced me to purchase them by the dozen and feed them until they were fat and fit for my table. On one occasion I had in my inclosure a large number of extraordinarily handsome birds, and while admiring them I thought, What would I not give to be able to turn the entire lot adrift in Oregon? Then and there the resolve was made" (Shaw, 12).
In January 1881, the Dennys loaded some 60 ring-necked pheasants aboard the Otago, a Port Townsend-based ship commanded by Captain Royal. Their shipment included smaller numbers of Mongolian sand grouse and chefoo partridges, "16 trees of the Pang Tao or flat peach," and "a lot of bamboos" (Holmgren, 15). The Otago reached Port Townsend on Sunday, March 13, 1881.
Almost all the pheasants survived the ocean journey but not the subsequent trip to Portland. The Oregonian reported:
"The birds were kept in the hold and withstood the trip well. Only a few died; however, in bringing them from Port Townsend to Portland they fared badly. While in the dark vessel they were quiet and unfrightened, but when in train and boats, rattling and splashing scared the birds, which beat and bruised themselves on the bars" (Holmgren, 16).
A. H. Morgan, a friend of the Dennys, released the few surviving ringnecks on Sauvie Island in the Columbia River near Portland. Although later accounts suggest that these first pheasants did not establish a breeding population, an 1888 U.S. Agriculture Department report says the pheasants released in 1881 "wintered well, and have been increasing ever since. They are now common" (Merriam, 486). The grouse and partridge did not survive, but the bamboo shipment was a success: 83 years later, Holmgren wrote "quite a few present stands in Oregon and southern Washington can trace their rootage back to the wicker tubs that were stored aboard the Otago that January day" (p. 15).
Perhaps unsure how the first pheasants were doing, the Dennys made a second effort in 1882, sending more ring-necked pheasants and other Chinese birds directly to Portland. Owen's brother John Denny released those ringnecks near the family's Willamette Valley homestead in Linn County, and this time the introduction was a clear success. Within a year, ring-necked pheasants had spread to surrounding counties. Owen Denny used his political connections to win passage of state legislation banning hunting until the population was sufficiently established. The pheasants thrived and when the first pheasant season opened in Oregon in 1892, hunters reportedly bagged 50,000 birds on the first day.
By then or soon thereafter, ring-necked pheasants had spread into Washington. In addition, birds from a third shipment, which the Dennys brought with them when they returned from China in 1884, were released on Protection Island, not far from Port Townsend where the first pheasants had landed three years earlier. The ringnecks flourished on the island and apparently succeeded in crossing the Strait of Juan de Fuca to colonize Vancouver Island.
Following their success in the Northwest, ring-necked pheasants were introduced across the country, many of them descendants of the birds Denny sent to Washington and Oregon. At least 19 states now have sizable pheasant populations. South Dakota, which has millions, has made the ring-necked pheasant its state bird.
For a time after their introduction the pheasants from Shanghai were often referred to, especially in Oregon, as Denny pheasants (or as China pheasants). The name honoring the Dennys did not prevail, but, in addition to Gertrude’s status as a Whitman Massacre survivor and Owen’s position as a diplomat in China (and later as an advisor to the king of Korea), the Dennys are still recognized for their role in making the dramatic sight of ring-necked pheasants common across America.