By all accounts, Huldah Neal was no one to fool with.
That’s not to say she wasn’t liked or respected throughout Grand Traverse County, Michigan, which she called home for 70 years. In fact, her 1931 obituary mourned her loss, describing Neal as a “loved pioneer” who was “highly esteemed by a large circle of friends.”
But, Neal was the epitome of what contemporary newspapers referred to as “the new woman” of the 1890s. Civic-minded and socially engaged, Neal had little patience when problems were ignored and allowed to fester. So, while it probably raised eyebrows outside of Grand Traverse County, those who knew her likely weren’t surprised when she grew frustrated by the rampant poaching of fish and game in her area and requested an appointment as a game warden, so she could handle the problem herself.
With the stroke of a pen by state game warden and future Michigan governor Chase Osborn in 1897, Neal became a deputy game warden for Grand Traverse County, cementing her little-known legacy as the first female conservation officer in the United States, according to press reports of the day.
Neal’s appointment generated statewide and national attention, including an extensive write-up in the Aug. 15, 1897, Philadelphia Inquirer. After all, “The duties of game warden are of such a nature that many men would not care to undertake to fill the position,” the Inquirer said.
News coverage in that era was quite a departure from the social and journalistic norms of today, as evidenced by descriptions of Neal as a “plucky little woman” and the expressed amazement that she “wears pantaloons just like those of men and can handle the rifle like a veteran marksman.”
Press accounts also credited Neal for having an immediate impact on fish and game law violations. “She is energic and watchful, and already poaching has begun to diminish. The worst gang of law violators have ceased operations,” the Jackson, Michigan, newspaper reported in March 1898.
Hagler said Neal faced many of the same risks that confront today’s DNR conservation officers.
“Patrolling remote areas without nearby backup assistance always has been an occupational hazard of being a conservation officer,” Hagler said. “It’s still true today, even with modern vehicles, weapons and communications. The fact that Huldah Neal carried out her duties on horseback, in rowboats and without communications equipment makes her accomplishments even more impressive.”
In addition to her game warden’s duties, Neal was a community fixture, even delivering mail three times a week to Traverse City. Today, after leading a productive life that bettered her community and raised the ceiling for other women, Neal rests with her husband in Long Lake Township’s Linwood Cemetery.
It would be 80 years before Michigan hired its next female conservation officer. Marquette native Kathryn Bezotte became Michigan’s first of the modern era when she began her duties in 1977. Today, nearly 20 women patrol Michigan’s woods and waters as conservation officers.
Neal and Bezotte were pioneers in their own right. They opened the door for subsequent generations of women who have served their state by earning the right to wear the badge and uniform of a Michigan conservation officer.
Article courtesy of Michigan Department of Natural Resources
Photo: Huldah Neal led an interesting life and is shown here in her later years. As the nation’s first female game warden. Neal patrolled Grand Traverse County on foot, horseback and in a rowboat to enforce the state’s fish and game laws. She not only had an immediate impact on the rampant poaching that plagued her area, but also opened the door for future generations of women to serve as conservation officers. (Photo courtesy of the Traverse Area District Library)
Sketch: These sketches of Huldah Neal accompanied a profile of her in the Aug. 15, 1897, edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Neal’s appointment as the country’s first female game warden made news across Michigan and the nation. Many contemporary reports expressed confidence in her abilities to perform the dangerous work of a game warden, due to her tenacity and outdoor skills.
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