Rediscovering Charles Sumner Bunn's Shorebird Decoys
For nearly two decades the decoy world has been engaged in a debate over the identity of the maker of some of the most artistically accomplished working shorebird decoys ever made, five of which reside in Shelburne Museum’s collection. This highly charged issue has divided assorted collectors, dealers, and historians into three ideological camps. The first consists of stalwart defenders of William Bowman, a mysterious figure whose name has been associated with the decoys in question since the mid-1960s. The second lead by researchers James Reason and Joseph Jannsen attribute the shorebirds to Charles Sumner Bunn of the Shinnecock-Montauk Tribes based on documentation uncovered during their extensive investigations. Believing that the value of the decoys is based on the quality of their artistry and not necessarily on the name of the carver, the third group supports a compromised dual attribution to both Bowman and Bunn. Until recently Shelburne Museum, like many other public collections, was aligned with the latter contingent. However, after a thorough review of Reason’s and Jannsen’s research, speaking with experts on all sides of the issue, and weighing the existing facts, Shelburne Museum has concluded the evidence supports the reattribution of its three dowitchers and two yellowlegs to Charles Sumner Bunn.
The Museum’s decision to reattribute its decoys is based on three evidentiary pillars. The first consists of period photographs directly linking Bunn to duck decoys attributed to William Bowman. Second, oral family history given by Bunn’s daughter Alice Bunn Martinez recorded and published by her grandson David Bunn Martine provides important insights into the carver’s personal life, career, and artistic production, bolstering the case for the reattribution. The third set of evidence connects Bunn to the decoys through his close professional and personal relationship with the hunters who owned them.
The first documented misattribution of Bunn’s decoys occurred in 1934 when Joel D. Barber (1876-1952) published both a photograph of this yellowlegs along with this watercolor illustration as Plates No. 53 and No. 55 respectively in his groundbreaking book Wild Fowl Decoys. In both instances, Barber mistakenly credited A. Elmer Crowell (1862-1952) of East Harwich, Massachusetts as the progenitor of Bunn’s two decoys. According to Barber both birds demonstrated “the degree of perfection to which snipe (shorebird) decoys were carried” and lauded Crowell’s work as “a full expression of the American fowler’s art.”
Barber never explained why he thought the decoys were made by Crowell. However, it stands to reason that he landed on the attribution based on superficial similarities he saw between Bunn’s decoys and Crowell’s. Both were made by carvers who possessed an intimate knowledge of bird anatomy; both produced decoys with carved raised wings that stand separate of the tail feathers; and both were painted by talented artists with skilled hands and an eye for details. Regardless of his rationale, Barber’s erroneous identification of Crowell as the decoys’ maker was perpetuated for another three decades by other early experts, including Adele Earnest (1901-1993) and William “Bill” J. Mackey, Jr. (1902-1972) both of whom gave the Massachusetts carver credit for Bunn’s work in their influential publications. Crowell’s name remained associated with Bunn’s birds until 1966 when Mackey introduced the world to William Bowman.
Who was William Bowman and how did his name become attached to Charles Sumner Bunn’s decoys? The origin story of the Bowman attribution began with respected decoy expert William “Bill” J. Mackey, Jr., pictured here holding a mallard drake decoy as he judged the American Decoy Makers Contest in 1951. A voracious collector and author of American Bird Decoys (1965), Mackey discovered William “Bill” Bowman in 1966 while visiting the law office of a wealthy Long Island family whose decoy collection contained a number of shorebirds that Shelburne Museum now recognizes as being made by Bunn. According to the donors, the shorebird decoys were from the hand of a previously unknown carver named William “Bill” Bowman who Mackey described as a cabinet maker from Bangor, Maine, who made an annual summer pilgrimage to the “marshy waste between Brosewere Bay and Lawrence Beach on the south shore of Long Island,” where he hunted and carved decoys. In his article “Bill Bowman’s Shorebirds,” published in Decoy Collector’s Guide 1966-67 Annual, Mackey introduced Bowman as being “friendly and lazy” and prone to bouts of alcoholism, writing, “the output of his knife was in direct relationship to his thirst and until a trip to the village of Lawrence was necessary for supplies and a full jug, not a single shaving would spring from his knife blade.”
The known facts about William Bowman are as Mackey himself put it “meagre.” Over the past six decades attempts to uncover verifiable information about Bowman have proven unfruitful. In her 1979 exhibition catalogue for Gunner’s Paradise: Wildfowling and Decoys on Long Island, curator Jane Townsend lists three William Bowmans as possible contenders for the decoy maker. Two have been discounted because they lived in New York, making the third the most likely candidate. According to U.S. census records, a William H. Bowman (1824-1906) was recorded as living in Old Town, Maine, (north of Bangor) where he worked as a millman. However, no evidence has been uncovered that suggests William H. Bowman ever carved decoys.
Charles Sumner Bunn of the Shinnecock-Montauk Tribes lived a long and well-documented life. He was born, raised, married, reared his children, and died on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation located within the boundaries of Southampton, New York, on the south shore of Long Island. When he was just 11 years old, his father, David Walkus Bunn (1829-1876), drowned with nine other Shinnecock men in the tragic sinking of the freight ship Circassian. In his father’s absence, he learned to hunt and fish from his paternal grandfather, James Bunn (1810-1895), who imparted skills that later served him well in his career as a professional hunting guide and bayman. Before starting his guide services, he attended the Normal School at New Paltz, New York, where he earned a degree in education. After a short stint teaching school, Bunn decided to go into the guiding business, catering to the Hampton’s powerful and wealthy summer residents. People often called him “Chief Bunn,” perhaps because he was elected to serve multiple terms as one of a panel of three trustees that governed the Shinnecock Indian Tribe.
According to an extant business card, Bunn offered his services in “Hunting, Trap Shooting, Snipe and Duck Shooting,” with “Special Attention Given to Instruction of Young Boys in Handling Firearms.” Bunn earned a reputation as an excellent guide, attracting an impressive list of clients including, two of President Theodore Roosevelt’s sons, high ranking government officials as well as a cadre of powerful and well-connected Manhattanites. Another business card advertised “Specially Equipped for Snipe and Duck Shooting” implying his supplying of shorebird and duck decoys on the hunt. Over the course of his life, Bunn carved a variety of duck species, brant, geese, and a panoply of shorebirds. Frequently described as “realistic,” his carvings secured him the appellation of “Dean of Suffolk County decoy carvers.” His daughter Alice Bunn Martinez remembered her father carving decoys up until about a year and half before he died in 1952 at the age of 87.
In 2003, Long Island decoy carver, dealer, and researcher James Reason encountered this photograph while investigating another decoy attribution and inadvertently triggered the Bowman/Bunn controversy. Published in The Shinnecock Indians: A Cultural History (1983), the image shows Charles Sumner Bunn sitting behind a pile of unpainted decoys on exhibit in the “Corner of Long Island” booth at the 1906 National Sportsmen’s Show held in New York’s Madison Square Garden. Close inspection under magnification revealed to Reason that the duck decoys that had been attributed to William Bowman since the 1960s were in fact made by Bunn whose participation is well documented. Captain Will Graham—shown wearing a wide brimmed hat and leaning against the booth’s picket fence—organized the exhibit and published an accompanying pamphlet entitled The Setting Sun or the Last of the Long Island Braves, which contained a short autobiography written by Bunn. The Editor’s Notes printed on the back cover states, “Charles S. Bunn, the writer of the above short autobiography is a professional guide for duck shooters, and a maker of fancy decoys, samples of which can be seen at the garden during the season of The Sportsmen’s Show.”
Bunn’s daughter Alice Bunn Martinez confirms her father’s participation in the Sportsmen’s Shows stating:
“He [Charles Sumner Bunn] would go and he had a concession stand and he would set up things to attract the attention of the passersby. He would take barrels of ducks and geese he had carved and set them up. He also made a small cat-boat about eight feet long to set-up in the middle of his concession just to show the type of boat they would use. Then he would sit there for the duration of the show which often lasted about a week. He would sell all he had brought and he took a great many orders. He would carve whatever they wanted. They were full size decoys, not miniature. …”
The silhouette of this black duck is identical to the unpainted decoys in the two previous photographs of Bunn’s display at the 1906 National Sportsmen’s Show. The identifiable visual characteristics include the bird’s unmistakably high humped back that gracefully tapers off into the pointed tail and the discernable roundness of the ducks’ cheeks. The bottom of this decoy is branded with the name “Edgar,” indicating it originally belonged to Newbold Edgar (1863-1924) an important client and close acquaintance of Charles Sumner Bunn. Edgar owned various species of Bunn decoys, including brant, redheads, canvasback, scoter, and shorebirds all bearing the hunter’s brand.
This redhead decoy is one of only two known surviving examples of Bunn’s work to bear his name carved deeply into its underside, indicating that it was part of the maker’s personal hunting rig. A stamp located beneath and perpendicular to Bunn’s name marks the decoy as the former property of William J. Mackey, Jr., the expert who discovered and perpetuated the William Bowman attribution. Like the previous black duck, this redhead exhibits all the tell-tale signs of Bunn’s signature construction details such as the inletted head and the hollow body made from two halves of white cedar. Additionally, the bird possesses the same pronounced back hump and full cheeks visible in the decoys on display in the 1906 photograph of the Long Island booth at the Sportsmen’s Show at Madison Square Garden.
This beautiful pintail drake may be an example of the “fancy” style decoys Bunn advertised. Unlike the previous black duck and redhead, this decoy sports more elaborately painted plumage with impressionistic mottled feathers around its neck, breast, and back like that found on his shorebirds. However, the pintail’s most outstanding feature is its carved wings with pronounced shoulders and separated tips that bridge the stylistic gap between Bunn’s waterfowl and shorebird decoys. According to James Reason, “There was talk in the 70s and 80s about how much different the floating stool (waterfowl) and the shorebirds were. Some questioned if both styles were made by “Bowman.” When a mallard with carved wings identical to this pintail’s showed up, the collectors and experts were convinced the shorebirds and ducks were made by the same person who we have now identified as Charles Sumner Bunn.”
The historical significance of this shorebird decoy is the name burned deep into its lower body. Like the black duck described above, it bears the owner’s brand of Newbold Leroy Edgar (1863-1924) a longtime client and close acquaintance of Charles Sumner Bunn. Their close professional and personal relationship is well documented. In her recorded interviews, Bunn’s daughter Alice Bunn Martinez describes Edgar as a “good client” who liked to hunt, “ducks and geese and snipe. ….” She remembers that her father and Edgar hunted fox and duck in Montauk, staying at the Montauk Inn. She also recalls the time her father was invited to join Edgar on big game hunting expedition in Canada. Speaking of the connection between Bunn, Edgar, and the shorebird decoys in dispute, Joseph Jannsen writes:
“Given the closeness of their relationship and the well-established fact that Bunn was an accomplished decoy maker, it seems highly unlikely that Edgar acquired his hunting rig from Bill Bowman, who supposedly carved in the marshes of Lawrence nearly 75 miles to the west, rather than his good friend who lived within walking distance.”
Jannsen’s research has connected the dots between Charles Sumner Bunn and three owners of the four known hunting rigs of decoys now being attributed to the Indigenous carver, including Newbold Leroy Edgar, Harry Davis Ives, and Orson Munn, Sr. The friendly relationship between Bunn and Ives and with Munn can be inferred by the fact the carver and his family celebrated Christmas at the former’s residence and the latter drew up his last will and testament.
Early decoy collector and author Joel D. Barber (1876-1952) captured the likeness of this Bunn dowitcher in a watercolor illustration (see above) for his groundbreaking book Wild Fowl Decoys published in 1934. The decoy was given to Barber as a gift by his friend and fellow Long Islander Fred Becker who used it as part of his personal hunting rig, hence the presence of small scattershot holes. Barber commemorated his friend’s gift both in the text of his book and on an adhesive label stuck on the decoy’s underside, which reads “Fred Becker, Snipe.”
As Barber wrote in his book, this dowitcher decoy painted in spring mating plumage is a prime example of, “the degree of perfection to which snipe decoys were carried,” demonstrating the “full expression of the American fowler’s art.” It possesses all the tell-tale construction and design characteristics of the shorebird decoys we are attributing to Bunn. The bird’s overall conformation includes: a full, rounded body suggestive of a well-fed bird; an inset bill splined through the back of the head; puffy cheeks; black glass bead eyes inset into hollowed out sockets; the suggestion of the fulcra or wishbone where the base of the neck meets the breast; carved wing shoulders, raised and separated wing tips; and a downward curved tail.
Holding its head high, this dowitcher proudly bears the scars of a working decoy hunted over in the field. The body is riddled with tiny holes made by shot pellets and it sports a replacement bill—the original was most likely blown off by gunfire. When compared to Shelburne’s other Bunn shorebirds, the body of this decoy is noticeably flatter, lacking the carver’s characteristic curvaceous well-fed form. Some experts hypothesize this is indicative of another carver imitating Bunn’s style. However, Joseph Jannsen believes the dowitcher was carved by Bunn and the thinner body can be explained by the adage: “waste not, want not,” and used a leftover thinner piece of wood to make it. It is hard to tell if the camouflage-like paint job on the bird is original because of the thick layer of varnish that gives the decoy its glossy appearance.
Shelburne Museum approached the reattribution process from multiple angles, including scientific testing of the decoys’ painted decoration. To analyze the chemical makeup of the various paints used to create the plumage on Shelburne’s five shorebirds’, Object Conservator Nancie Ravenel removed a microscopic sample from each of the decoys’ bellies close to the dowel apertures. The initial results indicated the presence of titanium white on two of the decoys, the yellowlegs and dowitcher 1952-192.227. This discovery was significant because titanium white was not commercially available in the United States until the mid-1910s, years after William Bowman is said to have died and would have excluded him as the maker. However, further analysis using the noninvasive portable X-Ray florescence (XRF) spectrometer technology revealed that the areas where titanium white paint was discovered were in fact later touch ups disguised by the darkened varnish that had been applied decades ago. The results neither confirmed, nor excluded Bunn as the maker. Nevertheless, the ample evidence compiled by reseachers James Reason and Joseph Jannsen made it clear beyond a doubt that Charles Sumner Bunn was the carver of the Shelburne shorebird decoys.