Squirrels on Capitol Grounds
When walking across the Capitol Grounds there is one critter that can consistently be seen out and about – the squirrel. When did squirrels first come to Washington, D.C. and how did they end up here? Archivist Andria Leo took a look through AOC's historical records to investigate the history of the squirrel at the Capitol.
The Architect of the Capitol (AOC) was among the first to bring squirrels into Washington, D.C. and to place the "interesting little animals" on the Capitol Grounds. Architect of the Capitol Elliott Woods played a major role in this endeavor.
The earliest discussion of squirrels in AOC's archival records is from August 1899, when, in response to Elliott Woods' request, the Register of the Land Office of Virginia wrote back offering to donate a pair of squirrels. (Read letter)
In 1901, a U.S. Capitol Police report cites 10 year-old boy caught "in the act of chasing squirrels" on Capitol Grounds. He was taken to the "Guard-Room, where he spent ¾ of an hour crying and promising 'not to do it' again." Lastly, "the parents gave the boy a severe chastising, which I think ought to keep him from troubling the squirrels any more." (Read report)
By 1903, it is evident that the squirrel population had grown because Woods began to offer squirrels from the Capitol Grounds to other institutions. In November of 1903, Federal staff at the Treasury Department wrote to Woods imploring him to build enough squirrel shelters for the coming winter months:
"In the multitude of your other affairs it may not have occurred to you that my little friends the squirrels in the Capitol grounds may possibly be short of houses for the approaching winter. They have increased considerably in number, and may suffer if they are not provided for. As I have been feeding them every winter and a great part of the summer, we have become great friends, and I feel a great deal of interest in their welfare, as they are nice little fellows." (Read letter)
The same individual wrote again in 1904: "Permit me to once more trouble you about my little friends the squirrels…If your carpenter could find time to make them two or more houses it would give them a chance to lay in a stock of leaves for bedding before it is too late…" (Read letter)
In 1906, Senator N.B. Scott, wrote seeking houses as well: "I am a great friend of nature and of the wild animals, and I do hope you will put up some additional boxes for our dear little squirrels in the grounds. Down towards the Peace Monument I have a number of friends of the squirrel family that come to get nuts from me every day when I go down, especially last spring when they would come at my whistle." (Read letter)
Shelter boxes were in fact provided, and set around the Capitol Grounds. The AOC's Capitol Shops manufactured these shelters. Shelters continued to be manufactured and set into place through the 1950's.
From the early 1900's through the 1940s, many people wrote in to Woods and later to Architect of the Capitol David Lynn offering squirrels, requesting squirrels from the Capitol Grounds and requesting that food and shelter be placed on the grounds for the animals.
However, some area residents were unhappy with their presence, one letter on December 5, 1905 states: "the squirrels on Capitol grounds while somewhat amusing, are nevertheless a nuisance in several respects…on Thanksgiving day one of them sat on my porch railing and looked at me as I sat at my desk, as imprudent as anything could be…I don't want to kill or injure them, but I must protect myself." (Read letter)
In the mid-1940's, a negative view of the squirrels was becoming more apparent. Being termed "varmints" in some newspaper articles, they were also credited with causing damage to some of the trees on the Grounds. By 1963, Landscape Architect Paul Pincus was not in favor of placing squirrel shelter boxes on the Grounds, because "Squirrels always manage on their own to find adequate shelter for the winter. The man made winter shelters are not always used by the squirrels. These are often abandoned due to leaking roofs and wood rot."
Squirrels continue to roam the Capitol Grounds today, providing amusement to visitors and residents alike.