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.
To recognize her contributions, and mark the observance of March as Women’s History Month, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Law Enforcement Division is nominating Neal for induction to the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. A panel of judges will decide if she merits induction later this year.
“Huldah Neal was a trailblazer, literally and figuratively,” said Gary Hagler, DNR Law Enforcement Division chief. “She was fearless in the way she performed her dangerous duties, and in how she broke free from typical roles that society forced on women at that time. She paved the way for new generations of women who proudly serve as guardians of our natural resources. Huldah Neal left a positive legacy for our state. On behalf of all conservation officers, it’s a privilege to nominate her for induction to the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.”
Born circa 1855 in Ohio, Huldah Jane Valleau moved with her family to Grand Traverse County in 1861. She married Warren Neal in 1872 and the couple raised two children on their farm near Long Lake. She shared her husband’s love of the outdoors, a passion that didn’t go unrecognized by newspapers reporting on her appointment as deputy game warden.
“Mrs. Neal is a woman of determined character, and has excellent qualifications for such a position,” the Traverse City Record-Eagle wrote on June 6, 1897. “She is an active woods-woman, a good shot, and can give cards and spades to any man in the manipulation of the fishing rod. Besides being an expert in these respects Mrs. Neal is an ardent supporter of the state game and fish laws, and takes much interest in their preservation. The appointment is a good one, and Mrs. Neal will wage an aggressive campaign against violators of the law; and offenders in her locality will find that Mrs. Neal will stand no fooling.”
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.
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.
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.
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