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First female conservation officer honored during Women’s History Month

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)

Huldah Neal nominated for induction to Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame

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.

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.

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.”

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