Lecture #10: Hunters and Hunted

Suggested Readings:

Peter Matthiessen, Wildlife in America (1959)
Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (2009)
Dan Flores, “Bison Ecology and Bison Diplomacy: The Southern Plains from 1800 to 1850,” Journal of American History (1991)
Andrew Isenberg, The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750-1920 (2000)
A. W. Schorger, The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction (1972)
Errol Fuller, The Passenger Pigeon (2014)
John F. Reiger, American Sportsmen and the Origins of Conservation (3rd ed, 2001)
Louis Warren, The Hunter's Game (1997)
Karl Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature (2001)
Jennifer Price, Flight Maps: Adventures With Nature In Modern America (1999)
Carolyn Merchant, Spare the Birds!: George Bird Grinnell and the First Audubon Society (2016)


I. The Passing of the Bison

Today's most important theme: the expansion of 19th-century market networks (as we saw in our analysis of von Thünen's rings and the many associated changes in transportation, technologies, and economies) increasingly affected wildlife and increased the pace of changes that began back in the colonial period.

Bison herds on the Great Plains have been estimated to have been about 15 million animals in 1865, down from perhaps 30 million at start of century. They were especially vulnerable to hunting during rutting season, when animals gathered in immense herds to reproduce. (This was a general phenomenon: among species most susceptible to mass hunting/harvesting were those whose populations concentrated during certain parts of their reproductive cycles: bison, salmon, passenger pigeons all exemplified this behavior, albeit in different ways.)

Indian hunting of bison had already shifted during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries from foot with spears and arrows to horseback with arrows and guns, so it's quite likely that bison herds and humans were out of balance as a result: increasing pressure. Bison-hunting tribes required about 5 animals per person per year, and impacts of hunting likely increased across eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with growing access to horses and guns.

Growing horse populations on Plains (perhaps 2 million animals by early 19th century) also competed with bison for access to grass, especially during winter months when snow and ice covered the edible rangelands.

Some evidence as well that domesticated cattle moving out onto the plains brought diseases that may have sickened and diminished the size of bison herds.

Two key changes occurred in the 1860s-1870s:

  • market in buffalo hides developed with improved tanning pioneered in Philadelphia in the 1870s
  • arrival of railroads on Great Plains shifted transportation costs to make bison more marketable.

Result: bison market expanded dramatically, prices rose. Professional market hunters fed railroad workers with bison meet, selling meat and robes to the east. in 1873, 2/3 of adult male residents of Dodge City, Kansas, supported themselves at least in part as bison hunters. William F. Cody began career as a bison hunter supplying workers with food for the Kansas Pacific Railroad, gained nickname "Buffalo Bill" and became famous for his Wild West Show.

Scale of killing rose accordingly: 4 million animals per year killed in 1871-2.

By 1883, there were virtually no animals left. By 1889, there were only 85 left in the wild, and only 1091 left in the world, mostly in Yellowstone National Park and in the Canadian prairie provinces (Manitoba and Saskatchewan).

Market in old bison skeletons as bones for fertilizer continued until those too were gone.

For more on bison, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bison

II. Extinction: Passenger Pigeons

Passenger pigeons flocked in ways that were similar to the vast herds of bison, though in some ways on an even more impressive scale: billion birds to a single flock, with collective nesting while rearing offpsring that made mass harvest extremely easy.

Travelers described flocks passing overhead as being so dense that they darkened the sky. It was easy to kill several with a single gunshot. Hunting with nets brought in millions of birds.

Well-organized market relied on telegraphic communication to communicate nesting locations and the prices that pigeons would bring when sold in urban areas. Meat was bland, so could be used for many purposes, and live pigeons were sold for target practice (origin of the modern "clay pigeons" that hunters still use for learning to shoot on wing).

Destruction of habitats was one source of decline: loss of deciduous forests threatened nesting areas, affecting more than just passenger pigeons.

But vast hunting pressure during nesting season made reproduction increasingly difficult, disturbing adult birds and sometimes leading them to abandon nests. Birds evidently needed a critical mass to sustain breeding population, so declined precipitously in closing decades of the nineteenth century.

The last living passenger pigeon, "Martha," died in the Cincinnati Zoo in on September 2, 1914. Her body is stored today at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington.

Aldo Leopold wrote in his essay "On a Monument to a Passenger Pigeon" at the dedication of a plaque for the bird at Wyalusing State Park in Wisconsin in 1947:

We have erected a monument to commemorate the funeral of a species. It symbolizes our sorrow. We grieve because no living man will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin.

Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.

For more on passenger pigeon, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passenger_pigeon

Passenger pigeon was not alone in becoming extinct during this period of growing transportation markets, expanding urban markets, and increasing hunting pressure. Other famous extinctions include the Carolina Parokeet, Great Auk, Dodo. The last heath hen died in 1933.

III. Flesh Markets

Note one key implication of expanding markets for hunted animals. Under English common law, wild animals were unowned free goods that were converted to private property only when killed by a hunter, who could then sell their bodies for profit.

Meat markets were among the most important reasons for hunting in the nineteenth century. Wild meat supplemented rural subsistence diets in frontier and poor areas (and in the South, longstanding common hunting rights had supported slaves, free blacks, and poor whites). Urban demand for wild meat supported growing meat markets in towns and cities , with $500,000 worth of game sold in Chicago alone in 1873. Some wild game meat was even shipped on to NYC and Europe.

Individual market hunters were capable of killing thousands of birds per year, selling them literally by the wagonload.

Game animals were used for clothing, especially for the millinery and feather trades, supplying decorative elements for women's hats. Songbirds and tropical and subtropical species like flamingoes, egrets, spoonbills, ostriches, all with beautiful plumage, were especially vulnerable for this purpose. Women's fashions created a worldwide market for colorful feathers.

One more source of urban demand: taxidermy, which processed and sold stuffed trophy bodies and heads...which takes us finally to the growing demand for recreational sport hunting in the wake of the Civil War.

IV. Sportsmen and Their Code

Hunting and angling had long been popular aristocratic activities in England and Europe, with hunting grounds often reserved for the Crown and aristocracy. (In England in the eighteenth century, poaching was sometimes treated as a capital crime.)

Popularity of American blood sports was further complicated by the additional icon of individualist frontier hero: Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking were all famous in part as hunters.

One key promoter of a new ethic of sportsmanship among hunters was Henry William Herbert (1807-58). He was born in England, migrated to NYC in 1831, and wrote Field Sports in the U.S. and British Provinces of America, in 1848 under the pseudonym Frank Forester. It was followed by several other hunting manuals before his suicide in 1858. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_William_Herbert)

Interest in sport hunting grew dramatically in wake of Civil War, in part because young men who had spent months or years as soldiers living and sleeping under the open sky were drawn to the idea of reenacting aspects of a crucial defining period in their early lives.

Sport hunting was an elite leisure activity done for the love of fair play. Advocates for honorable sport hunting like Frank Forester argued that one should only shoot birds on wing, being careful to use "fair" and proper technique, seeking to display manhood. They believed that the chase was only worth while if done with style, risk, and dash. Taking unfair advantage of one's quarry was the sign of unethical hunter.

Classic quotation from Frank Forester exemplifies these ideas:

It is not the mere killing of numbers, much less in the mere killing at all; it is not in the value of the things killed, though it is not sportsmanship, but butchery and wanton cruelty to kill animals which are valueless [as food] and out of season; it is not in the inevitable certainty of successƒ-for certainty destroys the excitement, which is the soul of sport--but it is in the vigor, science [correct technique], and manhood displayed--in the difficulties to be overcome, in the pleasurable anxiety for success, and the uncertainty of it, and lastly in the true spirit, the style, the dash, the handsome way of doing what is to be done, and above all, in the unalterable love of fair play, that first thought of the genuine sportsman, that true sportsmanship consists.

Sportsmanlike values were promoted by a growing popular press selling magazines to hunters and fishers in the post-Civil War era. Especially popular were Charles Hallock and George Bird Grinnell's Forest and Stream, 1871; also American Sportsman (1871); Field and Stream (1874); American Angler (1881).

Rise of sporting press was accompanied by a wave of new sporting organizations at the local and state level: rod and gun clubs, with private game preserves protecting lands to give their members access to game animals.

Game preserves served as retreats for a wealthy elite. In some areas, they eroded the rights of lower classes (including former slaves) to do subsistence hunting on common lands as a supplement to farming and other sources of food.

Upstate New York emerged as a center for game preserves in much same way as it did for picturesque landscapes in the romantic tradition.

Adirondacks begin to gain growing attention in the 1850s and especially after the Civil War: Emerson, Lowell, & Agassiz's Philosophers' Camp, 1858 helped launch a much larger movement.

Post-Civil War, large estates emerged for truly wealthy, many from New York City. Railroad access and growth of resort hotels made the mountin experience available even for more middling classes. Lodges served as centers for hunting and fishing, usually constructed with rustic architecture that became characteristic not just of the Adirondacks but of other wild resort areas as well: wild retreats for urban tourists.

V. Conserving Game

Hunting was thus yet another expression of romanticism. The goal for elite hunters was to reencounter nature outside the city to revive the spirit. Often there was a gendered aspects to this, with the search for restoring one's "vigorous manhood" as one of the goals city dwellers sought on their sport hunting expeditions.

The result was a new class politics of hunting, with sport hunters actively seeking to restrict or even prohibit hunting for subsistence and especially market hunting for their threats to game animals. Advocates for "ethical hunting" saw market hunters in particular as wasteful, unfair, unsporting, and unethical.

George Bird Grinnell offered a striking metaphor for what we might today call "sustainable" hunting: one should harvest only the interest on the principal, by which he meant killing only the number of animals that corresponded to that year's reproductive production of the overall population.

Grinnell & Teddy Roosevelt played lead roles in forming the Boone & Crockett Club in 1887 with the goal of promoting manly sport and fighting to conserve game animals.

George Bird Grinnell worth getting to know better if this movement interests you: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Bird_Grinnell

Growing pressure to protect sport hunting yielded increasing numbe of game regulations: closed seasons, bag limits, ethical techniques, regulated sales, limits on transportation of game animals across state lines.

The first state Audubon society was formed in 1886-89; the influential Massachusetts Audubon Societed started in 1896; the National Association of Audubon Societies started in 1905 to coordinate efforts at the state level.

Women were at least as influential in the movement to protect game animals as men were, less because hunting than because their concerns about the role women's fashions were playing in the destruction of songbirds and subtropical and tropical plumage speces. Just as male reformers argued that it was "unmanly" to engage in unethical hunting, female reformers argued that it was "unwomanly" to decorate one's clothing (as a tribute to feminine vanity) with the bodies of innocent, beautiful creatures. The role of gendered ideas in conservation politics should never be ignored.

In 1900, Congress passed the Lacey Act (sponsored by Iowa Representative John F. Lacey) to provide interstate regulation of game sales for the first, asserting a federal role in conservation that we'll be watching grow from this point forward in the course.