By Rick Schwertfeger, Captain, Frontier Partisans Southern Command, Austin, Texas
“The grace of God won’t carry a man through these prairies. It takes powder and ball.”
— Jim Bridger
“All who came west brought ample powder and shot…for hunger was a constant and keeping one’s larder full a daily preoccupation. Danger was integral to hunting, which itself was integral to the frontier. Frontier hunters took seriously…that big game animals were capable of fighting back. The grizzly was the ultimate threat.”
“’All big game are very good at killing you if you give them even a fraction of a chance,’ hunter and author Peter Capstick has said.”
Philip Dray has written perhaps a magnum opus — Fair Chase: The Epic Story of Hunting in America.
Thoroughly researched, amazingly comprehensive, Dray’s book explores the complex relationships between hunting and American society throughout our history.
Hunting, once an essential part of survival, evolved into sport. A symbiotic relationship arose, in which evolutions in the purposes and processes of hunting impacted American society; AND developments in American society impacted hunters and their essential or sporting pastime.
Dray explores “what hunting has to tell us – about the country’s legends, its faith in manifest destiny; its evolving views on nature, wildlife, Native Americans and the concept of race; its love of sports and leisure; its notions of self-reliance and manhood — in short, about nothing less than the shaping of our national temperament.”
And it’s fascinating, indeed.
Technological progress receives due treatment – for hunting is carried out with weapons, usually firearms. So throughout, Dray touches on the impacts of greater firepower and accuracy. There’s even a separate chapter, “Arming the Hunters.” We go from the Pennsylvania long rifle of the 18th century to today’s semi-automatic rifles.
“The equation of gun and survival, in war and on the frontier, helped induce a devotion to armed proficiency – hunting and marksmanship perceived as components of manhood, preparedness, and martial adequacy.”
With the majority of the population of the United States still primarily along the Eastern Seaboard, New York’s Adirondack Mountains played a key role in the expansion of hunting in the mid-19th century. Still almost wilderness, but close enough to major cities, men with resources began to hunt in the region. Local guides were key to their success. We learn of “legendary guide Mitchell Sabattis, a pure-blood Abenaki who spoke French, English, and two Indian dialects. He could ‘smell’ deer long before they came into view, track animals on downturned blades of grass, and silently maneuver a canoe into a trout-filled bay.”
And the concept that there is a spiritual component to the outdoor life and the chase was fostered. The Reverend William Murray of Boston, with “his great love of hunting, became known as ‘the shooting pastor’ after once arriving at church straight from the fields with a shotgun under his arm.”
He promoted a “’muscular Christianity’ of ‘vigorous outdoorsmen;’” and a god “who smiled upon their zeal for recreation, fitness, and fresh air.” Author of “Adventures in the Wilderness; or, Camping Life in the Adirondacks,” Murray had great influence in getting men so inclined to hunt the Adirondacks.
President and legendary hunter Theodore Roosevelt, receives thorough treatment. “His exuberant love of the chase was integral to his identity.” “To Roosevelt the hunting of wild creatures was always about something greater – a primal reconnect with the natural, precivilized world and ‘the free, self-reliant, adventurous life, with its rugged and stalwart democracy.’” Perhaps no one more than Roosevelt tapped into the connection between hunting and that “it ‘cultivates vigorous manliness.’”
Dray thoroughly addresses the relationships between hunting and conservation. The excessive slaughtering of American wildlife in the late 19th century – most notable, of course, of the buffalo – is well known. Henry Fairfield Osborne of the American Museum of Natural History wrote:
“Our animal fortune seemed to us so enormous that it could never be spent. Like a young rake coming into a large inheritance, we attacked this noble fauna with characteristic American improvidence.”
Hunters’ growing awareness that entire landscapes were becoming devoid of wildlife led to them founding conservation organizations – Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell’s Boone and Crockett Club (1887) being perhaps the most notable. The concepts “of ethical hunting and wildlife preservation” grew out of Boone and Crockett, which they ultimately “termed fair chase.” Carried further, “the good hunter’s appreciation of wild places, his respect for the game he hunted, for the rules of fair play and observed hunting seasons, all…led directly to this looming project, as daunting as it was grand: scientific game management and conservation.”
Hunters of today know well that, “The idea of saving the sport of hunting within the context of saving wildlife has proved a durable one.” (http://www.huntfairchase.com).
In the Epilogue – “A Complex Heritage” – Dray deftly addresses current controversies, including attacks on hunting itself by animal rights advocates; trophy hunting; the issue of types of firearms deemed appropriate to be used by hunters; the decline in the number of Americans who hunt; and the extraordinary importance to hunters of the public lands disputes.
“Real-world influences…will likely affect the sport’s decline the shift of population into urban areas; a shortage of accessible hunting grounds;…and the fact that fewer youth under the age of seventeen are being introduced to the sport. Without such generational continuity, it will be difficult to sustain the hunting culture.”
Not mentioned by Dray, contemporary organizations are in the field working to keep hunting alive. Three of note are Ducks Unlimited, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. They, in various combinations, promote youth hunting, work on the politics of public lands and access, and engage in habitat conservation and expansion. Dray concludes “that hunting will endure, at least for the foreseeable future.”
And we will see if hunting and conservation organizations can overcome successfully the forces in American culture that are leading to the long-term decline of hunting.
© Rick Schwertfeger, Austin, Texas. June 2018. Used by permission.