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In the last three decades of the nineteenth century, an American buffalo herd once numbering 30 million animals was reduced to twelve. It was the era of Manifest Destiny, a Gilded Age that treated the West as nothing more than a treasure chest of resources to be dug up or shot down. The buffalo in this world was a commodity, hounded by legions of swashbucklers and unemployed veterans seeking to make their fortunes. Supporting these hide hunters, even buying their ammunition, was the U.S. Army, which considered ...
In the last three decades of the nineteenth century, an American buffalo herd once numbering 30 million animals was reduced to twelve. It was the era of Manifest Destiny, a Gilded Age that treated the West as nothing more than a treasure chest of resources to be dug up or shot down. The buffalo in this world was a commodity, hounded by legions of swashbucklers and unemployed veterans seeking to make their fortunes. Supporting these hide hunters, even buying their ammunition, was the U.S. Army, which considered the eradication of the buffalo essential to victory in its ongoing war on Native Americans.
Into that maelstrom rode young George Bird Grinnell. A scientist and a journalist, a hunter and a conservationist, Grinnell would lead the battle to save the buffalo from extinction. Fighting in the pages of magazines, in Washington's halls of power, and in the frozen valleys of Yellowstone, Grinnell and his allies sought to preserve an icon from the grinding appetite of Robber Baron America.
Grinnell shared his adventures with some of the greatest and most infamous characters of the American West—from John James Audubon and Buffalo Bill to George Armstrong Custer and Theodore Roosevelt (Grinnell's friend and ally). A strikingly contemporary story, the saga of Grinnell and the buffalo was the first national battle over the environment. In Grinnell's legacy is the birth of the conservation movement as a potent political force.
"Wild and Wooly"
The party started from New Haven late in June, bound for a West that was then really wild and wooly.
—George Bird Grinnell, Memories
The adventure that changed the course of George Bird Grinnell's life began with a train, and the path of the train, as it crossed the plains in the summer of 1870, was blocked by buffalo.
The new transcontinental railroad, like the wagon trails that preceded it, hewed to the valleys. Far from "featureless," as the Great Plains is frequently described, it is a region whose signature characteristic is so pervasive as to overwhelm—an openness so vast that the newcomer has no antecedent to place it in context. Coming, as Grinnell did, from the East, with its hemmed-in horizons and creeping green, arrival on the stark prairie was a shock to the system, an obvious demarcation of a place that was new. It was also, in the summer of 1870, a place that was wild.
As the train glided along the tracks, Grinnell heard the sudden screech of metal brakes and excited shouts. Looking out the window, he saw a herd of buffalo. After a brief delay, the herd wandered off and the voyage continued. Later, though, the train was halted a second time by another herd. "We supposed they would soon pass by," remembered Grinnell, "but they kept coming . . . in numbers so great that they could not be computed." It took three hours for the herd to cross the tracks.1 In the early days of the railroad, the problem of buffalo blocking tracks was so common that engines were sometimes equipped with adevice that shot out steam to scatter the herd.
For the nineteenth-century traveler, no sight better symbolized arrival in the West than the buffalo. Grinnell, who would turn twenty-one in two months, had arrived in the midst of his boyhood dreams. He certainly spoke volumes about his own motivations when he later wrote that "none of [us] except the leader had any motive for going other than the hope of adventure with wild game or wild Indians."2
Grinnell and his young companions certainly looked prepared for adventure. Each of the young men carried a shiny new Henry repeating rifle, a pistol, bandoleers of cartridges, and a Bowie knife. Never mind that few had any experience with weapons (Grinnell was one who did). In Omaha, they had walked out onto the prairie "to try our fire arms." Grinnell, at least, was under no illusion: "The members of the party were innocent of any knowledge of the western country, but its members pinned their faith to Professor Marsh."3
America of the nineteenth century lacked royalty, but it was not without aristocracy, and the family of George Bird Grinnell had bequeathed to him a station near the uppermost strata. Young George could trace his pedigree to the Mayflower. Indeed his ancestors included Betty Alden, immortalized by Jane G. Austin in her book Betty Alden: The First-Born Daughter of the Pilgrims. Grinnell's forefathers had been leading Americans since long before the United States came into being. Five had served as colonial governors. His grandfather, George Grinnell, served ten terms as a U.S. congressman.4
George BirdGrinnell was born on September 20, 1849, in Brooklyn, the first of five children to Helen A. Lansing and George Blake Grinnell. Grinnell's father began his career as a successful dry-goods merchant and ended it as a prominent merchant banker—the "principal agent in Wall Street of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt."5
As a young George Bird Grinnell contemplated his future, the path of least resistance seemed to flow naturally toward a position as a captain of finance in a world ruled by the class to which he was born. Certainly this was the direction that his father and mother would push. Instead Grinnell would one day rise to challenge the foundational tenets on which his world had been built.
The events that put Grinnell on a different course began on New Year's Day, 1857. He was 7 that year, and his father moved the family to the country. They rented at first, eventually building a house on a large tract of land in a part of Manhattan known as Audubon Park. The entire area once had been owned by John James Audubon, the famous painter-naturalist. Today, the quarter has been swallowed whole by New York City, bounded by West 158th and West 155th streets to the north and south, the Hudson River and Amsterdam Avenue to the east and west. In 1857, though, New York City was far away. Access to the city was by the Hudson River Railroad or by wagon, a trip of one and a half hours over hilly terrain.
Though John James Audubon had been dead for six years when the Grinnells moved to Audubon Park, much of the artist's family was still in residence. Audubon's two adult sons, Gifford and Woodhouse, continued the painting and publishing enterprise oftheir father. Each had a family and a house of his own on the property. Lucy Audubon, the elderly widow of the artist, lived with Gifford.
For a young boy, Audubon Park was an idyllic playground, like living in an engraving from Currier & Ives. "In the early days of Audubon Park almost nothing was seen of what in later days was called 'improvement,'" as Grinnell later described it. "The fields and woods were left in a state of nature." There were great groves of hemlock, chestnut, and oak. Springs flowed up from the ground and brooks tumbled down to the Hudson. There were stables with horses, pens of cattle and pigs, free-roaming chickens, geese, and ducks. The land was wild enough to be thick with small game, songbirds, and birds of prey, and Grinnell remembered a time when three eagles fought for a fish on his front lawn.6Last Stand. Copyright ? by Michael Punke. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Prologue: The Stand xv
1 "Wild and Wooly" 1
2 "Self-Denial" 16
3 "Barbarism Pure and Simple" 29
4 "I Felled a Mighty Bison" 43
5 "The Guns of Other Hunters" 57
6 "That Will Mean an Indian War" 74
7 "Ere Long Exterminated" 92
8 "A Weekly Journal" 108
9 "No Longer a Place for Them" 124
10 "Blundering, Plundering" 140
11 "The Meanest Work I Ever Did" 156
12 "A Terror to Evil-Doers" 171
13 "A Single Rock" 184
14 "For All It Is Worth" 200
15 "Simple Majesty" 218
Epilogue The Last Stand-"Something Unprecedented" 233
A wonderful read. Should appeal to a variety of viewpoints regarding our relationship with the natural world as encountered in the western United States during the 19th century. Our generation is truly luckly that there is anything left of the west that existed in the 18th and 19th centuries. My thanks go out to those few individuals who could forsee that unrestrained our ancestors would have used it all up in the names of profit, progress, civilization, and greed.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.