Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New Westby Michael Punke
In the last three decades of the nineteenth century, an American buffalo herd once numbering 30 million animals was reduced to twenty-three. It was the era of Manifest Destiny, a gilded age that viewed the West as nothing more than a treasure chest of resources to be dug up or shot down. Supporting hide hunters was the U.S. Army, which considered the eradication of
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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 twenty-three. It was the era of Manifest Destiny, a gilded age that viewed the West as nothing more than a treasure chest of resources to be dug up or shot down. Supporting hide hunters 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. 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. Last Stand is a strikingly contemporary story: the saga of Grinnell and the buffalo was the first national battle over the environment. Grinnell’s legacy includes the birth of the conservation movement as a potent political force.
"By providing short accounts of these two complementary activities, Punke presents an interesting array of conflicts, western expansion, wildlife conservation, eastern politicians, railroad lobbyists, power of the press, and concerned citizen participation. . . . A well-documented history of Grinnell's environmental activities and the quick near-extermination of bison."—Choice
Adult/High School Grinnell was the kind of man every generation needs. He had one eye focused on the future and, fortunately, he did something about what he saw coming. His foresight was one of the main factors in the continued existence of the buffalo, Yellowstone National Park, and Glacier National Park. Punke ties together the fascinating story of Grinnell and the threatened treasures he loved. The decline of the buffalo is a very human story, and the author leads readers through the hunting culture of the Indians and the even more ferocious killers from the East that superseded it. This book shows the evolution of a well-to-do boy who shed the safety of the privileged life he could have kept to embrace and protect the wild animals and men of the frontier. This is the story of how one person worked to turn the tide of greed and apathy that seemed invincible and in the process educated and elevated the conscience of a nation. Teens will find this modern morality tale exciting and inspiring.-Will Marston, Berkeley Public Library, CA
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George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West
"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 trackswas so common that engines were sometimes equipped with a device 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 Bird Grinnell 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 of their 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
George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West. Copyright (c) by Michael Punke . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Michael Punke is a former lawyer whose professional experience includes work on the White House National Security Council and on Capitol Hill. He is the author of three books, including Fire and Brimstone: The North Butte Mining Disaster of 1917 and The Revenant. He lives in Montana with his family.
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