Epiphany in the Wilderness: Hunting, Nature, and Performance in the Nineteenth-Century American West

Epiphany in the Wilderness: Hunting, Nature, and Performance in the Nineteenth-Century American West

by Karen R. Jones


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781607323976
Publisher: University Press of Colorado
Publication date: 12/15/2015
Edition description: 1
Pages: 360
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.60(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Karen R. Jones is a historian of the American West with particular interests in nineteenth-century cultural and environmental history. Her books include Wolf Mountains: The History of Wolves along the Great Divide, The Invention of the Park, and The American West: Competing Visions. She was awarded the James Bradley Fellowship at the Montana Historical Society for her research on hunting and conservation in late nineteenth-century Montana and has earned fellowships at the Autry National Center and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center for projects on horses and war in the nineteenth century and on taxidermy and the “afterlife” of hunted animals.

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Epiphany in the Wilderness

Hunting, Nature, and Performance in the Nineteenth-Century American West

By Karen R. Jones

University Press of Colorado

Copyright © 2015 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60732-398-3


Masculinity, the "Strenuous Life," and the Genealogy of the Hunter Hero

A cheerful fire, a full stomach, after an active and successful day a hunting, lying on a good cowboy bed, your peace pipe doing fine — a tried and true partner enjoying it all with you, your pulse beating with the warmth and strength of a hardy outdoor life; could a man wish for more?

— Malcolm Mackay, Cow Range and Hunting Trail (1925)

Born in New Jersey in 1881 and a stockbroker by trade, Malcolm Mackay had long been enticed by the literary frontier of cowboy and Indian heroes facing off across the pages of dime novels and popular fiction. Taking inspiration from the imaginary West, Mackay set out to find his own "inner frontiersman" in 1901. As he explained: "When I was nineteen years old, I was working in a banking house in New York, but somehow it in no way satisfied the hunger of real action and adventure that surged within me." Settling in Red Lodge, Montana, Mackay struck up a partnership with rancher Charlie Wright and went on to operate a successful 17,000-acre spread on the East Rosebud River, running cattle under the Lazy EL brand. A keen outdoorsman — not least inspired by a duck hunt to Nebraska, aged sixteen, with a group of his father's acquaintances — Mackay regularly left his ranch for the mountains in search of good hunting. The game trail brought muscular adventuring and invigoration for mind and body, so much so that Mackay spoke in quasi-mystical (not to mention Turnerian) terms of "spiritually turning from cowboy to hunter." Wilderness living, the vigor of the rugged frontier, and the homo-social culture of the trail conspired to lend the hunting experience a unique quality and an innately performative timbre. As Mackay mused, "Could a man wish for more?"

The masculine terrain of the Euro-American frontiersman set out in Mackay's Cow Range and Hunting Trail was a familiar one. A material agent in the culture of animal capital, the hunter served as defender, provider, and adventurer — killing game to sustain his family — while recreational cultures of the hunt configured the pursuit of game as manly play, gallant sharpshooters trailing game across a theme park wilderness that was equally embedded in a political economy (and ecology) of western conquest. In the idealized terrain of frontier folklore, the hunter strode tall as a leading man, an individual who tamed the wild and transformed himself in the bargain. He was the principal actor in the cultural ecology of the hunt. One need only think of the famous photograph of Theodore Roosevelt (see Figure 1.1), posed in full buckskin regalia and grasping his Winchester, to see the critical purchase of the sporting hunter hero as a signifier of manliness, power, and authority (despite being taken in the less-than-wild setting of a New York studio). Contours of masculinity, conquest, and renewal shaped the hunting experience and, in turn, the environmental history of the West. As a cultural product too, the hunter hero exerted a powerful influence, indicated by such tomes as Heroes and Hunters of the West (1860) and its roll call of worthy frontiersmen figuratively led across the Cumberland Gap by Daniel Boone, "father of the West" and a man of "daring, activity and circumspection." If encounters on the game trail said more about the two-legged than the four, then the principal protagonists were white men in particular.

A number of scholars have traced the connections between masculinity, big game hunting, and colonialism. What has been less well observed, though, is the centrality of performance and theater to the cult of the hunter hero, the importance of the West to this typology, and the complex stratifications in the cultural ecology of hunting on the frontier. Whether expressed in trailside journals, tales around the campfire, or consciously paraded in a range of public forums from photography to staged shows, cultures of theater began on the game trail and extended far beyond the confines of the trans-Mississippi region. Drawing on autobiographical literature, this chapter reconstructs the phenomenology of the hunt as mediated by processes of masculinity in the American West to highlight the importance of the material space of the West (and its animals) as well as cultures of imaginative display. In the construction and dissemination of a heroic pedigree, the hunter hero participated in an encounter between physical space and an idealized "regeneration through violence" that was grounded in frontier geography, faunal exchange, and ritual performance. As Monica Rico notes, "The ritualized killing of wild animals incorporated a rich variety of gestures, objects, sayings, clothing, and images that, when woven together, told a story about masculine triumph over nature." Axioms of self-discovery, proving and renewal, conquering "virgin" land, and competing with faunal "monarchs" graced the autobiographical canon and, critically, broadcast a repertory of ownership, domination, and power over western space. Meanwhile, facing up against the big game hunter, or sport hunter, were a range of alternative (sometimes heretical) models of masculine authority in the shape of the American Indian, the market hunter, and the frontier guide. With their own claims to heroic status, hunting prowess, and codes of regional belonging, these characters played key roles in the fantasy western architecture of masculine affirmation under construction in the "golden age" of sport hunting, often with intriguing results. The beatified hunter hero may have been resolutely western by the end of the 1800s, but his buckskin livery concealed a complex genealogy.

The Crisis of Masculinity and the West as Hunter's Paradise

The golden age of sport hunting in the West between the Civil War and the closure of the frontier in 1890 drew impetus from Anglo-American cultures of imperial power and racial legitimacy (as historians John Mackenzie, Daniel Herman, and Monica Rico have pointed out), along with the rise of an upper middle class keen to demonstrate their affluence and elite aspirations. Also critical was an intellectual climate on both sides of the Atlantic concerned with the deleterious effects of modernity and its so-called "crisis of masculinity." As a reaction to many things — war, economic depression, and the confines of urban industrialism — the latter part of the century witnessed an outpouring of concern at the apparent overcivilization, feminization, and degeneration of the Euro-American man. Hunting Sports of the West (1865) bemoaned how "delicate canes and cushioned curricles have taken the place of rifles and the good old horseback exercises." Solutions to the malaise were found in various quarters, from muscular Christianity to sport in the "great outdoors." Frederick Jackson Turner felt that the Boy Scout movement offered the "foundation of a self-disciplined and virile generation worthy to follow the trail of the backwoodsman." Hunting, in particular, stirred the attentions of many as an activity that challenged and channeled masculine instincts, promised healthy physical exertion and manly camaraderie, and stimulated vital emotions of duel and subdual. According to Elisha J. Lewis in The American Sportsman (1906):

Alone, far away from the busy throngs of selfish men, wandering with some favored friend, in sweet communion with the green fields, the stately forests, and limpid streams, the mind of the most grave and studious becomes truly unbent and freed from its labors. There the heart beats with renewed vigor, the blood courses through its usually sluggish channels with a quickened pace, and the whole animal as well as intellectual economy becomes sharpened and revivified under exciting and healthful influences.

Attention fixed on a number of sacred sites for the execution of cathartic hunting from the Adirondacks to Africa. Looming large in both national and transnational circles was the American West. John Mortimer Murphy in Sporting Adventures in the Far West (1870) referred to the Rockies and the Pacific slopes as "without a peer as a recreation-ground for those who love the ecstatic excitement of the chase," a place of good outfitters, abundant game, and generally safe from "irritating insects, poisonous serpents or deadly disease." With the construction of the transcontinental railroad and an incipient leisure economy tailored to those wishing for a dose of roughing it deluxe, the frontier was both accessible and usefully chaperoned. As Mortimer added, his hunting camp was always "within a few day's march of civilization, and the high ways of communication with the outside world."

Long-standing associations of the West as wild terrain free not only from insects or snakes but also from modern strictures — an imaginative space where dreams gained full play — aided in its configuration as a locus of manly renewal. For British hunters seeking sport beyond the confines of (at least in relative terms) a domesticated landscape of deer and fox, and buoyed by an aristocratic colonial modus that saw far-flung reaches of the globe as useful exercise for younger sons suffering financial burden, primogeniture law, and rural change, the trans-Mississippi landscape represented an enticing space of primordial contest. Likewise, in the American national(ist) vernacular, the West had been consistently (and consciously) framed in opposition to the East in a series of turns that reflected both materiality and social construction: culture and nature, civilized and savage, constrained and liberated. Henry David Thoreau famously couched "the tonic of wildness" as an effective antidote to the quiet desperation of encroaching industrialism and encouraged a portentous gaze westward away from Old Europe and to the future, while the popularity of James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales suggested developing interest in the national project of wilderness taming, its cultural grounding, and the allure of its principal protagonist: the hunter. When Frederick Jackson Turner articulated his frontier thesis before the Historical Association in 1893, his "West" spoke of many things, but implicit in his vision was the sense of a transformative geography roamed by the iconic pioneer.

The monumental landscapes of the Pacific slope and the Rocky Mountains, the vast expanses of Great Plains, and, most significantly, its full complement of "savage threats" in the shape of charismatic megafauna lent the West salience as the country's foremost wild playground. In that sense, the hunt was irrevocably animal-centered. Frank Forester's Field Sports (1864) described western fauna as "the noblest, largest, the fleetest, and, in one instance, the fiercest in the known world." British sportsman William Baillie Grohman called it a "primeval hunting ground" and place of "untrammeled freedom" — a pertinent example of the transnational appeal of the frontier as proving space. Also important was its elemental quality. John Palliser envisaged being "carried backward into some remote and long-past age, as though I were encroaching on the territories of the mammoth and the mastodon." For Frederick Selous, "civilized America" carried no attraction — all cities were alike; instead it was wapiti herds and the bison he wanted to see, namely "wild America." (Selous proved particularly aggrieved at meeting a Chicago journalist in the Bighorn Mountains who "removed him" from his imaginative escapism by quizzing him about travels in Africa.)

Facing off against bears, bison, and bighorn in the frontier amphitheater proved a vital foil to the "sheer dullness of urban-industrial culture" and allowed the performance codes of the hunter hero full rein. "Heclawa" yearned to escape "the monotonous routine of everyday work" while Peregrine Herne sought a more visceral engagement: "My blood was on fire for sterner excitement — I longed to meet death in the face, and look for carnage." As Anthony Rotundo notes, "Men of the late nineteenth century sought to connect themselves to primitive impulses and to define their lives in terms of passionate struggle." Configured as a crucible of personal renewal, the West allowed emasculation anxieties, middle-class ambition, and imperial muscles to be flexed with abandon and romantic flourish. Parker Gillmore extrapolated thus: "I have known a few months of wild Western life do more good informing a character than years passed in cities and continental towns; for here the fop forgets his folly, and the timid and nervous becomes self-reliant." Without the chance to entertain such manly prerogatives, Gillmore felt that "we should become a very unimaginative, unambitious, namby-pamby lot, unfit for wear and tear, bustle and excitement."

Significantly, the pursuit of game in the West promised both escapism and prescription. Such precepts were evident in the discourses promoted by Theodore Roosevelt, architect and advocate of the "strenuous life." In The Wilderness Hunter (1893), he issued a manifesto of manliness that spoke of the vitality of the game trail and the West as a palliative landscape. Hunting, he asserted, cultivated "that vigorous manliness for the lack of which in a nation, as in an individual, the possession of no other qualities can possibly atone." The Boone and Crockett Club, founded in 1887 by Roosevelt and others, exemplified the cultural turn of the sporting hunter hero in its promotion of "manly sport with the rifle" and a prestigious (and elite) membership earned by bagging three of the large (and, significantly, largely western) species of North American mammals. In the estimation of Roosevelt and his cadre, the overcivilizing influences of urban industrialism had stymied the male spirit. By escaping to the game trail, learning to know and inhabit wild landscapes, wield the rifle, and track and dispatch game, the hunter channeled qualities of "hardihood, self-reliance, and resolution" seemingly lacking in modern life.

Time spent in pursuit of game offered welcome retreat into a past age of action, instinct, and survivalism, but it was not a rejection of modernity entirely. Instead shots fired on the game trail delivered a shot in the arm to industrialism, a salvo for modern society to allow its natural advance. William Murray regarded hunting as a "natural resort for the overworked professional," while the West seemed fit for purpose as "a great national sanatorium" according to the author of Adventures in the Wilderness (1869). The search for a trophy promised escapist adventure and staved off atrophy: fresh air, exercise, and exposure to challenging environments encouraged physical and mental wellbeing (a fact corroborated by today's experiments in "green exercise theory" and displayed in the contemporary designs of Frederick Law Olmsted's city parks). As Alfred Mayer extrapolated in Sport with Gun and Rod (1883), hunting served as an effective antidote for "artificial pleasures and its mechanical life" in allowing the man to become a "civilized savage ... finding [his] inner masculinity and returning to the city with a ccalmed spirit.

Likewise, the complex architecture of hunter heroism promised a retreat into nature and into history. Laid out in the introduction to The Wilderness Hunter, Roosevelt established the contours of manly sporting culture as one of geographical determinism, of exposure to the wild and its animals and the gains to be had roaming a monumental topography: "The free, self-reliant, adventurous life, with its rugged and stalwart democracy, its wild surroundings, the grand beauty of the scenery, the chance to study the ways and habits of the woodland creatures — all these unite to give to the career of the wilderness hunter its peculiar charms." At the same time, the hunter earned kudos as a historical agent, a "natural man" liberated by his vocation, but one possessed with a sense of dynamic virtue and pioneer instinct well suited to his chosen terrain. As Roosevelt explained, the Rocky Mountain trappers and hunters of yore were "men of iron nerve and will ... skillful shots ... cool, daring, and resolute to the verge of recklessness." What the American contingent added to British sporting code was, as Thomas Dunlap notes, ideas of woodcraft and frontier education. Cecil Hartley delivered a patriotic litany on the hunter hero thus: "The early pioneers of the West were all hunters. They acquired in the pursuit of the bear, the panther, and the bison, those habits of courage, coolness, presence of mind, and indifference to danger, which made them such formidable enemies to the Indians, and such efficient defenders of the infant settlements." In that sense, the sport hunters of the latter 1800s channeled the frontiersmen of a generation before, celebrating the role of the hunter in the winning of the West and repackaging it for the purposes of macho leisure. As Daniel Herman notes, the idea of a "hunting people" combined the alluring prospect of heritage in a modernizing society with a "cultural authenticity" gleaned through frontier lineage. Hence, where Crevecoeur in Letters of an American Farmer (1782) had derided the trans-Appalachian hunting economy as degenerate and uncivilized, rendering its people "little better than carnivorous beasts" and "divided between the toil of the chase, the idleness of repose, or the indulgence of inebriation," a century on the cultural import of the hunter — in the guise of the robust pioneer and the manly sport — looked somewhat different.


Excerpted from Epiphany in the Wilderness by Karen R. Jones. Copyright © 2015 University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
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Table of Contents

Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction: The West, Storytelling Animals, and the Hunt as Performance 3

Act 1 Actors and Agents: The Cultural Ecology of Hunter's Paradise

1 Masculinity, the "Strenuous Life," and the Genealogy of the Hunter Hero 33

2 The Voice of the Winchester and the Martial Culture of the Hunt 77

3 Lady Adventurers and Crack Shots: Hunter Heroines in the Nineteenth-Century American West 109

Act 2 The "Afterlife" of the Hunt: Story, Image, and Trophy

4 Landscapes of Testimony: Performing the Game Trail in Literature, Art, and Photography 137

5 Staging the Game Trail: The Theatrical Wild 181

8 The Soul in the Skin: Taxidermy and the Reanimated Animal 227

Act 3 Saving the Hunting Frontier

7 Conservation, Wild Things, and the End of the Hunting Trail 273

8 Heretical Visions and Hunter's Paradise Redux 305

Preservation and Performance: An Afterword to the Afterlife 333

Selected Bibliography 339

Index 357

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