The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection

The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection

by Dorceta E. Taylor

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In this sweeping social history Dorceta E. Taylor examines the emergence and rise of the multifaceted U.S. conservation movement from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century. She shows how race, class, and gender influenced every aspect of the movement, including the establishment of parks; campaigns to protect wild game, birds, and fish; forest conservation; outdoor recreation; and the movement's links to nineteenth-century ideologies. Initially led by white urban elites—whose early efforts discriminated against the lower class and were often tied up with slavery and the appropriation of Native lands—the movement benefited from contributions to policy making, knowledge about the environment, and activism by the poor and working class, people of color, women, and Native Americans. Far-ranging and nuanced, The Rise of the American Conservation Movement comprehensively documents the movement's competing motivations, conflicts, problematic practices, and achievements in new ways.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822373971
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 08/04/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 496
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Dorceta E. Taylor is James E. Crowfoot Collegiate Professor of Environmental Justice at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Environment and the People in American Cities, 1600s–1900s: Disorder, Inequality, and Social Change, also published by Duke University Press, and Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility, and the editor of Environment and Social Justice: An International Perspective.

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The Rise of the American Conservation Movement

Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection

By Dorceta E. Taylor

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7397-1



The conservation movement arose against a backdrop of racism, sexism, class conflicts, and nativism that shaped the nation in profound ways. Though these factors are not usually incorporated into environmental history texts, they are incorporated into this narrative because they are critical to our understanding of how discourses about the environment were developed, policies formulated, and institutions organized. Hence, this chapter identifies seven key concepts that recur in the book: (1) race relations; (2) colonialism; (3) nativism; (4) gender relations; (5) the evolution of environmental ideologies; (6) power elites and environmental governance; and (7) the creation of an environmental identity.

Race Relations in the Environmental Context

Four aspects of race relations that had considerable impact on the transformation of the environment are defined here: the appropriation of Native American land and resources; the enslavement of blacks; the seizure of Latino territories; and the containment of Asians.


The role that race played in the formative experiences of early environmental activists and their subsequent formulation of environmental ideologies has been understudied, but race issues — relationships between Europeans and non-Europeans — were critical to the development of environmental discourse and activism in the United States. For instance, the American government and European settlers battled Indians for centuries to gain control over the land and other resources. These conflicts played significant roles in the crafting of policies that had lasting impacts on indigenous peoples and the environment.

During the battles to control land and resources, Native Americans were overpowered militarily and decimated by diseases. Tribal lands were seized as war bounties or through treaty making and breaking. Furthermore, Indians were repeatedly expelled (or removed) from their homelands, forced to live in reservations located on marginal lands, and allotted small parcels of land on which to subsist. Over time, federal Indian policies evolved to focus on the control of land, water, and mineral resources; the extermination and containment of Indians; forced assimilation, the transformation of Indians into farmers and urban low-wage laborers; and restrictions on religious and cultural expression (Nabokov 1991; Taylor 2009, 2014).

The first commercial trade between Indians and whites in North America probably occurred in the eleventh century, when Nova Scotia Indians traded gray fox and sable pelts for Viking knives and axes. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as timber, fur-bearing animals, and other natural resources were depleted in Europe, Europeans explored the Americas for raw materials. Consequently, the French, English, and Dutch competed with each other to trade with Indians. In exchange for trinkets, metal objects, liquor, and guns, Indians traded raw materials such as salt, tobacco, wood, fish, fur, and hides. However, as trade increased Indians found themselves competing with each other to extract natural resources and trade them as rapidly as possible (Nabokov 1991: 32–35; R. Thornton 1987: 11–12).

Despite the long history of commercial relations, whites and Indians had vastly different views and attitudes toward the land. Whites viewed Indian worship of animal spirits, rocks, and rainbows as pagan rituals to be purged. Hence, by the 1630s numerous Spanish missions were established in the South and thousands of Indians were Christianized; those who refused baptism were beaten or executed. In the Southwest, in what is now New Mexico, the Spanish established a feudal system (the encomienda) sustained by the perpetual servitude of the native inhabitants. When British soldiers took over the territory in the 1700s, they sold thousands of the Indian converts into slavery (Hannan 2001; Nabokov 1991: 50–52, 70; U.S. Commission on Human Rights 1992: 13–31).

Native Americans and whites had differing views of the land, and this led to many conflicts and the disenfranchisement of indigenous peoples. Indians viewed themselves as custodians and stewards of the earth, not as masters with dominion over it. By contrast, white settlers saw the land as a commercial product best suited for private ownership and exploitation; consequently, they cleared forests for cultivation and the development of towns, and private property was essential to their entrepreneurial ventures. Whites were also disdainful of the Indian custom of sharing undeveloped, common land. These differences formed the philosophical basis of the Euro-American seizure of Indian lands.

The justification for seizing land was articulated early on when the first governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, expressed a view that was typical of the European perspective on Indian land-use practices. He questioned the communal living arrangements and seasonal migration patterns of Native American tribes. He also articulated and rationalized a colonialist ideology of conquest that paved the way for the appropriation of Indian land and resources. In so doing, Winthrop distinguished between two rights to the land — a natural right and a civil right. He argued that Native Americans had a natural right to the land, but Europeans in settling and developing the land had a civil right to it. The civil rights, in his view, superseded the natural rights. In 1629, Winthrop argued that the earth was the "Lord's garden" and that the earth was given to the "sons of Adam to be tilled and improved by them" (Winthrop [1629] 1846: 272–276). Winthrop justified the taking of Indian lands by arguing:

That which is common to all is proper to none. This savage people ruleth over many lands without title or property; for they enclose no ground, neither have they cattle to maintain it, but remove their dwellings as they have occasion ... And why may not Christians have liberty to go and dwell among them in their waste lands and woods, (leaving them such places as they have manured for their corn,) ... there is more than enough for them and us. (Winthrop [1629] 1846: 275–276)

John Locke also promoted individual ownership of land and resources in his writings about natural and property rights. In 1689, Locke argued that humans had a right to self-preservation, therefore they had a right to food and drink to subsist on as provided by nature. He stated, "The earth and all that is therein is given to men for the support and comfort of their being." However, Lockemade an important argument about the appropriation of resources for individual use. He contended that though the bounties of the earth are given to humans in common, there must be a way to "appropriate them some way or other before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial, to any particular men" (Locke [1690] 1824: 144–145). Raising the question of native peoples' common use of resources, Locke argued that they had a natural right to resources, but postulated that once an individual added his or her labor to bring about the improvement or development of a particular resource, then that person gained individual rights to it and can claim it as individual property. Locke argued,

The fruit or venison which nourishes the wild Indian, who knows no enclosure, and is still a tenant in common, must be his ... Every man has a "property" in his own "person." This nobody has any right to but himself. The "labour" of his body and the "work" of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. (Locke [1690] 1824: 145–146)

Locke assumed that resources were bountiful; consequently, he argued that one can remove resources from the communal pool as long as one leaves adequate resources of good quality for others. That is, privatization should not result in the taking of something from someone else. In addition, one should not take excessive amounts, only what one can use without causing spoilage. However, since mineral resources did not rot, one could accumulate as much as one wanted. To avoid spoilage of resources that tended to degrade, one could sell them before they rotted (Locke [1690] 1824: 147–150). These arguments provided a rationale for privatization and trade in or aggregation of resources to generate wealth that had a strong influence on American thought.

Over the years, the courts were asked to rule on the primacy of agricultural and industrial land uses over communal land use and subsistence activities such as hunting and gathering. At first the courts were reluctant to decide. For instance, in Johnson v. McIntosh (1823), the court balked at taking sides. Chief Justice John Marshall argued, "We will not enter into the controversy, whether agriculturalists, merchants, and manufacturers, have a right, on abstract principles, to expel hunters from territory they possess, or to contract their limits. Conquest gives a title which the Courts of the conquerer cannot deny." However, five years later James Kent, an expert on American jurisprudence, argued decisively that the "cultivators of the soil" should be given priority over hunters vis-à-vis their property rights (J. Kent 1828: 312).


Although Indians were enslaved in the United States, enslavement wasn't the primary means by which tribes were suppressed. European settlers overpowered native tribes through warfare, the appropriation of land, treaties, and the control of natural resources. By contrast, blacks were subjugated primarily through forced migration from Africa and enslavement on American soil.

Historical records indicate that Africans had been visiting the American shores since the early 1500s and that African slaves were brought to Spanish Florida in the 1560s. The colonists who established St. Augustine in 1565 brought black slaves with them to help in the building of the settlement (Reynolds 1886: 20–105). However, blacks were not systematically enslaved until the seventeenth century. In 1619, about twenty Africans from Angola arrived in Virginia on a British pirate ship. The census shows that in 1623 there were twenty-two blacks in Virginia. Shortly thereafter blacks were enslaved in response to chronic labor shortages in the region (L. Bennett 1993: 5–12, 66–75, 84–90; D. B. Davis 2006: 124; Franklin and Moss 1994: 57; Parish 1989: 12–26; U.S. Census Bureau 1864: xiv). Roughly 12.5 million slaves were put on ships sailing from Africa to the Americas from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth; about 10.7 million Africans arrived alive in the Americas — the remaining 1.8 million died at sea. Estimates are that 389,000 of the Africans who survived the Transatlantic crossing were brought to the United States (Eltis and Richardson 2010: 4, 17–18; Sublette and Sublette 2016: 10–11; U.S. Census Bureau 1975: 1168).

The slave population in America increased rapidly. The 1790 census of southern states indicated that there were 650,000 slaves; the total population of the United States was 4 million at the time. By 1830 the number of slaves had increased to more than 2 million, even though the importation of slaves had been banned in 1808 (table 1.1). The slave population continued to rise. However, as opposition to slavery mounted, slaves were increasingly concentrated in fifteen slaveholding states. In the intercensal period between 1850 and 1860 the white population in slaveholding states increased by 27.3 percent, while the slave population in those states increased by 23.4 percent. In 1860, slaves accounted for almost 4 million of the 12.2 million people residing in the slaveholding states. There were also 251,000 free blacks living in those states (L. Bennett 1993: 101–102; Parish 1989: 12–26; U.S. Census Bureau 1864). Nationwide, slaves comprised roughly 31 percent of the labor force in 1800 and about 23 percent in 1860 (Lebergott 1966: 117–204; U.S. Census Bureau 1864, vii). Table 1.1 also shows that rate of growth of free blacks slowed dramatically over time, and only about 9 percent of the blacks living in America in 1860 were free.

Some slaves were highly skilled in a variety of trades. Though there is a tendency to view the slave as an unskilled plantation worker or a worker taught a trade by his or her master, some slaves brought skills developed in Africa with them on the slave ships. When the Europeans explored the African shores, they encountered people already skilled in mining and metalwork. West African craftsmen manufactured farm implements and handicrafts (Genovese 1972: 388–392). Most of the slaves brought to North America came from agrarian societies in West Africa, so they were experienced farmers and cattle producers (Blassingame 1979: 5). Rice cultivation was one such job: Africans skilled in growing the crop were brought to the Carolinas as slaves to cultivate it. Plantation owners were willing to pay high prices for slaves from Sierra Leone, Gambia, Liberia, Senegal, Ghana, and other rice-growing regions of Africa. By the 1690s the Carolinas became the largest supplier of rice in the world. As was the case with the Carolinas, Africans being transported to New Orleans took rice seedlings with them (Alpern 2013: 35–66; P. A. Bruce 1895: 331; Carney 2001; Littlefield 1991; Sublette and Sublette 2016: 170–171; Wood 1975: 36). Africans also brought indigo to the United States; sesame seeds were also brought for agricultural and medicinal uses (Bedigian 2013: 67–120; Sublette and Sublette 2016: 171).


Initially, Latinos were incorporated into the United States through military conquest as territory was appropriated from Mexico during the first half of the 1800s. The period of conquest began with the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto and ended with the 1853 Gadsden Purchase. In 1819, Mexico permitted foreigners to settle in the area now known as Texas. By 1830, a year after Mexico abolished slavery, about twenty thousand Anglos (mostly southerners) and about two thousand "freed" slaves (who had been forced to sign lifelong contracts with their former owners) lived in the territory. Soon a number of factors — feelings of racial superiority, anger over Mexico's decision to abolish slavery, defiance of the order to pledge allegiance to the Mexican government and convert to Catholicism (both of which were required of residents in Mexican territory), a rise in the number of European settlers pushing for independence from Mexico, and the failure of diplomatic efforts — resulted in the Texas Revolt of 1835–36 (Aguirre and Turner 1998: 143; Anna 1978; Archer 2003; Estrada et al. 1981: 103–131; Hamnett 1986).

The creation of the Republic and the granting of statehood in 1845 provided the pretext for further U.S. expansion into Mexican territory, thereby setting the stage for the Mexican-American War, which was fought between 1846 and 1848. Under the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war, Mexicans living in the Southwest were considered U.S. citizens. The treaty also guaranteed that Mexicans could retain their political liberty; whatever property they owned; and the Spanish language, as a recognized and legitimate language. However, by the end of the war Mexico lost about half of its territory, while the United States increased its territory by a third. The United States acquired more land in 1853 with the Gadsden Purchase, when Mexico sold over forty-five thousand square miles of territory in what is now Arizona and New Mexico to gain an infusion of cash to rebuild its war-ravaged economy. The United States purchased the land so it could build railroads to California (Archer 2003; Estrada et al. 1981: 103–131; Hamnett 1986).

Treaties notwithstanding, violations of the civil and property rights of Latinos were widespread. In Texas, the transfer of land (by fraud, intimidation, violence, and force) from Mexicans to Anglos began with the Revolt and accelerated after the war ended. Though Mexicans could defend their property rights in court, the financial costs were staggering, hence, it was not economically feasible for them to defend their land ownership rights through the legal system. Those who went to court ended up selling their land to pay their legal bills. As they took over land, Anglos adopted Mexican mining, ranching, and agricultural techniques. Consequently, whites in Texas expanded the cattle and sheep ranches as well as the cotton plantations, while Mexicans were relegated to the low-wage labor pool. Essentially, this resulted in a transfer of power that resulted in the ascendency of white power brokers and the downward mobility of Mexicans (Estrada et al. 1981: 103–131).


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix

Introduction  1

Part I. The Impetus for Change

1. Key Concepts Informing Early Conservation Thought  9

2. Wealthy People and the City: An Ambivalent Relationship  32

Part II. Manliness, Womanhood, Wealth, and Sport

3. Wealth, Manliness, and Exploring the Outdoors: Racial and Gender Dynamics  51

4. Wealth, Women, and Outdoor Pursuits  83

5. People of Color: Access to and Control of Resources  109

Part III. Wildlife Protection

6. Sport Hunting, Scarcity, and Wildlife Protection  161

7. Blaming Women, Immigrants, and Minorities for Bird Destruction  189

8. Challenging Wildlife Regulations and Understanding the Business-Conservation Connections  224

Part IV. Gender, Wealth, and Forest Conservation

9. Rural Beautification and Forest Conservation: Gender, Class, and Corporate Dynamics  257

10. Preservation, Conservation, and Business Interests Collide  290

11. National Park Preservation, Racism, and Business Relations  328

12. Nation Building, Racial Exclusion, and the Social Construction of Wildlands  350

Conclusion  383

Notes  399

References  407

Index  465

What People are Saying About This

David Naguib Pellow

"The Rise of the American Conservation Movement is a daunting, ambitious, and comprehensive presentation and analysis of U.S. environmental history like none other. Dorceta E. Taylor amasses a wealth of data, including rich and moving biographies of people across the racial, class, and gender spectrum who played critical roles in shaping environmental thought and action in this country. This book will inspire you to reconsider nearly everything you think you know about environmental history."

Rhea Suh

"Pulling together a quarter-century of groundbreaking work, Dorceta E. Taylor unearths, documents, and examines the disproportionate price that low-income communities and people of color pay for our environmental ills. She lays bare the failings of our government and the environmental community to adequately address the inequities at the heart of widespread environmental injustice. And she shows how we can confront those shortcomings, strengthen the environmental safety net, and improve the quality of our democracy by making this movement look, think, and sound more like the nation it serves."

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