How Savage Were Those Savages? Part 1 of 2.

Hunkpapa Sioux Chief Sitting Bull in 1885

Hunkpapa Sioux Chief Sitting Bull in 1885 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It took the United States only a quarter-century to populate and settle the vast wilderness that we acquired with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.  Over the period from the opening of the Oregon Trail in 1840 until the joining of the intercontinental railroad in 1869, more than 500,000 people who had previously lived east of the Missouri River either settled between the Missouri and the Rockies or journeyed on to the West Coast. Twenty years after the railroad stretches from coast to coast, the US Census in 1890 declared that the frontier was “closed.”

One of the basic themes of this westward migration and settlement was the idea that as white Americans moved west, they turned the wilderness into civilization and, in the process, civilized all those ‘savages’ who otherwise would have continued living in an uncivilized state.  Much of the notion that we were civilized, they were not, grew out of the fact that the Indians weren’t Christians and hence, by definition, couldn’t be considered as equals to whites in any respect.  But the notion of Indians as savages wasn’t so much an extension of the racism that colored (pardon the pun) the white view of all non-white folks.  Rather, it reflected an absence among Indians of the basic societal relations on which our civilization, both then and now still rests.

What I am referring to is the whole notion of property.  It’s not clear exactly when Western civilization “invented” private property.  We see bits and pieces of private ownership in the earliest Western law codes, but when the Romans marched through Gaul, for example, they encountered many indigenous populations for whom all land was held in common and the notions of private ownership didn’t yet exist.  And even when early monarchs began giving out land grants to reward vassals for fighting on their behalf, the ownership of these properties were tied more to family lineage and occupancy than to any modern notion that allowed the land to be bought and sold.

It was only after the Norman conquest of England that a legal system began to emerge which, at its core, was based on defining and protecting property as something whose value was determined when it was bought and sold.  And it was this legal system, known as the common law, that was brought to the New World and established here by the colonists at Plymouth Bay.  And it was this same legal system that underlay the political system adopted first by the colonies, then by the states, and then by the territories that were formed as we moved west.

There was only one problem.  The Indians had no system of private property.  And because they didn’t have private property, they couldn’t develop a political system that in any way, shape or form, was similar to what existed in what was then called the united States.  In 1868 more than 30 Sioux chiefs, including Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, signed a treaty at Fort Laramie which gave the Indians control in perpetuity for an immense territory which today would have covered most of the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming and a piece of Nebraska.  But what we didn’t understand was that the 30-odd chiefs who put their marks on the document were signing only for themselves.  There wasn’t a single brave in the camps of any of those chiefs who were bound to follow what the treaty said.  And many wouldn’t follow it.  And the treaty was a dead letter within 6 months.

We fought and won the Plains Indian Wars after 1868 because we believed the Indians were ‘savages’ and needed to be taught the white man’s ways.  What else could we do when faced with a population that wasn’t ready to behave?

Based on my book, Hunters in the Wilderness.  Volume II in the series, Guns in America, to be published in December.


Wilderness Versus Progress: Is There Really A Conflict?

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (left) and n...

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (left) and nature preservationist John Muir, founder of the , on Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park. In the background: Upper and lower Yosemite Falls. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first argument about preserving versus developing wilderness was the fight over the Hetchy-Hetchy Reservoir in California’s Yosemite Park which erupted in 1908. Opposition to the development of a new water system for San Francisco was led by the Sierra Club, which had been founded by John Muir in 1892.

Muir was originally an easterner who was closely associated with Roosevelt and other early conservationists, but he was not a hunter and his motivation to preserve natural spaces did not grow out of a desire to conserve animal habitat so much as to preserve wilderness areas. But as the country continued to grow and the space between the Missouri River and the West Coast was filled in, the issue of wilderness versus development could not remain a back-room debate for the simple reason that there was too much at stake.  Once railroad lines stretched not only from coast to coast but throughout the interior itself, the resources of the frontier zones – crops, animals, timber – were simply too abundant and could be moved to market too cheaply to resist exploitation by commercial interests on both coasts.

The early conservationists, including Roosevelt, acknowledged the inherent conflict between maintaining natural space on the one hand and retarding economic growth on the other.  But as the conservation movement morphed into environmentalism, a wedge was driven between the two movements that claimed management responsibility for as-yet undeveloped space, a wedge based on one question: what should be the role of government in managing the natural patrimony?

For hunters/conservationists, government’s role was to be limited to enforcing rules that regulated the relationship of hunters to wild game: giving hunters access to hunting areas, restricting the hunt to periods that would allow the natural migration and reproduction of species.  Environmentalists, on the other hand, wanted government regulation to cover the entire natural patrimony; not to control the behavior of hunters who otherwise might threaten wildlife, but to control the behavior of developers who otherwise might threaten the entire environment.

What we have ended up with is the notion that wilderness preservation versus economic development are inextricably opposed; that you either wind up with one or the other.  Every development initiative is a threat to nature, every preservation plan is an effort to derail economic development.  The fight over the Keystone pipeline is the argument in its current form.

The origins of the fight go back to 1890 when the Census declared the wilderness to be closed.  But the United States was the only country in the entire world that industrialized and closed its frontier at the same time.  In Europe, the wilderness disappeared a thousand years before the Industrial Revolution began.  In America we were laying railroad track and slaughtering buffalo at the same time.

The truth is that our extraordinary economic development took place not as a conflict with nature, but because we were able to tap the abundant resources of nature for the first time.  Urban centers that appeared in Europe during the 19th century competed for building materials that had to be expensively extracted and shipped from distances far and wide; Chicago was built from wood that floated down from Wisconsin.

Ten years after we closed our frontier the output of our national economy surpassed the combined production of all the other industrialized economies combined.  The resources that fueled American economic development were so cheap that re-investment and further growth could occur at three or four times the rate experienced in other industrializing zones.  The greatest irony is that the self-same conservationists, like Roosevelt and Grinnell, who mourned the disappearance of wilderness came from the elite class whose economic fortunes derived from the resources extracted from the wilderness itself.

This is the 3rd and final summary of our fourthcoming book on hunting and conservation to be published by the end of the year.

American conservationist John Muir (1838-1914)

American conservationist John Muir (1838-1914) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)