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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 181

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This is the grave of George Bird Grinnell.

Born in 1849 to an old money New York elite family, Grinnell graduated from Yale in 1870. He was part of a first generation of easterners fascinated by a disappearing American West and he would make his career around this. After graduation, he was able to follow the Pawnee on their last great bison hunt in 1872 and accompanied George Armstrong Custer on his 1874 Black Hills expedition as a naturalist. He was invited to come along on Custer’s 1876 campaign as well. Luckily for him, he decided against it. Like a lot of the young elite men who would become Progressives focusing on natural resources a few years later, Grinnell was both really into hunting and disturbed by the rapid decline of American big mammals. He documented the poaching happening in the early years of Yellowstone National Park, which helped lead the military to occupy it, both to stop white poaching but also to stop Native Americans from hunting in what had been core hunting grounds for thousands of years.

Grinnell made his mark in the area that is today Glacier National Park. He took several hunting trips there in the 1880s and 1890s and fell in love with the place. In fact, he did more than anyone else to facilitate the founding of Glacier National Park and there is a Grinnell Glacier (for a few more years anyway) and a Grinnell Lake. In fact, I hiked up to Grinnell Lake this summer, which included walking around a corner of the trail and running smack into a grizzly bear (well, 15 feet away) who thankfully was more interesting in eating berries than historians. That was interesting.

In 1887, Grinnell and like minded eastern elite hunter/conservationists founded the Boone and Crockett Club to promote their causes. They took over the journal Forest and Stream to spread their ideas and share hunting stories. Grinell was already editor of the journal and would remain so until 1911. They then used their influence and power to push for hunting and conservation laws at the local and state level. These laws were critical in saving not only the bison and elk, but even deer, which were locally extirpated and in very bad shape through most of the country by 1900. These laws were also openly elitist. They took a common resource and made it so that only elites could participate. This was through creating hunting licenses, lotteries, fees, and seasons, banning the hunting of females in some cases. Through this, particularly in Forest and Stream, Grinnell and others foisted an ideal of elite masculinity upon the American public, creating hunting regulations to fit their own ideas of fairness and manly behavior, which excluded the “pothunter,” who was seen as degraded, usually white trash, black, or a southern or eastern European immigrant. This all led to national legislation, including the Lacey Act of 1900, banning the trade of illegally harvested animal or plant products. This law still exists today and Gibson Guitar was busted some years ago for importing illegal woods from India for high-end guitars. It also led to the Migratory Bird Treaty with the British, leading to much greater protection for our migrating feathered friends that were being harvested to stuff and put on women’s hats, among other ignoble ends.

To promote both conservation and his ideals of masculinity, Grinnell wrote a series of children’s books about a young man named Jack. Whether he is based directly on Theodore Roosevelt or not is something I have never been able to confirm, but it basically is TR: a weak, enervated, sickly eastern elite boy goes to the West and becomes a Real Man. Luckily for young Jack, his ranch manager has very little else to do other than to take the young boy on hunting trips. The manager teaches him proper, vigorous masculine behavior and of course they shoot everything they see. Jack comes back from his western adventures not only healthy, but ready to live a masculine life and lead the white race to greater splendors. There are 6 or 7 of them. I read them all when I wrote my master’s thesis on hunting, masculinity, and conservation, and they are genuinely not terrible as ridiculous century-old boys’ books go.

And like basically everything else in American history, all of this was racialized. Grinnell’s other major contribution was helping to found the field of anthropology. Because of his interest in the Glacier area, he became deeply knowledgeable about the Blackfeet, which Glacier National Park displaced. He, like many elite white men dedicated to ideas of scientific racism, believed that Native Americans were going extinct. Because Roosevelt, Grinnell, and so many others romanticized Native Americans as noble savages, they felt their cultures were worth saving before they were eradicated. So Grinnell collected a lot of Blackfeet material culture. He also wrote a good deal on the Cheyenne.

George Bird Grinnell died in 1938. He is buried in Woodland Cemetery, Bronx, New York.

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