I was rummaging around the other day in my office and came across this old letter to the editor of the journal Western Field and Stream (one of the precursors to the modern Field and Stream) from October 1897:
Objects to a Tax
Editor Western Field and Stream:
I notice a strong tendency in this land of the free to restrict the freedom of “the hunter,” and get the working class entirely shut out from the freedom of the woods, fields and hills given us by our Creator. Pay $25 or twenty-five cents to hunt in any State in the “Free United States?” I shall hunt in any State I choose and pay no tax. My father died in Libby Prison to free some of our countrymen. The farmers will charge for the privilege of hunting on their land, and the poor folks will poach on the game preserves as they do in other countries. My Janesville, Wis., paper says: “No poor man can pay $30 for the privilege of shooting deer in this State, and they buy nothing here, and camp out, so we make nothing off them. But the rich who can pay the tax will spend $30,000 in the State.” During the open season I will hunt deer in Wisconsin and pay no tax. I am poor, and will take my eating stuff along. If arrested I will serve my time. After released I shall devote my life to exterminating the game of any hog State that restricts the freedom of the poor. Now this is the way I feel about it. And the same sentiment will be raised in others, and the flood will come. I believe no man should be stopped from hunting where he chooses during the open season. The deed for every farm should read: “After Sept 1st, each year, this land is thrown open for hunting until season closes. Actual damage to owners’ property to be paid by hunter at once. No game preserves or passes allowed to private parties or companies.”
Horace A. Milton
Now we might make fun of Milton, say he’s a precursor to the anti-environmental right-wing gun nuts of today, etc. But it’s a more complicated source that that. First, the establishment of hunting laws was very much about keeping poor people from hunting game for food. The elites like Theodore Roosevelt pushing these laws were quite open about that. As Louis Warren and other historians have shown, early hunting laws were about exclusion and punishment, saving game for elite whites to hunt in a proper sporting manner while ensuring that poor whites, blacks, Hispanos in New Mexico, and Native Americans could not have access to that game. Law enforcement backed up this proposition. Given the widespread poverty of the Gilded Age, these laws literally took food out of people’s mouths.
But if hunting laws were about exclusion, they were also necessary to save the wildlife of the United States. Given the number of deer in the U.S. today, it’s hard to believe they were being driven close to extinction in many parts of the nation by the 1890s, but it is true. Without these laws coming at the time they did, many large mammal species would probably be extinct today, including deer, elk, black bear, and bison. So it’s complicated.
It’s also really interesting to me that Milton chose to accept hunting seasons while rejecting hunting licenses. I don’t have too much insight on this, but he did yield to state authority on certain types of hunting regulations while completely rejecting it on others. And he very much placed his beliefs in the same context of a lot of Americans at the time on both sides of the conservation debate, which was fearing the U.S. would become like Europe with large private hunting reserves that locked most of the nation’s citizens out of the country’s natural resources. For hunters, this was outrageous because three centuries of American settlement had been predicated on open exploitation of nature and for conservationists, a democratic state-operated hunting system at least preserved the possibility of many citizens hunting, as opposed to the aristocratic system that prevailed in Europe and that many Gilded Age capitalists were trying to emulate with their purchase of large tracts of land.