Last Stand by Michael Punke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A story of greed, survival, and redemption in America. Punke tells us how mankind can have a devastating impact on the environment and how one man helped turn it around.
This is more than just a book about how American thirst for land nearly destroyed the buffalo and how one man led a cause to halt it. Once again I am reminded of the way movies and cartoonish history books have shaped our views of the past and make everything seem so clean and noble. Most Americans likely believe that mere rugged individuals set out and tamed the wild west in a quest for adventure. Yee haw..the end. That sentiment is partly true but it is not even close to the whole story. Oftentimes history and its cast of characters can be a paradox.
In the late 19th century the West was tamed, or plundered if you will, in part by the robber barons and railroad men of the Eastern US who held great influence over Congress. The frontier men doing the dirty work were generally Army deserters, fugitives, and men who could make more money poaching and panning for gold vs Army life, mining or ranching. Both groups of people knew that protection laws and Native American treaties barely had a penalty and rarely enforced if they could be enforced at all. The robber barons made sure of that via their lobbyists in Washington during the scandalous Grant Administration. I find it ironic that the US Army was sent to patrol Yellowstone and prevent the further demise of the buffalo when just a few years earlier they were the very ones sent to help wipe out the Plains Indian in part by destroying the buffalo which they relied on for almost every need. That policy forced American Indians into the reservation system.
George Bird Grinnell witnessed this all first hand. He was born into a privileged class and could have been another robber baron but instead became a naturalist, author, and editor of Forest and Stream, the leading natural history magazine in the US during a time of wanton greed and reckless over-hunting. Many of the characters such as Grinnell, Teddy Roosevelt and William Tecumseh Sherman, like Daniel Boone before them, would come to lament the passing of the wild frontier and the near extinction of the buffalo, something which they helped cause.
Like all history, context is important and it is difficult to judge the zeitgeist of the past by today's standards but there were people then who found some of these policies and ideas unjust and worked to change conventional wisdom and in some cases redeemed themselves from a deplorable past. To me people such as this are the true heroes of history yet Grinnell, who later founded the Audubon Society, savior of Yellowstone and the buffalo, among other great successes, was a man the NY Times called in 1938 the "father of American conservationism" remains an obscure historical figure.
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