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Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West Paperback – September 1, 2009
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The near extinction of the buffalo herds of the Great Plains in the nineteenth century was the product of several factors, including the greed of buffalo hunters, the callousness of "sportsmen," and the desire of the federal government to deprive the Plains Indians of their food source. But the buffalo did (barely) survive, and one of their unlikely saviors was Grinnell, a Brooklyn-born, Yale-educated anthropologist and naturalist. Grinnell was entranced by the West. He took part in one of the last great buffalo hunts in 1872 and even accompanied Custer on his 1874 Black Hills expedition, which opened this sacred ground to the depredations of gold seekers. But as native westerner Punke shows, his deep interest in and love for the land and the people led him to become an ardent conservationist, forming a surprising alliance with hunters and fishermen that launched a stream of environmental initiatives. As seen by Punke, Grinnell was a major figure in reimagining our wilderness areas as places to be preserved rather than to be "tamed," exploited, and ravaged. Freeman, Jay
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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As with most other Americans, I knew that by 1900 our buffalo herd had diminished to a few dozen animals in Yellowstone. In college, I remember reading about people taking trains out west, and almost every open window being occupied by a man shooting out the window at the herds just because "they were there." But Punke's "Last Stand" brings the entire story of the terrible slaughter and the eventual rebuilding of the herd into sharp focus.
Robert Bird Grinnell was an amazing person. Well educated and with extraordinary prescience as to the need to protect our resources, he fought long and hard not only for the preservation of the herd, but also for the establishment of Yellowstone as a place that belonged to the "American people and their descendants."
During this period in history, the idea of any type of "conservation" was anathema. America was a land rich in resources and they were meant to be exploited. From the robber barons of the late 1800's to the poachers who sometimes killed the buffaloes and took nothing more than their tongues, it was a time of self-indulgence and rape of the land. Grinnell fought with everything he was worth to get it through the mindset of his countrymen that we needed to preserve our lands and resources.
I knew that Theodore Roosevelt was one of the founders of the Boone and Crockett Club, but I had no idea that Grinnell was also one of them. Neither did I know that while Congress created Yellowstone National Park and passed laws making it illegal to poach game or fish from within it's borders it failed to pass any laws providing penalties for doing so. Money for rangers to patrol the park was minimal. Consequently, buffaloes were poached to the point of near extinction. To ever imagine something like this happening in this day and age is impossible. We take our national and state parks and all our resources for granted. But we would not have any of this bounty and beauty if it had not been for people like Grinnell and Roosevelt, who realized that without legal protection, the rapaciousness of the railroad barons, who wanted the buffaloes gone so they wouldn't interfere with their rail lines, and the poachers who cared nothing for conservation but only with lining their own pockets would destroy not only the buffalo herd but anything that stood in their path.
Included in this book was the plight of the Native Americans, and the story of their eventual decline and consignment to reservations, and how their demise was so tied to the buffalo. Also explained was the terrible indifference of Congress to either animal or Indian when its members pockets were lined by the bribes and influence of those with money.
I would definitely recommend this book. It's not only the story of Robert Bird Grinnell and his laudable efforts to bring conservation into the American psyche, but it's also the story of America's growing pains in so many other ways.
The author's style of writing was wonderful. Flowing, articulate sentences, with well-structured chapters and a wealth of background information. I had to look up the author as I'd never heard of him before, and I was also hoping that perhaps he'd written more books about the American West as I would surely like to read them. I don't know if his novel, "The Revenant," based on the true story of Hugh Glass would be as interesting a read, but I will surely give it a try.
Grinnell was an amazingly gifted and talented writer, but this book is only part of his story. Not detailed in the book is Grinnell's years of correspondence with many former Indian warriors, including George Bent, son of fur trader William Ben and his Cheyenne wife and survivor of the Sand Creek Massacre. While John Wesley Powell's Bureau of Ethnology concentrated on collecting physical artifacts, photographs, and Indian languages, Grinnell was documenting late 19th century Native Americans' views of their own oral history, culture, and wars against encroaching American civilization. Today it would be hard to say which of these efforts are more valuable to the study of the history of the American West.