The Cult of Hunting and Its Timely Demise

On August 7th, 1874, George Armstrong Custer shot a grizzly bear. At the time, he was trespassing in the Black Hills of the Great Sioux Nation along with more than 1000 heavily-armed soldiers and sundry civilians. To be accurate, he shot the bear as part of a fusillade delivered by two other soldiers and an Arikara scout. According to published accounts, the bear was innocently browsing on berries in a small draw prior to the ambush. Custer’s verdict on the incident was delivered in a letter to his wife: “I have reached the hunter’s highest round of fame…I have killed my Grizzly.”

During the next 50 years, Europeans driven by a similar lust for blood and glory eradicated grizzly bears from over 90% of the places they once lived in the contiguous United States. Thirty years after that, grizzlies were gone except for in remote enclaves centered on Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. This epoch coincided with a slaughter perpetrated by Europeans armed with guns, disease, and poison that drove most wildlife bigger than mice and voles nearly to extinction, perpetrated genocide against Indians, and relegated any who survived to Reservations.

The ethos informing this vendetta against nature and natives was one of violence and death, but under the putatively ennobling rhetoric of Manifest Destiny—of Taming the Wilderness to clear the way for White Anglo-Saxon Civilization. Those who styled themselves as hunters were at the heart of this enterprise. Thus it was…

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