I have recently finished reading a book on hunting in America that may be of interest to you. It is Hunting and the American Imagination, by Daniel Justin Herman, Assistant Professor of History at Central Washington University. It is a 2001 publication of The Smithsonian Institution Press. It is a cultural history of three hundred years of hunting in America, from the establishment of Plymouth Colony to the age of Theodore Roosevelt. It explores why Americans hunted (subsistence early, sport and as an iconic American activity later). The book traces the popularity or unpopularity of hunting during this time span, and how it affected the images that Americans have had of themselves throughout our history.
Early on, the yeoman farmer was the quintessential American figure, along with the American Indian hunter as his opposite; one seen as the cultivator of the land and therefore the advancer of civilization, the other the uncivilized wild, free spirit of woods and prairies and a law unto himself. This cultural juxtaposition did not last long, for as the frontier expanded the white hunter and frontiersman became himself an American icon, a mirror image of the Indian, one the “Native American,” the other the new “American Native.” It was out of this rather strange juxtaposition that the historical figures Daniel Boone, Davy Crocket, Lewis and Clark, and the western Mountain Men became American icons, along with all the great Indian figures of our history, such as Sitting Bull, Cochise and Crazy Horse (the author does not mention these names, I add them for clarity). As the frontier began to close, the hunter, white and Indian, become an image of freedom, self-reliance and manliness in an increasingly controlled, feminized and urbanized society. The socially constrained men (and sometimes women) of the Gilded Age attempted to emulate the frontier white hunter and the Indian through sport hunting. The obvious excesses of that era of sport hunting and the drastic decline in wildlife it caused helped to establish the conservation movement of Nineteenth and Twentieth Century America, which sought to preserve not only the continent’s wildlife but hunting and its frontier spirit. Many of our great natural history museums were also established through these same efforts. We are now a century past Teddy Roosevelt and the Gilded Age, but the frontier and its hunters retain a grip on the American imagination and still affect our politics, environment and our sense of self as Americans.
Hunting and the American Imagination is very interesting and well written, but be forewarned that it is heavy going at times as it is more of a textbook than a popular history. I did find it very worthwhile, and it will be a useful reference book on my library shelves.