". . . nature has ceased to be what it always had been -- what people needed protection from. Now nature -- tamed, endangered, mortal -- needs to be protected from people." (
, page 15)
". . . while an untold number of forms of biological and social life are being destroyed in a brief span of time, a device [the camera] is available to record what is disappearing." (
, page 16)
Trail of the Hide Hunters. Buffalo lying dead in snow, 1872.
National Archives No. 79-M-1B-4)
Rath & Wright's Buffalo Hide Yard in 1878, Showing 40,000 Buffalo Hides, Dodge City, Kansas
(1878) (National Archives No. 79-M-1B-3)
Photographers Susan Middleton and David Liittschwager
Photographer William H. Illingworth (1842-1893)
Custer With a Dead Grizzly (1874 Black Hills, South Dakota Expedition)
National Archives (1874) [77-HQ-264-847]; South Dakota State Historical Society
Photographers Susan Middleton and David Liittschwager
The American Bison is undoubtedly the best-known American example of a large mammal that has been exploited to the point of near-extinction. The buffalo, as it is more commonly called, used to number in the many millions prior to the taming of the West. It numbers were reduced to a barely viable remnant population through the systematic slaughter of the hide hunters, the U.S. Army, and through the "sport hunting" of travelers on the transcontinental railroad.
Trail of the Hide Hunters
, a photograph that is also labeled "buffalo lying dead in snow, 1872," uses a small number of bison carcasses to communicate the extent of the carnage. The most clearly depicted buffalo lies in the foreground, presenting a death gaze to the viewer, its front legs frozen in panicked stride, its horn curling in the direction of the other dead animals. Immediately above is one of the offending rifles responsible for the slaughter. To the left is a freshly skinned buffalo, its hide stretched across the nearby snow cover. Five additional fallen bison stretch toward the distant background, reflecting the same pattern seen in the first bison's curved horn. The hind quarters of a lone standing individual, dazed and confused, (presumably a bison -- it's hard to imagine it being a horse), suggest that the end is near for this archetypal symbol of the Great Plains. Flensing marks are apparent on the skinned buffalo's flanks, and its naked head lies just left of the second buffalo and the rifle. The vast expanse of the prairie extends to distant hills.
Rath & Wright's Buffalo Hide Yard in 1878
depicts the industrial destruction of the American Bison, with workmen riding in a horse drawn cart, standing beside scaffolding and skinning carcasses, and taking a break from the monotonous work while stretched out on a mound of hides. A medium-sized dog gets petted as the domesticated horses pull alongside. Those mammals that can be tamed serve man's domestic purposes. Those large animals that cannot be domesticated wind up as skins, bleached bones, steaks, and offal. The story takes on a more bittersweet tone in another early photograph,
Buffalo grazing near buffalo yards
(see supplementary photographs). By 1908, the American Bison had come under the protection of federal law, and the buffalo yards were disassembled, but the surviving individuals represented a pathetic remnant of the once vast herds.
In their remarkable portfolio of America's endangered plant and animal species,
, Susan Middleton and David Liittschwager photographed a Wood Bison (a rare subspecies of the American Bison) at Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada (photograph taken in 1993). Here, one sees the same shaggy bull-headedness, the same upcurving horns, even the parallel rib structure of the bison's torso -- here unskinned! This bison is filled with life, however, and its anterior coat of dense fur, its steeply angled hump, its longer legs, and its large near-spherical body are indications of superb adaptation for life in the northern boreal forest. It is a long path from decimation to scientific and aesthetic documentation.
Our First Grizzly, killed by Gen. Custer and Col. Ludlow
(1874) is a further representation of indiscriminate slaughter of North American wildlife, again at the hands of the United States Army. Custer is seen surrounded by the other members of his hunting party (a talent that did not serve him well in later life). Each member of the party has rifle in hand and is seated behind the felled Grizzly Bear. This photograph is carefully posed, with Custer framed against a field tent, a Crow Indian to his right, Colonel Ludlow to his right, and further assistance behind. The bear is propped up against a low rocky outcrop. Its splayed claws are mirrored in the elk antlers seen lying in the grass to the right. Some representations of this photograph are cropped to highlight Custer and his immediate surroundings. A more complete version of the picture shows numerous tents stretching along the far horizon, evidence of Custer's leading an enormous wagon train into the Black Hills of South Dakota. The message is clear in this photograph. The biological wealth of a young nation is available for the harvesting. Some would view this photograph as a representation of bravery, heroism, and good marksmanship. To others, it is symptomatic of the indiscriminate exploitation of a natural wonder of the living world.
Middleton and Liittschwager photographed a Grizzly Bear in 1991 at Olympic Game Farm in Washington State. This individual also is filled with life, as is particularly seen in its inquisitive eyes and the curious tilt of its head. The photographic image records a series of offset, concentric circles -- the bear's wet, dark nostril pad, its eyes, its anterior face, the full width of its head, the body that stretches away (and yet further away). Here, the paws are folded in the forward direction, suggesting that this bear has just lifted up from a contemplative dose. These claws are ready to protect, to defend, to harvest food or prepare a winter den. They convey message far different from that of Custer's trophy animal, whose forelimbs are splayed out to the side, and whose head is slumped in a death pose. Taken together, the Grizzly Bear photographs indicate America's evolving fascination with the largest predatory mammal in North America. Once widespread in its distribution throughout the West, the grizzly was decimated in numbers in proportion to the perception that as it was in direct competition with human interests. Today, the grizzly still lacks universal human good will, but it is better recognized as one of the most majestic of North American wilderness animals.
Buffalo Grazing Near Buffalo Yards (Wichita National Forest, Oklahoma, March 11, 1908) (National Archives No. 95-G-76223)