May 7, 2007 | By:

#9 Uncle Around the Campfire; The Great Barbeque

The nineteenth century in America was an unprecedented and senseless slaughter of wildlife—the Great Barbeque, as it has been called. The wanton killing of the buffalo and other wildeors can be a cold, long- ago fact of history.  By seeing it tied to my family’s tromp across the continent, it’s as though the bloody skinning knife and steaming carcass are right before me.

Of course, the butchery began before 1800. Armed with the Myth of Superabundance and Cotton Mather’s wilderness-conquering theology, early colonists scalped the land as they scalped the Indians.  All too soon, the “limitless” resources began to run out.  Poorly managed farms lost their fertility.  Overhunting of deer was so great that “in Massachusetts a closed season was enforced by 1696, and by 1718 a closed term of three full years became necessary.”  Ducks and geese fared no better: “Massachusetts, in 1710, prohibited the use of boats, sailing canoes, and camouflaged canoes in the pursuit of waterfowl,” writes Peter Matthiessen.

Never mind.  There was more just over yonder.  Westward ho!

By the 1740s, my mother’s forebears, the Dodsons, had left the Virginia tidewater where they had been for most of a century and had moved to the edge of settlement in southwestern Virginia.  Before 1796, they were clearing virgin forest in central Tennessee.  My father’s family, Tylers, Foremans, and Shieldses, were on the move, too—first to the Shenandoah Valley and then following Daniel Boone over the Wilderness Road into Kentucky after the Revolutionary War.

They were just in time.  Elk were fast disappearing east of the Appalachians and the last bison east of the Appalachians was killed in 1801 at Buffalo Cross Roads in Pennsylvania.  West of the Appalachians all was well, however.  Boone remembered Kentucky where he “found everywhere abundance of wild beasts of all sorts, through the vast forests.  The buffalo were more frequent than I have seen cattle in the settlements.”

Beaver had been largely trapped out of New England as early as 1650.  By the late 1830s, only a few individuals remained in the most remote corners of the West after the mountain-man trapping frenzy. This virtual extermination of one of the most abundant and widespread mammals of North America (biologists estimate there were 60 million beavers in North America before Columbus5) has had far reaching ecological consequences.  Beavers are a keystone species, which means they “enrich ecosystem function in a unique and significant manner through their activities, and the effect is disproportionate to their numerical abundance.”  The beaver, through its dam building, had shaped much of North America.  Dozens of other species depended on the beaver-crafted landscape.  With the rapid removal of the big rodents, Americans and Canadians grossly changed the face of the land.  Wetlands dried up, many species lost much of their habitats, stream dynamics changed, floods increased, water flows decreased during dry seasons; no one has fully documented all the ecological impacts caused by the early loss of the beaver.

Click the attachment below to read the entire “Campfire.”


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