We rarely review coffee-table books, but Richard C. Rattenbury’s “Hunting the American West: The Pursuit of Big Game for Life, Profit, and Sport, 1800–1900” is unusually poignant. Well-researched and gorgeously illustrated, this hefty (nearly 6-pound) Boone and Crockett Club compendium is a must-read for both big game advocates and students of frontier Americana. The text provides essential base information for those interested in pristine wildlife conditions, and the book’s collection of woodcut engravings, stereographs, daguerreotypes, lithographs, watercolors and oils is a veritable Western art gallery.
The author, a professional historian, is the curator of history at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Okla. His expertise comes across on each of the book’s 396 pages. The bibliography and index are invaluable references in themselves.
Mostly the book covers the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain regions of the United States, but Arizona is included if not featured in the nine chapters that follow the Introduction, each one presenting a special facet of American history. Some, such as “The Object of the Chase” (on big game) and “The Subsistence Hunters,” are highly informative, while “The Arms of the Chase” and “The Image of the Chase: Artists, Illustrators, Photographers, and Engravers” will provide hours of fascination for gun collectors and students of Western memorabilia. Certain chapters, especially “The Market Hunters,” communicate more sadness than nostalgia. The two chapters on sport hunting are less sanguine, and carry the reader back to a wondrous time that never again can be realized.
The book’s generous use of firsthand observations and quotes brings the West’s personalities to life, lending a sense of authenticity to the narrative. Nor are all of the individuals famous and familiar. We all know of Meriwether Lewis and John C. Fremont, but what about J. Parker Whitney, David L. Brown or Grace Gallatin Seton? Each has a story to tell, and their descriptions of the land and the game they hunted can never be duplicated. Partially for this reason, the last chapter, “Hunter-Naturalists,” was my favorite. Not only was the plea of these early conservationists listened to, but their efforts were enough to preserve a modicum of what existed, before it was too late.
This book is not for everybody. Some will find the seemingly endless array of dead animals and posed photos excessive and depressing. They should. No other country, with the possible exception of the Boer regions of South Africa, was so prolifically destructive of its wildlife heritage. That salvation through wildlife conservation came so late, and came about through the efforts of so few, continues to be disturbing. One wonders what the outcome would have been if Theodore Roosevelt had not become president. Possessed of a magnificent conservation conscience, this amazing amalgam of hunter, conservationist, author and political leader is the only person who could have salvaged our greatest natural heritage. That he did, as the book’s final pages make clear, will forever enshrine him as America’s “Great Redeemer.”
–David E. Brown
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