Actors and the Inevitable Destruction

There might be several ways to analyze Isenberg’s work, but right away I thought of recent class discussions. Who are the actors? Was the destruction of the bison inevitable? Through determining the actors, we can determine if the relationships among the actors led to an unavoidable event. I propose four actors in this scenario: the bison, horses, the environment, and humans (those whom Isenberg calls “Euroamericans” and “Indians”). On a side note, I have an issue with using these terms. I think Isenberg needs to use either “Europeans” or “Americans”. However, he might have found it difficult to differentiate between the two during the period he talks about. I think “natives” is much more appropriate term to be used than “Indians”; therefore, I will use “natives” throughout my post.

I think the destruction of the bison was inevitable. Europeans brought the horse. As Chelsea said in her post last week, “It is within human nature to value tradition.” Horses and other important necessities for life in the Old World were beneficial to Europeans and their existence in the New World. Old World morals were not the only traditions to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Sadly, the bison was at the bottom of the chain (even below the native).The bison had terrible relationships not only with humans but also with horses and the environment. Since many natives depended on the bison for survival, an invention or improvement of their hunting system seemed beneficial to them.

Europeans brought the horse and passed the use of the horse down to natives. With the introduction of the horse arose competition between the horse and the bison. These two competed for water and food. In way, the competition between the horse and the bison is much like the competition between natives and Europeans (I even find myself being conflicted on which term to use). All of these relationships were then exacerbated by the environment. I challenge many of you to think about this last section of my post.

Who are the actors in The Destruction of the Bison?

When approaching the topic of the decimation of the bison, who are the primary actors? In class, we always discuss who the players are in the environmental histories we read. According to Andrew C. Isenberg in The Destruction of the Bison, more than one actor played a role in facilitating the death of the bison from the western plains from 1750-1920. Isenberg argues that the actions of mankind in the West, although often considered the sole cause, were not the only causes for the demise of the bison. Isenberg instead argues that the volatility and instability of the environment as well as the invasion of the Euroamericans and activities of the nomadic Plains Indians all contributed to the overhunting of one of the West’s most symbolic creatures.

Drought and the natural environment of the Plains contributed to the changing population of the bison. Fires, drowning, wolves, and competition from other grazers also effected the bison depending heavily on the grasslands of the Plains. As a result, certain periods of time allowed for an imbalance between the mortality of bison and their natural increase, therefore causing even more destruction when hunting entered the picture. Isenberg ultimately rejects the assumption that “nature is essentially stable and orderly.” (11) Instead, he asserts, “The western plains… were prone to frequent and pronounced economic instability.” (11).  It appears that the author of this environmental history awards mankind some slack despite the harsh reputation humans get when it comes to negatively impacting the environment.

Using traveler journals, precipitation records, government documents, and Indian accounts, Isenberg attempts to place mankind within a natural cycle of environmental and natural occurrences. My younger years of schooling included lessons on how the white man invaded the Plains and hunted the bison to extinction for economic exploitation and for sport. I learned that the white man ultimately destroyed the lifestyles of the dependent Plains Indians in the surrounding area. Never before have I read a history that placed some of the blame on the Native Americans themselves. Isenberg does, however, acknowledge the destruction of the western native societies along with the bison, “The trade in bison robes was destructive both to the herds and to the nomadic societies.” (107)

Isenberg argues that the culture of the nomadic Plains Indians, then introduced to the horse and able to expand their distance and food options, significantly effected the bison as well as the supported the economic desires of the Indians. Euroamericans, on the other hand, sought bison herds for their fur. The consumerism and economic exploits of the Euroamericans combined with the already high dependence of Plains Indians on bison as a main food source contributed to the bison’s demise.

After reading Isenberg’s work and his inclusiveness of the environment in his discussion, I agree with Sean’s statement: “human’s influence on the harming of natural environments is in itself natural, and a consequence of the advancement of human societies.” I believe that mankind interacts with the environment similarly to other animals when they extract from the environment to survive. However, I think mankind can learn from the destruction of the bison. There exists a certain balance that must be maintained between utilizing the availability of resources for practical and economic reasons and their general availability and actual population. Not only must we remain conscious of this balance to ensure the protection of our environment, but also to ensure the survival of the human race.

Of Bison and Men (And Environmental Factors)

Understanding the narrative components of Andrew C. Isenberg’s The Destruction of the Bison helps me understand the book better. This story is a tragedy, chronicling the downfalls of several characters: the bison, the environment, the Indians, and the Euroamerican hunters. The bison’s story is, perhaps, the saddest. At the beginning of the story, the free and wild bison covered the plains. At the end, they suffered two fates. First, they “had become an imprisoned species only by the constant intervention of human keepers” (165) and then almost all the American bison ended up domesticated, privately-owned, and raised only to be killed for meat (189).

Looking from beginning to end–without the all-important middle–the losers in this story were also the environment, the Indians, and the Euroamerican hunters. The environment suffered as the destruction of the bison upset the diversity of life on the plains environment, causing invasive plant life to overtake the places where the shortgrass used to grow. The Indians suffered along with the bison as Euroamericans sought to control the Indians by cutting off their their only trading asset–the bison. Even the Euroamerican hunters suffered as they failed to receive the bulk of the payment and Euroamerican merchants and industrialists accumulated wealth.

Isenberg’s view, however, is that the middle of the story is the most important part. In the middle, the story gets complicated (because humans, human society, and ecology are all complicated and dynamic): the destruction of the bison “was a consequence of the encounter between Indians and Euroamericans in the Great Plains — an encounter in which the interactions of indigenous and Euroamerican ecologies were as significant as, and inextricably bound to, economic and cultural exchanges” (12). Isenberg spends the rest of the book working out those inextricable exchanges, elucidating the ways in which these exchanges reciprocally influenced each other.

A compelling part of Isenberg’s argument is where he places humans in the story. He emphasizes the dangers of holding the view of the dualism of humans and nature (the insistence “that whereas human culture is dynamic, nature is essentially stable” [195]). But Isenberg does not discount human influence. He explains human societies as “embedded in the complex ecology of the region” (194). Humans, in Isenberg’s view, have agency, but human decisions are influenced by (and cannot be understood apart from) the complex workings of their physical and social environments.

I agree with Ian’s assessment of the definition of nature in the book. He writes, “By noting how the buffalo were actually devastated by other factors outside of human hand, it offers a perception that humanity’s alteration of the environment is a natural progression of the world.” Similarly, a passage in Isenberg confirms this view: “A bison hide did not cease to be part of nature when it had been removed from the carcass and sold. The hide continued to flow through the environment like all energy and material” (196). Though procuring a hide also meant killing the animal, Isenberg glazes over that to show that a hide’s movement from an animal to a vat of lime to a leather belt in a machine was a natural movement.

Supplementary Text Book Review – Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America

Jennifer L. Anderson’s book Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America focuses on the rise and fall of mahogany as a luxury commodity in North America from the mid-eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century, a period that came to be called the “Age of Mahogany.”[1]In establishing the framework of her book, Anderson states the history of mahogany can only be understood by assessing the interaction between the nature from which mahogany came and the humans responsible for its eventual commoditization. With this in mind, Anderson argues that the history of the production of mahogany is one of creative and destructive transformation, and that this production came at a high price.[2]

Anderson introduces mahogany as a one in a long list of Caribbean commodities, but claims that certain characteristics of mahogany made it distinctive from the history of other luxury goods that emerged in the West Indies. First, mahogany was durable and scarce. This meant that unlike consumable goods such as sugar and coffee, this resource could endure several generations of use and, if destroyed, could not easily be replaced. Additionally, mahogany had already derived significant value as a war material in both Spain and Britain. Navies from these two nations realized that mahogany did not rot and was shatterproof, and they had been using it on ships long before the wood became an aristocratic consumer demand.[3] Additionally, in this section Anderson demonstrates the effects that mahogany had on international relations. The English and Spanish often sent privateers to steal the mahogany each was sending back to Europe.[4]

These claims about the initial popularity of mahogany are used to establish the foundation of Anderson’s first chapter, one of the most important in her book. While exploring the roots of mahogany’s value, Anderson also uses this chapter to argue that mahogany’s transition into a luxury good hinged upon four factors: increased access to tropical commodities, decreased prices for mahogany, active engagement of merchants, cabinetmakers, and buyers in promoting mahogany, and an alignment of mahogany’s qualities with refinement. Collectively, these factors made mahogany more available for use by European cabinetmakers and increased demand for the wood throughout Europe.[5] Through her recounting the early stories of the changing perception of mahogany as a war material into a luxury commodity, Anderson effectively provides a platform upon which she can illustrate mahogany’s entrance into the American economy.

According to Anderson, by the time mahogany had reached the American colonies, it was demanded out of “sheer desire.”[6] This was because mahogany reflected many of the qualities of “refinement” and gentility that were desired among aristocrats in the late eighteenth century. The unique grain of mahogany, as well as the reflection the wood had after polishing, quickly made mahogany a luxury good of the upper class. Portraits of wealthy families during this period often showcased pieces of mahogany furniture among family members, demonstrating the importance the good had in denoting affluence. Anderson’s thorough use of eighteenth century art and other rich primary source evidence – including housing inventories – only strengthens her claims. As access to mahogany increased, many more middle class families purchased mahogany. This led the upper classes to buy multiple mahogany furnishings in an attempt to make a distinction from the middle class. At the dawn of the American Revolution, mahogany had become a definitive marker of colonial class status.[7]

Following the exponential rise in demand for mahogany from the American colonies, the British Empire sought to establish a permanent mahogany works in the West Indies.[8] This section of Anderson’s monograph is arguably her strongest it marks a definitive turning point at which the commercial boom for mahogany first met its imminent demise. After exhausting their original mahogany supply in Jamaica, the British tried to establish centers in the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, and the “Ceded Islands” after the Seven Years War. Unlike Jamaica, however, these islands did not contain a large population of mahogany trees. Thus, the takeover of these lands resulted only in the displacement of the native populations of the islands and the unsuccessful creation of any permanent mahogany centers.

After nearly depleting the entire Caribbean mahogany population, the British made one final push at establishing a mahogany center in Belize at the Bay of Honduras, a Spanish owned region. Following several negotiations and disputes, the British took control of the Bay of Honduras mahogany site in 1798.[9] However, even with the acquisition of this mahogany rich region, the British failed regulate mahogany production. By the turn of the nineteenth century, mahogany was quickly being depleted in Belize. At this point, Anderson recognizes that the market for mahogany had submitted itself entirely to the demands of the British mercantilist system. Slave labor became increasingly crucial to the success of mahogany logging, and as a result mahogany became part of trading for slaves from Africa.[10] As Anderson notes, the “relentless search for mahogany exemplified the imperial drive to find, expropriate, and control people, space, and nature.”[11]

The second half of Anderson’s work emphasizes the production of mahogany amidst capitalism and technological innovation. The themes presented in this part of the book parallel several themes that are also introduced in Andrew C. Isenberg’s The Destruction of the Bison. In his book, Isenberg argues that the near extinction of the bison was caused by an amalgamation of economic, cultural, and ecological factors.[12] This is seen in his first chapter, as Isenberg credits the introduction of horses, livestock, and cattle into the Great Plains as critical factors leading to the displacement of the bison.[13]Similarly, the felling of trees and establishment of sugar plantations in Jamaica destroyed the natural environment of mahogany because the cane fields drained the soil of essential nutrients.[14]Additionally, Isenberg and Anderson agree that dependence on a single resource was extremely dangerous, though in different respects. Isenberg argues that the plummeting bison population of the nineteenth century made the survival of nomad groups in the Great Plains uncertain.[15] Likewise, in Mahogany Anderson recounts the story of the Card brothers, who depended on the successful harvest and sale of mahogany for sustaining their livelihoods.[16] Both men achieved minor success and epic failure, illustrating the high risk one faced when investing everything in the market of mahogany. Collectively, these stories represented parallel strands in the history of exploiting both bison and mahogany for individual gain.

Apart from their similar themes of ecological effects and risk in exploiting natural resources like mahogany and bison, Anderson and Isenberg also shared the compelling theme that Isenberg coins “the futility of riches and the fragility of nature.”[17] In a chapter titled “Mastering Nature and the Challenge of Mahogany,” Anderson states that the inability of “enlightened” men to recreate or replicate mahogany indicated “the limits of man’s ability to master nature.”[18] Mahogany, like the bison, had been so depleted that no amount of money, research, or effort could restore these resources to their previous presence in the Caribbean and North America, respectively. The destruction of both mahogany and the bison was a result of failed regulation because of a focus on economic competition. This competition, promoted by the capitalist economy present in North America, could be seen among the hide-hunters described by Isenberg, as well as in the failed mahogany dealer conglomerates formed among cabinetmakers in the Early American Republic. [19] Economic competition advocated the advancement of the individual at any means necessary, and this came at the cost of the near extinction of both bison and mahogany. In this way, Anderson argues that the inability to restore mahogany defied the Enlightenment belief that humans could master nature, and that oftentimes humans failed to realize the threats imposed on natural resources by capitalism. This continued through the industrial revolution.[20]

While their stories emerge from very different beginnings, Anderson and Isenberg both write historical narratives that demonstrate the costs of exploiting natural resources to near extinction. Since their near disappearance in the late nineteenth century, both mahogany and bison have made modest returns to their native landscapes. With that being said, both mahogany and bison have taken new roles in their respective revivals. Conservation efforts in the United States have redefined mahogany as “ornamentals rather than as future timber.”[21] Bison, on the other hand, have returned to become a part of the economy, but not of the environment.[22] These histories of the production of mahogany and the destruction of bison provide a clear image of the often short-term beneficial and long-term detrimental effects of “unsustainable exploitation” of natural resources.[23] Through their effective writing, both Anderson and Isenberg lead readers to consider how the American landscape, economy, and culture have been shaped from human interactions with the environment.

 


[1] Jennifer L. Anderson, Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 17.

[2] Anderson, Mahogany, 4, 17.

[3] Anderson, Mahogany, 7, 21.

[4] Anderson, Mahogany, 24.

[5] Anderson, Mahogany, 19.

[6][6] Anderson, Mahogany, 32.

[7] Anderson, Mahogany, 50-63.

[8] Anderson, Mahogany, 91.

[9] Anderson, Mahogany, 96-98, 113, 123.

[10] Anderson, Mahogany, 125.

[11] Anderson, Mahogany, 124.

[12] Andrew C. Isenberg, The Destruction of the Bison (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 1.

[13] Isenberg, Destruction of the Bison, 30.

[14] Anderson, Mahogany, 64.

[15] Isenberg, Destruction of the Bison, 121.

[16] Anderson, Mahogany, 154-155.

[17] Isenberg, Destruction of the Bison, 122.

[18] Anderson, Mahogany, 213.

[19] Isenberg, Destruction of the Bison, 163; Anderson, Mahogany, 205.

[20] Anderson, Mahogany, 249.

[21] Anderson, Mahogany, 314.

[22] Isenberg, Destruction of the Bison, 192.

[23] Isenberg, Destruction of the Bison, 198.

The Buffalo: A Tool Against Native Americans

The Destruction of the Bison by Andrew C. Isenberg is a comprehensive and detailed analysis of the relationships between both Native Americans and Euroamericans on the bison within North America. In his work, Isenberg provides a number of different arguments for the decline of the bison, such as the growth of the fur trade, their presence in the way of American progress, and many others. Yet, he also indicates that the destruction of the bison was a directive by the United States military and pioneers to help rid the land of the Native Americans. Isenberg describes how a fellow historian, David D. Smits, argues that the United States Army was primarily responsible for the destruction of these creatures. The support for this position rests with the evidence that indicates how American soldiers would often destroy the Native American’s natural resources to push the Indians onto the reserves after various defeats to them in battle. General Sherman, most notably known for his work in “Sherman’s March,” was an advent supporter of this philosophy, for he believed if you removed their resources, the Native Americans would be forced to retreat to the reservations (128).

The army was not the only political body that held this idea either, as members of the House of Representatives also supported this directive in the light of American progress. During the Delano vs. Fort debates regarding a humanitarian and animal preservation bill in the 1870s, Columbus Delano expressed his side’s position on the matter. He stated in reference to the bison “The rapid disappearance of game from the former hunting-grounds must operate largely in favor of our efforts to confine the Indians to smaller areas, and compel them to abandon their nomadic customs” (152). His words clearly articulate how members of the United States Government were openly in favor of the destruction of the bison as the means of a weapon against the Native Americans to control their actions. Avoiding the ethical questions that arise within this position, as there are many, it is evident that many members of the United States Government saw the bison as merely a side-effect of progress, a creature that was in the wrong place as the wrong time. Though there were many others who did not take this position, such as President Roosevelt moving into the 20th century, it remained a common perception of the time.

I would say I have to completely agree with Sean’s points regarding Isenberg’s ideas on the definition of nature. By noting how the buffalo were actually devastated by other factors outside of human hand, it offers a perception that humanity’s alteration of the environment is a natural progression of the world. Though many people would deny this, offering a definition that places nature outside of human contact, if we look at contemporary movie examples for images of the future, we potentially can see Isenberg’s perspective at work. The first movie that comes to mind is “Star Trek: Into Darkness.” In the film, both futuristic London and San Francisco are portrayed, displaying a completely technologically based society almost entirely void of “wilderness.” Portrayals such as this somewhat indicate that the natural steps of ecological evolution are allowing for humanity to shape the environment as it can, for every other creature we interact with does the exact same within their capacity.

How the Destruction of the Bison Effectively Destroyed Indian Societies As Well

The Destruction of the Bison by Andrew Isenberg offered an in depth explanation of the near extermination of the bison in America, and in turn depicted the decline of American Indian societies in the Midwest region of the United States. While Isenberg placed most of the impetus of change on the westward expansion of Euroamerican economy, he also analyzed many other factors such as environment, disease, and weather. The result, in my opinion, was a very convincing argument. One aspect of the book that I really enjoyed was Isenberg’s explanation of why the United States allowed the destruction of the bison even though they realized the bison population was not an “inexhaustible supply” (p. 162). According to Isenberg, Americans viewed the depletion of the bison as “a triumph of civilization over savagery,” (p. 162) which cleared the Midwest for Euroamerican societies. The federal government did not have to encourage bison hunting, but rather chose not to prevent its existence. Economic opportunities led many Americans to move west and try their luck in bison hunting and the robe trade. The U.S. Army and government knowingly allowed this to happen because it was an effective Indian eradication program. The government effectively used the destruction of the bison to help further its goal of segregating Indians. For most Americans, Indians were only approved of when they lived on reservations.

Isenberg also brought to light just how determined the United States was to expunge Indian rituals. On reservations in the late nineteenth century, the Indians were often provided with government beef. When the cattle were delivered, the Indians attempted to replicate the communal bison hunts that had until recently been a staple of Indian life during the summer months. At first the government allowed this practice to proceed, but early in the twentieth century the reservations received butchered meat in place of live cattle. I found it interesting that even though many Indians had been effectively contained on reservations, the government still felt there was work to be done. If the Indians were to eventually be assimilated into American culture, it was necessary to first eliminate the aspects that made their culture unique. The complete elimination of the festivities associated with the bison hunt was a step in the right direction, at least as the U.S. government viewed the situation.

As Manish noted, I too was interested in the effects of the bison trade on Indian societies. The opportunity for economic prosperity caused many nomadic societies to alter their traditional hunting patterns. While Isenberg recognized that most Indian tribes participated in communal hunts and large feasts during the summer months when the bison gathered in large herds, the Indians were not wasteful on a regular basis. The summer hunts served as community building. With the rise of the bison trade, however, some nomadic societies began killing more bison than necessary in the winter months since that was the time of year when their furs were the thickest and most desirable. Such changes only quickened the decline of the bison population. This shows that even Indians, usually renowned for their particularly economic and practical use of the entire bison, fell victim to desires for economic gain.

Adding to the definition of nature through “The Destruction of the Bison”

Andrew Isenberg’s The Destruction of the Bison is an interesting in many respects, but I found the most intriguing element to be how Isenberg defined nature. Isenberg discusses defining nature with respect to environmental history in his introduction, in which he acknowledges, “Most environmental historians imagine nonhuman nature as a dynamic agent in human history, inherently prone to unpredictable changes in climate, vegetation, and animal populations” (11). Isenberg believes this is a flawed definition, and with respect to his work, it would mean that humans solely caused the extinction of the bison. He contends in his work that it was much more than humans that led to the extinction of the bison, and in doing so is contradicting the approach of many environmental historians.

In our class, we have discussed at length the definition of nature, whether humans are included in nature, whether cities are another form of nature, and whether natural environments can be defined by a human culture (European settling versus Native American roaming). Isenberg brings in a new wrinkle, and has once again influenced how I would personally define nature. I came into the class believing that Davidson’s campus, full of trees and open spaces, was not natural because humans artificially constructed it. As we have progressed through the class, I have begun to believe that humans themselves are a part of nature and that modern cities are just the advancement of a new type of nature. Isenberg has reinforced this belief in me with his contention that bison became extinct because of environment they lived in as well, the economy, and also the role both Europeans and Native Americans played. By including the environment’s role in the bison’s destruction, it strengthens the notion (at least in my mind) that human’s influence on the harming of natural environments is in itself natural, and a consequence of the advancement of human societies. Also, while some may argue that the colonization and destruction of Native American culture was destroying an environment, by taking into account both the roles of Euroamericans and Native Americans in their destruction, Isenberg displays how by both being involved in the bison’s destruction that the idea that Native American’s lived of the environment more than colonists is overplayed (but still true I would contend). While Isenberg’s main theory is to show that nature is a changing landscape that can be altered without human intervention, he strengthens my belief that humans themselves are equally a part of the environment.

I found Manish’s take on the work rather interesting. The idea that Native Americans were similar in their desire for status debunks many of the points made by Bushman in The Refinement of America, as it shows that the idea of status and refinement may have had European elements for early Americans, but that it is more so human nature than any direct influence that caused the refinement of America. I thought Manish’s description of how the desire for status led to the fall of Native Americans as it led to increased contact with Americans was well done, and makes me think about how greed can both cause cultures to succeed and in the Native Americans’ case, potentially cause them to fall.

How the pursuit of wealth by natives not only helped decimate the bison population but native society as well

Richard Bushman’s Refinement of America focuses on the societal want for gentility and wealth. As Ian noticed in his post “starting in the early 17th century, American people, specifically in the South, began to covet the ‘high society’ lifestyle and culture that existed with numerous European countries.” After reading Andrew C. Isenberg’s The Destruction of the Bison it became apparent to me that that the want for wealth and status was not a movement restricted solely to Americans. While the major goal of the book was to explore the decimation of the bison populations and examine the major factors for the decimation, a secondary crisis can be observed. This crisis was the destruction of the midwestern native societies. “The trade in bison robes was destructive both to the herds and to the nomadic societies.” (107)

Just like with the lower classes in American society the natives themselves began to strive to rise up and emmulate the wealthy gentility for wealth not only gave the upper class comfort but also afforded them status. The idea of status came to appeal highly to many of the nomadic tribes and thus by the mid 1800’s there emerged a great competition for the limited resource of bison. Origninally, the move to bison hunting was a self contained process and one which was sustainable. However, the beginnings of trade with Euroamericans helped the natives realize the economic value that bison pelts held and this began the movement into an unsustainable competition with each hunter being motivated by the thoughts of elevating his own status as well as some other vices.

With the popularity of bison skins reaching their peak by the end of the nineteenth century nomadic native societies began to unravel mostly due to three reasons. The first was the threat that bison depopulation had on nomadic livelihood. These tribes had given up their agrarian roots in order to wholly embrace the hunt but the immense competition left limited resources that effected the tribes  ecnomically but also physically for food became scarcer.

Second, the limited bison population led to increased warfare between different tribes. No longer was it possible to maintain a large village and so thanks to the bison hunt smaller tribes were formed in order to be more flexible in movement as well as requiring fewer resources to maintain the community. With a multitude of bison available tribes were able to respect each others hunting grounds but with the decimation of the bison warfare grew out of control attracting the attention of US federal authorities. Not only did increased warfare provide an excuse for the US government to intervene but it also fed the stereotypes about natives as savages.

Finally, the growing relationship between native bison hunters and American pelt merchants brought natives into closer confines with Americans for longer periods of time. This was a major reason why disease began to spread effectively throughout the small nomadic communities. Before, there was limited contact between nomads and Americans. Also the small nomadic societies usually remained apart and so disaese was rarely able to be transported to other groups. By the late 1800’s these groups began to report to the same trading hubs in order to trade with the Euroamerican traders. The more frequent interactions with a common group of people with more conditioned immune systems helped disease take on a greater role in native culture and helped break native societies both in physical population but mental strength as well.  While the decimation of the bison was a tragic tale, a parallel path was being taken by native societies in part due to the thirst for status and wealth first showcased by upper class Americans.

The Refinement of America: A Look into Human Nature and Tradition

It is within human nature to value tradition. Richard L. Bushman, in his The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities, analyzes this natural code of behavior by extensively analyzing American gentility and habits in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Bushman argues that the refinement of America ultimately began around 1690. He argues that Americans carried across the sea a desire for gentility and refinement that dated back to the Renaissance. Continuing into the eighteenth century, Americans began to selectively emulate upper class England and seek architectural and material luxuries. It is interesting to read these particular arguments because they are applicable to my thesis on music of the American Revolutionary era: Americans knowingly borrowed traditional English tunes and applied their own lyrics to use as parodies of well-known Old World music. Reading Bushman’s theories on traditional continuity only helped solidify one of my arguments that members of colonial society sought to emulate English traditions to serve their own purposes of distinguishing class and instituting themselves as models of cultural significance.

That being said, the aspects of culture and society that Americans chose to imitate proved ridiculous at times. I agree with Ian and his comment about the ridiculousness of etiquette books, that “codified polite society” by giving specific instructions on aspects of personal expression (38). The illustrations of children provided on page 294 depicting youngsters with high foreheads, tiny feet, and curls are anything but aesthetically pleasing. The anecdote Bushman provides related to Charles Ridgelys’ letter is one example of such absurdity. Writing every letter with “Honored Sir” and ending with “I am, Honored Sir, your ever Dutiful & loving son, Chas. Greenberry Ridgeley” appears tedious and pretentious from a twenty-first century concept of correspondence (10). Then again, I do often use sarcasm and formality in my letters and I do own a copy of Singing: For Dummies.

Bushman writes, “without knowing where precisely, they believed in a superior life somewhere and aspired to emulate that existence”, and his comment only hints at irony regarding republican ideals and equality (37).  With Revolutionary concepts against aristocracy and English “superiority” and our Constitution’s rejection of nobility, it is interesting to see such emulation and imitation taking hold. I do, however, agree with his argument that the process of refinement was somewhat democratic and therefore republican in nature. Making luxury and refinement available to the masses and blurring clear class divisions in fact made the process democratic and equalizing in some aspects.

I enjoyed reading Bushman’s analysis of seventeenth and eighteenth century culture and its applicability to material objects, households, and aesthetics. I found little in his work, however, to apply to nature or to the environment. His work was more of a social and cultural history from a time period I enjoy studying. I think his arguments are sound and his work is as an interesting study of human nature and its interactions with culture.

It’s Actually Gentility’s Fault

In the introduction of his research, Richard Bushman, states, “Genteel culture became an independent variable, cutting across society, and leading, I argue, to the confusion about class that has long been characteristic of American society” (Bushman xv). This hearkens back to our first discussion concerning the term “natural.” Much like the manner in which gentility drifted from the top of society downward (and became more difficult to define), so has the ability to spot concrete natural entities in society. Much how humans took over nature and crafted it to suit their needs, gentility worked its way into a republican nation and created a hierarchical system. Bushman states, “Because it [gentility] was formed for an aristocratic leisured class, gentility was out of place in republican, middle-class America, ill suited to the lives of the people who so fervently adopted it” (xvi). This reminds us of how the first Europeans were ill-suited for the New World, and how in some cases, they forced natives to assimilate.

Bushman makes it clear that with gentility came great ties to material possession. Individuals became obsessed with mansions (bigger rooms), silver, mahogany—material possessions that in some way impacted the environment. Thus, gentility impacted social culture and environmental culture. Is it possible that had gentility not infiltrated below the aristocratic line, humans today would be living much simpler lives? I think there might be some plausibility behind an affirmation to that questions, but it is difficult to extrapolate too much.

It can be argued (and Bushman admits that he does not give this the attention it deserves) that gentility and capitalism are dependent on one another. There is a certain refinement of society that had to happen with the onset of capitalism. Recently, in his post about William Cronon’s research on Chicago, Anthony stated, “Railroads are perhaps one of the greatest developments for this country in terms of creating a unified nation along with radically altering the economy.” Without gentility, the railroad system might not have been built. Society was completely invested in material possession and wealthy by the time railroads arrived. However, here in-lies an conflict. Do we think capitalism came first or gentility? I am inclined to say gentility was first. The manner in which people lives evoked the certain types of material possession they wanted (capitalism). I think (and I think Bushman would agree) that gentility is much easier to trace back within the workings of our nation’s history. Thus, we can blame gentility for the blurred and often difficult definition of  the word “natural.” We can also blame gentility for the growth of material possessions and the negative impact those have had (and continue to have) on the environment.