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Interview with Author Richard Rattenbury

By Candy Moulton 
Originally published by Wild West magazine. Published Online: October 01, 2009 
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Richard Rattenbury has written the definitive book about hunting on the 19th-century frontier.
Richard Rattenbury has written the definitive book about hunting on the 19th-century frontier.
The frontier was a hunter's paradise. Most everyone on the Great Plains or in the Rocky Mountains hunted. In Hunting the American West: The Pursuit of Big Game for Life, Profit and Sport, 1800–1900, Richard C. Rattenbury presents hunting stories involving American Indians, French-Canadian and other mixed-race voyageurs, Spaniards and Mexicans, European aristocrats, remittance men, frontiersmen, soldiers, naturalists and artists. While most hunters in the 19th century were male, women also stalked game, and their stories appear here as well.

These tales of hunting expeditions and experiences borrow from contemporary accounts by Warren Angus Ferris, Theodore Roosevelt (founder of the Boone and Crockett Club, which published the book), Colonel Richard Irving Dodge, Lieutenant Henry Carleton, an English traveler writing under the pseudonym "Captain Flack," Santa Fe Trader Josiah Gregg and many more. Stunning photography and artwork by such masters of the genre as Charlie Russell, Karl Bodmer, Alfred Jacob Miller, Frederic Remington and George Catlin enhance the vivid text.

The author includes sections on subsistence hunters, sport hunters, market hunters and hunter-naturalists, while chapters entitled "The Arms of the Chase" and "The Image of the Chase" focus on the weapons and art related to frontier hunting. The book has won several awards, including the Western Writers of America's Spur Award for Best Historical Nonfiction. Rattenbury, history curator at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, is also the author of Art of American Arms Makers and Packing Iron: Gun Leather of the Frontier West. He recently spoke with Wild West about his new book.

'Subsistence hunting by Indians and Anglo frontiersmen had little, if any, impact on numbers or habitat. However, buffalo hunting by Indians for the robe trade (commercial or market hunting) certainly began reducing bison numbers by the 1840s–1850s'

Which are your favorite early hunting narratives?
In the antebellum period, it would be John Palliser's Solitary Rambles and Adventures of a Hunter in the Prairies. Among the foreign hunters, Palliser and George Ruxton (Irish and English) wrote the best narratives in that era. Among Americans, George Catlin's various vignettes in Letters and Notes are very good, as are the hunting adventures related by Francis Parkman in The Oregon Trail. In the postwar period, the best American in my view certainly was Theodore Roosevelt in Hunting Trips of a Ranchman and Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail. He perhaps was rivaled by George Oliver Shields in Rustlings in the Rockies and Cruisings in the Cascades and by the Earl of Dunraven in The Great Divide and Canadian Nights.

Did hunting impact game populations in the West in the early 1800s?
Subsistence hunting by Indians and Anglo frontiersmen had little, if any, impact on numbers or habitat. However, buffalo hunting by Indians for the robe trade (commercial or market hunting) certainly began reducing bison numbers by the 1840s–1850s.

Were early 19th-century Euro-American hunters any more wasteful with the meat of animals they killed than American Indians?
As subsistence hunters, they were much the same in my estimation. Early sport hunters could be more wasteful if they shot for numbers, the obvious example being Sir St. George Gore, who wasted tons of meat on his nearly three-year spree.

What about American hunting inspired Europeans to take weeks-long Western excursions?
America was not unique in this regard during the colonial and imperial eras. Europeans (and particularly Englishmen) hunted as well and as fervently in India and Africa. All such areas offered abundant and diverse big game, often-challenging frontier environments, exotic (maybe dangerous) natives, ample opportunities for adventure and no bag limits on animals killed.

Which were the most popular 19th-century hunting arms?
In order of appearance for big game: First, the muzzleloading, percussion Plains rifle as epitomized by the Hawken shop of St. Louis. Second, the breechloading percussion and (especially) the metallic-cartridge Sharps sporting rifle (a favorite of both sport and market hunters). Third, the breechloading, repeating Winchester sporting rifles (Model 1873 for medium game, Models 1876 and 1886 for larger game).

What impact did 19th-century artists and authors have on the promotion of hunting in the West?
Impact would be difficult to accurately judge, but artists whose work was widely disseminated in gallery exhibitions or in printed reproductions or books, such as George Catlin, John Mix Stanley, Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait and Frederic Remington, no doubt influenced some to hunt the West. Hunters as noted above who wrote and published their Western hunting experiences I feel sure influenced others to follow them. The tradition of sport-hunting narrative publication was certainly stronger in Britain than elsewhere and surely influenced some readers to board ship and head west.

Which are your favorite images?
Among artwork: Stanley's Buffalo Hunt, Russell's Who's Meat?, Remington's Hunters' Camp and William R. Leigh's Bighorn Sheep. There are quite a number of historic photos I find informative or appealing; one of my favorites among the latter is of two jaunty young boys leaning on their rifles.

How did hunting clothing/accoutrements evolve during the 18th and 19th centuries?
This is a question for another book! In brief, from early on, buckskin clothing modeled on Euro-American patterns seems to have been the order of the day. From caped hunting coats, through frock patterns into shirts and jackets, it generally followed the design fashion of the time and ultimately became emblematic of the frontier hunter as an American type. Accoutrements (largely related to the carriage and use of ammunition) generally followed the evolution of firearms technology, first produced by individual artisans and, ultimately, by commercial specialty manufacturers. There is a whole section in the book related to knives and how they evolved.

What role did hunting play in the demise of the vast Plains buffalo herds?
Market hunting was absolutely decisive in all but eliminating the buffalo during the 1870s and early 1880s and had profound and substantial impacts on deer, antelope and elk as well.

Did environmental factors impact their numbers?
No. The effect of environmental change was hardly comparable for those species noted above. However, big-game habitat displacement due to Western settlement, cattle grazing, introduced disease, etc., from the 1870s on was crucial in reducing the numbers of nearly all big-game animals (with the exception, perhaps, of the mountain goat). Environmental impact was little noticed until railroads accelerated the entire settlement process.

You title one chapter "The Sport Hunters: Officers, Blue-Bloods and Foreign Gentlemen." Were they really sportsmen or just men bent on harvesting as many animals as they could?
It's not an either/or proposition. Much depended on the character of the individual, but certainly, by the time discussed, shooting to excess was considered bad form by many sport hunters—as contrasted with market hunters. By the late 19th century, most sport hunters sought the superlative trophy rather than the largest bag.

How did Theodore Roosevelt's perspective change after living in the Dakota Badlands?
In so far as this book is concerned, he came to view the West (and big-game hunting) as an arena for meeting personal challenge. His experience and perception of Western hunting, environment and wildlife informed him that the game was finite and must be protected, and that sportsmen should, and could, play a leading role in fostering game and habitat preservation.

Roosevelt came west to kill buffalo at a time when the species was becoming rare, and he later killed elk and grizzlies in the Wyoming Big Horns. For him, was hunting about the trophy, the wilderness experience or the meat?
At first, I think, it was about trophy and the experience of the wild—with the trophy foremost. As his hunting experiences and observations broadened, I think the wilderness experience trumped the trophy, though he always was a dedicated and inveterate hunter. As an aside, TR did act occasionally as a subsistence hunter in supplying meat to the hands on his Little Missouri ranches.

Did Roosevelt ever relate how hunting eventually led him to become a naturalist and conservationist?
It is implicit in much of his 1880s writings on Western hunting and explicit in some of his writings for the various books of the Boone and Crockett Club in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

What is his lasting legacy to hunting/conservation?
Along with George Bird Grinnell, TR was the initiator and prime mover between 1890 and the end of his presidency, via the Boone and Crockett Club and Federal legislation, in establishing a number of national refuges (including the National Bison Range) and, through federal directives and agencies, laying the foundation of today's conservation establishment. Much of his philosophy is found in the underpinnings of the conservation movement even today.

How did sport hunters react when Western states introduced hunting regulations?
The vast majority willingly conformed to the law once it came in force…as they do today. Between 1890 and 1910 the hunting philosophy and mandate of "fair chase" was widely adopted, and it remains fundamental to the contemporary hunting ethos.

What other period conservation measures ensure that game remains available to modern-day hunters and sportsmen?
The most significant measure during the era discussed was passage in 1900 of the Lacey Act, which put a virtual end to market hunting throughout the country. During the early 20th century, the establishment of national forest reserves, national parks and wildlife reserves—virtually all in the West—all contributed to habitat and wildlife preservation. The Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937, though beyond the purview of this book, was also crucial legislation supportive of hunters and the hunted (the act mandated an excise tax on arms and ammunition sales, the accrual of which still funds wildlife habitat restoration and management programs at the state level).

What benefits does hunting afford game populations?
The license fees and excise taxes paid by hunters fund habitat restoration, game restocking and reintroduction programs, and scientific game management regimens throughout the nation. On their own initiative, wildlife/hunting groups like Boone and Crockett, Campfire Club, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society, etc., also fund habitat preservation, game research and management, and public education programs to the benefit of various game populations. Obviously, too, through hunting, game populations are controlled to a lesser or greater degree, thus avoiding potential instances of habitat degradation, rampant disease, or starvation from overpopulation.


One Response to “Interview with Author Richard Rattenbury”


  1. 1
    R.L. Wilson says:

    Richard Rattenbury's HUNTING THE AMERICAN WEST is a masterpiece, not only a grand and insightful work of historical research, but a beautifully illustrated, designed and produced art volume.

    It takes a book of this magnitude to reach the millions of ignorant individuals and groups in the public who do not understand hunting . . . who walk into a natural history museum and think of the exhibits of birds and wild animals as having died of old age.

    What a wonderful documentary film the book would make, for PBS' "American Experience." The book also should be developed into a major traveling museum exhibition.

    This is a book that one cannot put down, and one in which each chapter could be developed into yet another 400-page masterpiece.



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