Ephiphany in the Wilderness: Hunting and Nature in the American West


Project Team:

Principal Investigator:

Dr Karen Jones, University of Kent


Powell Cotton Museum, Kent

Award Information:

Hunting represents an important part of American frontier identity. One need only think of the gun-toting PR stunts of Sarah Palin to see its continuing cultural currency at play. Today, hunting remains an important part of the recreational life and the political economy of the American West. In Montana, one quarter of residents own a hunting license, the highest percentage in the country.

This research project seeks to deconstruct both the mythology and function of hunting by focusing on the nineteenth century West. It was during the nineteenth century that the United States achieved the wholesale takeover of the West, its lands and resources. These years also saw the construction of the West as an imaginative geography, a place of adventure, monumental landscapes, charismatic animals and wilderness heroes in popular culture. Hunting and the enviro-cultural codes surrounding it represented an important part of such processes of acquisition and fantasy.

Despite the ubiquity of the frontiersman as an idealtype in American popular culture – think Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, Buffalo Bill Cody, even General Custer and Theodore Roosevelt – academic treatments of the ‘hunter hero’ and the mechanisms of the hunting encounter with nature have proved meagre. Scholarship has tended to corral around pro and anti paradigms. Historians have offered some provocative national surveys (Herman (2001)) but a dedicated project on the West has yet to be written. This project promises a fresh look at hunting in the West that builds on the western history canon and integrates a valuable environmental history perspective. Of great interest here is the interaction between the hunter and the hunted, the relationships between nature, identity, and memory: themes that are translatable across geography and time.

The project is interdisciplinary in nature, and pays great attention to a range of sources both textual and visual. Nineteenth century diaries, published autobiographies and explorer accounts, photographs, and taxidermic exhibits all warrant analysis here as artifacts of the hunt and its enviro-cultural imprint. ‘Epiphany’ refers to hunting as a practical and an idealized encounter between humans and animals, and in the process pays heeds to recent cultural theories including the visual and the spatial turn as well as the vibrant and innovative field of animal studies. The project promises an exploration of our (sometimes contradictory) relations with nature, as well an examination of the eco-architecture of space, and its relationship to belonging and identity formation. It also informs various academic debates including the construction of nature as a crucible of personal challenge; the spread of gun culture; gender adaptations and the crafting of the masculine hero figure; wildlife management and consumption; memorialising and trophy-taking; imperial relations with space and the political economy of leisure; and the juxtaposition of a closing frontier (and attendant environmental change) with an emerging conservation ethic.

The project uses the theme of hunting to engage with wider questions relating to the way humans interact with animals and spaces, their consumption as objects of production (economic, artistic, symbolic among others) as well as using the anthropology of the hunt to explore issues of gender, iconography, technology, and modes of subsistence.

The findings will be disseminated within the academy via a contracted monograph (University of Colorado Press) as well as at conferences and through journal articles. Wider public engagement will take place at public talks and lectures on hunting (for instance, using links with the Powell Cotton Museum, Quex Park, Kent, a venue noted for its hunting dioramas and firearms collections).

Project dates: January- April 2012