Hunters, it turns out, have occupied a complicated place in the Anglo-American psyche from the very beginning.
In 17th-century Europe, as historian Daniel Justin Herman documents in his book Hunting and the American Imagination, the New World was said to be a land of plenty: full not of the gently flowing milk and honey of a new Canaan, but of elk and deer, turkeys and waterfowl, and pigeons that darkened the skies with their uncounted millions. Such a wealth of wild meat appealed to the investors who were funding commercial explorations of North America. It also appealed to commoners, for the privilege of pursuing European game had long been reserved for the elite.
As European colonists established a foothold along the eastern shores of North America, they took advantage of the abundant wildlife. Birds and mammals of every shape and size — from pigeons and ducks to beavers and deer — were netted, snared, trapped, clubbed, and shot. For those who did the killing, wild animals provided food. They also provided the opportunity for economic profit, as meat and hides could be sold at market.
Yet hunting stores are remarkably rare in colonial lore. Herman draws our attention to New England as an example. “How was it,” he asks, “that New England could be so full of game at the outset of colonization and yet produce so few tales of hunters and hunting?”
In some areas, perhaps colonists simply did not hunt much. At Plymouth, the archaeological evidence suggests that the Pilgrims were, in Herman’s words, “lackluster hunters.” Though they apparently consumed a fair number of wild ducks, they ate few wild mammals and almost no turkeys. In 1621, at the feast now commemorated as the first Thanksgiving, the main course was apparently venison, supplied by Wampanoag Indians.
More generally, colonists simply did not think of themselves as hunters. There was ample reason for them not to. With a few notable exceptions, such as the Finns who settled in the Delaware Valley, they had not been hunters in their homelands. For generations, they had primarily eaten the fruits of the field and pasture, not of the chase.
Nor had they come from hunting religions. Take the Puritans, for instance. In 17th-century England, they campaigned against hunting and cockfighting because they believed that such activities, like drinking, gambling, and pagan celebrations, were unchristian. In the words of British historian Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay, Puritans hated bear baiting — a form of entertainment in which bears were chained to posts and tormented by dogs — “not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.”
In England, the Puritans had seen hunting as evidence of the gentry’s moral corruption. In the New World, they saw native peoples’ hunting in a similar light. “They believed,” writes Daniel Herman, “that Indians, like English aristocrats, were gamblers, fornicators, and ardent hunters, men who repudiated steady work habits and godliness.”
In stark contrast to American Indian religions, which placed humans within the complexities of life’s web, Puritanism cast us as radically separate from nature. Herman points out that religious doctrine also provided a cornerstone for colonial expansion. In Genesis, after all, God had commanded humans to subdue the earth and to eat the plants of the field, earning their food by the sweat of their brow. Though the native peoples of eastern North America planted crops around seasonal settlements, few were full-time farmers. As hunters, they had not “subdued” the land on which they lived. Therefore, the colonial argument went, they were not really using it. According to the logic of vacuum domicilium — “vacant abode” — land became the rightful property of the men who farmed it.
Roger Williams, convicted of sedition and heresy for his many “dangerous opinions” and banished from Massachusetts, pointed out one major problem with this logic: Indians, like English nobles, managed their land to increase the availability of deer and other animals. Did not the former use and own that land as much as the latter? Not according to most colonists.
The dominant view held that it was permissible, even godly, to occupy North American soil and put it to “proper” use. This politically convenient religious concept of hunters’ and farmers’ different relationships with land complemented contemporary ideas about the development of civilization, particularly the “four-stages theory.”
Propounded by scholars such as Adam Smith, the Scottish author of The Wealth of Nations, this theory contended that human societies progressed through four stages: hunting, herding, farming, and commerce. For many four-stages theorists, Herman notes, “the third stage, or a mixture of the third and fourth stages, was ideal,” for farming was seen as the foundation of both virtue and prosperity. “Those who labour in the earth,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, “are the chosen people of God.”
For most colonists, hunting was secondary to farming. It might be necessary, as a way of providing food and eliminating pests and predators. And it could be enjoyable, as a diversion. As a way of life, however, it was barbaric and indolent, posing a threat to the industrious foundations of agrarian civilization. Hunting-based lifestyles made the frontier socially and morally dangerous, leading — in the words of Charles Woodmason, an Anglican who preached in the Carolinas — to “one continual Scene of Depravity of Manners . . . being more abandoned to Sensuality, and more Rude in Manners, than the Poor Savages around us.”
Herman suggests that the frontier presented more complex problems as well. What if degenerate whites joined Indians in resisting government authority? And what if a large number of whites chose a life of subsistence hunting? Could white farmers take land claimed by white hunters by invoking the logic of vacuum domicilium, arguing that they — like Indian hunters — weren’t really using it? Or would the absence of racial distinction between white farmers and white hunters bring that logic to its knees?
Disturbed by such perils, colonies enacted legal reforms to curb them. In 1745, for example, North Carolina required that every deer hunter either possess “a settled Habitation” or produce written proof “of his having planted and tended Five Thousand Corn-hills . . . in the County where he shall hunt.”
At the time, the white backwoods hunter was seen as repulsive and dangerous, evoking in the colonial imagination, Herman argues, “images of man fallen to a state of nature, the condition of savagery . . . to the level of American Indians.”