There’s a story we tell about the American conservation movement that goes something like this: In the early half of the 19th century, white Americans didn’t concern themselves with animal populations or wilderness preservation. Thoughtless pioneers hunted buffalo to near-extinction and decimated millions of acres of forests in the naïve belief that those natural resources would never run out.

Then, in the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold stepped onto the scene. They radically changed the way Americans imagined the natural world and expanded the acreage of public lands to match this newfound appreciation for wild places and species. Their work represents the beginning of conservation in the United States, and it culminated in federal laws like the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Pittman-Robertson Act.

While this story is not false, as with most popular legends, it’s far from complete.

Roosevelt, Muir, and Leopold did advance the conservation movement at the turn of the 20th century, but their work should be understood less as a radical shift than as the consummation of ideas and attitudes that had been percolating for 100 years or more. Nineteenth-century Americans were responsible for destroying the buffalo, but they also laid the intellectual groundwork for many of the environmental protections we enjoy today.

Henry David Thoreau, for example, writing all the way back in 1845, noticed not only the diminishing populations of game animals in the woods surrounding Walden Pond, but also the potential for hunters to help protect those species. He comments in “Walden” that young New England hunters had in recent years scaled back their “boundless” pursuit of game to recover dwindling populations.

“But already a change is taking place,” he says, “owing, not to an increased humanity, but to an increased scarcity of game, for perhaps the hunter is the greatest friend of the animals hunted, not excepting the Humane Society.”

The federal laws that form the basis for the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation take advantage of the exact same truth: more than any other demographic, hunters have the incentive and the resources to help conserve our natural spaces and species.

Thoreau wasn’t alone. Throughout the 19th century, novelists, hunters, and celebrities commented on the misuse of natural resources and encouraged their fellow Americans to adopt sustainable, ethical conservation practices. Roosevelt and others built upon this foundation, and the full story of American conservation deserves to be told more often than it is.

James Fenimore Cooper: Deersaver
Most know James Fenimore Cooper for his famous novel, “The Last of the Mohicans” (or, regrettably, the 1992 movie adaptation of the same), but Cooper was surprisingly prolific. Along with dozens of additional novels, the New York author penned five “Leatherstocking Tales” featuring Mohican’s hero, Natty Bumppo.

Bumppo, also known as Deerslayer and Hawkeye, often opines on the beauty of the American wilderness, and the Leatherstocking series can be read as an elegy for the wild landscapes disappearing under the march of civilization. But while Cooper loved an overly long description of a tree, lake, or mountain, he includes in the 1823 novel “The Pioneers” a serious, nuanced defense of responsible natural resource management—and articulates a central component of the North American Conservation Model to boot.

The novel, set in 1793, shows a now-elderly Bumppo interacting with pioneers in upstate New York. He’s anxious about the pioneers’ treatment of local wildlife, and his concern shows up clearly in the middle of the story.

In one chapter, pioneers blast away with all kinds of firearms, including a cannon, at dense clouds of migrating pigeons passing over the settlement. Many of the “hunters” don’t even bother to aim before shooting. They collect some game, but leave many to “cover the very ground” with their “fluttering” bodies.

Bumppo arrives and tells the settlers, “It’s wicked to be shooting into flocks in this wasty manner… It’s much better to kill only such as you want, without wasting your powder and lead, than to be firing into God’s creatures in this wicked manner.”

In the next two chapters, Cooper contrasts the fishing methods of the pioneers with that of his hero. While Bumppo carefully selects a single fish to spear and eat, the settlers drag a local lake at night while attracting fish to the shore with a bonfire. When asked to partake in the settlers’ catch, Bumppo refuses.

“I eat of no man’s wasty ways,” he says. “I strike my spear into the eels or the trout, when I crave the creatur’; but I wouldn’t be helping to such a sinful kind of fishing for the best rifle that was ever brought out from the old countries.”

Significantly, Bumppo’s critiques come even as Cooper depicts the pigeon and fish populations as thriving. While the hero’s statements may strike modern readers as overly didactic, Bumppo criticizes the settlers not to save the species, per se, but because wasting resources is wrong. For a man who has lived off the land, the excesses of the settlers are the height of thoughtlessness.

In Bumppo’s mind, the pioneers have a responsibility to steward the land because they all have a right to its bounty.

When the local landowner, Judge Marmaduke Temple, outlaws hunting deer “out of season,” one expects the conservation-minded Bumppo to applaud the move. But readers soon discover that Temple is motivated not to protect the species, but to protect what he sees as his own resource.

“A vigilant magistrate can prevent much of the evil that has hitherto prevailed, and which is already rendering the game scarce,” Temple says. “I hope to live to see the day when a man’s rights in his game shall be as much respected as his title to his farm.”

The hero, by contrast, argues that anyone on the land should be able to harvest its bounty, and hunters should know when to kill an animal.

“Game is game,” Bumppo says, “and he who finds may kill; that has been the law in these mountains for forty years to my sartain knowledge… None but a green one would wish to kill a doe with a fa’n by its side.”

Cooper’s novel is prophetic on a variety of counts. Passenger pigeons became extinct over the course of the next 70 years, and black bass needed an act of Congress to save the from meeting the same fate. Cooper also articulates the kind of sustainable hunting practices conservationists would champion in the next century, and he uses his hero to promote an idea central to the North American Conservation Model: that wildlife is a public resource, independent of the land or water where wildlife may live.

Hunters Get Involved
Until the mid-19th century, the white champions of wilderness conservation were academic New England types. (For a complete description of these early conservationists, check out Robert Nash’s seminal work, “Wilderness and the American Mind.”) But that wouldn’t last long. As Thoreau had already pointed out, hunters felt the loss of animal species most acutely, and they soon joined the movement to preserve these wild populations.

The best example comes from the American edition of an 1846 hunting guide published by William T. Porter called “Instructions to Young Sportsmen in All That Relates to Guns and Shooting.” The introduction to the section on North American wildlife consists of an extended excerpt from an essay written by an expert hunter named Frank Forester.

“Instructions to Young Sportsmen” was the first guide of its kind in America, and Forester outlines why such a text is so critical to the relatively new nation of hunters.

Speaking of the animals in the United States, he says, “There is no county in which… their habits are so little known and their seasons so little regarded… and in which, as a natural consequence, the game that swarmed of yore in all the fields and forests… are in such peril of becoming speedily extinct.”

American hunters aren’t malicious, Forester insists. Rather, they are ill-informed. They need more information on the breeding, hatching, and birthing seasons of the animals they pursue, and Forester aims in his writing to instruct hunters in “the gentle science” that teaches “to pursue and slay when in, and how to spare when out of season.”

By including Forester’s words at the beginning of his manual, Porter implies that he intends to do the same, and he follows through on his promise. Porter includes articles from dozens of hunters that describe how to effectively and responsibly pursue game animals—from quail and ruffed grouse to wild cats and moose.

Most articles would sound familiar to MeatEater readers. They include information on habitat, breeding season, hunting strategies, firearms, dogs, game preparation, and responsible hunting practices. The chapter on buffalo, for example, describes a hunting party whose restraint belies the careless, bloodthirsty stereotype of 19th century hunters. They take care to butcher and preserve the elk they kill, and they refrain at times from shooting wildfowl and deer. While the hunters take several buffalo, they do not kill more than they can butcher and carry home. Several hunters have a chance at a herd of buffalo near the end of the hunt, but the author reports that they “very properly abstained from useless slaughter” because “the meat could not be taken.”

That rejection of useless slaughter is repeated three decades later by another hunter, Buffalo Bill’s companion, “Texas Jack” Omohundro.

Texas Jack wrote several articles in 1877 for a hunting and fishing newspaper called The Spirit of the Times, and he articulates a surprisingly humane hunting ethic for one who accompanied Buffalo Bill on his infamous exploits. He describes carrying a slain deer “five or ten miles” to camp to harvest the meat and notes that “a humane hunter will always secure the wounded, if possible.” He even admits to having lost “many a fine day’s hunting” in search of a wounded animal.

Though too optimistic about the resilience of the buffalo population (he told one reporter he doesn’t believe their numbers are decreasing), he praises those hunters who take game in an ethical fashion. He describes a pair of Englishmen whom he guides as “the most sensible men and best hunters” because they “didn’t kill any game and leave it to rot on the ground.”

Admittedly, Texas Jack and William Porter failed to develop the nuanced, scientific conservation philosophy of Leopold and others. But these 19th-century authors nonetheless prove that the most popular American hunters and outdoors writers were concerned about wildlife populations and intentionally promoted habits that would lead to their conservation. Porter’s guide is one of the first indications that Cooper’s conservationist stance was beginning to take root in the minds of American outdoorsmen. That attitude would continue to grow throughout the century.

Ideas Take Hold
The line from Cooper to Thoreau to Porter to Roosevelt to 21st century wildlife agencies isn’t difficult to connect. In each case, appreciation for America’s natural beauty leads directly to a desire to preserve it.

When the Texas Parks and Wildlife email I just received links to beautiful images of the Texas countryside and encourages readers to volunteer to help save it, the email’s authors are drawing on Teddy Roosevelt’s famous quote about preserving the “majestic beauty” of Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Colorado for our “children and their children’s children forever.” But Roosevelt was himself drawing on men like the author of Porter’s chapter on ethical buffalo hunting, who describes the “glorious beauty” of the Rocky Mountains then wonders whether he should “invade her solitudes.” That author, furthermore, mentions Cooper by name, and his descriptions of the Rocky’s majesty would make the Romantic author proud.

Conservationist attitudes existed well before Cooper and Thoreau, of course. The idea that humans ought to steward and protect the land is showing up even in the Bible and Quran, and no one would argue that conservationism writ large began with these authors. Even in an American context, 19th century writers were drawing on works and ideas that existed long before. While I would submit that white Americans in the 17th and 18th centuries were more concerned with dominion over the land than stewardship of it, Native American ethics gave folks like Cooper a framework within which to work. Natty Bumppo famously adopted many of the attitudes and customs of the tribes around him, including a conservationist mindset. If you’re looking for the truly original source of conservationism in America, you’ll have better luck looking to the Pequots than the Pilgrims.

Today, we shouldn’t be discouraged when new, scientifically-driven conservation practices don’t immediately take root in the public imagination. It took nearly a century for appreciation of wild spaces to translate into a robust protection of those spaces. Ideas take a long time to percolate, and Roosevelt and others were ideally positioned to act on of the attitudes and opinions of their forebearers. We’re playing the long game, and if we can continue drawing attention to our nation’s natural beauty and complexity, the next chapter in the American conservation story can be as successful as the last.

Feature image of Natty Bumppo.