'Epiphany in the Wilderness': Hunting and Nature in the American West

Lead Research Organisation: University of Kent
Department Name: Sch of History


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).

Planned Impact

Beyond the monograph, which is the main output of this project, I plan a series of events to make the findings accessible to a wider audience.

The basic remit of the project - exploration of the interactions between the two-legged and the four-legged - has a great deal of saliency in a broader community concerned with a) animal conservation and b) issues of environmental exploitation, decline and sustainability. The politicized nature of hunting as a topic also situates the subject as one with a broad public appeal. Moreover, the buoyant appeal of the American frontier and its associations with the Hollywood Western, American gun culture and cowboy antics from John Wayne to George W Bush cements the idea of a project with popular currency.

The intention is to build on these pillars of hunting/environment and the 'wild West' to engage with a wide general audience. The aim of the engagement will be to deconstruct the popular stereotypes of the American West and the figure of the hunter to reveal processes of environmental consumption, appreciation, cataloguing, territorial takeover and myth-making that are readily translatable across divergent geographies.

In particular, I envisage a series of public lectures and workshops to be held at various venues, notably the Powell Cotton Museum, Kent, which will explore the themes of the work. Emphasis will be placed on using visual material and also making the most of the collections at the Museum (dioramas, firearms) to highlight issues of a) animal communication, conservation and hunting and b) gun cultures and the technology of sport.

I will be the principal organizer of the event, although important liaison and outreach will be undertaken by Keith Dunmall (education officer) and Malcolm Harman (curator) of the Powell Cotton Museum.


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Description The main outlet for the project findings to date has been in the field of disseminating information and encouraging debate relating in the heritage sector on issues of cultural history and environmental interaction. This has been effected principally through a series of public talks, arranged in conjunction with a local museum, that dealt with issues of hunting, conservation and animal collection from the 19th century to the present day.
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Environment,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Description Buffalo Bill Historical Center Fellowship
Amount $5,000 (USD)
Organisation Buffalo Bill Centre of the West 
Sector Academic/University
Country United States
Start 04/2013 
End 05/2013
Description After Dinner Speaker 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Supporters
Results and Impact About 90 people attended the talk arranged for the Wildlife and Game Trust, which was held at the Powell Cotton Museum, and inspired a number of questions about the collections and the way in which we interact with environments now and in the past

The talk 'The 'Afterlife of Hunting': Animal Tails and Conservation Tales' provoked questions on hunting and our environmental engagement with landscapes exotic and local. It also raised awareness of the Powell Cotton Museum and its important contribution to the heritage sector. A number of people pointed out they would definitely come back to the museum and look at its galleries after hearing the talk.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
Description Invited Talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I was invited to present a talk at the Last Tuesday Society, London. The talk was entitled 'From 'Death Lock' Antlers to Grizzly Bear Standard Lamps: Taxidermy Animals and the Necro-geography of 19th Century Hunting' (28 Mar 2012) and involved a public lecture and Q&A afterwards

Audience members commented that they had learned a lot about the 19th century mentality from the talk and understood better the Victorian interest in taxidermy
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
Description Visiting Speaker 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I delivered a talk entitled 'Elk, Elephants and Empire: The Nineteenth Century Hunter as a Conservation Hero' as part of the Conservation Heroes series for the Powell Cotton Museum, Quex House, Birchington (21 March 2014). Approx 60 attended for a talk in the museum gallery followed by Q&A.

A number of audience members said that the talk changed their opinions about a) hunting b) conservation c) the museum exhibits (taxidermy) and their importance to understanding natural history and human engagements with animals in the past
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014