These days, the name “George Bird Grinnell” generally doesn’t warrant more than a nod or an askance glance.
Known primarily as an associate of Theodore Roosevelt (who helped Grinnell found the Boone and Crockett Club) as well as longtime editor of Forest and Stream magazine (which eventually merged with Field and Stream in 1930) from 1876 to 1911, Grinnell doesn’t have the high profile of other period conservationists like Roosevelt and (as it so happens, fellow Boone and Crockett founder) Gifford Pinchot.
But, as Montana historian Michael Punke contends in his history Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West, Grinnell is more than an associate. Regarding conservation, and bison especially, he is a prominent figure:
The story of how the buffalo was saved from extinction is one of the great dramas of the Old West. More profoundly, it is a story of the transition from the Old West to the New—a transition whose battles are still fought bitterly to this day. The story is personified in a man, little known today, by the name George Bird Grinnell. Grinnell was a scientist and a journalist, a hunter and a conservationist. In his remarkable life, Grinnell would live the adventures of the Old West even as he helped to shape the New (xvi).
Indeed, when you consider Grinnell’s CV—founder of the Boone and Crockett Club, editor of Forest and Stream, author of numerous books and articles, founder of the Audubon Society, cofounder of the New York Zoological Society, champion of Glacier National Park—it’s astounding his name isn’t as well remembered.
Part of the issue, of course, may be that Grinnell, who never occupied a place of prominence à la Roosevelt or Pinchot, can be seen as a product of his time and as a “type” of conservationist. A passionate hunter who was dismayed at the killing of birds, an adventure-hungry man operating from New York, a Yale graduate galloping around the American West. Last Stand does a great deal to dispel these supposed contradictions while simultaneously affirming that they’re true, in part. All these things made Grinnell who he was.
For instance, Punke shows that Grinnell was ambivalently enmeshed in frontier politics, especially in the period of the terrible Indian Wars, although he would later go on to write ethnologies of Plains tribes such as the Pawnee, Blackfeet, and Cheyenne.
Last Stand also sheds light on how Western myth played a formative influence on Grinnell’s outlook and interests. Young Grinnell was a devotee of Irish writer Thomas Mayne Reid, who wrote adventure stories under the name Captain Mayne Reid. Grinnell gravitated toward the westerns: The Scalp Hunters, The Rifle Rangers, and The War Trail, among others.
Indeed, in 1874, when Grinnell went to the Black Hills as a naturalist under George Armstrong Custer, in search of gold, he recounted meeting some archetypal characters:
One of the civilians that Grinnell befriended was Charlie Reynolds, a man who might have stepped from the pages of Grinnell’s boyhood dime novels. Reynolds already was widely respected among the frontier scout fraternity, and his exploits during the expedition of 1874 would vault him into the pantheon. There were other wild characters as well, including an Arikara scout named Bear’s Ears. In his memoirs, Grinnell would record Bear’s Ears’s campfire story—a tale of losing the woman he loved to “an older and more important man.” When Bear’s Ears tried to kill his rival, he was banished from the tribe, then devoted the next several years to the cause of revenge. As a “sacrifice to the powers,” Bear’s Ears hacked off three fingers from his left hand. He ultimately caught up with his rival, killed him, and, in Grinnell’s words, “gratified his revenge by eating a portion of the enemy’s heart” (79).
Punke’s portrait of Grinnell in Last Stand paints a life of unlikelihood. Born into a prominent business family, Grinnell was expected to enter his father’s firm (Geo. B. Grinnell and Company, which succeeded in part because George Blake Grinnell’s partner, Horace F. Clark, was son-in-law to business magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt) and he did work (for a time) in the company.
It was not the kind of life he wanted, especially when he was exposed to the life of artist and outdoorsman John James Audubon; his widow, Lucy Audubon, taught Grinnell from an early age and he spent much time wandering around Audubon Park as a lad. The Audubons proved to be yet another formative influence, a very different one from the adventures of Captain Reid.
Two things pushed Grinnell back out into the world, however. The company shuttered in 1873, due to the death of Clark and the Panic of 1873; this freed Grinnell to pursue his own interests, however discrete they seemed.
Indeed, Grinnell touched incidentally on so much of the American West in the latter half of the 19th century and early 20th that Punke has to go to great lengths to contextualize it. Which is a rather good thing, as it plays to Punke’s strengths as a historian, as he weaves Grinnell’s life into the social and political implications of the time. Punke paints portraits of government officials, buffalo runners, entrepreneurs, and explorers, among others, to flesh out Grinnell’s varying concerns. And he goes to great lengths to demonstrate how precarious the bison’s position was in this time period, how they very nearly went extinct. It’s not the sort of picture you can get seeing them in Yellowstone today.
Most interestingly, the latter half of Last Stand offers a wonderful summary of Yellowstone’s early history, before the Army arrived, when Yellowstone was populated with opportunists and poachers:
Commercial opportunists, even beyond the trappers and miners, were an early and then ever-present fixture in the upper Yellowstone. When the 1871 Hayden expedition tramped up the Gardner River to Mammoth Hot Springs, they were shocked to find an “impromptu village,” a placed dubbed Chestnutville in honor of its proprietor, one Colonel Chestnut. The colonel was operating a crude spa for customers who swore by Mammoth’s steaming waters as a curative for rheumatism. Reputedly, the hot springs also provided relief for another common frontier ailment—syphilis. (Several early plans for Yellowstone sketched grand visions for the Park’s waters, including an inane 1874 proposal to create a “national swimming school” and a rowing club”) (143).
The fact that in 30 years, Yellowstone went from an ignored parcel of land to a stronghold for American bison is nothing short of miraculous. And with Last Stand, Punke makes a compelling case for Grinnell’s individual contribution to that change. With Last Stand, Grinnell is cast as more than an associate. He’s a figure in his own right.