In 1800, tens of millions of bison roamed the North American Great Plains. By 1900, fewer than 1,000 remained. In The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750-1920 (Cambridge UP, 2000), the University of Kansas Hall Distinguished Professor of History Andrew C. Isenberg explains how this ecological calamity came to pass. Bison populations always fluctuated along with changes to the volatile Great Plains climate. The adoption of horse-based nomadism by several Native societies in the 18th and 19th centuries put added pressure on bison populations, but it was the imposition of the capitalist marketplace in the form of white hunters who turned the dynamic bison population into an unsustainable tailspin. In this new 20th anniversary edition with an added foreword and afterword, Isenberg relates the book’s genesis and reflects on its legacy and the historiographical context of environmental history’s early days. Additionally, Isenberg argues that the story of the bison’s destruction serves as a warning to societies like 21st century America that rely overmuch on a single resource survive, and who ignore the chaotic nature of global environments at their own peril.
Stephen Hausmann is an Assistant Professor of US History at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. He teaches courses on modern US history, environmental history, and Indigenous history and is currently working on his book manuscript, an environmental history of the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming.
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