The Last Buffalo Hunt & Other Stories (Adventures in the Great American Outdoors) by J. I. Merritt, Pennington, New Jersey: South River Press, 2012.
By Anne Marie Mistretta Explorebigsky.com Contributor
The guns are getting oiled, and the dogs are working with the bumper. These are sure signs that my husband and dogs are going hunting. With my recommendation, the Last Buffalo Hunt & Other Stories by J. I. Merritt will also be along during opening weekend. This history of noted hunters and adventurers provides fodder for the existential conversations whispered in the blinds and can be served up as a side dish of reflection at day’s end during the bunkhouse dinner.
The Last Buffalo Hunt & Other Stories contains short biographical sketches of outdoorsmen and adventurers across the American continent, from the late 1700s “long-hunter,” Daniel Boone, to the early 1900s Custer Wolf tracker, Harry Williams. All of Merritt’s men pressed and extended American frontiers—either along the wilderness or along environmental technological landscapes.
Initial chapters capture the exploits of men who used hunting for subsistence. Some following, such as the one from which the book takes its title, retell the destruction of a species.
The centerpiece chapter recounts the story of Sitting Bull, the Little Big Horn battle victor, who led his Lakota Sioux warriors from Standing Rock reservation confinement to hunt the buffalo, both a nutritional and cultural staple. Certainly, the near extinction of what is today one of our national symbols can be attributed to men like “Yellowstone Vic” Smith, the “champion buffalo hunter,” whose rough apologies in his memoirs recount daily slaughter of thousands of buffalo in the Dakotas: “When we got through the hunt, there wasn’t a hoof left….wish my aim hadn’t been so good.”
However, the buffalo’s fate was already sealed once the Indians learned—sometimes before even meeting a white man—that the animals’ pelts could bring horses and firearms through the trade route. The Lakota Sioux’s last hunt in 1883 was sadly symbolic, like the buffalo’s image struck on the Indian Head nickel.
Other chapters are antidotes to the seeming rapaciousness chronicled here. Merritt dedicates space to the fabled conservationist and naturalist John Muir; the father of modern archery Ishi; pioneer fish culturist Livingston Stone; Teddy Roosevelt, whose obsession with the hunt led to a love of preservation; and to taxidermist Carl Ackely, whose obsession with preservation has educated millions who seek adventure in the halls of New York City’s American Museum of Natural History. Perhaps the best “shots” in the book are those of photographer William Henry Jackson, who while accompanying the U.S. Geological surveys in the 1870s, captured the Wild West without a gun.
Merritt’s attempt to tell of America’s great adventurers sometimes reaches too far. Yet in many instances it’s not inclusive enough. The William Bartram chapter is not satisfying due to its brevity. Readers will have to go to Andrea Wulf’s The Brother Gardeners to learn more about the Bartrams. Also, Merritt fails to include female adventurers, except for a passing reference to Mary Jobe, who makes an appearance as Carl Akeley’s second wife. Jobe was an explorer and naturalist in her own right before her marriage to Akeley and their subsequent safaris to Africa. While Akeley built dioramas for museum patrons, Jobe in 1916 had built Miss Jobe’s Camp for Girls, a saltwater camp in Mystic, Conn., where young women learned outdoor survival skills. Where is Dora Keen, the first person to climb Alaska’s Mount Blackburn? Ah, you have to read Dorcas Miller’s Adventurous Women, The Inspiring Lives of Nine Early Outdoorswomen to understand women adventurers’ perspectives.
Despite some shortcomings, Merritt’s stories chronicle American experiences, capturing the outdoorsmen’s trek across the continent and the formation of our culture of adventure.