THE PASSENGER PIGEON
They say that when a flock of passenger pigeons flew acrossthe countryside, the sky grew dark. The air rumbled andturned cold. Bird dung fell like hail. Horses stopped andtrembled in their tracks, and chickens went in to roost. "I wassuddenly struck with astonishment at a loud rushing roar,succeeded by instant darkness," the ornithologist AlexanderWilson wrote after he encountered a pigeon flock along theOhio River in the early 1800s: "I took [it] for a tornado,about to overwhelm the house and everything around in destruction." Wilsonsat down to watch the flock pass over, andafter five hours, he estimated that it had been 240 miles longand numbered over two billion birds.
Since the extinction of the passenger pigeon in 1914whichwould seem nearly as astonishing as the flocksthemselvesAmericans' collective memory of the specieshas grown vague. We tend to confuse the birds with the domesticcarrier pigeons, still very much in existence, thatserved as messengers during the two world wars. The passengerpigeon, or "wild pigeon," looked like a large mourningdove, and ranged across the eastern half of the continentfrom Quebec to Texas. It did not perform feats of heroism inwartime, but by all accounts was hard to miss, and was oneof North America's more riveting natural wonders. In 1831,John Jay Audubon wrote about a forty-mile-wide pigeonroost he had seen in Kentucky. "Some persons have thoughtfit to consider my account of this species as fabulous," he defendedhimself several years later, "[but I] could easily haveobtained corroborative statements." Like Audubon, manychroniclers claim they had witnesses. Others claim sobriety.Some refuse to try: "too strange to describe"; "beyond thepower of this pencil to portray." A typical wild-pigeon roostblanketed hundreds of square miles of forest. The underbrushdied, the trees were entirely denuded of their leaves, dungpiled up inches deep, and century-old trees keeled overunder the cumulative weight of the nine-ounce birds.
We know the exact day of the extinction: the last passengerpigeon died on September 1, 1914, in the CincinnatiZoo. The last of seven captive birds, she was named Martha.In the wild, however, the species was effectively extinct by1900. The number of birds had declined rapidly, almost in aninstant, from billions in the 1870s to dozens in the 1890s.What happened? At the time, people weren't exactly sure. Infact, many refused to believe it: thirdhand reports circulatedthat ship captains had spied the flocks over the Gulf of Mexico,and there were putative sightings in Chile, Bolivia andalong the coast of Russia. "They went as a cannon-ball isdropped into the ocean," the game dealer Edward Martinwrote, still mystified in July 1914, "now in plain sight, then asplash, a circle of ripplesand nothing." It was "as if theearth had swallowed them."
Others charged angrily that game dealers and commercialhunters such as Martin had destroyed the pigeons. Since the1860s, as the rapid westward expansion of rail lines linked thestill-rich game haunts of the rural Midwest to fast-burgeoningeastern cities, market hunters had been harvesting gamein unprecedented numbers. By all accounts delectable, pigeonswere also the target of choice in the newly popularsport of trap shooting. As market hunters cleared the gamebirds of the Midwest literally county by county, the pigeonhunts became notorious: at a famous 1874 nesting in westernMichigan, four hundred market hunters shipped outtwenty-five thousand pigeons every day for five to six weeks.By 1890 the game business had driven eskimo curlew, goldenplover and other species to the brink of extinction. Buffaloherds vanished exactly in these decades, and their sudden declinemet with the same disbelief: surely the enormous herdsmust have fled to Canada or other more hospitable climes.The bison, we know, never left the Great Plains in any numbers.And the passenger pigeon would never recover. "Noother bird," the naturalist John Muir waxed nostalgic in1913, "had seemed to us so wonderful." The next yearMartha died, and she was taken to the Cincinnati Ice Company,frozen in a three-hundred-pound block of ice, andshipped to the Smithsonian. And while Edward Martin stillharbored a faint hope that some birds might "yet be hiddenin the vast forests of the Amazon," the extinction finally persuadedmany Americans that the continent's wildlife was finiteand that much of it had been destroyed.
An extraordinarily active posthumous phase of the pigeons'history had already begun. My choice of the story ofthis extinction to launch a wide-ranging inquiry into Americans'connections to nature follows a well-established tradition.By 1900, American conservationists had already begunto invoke the loss of the pigeon flocks as one of our mostdevastating encounters with nature. The birds' disappearancefueled a reckoning, an inquiry. After 1914, a stream of essays,histories, children's books and novels about these birds wouldappearand the stories continue, because the wild pigeons,if they are congregating at the South Pole, waiting for us toreform our ways, still haven't returned. Civic groups haveerected monuments to the pigeons in Michigan, Wisconsinand Pennsylvania. "No living man," Aldo Leopold wrote in1949 in A Sand County Almanacthe post-World War II environmentalistbible"will see again the onrushing phalanxof victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across theMarch skies."
What happened? We will never know the exact causes.Hunting, deforestation and disease have been the preeminenttheoriesin that order. With the hindsight of ecological science,we do know that the very species that look most inalterablyabundantthe great auk, the Carolina parakeet, thepassenger pigeoncan in fact be unusually vulnerable topopulation declines, since the enormous groups in whichthey live are so often essential to their survival. Hunting mayhave driven these flocks below a minimum populationthresholdin combination, perhaps, with disease or the destructionof forest habitat.
Still, the postmortem on wild pigeons not surprisinglyhas focused not on their biological weak points but ratheron us. As the refrain of a 1973 folk song asks, "God, whatwere we thinking?" What we do know is that in the late-nineteenthcentury Americans' encounters with naturechanged. As urban populations exploded, the economic usesof natural resources increased exponentially, and the destructionof game species became a bellwether for our tiesto nature in the coming century. Extinction stories beg naturallyfor moralseven for the dinosaurs: were they overconfident?too carnivorous?and the passenger pigeon hasbeen the most spectacular modern extinction. Leopoldwrote his elegy to the species for the 1947 dedication of amonument to Wisconsin's last pigeon. The stone lies inWyalusing State Park, just south of the site of the great 1871nestingseventy-five miles long, where the game businesshad shipped out 1.5 million birdsand the plaque condensesthe standard moral of this story into a single sentence:"This species became extinct through the avarice andthoughtlessness of man."
My own version is longer. Who exactly drove the pigeonsto ruin? What were, their specific motives? To find the meaningin the extinction, I haven't looked for timeless human failingssuch as "man's avarice." Rather, I've looked at Americans' fast-changingconnections to the wild natural world, as urban populationsexploded and market networks grew rapidly morecomplex. Above all, in pursuit of my own question"Whatdoes nature mean to me?"I've looked for the changingmeanings of passenger pigeons in people's lives. Before the extinction,what did the pigeons mean: what did people do withpigeons, and say about them? What did the flocks mean in the1870s and 1880s? And what did they mean after?
To get to the moral you have to go back to the fable,to the once upon a time, to tales about everyday life. Inthe 1870s, market hunters were netting pigeons in Wisconsin.Farmers were leaving their fields to work for thehunters. Sportsmen in Chicago were signing up to competein weekend trap shoots. People were shopping for pigeons inthe outdoor markets in New York City, and chefs at restaurantslike Delmonico's were deciding which vegetables toserve with pigeons and how to prepare the sauce. The skywas dark. The air was rumbling. What were these peoplethinking?
In the early 1700s, when pigeon flocks flew over Philadelphia,Americans were climbing onto the rooftops with sticksand knocking the birds out of the sky. For people who preferredto use guns, pigeon shooting was particularly fine justwest of Broad Street. By 1720, city officials had legislated afine of five shillings for shooting pigeons in the streets. In1727, Quebec authorities passed a similar act
because ... everyone takes the liberty of shooting from his windows the threshold of his door the middle of the streets without thinking of the passer-by the old people the children who cannot take shelter ... from the danger to which they are exposed by ... people of whom the greater part know nothing about the handling of guns.
Little expertise was required, however, since a shot into thesky generally brought down enough meat for dinner. TheQuebec ordinance also made leaving work to shoot pigeonsa criminal act. During one pigeon flight in 1821, the constablein colonial Toronto arrested lawyers, the sheriff, andmuch of the town council before he gave up and proclaimedopen season in the town square.
When pigeons flew over settlements, people followed.Fields tended to lose their farmers, shops their shopkeepersand schools their children. "Here they come!" the Kentuckysettlers around Audubon had cried. Where pigeons nestedand roosted, hundreds of people converged on the site,which was not entirely a safe thing to do. The overheadflocks precipitated a mixed hail of dung, branches, wholetrees and bludgeoned birds. The uproar, like a "hard gale atsea," rendered inaudible the firing of one's own shotgun. Dependingon the season and local custom, American colonistsshot pigeons, netted them, knocked them down with sticks,ignited pots of sulfur beneath them, or chopped down treesstacked with eighty or a hundred nests apiece. In Tennessee,settlers set fire to the nest trees and returned later to gatherup the squabs, the young pigeons, that had toppled to theground, roasted alive.
Pigeons didn't show up near any one settlement veryoften. Foraging for the heaviest crops of seeds and nuts, especiallybeechnuts and acorns, the flocks migrated upthrough the northern colonies in the spring to nest, and backsouth in the fall. In most beech and oak species, a stand oftrees produces a bumper crop every two to ten years. AroundNiagara in the 1700s, the flocks came every seven or eightyears, and the settlers called these "pigeon years." For weeks,pigeons glutted the town markets. The colonists broiled androasted pigeons, stewed them in gravy and jellied them in acalf's-foot broth. They salted the birds away in barrels for thewinter. Eventually people would long for feathers and thestench of poultry to lift from the air, but for a while the pigeonsprovoked spontaneous revelry in the streets. When theEnglish traveler Andrew Burnaby arrived in Newport inautumn 1759, and could find hardly any fare at the tavernsbesides pigeon, he had stumbled upon a "pigeon year" insouthern Rhode Island. Above all, colonists made pigeon potpies. After the extinction many former pigeon hunters wouldreminisce about pot pie with as much regret and fondness asfor the birds themselves. A good pot pie had five or six pigeonsinside, and stuck in the middle, "three feet nicelycleaned, to show what pie it is."
What were colonists thinking? What exactly did pigeonsmean? In retrospect, environmentalists often have pinned thelater devastations of game animals to a utilitarian, Judeo-Christianview of nature that European immigrants brought to NewWorld lands; and I agree, the colonists thought of the pigeonsas useful to humans and as economic resources. The first Englishreports on New World landscapes in the 1600s read a lotlike marketing lists. In the case of game, the rough, muddycolonial roads (English travelers complained endlessly aboutpotholes) kept the early markets small and localpigeonsjostling in the back of a wagon for two days would make bettercompost than piethough even by the mid-1600s, thevery first generation of colonists had destroyed game populationsnear the large settlements. Yet there were farmers, shopkeepers,boys and girls who were thinking about nothing butpigeons for weeks at a time. The colonists appreciated pigeonsin other ways, too. They valued the wildlife and lands aroundthem for many reasons at once. Wild pigeons were economicresources to shoot and eat and to sell. They were also a naturalwonder, and an occasion for celebration.
In fact, the wild pigeons fueled the widely shared convictionthat Americans could never deplete their resources.While in the 1990s, that logic may be hard to grasp, colonistsperhaps would have had to summon even greater imaginativepowers to envision the comparatively empty, devastatedlandscapes that have become so familiar to us. Six-foot lobstersin the surf, rivers swarming with salmon and coveredwith ducks, woods "abounding with deer, and the trees withsinging birds": the abundance of North American wildlife inthe 1600s and early 1700s sounds almost as biblical today asit must have seemed to European settlers (with decidedlymore biblical turns of mind) who left behind Old Worldlands that had been overhunted for centuries, and where theupper classes held game preserves under strict control. Whileeven the first settlers depended primarily on domestic Europeancrops and livestock, they supplemented freely with wildgame. Occasionally, when the crops failed due to drought oran early freeze, colonists relied on hunting as an essentialstopgap. Reports to England seldom failed to mention thefree and abundant game, or the wild pigeons: "I have seenthem fly as if the airy regiment had been pigeons, seeing neitherbeginning or ending, length or breadth of these millionsof millions."
To shoot and eat a game bird in the American colonies becamea defining New World act. Think of Thomas Morton inMassachusetts in the 1620s, reporting back that he had seen athousand geese "before the mouth of my gun," and had fedhis "dogs with as fat geese there as I have ever fed upon myselfin England." The geese were American. So was their easyabundance, their impressive lard-to-bone ratio, their frequentpresence on the table, and not least, one's freely held, unregulatedright to shoot them. Going off to shoot pigeons orgeese, and hauling strings of them back home, became activitiesresonant with one's experience of daily American life.The hunt meant so much more than mere utilitarian gain. Togo hunting was to tap into the continent's bounty, to supplementthe table, to exercise your skill with a shotgun, perhapsto band together with neighbors after plowing. You also expressedyour rights or ideals in a fledgling polity. Hunting wasat once an ecological, economic and political thing to do, asocial event and a sport. It was like telling a story to yourself,about yourself. Not actually a story told out loud: the hunt wasmore a cultural play, a story acted out in the course of day today living, about your relationships to birds but also to oneanothera story about where you lived, who your neighborswere, how you made a living and what you believed. In thecourse of their encounters with pigeonsas they invested naturewith small worlds of meaningpeople were also doinga great deal of thinking about themselves.
You could make especially emphatic meanings with pigeons.A waterfowl hunt brought together a few neighbors,but a pigeon hunt, which mobilized an entire county, enacteda more powerfully meaningful story about the socialties that knit these rural communities together. Likewise, tobag "thirty, forty, and fifty pigeons at a shot" was practicallyto caricature your political claims to American game. And ifsettlers relied on other game animals during lean times, thepigeon hunts, when necessary, enacted a more dramatic culturalplay about the weak points of the colonial economy: in1769, during a widespread crop failure in Vermont, pigeonsstaved off starvation for thirty thousand people for six weeks.Above all, more than any other piece of the New World, pigeonflocks symbolized the continent's natural bounty. Thesalmon, geese and lobsters inspired believe-it-or-not reports,but the pigeons' abundance seemed quite literally biblical,like "the quails that fell round the camp of Israel in thewilderness." Eventually the pigeons' disappearance wouldsymbolize Americans' rapid conversion of a landscape ofabundance into one of scarcity. The pigeons would narratethat story with special effectiveness, too.
Pigeon Years Every Year
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, European settlerswere just one of many human groups who encounteredpigeons. Until the late 1700s, colonists inhabited far smallerregions of eastern North America than did Native Americans.Some if not all indigenous societies east of the plainsused wild pigeons intensively, and thought about themdeeply. And some parts of the nonhuman natural world, nomatter the humans, seem inevitably to carry unusual doses ofmeaning. The Senecas, of what is now western New York andPennsylvania, have left the best historical record as pigeonhunters. In Seneca legend,
a white pigeon once flew into the forest lodge of a noted old man, the Wild Cat. White Pigeon informed the old man that all the various tribes of birds had held a council at which it had been decided that the wild pigeons should furnish a tribute to mankind, because their Maker had selected the wild pigeons for this important duty.
Like the colonists, Senecas believed that pigeons were put onearth for humans to use. Yet their stories and worlds of meaningwere different, and apparently more sustainable: pigeonflocks had been nesting on Seneca grounds for hundreds ofyears. The group's history dates to at least A.D. 900, and pigeonbones have been found at archaeological sites.
An Iroquoian group, the Senecas were major parties inthe 1700s to the warfare among the British, French, Iroquoisand Americans. Of the many white captives they adopted, afewsuch as Horatio Jones, who was captured as a teenagerrecountedthe pigeon hunts in memoirs, or "captivity narratives,"that became an early-American literary craze. Onespring, around 1782, a runner arrived in a village on theAllegheny River, shouting, "Pigeons, pigeons!" "All was nowbustle and confusion," Jones remembered, "and every person ...at once set out" on a two-day trip north to a pigeonnesting on the Genesee River. As Seneca bands from all overconverged on the site, they built huts to "[afford] a fair shelter"for several weeks. The men chopped down small treestopplingsquabs so stuffed with beechnuts that the young birdsoccasionally exploded on impactand women and childreneither bludgeoned the squabs, pinched their heads at the templesor wrung their necks. "It was a festival season," Joneswould write, "and even the meanest dog in camp had his fillof pigeon meat." Senecas boiled pigeons and stewed them.They dried the birds in smoke and packed away thousands inbags and baskets. Sometimes they served them in bunches of ahalf dozen, tied together by the necks and with the bills pointingoutperhaps, as the colonists did with pot pies, to showwhat kind of dish it was?
At first glance, these events appear remarkably similar inact, method and meaning to pigeon years in the colonies.Senecas killed uncountable numbers of birds, using expedientmethods. They ate and thought about nothing but pigeonsfor weeks, and enjoyed it immensely. A pigeon huntwas a large-scale social affairnot like the fall deer hunt orthe maple harvest in early spring, when the clans split intofamilies. In fact, the Senecas sometimes used "pigeon time"to conduct tribalwide business, such as the allotment ofplanting grounds to clans. In the evenings, people gathered tosing, dance and tell tales. Horatio Jones arranged his ownmarriage at a pigeon nesting. Hunting pigeons was muchmore than the simple act of killing and eating pigeons. InSeneca society, too, the hunt was a featured economic, socialand political event.
In the long view, the hunt and its meanings look very different.Senecas dispatched scouts to find a nesting every singleyear, while colonists hunted pigeons only when theflocks happened to fly near. The clans hunted for a few specificweeks, in the spring, when the squabs fledged. AndSenecas never killed adult birds. As White Pigeon had emphasizedto Wild Cat, "young pigeons were to be taken in theproper season"an injunction that, whether intentional ornot, encouraged Senecas to keep the adult breeding populationintact. The pigeon hunt was part of the Senecas' annualsubsistence cycle. The nestings occurred at a critical time ofyear, after maple sugar harvest and before planting, whenwinter grain stores were depleted or scarce. For Senecas andcolonists alike, a pigeon hunt enacted stories about everydaylife. The Senecas' hunts, however, narrated a different economiclivelihood, of traveling across watersheds to exploitseasonal wild resources. Seneca pigeon time was shorter, regular,predictable, vital.
According to tales the clans retold in the evenings, they had
learned these songs ... from a superior people [the pigeons] and so we must cherish this ceremony. We have learned, too, that in dancing we must always make the circuit of the fires in one certain direction, namely, from the right toward the left.
Downstream along the Hudson River, colonists were swappingtales about how many birds they'd killed with one shot.The Senecas were playing too, but they were playing byrules. Like the daytime hunting frenzy, the nightly revelrywas more deliberate: if the pigeons had been put on earth forhumans to use, and agreed to this destiny, the people owedthese songs and dances in return. The colonists' storiesshowed no such restraint. Pigeons, pigeon killing and pigeonrevelry all contributed critically to making the Seneca worldwork as it should. To the settlers, pigeons meant many things,but in the colonial world of markets, towns and farms, gamebirds served no absolutely vital economic, spiritual, social orpolitical purpose: in eighteenth-century cookbooks, you canfind many more recipes for chicken.
To say Indians historically were more "connected" to naturehas become a truismas if somehow, after European conquest,the continent of North America lost its meaningfulness,like steam into the desert air after a hard rain. Yet colonistsmade the nonhuman world around them highly meaningful.Both societies used pigeons intensively. Both put pigeons tohuman purposes and valued them through human eyes,whether stewing birds, selling them or enacting and enjoyingthe pigeon hunts as an understanding, or story, about the tiesto people and to nature that knit that world together. All humansare connected to nature: white Americans, like all people,have always made nature meaningful. What changes is notthe fact of connection, or the amount of meaning, but thecontent of each. European immigrants brought utilitarianmarkets, that would encourage overintensive use of resources;in the 1800s, Senecas, too, would participate in the pigeon andgame markets. Regardless, people's connections to specificwild resources were not essential. As the webs of varied meaningsreflected, the colonists' ties to pigeons were expendable.
An Almighty Dollar a Dozen
In the 1780s and 1790s, the Iroquois, who had allied themselveswith the British during the Revolution, ceded muchof their land in treaties with the new American states. Asearly as the 1750s, pigeons already had become scarce on theeastern seaboard. New and improved roads, canals and eventuallyrailroad lines rapidly expanded the markets west. Gamedepletions followed in the wake of new transport routes.And the meanings of wild pigeons changed as markethunters and urban consumers encountered pigeons, too. Inthe early 1800s, market hunters shipped passenger pigeonsfrom upstate New York on schooners down the HudsonRiver. In the 1840s, hunters shipped wagonloads of pigeonsto New York City over the new Newburgh and CoehectonTurnpike, across former Seneca lands. As late as 1833, settlerswith pigeon fever were shooting at flocks in Chicago's mudstreets, and as late as 1864, the citizens of St. Paul werebrazenly ignoring laws against the discharge of firearms inthe center of town. By 1870, however, the only wild pigeonsin Chicago, New York or St. Paul were piled in the stalls ofoutdoor city markets, shipped by rail from the last regionwhere large flocks still nested, in the still extensive forests ofthe northern Midwest.
Pigeon fever erupted in Sauk County, Wisconsin, late inApril 1871. Also in Columbia, Juneau, Adams, Monroe andJackson counties. The pigeons nested across a swath of southernWisconsin ten to twelve miles wide and roughly seventy-fivemiles long, from the oak groves of Black River Falls tothe dells of Baraboo. "Never in the history of the La CrosseValley," reported the newspaper in Sparta, on the nesting'snorthern edge, "were such myriads of pigeons seen, makingthe whole valley resound with the noise." Near Kilbourn, onthe southern edge, "a stranger would have thought it aboutwar-time.... [everyone] had a gun or wanted to borrowone." One merchant sold over sixteen tons of shot. The LaCrosse Valley had entered pigeon time.
The Milwaukee-St. Paul Railway had extended its lines toKilbourn in 1857, Sparta in 1858, and Black River Falls in1870. "Hardly a train arrives," the Wisconsin Mirror reported,"that does not bring hunters or trappers.... Pigeons areshipped to all places on the railroad, and to Milwaukee,Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, New York andBoston." Pigeons were selling for fifty cents a dozen in Milwaukee,and two dollars in New York. By 1870, as the swiftlyexpanding game business made market hunting a feasible (ifdifficult) career, hundreds of specialized "pigeoners" weretracking pigeon flocks through the Midwest. At the LaCrosse Valley nesting, the pigeoners hired local farmers todrive wagons and hunt. They shipped pigeons in ice to gamedealers in the cities, and sent live birds to sporting clubs fortrap shoots: they stayed up all night hammering together barrels.When the squabs fledged, they snapped off the heads andloaded the fat bodies into wagons. They filled the expresstrains to capacity and made special arrangements to ship thebirds east on midnight freight trains. Packing pigeons thirtydozen to the barrel, they shipped more than twenty barrelsdaily from each of half a dozen stops on the railway line.
A pigeon hunt was still a sociable event. The flocks stilldrew huge crowds and provoked a single-minded massivefrenzy. Over one hundred thousand peopleroughly equalto the resident population of the six countiesconverged onthe valley. Farmers were still stuffing pigeons into pot piesalthoughit was "no longer fashionable to have the feet of thepigeons sticking out of the slit in the top of the paste" (accordingto one Philadelphia cookbook, but the new rulesmay not have achieved hegemony yet in the rural Midwest).However, the varied meanings of the pigeons had changed.In the evenings, there must have been fewer conversationsabout pot pie, and far more about wholesale prices, railwayexpress charges and daily rates for wagons. By 1871, themeanings of pigeon fever centered squarely on money.
Money: twentieth-century laments have made it the chiefculprit. These scenes of market hunting in the Midwestquickly became the cause and meaning, the root and moralcenter of the extinction. In 1907, the sportsman William Mershonbitterly blamed the demise of wild pigeons on "the greedof man and the pursuit of the almighty dollar." Sponsors of the1947 monument to Wisconsin's last passenger pigeon "theavarice and thoughtlessness of man"sited the stone strategicallyjust south of the La Crosse Valley. In fact, while the 1871nesting was one of the first nestings in the northern Midwestthat hunters tapped as vast cash faucets, an 1878 nesting inEmmett County, Michigan, just south of the remote upperpeninsula, would be the very last, before the flocks vanished.But "the greed of man"? Pigeons still meant far more thaneconomic gain. And the meaningful reasons people convertbirds into cash are far more varied and complex.
As money, what did pigeons mean? In Sauk County in1871, the "almighty dollar" was more almighty than many ofthe local farmers, for their part, would have liked. Since the1850s, declining soil fertility across southern Wisconsin haddiminished the viability of wheat as the area's staple crop.Amid statewide ventures to diversify in the 1860sWisconsindairies emerged from this crisisfarmers in Sauk Countyhad tried planting hops, just when the hop louse devastatedhop fields in the East, and few Americans wanted to go withoutbeer. Kilbourn, the county seat, flourished as the world'scenter for hops productionuntil 1868, when the hop lousearrived and ruined hundreds of farmers, many of whom intheir enthusiasm (and greed?) had failed to reserve even anacre of land to raise grain for personal use. While settlers inthe 1700s had feared disastrous crop failures as a danger tosubsistence, most of these local Wisconsin pigeon huntersfeared the dangerously volatile markets. For Sauk Countyfarmers, as for all people, to hunt pigeons was to play out anunderstanding of one's time and placeand one's role in theworldand the market hunts told a story most effectivelyabout the uncertainties of the cash-based economy in whichmost farmers were now firmly enmeshed. After the CivilWar, as new rail lines connected rural counties to large easternmarkets, farmers all over the Midwest were diving deeplyinto debt to invest in new machinery to boost production,and many lost their gambles in market crashes such as thePanic of 1873. The wild pigeon hunts, of course, told thestory even more emphatically. "Altogether," sighed the editorof the Sparta Herald, "it seems likely that we can `live on pigeonpies' for a while, whether we are able to `read our titleclear,' or not." When the pigeons arrived as plentiful andwell-timed as manna during a severe agricultural depression,they made dramatically obvious the opportunities and drawbacksof being a market player.
As for the pigeoners, the itinerant hunters, these men pursuedlivelihoods that were even more precarious. Hunterswere the least-well-paid players in the game business, whichwas not hugely profitable to begin with. During other seasons,they hired out as farmhands or pork packers. Men whohunted for a living were traditionally scorned as lower-classlayabouts who eschewed steady work. According to H. ClayMerritt, a very industrious hunter who personally cleanedout entire midwestern counties, this reputation was undeserved.But Merritt and his colleagues didn't eschew money,either, and compared to most game species, pigeons were likecash that grew on trees. Pigeons were what hops had been tothe farmerscloser to the main chance than you usuallycould get. Of the stories embedded in full-time markethunting, the pigeon tales may have been especially gratifyingto enact.
Without doubt, avarice had something to do with the fortunes,and the meanings of the pigeon hunts, in the LaCrosse Valley in 1871but the pursuit of money was notpowered solely by greed. As money, the pigeons still meantmany things. They were still expendableeven more so, as acommodity interchangeable with every other. In these websof meaning, however, the meaning of every pigeon hadchanged. In the 1700s, colonists had turned pigeons into pie,soup and feather pillows. But in the 1870s, people convertedthe birds into cash. And they converted the cash into seed,plows, shotguns and powder. On May 18, 1871, the JuneauCounty newspaper, the Mauston Star, with notices for sixforeclosure sales, ran advertisements for land, flour, feed, wagons,saddles, milling, boots, shoes, threshing machines, feedgrinders, wallpaper, pianos, tobacco, fly killer, gargling oil, Dr.Crook's Wine of Tar, coffins, fire insurance and pain-freedental workto name just a few things the pigeons mighthave meant or become that day.
What were people thinking? There is a world of differencebetween thinking of a pigeon as pigeon pie and thinking ofit as cash or a plow. You could convert any game bird, likeany crop or pig or deer or bucket of milk, into a plow. Ascash, the value of a wild pigeon had become more abstract.The bird and its meaning had lost some uniquenessand thepigeons, if anything, had always meant something highlyunique. As the writer Leah Hager Cohen has described commodification:We "strip objects ... bare of their originalidentities," and "find we can compare apples and oranges."Market players disconnected the meaning of a pigeon frommany specifics of a pigeonthe bird's habits, its taste. Thatpigeon, you could say, lost some of its "pigeonness." At thescenes of the market hunts, as people converted pigeons tocash, they invested the pigeons with meanings that did notsay much specifically about the birds themselves.
Copyright © 1999 Jennifer Price. All rights reserved.