Miles A. Powell


On his book Vanishing America: Species Extinction, Racial Peril, and the Origins of Conservation

Cover Interview of January 10, 2017

The wide angle

When I commenced research for this book, I planned to focus predominantly on understandings of, and responses to, species endangerment and extinction. Yet archival materials and other primary sources revealed that in historical times many influential conservationists were equally concerned with the perceived racial tolls of environmental change. Beginning by writing eulogies for the supposedly doomed Native American race, and then increasingly fretting over the future of white America, environmental reformers like Madison Grant, William Temple Hornaday, Aldo Leopold, Henry Fairfield Osborn, and Theodore Roosevelt asserted that the same forces that endangered the nation’s wildlife also imperiled particular racial groups. By analyzing these writings, Vanishing America draws together two fields—environmental history and the history of race and ethnicity—that typically receive separate treatment, providing fresh insights into both.

Within these discussions of endangerment, understandings of race and nature converged in multiple ways. Pundits readily applied scientific principles derived from the study of nature to human groups, and the inverse also occurred. In the mid-nineteenth century, influential racial theorists like Josiah C. Nott divided the country’s non-European wildlife and peoples into two categories. On the one side stood buffalo, African-Americans, and other organisms that would supposedly accept domestication to endure in the presence of European creatures. On the other stood wolves, Native Americans, and other beings that defied domestication and would therefore have to be destroyed to facilitate Euro-American progress in the form of expanding agriculture, industry, and commerce.

Around the turn of the century, the intellectual parallels drawn between the imperilment of species and races took new forms. Leading conservationists such as Grant, Hornaday, and Osborn warned that just as alien species threatened native organisms, so too did non-WASP immigrants pose an existential threat to white America. In both instances, the commentators considered the “native” creatures to be superior, yet somehow less competitive within the strictures of an artificial and degenerative industrial and commercial order. Grant and Osborn also drew on game management strategies devised to preserve wildlife, such as the culling of inferior males from breeding stocks, to promote race-based eugenics in the United States.