Isenberg, Andrew C(hristian)

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ISENBERG, Andrew C(hristian)

PERSONAL: Male. Education: Saint Olaf College, B.A. (magna cum laude; history), 1986; Northwestern University, M.A. (history), 1990, Ph.D., 1993 (history).

ADDRESSES: Offıce—History Department, 102 Dickinson Hall, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544-1017. E-mail—[email protected].

CAREER: Historian. Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, lecturer, 1991-92; University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, WA, assistant professor of history, 1992-94; Brown University, Providence, RI, assistant professor of history, 1994-97; Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, visiting fellow, 1996-97, assistant professor of history, 1997—, Christian Gauss Fund university preceptor, 2000-03. Visiting instructor at St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN, 1990, Concordia University, River Forest, IL, 1991, and School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL, 1992; University of Passau, Germany, guest professor, 1993.

MEMBER: Phi Beta Kappa.

AWARDS, HONORS: Recipient of academic grants and fellowships; National Endowment for the Humanities grant, 1996.


The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750-1920, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 2000.

Contributor of chapter to Transactions of the Sixtieth North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference, edited by Kelly G. Wadsworth and Richard E. McCabe, Wildlife Management Institute (Washington, DC), 1995, and of introduction to The Hunting of the Buffalo, by E. Douglas Branch, University of Nebraska (Lincoln, NE), 1997; contributor to, and reviewer for, periodicals, including Environmental History, Great Plains Quarterly, American Indian Culture and Research Journal, and Journal of Interdisciplinary History.

SIDELIGHTS: In writing The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750-1920, historian Andrew C. Isenberg, who had no formal training in ecology or conservation biology, studied the literature and called on expert colleagues to review his text. His approach was to study historical events in determining how the ecological imbalance that led to the demise of the bison was created.

Bison survived after the glaciers receded, while other herbivores, including wooly mammoths, camels, and horses, were either displaced or became extinct, leaving the bison to dominate the Great Plains of North America. Thirty million bison once lived in North America, while at their most vulnerable they numbered fewer than one thousand. Most studies tend to blame the near-extinction of the bison on one or two causes, but Isenberg theorizes that their loss of numbers resulted from the cultural and ecological relationships between the Native Americans and European Americans.

Eisenberg notes the historic fluctuations in bison numbers, resulting from availability of food and water and weather conditions. They were hunted and killed by wolves and natives peoples, were forced to compete with horses, then cattle, and were the victims of fires, accidents, and eventually diseases transmitted by cattle. However, until the nineteenth century, they always managed to survive, and such hazards helped to control overpopulation. Eisenberg notes that the importation of horses during the 1700s enabled the Native Americans to adopt the nomadic lifestyles that caused them to depend upon the bison. First they, then Euroamerican hunters, decimated the bison numbers; and the fur trade, along with the aforementioned threats, nearly caused their extinction.

Science contributor James E. Sherow noted two studies that Isenberg relies on in reaching his conclusions. In 1962, Symmes Oliver held that the High Plains Native Americans adapted to the activities of the bison herds. "This leads Isenberg to underplay the importance of warfare and disease in shaping the aggregation, dispersal, and migration of Indian bands," said Sherow. "Besides providing proximity to bison and pasturage for large horse herds, the nomadic pattern offered safety from raids and sanctuary from disease." Based on biological studies, Sherow considered as flawed Charles Johnson's 1951 conclusion that bison congregated in the short-grass regions because of higher protein contents in the grasses found there, as opposed to those of the tall grasses to the east. Sherow, however, concluded that herd locations were influenced by human activities, rather than the nutritional content of the grasses.

Sherow also felt that Isenberg oversimplifies the situation by placing all of the grasslands tribes into one of two categories, either "nomads" or "villagers," but concluded by saying that "the approach and interpretation presented in The Destruction of the Bison are a breath of fresh air compared to the stale morality tales of Euroamericans' customary destruction and disrespect for wildlife, and of Native American peoples' proclivities to environmentalism. . . . Isenberg paves a fresh path for understanding the past and present place of humans in the ecosystems they inhabit."

In reviewing The Destruction of the Bison for Ecology, Jerry R. Choate and Eugene D. Fleharty noted that Isenberg "debunks numerous myths regarding bison, most notably the romantic notion that Native Americans practiced sustainable husbandry with respect to the herds of bison. In fact, commercial exploitation of bison by Native Americans both transformed tribal culture and exhausted the natural resource on which the tribes depended." Canadian Literature critic Albert Braz felt that Isenberg "fails to differentiate between subsistence hunting and trophy hunting." Braz pointed out that although First Nation hunters were often wasteful, Euroamerican hunters slaughtered millions of bison for no real purpose. And Mark Spence wrote in the Journal of American History that "the real beauty of Isenberg's scholarship lies in his ability to illuminate the differences between native and non-Indian societies and to find the consistent parallels that shaped all peoples on the Great Plains in the nineteenth century. In the process, Isenberg integrates complex social, economic, and ecological analysis and brings new understanding and relevance to an important subject."



Canadian Literature, autumn, 2001, Albert Braz, review of The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750-1920, p. 238.

Ecology, December, 2000, Jerry R. Choate and Eugene D. Fleharty, review of The Destruction of the Bison, p. 3550.

Journal of American History, September, 2001, Mark Spence, review of The Destruction of the Bison, p. 660.

Library Journal, February 1, 2000, Patricia Ann Owens, review of The Destruction of the Bison, p. 113.

Science, September 22, 2000, James E. Sherow, review of The Destruction of the Bison, p. 2056.*