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Death in the Everglades: The Murder of Guy Bradley: America’s First Martyr to Environmentalism by Stuart B. McIver. University Press of Florida. 2003, A Review

February 1, 2017

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Although I haven’t been back since, there was a thirty year period of my life – from the late 1970s to 2008 – when I spent a good deal of time in southern Florida, Hollywood Florida, near Ft. Lauderdale to be precise. After selling our family home where my sisters and grew up in NYC, my mother moved to a condominium retirement community called “Carriage Hills” in Hollywood. It still exists. After her second husband died in a car accident, she lived most of the rest of her life with her older sister, my aunt, Malvina Stone, referred to in the family simply as Aunt Mal. The two sisters lived together there for fifteen years until dementia set in about the same time for both.

I loved visiting my mother and aunt, but had an uncomfortable sense of how, what had been little more than a tropical swamp had been transformed into strip malls, retirement communities and a completely depressing housing boom. There had to be more to Florida than this, I thought? The development craze, already well advanced there, had parallels to the orgy of the same just picking up on the front range in Colorado where I lived (and still live). Give me the swamp teaming with life any day over  southeast Florida strip malls.

Besides, I had an uneasy feeling that all these northerners who had landed in southern Florida were not particularly welcomed by those living there prior to the boom and that the possibilities for all kinds of ugliness was lurking in the shadows not far away. It was particularly unsettling to know that a large KKK group existed in the midst of these retirement communities, very close to my mother’s home.

If I had the time, I tried to get away from the Hollywood-Ft. Lauderdale area, the south-eastern coast, to explore “the real Florida” – whatever that was. There were a number of trips to Lakeland where a cousin lived, to Sanford north of  Orlando to visit old Colorado friend Jay Jurie, and along the western coast around Ft. Myers, itself being built up, but still not yet the craziness of the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale-Palm Beach area. I found bits of another, more genuine Florida in the writings of Marjorie Rawlings (The Yearling, but even better Cross Creek,) Zora Neale Huston, Carl Hiaasen novels, and in  visits with friends Margie Stewart and Ron Young who also had family living in the same area.

Hardly what I would call “a birder,” still on those trips to Florida I was fascinated by the bird life, especially the wading birds, herons white and blue, egrets, ibises, pelicans which were all over the landscape. Pelicans might look kind of dumpy up-close, but watching a formation of them in graceful flight was especially pleasing. It would give me a sensation similar to seeing cardinals in eastern Nebraska.  No, I know little about birds, but from my studies of evolution (which I taught for 30 years) I do know a good deal of what can be observed of the actual mechanisms of natural selection, can be noted by careful observation of bird life. One particular volume on the subject, Ernst Mayr’s Population, Species and Evolution, made a deep impression. A half century later, I still reread and refer to it, now just for fun.

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About a year ago I picked up and quickly read another book, Mr. Hornaday’s War by Stefan Bechtel. It is the narrative of the near extinction of the bison, a volume that should be required reading for every high school student. It was about how paid poachers had killed ten million bison in a matter of a decade after the civil war, both for their hides, but even more simply to “make room” for pioneer farmers and ranchers most brought west, not in wagon trains but with the advent of the railroad across the country.

Shortly thereafter I stumbled across Dan Flores’ American Serengetti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains, which elaborated upon similar themes putting the extinction of so many North American fauna in historical and evolutionary perspective. As a review of Flores’ book at the University of Kansas press notes:

“America’s Great Plains once possessed one of the grandest wildlife spectacles of the world, equaled only by such places as the Serengeti, the Masai Mara, or the veld of South Africa. Pronghorn antelope, gray wolves, bison, coyotes, wild horses, and grizzly bears: less than two hundred years ago these creatures existed in such abundance that John James Audubon was moved to write, “it is impossible to describe or even conceive the vast multitudes of these animals”…Dan Flores draws a vivid portrait of each of these animals in their glory—and tells the harrowing story of what happened to them at the hands of market hunters and ranchers and ultimately a federal killing program in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”

Bechtel and Flores’ writings led me to Stuart McIvoer’s Death in the Everglades: The Murder of Guy Bradley, America’s First Martyr to Environmentalism, which covers much of the same ground, but in the specific location of southern Florida. This book is the story of the southern Florida plume hunts and the efforts to end the trade. It was in the last decades of the 19th century that the use of plumes – the fancy feathers of large wading birds – “escalated into a monstrous fad, fed by prosperous times and new advertising skills that made the product irresistible to a mass market. Explosive demand created a sudden crisis – and an alarming awareness that something had to be done.”

Although the plume trade eventually shrank to naught it was less due to prohibiting plume hunters than into what today would be called a consumer boycott in the markets in which plumed hats were the rage. The Audubon Society, newly organized, played a vanguard role in stopping the slaughter,  and did so just before the birds were hunted to extinction in North America, but not without casualties.

One of the first, considered an environmental martyr today, was Guy Bradley, game warden and deputy sheriff of Monroe County, Florida, whose main work was to stop poaching. He died, assassinated by a neighbor, in the line of duty on July 8, 1905. Southern Florida born and raised, and himself a plume hunter – more for sport than for profit – Bradley knew the ins and outs of the Everglades, and the particulars of plume hunting as well as anyone.

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John Jay Audubon’s Birds of America. Green Heron. Brooklyn Museum

A hunter, fisherman, boat captain, part-time mail man, Bradley – like many environmentalists of the time, did his share of bird killing before coming to the realization that if the killing kept up, so many bird species would be literally wiped out. Other big game, bird hunters of the period had similar epiphanies, among them Hornaby who killed a fair number of bison before began a campaign to save the few that was left, Teddy Roosevelt who killed many big game prior to “seeing the light” and becoming a conservationist. The same goes for John James Audubon, who killed – not scores – but hundreds, probably more – to use in his drawings. So Guy Bradley was not the first hunter who went on to try to save the animals he had killed for sport or profit as a boy.

During a 20 year period approximately 1880-1900, some five million annually were slaughtered so that women could feel fashionable by wearing plumed feathers in their hats (and sometimes the whole bird). The fashion to decorate women’s hats with egret feathers became nothing short of a craze. The feathers of egrets, herons, ibises were especially sought. The birds were hunted in their rookeries, just after the hatching season. Genetically wired to protect their young, these wading birds would sit on their young, care for them and not move. Killing them was quite easy once the obscure hiding places where they hatched and cared for their young were uncovered. These places could be found by following the flight of the birds returning home in the evening.

As the preface of Death in the Everglades notes, “by the final years of the nineteenth century, the plume birds had been driven down to the tip of the country’s mainland, the southern Everglades, [the last major sanctuary for herons and egrets on the North American east coast.] This was the place where the last great battle [to save them] would have to be fought. It would be fought by what was then a new environmental movement, referred to as conservation movements in the day, the Audubon Society. Its effort to save the plumed birds is one of the finest chapters in its long history.

The birds were also killed “for sport,” – that is “for fun.” Tourist steamboats would work their way through Florida’s many swampy rivers, sitting on the deck shooting any animal large or small, that came in sight, all kinds of birds, alligators, bear, it didn’t matter. Lest we think it was only happened in Florida, such mass slaughter of animals and birds for fun” was taking place all over the country. A description of killing wildlife from the deck of a Florida steam ship is found in the preface of the McIver book. The quotation is taken from an 1870’s travel journal. It is produced here in full to give a flavor “the sport:”

“The trees on the banks are set closely as a cane thicket, thus obscuring all view of the surrounding country as effectively as if it were a thousand miles distant. It is to this point the sportsman resorts to indulge his propensity for killing birds, which song songs of joy as we pass; but when wounded their helpless bodies fall into the turbid waters-the last that is seen of them being a fluttering pinion, signaling their sinking condition, with no one to pity or rescue [them]. The click of the rifle is heard on every side from the hands of passengers, with the exciting remark: “O there is another alligator! Sight him quick! Kill him quick!”

In 1886, at the height of the plume bird massacres, the American Ornithologists’ Union issued a paper on the scope of the bird holocaust.

  • The paper’s most devastating charge was that more than five million birds were being killed annually for the millinery trade in the United States alone
  • Among the horrors mentioned were 40,000 terns killed in a single month near Philadelphia
  • 11,018 bird skins bought by a northern dealer in one three-month trip to the South Carolina coast
  • 70,000 birds supplied to New York dealers in a four-month period from a single village on Long Island
  • a contract by a Paris millinery firm for the delivery of 40,000 or more birds at forty cents apiece from Cobb’s Island, Virginia
  • But the greatest number of victims of this craze for plumed hats were the large wading birds of southern Florida, whose deaths numbered in the millions that year.

A description of a rookery devastated by plume hunters is vividly described in the notes of William Earl Dodge Scott in June 1886, investigating the situation of S. Florida’s large wading birds:

“The trees were full of nests, some which still contained eggs, and hundreds of broken eggs strewed the ground everywhere. Fish crows and both kinds of buzzards were present in great numbers and were destroying the remaining eggs. I found a huge pile of dead, half-decayed birds, lying on the ground which had apparently been killed for a day or two. All of them had the “plumes’ taken off with a patch of skin from the back, and some had the wings off. I counted over 200 birds treated this way. The most common species was the reddish egret, though there were about as many Louisiana herons; the other species were the snowy heron, the great white egret, and the little blue heron of both phases of plumage. There were also a few pelicans, white ibises and one or two great blue herons.,.This was the rookery that Mr. Wilkerson had spoken of; within the last few days it had been almost destroyed, hundreds of old birds having been killed and thousands of eggs broken…I do no know of a more horrible and brutal exhibition of wanton destruction than that which I witnessed here.”

This was a rather typical rookery kill.

Oseola - painting by George Catlin. In 1836, Osceola led a small group of warriors in the Seminole resistance during the Second Seminole War, when the United States tried to remove the tribe from their lands in Florida

Oseola – painting by George Catlin. In 1836, Osceola led a small group of warriors in the Seminole resistance during the Second Seminole War, when the United States tried to remove the tribe from their lands in Florida

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McIver weaves the story of the rookery massacres with the early development of Florida in the late 19th, early 20th century when it had been hardly settled. Reading his account, I was struck with how similar are the recent history of both Florida and Colorado (where I have lived for the past half century).

  • Despite their geographic and natural differences, both were among the last frontiers of American expansion, with the lion’s share of the population growth and development coming in the decades after the Civil War.
  • As the 20th century preceded both states experienced out-of control population growth and development on unprecedented scales that has come close to ruining the natural landscape, probably forever, leaving only a thin reminder of what was.
  • Both states are endowed with what can modestly be described as spectacular natural settings, in Colorado the High Plains and Rocky Mountains; in Florida the cornucopia of swamp life and of course its state boundaries bordering on the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.
  • In both states, settlement was essentially a colonial process, that involved outright warfare and genocidal episodes with native peoples who had been there for millenia.. Colorado’s so-called Indian Wars lasted from 1864, the year of the Sand Creek Massacre to 1869, culminating in what is referred to as “the Battle of Summit Springs” – not a battle but another massacre (in which Buffalo Bill Cody played a role). Florida’s  “Seminole Wars” went from 1817 to 1858 pushed the native peoples further south into Florida.
  • In both Florida and Colorado white settlement involved traumatizing – if not destroy – large chunks of the native environment which entailed a wholesale holocaust of virtually all living things, in Colorado the bison, but also wolves, mountain lion, grizzly among others. In Florida it was the plumed birds that experienced the harshest blow but also bear, cougars among others.
  • The growth of the railroads was central to the population explosion in both places, in Colorado the completion of the transcontinental railroad line. It didn’t run through Colorado but through Wyoming, still settlers would take the train to Cheyenne and drop down into Colorado either by stage, wagon train or later a train spur extending from Wyoming along the front range of the Rockies. In Florida’s case, it was the empire building of a former associate of John D. Rockefeller, Henry Flagler whose private wealth would build a railroad into the heart of central and then southern Florida, opening up the state to unending settlement.

 

 

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