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Peter Dykstra: The other destructive Columbus

The role of past Secretaries of the Interior in ravaging the West.

"Columbus Delano" is a name that's positively dripping with American history.


A two-term Ohio Congressman in the 1860's, Delano had a reputation for speaking up for the civil rights of recently freed slaves. He seemed a logical choice for President Ulysses S. Grant to appoint as Secretary of the Interior to deal with the burgeoning "Indian problem" in the American West.

By the time Columbus Delano took office in 1870, both the slaughter and relocation of Native Americans and the extermination of bison were well underway. Delano came to embrace the policy that Plains Indians could best be vanquished if their source of food and warmth simply vanished. With an unofficial federal endorsement, millions of bison were slaughtered.

Secretary Delano connected the dots in 1873:"The civilization of the Indian is impossible while the buffalo remains upon the plains. I would not seriously regret the total disappearance of the buffalo from our western prairies, in its effect upon the Indians, regarding it as a means of hastening their sense of dependence upon the products of the soil and their own labors."

And the American bison nearly did disappear. By the end of the 19th century, a few dozen remained.

Targeting political opponents 

​Fast forward: During his time as Ronald Reagan's Department of the Interior boss, James Gaius Watt famously decreed that the Department's symbol, the slowly recovering bison, should face toward the right, not the left. Watt proposed opening up the entire U.S. coastline to oil and gas drilling, despite there being little industry interest.

And this 20th century successor to Delano also said more ominous things about his western political opponents: "If the troubles from environmentalists cannot be solved in the jury box or at the ballot box, perhaps the cartridge box should be used."

I guess we should find some solace in the downgrade from Delano's political genocide to Watt's political homicide. But the "cartridge box" quip might have been right at home at the Capitol on January 6.

Delano's legacy 

One final thought for this era of political cabals, conspiracies, and cancellations: Delano, California is a farming hub currently coping with the crushing drought.

Founded in 1875 and named to honor a certain genocidal, bison-bashing Interior Secretary, maybe it's time for a name change.

Peter Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist and can be reached at pdykstra@ehn.org or @pdykstra.

His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher, Environmental Health Sciences.

Banner photo: American bison. (Credit: dbarronoss/flickr)

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