Recognizing Environmental History When We See It

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By Jake Breadman, Rosemary Giles, and Kaitlyn Carter. Introduction by Andrew Watson.


How do we know environmental history when we see it? Well, there needs to be a good story. The story needs to feature the non-human, or more-than-human, prominently. But of course, that’s not enough, because we also need people involved. If we’re lucky that story jumps right out at us. We might not be able to immediately understand or explain the story in the first instance, but we know it’s there. When we see it, we know there’s some environmental history there.

In the environmental histories featured in this post, Jake Breadman, Rosemary Giles, and Kaitlyn Carter capture the stories contained in three images that contrast powerful landscape imagery with what appear to be rather ordinary 19th and 20th century North American activities. Breadman unpacks the many important and intimate ways that the natural world shaped the sometimes “drab” lives of people living in Fort Erie at the start of the 19th century. Giles asks us to look beyond the “candid” wartime pose of four sailors with their bicycles looking out at one of the most iconic landscapes of the American West. And Carter explores what the “mundane action” of jumping a fence tells us about the fascination people had with the technological feat of turning off Niagara Falls in 1969.

Each of these short essays are derived from an assignment in Alan MacEachern’s His9833 Environmental History graduate course, which tasks students with writing about a historical image of nature (and people), as seen in photographs, films, advertising, etc.[1] Taken together these essays analyze how images can prompt us to explore some central tenets of North American environmental history, including the tension between the agency of the non-human world and human efforts to control nature, the social and cultural imaginative work that goes into attaching meaning to iconic landscapes, and the settler colonial efforts to define the proper use of the land and resources.

[1] This post is the third time students from MacEachern’s course have contributed their essays to NiCHE for publication. In 2018, Finis Dunaway wrote the introduction for essays by M. Blake Butler, Haley Kalous, and Maggie O’Riordan Ross. And in 2019, Jamie Murton wrote the introduction for essays by Kenneth Reilly, Michael Feagan and Matthew Cleary

“View of Fort Erie With Migration of Wild Pigeons.” 1804. Edward Walsh. Watercolour. 35.5 x 25.4 cm. Sigmund Samuel Collection, Royal Ontario Museum. Accession No. 952.218.

Looking at the Grain: An Environmental Analysis of Edward Walsh’s Old Fort Erie

By Jake Breadman

As Edward Walsh’s 1804 painting Old Fort Erie illustrates, the Niagara River and Lake Erie, on which Fort Erie was located, were bustling highways for transporting goods and people in early-nineteenth century Upper Canada. These highways connected Fort Erie to the hinterlands of the colony and vice versa. Sailors had to abide by the will of nature while traversing lakes and rivers. Winter conditions and adverse wind prevented sailing. In Niagara specifically, sailors had to portage around Niagara Falls and, when traversing the Niagara River, follow its paths of least resistance.[1] Nature rearranged our world, especially in the early-nineteenth century.[2] Of all the aforementioned natural facets in Walsh’s painting, it is the Niagara River and Lake Erie that man struggled to tame.

Particularly notable in Walsh’s painting is the myriad passenger pigeons, a common sight in Upper Canada. Elizabeth Simcoe, who toured Upper Canada with her husband John Graves Simcoe in the 1790s, noted the pigeons were so abundant in Niagara that “the air is somewhat darkened by them[.]”[3] The low-flying pigeons made easy targets for soldiers, even with their inaccurate muskets, allowing them to supplement their insufficient military rations, and providing them with necessary energy.[4] Settlers disrupted passenger pigeons’ habitats through deforestation, but pigeons exercised their agency by constantly shifting to the forests that remained for food, nesting, and roosting, and even assailed settlers’ grain fields.[5] However, the pigeons’ efforts were not enough and, as the nineteenth century progressed, settlers drove them to extinction through mass immigration and deforestation.[6]

Fish, like pigeons, were abundant at Fort Erie and provided an additional food source to soldiers, which the two fishermen in this image indicate. Simcoe noted how soldiers of the 5th Regiment of Foot stationed in Niagara caught “100 sturgeon and 600 whitefish in a day in nets.”[7] While the abundance of fish provided soldiers with fresh protein, nutrients, and energy to perform laborious work, overfishing led to the near extinction of sturgeon by the end of the nineteenth century.[8]

Two of the hunters in this painting are accompanied by hounds. Hounds often assisted their masters in procuring food sources and thus energy. Domesticated dogs had a mutually beneficial relationship with their masters. They helped procure food and, in turn, were fed. Dogs were just as much a hunting tool as a fishing rod or musket, but required energy from their masters. Dogs were also a vital tool for soldiers on the battlefield, warning their masters of imminent danger. For example, British officer Robert Gleig described how he was saved by his dog at the Battle of New Orleans.[9] Additionally, the dogs in this picture reveal something about the class status of the individual hunters. The ruling-class were expected to have multiple hunting dogs for their elaborate hunts, but the ownership of one dog indicates that these individual officers were from the lower-middle class of British society with sufficient expendable income to own a hound but not enough to own a pack.

Soldiers did not solely sustain themselves on protein, and although their rations did not often include vegetables, the military sometimes had gardens for soldiers to sustain themselves, as this image attests. Gardens in peacetime vitally complemented the meagre rations of a small garrison. During wartime, however, an influx of soldiers into these garrisons rendered the gardens insufficient to serve the community. According to British officer Isaac Brock at Fort George, which also had a garden, “provisions are in tolerable plenty – the only complaint arises a want of vegetables.”[10]

Military life may have been drab sometimes, but the food that soldiers ate was anything but. Waterways, pigeons, fish, and vegetables provided soldiers with an array of different consumables to diversify their monotonous rations, as did the hounds that helped them hunt. Grain, in the form of bread, was a staple of the soldiers’ diet and, sometimes, looking at, rather than reading metaphorically against, the (literal) grain can yield equally productive results for historical analyses.

[1] During the Battle of Queenston Heights on 13 October 1812, American Lieutenant Colonel John Christie was swept downstream by the current of the Niagara River due to a broken oarlock, seriously hindering the American plan of attack. Solomon Van Rensellaer, commander of the operation, later blamed Christie for the American defeat, and stated: “To his failure may mainly be attributed all our disasters.” See: Robert Malcomson, The Battle of Queenston Heights (Niagara: Friends of Fort George, 2012), 25.
[2] Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River (New York: Hill & Wang, 1995), 3. 
[3] Elizabeth Posthuma Simcoe, The Diary of Mrs. John Graves Simcoe, ed. by J. Ross Robertson (Toronto: William Briggs, 1911), 209.
[4] George Sheppard notes that the daily ration of a British soldier was a pound-and-a-half of bread, one pound of fresh or salt beef, and half a gill of rum, which he describes as, in caloric terms, inadequate. Sir Isaac Brock allowed soldiers, not just officers, of the 49th Regiment of Foot to shoot wild pigeons to supplement their rations. See: George Sheppard, Plunder, Profits, and Paroles: A Social History of the War of 1812 (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994), 109-111; Wesley Turner, The Astonishing General: The Life and Legacy of Sir Isaac Brock (Toronto: Dundurn, 2011), 37-38.
[5] Christine Ngo, “The Passenger Pigeon: And the Birds Came Tumbling Down…” Niagara Falls Museum. Accessed from:
[6] Errol Fuller, The Passenger Pigeon (New Jersey: Princeton University Press), 72.
[7] Simcoe, Diary, 139.
[8] Great Lakes Coalition, “Lake Sturgeon Monitoring in Lower Niagara River Ensures Fish Recover,” Great Lakes Coalition. Accessed from:
[9] Gleig stated, “[I] was indebted to the vigilance of my faithful dog for my life…[A]n hour after midnight, my dog, which, as usual, trotted a few paces before me, suddenly stopped short at the edge of the thicket, and began to bark violently, and in great apparent anger. I knew the animal well enough to be aware that some cause must exist for such conduct; and I too stopped short, till I should ascertain whether danger were near. It was well for me that I had been thus warned; for at the instant of my halting, about half a dozen muskets were discharged from the copse, the muzzles of which, had I taken five steps forward, must have touched my body.” See: Robert Gleig, The Campaigns of the British Army at Washington and New Orleans, 1814-1815 (London: John Murray, 1836), 314-315.
[10] Ferdinand Brock Tupper, The Life and Correspondence of Major-General Sir Isaac Brock (London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co., 1845), 298-299.

Jake Breadman is a Brock University alumnus and M.A. candidate in Public History at Western University. Broadly, he is interested in colonial Canadian history, especially the War of 1812 and the Rebellions of 1837-1838. His academic interests vary, but he is especially fascinated with social memory and amnesia, environmental history, sensory history, gender history, and the nineteenth century British army. He is currently writing a major research paper on the politicization of Sir Isaac Brock in Upper Canada and Canada West from 1812 to 1859.

Sailors as the Wawona Tunnel, looking out over the Yosemite Valley.  May 19, 1944. Ralph Anderson. Yosemite National Park Archive.

All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go: A Visual Representation of Rehabilitation and Masculinity in Yosemite National Park

By Rosemary Giles

An idyllic scene: four sailors looking out over a valley of pine trees nestled between the tall peaks of El Capitan and the Half Dome, with the Bridalveil Falls peeking out to the right of the third sailors’ cap as they take a break from a gentle bicycle ride through the epic scenery. These sailors look out on one of the most famous views of Yosemite National Park, known as the Tunnel View Vista.[1] This image was published in the History of the United States Naval Special Hospital with the caption “Bicycle Party of Patients.”[2] The Special Hospital was opened in 1943 under the name of the U.S. Naval Convalescent Hospital, and operated out of the Ahwahnee Hotel, located within the limits of Yosemite. The Special Hospital was tasked with rehabilitating sick and injured Navy servicemen to return them to duty, or civilian life.[3] As patients of the Special Hospital in Yosemite, these sailors were likely undertaking weekend recreation. Bicycles were available for rent to those who were cleared for recreational activities outside of their rehabilitation therapy.[4] Despite the impressive view of Yosemite, what first draws the viewer’s attention to the image is the incongruity of United States Navy men, appearing in uniform hundreds of kilometres from the ocean.

Initially, this image appears to be shot in a candid style, sailors looking out over a mountainous valley while out on a ride with their bicycles. However, on closer inspection, one can see that the image is likely staged. All four of these men are pictured in their naval dress uniforms and it is doubtful that these men would wear these uniforms, instead of something more practical, as they biked around Yosemite. In subsequent images published in the History of the United States Naval Special Hospital, sailors are frequently depicted in civilian clothes, occasionally with their sailors’ cap, while they are partaking in recreation, a marked contrast to this image.[5] The staged nature of the photograph combined with its use in The History of the United States Naval Special Hospital indicates that it was likely used as a promotional image for the naval rehabilitation program.

As successful propaganda, the image leaves the viewer with a sense of awe; the sailors in dress uniform in the foreground and the mountainous view in the background. The sailors looking out at a peaceful mountain vista shows how the location of the Special Hospital in Yosemite was used to promote the physical and emotional rehabilitation of the sailors. As William Cronon argues in “The Trouble with Wilderness; or Back to the Wrong Nature,”nature was often promoted as a masculine sphere, which helps explains the desire of the U.S. Navy to have their soldiers rehabilitate in an area like Yosemite.[6] Before their admittance at the Special Hospital, these Navy men, as with other military members in the United States, would have been considered “physical, sculpted and aggressively masculine.”[7] This “turn to hardness,” referred to by Robert Nye, correlates with the ideas of “rugged masculinity” that were attributed to many natural spaces.[8] Furthermore, Second World War America put an emphasis on the healthy body which was the foundation for a soldier’s military masculinity.[9] Interestingly, this image then depicts those who both adhered to, and contrasted, the idea of military masculinity. They were sailors who no longer had a fit body, or mind, due to injuries gained through military service, yet they used the masculine space of the wilderness to reclaim the military masculine ideal through their rehabilitation. Through both gender interactions with the natural environment and performative military expectations, this image demonstrates the military masculine ideal in wartime America.

Whether intentionally staged this way, or through happenstance, these sailors demonstrate that Yosemite was both a place of respite from the horrors of war, and a place where these men could regain the masculine ideal through outdoor recreation in the park. The sailors pictured here have no apparent injuries, which can be considered a representation of the strength of the rehabilitation program. These sailors act as a symbolic representation of the health and wellness of the Navy, and by extension the United States, as well as the overall success that can be attributed to the rehabilitation program within Yosemite. Whether this image was intended for use outside of propaganda is unclear, but it is designed to show an impressive, masculine, representation of the best that the United States Navy has to offer. It contains four success stories from the rehabilitation program, four presumably injured sailors who were rehabilitated so effectively that they could go on a bicycle ride throughout Yosemite and view the impressive natural wonders that made up the United States. Ultimately, this image was a clever marketing and propaganda strategy, but it also represents the military masculine ideal in wartime America.

[1] National Parks Service. “Viewpoints.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, July 10, 2019.
[2] History of the United States Naval Special Hospital. 40.
[3] History of the United States Naval Special Hospital. 7.
[4] History of the United States Naval Special Hospital. 29.
[5] History of the United States Naval Special Hospital. 20.
[6] William Cronon. “The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” Environmental History 1 No,1. (1996): 12-13,
[7] Robert A. Nye. “Western Masculinities in War and Peace.” The American Historical Review 112, no. 2 (2007): 423. Accessed April 7, 2021.
[8] Nye. “Western Masculinities in War and Peace.” 423.; Cronon. “The Trouble with Wilderness.” 12-13.
[9] Nye. “Western Masculinities in War and Peace.” 424.

Rosemary is a first-year masters student at Western University studying environmental and military history. Her thesis research focuses on the Western Counties Health and Occupational Centre, a rehabilitation home for Second World War veterans that was operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs in London, ON. This research centres on the use of the facility, the vocational training and rehabilitation, as well as the use of nature as a form of therapy for these patients.

“Two Boys Climbing the Fence at the Base of the Dewatered American Falls.” 1969. Albert Knobloch. Niagara Falls Public Library.

Niagara, Interrupted: The Narrative of Conquest at a Dewatered Niagara Falls

By Kaitlyn Carter

Only once in recorded history has Niagara Falls stood completely still as the result of direct human intervention. In 1969, the United States Army Corps of Engineers “turned off” the American and Bridal Veil Falls to complete a geological survey of erosion, and to reshape the Falls as the Corps saw fit to maintain its structure and attraction to tourists. After the installation of a cofferdam in June 1969, the bed of the Niagara River in the channel between Goat Island and the American shore was visible for about five months. The more technical aspects of this dewatering have been skillfully covered by Daniel Macfarlane in his 2016 blog post for NiCHE, “Turning off Niagara Falls… Again: 1969 Redux.” Despite predictions that tourism would be negatively impacted by the dewatering, Niagara Falls actually saw an influx of tourists in June through November.[1] In the image shown above, taken by Albert Knobloch in 1969 and donated to the Niagara Falls Public Library in 2011, two young boys climb over a chain link fence, attempting to reach the boulders that had been exposed by the dewatering of the American Falls. The photograph captures a mundane action against the backdrop of a major technological feat. The boys stand before a man-made fence, separating them from a man-altered natural wonder, and by climbing it, they are overcoming man-made challenges in a comparable way to how humans had overcome natural challenges to reveal the naked cliffs of the Falls.

Historian of photography Joan M. Schwartz argues that we should “think of photographs as active rather than passive, and to ask why they were taken, how they were used, and what they were expected to do.”[2] We can use this photograph to understand the relationship people have to Niagara Falls, especially when it subverts their expectations. This photograph is a monument to one of the many interpretations of Niagara Falls: its conquest by humans. Juxtaposed to the usual feelings of wonder and powerlessness evoked by the roaring Niagara Falls, the exposed cliff face minimizes the mystery and grandiose narrative of the Falls. Whereas the unblocked Niagara Falls makes a person feel small, the dewatered and defeated Falls makes humans feel larger than the natural world. It is people that define their surroundings next to a dewatered Niagara Falls, rather than the previously unconquerable Falls themselves. The boys’ presence suggests not only that parents desired their children to see the ingenuity of the American engineers, but also that this conquest over nature was something that could be shared by the average tourist, as the perceived progress of all of mankind’s dominance over nature. 

This photograph was taken on Knobloch’s trip to see the Niagara Falls in 1969. Knobloch, the photographer, was a Niagara local, indicating that he likely visited the Falls to experience the uniqueness of their dewatered state. So did thousands of other tourists who made the trip to see Niagara Falls in the summer and fall of 1969. The increase of tourism to visit a dewatered Niagara Falls is a reflection of the novelty of seeing humanity’s greatest desire realized: complete dominance and control over the natural world. In the minds of tourists, and engineers alike, the barren cliff face of the American Falls expressed man’s ultimate conquest over the power of nature represented by the mighty Niagara Falls. The exposed cliff of Niagara Falls, as captured in Knobloch’s photograph, is where the influence of humans on the environment is the most obvious. After all, the flow of water could only be stopped for an prescribed period of time because of direct human intervention. It is unnatural, constructed, and in many ways uncanny. It is through unambiguous human interference that the Falls stopped flowing in 1969. By pulling back the curtain of water, some of the mystery of Niagara Falls was exposed. As one of the odd occasions where the cliffs of the Falls were visible, this photograph captures a historical and natural anomaly as seen from the perspective of both adult visitors and children.

[1] Pierre Berton, Niagara: A History of the Falls. (Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2002), 496-402
[2] Joan M. Schwartz, “On Photographic Reflections: Nature, Landscape, and Environment,” Environmental History 12 (October 2007): 766

Kaitlyn Carter received her BA(Hons) from Brock University in Spring 2020 and is currently a Master’s student at Western University, researching masculinity, nationalism, and Canadian identity during the 1972 Summit Series.

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