Counting Grizzly Bears: An Exercise in Historical Reasoning

George Vrtis, Carleton College
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This material was developed as part of the Carleton Teaching Activity Collection and is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


This assignment asks students to examine a section of Lewis and Clark's journal that describes numerous encounters with grizzly bears and one scholarly treatment based on those encounters, and to then write a short essay discussing their own view of the possible meaning(s) suggested by those encounters. In the case of this class, American Environmental History, this assignment is designed to help students consider the critical issues and possible implications involved in using wildlife data for understanding and interpreting a region's environmental history. By reconsidering the conceptual focus of this assignment, it can be easily changed to suit the needs of other history courses as well.

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Learning Goals

  • To help students of history learn how to think about, interpret, and utilize numerical observations in appropriate and meaningful ways.
  • To provide students with an opportunity to discover the often complex possibilities and limitations that numerical data present for historical analysis.
  • To encourage students to think deeply and broadly about the nature and implications of historical data, and thereby to engage students in interdisciplinary environmental inquiry.
  • To give students practice assessing numerically oriented data and incorporating it into their historical writing.

Context for Use

This assignment is currently designed to be given midway through an undergraduate-level course on American Environmental History at a small liberal arts college. The timing is keyed to my particular interests and expertise, and thus can be shifted to meet the needs and interests of other faculty members as applicable. In terms of the number of students, I anticipate a class size of 30. The assignment could certainly be used for smaller or larger classes as well.

The background preparation for the assignment is designed to take place in class, and then the assignment itself is prepared individually and discussed during the following class. The background preparation is modest, perhaps 20-25 minutes of class time. The discussion following completion of the assignment is  " more substantial. Depending upon the responsiveness and engagement of the class, it could form the basis of a discussion lasting upwards of an hour.

Description and Teaching Materials

From the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, all sorts of Europeans and Euro-Americans seemed to struggle for words to describe the natural abundance of the New World. Time and again, their writings mingle words such as countless and bountiful with others like blessed, exceedingly fertile, and even, Eden and New Canaan. Passenger pigeons, cod, beaver, white pine, strawberries, buffalo  " the accounts stir our contemporary imaginations.

But, how should we utilize these accounts in constructing a region's environmental history? What do they tell us? What don't they tell us? What other disciplines might be most useful for deciphering the ecological meanings and insights suggested by these accounts? These are some of the questions this assignment is designed to address. In terms of this assignment, our focus will be on grizzly bears and what Lewis and Clark's journals reveal about them and the world they inhabited.

The Assignment:
Examine the attached section from the journals of Lewis and Clark, and then consider it as you read the botanist Daniel Botkin's provocative chapter, "Thirty-Seven Grizzly Bears in the Wilderness: Knowing What's There, When, and How Many." After reading these two works, write a short paper (4 pp.) discussing the possible meaning(s) suggested by Lewis and Clark's encounters with grizzly bears for writing an environmental history of the upper Missouri River country in the nineteenth century. Your analysis should consider the shear number of encounters, and offer evidence and reasoning for the positions you take within the body of the essay. In writing your essay, consider the following questions:
  • What do Lewis and Clark's encounters with grizzly bears suggest about grizzly populations, and perhaps, other environmental phenomena?
  • What sort of questions or concerns emerge from these encounters, and/or from Botkin's analysis of them?
  • How might you seek to answer these questions, or gain some comfort with your use of these encounters, in writing your environmental history of the upper Missouri River country?

Teaching Notes and Tips

This will be the first time that I will give this assignment, so my thoughts here are preliminary. Above all, I anticipate that it will be necessary to discuss the assignment in class in some detail, perhaps using small groups to peruse it, decipher it, and then report back to the class.


I plan to assess this assignment by considering how well the essays wrestle with the larger themes and issues under consideration here. The essays should exhibit a probing sense of reasoning in an insightful, deliberate, and carefully argued way. I will also consider such fundamental issues as organization, prose, use of evidence, and acknowledgment of complexity and limits.

References and Resources

  • Bernard DeVoto, ed., The Journals of Lewis and Clark (Boston: Mariner Books, 1997), chs. 9-12.
  • Daniel B. Botkin, "Thirty-Seven Grizzly Bears in the Wilderness: Knowing What's There, When, and How Many," in Daniel B. Botkin, Our Natural History: The Lessons of Lewis and Clark (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 59-86.