The March to Porkopolis

Start with God. Now continue with Empire.

In a three-week period in May 1806, as Lewis and Clark moved through Montana in the course of their survey, they and their party-the Corps of Discovery-killed 167 animals, about eight a day. Reviewing their entire itinerary, Donald Worster reckons that over twenty-eight months they probably shot-for their needs as opposed to random slaughter-‘something between five and ten thousand.’ [14] But there was plenty of random slaughter as well. They killed grizzlies, mountain lions, wolves, bobcats, marmots and of course buffalo. They could pick and choose because the western plains displayed a richness of animal life that overwhelmed many travelers.

Writing a decade into the twentieth century, when this richness had all but gone, the nature writer Ernest Thompson Seton reckoned that near the end of the eighteenth century the ‘primitive’ population of buffalo had been 75 million. By 1895 there were eight hundred buffalo left, mostly within the borders of Yellowstone Park. Grizzlies, through the mountain and western states, Canada and Alaska had, in the earlier period, amounted to some two million on Seton’s estimation. By 1908 they had dwindled to 200,000, almost entirely in Alaska and Canada. Seton reckoned there were maybe eight hundred in the Lower 48, again mostly around Yellowstone. In mid-1995 there were still about eight hundred in the Lower 48, though the Fish and Wildlife Service was planning to pull the grizzly off the endangered species list after twenty years, under the pretense that Ursus horribilis was no longer imperilled. Translation: without the pesky bear inhibiting industrial and extractive activities, mining, oil and timber companies can get on with the business of drilling and chopping, just as God intended for them to do. [15]

On Seton’s calculations, elk had dropped from ten million to 70,000 by 1919. Mule deer did best, with 500,000 left by the time Seton was writing. (He may have exaggerated the original numbers before the white man came. One later reckoning had the number of buffalo on the continent in 1830 as forty million. But the variety and number of species lost were still immense.)

By the end of the 1870s, the buffalo was nearly gone. Colonel Richard Dodge, himself a keen hunter, reckoned that hunters killed over four million in the mid 1870s alone: ‘Where there were myriads of buffalo. . .there were now myriads of carcasses. The air was foul with sickening stench and the vast plain. . .was a dead, solitary, putrid desert.’ The plains, mountains, valleys profuse with creatures but half a century before were now empty in what one traveller along the South Platte called ‘the uniformity of its cheerless scenery.’ Of the Great Plains, Barry Lopez has written, ‘If you count the buffalo for hides and the antelope for backstraps and the passenger pigeons for target practice and the Indian ponies (killed by whites, to keep the Indian poor), it is conceivable that 500 million creatures died.’ [16]

And with these creatures went the Indians’ food and way of life. When he was ten years old, Plenty-Coups, chief of the Crow in Montana, had a dream that the white man came with his cattle and destroyed the natural life of the plains. He was right: ‘When the buffalo went away, we became a changed people. . .The buffalo was everything to us.’ Three centuries earlier, the First Viceroy of New Spain had written to his King: ‘May your lordship realize that if cattle are allowed, the Indians are destroyed.’ The buffalo went. Indian time ended. The only place to get food was on the reservations, courtesy of the Indian agent. For a while the Indians made a few dollars gathering up the buffalo bones, shipping off the skeletons, a year or two after the hides. In the buffaloes’ stead came the white men’s cattle.
Diet and Industry

They came up from Mexico, west through the Appalachians, or from the Florida panhandle. In 1850, with the exception of coastal California and east Texas, there was barely a cow or a steer west of the Mississippi. There were more cattle-nearly a million-in New York State than anywhere else. In the whole of the United States the number of cattle-excluding milk cows-added up to almost 11.5 million. By 1870 the total was up to 15 million and by 1900 that had more than doubled again, to 35 million. Texas alone had 6.5 million, and Kansas, Iowa and Oklahoma had some 2.5 million each on the range or in feedlots. In that half-century, industrial meat-eating came of age. [17]

From the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries-when reliable records began to be kept-to the mid nineteenth century, the European diet varied little. Grains took up about 90 per cent of a family’s food budget: rye, buckwheat, oats, barley, maize. [18] From the moments that the victuallers and provisioners in the Napoleonic wars pioneered the organization of the mass-production line and also modern methods of food preservation, the stage was set for the annihilation of both time and space in matters of food consumption. The vast cattle herds that began to graze the pastures of the western United States, Australia and Argentina signalled the change.

The speed with which the rhythms and sensibilities of a pre-industrial time were abandoned may be judged by descriptions of Haussmann’s famous ‘La Villette’ abattoir, modelled on the old 1807 design approved by Napoleon, and by accounts, virtually contemporaneous, of the Union Stockyards in Chicago. La Villette was opened in 1867. Siegfried Giedion describes it in Mechanization Takes Command:

The whole installation bears witness to the care with which the individual animal was treated. The great lairages (bergeries), with their lofts under the high roofs and their careful design, might have stood in a farmyard; each ox had a stall to itself. . .In this curious symbiosis of handicraft with centralization lies the peculiarity of this establishment. . .each ox had a separate booth in which it was felled. This is a survival of handicraft practices, to which the routine of mass slaughtering is unknown. The long houses in which the cattle were slaughtered consisted of rows of single cabins set side by side. Long since, technical installations and slaughtering in large halls have superseded them. It may well be that this treatment in separate booths expresses the deeply rooted experience that the beasts can be raised only at the cost of constant care and attention to the individual animal. The Great Plains beyond the Mississippi, where free tracts of grassland can be dominated from horseback and where the herds grow up almost without care, are implicitly related to the assembly line. In just the same way the peasant farm, where each cow has its name and has to be attended when giving birth to its calf, is linked to handicraft methods in slaughtering. [19]

Giedion’s omission here is the feedlot, where the midwestern farmers were able to take the two-year old ‘stockers’ from the range, then convert their corn into the weight that the ‘feeders’ swiftly put on, before being dispatched on the final stage of their journey through life.
Clockwork Slaughter

By 1850 the slaughterhouses of Cincinnati-‘Porkopolis’-had been refining the continuous production line for over twenty years. Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape and park designer, visited Cincinnati in the 1850s:

We entered an immense low-ceilinged room and followed a vista of dead swine upon their backs, their paws stretching mutely towards heaven. Walking down to the vanishing point we found there a sort of human chopping machine where the hogs were converted into commercial pork. A plank table, two men to lift and turn, two to wield the cleavers, were its component parts. No iron cog-wheels could work with more regular motion. Plump falls the leg upon the table, chop, chop; chop, chop; chop, chop, fall the cleavers. All is over. But before you can say so, plump, chop, chop; chop, chop; chop, chop, sound again. There is no pause for admiration. By a skilled sleight-of-hand, hams, shoulders, clear, mess, and prime fly off, each squarely cut to its own place, where attendants, aided by trucks and dumb-waiters, dispatch each to its separate destiny-the ham for Mexico, its loin for Bordeaux. Amazed beyond all expectation at the celerity, we took out our watches and counted thirty-five seconds, from the moment when one hog touched the table until the next occupied its place. The numbers of blows required I regret we did not count. [20]

But, by later standards, Cincinnati’s hog butchers at that time were not as organized as their successors in the Union yards in Chicago. Much of the hog-head, neck-pieces, backbones-was thrown into the Ohio River. [21]

Many a nineteenth-century traveller stopped in Cincinnati or, later, Chicago to marvel at the efficiency and heartlessness of this unending, furious dispatch of animals to feed New York, Boston, Paris, London and the increasing industrial armies, and military armies too, that desired to eat meat. In these years between 1807 and 1865-the opening of the Union Stockyards in Chicago-was perfected the production-line slaughter of living creatures, for the first time in the history of the world. At one end of the trail lay the prairies, the open range, the boisterous pastoral of the cattle drive, where the cowboys sometimes spared a longhorn: ‘Reed Anthony, Andy Adams’ cowman, tells how he and other Confederate soldiers guarding a herd of Texas steers saved the life of one because he would always walk out and stand attentive to the notes of “Rock of Ages” sung by his herders.’ [22] Spared were two or three or ten or a hundred or a thousand from among the millions and millions of creatures that plodded to railheads like Abilene, and thence eastward, or to abattoirs nearer at hand and then bought up by government agents to be sent to the reservations to feed Indians who no longer had buffalo to hunt.
The Hogsqueal of the Universe

‘Cows and cowboys’, William Cronon writes in Nature’s Metropolis, in his chapter about Chicago’s stockyards, ‘might be symbols of a rugged natural life on the western range, but beef and pork were commodities of the city. Formerly a person could not easily have forgotten that pork and beef were an intricate, symbiotic partnership between animals and human beings. One was not likely to forget that pigs and cattle had died so that people might eat, for one saw them grazing in familiar pastures, and regularly visited the barnyards and butcher shops where they gave up their lives in the service of one’s daily meal. In a world of farms and small towns, the ties between field, pasture, butcher shop, and dinner table were everywhere apparent, constant reminders of the relationships that sustained one’s own life. In a world of ranches, packing plants, and refrigerator cars, most such connections vanished from easy view.’ Cronon emphasizes the consequences of this distancing from killing and commodification of meat: ‘In the packers’ world, it was easy not to remember that eating was a moral act inextricably bound to killing. Such was the second nature that a corporate order had imposed on the American landscape. Forgetfulness was among the least noticed and most important of its by-products.’

Another description of the packing plants of Chicago came in Upton Sinclair’s 1905 novel, The Jungle. His hero, Jurgis, watches pigs being slaughtered: ‘

And yet somehow the most matter-of-fact person could not help thinking of the hogs; they were so innocent, they came so very trustingly; and they were so very human in their protests-and so perfectly within their rights!. . .Now and then a visitor wept, to be sure; but this slaughtering machine ran on, visitors or no visitors. It was like some horrible crime committed in a dungeon, all unseen and unheeded, buried out of sight and memory. One could not stand and watch very long without becoming philosophical, without beginning to deal in symbols and similes, and to hear the hogsqueal of the universe.’ Animal slaughter thus became systematized, wrenched from previous bonds of space and time. In Cronon’s words, ‘Geography no longer mattered very much except as a problem in management; time had conspired with capital to annihilate space. The hogs might graze amid forgotten buffalo wallows in central Montana, and the hogs might devour their feedlot corn in Iowa, but from the corporate point of view they might have been anywhere else. Abstract, standardized and fungible, their lives were governed as much by the nature of capital as the nature which gave them life.’

Tomorrow: part 3, From Nazi Vegetarians to Blitzkrieg of the Ungulates

This essay appears as part of Dead Meat, presenting Sue Coe’s record, in the form of paintings and diaries, of slaughterhouses in the United States. Dead Meat is published by Four Walls Eight Windows Press, in New York, and paintings in it may be seen at the St. Etienne Gallery, 20 West 57th St, New York.


[14] Donald Worster, An Unsettled Country. Changing Landscapes of the American West, Albuquerque 1994. See particularly the chapter, ‘Other People, Other Lives.’ Seton’s calculations, cited below, are discussed by Worster.

[15] See ALEXANDER COCKBURN, ‘Grisly Fate of Ursus horribilis’, The Nation, July 1995.

[16] See Worster, An Unsettled Country.

[17] Edward Everett Dale, The Range Cattle Industry. Ranching on the Great Plains from 1865 to 1925, Norman 1960.

[18] Massimo Montanari, The Culture of Food, Oxford 1994.

[19] Siegfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command, New York 1948.

[20] Cited in William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis. Chicago and the Great West, New York 1991. Cronon’s chapter, ‘Annihilating Space: Meat’ is a spectacular piece of work.

[21] ‘One native son, from over in the neighbourhood of Licking Hills, started the yarn about the efficiency of the Cincinnati packers. ‘Speaking of sausage,’ said this humourous neighbor, ‘those connecting links between hog and dog almost remind me of an affecting incident that occurred some years ago at a brisk village below the mouth of Deer Creek on the Ohio called Cincinnati. An ancient maiden friend of ours was taking a stroll on the outskirts of town one pleasant summer morning, accompanied by a favorite black poodle dog-her only protector. Walking leisurely along the flowery banks of Deer Creek, her cheek fanned by “gentle zephyrs laden with sweet perfume” , she at length came to the residence of a fat and furious German, which, it was hinted, had been the scene of many an inhuman butchery. At the front corner of the house she noticed a fresh pork hanging at the end of a large copper pipe which seemed to communicate with the interior of the house. Her poodle made a jump at the treasure, but no sooner had he reached the spot than he was caught under the ear by a steel hook and suddenly disappeared from the sight of his doting mistress. She, poor soul, horror-stricken by the mysterious disappearance, rushed frantically into the house in search of him. But alas! Like Distaffiana, she might have well exclaimed, “Oh wretched maide-O miserable fate. I’ve just arrived in time to be too late!” For by the time she had reached the back part of the premises, all that remained of her ill-fated poodle was a blue ribbon which she had tied around his neck, seventy-five links of fresh sausage, and a beautiful black woolly muff.’ T.D. Clark, ‘Kentucky Yarn and Yarn Spinners’, The Cincinnati Times-Star, Centennial Edition, vol. 10, no. 100, 25 April 1940, ‘Business, Industry, Kentucky Section’, p. 6; from B.A. Botkin, ed., A Treasure of Mississippi River Folklore, New York 1955.

[22] This story is told by J. Frank Dobie, in The Longhorns, Bramhall 1941, a vivid evocation of this breed. The pastorals included stories of escape. A steer called Table Cloth had dodged the shipping pens for over a decade: ‘After returning from marketing the last fall shipment, the boss proposed that certain men take their Winchesters and bring in Table Cloth’s hide and carcass. He thought he was offering an opportunity for big sport. He was surprised at the opposition that rolled up. ‘Hadn’t Table Cloth fairly won life and liberty? For fifteen years now the whole Shoe Sole outfit had been after him-and he was still free. He was getting old. He had never really tried to kill a man. He had simply outplayed his opponents. He could not be called mean. . .By God, he deserved to live among the cedars and canyons he loved so well-and the boss agreed.’ Dobie was a wonderful writer. His description of the Texas brush country in Chapter 17 is a particular gem of landscape literature. Worster writes, ‘Domesticated creatures like cattle and sheep have. . .been vital to the western experience, and we have hundreds of books and articles on the industries that raised those animals for slaughter. The animals themselves have seldom if ever appeared in that literature as anything resembling Black Elk’s “Four-legged people” . . .The shining exception to the general cowlessness of the range histories is J. Frank Dobie’s The Longhorns, which gives a full, appreciative account of that breed’s instinct, habits and psychology-an animal, Dobie writes, that refused to be ‘dumb driven cattle’ but insisted on following ‘the law of the wild, the stark give-me-liberty-or-give-me-death law against tyranny’, a behaviour that got them labeled ‘outlaws’ and replaced by more docile Herefords. Worster adds, ‘Even Dobie has trouble maintaining any interest in cows that are not so wild or so much a maverick.’


















Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.