Another gun deer season has come and gone, and hunters are talking about the fall harvest. Harvest is a pastoral term that sounds odd when used in reference to hunting, so in this week’s Northwoods Moment in History, local historian Gary Entz explores usage of the term and where it comes from.
Fall is hunting season in the Northwoods. According to the DNR, 211,430 deer were harvested in Wisconsin during the 2018 season and numbers are likely to be similar in 2019. There is an anomalous reference in that last sentence, and that is the word “harvest.” Harvest is a pastoral word defined as the process or period of gathering crops. Deer are not a crop. Although they live in the wild, deer are animals slaughtered for food just as domestic animals like cattle and pigs are slaughtered for food. Make no mistake, hunting, when done conscientiously, is a more ethical means of putting meat on the table than are industrialized feedlots and slaughterhouses. So why do we use the euphemistic term “harvest” in reference to hunting?
I grew up on the Continental Divide in the state of Colorado and have been surrounded by hunters and hunting culture my entire life. I have searched my memory and have no recollection of anyone using the term “harvest” when I was young. While I know that it was used in an official capacity and appeared in newspapers, what I clearly remember are hunters talking about shooting or killing a deer or elk. This led me to look at a state-by-state statistical analysis of the use of the term harvest. What I found was interesting and shows that use of the word is not uniform across the United States. Hunters in Pennsylvania used the term harvest in relation to deer hunting more than anyone else in the nation, but hunters in Wisconsin are a close second. Colorado ranks 38th out of the 50 states in use of the term, so my youthful memory of not noticing the term seems accurate.
But this all begs the question: where did the term “harvest” in reference to hunting and killing a deer originate, particularly here in the Northwoods? Although it is difficult to pinpoint an exact starting point, it is safe to say that our nineteenth century predecessors in the Northwoods did not use the term. The phrase comes out of the Conservation Movement of the early 20th century and the belief that humans can “manage” wild nature, just as farmers “manage” domesticated crops. Conservationism became government policy starting with the administration of Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt wanted to conserve hunting as a sport along with ensuring a constant meat supply. The Wisconsin Conservation Commission adopted the terminology, and reports coming out of Madison in the 1920s and 1930s routinely discussed the state’s deer harvest. Despite official usage, Northwoods hunters unapologetically continued to shoot or kill a deer during hunting season. It wasn’t until after World War II, and particularly as the country approached the politically charged decade of the 1960s, that the euphemistic term of “harvest” in reference to deer hunting became ubiquitous.
Harvest may be the polite terminology of the day, but it doesn’t change anything. A contemporary Northwoods hunter shoots a deer not much differently than one from a hundred years ago.