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Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America.

Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America. By Virginia DeJohn Anderson (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. xiii plus 322 pp. $37.50).

Just over thirty years ago, a writer using a pseudonym in this journal parodied the emergence of histories of long-ignored groups. In "Household Pets and Urban Alienation," Charles Phineas wrote that "It seems brash to suggest that pets become the next 'fad' subject in social history, but, after running through various ethnic groups (and now women) historians may need a new toy.... So why not pets? Here, clearly, would be the ultimate history of the inarticulate." As it turns out, however, this parody of the kind of Marxist social history associated with E.P. Thompson--one in which Phineas found that "every gesture of deference, every sign of affection among pets was matched by barely-veiled contempt"--was also oddly prophetic, as our profession has seen the development (and increasing sophistication) of histories of the relationships between human and non-human animals. (1)

Much of this interdisciplinary work is rooted in environmental history, where scholars have taken the natural world, including its non-human animals, seriously as agents of historical change. Virginia Anderson's provocative study Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America, extends and focuses the insights of Alfred Crosby, William Cronon, Frieda Knobloch and others to argue for the pivotal role of livestock in early American history. (2) While scholars have shown how the success of European colonization of the Americas depended on the migrations of people and animals, and how those animals transformed the landscape, Anderson's work emphasizes how "animals not only produced changes in the land but also in the hearts and minds and behavior of the peoples who dealt with them" (5).

Creatures of Empire is divided into three parts. Part one explores how Indians and English understood nonhuman animals, showing how the former conceived of their relationship with animals in terms of reciprocity and balance, in marked contrast to the latter's ideology of dominion over animals, one seen in animals' legal status as property. Anderson provocatively suggests that ideas drawn from English folklore might have provided a possible link to Native American ways of thinking, but that Christian concepts of man's dominion over animals governed both the ideas and the practice of animal husbandry in British North America.

Part two addresses the practices of animal husbandry in the "new world," demonstrating how colonists used assumptions about the keeping of livestock to both measure and rectify the deficiencies of native society. Yet this English effort to use domestic animals to promote civilization faltered as colonists discovered that they lacked the time and labor for proper husbandry. The resulting free-range style of husbandry caused both practical and ideological problems for colonists in the Chesapeake and New England. In Virginia and Maryland, settlers seeking to profit from tobacco concentrated on raising animals that required minimal supervision. Their laissez-faire animal husbandry, which resulted in large populations of wild cattle, hogs and horses, raised tricky questions about ownership of animal property. The resulting royal claims to wild livestock in the Chesapeake reveal how "property became the slender thread by which dominion was preserved in an agricultural regime that otherwise appeared to liberate animals from their masters" (140). While New England settlers faced similar challenges in their efforts to replicate the English agricultural system in the "new world," they paid more attention to stewardship than did their compatriots to the south. Utilizing a system of private ownership but communal management of livestock, New Englanders largely avoided having to deal with issues raised by feral livestock. Instead, they struggled with the question of self-interest and worldliness as the market for cattle boomed in the 1630s. As Anderson notes, "few people could have expected livestock to play such an important role in leading colonists astray" (170) from their errand into the wilderness.

As colonists increasingly appropriated lands for their livestock, Indians were put on the defensive. Part three of Creatures of Empire traces the encounters between Indians and livestock that often resulted in damage to both Indian property and the interloping animals. As Anderson points out, however, negotiations about and settlements of intercultural disputes involving animals increasingly took place on English terms. When English livestock, especially free-ranging swine, spoiled Indians' crops or raided their food storage areas, Indians often killed the animals. Colonists, however, did not see Indians' actions as justifiable. Anderson observes that "the challenge for everyone involved lay in figuring out how to reduce the incidence of animal incursions and to forgive whatever trespasses still occurred" (190). In 1640, Massachusetts legislators conceded that it was the colonists' responsibility to keep cattle from destroying Indians' corn, while in the Chesapeake it was less likely for colonists to even consider native grievances, especially after the subjugation of the Powhatan chiefdom in 1646. As the century progressed, English colonists began to use livestock as a tool to displace Indians from their land, and "cooperation gave way to competition and, eventually, peace gave way to war" (210).

Creatures of Empire provides us with a new way of understanding a familiar story, one in which Indian communities adapted to the stresses introduced by the arrival of Europeans and were active participants in creating a new way of life in North America, only to end up "in isolated enclaves dangerously vulnerable to English encroachment" (241). As Anderson notes in her epilogue, roaming livestock continued to serve as what she calls "the advance guard of English settlement" (243), moving along with the expansion of Euro-American communities into frontier regions. Indians' efforts to accommodate to parts of the civilizing agenda, including livestock husbandry, did not help, for the newcomers' desire for land overwhelmed the possibility of coexistence.

As Anderson notes at the outset, "the conclusion of this book may surprise few readers," but, she adds, "the path it takes to reach that end is anything but direct or predictable" (6). Her thoroughly researched and beautifully written study reminds us that domestic animals played a central role in the story of early America. Her insights about the contingency of history, seen through the agency of animals themselves and the human ideas about them that developed in the context of the English colonization of America, resonate with much of the recent scholarship about human-animal relationships, which has demonstrated the deep connections between how we think about and interact with non-human animals and how we think about ourselves and our cultures. Virginia Anderson's book has much to offer scholars of early American and environmental history and will undoubtedly find its way into many a course syllabus in the future.

Brett Mizelle

California State University Long Beach


1. Charles Phineas [pseud.], "Household Pets and Urban Alienation," Journal of Social History 7.3 (1974), 338-43. For an overview of this scholarship, see Erica Fudge, "A Left-Handed Blow: Writing the History of Animals," in Nigel Rothfels, ed., Representing Animals (Bloomington, 2002), 3-18, and the state of the field essays (entitled "Ruminations") on the H-Animal discussion network [].

2. Alfred W. Crosby, Jr., The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1493 (Westport, 1972) and Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (New York, 1986); William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York, 1983); Frieda Knobloch, The Culture of Wilderness: Agriculture as Colonization in the American West (Chapel Hill, 1996).
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Author:Mizelle, Brett
Publication:Journal of Social History
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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