- Success Depends on the Animals: Emigrants, Livestock, and Wild Animals on the Overland Trails, 1840–1869 by Diana L. Ahmad
Ahmad's brief venture into United States expansionism is a fine introduction to just how conflicted human attitudes toward other animals can be. While the animals who traveled with mid-19th-century pioneer emigrants, and those encountered on the way, remained sources of food, labor, and entertainment, some, like prairie dogs, became metaphors of an idealized "body politic," and a few even became beloved companions.
Given the number of oxen, mules, and horses that were abandoned due to exhaustion and lameness, the willingness to overburden nonhuman animals with excessive loads, long days, and inadequate feed is transparent in the documents left behind. Yet sorrow at the animals' abandonment is also sometimes evident. Some individuals expended valuable time and resources to return to the spot they had left an animal a few days before, but they were not always successful in finding a live animal. For example, "In 1859 Joel Barnett returned to where he had abandoned his ox Old Baldy. Luckily, he found the ox and took the animal to water and grass, [End Page 146] and then they caught up with the rest of his group" (53). Some abandoned animals were adopted by new owners. One was even left with a note attached, pleading for this. Others were shot as an act of mercy to prevent slow disemboweling and dismemberment by wolves, who became the feared enemy of the trek. Still, these feelings did not prevent the majority of animals from being sold upon the overlanders' arrival at their destinations.
The trail's hardships may have even hardened some human hearts. Bison and prairie dogs were overhunted for sport and to prove marksmanship. Overlanders themselves noted, sometimes with disgust, that carcasses and meat would be abandoned on the trail because too many animals had been killed. Brigham Young called this a "great waste," even decreeing that Mormons only kill the number of animals they needed to survive. However, the slaughter persisted and latter-day overlanders noted how bison had lessened in numbers and avoided the emigrants' well-worn trails. The West was being decimated by human animals who still sometimes brought with them the dogs and cats they had kept as pets on the East Coast. And then there was Charley. Ahmad writes that A. J. McCall, upon reaching his destination in the West, refused to sell a horse named Charley, as he was not a "mercenary slave-trader" (85).
This book has much to commend it, but there is also some poor editing. Early on the reader encounters some confusing prose regarding 1819's Transcontinental Treaty with Spain and 1848's Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo with Mexico. Still, even with these slight blemishes, the analysis and the primary sources spotlighted in the text can lead readers down new trails worthy of exploration. Success Depends on the Animals extends the important discussion found in Virginia DeJohn Anderson's Creatures of Empire. There is a real contribution to both the history of United States westward expansion and animal studies here.
Ball State University