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  • Wild by Nature: North American Animals Confront Colonization by Andrea L. Smaley
  • James D. Rice (bio)
Wild by Nature: North American Animals Confront Colonization andrea l. smaley Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017 352 pp.

Andrea L. Smalley's ambitious first book spans several centuries and a wide arc of territory from the Chesapeake Bay to the southern plains. It slices through the boundaries between animal histories and human histories, between colonizers and colonized, between early American and subsequent US historiographies, between East and West, and between environmental and legal histories. At its core, though, Wild by Nature: North American Animals Confront Colonization is an attempt at writing "the animals' side of the story" of colonization on the southern Anglo-American frontier (10). Writing during this age of intense popular and scholarly [End Page 1004] interest in animal cognition and agency, Smalley comes down firmly on the side of those who, like Bruno Latour in Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (2005, Oxford UP), argue that animals must be recognized as actors rather than "simply hapless bearers of symbolic projection" (10). Although English colonizers and their successors thought that they could impose their ideas about strictly bounded individual property rights on all of America, Smalley argues, wild animals consistently forced them to compromise this ideal. Thus "the colonization that triumphed, albeit imperfectly, over indigenous animals was one those animals helped to create" (238).

The sheer abundance of American nature, and especially of its fish and wildlife, worked in favor of early English colonial promoters. This abundance lured in migrants, of course, but the perception of the continent's essential wildness also "marked the land as unowned" by Native Americans (17). To properly exploit America's animal wealth, Smalley argues in her opening chapter, the English felt compelled to "impose a rational order that fixed wild animals in their proper places on the landscape" (14). This turned out to be impossible, wild animals being wild.

Each of Smalley's subsequent chapters centers on a single animal. Chapter 2 belongs to the beaver, which promoted Native Americans' and selected Englishmen's interests above colonial settlement and, despite the beavers' reputation for industry and order, sowed disorder within colonial society. Focusing particularly on Virginia's Bacon's Rebellion of 1675–77 (though with flashbacks to the Jamestown era of 1607–24), Smalley finds the source of this disorder in the fact that English fur traders in the Chesapeake Bay region had to work closely with Indian allies to acquire beaver pelts while competing with one another in a "frenzied, cut-throat competition for Indian trading partners and profits" (43). Conducted largely away from the English settlements, this trade pitted Marylanders against Virginians in a bitter series of struggles and was, according to Smalley, at the heart of Bacon's Rebellion.

Wolves proved less divisive. They throve on domesticated livestock, forcing frontier colonists to modify English farming methods by focusing less on enclosures and agricultural "improvement" and more on free-range husbandry and hunting—not least the hunting of wolves, encouraged by substantial bounties paid for out of annual county tax levies. Fish, too, were no respecters of boundaries. Anadromous species such as shad, [End Page 1005] herring, and alewives were so mobile that they, especially, complicated attempts at defining private ownership over fisheries. Aquatic commons bordered privately owned land, which led to conflicts over access to fishing places. Commercial fisheries competed with local communities and individual fishers for their share of the catch, and fishers of all stripes faced off against milldam owners. "The actions of fish," Smalley writes, revealed the difficulty of reconciling "Anglo-American concepts of fixed, severable property rights and land use" with wild creatures' mobility (9).

Deer posed yet another challenge to English settler colonialism. The eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century market in deerskins lured European hunters into territories well to the west of the English settlements, thus sparking conflicts with Indian nations. In the long run this created pretexts for dispossessing Indians and repeopling their lands with Anglo-American farmers, but in the short run it fostered the reemergence (in a new form) of older ideas about commons areas in which "unowned wild...


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