Wild by Nature: North American Animals Confront Colonization by Andrea L. Smalley
Environmental history is an eclectic subfield, one that multiple eminent practitioners have characterized as a "big tent" embracing multiple sub-subfields that often blur the boundaries separating history from other arenas of scholarly study.1 Andrea L. Smalley's Wild by Nature offers an excellent example of environmental history's sweeping purview. The book is at once an ecological history, legal history, and history of the economy—with emphasis given to these subgenres roughly in that order. In the increasingly crowded field of early American environmental history, Wild by Nature helps break new ground by shifting the historian's gaze beyond the "static landscape" to focus instead on the "animate environment" (4). To be sure, Smalley is far from the first historian to take "the animal turn" (6) in her approach to early American history. But whereas most previous scholars have focused on introduced domesticated species such as hogs and cattle, Smalley instead devotes her book to indigenous American wildlife. Although wild creatures may, at first blush, seem economically peripheral to the historical narrative of Anglo-American colonialism, Smalley persuasively argues that they are central to understanding a rift at the very heart of this imperial mission: the inherent tension between the goals of extractive colonialism (which drew on wildlife as an exploitable resource) and settler colonialism (predicated upon the eradication of wildlife to create space for agriculture and animal husbandry). Smalley's study of the English (and later American) desire to profit from wild creatures effectively highlights the economic, legal, and cultural interests at stake in this historical competition between contradictory modes of colonialism.
Wild by Nature traces the (relatively) understudied environmental history of the Anglo-American South, presenting a history that simultaneously updates and moves beyond seminal works such as Albert E. Cowdrey's This Land, This South and Timothy Silver's New Face on the Countryside.2 She achieves this feat by engaging extensively with environmental studies of other regions of early America, and many of the topics she pursues (for [End Page 378] example, the fur trade and riverine property rights) will seem familiar to readers acquainted with this broader historiography. Smalley's southern focus breathes new life into these lines of inquiry, while her close attention to the agency of wildlife allows her to introduce a novel perspective even when traversing well-trodden ground.
The book is arranged thematically, and although its six chapters are united in their analysis of the evolving legal structures of Anglo-American colonialism, each could also survive as a stand-alone study. The book opens with a discussion of early English perceptions of America's faunal abundance, followed by five chapters more narrowly focused on human interactions with individual species or classes of animals: beaver, wolves, fish (freshwater and anadromous), white-tailed deer, and bison. Each subsequent chapter moves the book progressively forward in time (from the late sixteenth to the early twentieth century), with considerable chronological overlap between adjoining chapters. The book's overall narrative arc, in turn, traces three overlapping periods of frontier colonization: an early period in which settlers sought to exploit wildlife for Atlantic markets, often relying on the labor of Indian hunters, and took advantage of the gradual extermination of wild species to expand the Anglo-American agricultural frontier; an intermediary period in which settlers supplanted Indian nations to directly exploit wildlife resources in pursuit of "independent proprietorship"; and, finally, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a new wild-animal frontier characterized by the creation of "bounded pockets of wildness" (4) regulated by the state.
Perhaps the book's greatest insights lie in its analysis of the triangular relationship between wildlife, settlers, and Native Americans. In considering the fur and hide trades, for example, Smalley pushes her analysis beyond the confines of Anglo-American settler societies, past the "wild-animal frontier" (6), to focus on the extractive economic activities of Indian hunters and traders. Here, Smalley locates the core tension within the logic of Anglo-American colonialism. These trades depended to a large extent upon Indian labor and required Indian access to vast stretches of hunting commons, as well as to settler communities as centers of commerce. The broader consequences of extractive colonialism thus challenged the expansive system of possessive individualism upon which settler colonialism was founded, while at the same time undermining colonial officials' efforts to establish firm boundaries between settler society, Indian societies, and wild areas. Smalley traces the evolution of how colonial authorities dealt with these contradictions: from a rejection of Indian rights to territorial property in the wake of Bacon's Rebellion and the seventeenth-century fur trade to a recognition of Indian territorial rights as contingent on hunting rights to deer (in the turn-of-the-nineteenth-century Southeast) and bison (on the nineteenth-century southern plains). The narrative arc of these chapters forms the interpretive backbone of Wild by Nature, articulating the [End Page 379] development of a theory of Indian property rights predicated on the eventual extinguishment of those rights following the presumedly inevitable depletion of game resources. Likewise, these chapters provide the book's most important historiographical contribution by offering an interpretation of legal theories capable of explaining U.S. policy in the eras of Indian Removal and the Indian Wars of the late nineteenth century.
Smalley's book joins a growing cohort of recent works seeking to rehabilitate "the frontier" as an analytic category.3 A series of "wild-animal frontiers" provides Wild by Nature with its steadily westward-shifting geographic focus. These frontier lines are defined by the steady expansion of an Anglo-American property regime that separated legally bounded lands and creatures from unbounded territories where wild beasts continued to roam with (relative) freedom. Beginning with early seventeenth-century English settlement in the Chesapeake region, Smalley's historical gaze marches persistently west toward the bison ranges of the southern plains. Occasionally, this emphasis on the frontier as an ongoing, almost transhistorical process obscures the operation of change over time. This tendency is reinforced by a chronological leap separating Smalley's final chapter on bison extermination—with its interpretive focus on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—from her other chapters, all of which reach their narrative denouement around the turn of the nineteenth century. Similarly, the book's narrative often moves rapidly between centuries and then back again, drawing examples from widely differing chronological points to support characterizations of the shifting frontier. As a result, the reader can be left with a sense of temporal whiplash. Thankfully, neither of these aberrations in an otherwise excellent book proves serious enough to undermine Smalley's central longue durée arguments.
Smalley's stated goal of writing a book that will tell "the animals' side of the story" (10) and that can present "an animal history of colonization" (238) is one that should capture the imagination of any environmental historian committed to dethroning anthropocentric narratives of history in favor of recognizing the power and agency of the natural world. Merely putting forward such a proposition raises the question of whether it is possible for an author to follow Donald Worster's admonition to "think like a river" (or a beaver, as the case may be), or whether environmental historians are, as another scholar has put it, constrained by their own specific experiences [End Page 380] to "write as … all too human observer[s]."4 Though Smalley's book does a service to the field by proposing such a debate, Wild by Nature ultimately proves more concerned with the human history of wildlife exploitation—tracing economic relationships and unpacking the development of Anglo-American property law—than with interrogating the inner lives of its animal subjects. Smalley ably draws on legal and legislative records and on historical treatises of natural history to persuasively argue that indigenous animals played "an active role in shaping the American legal landscape" (1), but did so because they "often stood in the way of Anglo-American" (3) efforts at colonization.
This book's greatest strength lies in recognizing wild creatures' autonomous power to complicate the best-laid plans of colonizers and to force Anglo-American settlers to continually adapt their cultural and legal traditions to suit an American environment unwilling to be easily conquered. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay Wild by Nature is to say that reading it put me in mind of a more tightly focused Changes in the Land—which is to say that though Smalley's prose is factually dense, it is also highly readable and presents what promises to become a seminal study of American environmental history.5 [End Page 381]
1. J. R. McNeill, "Observations on the Nature and Culture of Environmental History," History and Theory 42, no. 4 (December 2003): 5–43 (quotation, 6); Douglas R. Weiner, "A Death-Defying Attempt to Articulate a Coherent Definition of Environmental History," Environmental History 10, no. 3 (July 2005): 404–20, esp. 415.
2. Timothy Silver, A New Face on the Countryside: Indians, Colonists, and Slaves in South Atlantic Forests, 1500–1800 (Cambridge, 1990); Albert E. Cowdrey, This Land, This South: An Environmental History (Lexington, Ky., 1996).
3. A few noteworthy recent examples include Gregory Evans Dowd, Groundless: Rumors, Legends, and Hoaxes on the Early American Frontier (Baltimore, 2015); Katherine Grandjean, American Passage: The Communications Frontier in Early New England (Cambridge, Mass., 2015); Andrew Lipman, The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast (New Haven, Conn., 2015); Honor Sachs, Home Rule: Households, Manhood, and National Expansion on the Eighteenth-Century Kentucky Frontier (New Haven, Conn., 2015).
4. Donald Worster, The Wealth of Nature: Environmental History and the Ecological Imagination (New York, 1993), 123–34 ("think," 131); David Blackbourn, The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape, and the Making of Modern Germany (New York, 2006), 13 ("write").
5. William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York, 1983).