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  • The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea by Jack E. Davis
  • Christopher Morris
The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea. By Jack E. Davis. (New York: Live-right Publishing Corp., 2017. Pp. 592. Illustrations, notes, index.)

Environmental historian Jack Davis follows what he calls painter Winslow Homer’s truth, the “intimate and vital connection linking human-kind, nature, and history” (5), through five centuries and five hundred-plus pages of history in the Gulf of Mexico. Homer was attracted to the Gulf by its scenic beauty and rich wildlife, and so have been millions of others from the distant past to the present. Estuaries—the world’s most productive ecosystems—attracted Native people to the Gulf shores. After 1500 a host of Europeans followed, this time coming by sea, and tried to bring the area under the control of various empires. People continue to be attracted to where the land meets the sea. The beaches around the Gulf’s perimeter, from Key West to Campeche Bay, Mexico, bordered by turquoise water, have attracted hordes of people. So too have the fish, shellfish, and oil that lies below. That oil threatens to tar the entire region, making for perhaps the most visible of a host of environmental problems facing the present-day Gulf.

So richly productive of harvestable marine life were the estuaries that the fish and shellfish of southwest Florida provided sustenance for one of the world’s rare examples of a complex, sedentary culture not based on agriculture. It was not the estuaries, however, that attracted the Spanish, but the twenty-thousand people who lived in their midst, many upon mounds made of shells. The Spaniards failed to replicate the success of the indigenous inhabitants in taking advantage of the estuaries in part because the diseases they brought with them from Europe decimated Native populations. But the Spaniards’ descendants adapted well enough to establish the first Euro-American fishing villages along the Florida and Louisiana coasts. Fishermen from New England later pioneered the offshore industry that remains so vital today. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the railroads that took fish away from the canneries of Biloxi and Pensacola brought midwestern vacationers to the coast, but disease, malaria and yellow fever in particular, delayed beach cottage and hotel development until the early twentieth century, when disease declined and industry and leisure flourished. Fish and shellfish brought sportsmen along with jobs and factories. [End Page 105]

Davis asserts that this “industrial takeover of the region” (283) made the Gulf of Mexico into an American sea, even though Mexico and Cuba border the southern half of the coast and have legal claim to territorial waters, fish, and other offshore resources. Nevertheless, the Gulf, Davis argues, effectively belongs to the nation that has exploited it most thoroughly. The United States catches most of the fish, lines more beaches with resorts, directs more shipping through busier ports, and withdraws more oil than any other country on the Gulf.

Natural processes similar to those that maintain the estuaries produced the algae, zooplankton, and sand that, over millions of years, produced the oil beneath the Gulf floor. If America’s conquest of the Gulf began in the nineteenth century, with the rise of its commercial fishing industry, it was cinched with the growth of its oil extraction and refineries. Davis’s chapters on drilling on and off the Texas and Louisiana coasts are full of characters such as John Gaillard, the rancher who opened “the grandest estuary in Texas, the Trinity-San Jacinto” (274) for oil extraction. For the most part, the “messy business of taking oil from the earth” (263) has not yet interfered with fishing and tourism. Contamination, even when acute, such as at Texas’s Goose Creek estuary, near Galveston, is typically isolated. Offshore spills, such as at Campeche Bay in 1979 and at the Deepwater Horizon site in 2010, inflict broader damage, fatal to marine life but not to the Gulf economy. Rather, coastal erosion and estuary degradation, to which the oil industry, in particular, has contributed, threaten the human livelihood of the Gulf.

Davis’s is the first large-scale history of the Gulf of...


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