- Wild by Nature: North American Animals Confront Colonization by Andrea L. Smalley
The field of southern environmental history has exploded over the past twenty years, as evidenced by numerous monographs, edited volumes, and articles. The latest addition to this growing field is Andrea L. Smalley's excellent Wild by Nature: North American Animals Confront Colonization. The author rightly notes that many historians have shown how domestic and feral animals influenced European colonization schemes in southeastern North America, but relatively few scholars have considered the role of wild indigenous animals in colonization. This book corrects that oversight. Successive chapters examine the five most legislated wild animals in early America—beavers, wolves, fish, deer, and bison—and how they impeded colonization. These animals behaved in ways that presented colonizers with obstacles and colonized peoples with tools of resistance, and the various experiences shed light on different aspects of possession.
Chapter 1 provides context for the others. It describes England's early encounters with New World animals and the paradox these encounters represented. Even though wild animals were a barrier to colonization, they were also a stimulus, and their relative abundance was used as a selling point in promotional materials. The remaining five chapters tell a three-part story about three different "manifestations of colonization" (p. 4). The first part describes the initial phase of English colonization, when colonists focused their efforts on extraction and extermination. Chapter 2 explains how beavers drew trappers into the continent's remote interior, stoked frontier violence, and enabled networks of "extractive colonialism" (p. 43). Chapter 3 describes how wolves obstructed claims of possession, ideologies of enclosure, and efforts at improvement from the late seventeenth century to the early nineteenth century in Virginia and Kentucky. Smalley deftly shows how wolves forced frontier settlers and colonial authorities to alter their behavior and ambitions. It was not enough to control cultivated lands; "[t]he wild spaces wolves occupied had to be brought into the colonial order as well" (p. 8).
The second manifestation of colonization centers on settlers' use of wild indigenous animals as a resource pool to support independent ventures and to feed a growing market society. Chapter 4 examines disputes over fish in the Piedmont regions of Virginia and North Carolina during the earliest years of the republic and the extent to which the mobility of fish challenged assumptions about open-access resources, public ownership, and private property. Chapter 5 follows white-tailed deer and their hunters across the trans-Appalachian West from the late eighteenth century to the period of Indian removal. Because lawmakers tied Native American hunting-ground rights to deer rather than soil, the calculated destruction of deer also divorced many peoples from the land. The third and final manifestation of colonization created "pockets of wildness" where animals might be preserved (p. 4). Chapter 6 describes how bison stood in the way of civilization and legitimated Native possession. Teetering on the edge of extinction, these "wild beasts became wildlife," the author writes, invoking Etienne Benson's recent turn of phrase (p. 10). [End Page 705]
Wild by Nature makes several important contributions. Most obvious, it convincingly demonstrates that wild animals influenced southern history in profound ways. By telling a story that spans several centuries, the book offers a fresh take on familiar narratives. For example, it recasts the Progressive era as the culmination of colonization rather than the beginning of the conservation movement. Smalley's observation that the southern environment was "animate" is likewise important, especially since it rather perfectly describes the sort of reactions and provocations detailed in the book (p. 4). The author is a strong writer, and her practice of assigning action verbs to animals is surprisingly effective. In sum, this book deserves a wide readership in southern history, environmental history, and beyond.