- Wild by Nature: North American Animals Confront Colonization by Andrea L. Smalley
Students of colonial American history usually focus predominantly on people—their polities, their economies, their cultures, and their conflicts. The basic premise of Andrea L. Smalley's fascinating book Wild by Nature is that wild animals were central actors in early America too, playing active roles by resisting colonists' attempts to control and possess the land and the people of North America. Focusing on the Southern half of what is today the United States, the book begins in colonial Virginia and travels west to Texas, examining in six chapters the ways in which individual wild animal species from beavers to bison posed challenges to settler control.
Essentially a legal history, the book argues that wild animals challenged and complicated English colonizers' attempts to master territory by subverting colonizers' efforts to establish clear land tenure and possession in distinct ways. Some of the dynamics of this story [End Page 377] are easy enough to imagine, for instance ways in which wild animals provided indigenous peoples with opportunities to resist colonization, or ways in which wild animals destroyed imported animal populations and challenged pastoralism. But lest readers think this is a familiar story, it is not. Indeed, what makes this book fascinating and wholly original are all of the unexpected and richly complex dynamics that an "animal turn" adds to the traditional story of early American history. Smalley's case is a strong one: wild animals were central actors in the process of working out the British and later American land regimes, as well as the legal definitions of possession and ownership.
Smalley's narrative begins with an overview of how wild animals played into colonial descriptions of the landscape of North America and shaped colonial expectations through a discourse of abundance. Following this general discussion, successive chapters focus on individual species—beavers, wolves, anadromous fish, white-tailed deer, and bison. For Smalley, these species are "good to think with" in a Lévi-Straussian sense, because they were "the ones most legislated in early America" (p. 7). For instance, beaver in chapter two provide a window into how the sweeping land claims of an extractive fur trade colonialism came into tension with the goals of agricultural settler society and ultimately helped to produce the violence of Bacon's rebellion. Thanks to the difficulty of keeping pigs and cattle safe from wolves, colonists in chapter three expanded their target for "improvement" beyond the enclosed, ordered boundaries that they once held at the center of their colonial ideologies (and definitions of legal possession) to include surrounding wild spaces as well. A case study of migratory fish in chapter four shows how animal mobility confounded American concepts of fixed, severable property rights attending overlapping uses (such as commercial fishing and river engineering).
Chapter five shows how white-tailed deer, by moving indiscriminately across fixed lines of possession, encouraged a "seemingly haphazard and disordered American occupation" by colonists who saw the deer as a common resource in the trans-Appalachian West (p. 157). Meanwhile, mobile deer populations created the basis for a [End Page 378] new definition of property for Indians, whose possession claims were tied not to the land itself but to the animals on it. In both cases, deer were agents in creating legal understandings very different from the fixed boundaries imagined in traditional English legal traditions. As Smalley shows in chapter six, these kinds of wild animal-based land claims continued on the Southern Plains where bison herds inspired Native peoples to defend what colonists now claimed (in the 1870s) as settler land.
This book is a major success, providing an innovative look at the interaction of human and non-human actors in early America. It is also scrupulously researched and wonderfully written. A sweeping colonial history, this book focuses frequently on Kentucky and the trans-Appalachian West and will be of great interest to readers of this publication. It deserves a very wide audience.