Citing the “animal turn” in environmental history, Andrea L. Smalley sets out to examine the significance of wild animals as “participants” in the British (and later US) colonizing of North America (p. 6). Perceptions of the animal abundance available to British colonists are central to Smalley’s argument, and this is where Wild by Nature begins. At first, Smalley covers familiar ground with her discussion of early writings about the North American landscape (see, for example, William Cronon’s 1983 Changes in the Land [Hill & Wang]), but she builds on this material to stress how descriptions of wild animals showed colonists the opportunities wildness offered, rather than the dangers of the “howling wilderness.” The chapters that follow examine a series of indigenous North American animals: beaver, wolves, deer, fish, and bison. While these chapters could function as stand-alone case studies, Smalley integrates her treatment of each animal into a broader argument about how and in what ways British and American colonization processes attempted to order and control this new (to them) world. At several key points, Smalley argues, the animals themselves shaped how these processes developed. For example, in the chapter centered on the beaver trade, Smalley reframes Bacon’s Rebellion as “an animal tale” (p. 42). She uses Bacon and his compatriots to examine the tensions between settler society and extractive colonialism as competing strategies for imperial formation. In what is the book’s most compelling chapter, Smalley highlights both Native power over beaver territory and the ways “the beaver itself, though rarely a living presence … became a dynamic force sustaining an unregulated, competitive frontier along the edges of English settlement” (p. 66). Despite this emphasis on animals, Smalley does not flatten the human actors she studies into simple “Native” or “colonial” categories; rather, she considers interactions between Native nations and the complexity of “indigenous imperial politics” (p. 69) in the Chesapeake beaver trade and later, in discussions of competing claims to particular hunting grounds. Smalley’s chapter on wolves centers on improvement, enclosure, and property ownership, and it is here that the book’s contribution to legal history comes into focus. By examining wild animals that moved beyond (and across) the boundaries of English settlement, Smalley demonstrates how predator management extended settlers’ reach into “the wild and disordered spaces that lay outside the legal lines of individual property” (p. 116). This discussion leads nicely into Chapter 4, where a consideration of how wild fish shaped debates about public and private property offers a different angle on the history of the commons in the early republic. The movement of wild fish created room for both private landholders and commercial fishing operations to wield republican language to support competing ideas about how American (not British) water and fish should be managed. Once back on land, Smalley traces the deerskin trade and the relationships between hunters and the deer themselves. The white-tailed deer, she suggests, “encouraged hunters to develop similar habits” to their prey (p. 166). These hunters did not embrace the English idea of fixed settlement but instead wandered through frontier regions in search of deer, challenging the boundaries of private property and expanding territory through this “form of American colonizing derived from colonial encounters with deer” (p. 177). Smalley’s final chapter concerns the buffalo and moves her project solidly into the territory of nineteenth-century American imperial expansion. Here, as with initial descriptions of North American wild creatures, the bison’s presence affirmed for settler colonists the opportunities available on the Plains. Smalley builds on the previous chapter to explore ways that nineteenth-century Americans linked ideas about the future of Native nations and buffalo herds in the West, paying particular attention to the violence of the Red River War and the Buffalo Hunter’s War. At the end of the nineteenth century, wild bison became wildlife, argues Smalley: still wild, but now enclosed and preserved within prescribed boundaries set by game laws and conservation policy. Of Smalley’s three main threads—extraction and extermination, property rights and access to resources, and the conversion of wild creatures into protected wildlife—only this final transformation remains underdeveloped. Overall, Smalley’s nuanced attention to the processes of colonization is a key contribution to scholarship on the intersection of nature and empire, and her emphasis on how animals shaped colonists’ ideas and actions offers readers new ways of thinking about wildness in early America. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 10, 2018
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