Wildlife’s Revolutionary Impact on North America

Book Review

Smalley, Andrea L. Wild by Nature: North American Animals Confront Colonization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017.

It’s not often when two of your most fervent passions, the Revolutionary Era and the wilderness come together in one book.  Andrea Smalley accomplishes this feat with her new book on nature’s wildlife and the European colonization of North America.  Proffering a new perspective, Smalley pens her narrative from the point of view of the animals by describing their impact on the European colonization and Native American lives.

Smalley organizes the book by examining five wild animals and their impact on Native American/European settler relations and colonization.  I learned interesting facets in each of the five animal chapters.

  • Beaver – Initially, beavers became the largest commodity in the extractive colonial economy.  Europeans would trade manufacturing and other goods to the Native Americans in exchange for beaver pelts.  Most interestingly, beaver pelts used by Native Americans for clothing at the end of their useful clothing lives were most prized by the European traders.  It seems that these heavily used furs were easier to felt with higher quality results.  Native Americans quickly caught on and sold these more highly prized pelts at premium prices.
  • Wolves – Preying on colonist’s sheep and other farm animals, wolves were regarded as varmints.  Various colonial governments paid bounties for wolf kills.  This led to fraud, as wolf hunters brought their prey to the counties that paid the highest bounties regardless of the killing location.  Native Americans also profited by killing wolves in areas west of the Appalachian Mountains and bringing them to the eastern colonial authorities for bounty payment.  Eventually, the more urban areas resisted the taxes so that western regions could pay bounties.
  • Fish – Fish posed difficult regulatory problems for the European colonists because their habitat did not neatly correspond with European views on property ownership.  Conflicting economic interests among fishermen, mill-dam owners and property owners gave rise to intractable disputes.  Eventully overfishing ended these disputes as the rights of fishermen became moot.
  • Deer – Abundant deer substantially aided European settlement of Kentucky as Native American’s destroyed farmers’ crops and deer became the primary  source of food which sustained the settlers.  Land speculators promoted the access to abundant deer as a way to entice European migration to western lands.  Settlers were enticed at the prospect to hunt deer which was restricted in Great Britain to only the wealthy land owners.
  • Buffalo – Contrary to European views on property, Native Americans believed that rights to hunt the buffalo were more important than land ownership itself.  Native Americans fought for these rights to the detriment of maintaining a controlled dominion.  In a pitiful ending, Europeans opened ranch lands to faux, contrived buffalo hunting to recreate wild bufalo hunting for Native American chiefs.

While there is not suspenseful ending to the story for the Native Americans and the wild animals, Smalley provides a unique perspective on the contest.  Animals were a primary currency between the European and the Native American worlds. When there was an abundance of wildlife, there was bilaterally beneficial trade.  However, when the abundance turned to scarcity, Europeans began to dominate.

I highly recommend  Wild by Nature to those with an interest in the history of European colonization in North American and an interest in the wilderness and its denizens.

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