Domesticated Animals & Us

Note: This article first appeared in the current issue of Fifth Estate (#391 Fall/Winter 2014)

creatures of empire

Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America
Virginia DeJohn Anderson
Oxford University Press, 2006, 336 pp., $19.95 paperback



Civilization is a lie. Its images mask violence and its logic is that of genocide. Even the most banal scene of grazing cattle, while seemingly serene, portrays a weapon a war.

Virginia DeJohn Anderson’s Creatures of Empire is an important work for many reasons. It restores agency to domesticated animals and recognizes their vital role in a key period of American history; by recognizing the role of livestock Anderson’s work contributes to a more complete understanding of the European invasion of North America. It also provides a compelling case study of how civilization has been spread and genocide carried out; while tactics may have shifted according to convenience and circumstance, the goal was always to eliminate Indians as such either by transforming individuals into pseudo-English Christians or simply through physical removal and extermination.

Anderson focuses on seventeenth-century releations between English colonists and two groups of Algonquian-speaking Indians: Indians of southern New England and Indians of the Chesapeake region of colonial America. Animals—both wild and domestic—often served as the intermediaries between colonists and Indians prompting both short-term cooperative efforts to minimize disputes as well as intense violence. Animals became tertiary targets of violence often being killed simply to send a message from one group to another. Anderson argues that toward the end of the seventeenth-century the fact “that animals could help incite a war between human combatants was eminently clear” (p. 232).

Even before direct contact between colonists and Indians, the two groups often encountered animals that would challenge their conventional understandings of human-animal relations. Indians would encounter domesticated animals such as cattle and pigs brought by colonists from Europe; animals that were deemed property. For people with a comprehensive and intimate knowledge of the landscape, encounters with unfamiliar animals must have been incredibly shocking. Furthermore, virtually all animals in the Indians’ experience were wild and no living animal was considered an individual’s property. Likewise, colonists would encounter wild animals who would prey on their livestock, destroy their crops, and generally make highly-controlled, English-style agriculture close to impossible.

Both groups—colonists and Indians—would regularly encounter feral animals that blurred conceptual categories. For Indians, feral livestock most closely resembled wild animals that could legitimately be hunted. And yet to the English, “livestock could no more become [wild] than colonists could become Indians” (p. 138). For the English, any animal that was deemed property would necessarily always be property regardless of how far the animal wandered or uncared for the animal was; any resemblance to a wild animal was superficial and for another to kill that animal would invite harsh sanction.

Initially, when Indians were in a dominant position and colonists were simply struggling to survive, the colonists’ civilizing agenda took a superficially cooperative or ideological approach. It was not only prudent to preserve peaceful relations with valuable trading partners but the English believed that they could distinguish themselves from Spain by adoption of “an ideological approach [to colonization] that advertised their nation’s moral superiority (p. 78). It would be a way to make up for the fact that Spain was farther ahead of England in the race to secure colonies.

Furthermore, “[c]olonists took it for granted that Indians would recognize the superiority of an English agrarian regime once they saw how it worked,” and so violence may not even be necessary (p. 171). The effort was not only to turn Indians into sedentary agrarians but into Christians as well. For the English, owning livestock was strongly invested with a normative component; indeed, it was deemed a hallmark of civilization. The fact that native populations had failed to domesticate animals was considered clear evidence of a serious deficiency on their part. To English eyes, the landscape was made for livestock and awaiting improvement. But in fact, as Anderson points out, there was little benefit to be gained from domestication and the species on the North American continent were not of the sort that would readily submit to domestication.

This “ideological approach” was evident when in 1656 the Virginia colony adopted a policy of rewarding Indians who killed a sufficient number of wolves by giving them a cow. The heads of eight wolves could be exchanged for one cow. It was a plan intended to eliminate wolves which threatened English livestock while simultaneously introducing the concept of livestock ownership to native peoples. Similarly, an effort in Rhode Island involved taxing colonists’ cattle to raise funds to assist Indians in building fences around their cornfields. This was to minimize disputes involving animal intrusions while shifting the burden onto Indians rather than animal owners. Once fences were built, Indians would be required to maintain them if they were to have their grievances heard and be considered for compensation.

But by the middle of the seventeeth century, the civilizing agenda shifted from a strategy of assimilation to outright aggression and “depredations against livestock came to be seen as…acts of war” (p. 178). The fences that Indians were pressured into building were on several occassions burnt down by colonists who then proceeded to let their cattle roam through Indian cornfields; “roaming livestock acted as the advance guard of English settlement.” (p. 243) It was thought that such routine harassment could compel Indians to simply leave and cede the land to colonists. Disputes that would have previously been treated as delicate diplomatic issues to be navigated with caution—when the colonists were weak—were now simply regarded as a matters of law enforcement and handled with force.

Anderson’s concludes by saying that “livestock enabled the English to extend their dominion over the New World with remarkable speed and thoroughness” (p. 242). Livestock would advance, Indians would retreat, colonists would move in, and then the process would repeat itself as many times as necessary.

For anyone looking to better understand the specific mechanisms by which civilization encroaches and genocide is carried out, Anderson’s Creatures of Empire should be treated as required reading.

3 thoughts on “Domesticated Animals & Us

  1. Would be interested to see if she says anything about the dog or the cat here. In terms of livestock, barn cats kept mice at bay for the farm, I would assume, and I wonder what kind of role that plays in advancing the colonist agenda. Nowadays they are seen as an invasive species because they “kill wildlife.” Feral cats are wild, but still seen as a domesticated species and that isn’t to their gain.

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