Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America, By Virginia DeJohn Anderson Oxford University, 322 pp., illustrated, $37.50
Within a dozen years of the Pilgrims' landing at Plymouth, the colony's increasing herds of livestock had so outgrown its pastures that a new town was established at Duxbury.
To control these herds, put to pasture on the Nook -- the peninsula known now as Standish Shores -- the town erected a palisade. And when Duxbury marked the site during its tercentenary in 1940, it said the "high fence" had been erected "to prevent cattle from straying and probably to keep the Indians out."
Most likely the palisade failed in either task, writes historian Virginia DeJohn Anderson in "Creatures of Empire," a most original, gracefully written, and thoroughly fascinating exploration of Colonial history. But "by linking the experiences of Indians, colonists and cattle, it speaks to a larger truth."
As Anderson, a historian at the University of Colorado, explains, the colonists -- in the two areas she studies, southern New England and the Chesapeake Bay region -- needed an ever-increasing amount of land for their cattle and other livestock and "could see no alternative but to appropriate Indian land." They often initiated "the process by letting [livestock] move onto Indian territory prior to formal acquisition."
"From the moment they arrived in the New World," Anderson writes, "English animals intruded upon nearly every activity that contributed to Indians' subsistence." Indian women "learned to despise the roaming livestock that heralded a new English plantation or town in the vicinity," for their fields of corn, beans, and squash "could be devastated in a matter of hours."
Behind the specific incidents chronicled in local records, Anderson explains, lay a fundamental difference in the way colonists and Indians regarded livestock.
For the colonists, they not only provided a source of food -- and a link with English traditions of animal husbandry -- but were "the only meaningful form of agricultural capital outside of land itself." Oxen, for instance, were not only useful in clearing and cultivating farmland, but "proved equally valuable for other productive endeavors" such as shipbuilding. One report from 1687 tells of 36 ox teams -- 72 animals -- hauling an enormous white pine to a New Hampshire sawmill to be made into a ship's mast.
The Indians had no such interests or needs. For one thing, the native animals, such as deer or bear or beaver, "were not capable of being domesticated" -- they were hunted, as needed, for food or clothing. That belief that animals could supply human needs implied that Colonial livestock "was fair game," especially when found wandering untended in the forest.
But as Indian hunters "got in trouble for shooting [free-ranging] hogs," Anderson writes, they learned not to think of the colonists' livestock "as analogous to any [native] animal, no matter how close the resemblance."
The Indians even invented new words for the colonists' livestock. The Narragansetts, who at first called pigs "ockqutchaun" (woodchuck), began referring to them as "pigsuck" or "hogsuck," combining the English name with a Narragansett suffix. The Massachusetts did much the same, tacking their suffix "og" onto words like ox and horse.
"Rare at first," Anderson writes, but increasing as the herds of livestock population grew, encounters between Indians and the colonists' livestock "often generated friction, [but] also provided Indians and colonists with opportunities for peaceful negotiation." While the colonists typically invoked their own laws to deal with such disputes, Anderson writes, "magistrates did not altogether ignore considerations of equity," as when colonists' cattle invaded an Indian cornfield.
In time, writes Anderson, the colonists attempted to convince the Indians "to take up livestock husbandry . . . as a means of inculcating respect for animals as property and [of] promoting steady habits, particularly among Indian men." While the Indians had little interest in plowing their fields or acquiring the oxen to do so, they did take to low-maintenance swine. And here, Anderson writes, "Indian ingenuity confounded colonial expectations," finding their meat valuable as trade goods -- in one instance, "sharp Indian traders" were undercutting Plymouth merchants by selling pork in Boston at below the market rate.
The period of peaceful coexistence barely lasted 40 years, for by 1660, Anderson writes, "it became clear the mechanisms of negotiation and accommodation that had prevailed for decades rested upon an exceedingly fragile foundation. As calculations of self-interest and good will evaporated, cooperation gave way to competition," and in 1675 "peace gave way to war" -- King Philip's War in eastern New England, and Bacon's Rebellion ] in the Chesapeake region.
The "postwar world," Anderson writes, "witnessed a resumption of earlier antagonisms." Colonists "let their livestock run amok in Indian fields," and Indians retaliated by killing the offending livestock, "sometimes leaving carcasses as a cautionary message to the beasts' owners."
While Anderson's account ends with the end of the Colonial period, readers familiar with the history of westward settlement will recognize a pattern. As Landon Y. Jones noted in "William Clark and the Shaping of the West," "white encroachment" on Indian lands would spark retaliation, leading to military response and removal farther west of the unfortunately in-the-way native people.