Published by EH.NET (April 2005)

Virginia DeJohn Anderson, Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. xi + 322 pp. $27.50 (cloth), ISBN: 0-19-515860-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Russell R. Menard, Department of History, University of Minnesota.

In this impressive new book, Virginia Anderson, professor of history at the University of Colorado-Boulder, explores the complex interactions between colonists, Native Americans and domestic animals, arguing that attention to domestic animals is essential to understanding the process of colonization.

Anderson is a cultural historian whose main interest is in exploring the attitudes of early Americans toward animals, especially in contrasting the attitudes of English colonials and Native Americans, and in showing how those differences led to tension and conflict. Differences over animals, Anderson shows, occasionally drove colonist-Indian relations to the boiling point as in Bacon’s Rebellion and King Philip’s War. Further, domestic animals played a major role in the efforts of colonists to “civilize” Indians, for if Indians could be persuaded to tend cattle and raise pigs, they would be seen as having taken a major step toward becoming settled agriculturalists and thus assimilating themselves to European culture.

Economic historians who turn to this book in search of evidence on prices, quantities and the changing productivity of the colonial livestock industry will be disappointed. Although such evidence is available in abundance in colonial probate inventories, Anderson chose not to make use of it. Instead, she confines herself to a close reading of various anecdotal sources, leaving the task of writing a history of the colonial livestock industry to someone more quantitatively inclined. While economic historians will be disappointed, they will still find Creatures of Empire useful, as the anecdotes Anderson unpacks are rich with suggestions, hypotheses that might be probed and tested with the tools of economic history. This is especially true of the contrasting styles of animal husbandry in New England and Virginia, which Anderson develops with care and in detail. The contrast left me wondering which style was more successful, according to the way economic historians evaluate performance. The contrast also left me hoping that someone will soon extend Anderson’s analysis to the other major regions of British America, for surely colonists on the sugar islands, in the Lower South and in the middle colonies developed their own unique ways of managing livestock.

Russell R. Menard is the co-author, with John McCusker, of The Economy of British America, 1620-1780 (Chapel Hill. University of North Carolina Press, 1985). His more recent books, include, Migrants, Servants and Slaves: Unfree Labor in Colonial British America (London, Ashgate, 2001) and the recently completed Sweet Negotiations: Sugar, Slavery and Plantation Agriculture in Early Barbados to be published by the University of Virginia Press in early 2006.