I’ve been reading Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America, a well-argued history of America’s “lost century” — the 17th century. Colonists were here for 150 years, a very long time, before there was actually an American Revolution. The standard histories tell us that colonists simply elbowed Native Americans out of the way. Not only were Native Americans not elbowed out for many decades, but Virginia DeJohn Anderson reminds us that a good deal of this elbow-work was accomplished by… pigs, sheep and especially cattle.
The standard histories also tell us that the Native Americans of the Northeast and Virginia simply melted away without a fight, which is why if you ask people to name the first major war for English colonists in America, King Philip’s War (1675-78) usually doesn’t come up. Far from being disorganized wimps who were awestruck by the colonists’ superior firepower and numbers, Native Americans in the Northeast were pretty adaptable to their new neighbors (if not always happy about them), learning to use guns (bought off the English) quickly, organizing both passive and active resistance to English encroachments, and trying to peacefully live with but also defend their crops against free-ranging colonist livestock – which were all strange animals they had never encountered before, animals with no fear of humans, and with a tremendous appetite for everyone’s crops — Natives and colonists alike.
The shocking thing is how incredibly incompetent the English were at being colonists, especially in the early days at Jamestown, where nobody planned on actually doing any real farming (expecting to be supplied food from England) because that would get their gentlemanly hands dirty. Then, as the original Jamestowners began starving to death, more colonists came over and couldn’t be fed either. Duh. When they finally started bringing over their cattle and pigs, they proved to be equally incompetent at keeping track of them in the vast landscape. Although the Massachusetts Bay colonists were less inept at running communities, they also couldn’t deal with the massive logistics of clearing land, building fences, and simply controlling the beasts — after all, this wasn’t England, where fences had already been built and control of livestock and rangelands were all securely tied up in laws and acts decreed by the aristocracy anyway.
Yet, despite the fact that they were doing a lousy job of keeping their valuable livestock from running amok, the English colonists everywhere were eager to lecture the Indians on how good, civilized and holy it was to even HAVE livestock — animals as property, a concept completely unknown to the native peoples. (For an interesting, if somewhat controversial look on Native American attitudes toward animals and food before European contact, see Keepers of the Game by Calvin Martin.) And –
All right. Wuuuuurrrp. You knew this really wasn’t about animals and the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Some years ago I used to try to make the point that working-class people (well, pretty much all people who didn’t share in the spoils of the widening prosperity gap) in central New York ought to start realizing that they and the local Native Americans were increasingly having a lot in common. I don’t know how well that went over because, you know, Native Americans are supposed to be victims and dying out, “the poor things,” and how could that possibly be relevant to our robust, thriving whiteness? Well, I still think it’s very relevant; and furthermore, may lead to conclusions which might be grim and possibly offensive to all.
An unimaginable meeting of cultures took place on this continent in the early 1600s. Creatures of Empire deals with some of that, but also sheds light on how it went down, and on how something that could have turned out much better (Native-colonist relations) didn’t.
Today we are once again living through the consequences of incredible demographic, economic and cultural change on this continent. The number one sore point of Trump voters seems to be, “We are being overrun by strange immigrants, and they are eating us out of house and home, running out of control, and wrecking everything.” That is simply THE issue that got Trump elected. I’m not defending their opinion or saying “gee, they’ve got a point.” Just trying to distill their position down to its essence.
Whereas, the rising generation of Americans would say — the college-educated ones, the ones who work for the big foreign companies, the ones who have culturally little in common with the Trump voters — “Immigrants add value; we need them to survive; no, they don’t just add value, they are indubitably, unquestionably, spiritually necessary to have for the very life of the national ideal.”
There is much discussion in Creatures of Empire of how the English saw their animals — and used them — and how the Indians saw animals, and also used them in their way traditionally. The English didn’t just see animal husbandry as the way to prosperity — their Christian religion told them that the relationship between animals and humans had to be a certain way, that it was the only right way, that it was Godly. In the early days, Native Americans were curious, reticent, resentful of the new arrivals — but they also took advantage of the presence of these new animals, too (some Native Americans started keeping them). It’s not as if any destructive conflict was absolutely foreordained. And Indians were not being starved off their lands by the new livestock or English farming practices. American history in regard to colonists and Natives could have been different.
But as it turned out, the political climate in 1670s Massachusetts — that is to say, Indian-colonist politics — was tenuous. As it happened, something having nothing to do with “the issues” (rampant livestock, religion, etc) set off King Philip’s War, which raged for three years, killed many on both sides, and finally had to be ended by treaty. During those war years, a lot of cruelty was committed on either side. One of the forms the cruelty took was that some of the Native Americans began mutilating the colonist’s farm animals. There is intelligent and compassionate speculation as to why *some* natives felt they needed to do things like that. (As always, the victors write the histories, so we can’t be sure how often that happened, only that it sometimes did.)
After the war ended, peace was repaired, but trust never was, and it was from that time forward that things changed forever between colonists and Indians, at least in New England (and Virginia, the other theater of conflict explored in the book).
I hesitated to write this post because the central conceit seems to be comparing today’s immigrant populations to yesterday’s farm animals. Maybe Trump supporters would crudely cheer this comparison. But in truth, the whole reason why these immigrants are “unimportant” or “important” to either side of today’s uneasy situation, is because they either “add value” to our economy or society or “don’t.” I think both sides run the risk, sometimes, of viewing the immigrant as either an unwanted animal who (somehow) wrecks everything, or an exotic magical creature who (somehow) is vital to the American religion. Neither view fully takes into account the realities on the ground.
Lastly, as for Trump, maybe he is Hitler or Stalin, or maybe he is just Metacomet. If the latter, then what that means for the future really probably depends on whether history actually repeats, or if it just rhymes.