Lecture #4: Co-Invasion: Some Bigger Creatures

Suggested Readings:

Richard White, The Roots of Dependency, 1983; and "The Winning of the West: The Expansion of the Western Sioux in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries," Journal of American History, 65 (Sept. 1978), 319-43

Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (2009)

Alfred Crosby, The Columbian Exchange (1972); Ecological Imperialism (1986)

Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, & Steel (1997); Collapse (2004)

John Ewers, The Horse in Blackfoot Indian Culture, (1955)

Robt Denhardt, Horse of the Americas (1947; 1975)


I. Co-Invasion Considered in the Abstract

Epidemic diseases were critical to the "success" of Europeans in North America; this was in stark contrast with Asia and Africa, where disease environments more often than not contributed to European failures.

How do we evaluate different possible causes of European "success," defined by Alfred Crosby as their biological expansion? Many reasons can and have been offered:

  • conquest ideology
  • missionary religion
  • both of these underpinned by racist conceptions of indigenous peoples
  • technological advantages
  • dynamic production systems
  • elaborating state structures
  • capitalist economies
  • expanding trade networks, etc.

Alfred Crosby's thesis: European expansion was most "successful" in "Neo-Europes" of temperate latitudes where biological co-invaders enabled Europeans to reproduce their bio-cultural systems: US, Canada, New Zealand, Argentina, Australia. Where what Crosby calls the "co-invaders" of Europeans failed to thrive, so often did European efforts at colonization.

This argument raises important questions about how much we should embrace causal explanations relying on "biological determinism": how much does environment as opposed to human agency determine human history? Biological determinism would incline toward the view that biological elements of human and non-human groups affected the course of history without much need to examine intervening cultural variables.

Best-known recent example is Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, & Steel (1997): geography and fortunate biological endowments determine cultural success of different peoples world-wide.

However we answer such questions, Crosby's insight about the linked histories of human beings and other organisms is central to environmental history: plants, animals, and microorganisms play vital roles in human history that are often overlooked by more traditional approaches to studying the past.

II. Fellow Travelers

Central task of colonization: reproducing familiar landscapes in the midst of an alien world...and the features of those familiar landscapes were more often than not intimately tied to the the animals (and plants) that colonists brought with them.

Consider the elements that needed to be reproduced to bake in a colonial oven so simple a thing as a loaf of bread:

  • the wheat (originating the the region we know today as the Middle East) to grind into flour;
  • yeast to make the bread dough rise;
  • the honeybees that pollinate apples and other fruits for jam to spread on that toast--and who also make honey that can also be used for that purpose;
  • trees for the firewood to heat the oven;
  • cattle who pulled plow to till the soil where the wheat was raised;
  • the microorganisms that help make that soil productive;
  • the milk from those same cattle to produce butter to spread on toast;
  • molds that grow on the bread (eventually a source of antibiotics);
  • organisms in our stomachs and intestines that help digest the bread for us;
  • scavenger species that decompose our own feces and bring their nutrients back into the soil.

If any of these elements failed, so too could the colonists: not at all uncommon for early colonists to experience extreme hunger or even die of starvation during their first winters because these food systems had not yet been reproduced, often surviving only because of the generosity of Indian neighbors.

Recognizing these biological interconnections is central to environmental history; but that's different from saying that these biological actors determine by themselves the course of human history.

Each of our biological companions has its own unique story: there is no single narrative of that humans and their fellow creatures share; impossible to catalog their myriad stories. From apple trees to pigs, rats to mosquitoes, measles to malaria...each has its own unique story.

Among most important of the biological companions who accompanied Europeans in their colonizing efforts were large domesticated mammals:

  • sheep (meat, textiles, woolen clothing)
  • cattle (beef, milk and dairy products, leather, labor power)
  • pigs (labor-free meat)

The importance of such animals is suggested by the willingness of colonists to share so much space with them aboard ship: animals as...

  • survival tools;
  • as signs of colonial society reproducing the production systems of the lands from which they had migrated;
  • as symbols of wealth, signs of colonial prosperity;
  • as goods to be sold at market and exported to wider world.

But: complicated modifications needed to be made in colonial environments in order to sustain these animals: meadows for hay, pastures for grazing, barns for storing winter fodder. With cattle came milk and cheese, leather and meat, grass and hay, plows and wagons, even cowpox and tuberculosis, each with complicated practices and technologies and craft skills linked to these cattle-related things.s

III. The Horse: Whose Co-Invader?

Save one of the most interesting case studies for last part of lecture: the horse. I'll use it to question how much we can rely on biological determinism alone in explaining the role(s) of such animals.

The horse had significant advantages compared with cattle: not as useful for food (especially in European cultural practices), but better for human control, movement, speed, power.

Important role in early military encounters: Spanish conquistadors first gained their skills as Iberian horse soldiers. Horse-based cavalry played vital role in European military tactics as the "eyes of the army," gathering information about disposition of enemy forces and bringing it back to military commanders. (Robert E. Lee's defeat at Battle of Gettysburg is sometimes ascribed to his inability to communicate with his chief cavalry officer J. E. B. Stuart.)

Horses spread throughout Spanish colonies: export trade in tallow and hides, ranches, vaquero tradition (source of "cowboy" practices of Great Plains in North America), herding of cattle on horseback.

Wild horses proliferated through South American grasslands, expanded from there into North America both as domesticated animals and as creatures who had escaped into the wild. Became important species on pampas of Argentina, and accompanied Spanish soldiers and missionaries into Alta California (modern-day California). So numerous by the time of California Gold Rush after 1848 that Anglo ranchers slaughtered many to protect rangeland for their cattle.

Many horses became wild, leaving their European masters altogether.

For the rest of the lecture, I want to consider the different ways in which Indians chose to integrate these wild horses into their cultural worlds.

Beware the danger of thinking of horses as "European" organisms or as connected to technologies that inherently supported "European" empire.

Emergence of Great Plains cultures: tribes acquired horses from the south, became skillful in their use, gradually moved farther onto Plains to become great hunters of bison on horseback.

Abstract issue here: nature provides range of choices, but people select differently among those choices: why?

What are the reasons for the choices people make? You can learn an enormous amount about history by never losing track of this question.

IV: Making Choices

Diversity of Indian choices concerning horses was quite remarkable (note the work of Richard White here, especially his 1978 article on "The Winning of the West" and his 1983 book The Roots of Dependency).

Traditional story: horticulturalists of the eastern Plains abandoned raising crops in order to become hunters of bison on horseback. This apparently was not true: no horticulturalists entirely gave up corn.

Comanches of Texas lived in grasslands on the southern Plains, with mild winters where horses reproduced easily; they became horse herders first, bison hunters second, ate horses and traded them north; Hämäläinen's classic 2009 work The Comanche Empire suggests the extraordinary extent of their influence and political power as a result.

More northern tribes faced harsher winters; fodder ran short, so had to cut young cottonwood growth, encouraged depletion of these trees, eventually faced problems with winter starvation.

Winter horse deaths meant a perennial need to replace those animals, giving rise to the cycle of raiding and trading that was typical of many Plains tribes: theft of horses from neighbors became a major activity for males, even a right of passage for boys.

Starvation suggests the precariousness of this horse/bison economy: tribes like Lakotas and Dakotas (Sioux) who adopted it were hunter-gatherers, not horticulturalists, who embraced horses because for them hunting and gathering were even less reliable forms of subsistence.

Horticultural Indians living on the the Missouri River on the eastern Plains, on the other hand, (Mandans, Hidatsas, etc.) could grow and store crops that constitute a much more reliable food base, trading with the Sioux for other goods. For them, hunting was comparatively less important.

As result, there were dense sedentary villages along the Missouri River, but these more susceptible to epidemics than the more scattered populations of the bison-hunting Sioux.

By the time ot the late 18th-century epidemics, Mandans and others were declining in power while the bison-hunting Sioux were increasing, with more raiding by the latter of the former, with a gradual movement of the Sioux west toward bison herds, south toward areas where horses were being raised and traded, with generally rising population pressures on other tribes.

Contrast this with Pawnees and other horticulturalists: they still chose not to abandon crops. instead, they integrated horses into their older horticultural cycles. keeping horses and crops separated, and providing winter fodder by burning grasslands near villages to promote growth, with ritual integration of cropping and hunting in an annual seasonal cycle.

The point I want to leave you with is simply this: if the horse is in fact a co-invader with human beings (and I think it is), it nonetheless "invades" in very different ways depending on the human cultures that choose to live with that animal:

  • For the colonists of Virginia and New England, the horse was a way to bring crops to market, to deliver the mail, to pull a plow.
  • For Spanish ranchers, it was a source of tallow and hides for a thriving international trade.
  • For European soldiers everywhere, it was an instrument of death and high strategy.
  • For the Comanches, it was an animal crop to be raised, herded, eaten, and traded.
  • For the Sioux, it was a way to a more abundant and reliable life of hunting bison than the old hunter-gatherer practices, and a means to greater dominance in a longstanding conflict with neighbors who had formerly enjoyed greater power and abundance.
  • For the Pawnees, it was a way of adding more meat to an agricultural diet, but one that required considerable manipulation of the grasslands in order to insure its own food supplies, all of these activities being embedded in a ritual cycle whose gifts and practices tied together and guaranteed the mutual success of harvest and hunt.

Think about all these different choices, all these different ways of looking at a horse and deciding what to do with it. One horse could be many things to different people.

If that's so, then whose empire are we describing when we speak with Alfred Crosby about "ecological imperialism"?