Creatures of Empire: A Review
Anderson, Virginia DeJohn. Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2004
While many would agree that animals have been significant to human life and society, few could articulate these dynamics as well as Virginia DeJohn Anderson has done in Creatures of Empire. Building on the insights of environmental history, Anderson creatively turns to focus on the role of animals within the relational dynamics between the early American colonists and Native-Americans. She eloquently argues that both Natives and Colonists were guided by distinct cosmological views that deeply guided their agricultural practices. Negotiating these differences became key as the two groups attempted to live near one another. As a result, Anderson claims, “animals not only produced changes in the land but also in the hearts and minds of the peoples who dealt with them.” 
Anderson begins by cultivating a landscape of distinct spiritual/cosmological beliefs that guide each groups’ practices with animals. She persuasively argues that Natives merged the physical and spiritual worlds forming a dynamic reciprocity among living and spiritual beings. Conversely, the English rooted their self-understanding as the pinnacle of creation as written in Genesis. A theology of dominion dictated a sharp dichotomy of human and non-human beings leaving humanity as the divinely sanctioned rulers over the land and its creatures.
Once this cosmological landscape is set, Anderson turns toward the practices of animal husbandry. Natives had to contend not just with the newly arrived English colonists, but their animals as well. These strange new beasts were slowly integrated into Native vocabulary, worldviews, and practices; but not always in the ways as the English hoped.
Guided by their theology of dominion, the English regarded animals as domesticated property and essential to civilized and Christian life. While Animal ownership and husbandry were key markers of civility in English society the imported practices underwent a significant change within the Chesapeake Colonies and Southern New England colonies. A remarkable amount of care and time were given to livestock animals back in England. Anderson works to show how these high standards of practice fell sharply due to constraints of time, workforce and spatial concerns. As a result, animals often had to make their own way ranging freely through the forests and fields.
Conflicts arose when the untended English animals trampled their way into unfenced Indian fields damaging crops. Early on, the Indians would kill the offending beasts but since the animals were seen as property to the English, they would demand restitution. Anderson surveys court histories and colonial annals seeking recorded details about the inevitable conflicts. She suggests that the amounts of conflicts were a good barometer of the current state of the relationship between the colonists and the natives. Discussions between the two parties to reduce animal trespasses, Anderson suggests, were a means for both to work out a vision a cooperative life near each other might look like. She is keen on asserting Native agency in this regard. Noting the ironic failure of restitution when Natives destroyed English animals for their destroying their fields, she states how Natives followed appropriate legal procedure for their claims but to an ever increasingly biased community. She argues the Indians ultimately made more concessions than the English who became less willing consider compromise.
The provocative turn that Anderson takes from environmental history suggests that English animal husbandry served more than simple agricultural needs. Domesticated animals became a calculated means of extending civilized English life and habits to the New World and its native inhabitants. However, she carefully articulates that often Natives who learned to live with English livestock did so, on their own terms and as a means to remain Native. This was a position the colonists could not understand or allow to continue. Over time, as these methods failed and the need for land increased, the English strategy changed. While animals had always been part of English colonizing and plan for conversion, Anderson claims the colonists would simply allow their animals more leeway in their roaming making expedient means of spreading the Empire in land and ideology. This becomes a sad and ironic pattern that recurred at the edges of Western expansion across the continent that while “Indians found room in their world for livestock…the colonists and their descendants could find no room in theirs for Indians.”
My one minor contention with Anderson regards her portrayal of Christianity and the doctrine of dominion in particular. It seems to me that there is an over reliance upon Keith Thomas’ Man and the Natural World to claim how vital a theology of dominion was to colonists’ action with both the land and animals. It is curious to me that while she occasionally quotes colonial ministers, she does not do so to support the theological claim, but rather ethical exhortations to live peacefully with their Native neighbors.
Additionally, Anderson too narrowly focuses on the subjection of animals to humanity without equal redress to the ideas of stewardship implicit within Christian theologies of dominion. When she does reference ideas of stewardship, she fails to note if it is a Christian/Protestant virtue or an English ideal associated with the proper practices of animal husbandry. Likewise, she at times seems unconcerned about important distinctions within the church quoting both John Calvin and Thomas Aquinas. Elsewhere, she seems to use Protestantism, Calvinism, and Christianity interchangeably. Christianity, or Protestantism for that matter, is too broad and diverse to be characterized by one doctrine.
These are only minor issues that do not detract from Anderson’s overall remarkable trajectory. Creatures of Empire is necessary reading for all interested in Environmental history, agricultural history, and Colonial America. Yet, her writing and claims are engaging for those well beyond specialists in the field as well.
 Anderson, Virginia DeJohn. Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America, (Oxford: Oxford Press, 2004), 5.
 Ibid., 246.
In preparation for my final exhibit coming at the end of April, I've been picking up a few books to help guide some of my thoughts on the project. I've been thinking a lot about the photographic object itself...its history, lost images, how they are used etc. Too often we tend to look "through" the photograph to the referent, subject or what is imaged. And yet, the object nature of the photograph cannot be separated from its subject.
The Art of the American Snapshot is a fabulous collection and history of vernacular photography. This is one of the first books I bought in this direction and it is definitely my favorite because of its diversity of photo techniques and essays, and sheer volume of images.
Another similar, and much smaller text is In the Vernacular. This book also functions like a very select group of images from an exhibition. They also break the images into various categories of archive, proof, surrogate, and yardstick. The images and their functions are explored through these categories.
I've also picked up a few texts on the photo album and its histories and functions.Suspended Conversations is the most recent text that I have purchased. More essays than photos, it looks to be a helpful guide. Snapshot Chronicles: Inventing the American Photo Album runs the other way with photographs of and interpretations of various antique photographs. The book itself invites touch with its green embossed felt cover.