“The Elks Are Our Horses”: Animals and Domestication in the New France Borderlands

In: Journal of Early American History

Historians have long overlooked the role played by animals in cross-cultural interactions in the American borderlands. Yet domesticated animals - and the social practices that accompanied them - were central both to the ‘civilizing mission’ of colonizers and to indigenous American resistance. This paper examines these themes within the context of the Great Lakes and Upper Mississippi region between 1670 and 1730. Drawing evidence from Algonquian and Iroquoian languages and cultural practices as well as from the accounts of French missionaries and voyageurs, I show that the indigenous peoples of the Pays d’en Haut rejected the positive connotations that domestication held for Europeans, and instead equated domestication with enslavement. The resulting conflicts between conceptions of nature, ownership and tameness had an enduring influence on European-Indian relations. Although this study examines specific patterns of interaction on the New French frontier, it also raises broad questions relating to environmental history and European-indigenous interactions throughout the New World.

  • 5

    Brett Rushforth“‘A Little Flesh We Offer You:’ The Origins of Indian Slavery in New France”William and Mary Quarterly3rd ser. 60:4 (October 2003) pp. 777-808 and Rushforth Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France (Chapel Hill N.C.: University of North Carolina Press 2012) Ch. 1 and pp. 143-5.

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  • 7

    Rushforth“A Little Flesh” p. 23.

  • 8

    Virginia DeJohn AndersonCreatures of Empire: How Domesticated Animals Transformed Early America (New York: Oxford University Press2004).

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  • 12

    William EngelbrechtIroquoia: The Development of a Native World (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press2003) pp. 3-22.

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    Roger M. CarpenterThe Renewed the Destroyed and the Remade: The Three Thought Worlds of the Iroquois and the Huron 1609-1650 (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press2004) pp. 78-90; Calvin Martin Keepers of the Game: Indian-Animal Relationships in the Fur Trade (Berkeley and Los Angeles Cal.: University of California Press 1979) pp. 106-9 118-9 and passim.

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  • 15

    Heidi Bohaker“Reading Anishinaabe Identities: Meaning and Metaphor in Nindoodem Pictographs”Ethnohistory 57:1 (Winter 2010) pp. 11-33.

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  • 18

    Daniel K. RichterFacing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press2003) p. 83; Matthew Dennis Cultivating a Landscape of Peace: Iroquois-European Encounters in Seventeenth-Century America (Ithaca N.Y.: Cornell University Press 1993) p. 13.

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  • 20

    MartinKeepers of the Game pp. 71-4 and David J. Silverman “‘We Chuse to Be Bounded’: Native American Animal Husbandry in Colonial New England” The William and Mary Quarterly Third Series Vol. 60 (July 2003) p. 518. Silverman argues that Algonquians who adopted domestication in New England viewed their tamed animals as fundamentally different from wild ones: they lacked “boss spirits” and thus were devoid of “the manit or abstract power and uniqueness that infused forest creatures”.

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  • 23

    Cornelius JaenenFriend and Foe: Aspects of French-Amerindian Cultural Contact in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ithaca: Cornell University Press1992) p. 191. On artes as a trope in colonization see Joyce Chaplin Subject Matter: Technology the Body and Science on the Anglo-American Frontier 1500–1676 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2001).

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  • 25

    Peter Sahlins“The Royal Menageries of Louis XIV and the Civilizing Process Revisited”French Historical StudiesVol. 35 No. 2 (Spring 2012) p. 239. For an interesting and rather sad survey of sixteenth-century exotic animal combat (including the famous battle between a rhinoceros and elephant at the behest of King Manuel I of Portugal in 1515) see Donald Frederick Lach Asia in the Making of Europe Vol. 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1970) pp. 134-66.

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  • 26

    Sophie WhiteWild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press2012) ch. 1-3. On Colbert’s “almost utopian” vision of acculturating Indians in the American interior see Robert Michael Morrissey “Kaskaskia Social Network: Kinship and Assimilation in the French-Illinois Borderlands 1695–1735” The William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 70 No. 1 (January 2013) p. 110. See also Robert Michael Morrissey “The Terms of Encounter: Language and Contested Visions of French Colonization in the Illinois Country 1673-1702” French and Indians in the Heart of North America Robert Englebert and Guillaume Teasdale (eds.) (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press 2013) pp. 53-77 and Cécile Vidal “Francité et situation colonial: Nation empire et race en Louisiane française (1699–1769)” Annales: Histoire Sciences Sociales 64 no. 5 (September-October 2009) pp. 1019–50.

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  • 31

     On Kaskaskia see Gilles HavardEmpire et Metissages: Indiens et Français dans le Pays d’en Haut 1660-1715 (Paris: Presses de’l Universite de Paris-Sorbonne2003) pp. 89-90.

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  • 48

    James AxtellThe Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America (New York: Oxford University Press1986) p. 9.

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  • 56

    AndersonCreatures p. 38.

  • 57

    AndersonCreatures pp. 38-9. David Silverman offers a somewhat different view emphasizing the creation of hybrid native husbandry practices that unlike European husbandry did not necessarily conflict with the communal sharing of land and resources. Such arguments may be valid in the context of Massachusetts Indians but the process he examines played out differently on the French-American frontier. Identifying the same circular process of “taming” Indians by causing them to adopt tame animals Silverman concludes “it is unlikely that praying Indians saw themselves as metaphorical livestock” (p. 517). Praying Indians may not have – yet as this paper’s opening shows this metaphor was very much in the minds of those tribes such as the Ottawa who still sought to resist both Christianity and European lifeways.

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  • 59

     See Starna and Watkins“Iroquoian Slavery” p. 48 Rushforth “A Little Flesh” p. 9 Rushforth Bonds of Alliance ff. 28 and Frederic Baraga A Dictionary of the Ojibway Language 2 vols. (St. Paul Minn.: Minnesota Historical Society Press 1992) vol. 1: p. 232 vol. 2: p. 56.

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  • 60

    RushforthBonds of Alliance p. 52.

  • 61

    Starna and Watkins“Iroquoian Slavery” p. 48. The discussion in Haefeli and Sweeney (Captors and Captives p. 152) basically accords with their conclusions although they note the distinction that enaskwa was the root word for “slave” which was usually constructed as kenaskwa.

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  • 63

    Treaty minutes Oct. 18 1758Samuel Hazard (ed.) Minutes of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania … 10 vols. (Harrisburg Pa. 1853) vol. VIII p. 199.

  • 68

    Joyce ChaplinSubject Matter p. 270 and p. 242.

  • 75

    Alan Greer“Commons and Enclosure in the Colonization of North America”American Historical Review 117 (April 2012) pp. 365-86. For comparative perspectives see the discussion of “indigenous commons” in Mesoamerica in Melville Plague of Sheep pp. 157-8 and Tim Ingold’s tripartite division of land-usage in Hunters Pastoralists and Ranchers: Reindeer Economies and Their Transformations (New York: Cambridge University Press 1980).

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  • 77

    WhiteWild Frenchmen p. 12.

  • 80

     See Alfred CrosbyThe Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press1972) and Ecological Imperialism.

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  • 82

    Tom HatleyThe Dividing Paths: Cherokee and South Carolinians Through the Era of Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press1995) pp. 213-4. This emphasis on proto-biological reasoning finds an echo in Sophie White’s claims about the material basis for emerging notions of racial difference in Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians.

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  • 83

     See AndersonCreatures of Empire pp. 107-41 and “Animals into the Wilderness: The Development of Livestock Husbandry in the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake” The William and Mary Quarterly 3rd ser. 59:2 (April 2002) pp. 377-408.

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  • 86

    WhiteWild Frenchmen p. 19.

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