Thursday, June 28, 2007


Howard Pyle, The Salem Wolf, 1909 (painting used on the cover of Coleman's book)

Title: Vicious: Wolves and Men in America (New Haven: Yale UP, 2004)

Jon T. Coleman, now of the department of history at Notre Dame, got his PhD from Yale (I think in history, not AMS). This book was his dissertation. There's not information on this site about his possible new project, but I heard from somebody at some point that he's writing about bears now (scuttlebutt, possibly). He writes often and entertainingly for the Chronicle of Higher Ed.

Argument: Telling the story of wolves in America, Coleman argues, entails creating an "interdisciplinary mutant" of methods from biology, folklore, and history in order to answer his operative questions: Why did European settlers in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, bent on colonizing the "new" world, kill wolves in such a "vicious" manner? And when and how did the balance of opinion shift such that wolves are now conserved instead of slaughtered? Coleman argues that "livestock, folklore, and sex underpinned the longevity of wolf hatred" - the first two being categories of property and cultural heritage that humans "designed to endure"; the third, biological reproduction, creating fodder for the cultural reproduction of the importance of these categories (11).

Part One: Southern New England
1. Howls, Snarls, and Musket Shots: Saying "This is Mine" in Colonial New England:
I love the way this chapter opens with the way that the *sound* of wolf howls severely disconcerted and upset English settlers upon their arrival in New England. Coleman sets the tone for the book's focus on animal communication and animal-human misunderstanding. Communication is allied with concepts of territory - Coleman points out that Indians, settlers, and wolves were the top three groups of predators in the region, and each had different ideas of territoriality. When combined with miscommunication and mistrust, these overlapping territories led to strife and hate (see Lepore, as well as Virginia deJohn Anderson's Creatures of Empire). Wolves, who killed livestock, were seen as dire threats to European survival in the region: "The English colonists' concept of territory - the idea that land, animals, and even people were property - ambushed wolves" (36). Here there are also stories of the European use of mastiffs as instruments of control (33).

2. Beasts of Lore: How Stories Turned Fearsome Monsters into Skulking Criminals:
This is the Folklore Chapter, which fills out the picture of what ideas the Europeans had brought to the New World about wolves. Here, Coleman addresses interpretive questions: why do certain stories survive, while others are lost? Why are some seen as more important than others? Important sources of English wolf lore included the Bible, in which wolves were seen as threats to the pastoral ideal. Coleman also tries to suss out some ideas of what Native Americans thought about the wolf. These come to us via English sources, so are necessarily somewhat commercial: their hides were ceremonial gifts or currency. Englishmen didn't probe far enough to figure out the Indian's cultural interest in the wolf, if any, though one of them recorded that the Indians thought wolves who allowed themselves to be killed did so because they were atoning for past misdeeds (another interesting tidbit about Indian hunting practices and their possible ecological or non-ecological effects; see Krech).

3. Wolf Bullets with Adders' Tongues: How to Kill a Wolf in Colonial New England:
Here we get to the nitty-gritty of how Englishmen carried out their campaigns of extermination. Coleman writes that, although Englishmen tried a variety of individual and social measures to extirpate wolves from their territory and keep them from threatening livestock ("dug traps, offered bounties, erected fences..." [52]), "humans and wolves coexisted belligerently for more than a hundred years in a patchwork landscape of agricultural strongholds and feral woods" (53). It's the record of this coexistence that Coleman examines. Interesting Indian-English relationships ensued: although many Indians killed wolves, they found it unproductive to try to collect bounties, as they were seen as deviant and false and needed white proof of their kill in order to cash in (61). In the end, Coleman writes, white colonists eliminated both wolves and Native Americans, sometimes by "offering rewards to one rival to hunt the other" (65).

Part Two: The Northeastern Woodlands
4. Predator to Prey: Wolves' Journey Through the Northeastern Woodlands:
This chapter takes a broader chronological view of human cruelty to wolves, making the point that although wolves were mostly extirpated from the northeast by the eighteenth century, Americans have continued to kill them viciously through the 1950s (and even now). Coleman describes some myths about how wolves kill their prey (they suck blood! they hamstring!) These myths have allowed the animals to be categorized as "savage" and thus worthy of wrath. Coleman then describes how scientists such as Adolph Murie and L David Mech studied wolves in the 1940s and 1950s, using airplanes and radio collars, and finally put many (though not all) of the myths to rest. Returning to the eighteenth century, Coleman tells the stories of big-time wolf bounty hunters in the Northeast - their social standing tended to be high - and establishes the strong agricultural context of these killings.

I really like this portrait of L. David Mech, pioneer of radio telemetry, by photographer Layne Kennedy.

5. Surrounded: Fear and Retribution in the Northeastern Forests:
Here are stories about northern settlers and wolves, with Coleman's attempt to place them in a fuller social context, despite the sometimes overwhelming lack of available clues about where the stories came from and what they meant to those who created and heard them. In these stories, Coleman says, Europeans, the "top predators" of the ecological niche, "an aggressive group of animals intent upon expanding their territory, transplanting their culture, and growing their wealth expressed their frustration and protested their vulnerability" (106). Through communal wolf hunts, colonists restored their primacy while "reordering the biotic community" (114) and regenerating themselves through violence (see Slotkin).

6. Metaphors of Slaughter: Two Wolf Hunts:
Two stories of hunts seek to answer the question of why Euro-American colonists "felt so vulnerable" (122) in the face of wolves. One hunt took place in northeastern Ohio (the Western Reserve) in 1818; another took place in Nauvoo, IL, in 1844, and took as its context the precarious position of Mormon settlers in both the natural and cultural worlds of the West (this was not an actual "wolf hunt", but rather a possible massacre of Mormons by non-Mormons, which Coleman uses as a metaphor to show the way that the hunt worked to restore social order).

Part Three: The American West
7. A Wealth of Canines: Mormon Americans in the Great Plains:
Coleman continues to use the story of the Mormons and their relationship with the landscape and its fauna, this time to ask the question of whether this story could have ever ended a different way (could humans have adopted/domesticated wolves? etc). He talks a bit about the social structure of wolf packs, and goes into the biology behind their cooperation, seguing into the story of Lois Crisler and her fascination with wolf communication (and the sad end of that story - which I forgot - she ended up killing all of her wolves). Moving back to the nineteenth century, Coleman talks about the Mormon settlers and their wolf relationships, worsened by wolf predation on livestock as well as their habit of occasionally eating dead human bodies (an activity which made them look all the worse to the Mormons, who perceived themselves as a very threatened community whose ties to the past and future were tenuous).

8. Call It a Coyote: How to Exterminate Wolves in Colonial Utah:
Coleman makes the point that Mormon settlers very much wanted to leave the wolf-phase behind and enter into a civilized era. For this reason, they situated their wolf-stories in the past (and even changed the name of one species, the prairie wolf, to "coyote" in order to create the illusion of wolf extirpation).

Part Four: The Federal Government
9. Annihilation and Enlightenment: The Cultural Extinction of North American Wolves:
Here we have the meaty (sorry) modernity section. Aldo Leopold's "Thinking Like a Mountain" starts us off, as a handy link between wolf-killing and wolf-loving (he used to work as a professional wolf killer via the USFS). Coleman then describes the way the government, in the first half of the twentieth century, organized wolf hunts in such a way that the wolves were cleared from "every region in the temperate United States in which a human could grow a marketable plant or animal" (192). Most interestingly, during this time, "last wolves", which were often seen as the most strong or powerful or smart of their species, were made into heroes (but not so heroic that they didn't deserve to die). Here, wolves were made sympathetic for the first time, through such stories as those of Ernest Thompson Seton, and urbanizing and industrializing America began to feel sad about their disappearance. (But, see footnote about utilitarianism of animal control in the 1920s, and traveling exhibits of animal parts, p 221).

Ernest Thompson Seton.

A conclusion, based on contemporary wolf stories and conflicts between ranchers and conservationists. Some hopeful stories about the success of introduction into national parks, and Coleman's final assessment: "Wolves embody an unbroken history of conquest, worth pondering and protecting" (235).

The wolf-loving site I got this from,, had this pic animated so that the wolf's mouth was opening and closing and you could see steam coming out. Tragically, I couldn't figure out how to transfer the Quicktime.

Reviews: In the Journal of American History, Karen Jones wrote that the book effectively pointed out the need for an integration of animal stories into human history. She liked the beginning of the book better than the end - she wished that the contemporary story of the wolves' image rehab had been covered more extensively. I remember that I read a positive review of this book in the Atlantic - that's what made me get the book in first place, and, not incidentally, reading the book is what made me want to go to grad school. That review started off "This is a sick-making book." It's interesting to think that this project could be seen by some as so overtly political - I don't think of it as being an animals rights book, though it's very anti-colonial, but I guess if you wanted to deploy it for animal-rights purposes, you certainly could.

Books to follow up on: Secondary:
Carl Degler, In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought (1991); Patrick Malone, The Skulking Way of War: Technology and Tactics Among the New England Indians (2000); Marion Schwartz, A History of Dogs in the Early Americas (1997).

1 comment:

Raquel said...

oooh, timing. I just read an anecdote about the Yellowstone wolves, claiming that the population would have come back on its own, but that Parks Service chose to reintroduce them rather than wait so that, if the population ever got "too" large again, they would be able to shoot them (since they were introduced). There was no footnote, and I wonder if that's true.