'The Country Is Greatly Injured': Human-Animal Relationships, Ecology and the Fate of Empire in the Eighteenth Century Mississippi Valley Borderlands

By Morrissey, Robert Michael | Environment and History, May 2016 | Go to article overview

'The Country Is Greatly Injured': Human-Animal Relationships, Ecology and the Fate of Empire in the Eighteenth Century Mississippi Valley Borderlands


Morrissey, Robert Michael, Environment and History


ABSTRACT

At the end of the Seven Years' War, the British Empire made its most serious effort to establish control over the trans-Appalachian west when it sent soldiers and colonists to the formerly-French settlements of the so-called Illinois Country. Despite this region's abundant resources and the presence of sympathetic Illinois Indians in the area, the British effort failed dismally. This essay explains the weakness of the British in part by examining the special ecology of the tallgrass prairie and one of its most important non-human inhabitants, the bison. Exploring the central (though ignored) place of bison in the lives of the Illinois Indians--the easternmost bison people in North America--I show how the animal was more than just a source of calories; it was the basis of collaborative relationships between the Illinois and colonial newcomers throughout the eighteenth century. In particular, bison trade was the foundation of a strong accommodation between the Illinois and the French regime in the Mississippi Valley beginning in the late seventeenth century and lasting through the Seven Years' War. When the British arrived in the 1760s, various factors combined to deplete the bison herds in the region, which in turn undermined the possibility of close diplomacy between the British and the Native people. Far from a simple story of aggressive newcomers and the commodification of nature, this was a scenario in which policy, ecology and imperial rivalries were all entangled, each affecting the other. This essay thus tells a new story, not just about a key chapter of imperial history in the early West, but also about a little-known bison culture at the very edge of the prairie-woodlands divide.

KEYWORDS

Bison, Illinois Country, tallgrass prairie, fur trade

Shortly after the end of the Seven Years' War, British planners faced the challenge of establishing control over their newly acquired territories in North America. In the vast expanse west of the Appalachians, one location in particular caught the attention of ambitious but thrifty military officers as a likely stronghold of empire. Known as le pays des Illinois, or Illinois Country, this was a long-established colonial region, home to about 750 French Creoles, a nearly equal number of slaves and a thousand Illinois-speaking Indians clustered along the Mississippi River between the Illinois and the Kaskaskia Rivers. Here, five colonial villages and two missions sat among several permanent Indian villages and a large stone fort which guarded a prosperous export economy, based mostly on agriculture and fur trade. As a potential British colony, Illinois provided an almost perfect combination of factors--the prospect of a self-sufficient colony, several marketable commodities that might turn a profit within the empire's mercantilist system and advantageous geography at the confluence of important rivers. Most importantly perhaps, Illinois was home to sympathetic Indians who had not joined the pan-Indian, anti-British rebellion organised by the Ottawa chief Pontiac in 1763. (1) For all these reasons, Illinois seemed like a good place for the British to establish a colony.

But the British colonisation effort, begun in 1765, proved a disaster. Everything was more expensive than anticipated. Many local French inhabitants, whom imperialists had hoped would supply provisions to the occupying army, abandoned their old farms for the fledgling colony of St. Louis in now-Spanish territory across the Mississippi River. Equally troubling, the Illinois Indians left their villages for new locations to the north, creating alliances primarily with the Spanish imperial government and not the British newcomers. Rather than successfully exporting commodities, the new British colony soon found itself importing boatloads of expensive supplies, including even food for the two hundred British soldiers who occupied Fort de Chartres, the large stone fort located to the north of the largest village, Kaskaskia. …

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