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Environment and History

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

Robert Michael Morrissey

Environment and History 22 (2016): 157-190. doi: 10.3197/096734016X14574329314281

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


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