Capitalist Pigs: Pigs, Pork, and Power in America

Capitalist Pigs: Pigs, Pork, and Power in America

by J. L. Anderson

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Pigs are everywhere in United States history. They cleared frontiers and built cities (notably Cincinnati, once known as Porkopolis), served as an early form of welfare, and were at the center of two nineteenth-century “pig wars.” American pork fed the hemisphere; lard literally greased the wheels of capitalism.

J. L. Anderson has written an ambitious history of pigs and pig products from the Columbian exchange to the present, emphasizing critical stories of production, consumption, and waste in American history. He examines different cultural assumptions about pigs to provide a window into the nation’s regional, racial, and class fault lines, and maps where pigs are (and are not) to reveal a deep history of the American landscape. A contribution to American history, food studies, agricultural history, and animal studies, Capitalist Pigs is an accessible, deeply researched, and often surprising portrait of one of the planet’s most consequential interspecies relationships.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781946684738
Publisher: West Virginia University Press
Publication date: 03/01/2019
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 300
Sales rank: 703,390
Product dimensions: 7.50(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

J. L. Anderson teaches history at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta. Prior to his academic appointment, he was a museum educator and administrator, cultivating a personal and professional interest in swine at the agricultural museums where he worked. Anderson is currently president of the Agricultural History Society.

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In 1876, W. E. Baker of Wellesley, Massachusetts, published a "porcineograph," an illustrated color lithograph of the United States depicting the importance of swine, pork, and lard in the American landscape. The map, a self-styled comic "gehography," included the name and seal of each state alongside a particular dish associated with local or regional cuisine. The message was simple. Swine and pork were omnipresent from coast to coast; ham sandwiches were linked to California, salt pork to Arkansas, scrapple to Pennsylvania, and pickled trotters to Florida. By the 1870s, it was readily apparent to Baker and those who viewed the porcineograph that hogs and pork had been central to the construction of an American empire. This chapter documents the spread of swine across the continent from earliest occupation to the present: the making of American gehography.

Hogs quickly became "agents of empire," as historian Virginia DeJohn Anderson observed, proving valuable allies to European powers as those nations attempted to subjugate and displace native people. Hogs continued to serve American expansionism as the place of pigs shifted from allies to commodities. The Trans-Appalachian West became the site of a massive expansion of Euro-American farming, much of it dedicated to growing corn as feed for cattle and hogs. Even as the United States fractured during the Civil War, hogs played a role in shaping that conflict. Food stability was as important to the Confederacy as gunpowder and lead, and it figured prominently in the conflict over leading hog-producing states such as Kentucky and Tennessee in 1861 and 1862. It continued to dog the breakaway republic as both the US and Confederate armies depleted supplies of southern pigs and pork. The war crippled the southern hog-raising empire, privileging the rival states of the Old Northwest as well as Iowa, Minnesota, and Missouri, creating a new empire for swine that persists to the present.

As capitalist modes of production that emphasized expertise and investment became dominant, the hog-raising empire expanded into areas that had not been traditionally associated with hog farming. These new areas were greenfields, places where there was no buildup of pathogens and parasites in the soil and water due to generations of hog farming. Greenfields enabled hog producers to start fresh and increase the scale of their operations. In the areas where hog farming had once been a significant part of agriculture for small and midsized farmers, feral hogs filled the void. No longer competing with native people for food, the new invaders disrupted commercial farming operations, as well as other businesses, homeowners, and land that had been set aside as wildlife refuges. With fewer people on the land, feral hogs forged their own empire, a product of rural industrialization and the human depopulation of the countryside.


In 1642, the Narragansett Chief Miantonomi reflected on the tremendous changes wrought by colonists over his lifetime. He noted that his father's generation enjoyed plenty of game and fish, but the Narragansett now faced an uncertain future. "But these English having gotten our land," he observed, "they with scythes cut down the grass, and with axes fell the trees; their cows and horses eat the grass, and their hogs spoil our clam banks, and we shall all be starved." He concluded with a plea for unity among Indigenous groups to drive out the English and restore the old order. It was a justifiable complaint about the English but also swine, their livestock allies. Native Americans were not alone in recognizing the power of swine on the land. Roger Williams of Connecticut described the damage that pigs did to native food sources, writing that they were "most hateful to all natives and they call them filthy cut throats" because they competed for subsistence. Decimated by disease and war, and suffering the constant depredations of swine and other animals, Native resistance to European advances faltered.

A multitude of incidents from every part of the colonies corroborated Miantonomi's understanding of the changes that occurred in the New England landscape. Native people frequently complained about the depredations of European livestock. Hogs ravaged clam beds and grazed on berries and nuts that constituted important food sources for humans. They destroyed reeds, marsh grasses, and small trees that native women used for mats and baskets. Stored food was especially vulnerable. Native farmers used cache pits to store corn and other seed crops underground, but hogs, expert diggers, quickly consumed or spoiled winter supplies. There were few solutions short of rolling logs over the cache pits to prevent rooting, but even that proved imperfect. A 1634 report by natives in Massachusetts that English "swyne" had damaged "Indean barnes of corne" resulted in an extended investigation and court case that was settled by a promise of payment by the colonists. In South Carolina, the deer population declined because European cattle and hogs were competing with deer for food, challenging traditional Yamassee subsistence patterns.

Colonial officials recognized the reality of the situation, but instead of controlling hogs, they urged Aboriginal people to respect European legal custom. The common solution was to construct fences around cultivated land to keep animals out and, if livestock penetrated the fences, to impound the affronting animals. Presumably each animal had a mark such as a brand or ear notch to identify the owner, who would be responsible for paying for damages done by the animal.

Indigenous people understood that livestock were agents of empire. They often responded by hunting the animals that damaged their crops and resources. Archaeologists recovered pig bones at seventeenth-century native sites, indicating that colonists' complaints about native poaching were sometimes accurate. One of the leading historians of colonial-era livestock asserted that hogs were the most common targets of native destruction. This is not surprising, given the prolific nature of hogs and their high degree of adaptability. On the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake, colonists complained of the "Continuall Trade of killing of hogs." In some cases, there was redress under the law. In 1631, a group of New England colonists complained to a court that a native person had killed an Englishman's pig. The court conducted an investigation and ordered a fine of one beaver skin to cover the loss. Many other charges were false or unproven, but instances of poaching and retaliatory killing of pigs were so common that colonists believed the worst. When residents of Jamestown moved their herd to Hog Island in 1609, they preserved order within the town, but they left the animals vulnerable. During the winter of 1609–1610, known as the Starving Time, famished colonists could not protect their livestock on Hog Island from natives. During the 1622 Powhatan War, native people attempted to drive the English out of Virginia and attacked not only the settlers but their livestock; "poultry, Hoggs, Cowes, Goats, and Horses whereof they killed great nombers."

Disputes over the repeated trespasses of hogs, cattle, and horses in native fields and gardens led to open warfare. The 1641 Pig War that erupted in New Netherland began after the alleged killing of several pigs by the Raritan people on Staten Island. Colonial official William Kieft used the incident as a pretext for a punitive expedition, which in turn provoked a Raritan attack. While it is not clear who actually killed the pigs, their presence and death exacerbated tensions between native and newcomer. Fifty years of livestock conflicts led to King Philip's War in 1675. The specific trigger for native attacks on the English in 1675 was the fact that colonists had killed three Wampanoag for the murder of a Christian, or "Praying," Wampanoag, who had provided information to the colonists about Indian activities. Throughout summer and autumn of that year the Narragansett and Wampanoag attacked a majority of the New England settlements, killing settlers, taking captives, and destroying crops and livestock. In 1676, colonists and their native allies retaliated, bringing the same kind of "skulking" war to native people, burning villages and targeting crops and livestock.

Some native people selectively adapted European ways, often due to the depletion of game species, decimation by disease, defeat in war, and a hard-won understanding of the ways in which Europeans conceived of land ownership and use. English settlers labeled native hunting ground as waste because it was not "improved" by cultivation and fencing. It was a convenient justification for conquest. The "Praying Indians," those in New England who converted to Christianity in the mid-1600s, accepted livestock husbandry as a means of survival, although there is evidence that native people utilized pigs for food almost immediately after the arrival of Europeans. After defeat in King Philip's War, other native people in the region determined that the adoption of stock raising would allow them to preserve a degree of cultural identity and autonomy in the face of growing English strength.

In the southern Appalachians, the Cherokee people successfully integrated hogs into their agricultural system during the eighteenth century. While the Cherokee encountered pigs when de Soto moved into their land, it was not until the mid- to late 1700s that observers reported herds belonging to the Cherokee. When John Norton (Teyoninhokovrawen) traveled to Cherokee country in the early 1800s, he noted that hog raising was a widespread practice.

Christian converts and the Cherokee were often successful in livestock husbandry, even as they did not fully meet English expectations for cultural assimilation. In an ironic twist, the hogs that were so numerous and despised by natives for their ubiquity and destructiveness were the European animals most often adopted into native culture. Virginia DeJohn Anderson explained, "What made hogs particularly appealing was their ability to fit niches occupied by animals already familiar to Indians." They were like other game, and their products — not just meat but organs, fat, and hide — were useful like those of other game species. The fact that Aboriginal people adopted what Englishmen associated as the lowest status livestock, far below cattle as a species suited to making proper Englishmen, simultaneously confirmed English prejudice.

Livestock husbandry as an avenue of assimilation proved to be a dead end for many Indigenous people. Many colonists complained that trade in "Indian" pork was detrimental to their economic interests because Native Americans, who raised and sold livestock and meat, undercut prices. In some cases, colonists admonished native people to trade only in game. Sometimes colonists insisted that the hogs native people brought to market needed to have uncut ears to prove that they were not owned by Englishmen. One of the most candid European appraisals was that "Indians ought not to keepe hoggs."

Indigenous people continued to keep cattle, hogs, and sheep, despite the push back from colonists. Pork was already part of native culture by the time of King Philip's War. During Mary Rowlandson's wartime captivity, her native captors offered her fresh pork on at least two occasions. Keeping livestock was sometimes an explicit means of maintaining land claims, as Western Niantic leaders articulated in 1743: "we Could Keep Some Cattle and Sheep and Swine" to refute English assertions that the native people used land only for crops, not livestock. While the colonists were victorious in King Philip's War, hogs and other livestock were also winners. The open range was preserved and the place of swine in the imperial economy was secure.


After the American Revolution, swine abetted westward expansion into the midcontinent. The same attributes of the pig that enabled European settlers to establish lodgments on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts were useful in the nineteenth century. The predominance of corn in the region facilitated the dependence on swine. As one Indiana newspaper editorialized in 1824, "The principal object pursued at this time, is to raise a crop of corn and a great number of hogs, which embraces almost entirely the whole surplus of the country." A writer for the American Agriculturalist asserted in 1845, "It is worth a journey of a thousand miles, any time to take a look at a small field of corn of five hundred acres" of rich bottom land "and a little herd of two or three hundred lusty grunters making away with it on the other." The author argued that eastern farms could not compare in the business of fattening hogs. "Take a trip to the Sciota, the Miami, and the Wabash," he urged, "and one will then get his eyes open and know something about them." Hog raising became so important in the western states that the region became renowned for pigs and pork, so much so that Cincinnati, the nation's leading pork-packing city, became known as "Porkopolis." By the 1850s, hog raising had become so established in the West that a writer from Iowa could claim, "What cotton is to South Carolina, sugar to Louisiana, tobacco to Kentucky, or wheat to Pennsylvania, pork is to Iowa."

In the far western Pacific Coast, hogs brought American and British empires into conflict. The setting was San Juan Island, located in the San Juan de Fuca Straits that separated the United States from what is now known as British Columbia. In 1846, the United States and Great Britain agreed to a border that extended from the forty-ninth parallel into the channel that separated Vancouver Island from the mainland and followed the channel through the straits to the Pacific. Both nations, however, claimed San Juan Island, and both Americans and Britons occupied the island during the 1850s, including a Hudson's Bay Company representative named Charles Griffin, who owned a sheep ranch that was the primary battleground of the 1859 Pig War.

An American settler and an English pig provided the tinder for this conflict. In 1859, American Lyman Cutlar staked a claim on Griffin's ranch, known locally as Belle Vue Farm, where he built a cabin and planted a potato patch. When one of Griffin's hogs entered Cutlar's potato patch and began to forage, Cutlar shot and killed it. Cutlar offered to provide Griffin with a replacement pig or to pay the fair market price for the dead animal, but Griffin insisted on a hundred-dollar payment, far in excess of fair value. American settlers reported the incident to the US Army commander of the department in the Pacific Northwest, who ordered a company of US Infantry to the island to assert American rights. Soon, however, British ships and troops arrived and established camp. A stalemate ensued, but by October cooler heads prevailed. British and American military commanders agreed to a joint occupation, which lasted until 1872. That year an international commission determined that the island belonged to the United States. Subsequent generations downplayed the significance of the Pig War, but it demonstrated the continued place that hogs played on the settlement frontier and the potential they posed for provoking conflict.


During the American Civil War, pork was critical for soldiers and civilians in the United States and newly created Confederacy. In 1860, the states that eventually composed the Confederacy were home to seventeen million pigs, while the loyal states possessed nineteen million. Northern and southern farmers alike sold millions of hogs to government buyers or, in the Confederacy, used pork to pay taxes. Pigs were casualties and prizes of war during military campaigns, meeting their end at the hands of foraging parties or driven away from the path of the armies by their owners to protect them for home use or sale. Wartime demand for pork taxed farmers in both nations, resulting in significant declines in livestock numbers during the war years.

Early in 1861, southerners recognized their dependence on outside sources of pork. Historian Paul Gates noted that both the individual Confederate states and the general government imported as much pork as possible from the northwestern states during the secession crisis. Together, the Confederate government, the states, and private individuals in the South purchased approximately 1.2 million of the 3 million American hogs packed during the 1860–1861 season. As long as the war was brief, the Confederacy could survive a meat shortage.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations      



1. Making American Gehography     

2. Hogs at Home on the Range           

3. Working People’s Food      

4. Pigs and the Urban Slop Bucket     

5. To Market, to Market       

6. Swine Plagues     

7. Making Bacon and White Meat     

8. Science and the Swineherd 

Coda: The Future of Hogs in America            



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