Producing Predators: Wolves, Work, and Conquest in the Northern Rockies

Producing Predators: Wolves, Work, and Conquest in the Northern Rockies

by Michael D. Wise


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803249813
Publisher: UNP - Nebraska
Publication date: 08/01/2016
Pages: 210
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Michael D. Wise is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Texas.

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Producing Predators

Wolves, Work, and Conquest in the Northern Rockies

By Michael D. Wise


Copyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-9046-4


Wolves and Whiskey

If nobody got drunk, the East Coast would be awful crowded by this time.

— Charles M. Russell, "Whiskey"

Sprawling over twenty million acres of Montana grasslands lies "Russell Country," named by the state tourism board after Charlie Russell, Montana's most famous western artist. Bounded to the north by the Alberta border, the Rocky Mountains on the west, and dissolving toward the south and east across the grasslands of the upper Missouri River watershed, this sector of Montana's tourist geography spans an area three times larger than New Jersey. Buttes, cutbanks, and badlands lie beneath a big sky that dominates the horizon in every direction. The Marias, Milk, Sun, and Teton Rivers spill eastward from high mountain passes, emptying to the Missouri River as it muscles a muddy course to the city of St. Louis, two thousand miles distant.

The tourism board marketers have tried to domesticate this place by hawking its wildness as a consumable product. "If freedom could be bottled and sold," they declare, "the heart of Russell Country would be a popular place to acquire it." But the earth's soul is not so easily peddled. It might be tempting to re-create the view from the glossy advertising inserts, to gaze across the frontcountry at sunset and imagine yourself as a pioneer conquering a virgin land. But the evening shadows of the Northern Rockies outrun your vision, and the breeze strikes a chill up your neck, engaging senses beyond the imperial gaze perfected by nineteenth-century landscape artists. In person, this place has a "physical ambiency," as Bob Marshall once described, an immediate and fluctuating beauty that exceeds the instantaneity of artistic representation. Wallace Stegner described the sensation as a multiplicity of shifting "circles, radii, [and] perspective exercises," an overpowering display of light and movement driven by a wind "with the smell of distance in it." Dan Flores called it "the visual equivalent of placing an ear to a seashell." The sublimity of the high plains is powerful but subtle and unexpected. When you look at it, it exerts its own forces back; it crawls inside you. Russell Country is a place defined at these sensory margins, where grand visions surrender to the tactile and prosaic.

Russell earned fame as a painter but harbored a distrust of the medium. He understood himself as a storyteller first, and his brilliance hinged on discarding the static tropes of American landscape art for uncertain illustrations of rapidity and motion. Russell's canvases quiver with energy in ways that are absent from the work of his contemporaries, many of them easterners such as Frederic Remington and Charles Schreyvogel. Impatient wolves snort plumes of hot air as they trample circles through the snow. Horses kick with uneven gaits, and the earth shudders. In Wolves at the Wagon-Train, smoky campfires comfort a camp of plains freighters (figure 1). Three wolves watch from a distance, tails cocked in agitation, looking back at a landscape seen in reverse.

If freedom came in a bottle, Russell would know. In 1927 he fused his explorations of place, paradox, and sensory confusion into a dissolute theory of conquest: America moved west because it was drunk. During the midst of the Prohibition Era, his essay on whiskey elevated the drink as an alternative heart of America's manifest destiny. With lighthearted humor, Russell wrote of drunk men passing out in St. Louis and waking up in Montana, "dragging a boat loaded with trade goods for the Injun country." No stranger to the pains and pleasures of whiskey himself, Russell celebrated the drink as a transcendent spirit of the western experience, a "brave-maker" that withdrew men and women from their inherent cowardice. He poked fun at the eastern moralists and reformers who tried to outlaw the liquor trade in indigenous communities in the nineteenth century and who passed the Volstead Act during the twentieth, a law that "made Injuns out of all of us." Like other mind-altering substances, rather than just "dulling the senses," alcohol provided humans with the possibility of expanding their comprehension of the world around them. The liquor laws were a disavowal of more significant sources of western misery that Russell witnessed during his lifetime. It was an age of unjust conquest that destroyed the wild freedoms of the northwestern plains and created Russell Country in its place, a matrix of private property and social exploitation created to enrich its new barons of land, grass, and cattle. It was funny to imagine drunken fortitude leading Americans westward, but its true roles in the region's ongoing colonial relationships were superficial. But beyond the humor, Russell had a serious point to make: "Whiskey has been blamed for lots it didn't do." Sobriety was just another false piety of colonialism and capitalism.

Russell's observation rings true throughout the historical memory of the Northern Rocky Mountain frontcountry as well. The region's dispossession has long been linked with the whiskey trade, a transborder commerce that transformed the Blackfoot into "ragged mendicants," as the historian Hugh Dempsey described them. The whiskey trade certainly connected many historical developments to one another. The arrival of the North-West Mounted Police, the Blackfoot's acquiescence to Treaty Seven, the near eradication of bison, and even innovations in steamboat technology all relied, in some respects, on the borderland's burgeoning nineteenth-century trade in whiskey, as numerous scholars have explored. Located at the center of these and other historical transformations, the spirit has taken on a life of its own. For many historians, whiskey has become an agent of conquest more potent than official actors like Colonel Baker or Colonel McLeod. In doing so, the spirit has provided a solvent to remove human contingency from the borderland's colonial past. Although the colonization of the North American West has most often been understood as a narrative of disenchantment, where Anglo-American concepts of science and modernity replaced indigenous spiritual practices, whiskey's emergence as the region's historical deus ex machina reveals that an unacknowledged animism also pervaded the borderland's western conquest. Viewed as a historical actor itself, whiskey contravenes a long-standing humanistic metaphysics that has reserved historical agency for human actors.

For many historians, then, it seems that the Blackfoot would not have been confined to reservations nor had their land and labor subordinated by the colonial nations of Canada and the United States were it not for the pernicious influence of firewater. Although alcohol has been controversial in many other encounters between Native and non-Native people, the exotic toxin seems to have soaked Blackfoot society more deeply, drenching it with a scale of death and destitution almost on par with epidemic diseases like smallpox. Between 1870 and 1875 hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of Blackfoot died through their contacts with whiskey, as Dempsey, Margaret Kennedy, Paul Sharp, and other historians have emphasized. This wasn't the point that Russell had tried to make, but perhaps if nobody got drunk, the East Coast would be more crowded, or at least the conquest of Blackfoot lands might have stalled out farther east.

This chapter sets the groundwork for those that follow by arguing that the uneven acceptance of wolves and whiskey as historical agents demonstrates a defining but overlooked feature of colonial conquest: the need for colonizers to disavow their predatory inclinations. For federal officials and for the historians who later followed them, whiskey provided an opportunity for this disavowal by dehumanizing the borderland's narrative of conquest, shifting blame for Blackfoot dispossession to the mysterious alchemy of a spirituous liquor. But the historical outcomes of the whiskey commerce were far more complicated than often recognized. Intoxication did not just dull the senses; it also provided alternative and perhaps subversive ways of seeing, an acknowledgment long understood by the Blackfoot and other indigenous people of the Great Plains. Over generations, the Blackfoot had developed a sophisticated palette of skills for interacting and communicating with their nonhuman kin throughout their dreaming and waking lives. In addition to ritual fasts and various ceremonial procedures, the consumption of liquor and other substances helped open these lines of communication between human and animal worlds. Colonialism comprised the process of melting away these kinship ties in order to subordinate Native land and labor and to establish the frontcountry as an ordered domain for industrial agriculture. The U.S. Army and the Office of Indian Affairs were tasked with prohibiting Native access to liquor as part of this process.

The chapter is subdivided into two sections. The first explores Blackfoot understandings of nonhuman kinship and assesses the role of the whiskey trade in early colonial efforts to control the "Whoop-Up Country" of present-day northern Montana and southern Alberta during the 1860s and 1870s. The second section explores the effects of the whiskey trade on wolves and on wolves' roles in establishing the frontcountry as a predaceous landscape both culturally and physically. The whiskey trade did not play as significant a role in destroying Blackfoot life and livelihood as previous historians have concluded. Rather than crippling the Blackfoot, the trade emboldened Native resistance to colonization, which is one reason why American and Canadian authorities sought its dismantlement. Another important outcome of the whiskey commerce was a surplus of bison carcasses scattered across the frontcountry, skinned for the robes by Blackfoot market hunting. Wolves fed on these carcasses and most likely increased their populations through the end of the 1870s. Their increasing presence alone indicated the frontcountry's transformation into one of the colonial periphery's most predaceous landscapes.

Whoop-Up Country

In the fall of 1869 two white men traveled north from Montana across the forty-ninth parallel with a wagonload of whiskey and lever-action rifles. They did not know where exactly they had crossed the international boundary into Canada, but they did know that the place they built their trading post, at the confluence of the Oldman and St. Marys Rivers, was far enough from Montana to avoid harassment by the U.S. Army. Over the winter, they struck a brisk trade with Blackfoot hunters who eagerly exchanged hundreds of bison robes for the new repeating guns. Whiskey proved a popular commodity too, as it had across the border, until earlier that summer, when U.S. marshals and Office of Indian Affairs agents had broken up the illegal commerce. The next spring, John J. Healy and Alfred B. Hamilton returned to Montana and sold their robes at Fort Benton, splitting a $5,000 profit. For the next few years they ventured to the same location above the border, building a permanent log structure after their first burned to the ground and increasing the scale of their trading operations, bankrolled after 1870 by the town of Fort Benton's leading merchants. Unmolested by federal authorities, they traded whiskey freely. When asked for an update on business, Healy responded, "We're just whoopin' up on 'em!" an exclamation quickly recruited as the name for the trading post, Fort Whoop-Up, as well as a nickname for the broad sweep of Blackfoot country from the Missouri to the Saskatchewan Rivers.

The year 1870 marked the start of a commercial revolution on the high plains straddling the forty-ninth parallel. From Fort Benton, the highest navigable point on the Missouri River, industrially produced goods began flowing northward across the international boundary, offering the three tribes of the Blackfoot Confederacy — the Pikuni, Kainah, and Siksika — unprecedented access to manufactured clothing, repeating rifles, canned food, and a host of other items, including whiskey, most notorious of them all. Blackfoot trade with whites, especially with white Americans, picked up substantially over the course of the next decade, and by the early 1880s the commerce had generated a handful of fortunes across northern Montana. The merchant houses of T. C. Power and I. G. Baker benefited the most from the trade and consolidated their market power with dramatic expansions eastward, breaking apart the old fur monopolies of Hudson's Bay, St. Louis, and St. Paul in the process. With satellite offices in Chicago, Montreal, and New York and with vertically integrated operations to streamline their flows of profits back to Fort Benton, the merchant houses helped momentarily reverse Montana's usual arrangement under core-periphery relationships. Rather than a dusty frontier outpost, Fort Benton truly was "the world's innermost port" — the center of a global traffic in bison robes and wolf pelts.

The furs of these animals had superseded beaver skins in profitability by the late 1860s, a transformation based on a series of shifting political, ecological, and economic circumstances, along with changes in Victorian fashion sensibilities. In many parts of the Northern Rockies, especially drainages trapped heavily for export by the Hudson's Bay and American Fur Companies earlier in the century (the mountain streams west of Edmonton and those southwest of Helena, respectively), beaver populations had plummeted to a historic nadir.

The Blackfoot were bison hunters first and warriors second, a reality that had frustrated Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) traders for nearly two centuries, ever since their first encounter with the powerful tribes in the 1690s. Even by the 1860s the Blackfoot remained aloof to the HBC's requests for small-game furs, instead bringing hundreds of bison robes to HBC trading posts during years when they decided to come at all. Still reliant on canoe and portage routes through the Canadian Shield, the HBC could not efficiently transport these massive bales of furs. Moreover, the Blackfoot continually warred with the Crees and the Assiniboines, the HBC's prime suppliers of beaver.

Meanwhile, the 1860s also witnessed the near collapse of St. Louis's American Fur Company (AFC), another heir to the beaver's early nineteenth-century slaughter. Like the HBC, the AFC was forced to accept the Blackfoot's insistence on trading bison robes, a commodity the AFC, initially, did not particularly want. But armed with steamboat navigation of the upper Missouri River, by the late 1830s the AFC had come to the trading table, eager to ship Blackfoot bison robes downriver to its St. Louis entrepôt. From its post at Fort Union, at the junction of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, just east of the present-day Montana–North Dakota border, the AFC dominated the fur trade of the northern plains. But although profitable, the Blackfoot bison robe trade was not great enough to offset the AFC's losses on other furs. Moreover, the firm lacked the capital necessary to expand its business with the Blackfoot by supplying more trade goods. By 1865 a number of competing firms working out of the town that had sprung up around the AFC's Blackfoot trading post, Fort Benton, had eroded AFC profits to the point where the company decided to sell its post on the upper Missouri. It found a willing buyer in the Northwest Fur Company, headquartered in St. Paul, Minnesota, which similarly suffered from competition, selling out to I. G. Baker by the end of the decade.

Throughout the middle of the nineteenth century, the Blackfoot drove a hard bargain from these firms, demanding sophisticated items like rifles, finished clothing, saddles, and metal ware. Because it was ruled illegal in both the United States and the Dominion of Canada, liquor played a minor role in the Blackfoot trade until the late 1860s, when independent Fort Benton traders, operating with less judicial oversight than the large firms, began trading whiskey from small, decentralized posts scattered across northern Montana. Contrary to popular understanding, however, the Blackfoot were already well acquainted with liquor by this period. The HBC had periodically dispatched rations of rum as ceremonial trading gifts to the Blackfoot since the eighteenth century. In the 1830s the AFC had actually smuggled a large still northwest from St. Louis, transporting and reassembling it at Fort Union. The still churned out trade whiskey for several years before its discovery by a U.S. Army officer on his travels across the plains. Faced with the possible revocation of its trading license, the AFC destroyed the massive still while claiming it was reserved solely for the use of AFC personnel. Thomas Hart Benton, a U.S. senator from Missouri and an AFC board member, facilitated a settlement whereby the AFC merely paid a fine for its transgression and continued its business. The AFC named its trading post with the Blackfoot, Fort Benton, in honor of this senator who saved the firm from the full wrath of U.S. commerce laws.

By 1870 the Blackfoot had become well versed with whiskey and its intoxicating effects, having traded for it in relatively lesser quantities for at least two generations. Also by this time, whiskey was also neither incompatible with nor unprecedented within Blackfoot cultural practices. Liquor had long played a significant role in the gift giving that often accompanied trade with both the HBC and the AFC. Furthermore, although it is unlikely the Blackfoot had access to alcoholic drink before their encounters with white traders, they did have significant experience with other intoxicating substances, especially body-purging teas. Sometimes the Blackfoot consumed these teas in large quantities during ceremonies in which participants would try to outdrink one another before getting ill. The incorporation of whiskey into these ceremonies was more a change in means than in ends.


Excerpted from Producing Predators by Michael D. Wise. Copyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations    
1. Wolves and Whiskey    
2. Beasts of Bounty    
3. Making Meat    
4. The Place That Feeds You    
5. Unnatural Hunger    

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