The City is More Than Human
photos courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives and Rainier Valley Historical Society

Chapter 1:
Beavers, Cougars, and Cattle:
Constructing the Town and the Wilderness


After Seattle's founding in 1851, the expanding cohort of Europeans' animals and the retreating deer, bears, and cougars defined in Europeans' minds a line between civilization and wilderness. The labor of animals was crucial to the logging and farming that transformed the area around Elliott Bay. The wide roads that shaped the city would have been largely pointless without horse-drawn conveyances to use them. The removal of wild animals was also crucial in defining the city as civilized, as demonstrated by the celebration of this process in taxidermy. Animals continued to be central to relations between Natives and newcomers in this era. In the military-political struggle over land, the Native peoples who objected violently to dispossession in 1855-1856 were those who needed land for their horses, whereas those who relied on the salmon of Puget Sound did not revolt. Within the town, however, the spatial division between livestock and pets, between use and nurturance, had yet to emerge. In the blended city of the nineteenth century, the same animals could be both loved and worked, as when beloved dogs were used in hunting, or when chickens served as children's pets in their infancy and as supper when fully grown.

(A story from Chapter One). When Ezra Meeker discussed at length his affection for his livestock, he knew this emotion might strike his readers as out of place. In his reminiscences, he felt obliged to carefully preface a paean to his oxen with whom he crossed the continent: "What I am about to write may provoke a smile ...] That there should be a feeling akin to affection between a man and ox will seem past comprehension to many." Such apologies for human affection toward animals seem never to appear in women's stories of early Puget Sound. Meeker, his wife Eliza, and seven-week-old son Marion set out from Iowa in 1852, journeyed along the Oregon Trail with four steers and four cows, visited the many new white settlements on Puget Sound (judging Seattle "not much of a town"), and eventually settled near Olympia. Writing fifty years later, Meeker remembered both the cows and oxen with affection. The cows gave them the luxury of butter and buttermilk. As Meeker's memoir waxed rhapsodic about his wife's cooking, it hit the following high point as he described cows' roles in creating a domestic space even in the trailside camp: "Then the buttermilk! What a luxury! I shall never, as long as I live, forget the shortcake and cornbread, the puddings and pumpkin pies, and above all, the buttermilk." Their oxen supplied traction and even warmth. Ezra would sometimes nap on his watch with his back against that of his ox, Buck, both to ward off the cold and to know if the cattle sensed danger in the night. When he was forced to part with his team of oxen to take up a claim on McNeil Island in Puget Sound, he spoke movingly about his "close companions," emphasizing their recognition of human mastery: "They knew me as far as they could see, and seemed delighted to obey my word, and I did regret to feel constrained to part with them." While men generally emphasized the works that animals made possible -- or apologized for their affection for animals -- women emphasized the other side of dominion by pointing up animals' usefulness and faithfulness. Both types of stories assumed a vital role for domesticated animals in establishing Euro-American "civilization" and a world of order and control where humans had clear dominion over animals.
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