Thomas Andrews has a knack for framing American history unconventionally. In his award-winning book “Killing for Coal,” Andrews traced the central role of coal in Colorado’s economic growth, environmental change and social conflict. Now he’s turning his scholarly gaze toward another little-acknowledged actor in American history: animals.
“Paying attention to things that aren’t human—fossil fuels, animals and air—might give us a broader view of history,” Andrews told a group of University of Colorado Boulder leaders recently.
Professional historians clearly agree. “Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War” won the 2009 Bancroft Prize, one of the highest honors in the field of history, from Columbia University.
At the time, Andrews was an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver. Now he’s become an associate professor of history at CU-Boulder, a development that made Todd Gleeson, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, “tickled pink.”
Having viewed Colorado history through the lens of energy, Andrews is now working on a second book tentatively titled “An Animal’s History of the United States.”
The first book raised questions Andrews hopes to address in the second.
Early American miners “constantly had to grapple with an environment that wasn’t of their creation,” Andrews said, adding that in many cases animals helped people navigate and survive unfamiliar environments.
Miners developed mutually beneficial relationship with mice that came underground in hay. Miners often fed and named the mice.
“Partly, this was boredom,” Andrews said. “But there was also a symbiosis, because mice were great safety tools.” Like proverbial coal-mine canaries, mice sensed rising concentrations of carbon monoxide. Mice noticed small cracks in rock walls that usually preceded a major collapse.
“Paying attention to mice was a good thing,” Andrews said. “Miners had these interesting, cute and very functional relationship with mice.”
Mules, on the other hand, were mulish. “They didn’t want to do what miners wanted them to do.” And researching “Killing for Coal,” Andrews said, “got me thinking about animal history.”
He began broadening his view of animal influences on history beyond some previously probed questions about bison, wolves and some domestic animals.
One avenue of inquiry involved weaving present-day ethical issues into a UCD course. Andrews screened the film “Grizzly Man,” about a grizzly-bear advocate who lived among Alaskan bears for 13 summers before being killed by one bear. Andrews also assigned his class to do journal entries about riding horses, and to do ethnographic descriptions of a dog park in Los Angeles.
“I’d have (students) rationalize and defend their own choices about eating or not eating animals. They also had larger assignments. They needed to make an argument about big-box pet stores or zoos.”
“The students absolutely loved it,” Andrews said. As he employed such unconventional teaching techniques, “I realized there was a great opportunity for a book,” which is now under contract by Harvard University Press.
The idea is to “take a stab” at human-animal relationships over the last 600 years, Andrews said.
Because the topic is so large, the book will be selective. “But I want to show how animals have shaped American history, to show how attention to animals can shed new light on historical topics” such as slavery and the treatment of Native Americans.
As Andrews notes, the relationships between humans and animals are complex and varied. For instance, the inquiry raises a question: “How do we have one category of animals that we call pets and another category called livestock that is treated as a factor of production?”
“I don’t have any particular ax to grind,” Andrews emphasized. “I don’t advocate a position.” He does raise questions about animals with which humans have very contradictory and complicated relationships.
A second area of focus is that of animals as “vehicles of conquest.” Horses, sheep and cattle, which Native Americans resisted, literally changed the landscape, Andrews noted.
Additionally, a history of American animals raises questions about slavery, particularly the relationship of slaves and animals under the law. Andrews noted an analogy between the legal treatment African Americans, Native Americans and animals.
While both animals and slaves were legally regarded as property, and Native Americans were not recognized as full members of society, slaves and Native Americans were treated as people in adverse conditions.
“Animals were not being brought to trial, whereas slaves were,” Andrews said, adding: “You had people who were being treated like animals, and that was fundamentally viewed as what was wrong with slavery.”
Susan Kent, chair of CU-Boulder’s Department of History, said the hiring of Andrews and Elizabeth “Lil” Fenn of Duke University further broadens key strengths in the history department. Along with cultural environmental historians Phoebe Young and Paul Sutter, the department is now a “powerhouse,” Kent says, adding:
“It’s an extraordinary line-up, and enables us to position ourselves as one of the premier institutions in America for the study of environmental and Western/borderlands history.”