Journal of American History: Understanding the urbanization of the eastern gray squirrel

Dec. 13, 2013


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Eastern gray squirrels were introduced to U.S. cities in the mid-1800s and soon became a regular feature of urban life. Many city-dwellers delighted in watching and feeding the squirrels that lived in parks and neighborhoods. But not everyone was amused by their antics.

Etienne Benson, writing in the current issue of the Journal of American History, explains how social reformers and naturalists seized on squirrels' adaptation to urban life and dependence on humans to promote a vision of charity and community. Others saw them as pests that destroyed flowerbeds and nested in attics. For some immigrants, squirrels were a convenient if clandestine food source.

"Attitudes toward begging by squirrels ran the gamut from compassion to contempt, just as they did with regard to begging by humans," Benson writes. "Without knowing it, the 'pensioner in gray' who approached a person strolling through a city park or a college quadrangle created a morally and ecologically significant situation that helped define the boundaries of a more-than-human community."

Attitudes have changed in recent years, said Benson, an assistant professor of history of science and technology at the University of Pennsylvania. Squirrels are now seen as part of a more-or-less natural urban ecosystem. Feeding them is frowned upon. And predators that eat squirrels, such as peregrine falcons and red-tailed hawks, are just as welcome if not more so.

The quarterly Journal of American History is published by the Organization of American Historians, based at Indiana University Bloomington. Also in the December 2013 issue:

  • In his Organization of American Historians presidential address, Albert M. Camarillo examines how minority groups have dealt with residential segregation, comparing the segregation of African-Americans outside the South and Mexican-Americans in the Southwest.
  • Gregg Cantrell writes about the dilemma facing late-1800s Populists on the Texas-Mexico border as they espoused a philosophy of "equal rights to all" but blocked voting rights for Mexican immigrants who they feared were being manipulated by Populists' Democratic opponents.
  • Paul C. Rosier examines American Indians' perspectives on U.S. environmental issues in the 1960s and '70s and addresses the neglect of American Indians in coverage of modern environmental activism.
  • Tom Adam Davies assesses New York's Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corp., part of an initiative by Sen. Robert Kennedy, as an example of how liberal reformers tried to steer African-Americans away from militancy in the black-power era.

In the JAH Podcast for December, journal editor Ed Linenthal and Etienne Benson discuss Benson's article on the urbanization of the eastern gray squirrel. See the Journal of American History website for podcasts, online content, resources for teachers and other information.