Today, squirrels are a common sight in many North American cities, but it has not always been that way. The most common species of urban squirrel, the eastern gray squirrel, is native to the eastern half of the continent, but by the middle of the nineteenth century it had largely been driven away from urban centers. Mid-nineteenth-century Americans thought of the gray squirrel in multiple ways—as a crop pest to be exterminated, as a wily game animal to be hunted in the deep woods, and as an appealing but troublesome pet—but not as a resident of the urban landscape.
And then, in the second half of the nineteenth century and with a great deal of help from humans, squirrels conquered the city. Starting with the release of a handful of squirrels in small parks in Philadelphia and other eastern cities in the 1840s and 1850s, more and more urban Americans decided that life would be better with squirrels. As cities expanded into the surrounding countryside and set aside land for larger parks within their borders—such as New York’s Central Park, Boston’s Franklin Park, Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, or Washington D.C.’s Rock Creek Park, just to name a few—squirrels thrived, eventually establishing themselves wherever food and nesting sites could be found.
The introduction of squirrels to American cities in the nineteenth century raises two interrelated questions: First, why were people so eager to have these animals in the urban landscape? With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that squirrels were not an unmitigated boon. Even a century and a half ago, there were skeptics who expressed concerns about welcoming a new species of rodent into the heart of the city. Second, how were squirrels able to thrive in the urban landscape? They were not the only animals to be introduced to cities during this time, but they proved to be among the most successful and enduring.
The answers shed light on changing understandings of community and nature as the United States became an increasingly industrial and urban nation. They also provide an example of how evidence about cultural changes, such as how people thought about nature and wild animals in the city, and evidence about changes in the material environment, such as the introduction of squirrels to large, tree-filled urban parks, can be brought together to provide more satisfying explanations of the past.
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The full text of the article as it appeared in the June 2012 issue of the Journal of American History.
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