Flynn on Ahmad, 'Success Depends on the Animals: Emigrants, Livestock, and Wild Animals on the Overland Trails, 1840–1869'

Diana L. Ahmad
Jane Flynn

Diana L. Ahmad. Success Depends on the Animals: Emigrants, Livestock, and Wild Animals on the Overland Trails, 1840–1869. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2016. 144 pp. $31.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-87417-997-2.

Reviewed by Jane Flynn (University of Derby)
Published on H-Animal (July, 2017)
Commissioned by Zoei Sutton

Between 1840 and 1869 almost three hundred thousand men, women, and children undertook an epic overland journey across North America in search of new lives and new opportunities. This voluntary human emigration has been well documented. However, until now, nothing had been said about the tens of thousands of oxen, horses, and mules who enabled them to accomplish the journey. Diana Ahmad’s book addresses this oversight by writing animals back into this important period of North America’s history.

Here animals are not simply “agents of historical change.” Rather, Ahmad positions herself among current historians in the field of animal-human studies who argue that animals should be made “visible” as agents in our shared history.[1] She accomplishes this by considering “the more direct interactions” of the overlanders with their livestock and the wild animals they encountered. As Ahmad succinctly puts it, “adding animals to the history of the overland trails broadens the historical experience of humans and animals alike” (p. x).

Success Depends on the Animals takes us on a journey where we, rather like the emigrants themselves, learn what it took to successfully cross the American continent. The story begins as the emigrants prepare for the journey ahead of them. They purchased wagons, supplies, and livestock, already making decisions that would affect them on the road ahead. Should they, for example, purchase an additional wagon to carry fodder for the livestock? Should they choose oxen, horses, or mules to pull them? Even deciding what provisions to take with them might have a bearing upon whether they were successful in the journey ahead. Emigrants had to decide what was essential to take with them, and what would simply become an unnecessary burden to the animals upon whom they would so soon come to rely. Getting the balance wrong could prove fatal—to animal and human alike.

Neither is Success Depends on the Animals without jeopardy. We learn early on, for example, that few of the overlanders had experience working with animals, or knew how to care for them. Even those who had were not necessarily prepared for what lay ahead. Most had to learn how to harness and drive their teams. The emigrants had embarked upon what would be a very demanding physical and emotional journey. They were at the start of a precipitously steep learning curve, with little room for error. Most of all, we see how quickly the emigrants came to appreciate how their future success would depend on the animals and upon their ability to look after them. As Ahmad writes,“They carried the obvious items, such as wagons, tools and food. They also brought things that did not contain pounds but bore heavily on their minds, such as religion, philosophy, and the feelings of sentimentality and domesticity. Many also thought that they knew how to train an animal for a task, but they soon realized that they needed to learn much more in order to survive the journey. Despite the real and the imaginary weight, the emigrants quickly learned that success depended on the animals” (p. 5).

During the journey, the emigrants and their animals would encounter danger and adversity in many forms. The overlanders forded rivers, crossed desserts, weathered fierce storms, and tackled rugged and difficult terrain. Shared hardship drew human and animal together, as each became ever more reliant on the other for their very survival. Ahmad allows the voices of the overlanders to come through, and it is they who describe what they saw, what they felt about the journey, and how they coped with the hardships it placed upon them and their animals. Her primary source material is largely drawn from diaries and letters home written by the overlanders as they made the journey west. Often, the emigrants’ anthropomorphism of the oxen, mules, and horses betrays their own fears as they travel ever farther into the unknown.

The animals cannot, of course, tell us their version of events. But the men, women, and children with whom they shared the journey do so on their behalf. What we learn is how much these people came to rely upon, and respect, their animals. Many came to see their oxen, horses, and mules as “friends,” suggesting that their feelings about the animals extended beyond practical necessity. For example, “most emigrants understood that the ‘animals partake of our labors without profiting by them; of our pleasures without enjoyment in them,’ yet made them ‘friends even’ for the few months they traveled together as ‘companions,’ while still understanding that the animals provided transportation, labor, and revenue” (p. 1).

Ahmad writes with empathy and sympathy, but without sentimentality. Indeed, the moral ambiguities and complexities of the human-animal relationship are well broached in Ahmad’s writing. She does not shirk from describing the miserable fate of so many of the animals who undertook the journey. Neither does she encourage any misguided notion that the relationship between animal and emigrant was always a happy one. The overlanders did come to respect their animals. They put their animals first, they cared for them, and put their own lives in danger to protect them from harm. However, this was also a working relationship and, as such, hard-nosed pragmatism took precedence over sentiment. The overlanders did come to see their animals as “friends,” but this did not prevent them from selling them to the highest bidder when they became worn out, or welcoming the fresh addition to their diet their meat sometimes provided.

In Success Depends on the Animals, Ahmad also tells us about the dogs who accompanied the overlanders, partly as pets, but also as useful additions to the team. Dogs assisted in locating lost stock, could herd the animals, and guarded the camps and livestock at night. Interestingly, Ahmad also tells us about the wild animals the emigrants encountered. These ranged from “the smallest insects to the largest carnivores” and while some “served them as sources of food and leather,” others came to symbolize the emigrants’ hopes for their future lives in the West.

Ahmad’s Success Depends on the Animals is a compelling read. It is accessibly and clearly written. In its simplest form, it reads rather like the plot of a road movie. However, this would be to underestimate its impact. Here we learn about the complexities of a relationship between human and animals forged by necessity and strengthened in adversity. It is a story of compassion, but also one in which hard pragmatism dictated that sacrifices be made out of mortal necessity. Ahmad’s work is valuable in that it extends our knowledge of this period of America’s history. It is also a welcome, and still much-needed, contribution to historical research in the field of animal-human relationships. Ultimately, we learn how, “like the emigrants, the domestic animals became overlanders” (p. 86).


[1]. See, for example, Sandra Swart, Riding High, Horses, Humans and History in South Africa (JohannesburgWits University Press, 2010).

Printable Version:

Citation: Jane Flynn. Review of Ahmad, Diana L., Success Depends on the Animals: Emigrants, Livestock, and Wild Animals on the Overland Trails, 1840–1869. H-Animal, H-Net Reviews. July, 2017.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.