Two items of note today before we jump into things.
First, some exciting news. I’ve joined the team over at ScienceBlog, which is, if you’re unfamiliar, a compendium of (sometimes) acerbic and (always) insightful scientists, researchers, professors, postdoctoral fellows, and science journalists bringing more (good) science writing to the public. I first encountered them through Nathanial Comfort’s excellent Genotopia a few years ago. I’m honored to join them. My digital scribblings will find a home over there will be at slowloris.scienceblog.com. The walls and the ceiling are up, it’s mostly painted, and I’ve said hello. Subscribe if you’re of a mind, and feel free to share with anyone you think might be interested.
Do not fret, however, because I will remain active here as well! ScienceBlogs focuses more on timely issues and in addition has a readership with a little thicker glasses. So while I will be posting there once a month, with those essays focusing on current items of interest in the history of science, technology, and medicine, here I will continue to write about the same stuff as always. From here out, just think of the slowlorisblog as having a split personality, only the chiseled-jawed academic persona here will be aware of about the even more chiseled-jawed, and also mustachioed, self-effacing purveyor of recondite facts over there.
Second, starting August 1st posts are going to slow down for a bit. I’m beginning to see the light at the end of the dissertation tunnel, so from here until the end of September I’m going to scale back here and ramp up there. Expect just a few posts between now and then, as my schedule and sleep levels allow, as opposed to once a week. I will still be updating the READ ME and Neat History pages regularly, so go there for your fix if you can’t find anyone else to play with. Don’t cry. I promise I’ll be back as soon as I can.
It’s going to be an exciting second half of 2014. So let’s get on with it, already.
Indian and European Land Use in Colonial and Pre-Colonial America
I’ve always been fascinated by environmental histories. Something about demoting humanity from its traditional place (in our discourse and all too often, histories) in the order of things and just treating it as another force for change on the landscape is liberating and, in my experience, makes for an excellent read.
Today I’d like to visit pre-colonial and newly-colonial New England and talk a bit about what happened to the land—in all its interconnected glory—when Western Europeans arrived, what it looked like before, and what that means for the way the larger narrative (economic, cultural, and agentive) gets taught in our high schools and survey courses. Understanding local ecosystems and the larger environment of New England from a pre-colonial standpoint and tracing the transformations that occurred during the prolonged and staggered arrival of various Europeans peoples on the shores of North America provides, for those of us living today, remarkable insight into not only how Europeans and Indians defined their respective relationships with the land, but allows for a more nuanced awareness of their interactions with each other. In the case of the former, the relationship Europeans had with the land—their characterizations of it in written texts, conceptualizations and abstractions of its meaning, and their uses of it in everyday activities—and subsequently the changes that occured after their arrival can be attributed largely, though not solely, to a capitalist mindset. This probably takes you by surprise not at all. Yet Indians too had a dynamic relationship with the ecology of their world, and it would be a mistake to describe their own activities, despite what the popular media and high-school history has taught us—as harmonious with the land without acknowledging that they were active agents in its transformation for their benefit.
How do we learn about European encounters with the land, and how they fit it into their particularized worldview? Primary sources! Of course, any consideration of the primary texts in which Europeans described New England must bear in mind three things: first, that they viewed, and thus described, the New World in terms of commodities—emphasizing exportable, fungible, saleable goods, and in effect telling the reader at least as much about where they came from as where they currently were. For example, the shortage of wood back home and other immediately and recognizably marketable goods like sassafras led chroniclers to focus more on those resources than other aspects of the land. And though “permanent” settlers were less likely than merchants to write of the countryside as a catalog of commodities, all, to some extent or another, engaged in organizing the land according to the use they had, or imagined, for it.
Secondly, any text describing New England was inherently disingenuous—even if unintentionally—in two ways. In describing the bounty they encounter, explorers, settlers, and boosters by and large never failed to inflate the degree of abundance. Aided by the likes of Richard Halkuyt and others back home who saw the New World as a great opportunity for the English, diaries and journals often contained gross exaggerations and outright lies. In addition to this, such writings also failed to mark—even when what they were saying was faithful to their experience—that the bounty they “saw” may not necessarily always be there. This led new settlers to the region to expect, as an example, that bushes would be heavy with strawberries year-round, leading first generations of settlers to neglect to lay in a proper store of food for the winter simply because they expected to, like they supposed the Indians did, survive by gathering whatever they needed. Of such notions they were quickly disabused.
Lest we talk only about white settlers, it’s important to note that the latter fact also requires clarification. Northern and southern Indians had (sometimes vastly) different relationships with their respective ecosystems, and neither can be characterized as having had no impact on the land. In the north, low population densities allowed for a hunter-gatherer mode of subsistence and led to a stable relationship governed by the life cycles of a natural food supply. Indian tribes moved from place to place in accordance with what was plentiful at that time—crabs, clams, and fish on the coast, alewives and other fish at certain places on the rivers during spawning time, nuts and berries in the spring and summer, and pigeon, turkey, and meat of the four-legged variety during the winter, when the latter was easiest to track. The relationship the southern tribes had with the land was more complicated, because added to the hunting-gathering cycles were planting cycles, which allowed for higher populations but also concentrated calorie base and more intensely affected the land.
Lastly, and this is the one that will find most readers exposed to the common narrative a little uncomfortable, is that it would be a huge mistake to conclude that pre-contact Indians lived in perfect harmony with the land, leaving no trace behind them. Certainly the northern tribes had less of an impact on the ecology of their environment than the southern, agrarian tribes did. But the latter made extensive use of burning, removing individual trees by setting a small fire at their base to strip away its bark, and starting wide-ranging burns to clear fields for planting or drive game during hunts. What resulted was what environmental historian William Cronon calls, eloquently, a “mosaic . . . of New England ecosystems, [with] forests in many different states of ecological succession.”
What, then, can we say about the differences between arriving colonists and the Indian tribes they encountered? Perhaps the most important cultural conception that differentiated the Indians of New England from the European colonists arriving on its shores—and the one that in turn influenced how each interacted with the ecosystems they inhabited—was their respective concepts of what it meant to “bound the land.” This goes far beyond the reductivist notion that Indians didn’t believe you could own land, while Europeans did. Rather, it was—for both—predicated in complex social institutions, cultural norms, and legal precedent.
Let’s look, for example, at the tribes of northern New England that subsisted by moving to specific locations at certain times of the year. While the arriving colonists saw land as a parcel with finite boundaries and an inherent transferable (almost fungible) nature, Indians emphatically did not. What resulted was confusion when colonists engaged in activities they thought, in some cases very commonsensically, were seen by all as “buying” the land. While it appeared to the Europeans that a sachem or group of sachems agreed to exchange the land itself for whatever goods were being offered, to the Indians’ point of view the land as a concrete, reified notion of ownership was a mostly foreign concept, not a part of their cultural lens.
In such exchanges they were trading only the rights to specific uses of the land during certain times of the year—such as the fishing or gathering they engaged in alternating seasons. This is called “usufruct” rights. Not, as the colonists thought, to own with vertical infinitude any landscape bounded by the terms of the agreement. Trouble resulted when tribes or sachems traded the same rights on one piece of land to different groups of Europeans—an act practiced with regularity amongst themselves and one with which they did not imagine the colonists would have a problem. For the colonists it was a completely different matter. Merely one among the myriad examples of how this different mindset operated for the Europeans was the granting to Massachusetts Bay Colony.
As more Europeans settled in New England populated areas became more crowded, and colonists spread outward onto land Indians had abandoned (because they could no longer practice the subsistence hunting and gathering or farming they had before) and forced disease-thinned tribes to move farther inland. What resulted over the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries was a series of changes that brought about radical changes to the land on which both the colonists and Indian tribes hunted, built, worked and played, and loved, laughed, lived, and died over the next century.
Excellent environmental histories of colonial America abound. Easily among the best is William Cronon’s Changes in the Land, from which I pull liberally here. It’s short, well-written, and incisive. But you can also check out Mark Fiege’s Republic of Nature (which I reviewed not too long ago here) or J.R. McNeill’s Mosquito Empires, both of which are also excellent.
 Cronin, 51.
 Cronin, 54.
*image by jjpeabody over at deviantart: