“Changes in the Land” by William Cronon offers countless intimate observations and gatherings regarding the ecology of New England and the encounters between the colonists and the native americans. Cronon interprets and analyzes the different happenings in New England’s plant and animal environments that occurred with the shift from Indian to European dominance. As the distant world and inhabitants of Europe were introduced to North America’s ecosystem, the boundaries between the two were blurred. Cronon uses an arsenal of evidence to discuss the circumstances that brought upon drastic ecological consequences following European contact with New England. Cronon made use of reports and records in addition to scientific data as evidence for his arguments.
Court records, town hall records, descriptions by travelers, surveyor records, etc. proved invaluable to Cronon’s arguments. Europeans saw the land from an economic standpoint and tended to focus upon “merchantable commodities”, ignoring economically insignificant aspects of nature. Cronon stated that the environment the Europeans first encountered in New England stunned them. Early descriptions were restricted to the coastline, but the accounts all agreed on the astounding level of animal and plant life in New England.
The european settlers were not used to so much untamed land, as landscape for hunting in England was reserved to large landowners and the Crown. Heavy forests covered the New England terrain, which was also new to the settlers, as England had exhausted most of its timber as fuel. European settlers were struck by the absence of domesticated animals, which played a vital role in European agriculture. The European settlers and the Indians had different values on life and had differing opinions on how they should use the land around them. According to Cronon, “Many European visitors were struck by what seemed to them the poverty of Indians who lived in the midst of a landscape endowed so astonishingly with abundance” The Europeans often criticized the Indian way of life. They failed to understand why the Indians willingly went hungry during the winter months when they knew food scarcity was impending. The settlers were impressed by the frequent burnings the Indians performed in the forest, which allowed for better hunting grounds and planting fields. However, the settlers criticized the division of labor between the Indian males and females.
The Europeans practiced land ownership, while most Indians believed merely in territorial rights. To the Indians, people owned what they made with their own hands. Agricultural fields, gathering areas, and fishing sites could be “owned”, but unique patterns were formed for the hunting of different animals. The settlers were either granted their land by the crown, or they purchased it from the natives. This very act by the crown of granting land with no consideration of prior ownership demonstrates both the views of Europeans towards land-use and their disregard for the Indians claims to it. Instead of the seasonal migration that the Indians practiced, European settlers strove to “improve” the land.
This meant a greater use of agriculture than the Indians. The use of livestock such as cattle, hogs, and sheep to the environment was also introduced. The Europeans destroyed large swaths of forest in order to provide space for crops and pasture. Forests were used for fences, ship’s masts, potash, and fuel. Deforestation killed Indian hunting grounds, forever changing their way of life. Deforestation altered microclimates, hydrology, and soil mechanics. Swamps developed in previously dry places, promoting disease in those areas. Trade had a profound affect on the area, forcing Indians to put prices on certain items for the first time.
Europeans traded wampum from the Long Island Sound up into New England in exchange for products such as furs. Indian economies were now tied to international markets, and they had an incentive to produce more than just self-sufficient numbers of products. Technology also made hunting increasingly easier. Animal populations in New England were strained, and in several instances were overhunted. The fur trade in the north dried up by the end of the 17th century, and even the deer populations were diminishing. As trade goods dried up, Indians were forced to give up their only remaining commodity-land. By far the most dangerous organisms that the Europeans carried to America were diseases.
The first recorded epidemic in New England took place in the south in 1616. Depopulation promoted conditions of turmoil while also justifying the European seizure of Indian lands. As the Indian populations diminished, edges returned to the forest, further harming the local animal populations. Attacks by colonists and intertribal warfare concentrated Indians into denser, more permanent settlements, which promoted the spread of disease. Invasions by European animals required that the Indians build fences to protect their crops. Now living in permanent, fenced-in, and densely populated settlements, the Indian way of life was more similar to that of Europe than to their original way of life.
Courtney from Study Moose
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