William Cronon’s Changes in the Land interprets and analyzes the changing circumstances in New England’s plant and animal communities that occurred with the shift from Indian to European dominance. In his thesis Cronon claims, “the shift from Indian to European dominance in New England entailed important changes—well known to historians—in the ways these peoples organized their lives, but it also involved fundamental reorganizations—less well known to historians—in the region’s plant and animal communities” (Cronon 15).
As the distant world and inhabitants of Europe were gradually introduced to North America’s ecosystem, the boundaries between the two were blurred. In the beginning of his book, Cronon describes changes that occurred in the region between 1600 and 1800. He relies heavily upon the writings of early European visitors to suggest the great variety and abundance of plant and animal life in pre-settlement in New England.
He also assigns subsequent inhabitants. Over time the Europeans impacted ecosystems differently than the pre-colonial relationship between Indians and the land. Cronon discusses the disagreements of Indians and Europeans regarding the uses of natural resources and he outlines different concepts of property. Cronon uses evidence to explain the events that led to the dramatic consequences, following the European contact with New England.
According to Cronon , the environment the Europeans first encountered in New England astonished them. Early descriptions were restricted to the coastline, but the accounts all agreed on the surprising level of animal and plant life in New England. The settlers were not used to so much untamed land, as landscape for hunting in England was reserved to large landowners. European settlers were amazed by the absence of domesticated animals, which played a significant role in European agriculture.
The cycle of the seasons and the relative climate of the area was the same as England. About 70,000-100,000 Indians were already settled in the New England area in 1600, a high number considering that even by 1700 New England still contained only 93,000 Europeans inhabitants.The European settlers and the Indians had different values on life and had differing opinions on how they should use the land around them. Indians generally came
to quite a different concept of property.
It stemmed, in part, from their adaptation to seasonal diversity and the development of an intimate relationship with the land. Crono cites, “Many European visitors were struck by what seemed to them the poverty of Indians who lived in the middle of a landscape supplied so astonishingly with abundance” (33). Indian communities exploited the seasonal diversity of their environment by practicing mobility. Their houses were portable, and they owned only belongings that were essential since virtually everything had to be portable. Indians might fish in the early spring during the spawning runs, then move to the coast to fish non-spawning fish later that spring and then they would hunt birds and pick berries until a harvest in the late summer.
In the winter months the Indians would split into smaller groups to hunt. Indians in this region also hunted to supplement food supplies and to provide clothing. Additionally, denser populations, coupled with the burning of woodlands (to provide warmth, to scare up game, and to clear the land for planting) created comparatively sparse forests in southern New England. Thus, Indians in each area worked with the land in unique ways and impacted it differently. Yet in both areas, they viewed property in terms of its immediate usefulness, not as an individualized, absolute, and permanent possession.
In support of this description, Cronon mentions the relative lack of surplus property, as well as the rarity of theft in both Indian societies. The Europeans often criticized the Indian way of life.The English settlers, argues Cronon, appreciated natural resources mostly for their market values, not necessarily because of their immediate utility.
Such a view portrayed Indians as poor and incompetent stewards of economic resources. 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, allowing better hunting grounds and planting fields. The settlers criticized the division of labor between the Indian males and females.The Indian females did most of the farming, which was the man’s job in Europe.
Instead, the Indian males hunted. To the Europeans, hunting was only for sport. They did not have abundant wild animals in England with the exception of private properties of the wealthy elite. For this reason the settlers saw Indian males as lazy. These differences in habits stemmed from a difference in the origins and the values between the two groups.
The Europeans practiced land ownership,Indians generally came to quite a different concept of property. It stemmed, in part, from their adaptation to seasonal diversity and the development of an intimate relationship with the land. A capacity to follow food sources represented one aspect of this relationship. 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. Indeed, “domesticated grazing mammals—and the tool which they made possible, the plow were arguably the single most distinguishing characteristic of European agricultural practices.
The Europeans destroyed large swaths of forest in order to provide space for crops and pasture. The native grasses were not very conducive for pasturing, which led to further trees being cut down. Forests were used for fences, ship’s masts, potash, and fuel. Deforestation killed Indian hunting grounds, forever changing their way of life. According to Cronon, “the ecological effects of this regional deforestation were profound, extending even to the climate itself” (122).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 over hunted. The fur trade in the north dissapeared 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, their land.
The introduction of European livestock had important ecological consequences for New England. Colonists often released hogs into the wild, where they were able to fend for themselves and reproduce wildly. They became “weed” creatures in the sense that their population began to bother both Indians and colonists. Soil compaction led to a less hospitable environment for plant life and eventually lowered the soil’s carrying capacity for water. The most dangerous organisms that the Europeans carried to America were diseases. Disease killed up to 90% of Indian populations in some areas, caused communities to miss planting and harvesting cycles, and increased starvation rates.
The Europeans believed that such conditions further justified the removal of Indian claims to the land. Cronon fits this episode into his argument by reasoning that though the spread of disease had biological causes, social and economic developments in Europe drove carriers of microparasites across the Atlantic. 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 to 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. New England had become destroyed, forever changing the Native American way of life.
Changes in the land is a great resource for anyone interested in the history of New England, particularly with respect to its changing ecology.