Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Changes in the Land: Blogged

William Cronon's Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England discusses the history of the economy and ecology of Colonial New England and how it affected the future of the region. In his thesis he 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 vii). He establishes this thesis with countless evidence throughout the text.

In part one of his work, Cronon discusses Henry David Thoreau's Walden. Walden talks about man's effect on nature, which was the perfect prologue for Cronon to pave the way for his argument about the ecological impact of European settlers in New England. In Walden, Thoreau writes, “When I consider that the nobler animals have been exterminated here,--the cougar, panther, lynx, wolverine, wolf, bear, moose, deer, the beaver, the turkey, etc., etc.,--I cannot but feel as if I lived in a tamed, and, as it were, emasculated country” (Thoreau 220-221). Thoreau made implications for the impact that change in the environment has in a metaphysical way. Cronon explains this saying that “a changed landscape meant a loss of wildness and virility that was ultimately spiritual in its import, a sign of declension in both nature and humanity” (Cronon 4). The “nature” and “wilderness” that Thoreau and Cronon discuss are much more than just the physical environment. The changes in the land alter the attitudes of the inhabitants, ultimately changing their spiritual beliefs and eventual cultures. He continues his analysis of Walden, eventually concluding that all people have an impact on their environment, but different human groups change the land in very different ways. The environment changes the culture and the culture alters the impact on the environment. This cycle appears across the globe historically, with the specifics in each cycle very different based upon the specific preexisting society and environment. Cronon wrote, “Environment may initially shape the range of choices available to a people at a given moment, but then culture reshapes environment in responding to those choices” (Cronon 13). This statement acts as a lead-in to the next section of his text, where he begins to provide historical evidence about the ecological impact of the Europeans settling in New England to support his claims.

Cronon continues his support for his thesis into the second part of Changes in the Land. In this section he begins to discuss the ecological and economical situation of the Europeans arriving in New England and eventually overtaking it. Before the Europeans arrived it was the natural and open land that had been kept so by the natives. To put it in perspective you can imagine a map of the modern New England area full of cities, highways and landmarks and compare it to Cronon's statement, “For the entirety of the sixteenth century, maps of New England consisted of a single line separating ocean from land, accompanied by a string of place-names to indicate landmarks along the shore; the interior remained blank” (Cronon 19).

Upon arrival, the Europeans immediately began shipping the resources they found there off to Europe. They saw the land in terms of the commodities it provided, using what they could for export or use in the colony. Cronon even points out that the “record of precolonial New England ecosystems was inevitably incomplete” for a number of reasons (Cronon 22). He explains that the ideas the European settlers had about their own culture altered the way in which they saw this new land. Additionally, the settlers had their own unique impact on the land, meaning that they could not see it as it was before they themselves arrived.

The settlers saw many things that occurred naturally in the New World that they had not seen or were not used to in the Old World. Fish and birds were seen in numbers that overwhelmed the new inhabitants. Cronon includes a lot of firsthand accounts of the abundance of these creatures. William Wood wrote, “some have killed a hundred geese in a week, fifty ducks at a shot, forty teals at another, it may be counted impossible though nothing more certain” (Cronon 23). This abundance of resources led to an excited scramble of the settlers to use them. Similarly, William Wood wrote, “the woods grow so thick that there is no more clear ground than it hewed out by labor of man” (Cronon 25). He suggests an overabundance of luscious timber for their use and profit. He continues to describe with endless detail the amount of resources and commodities available to the newly arriving Europeans. He explains how in their eyes these natural things are seen as a means to gain profit and wealth. The fur trade that soon took place between the Native Americans and the Europeans is a prime example of this fact. The question in the eyes of the Colonists as Cronon wrote was, “how could a land be so rich and its people so poor?” (Cronon 33). To the European settlers the Native Americans were the lowest class, achieving nothing for their lives when the vast potential lay in front of them. He provides evidence of the Colonist's lack of understanding of Native American culture brought upon by the vast differences in the two societies.

Cronon talks about the number of ways that the Native Americans used and appreciated the land. They manipulated the landscape in simpler ways to make it easier for them to live on the land, although Northern Native Americans needed to alter even less because they were less prone to agriculture. Cronon wrote, “throughout New England, Indians held their demands on the ecosystem to a minimum by moving their settlements from habitat to habitat” (Cronon 53). He explains that based on the resources available in the area that season, they may relocate to a more hospitable area. Cronon summarized these ideas saying, “For New England Indians, ecological diversity, whether natural or artificial, meant abundance, stability, and a regular supply of the things that kept them alive” (Cronon 53).

In her article, "Native People in New England" Angela Bain discusses in detail how Native Americans lived with the land. It is specific to the New England region's Native Americans, but it explains the general Native American's views of the land. It provides an in depth look at the lives of the natives up until and during the European arrival. After reading, you will have a clear understanding of the Native American in New England's way of life. It provides excellent background and support for many of the ideas introduced by Cronon.

For a number of reasons, disease became an important problem for the lives of the Native Americans. The increased trade increased cooperation and interaction between the two. The Native Americans did not have the antibodies needed to prevent contraction of minor diseases, that often proved fatal for them. Cronon wrote, “The 1633 epidemic saw mortalities in many villages reach 95 percent” (Cronon 87). The worst of the epidemic appeared in the Southern New England Native Americans. He explains the number of ways that this type of widespread illness impacted the land. It made the Native Americans become less mobile, eventually causing for the degradation of the land that they had once avoided by the seasonal migrations. This along with the eventual dominance of the Colonists in the area together created an astounding change in the environment.

Cronon makes clear that one of the main causes of the degradation in the land is deforestation. He wrote, “Even more than furs, whose acquisition required an exchange of trade goods with their Indian hunters, timber was free for the taking” (Cronon 109). They took all of as much as they wanted and many profited greatly from it. Cronon even describes in detail lumbering techniques of the Colonists that led to the quicker deforestation of New England. Even after going into such detail about the negative impact on the region from this cause, he writes, “Perhaps surprisingly, the lumberer was not the chief agent in destroying New England's forests; the farmer was” (Cronon 114). He describes the devastating effect that girdling had on the forests. Girdling was removing the bark from the trees preventing the leaves from growing and eventually killing the trees. Cronon provides more support for his thesis, with even more examples of things that the Europeans brought that changed the ecosystem. The burning of firewood was another important piece of evidence described by Cronon. He quotes the Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm saying, “an incredible amount of wood is really squandered in this country for fuel; day and night all winter” (Cronon 120).

Eventually the damage was enormous leading to more inconsistent temperatures, the drying of some rivers and the flooding of others. The plowing for agriculture and the grazing of livestock even further increased the problems. Cronon writes, “The removal of the forest, the increase in destructive floods, the soil compaction and close-cropping wrought by grazing animals, plowing-all served to increase erosion” (Cronon 147). These problems all eventually led to the soil exhaustion problem. The soil would become entirely depleted at incredible rates for a number of reasons: the growing of a single crop repeatedly in an area, the relocating to another area after, etc. To make matters worse, swamps and marshes began to appear, making the insects become abundant. The land which was once peaceful and quiet, home to the Native Americans who respected it and loved it changed horribly.


Angela Goebel Bain, Lynne Manring, and Barbara Mathews, Native Peoples in New England. Massachusetts University, 2008.

William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.

Henry David Thoreau, The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau. Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen, eds., 2 vols. (original edition, 1906, New York, 1962), VIII (March 23, 1856).