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Changes in the Land

Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England

by William Cronon

235 pages, paperback, Hill and Wang, 2003

Changes in the Land describes the changes in New England's plant and animal communities that occurred with the shift from Indian to European dominance. The book shows that the Indians were active interveners in and shapers of the landscape in which they lived, and that the change from Indian to European property ownership had dramatic effects on the ecology of the region.

Praise for Changes in the Land

"Gracefully written, subtly argued, and well informed, it is a work whose implications extend far beyond colonial New England." --Richard White, Michigan State University.

"This is ethno-ecological history at its best." --Wilbur R. Jacobs, University of California, Santa Barbara

Winner of the 1984 Francis Parkman Prize
Quotes from Changes in the Land

"What most impressed English visitors was the Indians' burning of extensive sections of the surrounding forest once or twice a year. 'The Salvages,' wrote Thomas Morton, 'are accustomed to set fire of the Country in all places where they come, and to burne it twize a yeare, viz: at the Spring, and the fall of the leafe.'

"Here was the reason that the southern forests were so open and parklike; not because the trees naturally grew thus, but because the Indians preferred them so. As William Wood observed, the fire 'consumes all the underwood and rubbish which otherwise would overgrow the country, making it unpassable, and spoil their much affected hunting.' The result was a forest of large, widely spaced trees, few shrubs, and much grass and herbage. 'In these places where the Indians inhabit,' said Wood, 'there is scarce a bush or bramble or any cumbersome underwood to be seen in the more champion ground.'

"By removing underwood and fallen trees, the Indians reduced the total accumulated fuel at ground level. With only small nonwoody plants to consume, the annual fires moved quickly, burned with relatively low temperatures and soon extinguished themselves. They were more ground fires than forest fires, not usually involving larger trees, and so they rarely grew out of control. Fires of this kind could be used to drive game for hunting, to clear fields for planting, and, on at least one occasion, to fend off European invaders."

"[B]ecause the enlarged edge areas actually raised the total herbivorous food supply, they not merely attracted game but helped create much larger populations of it. Indian burning promoted the increase of exactly those species whose abundance so impressed English colonists: elk, deer, beaver, hare, porcupine, turkey, quail, ruffed grouse, and so on. When these populations increased, so did the carnivorous eagles, hawks, lynxes, foxes, and wolves.

"In short, Indians who hunted game animals were not just taking the 'unplanted bounties of nature'; in an important sense, they were harvesting a foodstuff which they had consciously been instrumental in creating. Few English observers could have realized this. People accustomed to keeping domesticated animals lacked the conceptual tools to recognize that the Indians were practicing a more distant kind of husbandry of their own."

. . .

"Livestock not only defined many of the boundaries colonists drew but provided one of the chief reasons for extending those boundaries onto new lands. Indian villages had depended for much of their meat and clothing on wild foraging mammals such as deer and moose, animals whose populations were much less concentrated than their domesticated successors. Because there had been fewer of them in a given amount of territory, they had required less food and had had a smaller ecological effect on the land that fed them. The livestock of the colonists, on the other hand, required more land than all other agricultural activities put together. In a typical town, the land allocated to them was from two to ten times greater than that used for tillage. As their numbers increased--something that happened quite quickly--the animals came to exert pressure even on these large amounts of land. . . . Maverick viewed New England with a merchant's eye, and regarded its livestock as one of its most profitable productions. Whether sold fresh to urban markets or salted for shipment to Caribbean sugar plantations, grazing animals were one of the easiest ways for a colonist to obtain hard cash with a minimum of labor."

Table of Contents of Changes in the Land

  1. The View from Walden
  2. Landscape and Patchwork
  3. Seasons of Want and Plenty
  4. Bounding the Land
  5. Commodities of the Hunt
  6. Taking the Forest
  7. A World of Fields and Fences
  8. That Wilderness Should Turn a Mart

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