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"The Land Could Not Remain Unchanged": How Colonists Reshaped New England

Written by Bella Coyne

In 1983, an environmental historian named William Cronon published a book called Changes in the Land. The book explored the physical changes to the landscape of New England when the European colonists settled permanently. Progressive for its time, it highlights some of the ways in which the colonists and the natives differed – how they view private property, their experiences with disease, and how they treat wildlife. Despite the tales of Squanto helping the helpless white man grow corn using fish, it seems there might not have been an exchange of ideas quite like that. In fact, the colonists used their Old World methods on New World soil, which created a wave of change in the 1600s. 

Many changes were devastating and widespread – early settlers have written about empty villages, the sites left abandoned after being entirely wiped out by disease. But this sort of change was mostly brought about by ignorance, not malice. 

How could one point of contact between an English trader and an indigenous hunter could spread smallpox to an entire village? How did one neglected practice reshape the plains and swamps into farmland and dense woods? How did one Massachusetts Court decree eradicate wolves for the next two centuries? The Butterfly Effect was alive and well in Colonial New England. When the colonists collided with the natives, William Cronon believes, the land simply “could not remain unchanged”. Let’s walk through some of the most significant changes.

The first major shift occurred before any permanent European settlement. Long before the study of immune systems, the first European traders made contact with the isolated natives. Cronon explains how the indigenous peoples of New England had virtually no history of disease – low population density, adaptation to extreme climates, and a lack of pathogenic farm animals had protected them from widespread sickness. However, their sheltered bloodlines would prove to be fatal. 

When a mother breastfeeds her child, she protects her child from sickness, not through direct exposure to viruses, but through her own past exposures, from which she develops healthy bacteria and passes along to the baby. This system, however, proved totally ineffective when the mother had not been exposed herself. Indigenous mothers hadn’t been exposed to any sort of foreign germs, so they weren’t capable of passing along immunity. Cronon writes,

 “...each generation that failed to encounter a disease was left with less protection against it.”  

As a result, after catching “Old World viruses” like smallpox, yellow fever, and influenza from Europeans, Native Americans died before they had the chance to reproduce and pass along immunity. Although the time at sea provided a buffer, the more Europeans made the voyage, the more chances there were for diseases to spread. Northern Native Americans in particular were at a greater risk, as they encountered more people during fur trading. Each point of contact between traders, each exchange of contaminated goods, and each step onto common ground, was an opportunity for a virus to jump from colonist to native. Foreign germs spread; epidemics ended not when the natives developed immunity, but when they were wiped out. Though these initial outbreaks weren’t exactly biological warfare, they were fierce enough to take the lives of nearly 90% of the indigenous population. With fewer voices to speak up, the colonists (literally) plowed through native settlements, giving way to the next significant change.

Let’s turn our focus to the forests and plains. Cronon asserts that some of the shifts in the landscape were “directly attributable to the depopulation caused by the epidemics.” As caretakers and cultivators of the land, the absence of native peoples caused a dramatic change in just around fifteen years. 

For example, annual burning in southern New England had a massive impact on how the land and its inhabitants functioned. Burning cleared the undergrowth from the forest floor and the bottom layers of greenery from trees, allowing light to filter through in a balanced way. Additionally, burning hearty trees such as chestnuts, oaks, or hickories released pods of seeds which sprouted anew, resulting in a sustainable growth cycle. Perhaps most importantly, fire created the ideal conditions for a rich, warm, dry soil. The edges of the forest were perfect for growing berries and greenery, which attracted an abundance of woodland animals, a phenomenon called “the edge effect”. 

When disease hit, however, many villages were wiped out in their entirety. No one was left to bury the dead, much less participate in a yearly forest burn. Consequently, as years of sickness raged throughout New England, the lands went unburned, untamed, uncultivated. Woods grew denser and wilder, soil less hospitable to native plants, forest edges less fruitful. At first, the sheer abundance of wildlife such as deer, elk, turkey, quail, and more, seemed a blessing from God; eventually, however, as the growth at the edges of the forest died, so did the presence of these animals. 

The hearty edge of fauna around the forest served as a natural fence of sorts, protecting the humans on the outside from close brushes with predators on the inside. With it gone, animals like wild boars and wolves began to venture into human settlements and wreak havoc (which we’ll discuss next). Grasslands were initially overrun with strawberry, raspberry, and blackberry thickets, but these too were a dream which faded without the hospitable soil. The colonists, however, “failed to see its subtler ecological effects”, and began building settlements among the short-lived abundance – with no plans to ever continue burning the woods as their predecessors had. 

As the generosity of the land began to taper out, colonists continued to establish permanent communities on the bones of indigenous land. The final change follows the subsequent shift in farming. Plowing through the once-fruitful plains, the colonists created pastoral farming land. Where luscious fields of wild berries once flourished, they fenced in livestock such as cattle or hogs. The European settlers brought domesticated farm animals to a landscape that had never known such a thing before. 

“...never wolves nor Indians respected the jurisdictional boundaries of English towns,” 

noted Cronon, arguing that perhaps the reason for the sudden influx of wolves was because cattle were much more docile (and plentiful) than wild prey. It must have seemed to the wolves that the colonists had built a Trader Joe’s right in their own backyard. Nature took its course in a way the colonists had never witnessed before.  

Threatening not their lives but their livelihood, the wolves began killing the fenced-in livestock at a rate that angered and frightened colonists. The dates provided in Changes in the Land indicate a nearly twenty-year period in which towns incentivized and actually obligated the killing of wolves. From the town of New Haven, Connecticut, to the State of Massachusetts, courts offered anything from a bushel of corn to a large sum of money in exchange for a wolf’s head. Hunters, protecting their cattle or feeding their greed, went out of their way to kill wolves from far away. Dishonesty grew to be such a problem that courts eventually cut off the ears of each dead wolf and buried them separately, much like how Vegas dealers punch holes in each used deck of cards. Towns grew obsessed with saving themselves from what they called “ravenous cruell [sic] creatures”, soon stretching their efforts beyond just hunting. In 1635, one anonymously-published essay proposed that areas which attracted wolves should be destroyed – namely, swampland. Hundreds of acres of marsh were thusly divided, cleared, and farmed.

The repercussions of such destruction were unmonitored at the time, but modern ecologists, in charting what New England looked like before contact with the Europeans, are beginning to understand just how devastating and drastic a change it was. By the end of the colonial period, there simply were no more wolves in southern New England. Fear, ignorance, and greed had driven them to regional extinction. 

Picture the New England landscape today. From the dense woods of Massachusetts (the 8th most forested state in America!), to the manicured coastlines of Rhode Island, just because the land is beautiful, doesn't mean it's old. Just because it's functional, doesn't mean it's healthy. In fact, not to use buzz words, but consider the carbon emissions from the tourists flying in and out each summer and autumn. Consider how skyscrapers stretch from where marshy grasslands used to sprawl, and how yachts float in polluted harbors that were once plentiful ecosystems. And just how many wolves did you see last time you were in Boston?

Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, tradition has long prescribed the Seventh Generation philosophy – create and erase, develop and destroy, but consider how it will ripple seven generations into the future. Act sustainably and accordingly. Looking at the New England landscape through that lens, how do you think the colonists should have proceeded in the New World?

“...the land could not remain unchanged,” and nor should it! But the landscape of our modern lives changes, too. Changes in the Land is deeply pertinent to our world. It’s a warning about what happens when we don’t take the time to understand and honor the traditions of others. Being privileged enough to live in America makes us the caretakers of her beauty and bounty. We have a responsibility to listen to those that were here before us. How can we ask better questions? Do you think our consumer attitudes put us or others in danger? Will we ever be able to stop the land from changing? Or should we learn to cultivate it responsibly? 

To learn more about America’s native history, and how our government is working to repair relationships with the indigenous people here today, check out our episode from Season Two – “Native Americans: An Uncommon History”.

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