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Book Summary: Changes in the Land by William Cronon

My Personal Summary

This book is about how New England’s plant and animal communities changed as a result of the shift from Indian to European dominance.

Book Notes

  • Europeans began colonizing New England in the 1620’s. At the time, early settlers were stunned at the abundance of wildlife in the area.
  • “So thick did the fish become in some streams that at least one inhabitant fancied he might have walked on their backs without getting his feet wet.”
  • Birds were also abundant. It was said that one man could kill a dozen turkeys in only half a day.
  • When early colonists wrote about the abundance of animals and plants in New England, it was often written during the spring and summer months when food was easy to come by. However, New England winters were often colder than European winters and the land became much more harsh during that time than people expected. It’s said that half the pilgrims who came to Plymouth during the first winter literally starved to death because they failed to accumulate food during the warmer months, mistakenly thinking that the abundance of the land lasted year round.
  • Indians had inhabited New England for over 10,000 years before Europeans arrived, yet the Europeans considered the Indians to live in poverty despite having a wealth of natural resources at their fingertips.
  • For Indians who lived in Maine, farming was out of the question because the soil wasn’t suitable in such a cold climate. Instead, they were basically hunter gatherers, eating mostly fish during the warm months and hunting beaver, caribou, moose, deer and bear during the colder months.
  • Interesting: During the winter months, the Indians relied heavily on snow remaining on the ground so that they could more easily track animals to hunt.
  • Rather than store up an excess amount of food during the warmer months, the Indians in Maine simply accepted the fact that they would eat less during the winter, even acknowledging that they could easily go 7-10 days without eating during certain stretches if need be. This shocked the Europeans when they learned this.
  • Stat: In 1600, the total Indian population in New England was around 70,000-100,000.
  • Indians who lived in southern New England embraced farming, which meant they didn’t face nearly the same threat of starvation during the winter months. This also allowed their tribes to be much larger (about 280 people per hundred square miles compared to 49 people per hundred in the north).
  • Corn was the primary crop planted by Indians in southern New England.
  • Interesting: Indians depended on the leafing of certain trees and the migrations of certain fish to distinguish between seasons and know when to start planting crops.
  • “The relationships of the New England Indians to their environment revolves around the wheel of the seasons…by using other species when they were most plentiful, Indians made sure that no single species became overused.”
  • The primary difference between the way Europeans and Indians interacted with the land was that Europeans built more permanent settlements while Indians were much more mobile and moved from place to place more frequently depending on where food could be found the easiest.
  • Since Indians moved around so much, they had few possessions and only kept what they could carry – smoked meat, tools for hunting and fishing , clothing, mats for wigwam, etc.
  • Europeans viewed the Indians as lazy because they “underused” the land and didn’t take full advantage of the natural resources, but this is because they didn’t understand that the Indians preferred a more leisurely lifestyle where they could live more similar to hunter gatherers.
  • “More than anything else, it was the treatment of land and property as commodities traded at market that distinguished English conceptions of ownership from Indian ones.”
  • “Indians loved property little, but had been overwhelmed by a people who loved it much.”
  • Indians first arrived in North America 20-30,000 years ago via the Bering Straight land bridge that used to connect Russia and Alaska. They failed to bring with them many diseases that were common elsewhere in the world because their low population densities, lack of domesticated animals that carried diseases and their having lived in extended periods of semi arctic conditions allowed them to filter out microorganisms that needed large host populations and more temperate climates to survive. However, this meant that Indian populations got wrecked when Europeans arrived carrying diseases that Indians had no immunity against.
  • “European diseases struck Indian villages with horrible ferocity. Mortality rates in initial onslaughts were rarely less than 80 or 90 percent.”
  • Often entire Indian villages would be wiped out by a disease they had never encountered before. When this happened, Europeans would often move in and occupy the land and claim it as their own.
  • Indians often traded animal furs and pelts to Europeans in exchange for metals, guns, and other goods.
  • The introduction of the musket to Indian populations in northern New England made it much easier for them to shoot and kill moose, which decimated their populations in the late 1600’s.
  • Early colonists cleared huge chunks of forest areas in New England because (1) they could use the wood for building ships and houses and could send some back to England for trading, (2) cleared land was necessary for agriculture and (3) wood was used for burning as the primary heat source for colonial homes.
  • Deforestation has clear ecological effects: the soil in much of New England became warmer and dryer since it didn’t have the canopy of forests to keep it cool and to slow down the wind. This caused both hotter summers along with colder and drier winters.
  • The weather itself didn’t change due to deforestation, but rather the way the landscape responded to the weather.
  • Flooding become more common too due to the snow melting much faster and more abruptly since there were fewer trees to block the sunlight from reaching the ground and melting the snow.
  • Streams began to flow much more irregularly, which meant they were dried up for longer stretches of the year. This effected lumber mills, which relied on the power of running water to turn the mills.
  • Unlike the Indians, the Europeans utilized livestock like pigs, cattle, sheep, etc. for food. These animals required large swaths of pastures for grazing, which meant more deforestation and more fences constructed, a structure which had never been present in the land before the Europeans arrived.
  • Because the Europeans let cows graze the land so much, the soil became exhausted and yields began to decline year and year. This also resulted in more erosion.
  • The Europeans also planted corn as their primary crop since it had higher yields than any other crop. However, corn was also known to be exhaustive on the land and quickly depleted minerals from the souls.

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