Transformation of the Land in Colonial America


The earliest European settlers and the explorers who preceded them approached eastern North America with feelings of apprehension and optimism. On one hand, they believed they had found a vast wilderness of unbroken virgin forests inhabited by uncivilized peoples. The prospect stirred a deep-seated fear of wild lands.

Yet, at other times the New World appeared to promise inexhaustible riches, evoking images of pastoral beauty as when the Jamestown settler George Percy described “the ground all flowing over with fair flowers of sundry colors and kinds, as though it had been in any garden or orchard in England.”

Above all, however, those who organized colonial ventures and the settlers who carried them out perceived the land to be a source of valuable resources for European markets and personal enrichment.

Colonial Landscape

By any European measure the regions to which the first colonists came were heavily forested, yet extensive areas of open grass and marsh land had been created by such natural circumstances as fires, storms, varied soil conditions, and proximity to water. Both the contrast between cleared and wooded lands and the widely differing composition of tree stands, even within comparatively small areas, created a precolonial landscape that has been aptly described as a patchwork. Despite European perceptions, eastern North America was not a pristine wilderness. It was a managed landscape, one that the American Indians over many centuries had modified extensively—and in the light of their cultural and material needs—efficiently. Indians had cleared much land for agriculture. Likewise they followed a practice of systematic woodland burning sometimes as part of the process of clearing arable land but also to improve woodland graze for game, to ease passage through the forests, or to clean up insect-infested village sites.

Indian Land Use. The Indians along the east coast subsisted through an intricate combination of hunting, fishing, and agriculture. Fishing often coincided with annual spring spawning runs; hunting was primarily in the fall, when game animals were fattest. Seasonal hunting helped prevent serious depletion of the game supply, although Indian braves ranged over large areas. Agriculture extended from spring planting through the last fall harvests, and, for the Indian no less than the European, produced the most extensive modification of the landscape. Indians practiced slash-and-burn agriculture moving their fields frequently as soil became exhausted and clearing new fields by killing or burning trees and planting among the remaining trunks and stumps. Cultivating the land with crude hoes, the Indians grew maize, or corn, planted in hills and added gourds and beans that could climb the cornstalks. Despite the persistent myth that New England Indians taught the European settlers to fertilize by putting fish into corn hills, the aborigines did not seem to fertilize their crops.

Although slash-and-bum agriculture produces relatively poor yields and looks slovenly, it was an efficient method for small Indian populations living on forested lands because it required minimal labor. Light cultivation without total clearing likewise prevented serious erosion, and the mixing of bean and corn crops preserved some soil nutrients and delayed soil depletion for a time. Shifting fields also allowed heavily used land to recover fertility. Indians were not so much conscious ecologists, as they were people with a strong sense of dependence on nature, but without urgent pressure to supply consumer demands. Their environmental impact on the landscape was limited, but Indians did use the land more extensively than the first Europeans.

European Adaptation. The colonists demonstrated other misconceptions about the American land. They failed to realize hopes for quick exploitation of tropical products, metals and the like except for forest products such as timber, naval stores, and potash. Little attention was paid to agriculture beyond the assumption that colonists should produce their own food. Those who arrived in the first waves of colonization intended to raise European grains, such as wheat and rye, and to employ the plowing methods to which those crops were suited. Europeans also sought to introduce cattle, pigs, sheep, and other livestock that formed an important part of food production at home. They quickly discovered that the soils were often unsuitable for European grains, and that clearing fields sufficiently for planting or for pasturing animals was all but impossible.

Colonial Americans never entirely lost their vision of the European pastoral landscape with its highly cultivated fields and its pastures and meadows. Nevertheless they found themselves adapting of necessity to Indian methods and crops. They applied slash-and-burn techniques of girdling and burning trees and learned to like the corn that could be grown more readily on such land. They allowed their animals to roam the vast uncleared woodlands and to forage for their food. In the rapidly emerging tobacco economy of the colonial Chesapeake, settlers even found a major market crop they could produce by hoe cultivation in partially cleared fields.

European travelers were critical of such an agricultural system as were some colonists, although it struck a workable balance between scarce labor and plentiful, but uncleared land. Moreover, even though tobacco and corn crops exhausted soil fertility rapidly, colonial farmers were able to shift fields, leaving old fields fallow over long periods to recover fertility.

European Practices. Colonists eventually cleared fields more completely and sought to cultivate them more intensively. They turned back to familiar European grains and grasses and the use of plows, although continuing to cultivate corn. They created bounded and defined spaces by erecting fences, at first to keep free-ranging livestock out of cultivated fields and then to pasture them and improve the breed.

These changes came gradually to the older settlements as events required a more intensive use of the land.

As settlement spread westward, however, the kinds of agriculture practiced by the Indians was popular with the pioneers.

By the mid-18th century agricultural reformers such as the New Englander Jared Eliot had become advocates of the use of improved plows and seed drills, continuous crop rotation between grasses or legumes and grains, and extensive fertilization. More prosperous and more highly educated colonists exhibited greater esthetic appreciation of a developed landscape, whether in the form of ornamental gardens or neatly cultivated agricultural lands. More than a century of settlement had wrought a significant transformation of the American landscape.

Detrimental Effects

Agricultural improvement European style had its darker side. Some of the oldest areas settled were already experiencing acute timber shortages. Some rivers, such as the Piscataway on the New Hampshire-Maine border, had become clogged with sawdust from the cutting of timber and no longer supported fish returning to spawn.

Reduction of woodland habitat, excessive hunting and trapping of animals to supply the international fur trade, and deliberate extermination of predators such as wolves and bears to protect free-ranging domestic livestock had decimated many animals species. The introduction of European flora, both cultivated plants that were deliberately imported and destructive weeds that were accidentally brought, and extensive land clearing had vastly changed North American ecosystems, not always for the better.

It was impossible for those who lived at the time to understand the magnitude of the ecological revolution that had occurred. The good effects of an open, cultivated, and productive landscape were apparent, but the more detrimental consequences of the process often were not. Seemingly limitless unsettled territory to the west reinforced the idea that land resources were boundless. The urge was to conquer and exploit the landscape, especially by the rapid transfer of the public domain to private control, rather than to preserve it. The colonial experience had served more to confirm and intensify than to temper the strong exploitative drive that had characterized initial colonization.

If the settlement of North America had begun with conflicting attitudes of fear of and attraction to the natural setting, the colonial era drew to a close amid another set of contradictory influences: a desire on the one hand to nurture a landscape and a determination, on the other, to dominate and exploit it. This dilemma has colored the history of the American land ever since.

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Richard E. Lyng

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Richard E. Lyng