Changes in the Land: William Cronon

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Copyright 1999 Adam Barnhart. All Rights Reserved. Fair use of this document.
In his book, Changes in the Land, William Cronon explores the relationship between the European and indigenous populations and local ecologies between 1620 and 1800. As he states at the outset of the book:

My thesis is simple: the shift from Indian to European dominance in New England entailed important changes -- well known to historians -- in the ways these people organized their lives, but it also involved fundamental reorganizations -- less well-known to historians -- in the region's plant and animal communities.(vii)

Cronon's approach involves an investigation not only of the role a rapidly changing human population played in the altering of the ecology of New England, but the impact that ecology had on the local populations through time. By augmenting a traditional historical study with tools from anthropology and the biological sciences, Cronon develops a unique and sophisticated analysis of the period.

With an emphasis on their centrality to the understanding of the changes taking place in local ecosystems, Cronon describes relationships between Indian and European groups, with particular interest in the variety of responses different European groups met with from different indigenous populations. Cronon underscores the importance of viewing these contacts not as being wholly representative of "European" or "Indian" populations, but as discrete meetings with their own situational patterns of interaction, though they may have historical precedents. In this sense, the smaller colonial towns and Native American groups parallel the distributed nature of ecosystems and microclimates.

Working within these smaller ecosystems, the Indians of precolonial New England subsisted off the land in a migratory fashion. Cronon distinguishes between the Indians of northern New England, who relied almost exclusively on hunting and fishing in response to an often fairly inhospitable climate and those of southern New England, who relied on agriculture for half to two-thirds of their diet.(42) Through the use of small, controlled burning of the forest, movement between different areas of food sources through the year, low population densities (particularly in northern New England), and the use of multicrop agriculture (including nitrogen-fixing beans) among southern Indians, the impact of the human population on local ecosystems was fairly small and consistent.

This impact changed at an accelerating rate upon the arrival of Europeans. To accommodate the greater crop and livestock stores for commerce and safety against harsh winters, the Europeans cleared a large percentage of the local forest and domesticated animals more impactful on the local ecosystems. The new livestock and expanded European population helped to harbor disease epidemics which ravaged the local population, sometimes eliminating entire villages.(86) The differences in notions of property rights came, with an increasingly powerful European population, to be settled to the exclusion of the native populations, forcing them to work with the European system of social organization which restricted patterns of migratory subsistence to smaller areas with greatly reduced animal and food stock.

At the same time, the shape and content of the land was being radically reordered by the human population, the land, itself, changed patterns of behavior and organization for both the European and Indian populations. From its original role in ordering the precolonial Indians' hunting, fishing, and agricultural endeavors by season and topology, the deforestation of the land limited and changed the use of wood. Fencing, which became an important agricultural and legal tool, was later done with stone, to limit the use of and deal with the limitations of the available wood. Perhaps most importantly, decreasing animal populations and soil fertility led to an expansion of occupied land by the European land, to accommodate agricultural and commercial needs.

Changes in the Land is a balanced and nuanced work, detailing the importance of ecology, both as a dynamic entity, shaped by human action, and as a focus of shaping how populations organize themselves. Cronon's book is most insightful in addressing these issues in an imaginative and interdisciplinary manner that extends the reach of our understanding of the subject.