Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England
William Cronon, 1983

William Cronon (b. 1954) was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford before receiving a PhD at Yale in 1990. His first book, published in 1983, won the Francis Parkman Prize of the Society of American Historians. Cronon began
Changes in the Land with an introduction called “The View from Walden,” that not only acknowledged some of the changes Henry David Thoreau saw in his neighborhood, but exploded the idea that this represents some “fall” from a pristine, a-historical initial state. The landscape is always changing, Cronon argued, and was changed by the “Indians” before white people arrived.  “There has been no timeless Wilderness in a state of perfect changelessness, no climax forest in permanent stasis.” Cronon criticized first-generation ecologists for assuming that all systems tend toward a stable equilibrium, and also for assuming “humanity was somehow outside the ideal climax community.” This may have been a cheap shot at ecologists, but it was instructive for historians.

Cronon’s ecological and economic arguments centered on recognition that European visitors’ and colonists’ responses to New England was colored by their cultural baggage (valuation of the abundance they discovered was influenced by scarcity back home, as in the case of timber and firewood), and on the assertion that the colonists were part of a transatlantic capitalist market and drew the Indians into it as well (in his afterword, written on the twentieth anniversary of publication, Cronon seemed to regret the slightly oversimplified depiction of “Capitalism”). The pre-colonial landscape he described was quite different from the trackless wilderness I had previously imagined, and Cronon’s detailed descriptions of these differences was one of the most attractive features of the book for me. Along the way, I picked up a lot of interesting details: like that the colonists were generally healthier and longer-lived than the people they left behind, since they were no longer exposed to the European disease environment. Of course, the diseases they brought with them killed 90-100% of the Indians in many affected villages.  But the Puritan settlers saw this as a sign of their God’s providence.

“Many European visitors were struck by what seemed to them the poverty of Indians who lived in the midst of a landscape endowed so astonishingly with abundance,” Cronon said. But he argued this was a misunderstanding of the Indian approach to life and land use. In a passage that reminded me a bit of Colin Tudge’s argument about agriculturalists and hunter-gatherers in
Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers, Cronon said that not only did the Indians have a noncommercial value-system that led them to shun accumulation, but they were actually managing their environment in sophisticated ways that the colonists failed to recognize. Burning the forest understory created “edge” environments preferred by game animals. Gardening in “tangles” of maize, beans, and squash maximized crop yields, reduced erosion, and increased soil fertility (especially relative to the colonists’ monoculture).

Cronon’s point was that the Indians had a more stable approach to their environment than did the colonists, which they had developed over millennia. He frequently accused the colonists of “mining” the soil, but the fact that their society treated land as a commodity doesn’t necessarily mean that individual farmers deliberately set out to put short-term gains before sustainability. He may have leaned too heavily on Turner when he assumed they all simply planned on moving west once they exhausted their farms. But it is true that white settlers farmed the same fields year after year and that nutrient-intensive crops like tobacco exhausted soil fertility.

The Indian approach clearly required mobility, which made it incompatible with settled European agricultural techniques and a culture built on them. In another passage that Tudge echoed in his 1998 book, Cronon contrasted the Indians’ seasonal migrations with the colonists’ construction of fences – even their pastoralism was sedentary! Cronon admitted that Indian “conservation…was less the result of an enlightened ecological sensibility than of the Indians’ limited social definition of ‘need.’” He invoked Leibig’s Law to explain low Indian population densities, explaining that “biological populations are limited not by the total annual resources available to them but by the minimum amount that can be found at the scarcest time of year”. But he didn’t elaborate on the mechanism of population control. Was it achieved actively by restricting fertility, or passively through the starvation of the weak? Either way, though, the Indians were clearly the “good guys” in Cronon’s account (I don’t disagree, I’m just pointing it out).

The latter half of the book continued these arguments but didn’t extend them much.  Several interesting items stood out for me, though. Springfield, begun by William Pynchon in 1636 as part of a string of “fur posts” on the Connecticut River that also included Greenfield and Northfield. Overhunting by white colonists to the point that “Hunting with us,” said Timothy Dwight a couple of generations later, “exists chiefly in the tales of other times.” A typical New England household consumed thirty to forty cords of firewood a year.” I used that detail in my biography of Charles Knowlton), as well as the fact that “Roads…were typically between 99 and 165 feet wide…since they facilitated moving large herds to market.”

The Narragansett sachem Miantonomo made a speech in 1642 that complained about ecological degradation and warned “we shall all be starved”, so the colonists assassinated him in 1643. Although he only published two monographs, Cronon was one of the most influential Environmental Historians of the discipline’s early maturity in the 1980s and 1990s.
Changes in the Land was an accessible introduction to the field that is still read by many undergrads every year.