PART I: European Contact to 1830

This 1755 map was drafted by John Mitchell was the finest depiction of the colonies in this period. This map was used during the 1783 Paris negotiations which gave the Ohio Valley to the new republic.

Pre-Colombian Environmental Impact

What did the ecological landscape of North America look like before European arrival and what impact did Native Americans have on the wildness of the landscape? Native Americans first inhabited the Americas for as long as 12,500 to 15,000 years before European contact with the “New World” (Waters, 2011). William Denevan, one of the leading scholars investigating the historical ecology and demography of the Americas, argues that during these millennia the Native population in North and South America grew to be more sizable and adept at landscape change than is popularly accepted. Denevan and others have calculated that at the time of European arrival about 54 million Indians lived in the Americas with about 3.8 million of those in the present day US and Canada (Denevan, 1992). Relationships with the land differed among regions and tribes but most groups in North America had seasonally nomadic lifestyles supported through a mix of hunting and agriculture (Cronon Changes in the land). Because these practices were geographically disperse and mobile the impact of their systems was much less than that of later extractive European practices. However, native habitat alteration from hunting, the construction of earthworks, and the clearing of land for cultivation—especially through the use of fire—aggregated over several millennia did bring significant changes to the land.

The extent of Indian impacts on the land are prone to great under recognition and over speculation because so little is known about these impacts due to the rapid decline of native populations. Environmental Historian Donald Worster urges revisionist historians entranced by ideas of wide spread native landscape alteration to remember that Indians, “spread over what is now Canada and the United States…armed with primitive stone tools, simply could not have truly “domesticated” the whole continent” (Worster, 1997). Keeping this in mind Indian changes to ecology, however, are essential to recognize because a “Pristine Myth” of nature in the New World as an untouched Eden devoid of people upon European arrival was long held in the American psyche.

This myth was born because to many of the arriving settlers North America did appear to be nearly devoid of people and impact on the land because European contact with the new world brought one of the most tragic and mystifying demographic collapses in history. With mortality rates as often greater than 90% unknown millions of Native Americans died as smallpox and other diseases rapidly spread ahead of explorers (Crosby, 2003). A period of environmental recovery followed this collapse paradoxically making most places in the American landscape of 1750 wilder than it was in 1492 (Denevan, 1992).

European Perceptions of the Wild

Irrespective of how wild the land was before or after their arrival, to the Europeans the Americas were both alluringly and horrifyingly more wild than their home. Historian Roderick Nash identified the strong cultural and religious European perceptions toward untamed land as a deep social construction imbued their history. Principally, unknown land was a place of physical and moral battles; wilderness was “something alien to (European) man—an insecure and uncomfortable environment against which civilization had waged an unceasing struggle” (Nash, 8).

This struggle against these dangers can be traced through both etymological and religious history. The roots of the word wilderness came from Teutonic and Norse languages and morphed into the Anglo-Saxon term “wildēornes” which literally means, “the land inhabited by wild animals” (Nash, 1-2). In the Christian tradition—most notably in the King James Bible where this word appears hundreds of times—the wilderness was a lesser and uncivilized land inhabited by Satan, wild creatures, and pagans that sought to tempt or deceive true believers. Wilderness was both the physical and spiritual antipode of the tamed Eden that God wished for man to inhabit (13-15).
To suggest that before the arrival of the Europeans all of North America’s land was managed in an indianized garden and that Native Americans cultures did not share at least some similar views towards wild lands is an act of irresponsible revisionist history similar to the perpetuation of the Pristine Myth (Worster, 1997). An example of this as is the derivation of the word Adirondack and the relationship between the Mohawk and Algonquian tribes. It is that it is generally accepted that the name “Adirondack” is derived from the Mohawk Indian words atirú:taks, which means “tree eaters” and ratirontaks “they eat trees” (Sulavik, 36-37). This was a pejorative term that the Mohawk’s used to describe the Algonquian tribes that lived in the Adirondack mountains because when food was scarce the Algonquians were known to eat the buds and bark of trees (Donaldson, 34-35). To the Mohawk’s the Algonquians were a lesser-civilized and wilder people that lived in a more barren land. In many respects this was a nearly identical etymological and cultural history to that of the Anglo-Saxon word wildēornes and their views toward the uncivilized animals and pagan people of Europe’s Northern forests. One people’s wilderness seems to have often been another people’s home.

For the first European arrivals to New England this was also the case. When William Bradford of the Mayflower first saw the Indian’s home (soon to become his new home) he described it as a “hideous and desolate wilderness” (Nash, 24). The driving force that caused this reaction was the lack of geographic understanding about the extent and character of the foreign landscape where settlers began often-futile struggles for their existence. One of Bradford’s greatest grievances of his arrival at Cape Cod in 1620 was that he could find no high point, “to view from this wilderness a more goodly country to feed [my people’s] hopes” (24-25). Maps from this era show the names of know settlements along coasts and rivers while the undocumented inland areas are decorated with wild animals, wild natives, and large blank spaces with labeles like “Tout ceci est Inconnu” (all this is unknown) (
Carte De L’Amerique et Des Mers Voisine. 1763).

Though the mysterious forests of the colonial wilderness were desolate of European culture and means of production they also contained a seemingly endless wealth of resources and potential for economic and cultural conquest. Promotional accounts sent back to England from the first colonies illustrate this view toward the wild lands. In light of the timber shortage in England at that time Francis Higginson, the First Reverend of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, wrote that, “A poor servant here that is to possesse but 50 Acres of land, may afford to give more wood for Timber and Fire…than many Noble men in England can afford to do” (Cronon, 25). Likewise Thomas Morton of the Marymount colony wrote in 1637 that, “If this land be not rich, than is the whole world poore” (Morton, 180). To the confusion of Morton despite the riches of the land he perceived the Indians to live in poverty, “like our beggars in England” and he was sure of the “…happy life the Salvages would leade were they once brought to Christianity” (Morton, 55).

By misunderstanding the Indian systems of living the colonists saw the paradox of the poverty of the Indians in the wealth of their surroundings as justification for their twofold mission of economic and religious conquest. Ironically, in their first years of settlement the Europeans suffered much greater famine and poverty than the natives. The colonists had failed to understand how the complex mobile lifestyles of the Indians—based on centuries of rich cultural knowledge of ecological and seasonal patterns—allowed them exploit a diversity and abundance of resources (Cronon, 36-39). The mobility of this way of life meant that Indians had far fewer material possessions than colonists, which can explain some of the European view that Indians were impoverished; also they had minimal trade, few rigid property rights, and (from a European perspective) little visible use of the land (Cronon, 55-56). The incompatibilities of this “savage” system with capitalism lead to great conflicts over lands that still haunt Native Americans to this day. (very obvious perhaps poorly worded last sentence)

“A World of Fields and Fences”

Quite rapidly, colonists became more and more successful as they Europeanized the landscape of “New England” with their capitalist system that took advantage of and won over Indian systems of living. In their market system settlers constantly competed for resources against each other—yet always most viciously against the Native Americans—as they thoroughly expanded their transformation of both Indian and wild country. William Cronon’s seminal book Changes in the Land details the progression of this struggle and its deep ecological and social impacts. Cronon identified that Europeans could extract maximal profit from the land and outcompete the Indians through the steps of: bounding the land with fences and property rights, growing intensive cash crops, creating markets for Indians to sell pelts and buy European goods, and practicing the destructive extraction of commodities such as timber. It was essentially an economic and ecological war that strengthened the colonial way of life through the destruction of the Native American landscape and culture.

The above map by Charles Paullin and John Wright shows the forest types in the United States circa 1920, below is an animation of areas of wild forest that were cut from 1620 to 1936.


The European imposition of property rights in the Americas is by far the most dubious coup in history. For the Indians, their land, their hunting grounds, and all wild lands this act was the root of tremendously consequential cultural and ecological changes. New England’s tribes had never commoditized land yet it now had both the legal and military protection of the King of England. Most importantly, however, it had a price traded on a market. To increase this market value land was now intensively “improved” typically by clearing it for crops and fencing it to keep wild animals out and domesticated animals in. All of these improvements were at the expense of both its ecological health of the land and the health of the Indians who previously used it or land near it.

In New England Europeans were dismayed not to find large deposits of precious metals, or valuable spices (or Natives of India!). Craftily, however, they soon found and created markets for the export of many other commodities including furs, timber, and cash crops. Though attempts sell Indians into slavery failed, many natives were enslaved by debt to these markets of extraction. The fur trade is the most striking example of this because a market mainly for beaver pelts was created largely as a method of both placating and controlling the Indians while simultaneously extracting value from their labor that reached deep into the unknown wilds. Pelts were traded for trinkets, European cooking and hunting technology, and alcohol that made scores of Indians dependent on and often indebted to this system. Later, many of the once prosperous Indians were forced to trade furs for food because ecological chaos destroyed traditional natives sources of subsistence. This chaos was due principally to disease, European takeover of Indian cultivation areas, and destruction of habitat in hunting grounds (Cronon, 91). The destruction of habitat for deer, beaver, turkey and many other animals was often caused by timber extraction (Cronon, 108). Though stands of white pine, oak, cedar, and chestnut trees were preferentially cleared for sale often all trees were cleared so that the land was fenced and cultivated (Cronon, 109).

The Yeoman Ideal, Westward Expansion, and Indian Removal

Cronon eloquently described this Europeanization of the wild and Indian lands in the East as, “a world of fields and fences.” Near the end of the 18th century this management of the land was such that colonists wanted to not just physically but also politically and economically have total control all of its contents, profits, and people as their own “American” land. After the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) the new Americans were happy to be free of the King’s bondage and took no time to affix it to land principally to pay off their war debuts. Though the same economic systems were still used to control and extract wealth from the land, the new democracy brought several important political and cultural changes that would now work to Americanize the land.

The most important figure in the post war expansion and Americanization of land in conceptual, political, and geographic terms was Thomas Jefferson. By doctoring history he idealized the concept of the yeoman farmer, by making up geography with the Land Ordinance of 1785 he gave this mythic character a place to live, and by signing the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 he radically expanded American territory for westward expansion.
The concept of the yeoman farmer, a morally superior agrarian with strong connections to the land, comes from Jefferson’s 1782 book Notes on the State of Virginia. In his chapter on commerce Jefferson wrote that the, “Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phaenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example” (Jefferson, 275). Unless he was writing about a distant world in an unknown universe this claim ignored all of recorded history. Most pointedly Jefferson ignored the morally corrupt history created by his forebears (and himself!) of the destruction of wild habitat and the dispossession of the lands and livelihoods from the natives through deceit and genocide. In only the deepest possible irony, this limitation of land and livelihood was exactly what he criticized as the flaw of the Old World where, “the lands are either cultivated, or locked up against the cultivator. Manufacture must therefore be resorted to…to support the surplus of their people…” Fortunately in America resorting to the morally corrupting manufacture of goods did not have to be the case because, “…we have an immensity of land courting the industry of the husbandman” (Jefferson, 274). The importance of this last line to the concept of wilderness at that time and the fate of Indian and wild lands was tremendous. Jefferson had articulated a growing fear of the evils of mechanized societies; the antidote was exactly what had so recently been the realm of evil and moral confusion, the wilderness.

1785 Ordinance Diagram 3


 Above is a diagram by Paul Knight of the 1785 Land Ordnance detailing the Township and Range system as it was implemented in the Ohio Valley

To articulate a thought about the ethos of your era is one thing, but to do so as a leader in a newly founded nation is quite another. Jefferson’s did not just write his dream that America would become a utopian nation of farmers in a book, he masterminded how this would take place and wrote this plan onto the landscape with the Land Ordinance of 1785. By subdividing all new territories into six mile by six mile townships containing thirty six sections the two main things that this ordnance did were: (1) establish a—sadly idiotic geographically—rectilinear structure that would speed westward settlement and attempt to control land speculation, and (2) it cemented a new government tradition of reserving land for the benefit of the public by setting aside the 16th section at the heart of each township for public schools. The township system was first applied to the land north of the Ohio River and between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River that were gained Treaty of Paris 1783 (White, 18-25). Soon the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 added 828,000 square miles of territory to be divvied up; in the end this system was applied to over three quarters of the area of the contiguous United States (Carstensen, 1988).

These steps foretold an ecological and cultural disaster for the residents of this freshly charted land. Back in the East, however, the new Democracy was good for one animal. The shortage of game was so great at the end of the 18th century that the first legislature of Vermont 1779 forbade the hunting of deer from the 10th of January through the 10th of June. This was one of the earliest documented Anglo-American efforts of conservation in the Americas (Klyza and Trombulak, 1999). Though this was a very positive step it also came hand in hand with far more numerous decrees and bounties for the eradication of wolves and mountain lions.
Wolves and mountain lions were not the only “wildēor” that Americans and their new democracy wanted to banished deep into to the Western wilderness. On May 28, 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed The Indian Removal Act into law that allowed dispossession of land from Indians West of the Mississippi through government “negotiation” with tribes (PBS, 2013). Only twenty-seven years earlier Jefferson’s policy after the Louisiana Purchase was to let Natives live in that land if they were peaceful though he did encourage the swindle of their lands by indebting the tribes because—already shown to be fond of butchering history—Jefferson wrote that, “…certainly the termination of their history [will be] most happy for themselves.” This was because, “When they withdraw themselves to the culture of a small piece of land” in one of Jefferson’s utopian townships he was sure that, “they will perceive how useless to them are their extensive forests” (Jefferson, 1803).

This view that the Indians wasted their land and that white settlers should rightfully claim these wildernesses had not changed in the hundreds of years since European contact. A 1621 article by the pilgrim Robert Cushman about the “Lawfulness of Removing Out of New England into the Parts of America,” urged that Indian land should be taken because they were, “not industrious, neither have art, science, skill or facility to use either the land or the commodities of it; but all spoils, rots, and is marred for want of manuring, gathering, ordering, etc.” while they, “do but run over the grass, as do also the foxes and wild beasts” (Cronon, 56). Americans and their ancestors principally saw the Indians as a wild part of the landscape. Dispossessing them from it was no different than running dangerous beasts out of the wilderness to make way for what they saw as holeyer and more productive uses of the land.


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