- Paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: Hill and Wang; Revised edition (September 1, 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0809016346
- ISBN-13: 978-0809016341
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 207.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 95 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #16,252 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England Revised Edition
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“Changes in the Land exemplifies, and realizes, the promise of ecological history with stunning effect. Setting his sights squarely on the well-worn terrain of colonial New England, [Cronon] fashions a story that is fresh, ingenious, compelling and altogether important. His approach is at once vividly descriptive and profoundly analytic.” ―John Demos, The New York Times Book Review
“A superb achievement: Cronon has changed the terms of historical discourse regarding colonial New England.” ―Wilcomb E. Washburn, director of the Office of American Studies, Smithsonian Institution
“A cogent, sophisticated, and balanced study of Indian-white contact. Gracefully written, subtly argued, and well informed, it is a work whose implications extend far beyond colonial New England.” ―Richard White, Michigan State University
“This is ethno-ecological history at its best . . . American colonial history will never be the same after this path-breaking, exciting book.” ―Wilbur R. Jacobs, University of California, Santa Barbara
“A brilliant performance, from which all students of early American history will profit.” ―Edmund S. Morgan, Yale University
About the Author
William Cronon is the Frederick Jackson Turner Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin--Madison. His book Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West won the Bancroft Prize in 1992.
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While Cronon admits in his conclusion that “making the arrival of the Europeans the center of our analysis, we run the risk of attributing all change to their agency, and none to the Indians” who he insists “were anything but passive in their response to European encroachments,” he fails the convey this throughout the book. While Cronon makes reference to Indians who attempted to work within the English legal system when English livestock destroyed Indian crops, he never describes any significant attacks, instead portraying the Indians as a part of nature and almost romanticizing their modifications to the land. Even when Cronon writes of the Indians’ use of burning as a way to modify the land, he juxtaposes it against the Europeans’ later use of it, writing, “Instead of burning the forest to remove the undergrowth [as the Indians did], [the Europeans] burned it to remove the forest itself.”
Despite Cronon’s insistence that the Indians represent a separate form of ecological modification and maintenance, his every example is about processes happening to them, continuing the theme of the Indians as an aspect of nature. The second part of Changes in the Land, which Cronon titles “The Ecological Transformation of New England,” begins by detailing a pre-European New England, but devolves into the same lists of commodities that Cronon claims the first European explorers used. He describes how the Indians lived off of the land, but juxtaposes it against the drastic changes implemented by the Europeans, such as laying claim to the land. Through Cronon, the Indians appear naïve, often unaware of what participating in a European system entails. He writes, “The Indians, not realizing the full ramifications of what that market meant, and finally having little choice but to participate in it, fell victims too.” His explanation of deforestation begins with “England’s experiences with timber and fuel shortages.” Finally, his discussion of fencing in land for grazing only occasionally mentions the Indians, and then primarily to discuss some of the legal troubles from European livestock interfering with Indian grains.
Cronon writes from a Eurocentric viewpoint because his very premise is based on one: how did the European colonists change the environment of New England after their arrival. He states that he will show the changes from one system to the next and admits that the Indians changed the land a great deal themselves, but he only glosses over their changes, quickly changing topics to the European methods of colonization and taming the land. Changes in the Land describes first and foremost how the Europeans changed the land. Though the subtitle begins with Indians, Cronon spends very little time on their ecological modifications before describing in depth the actions of Europeans, much to the detriment of forming a well-balanced argument.
William Cronin has been a leading figure in the study of the environmental history of the American West for a generation. This book is one of the reasons why. It is an elegant study, at once entertaining and enlightening as well as seminal in its characterization of the New England frontier and the relationships of the native population to the English immigrants in their homeland.
Cronin’s thesis is straightforward. As he characterized it: “the shift from Indian to European dominance in New England entailed important changes—well known to historians—in the ways these peoples organized their lives, but it also involved fundamental reorganizations—less well known to historians—in the region’s plant and animal communities. To the cultural consequences of the European invasion—what historians sometimes call ‘the frontier process’—we must add the ecological ones as well” (p. xv). So true, but that insight was lost on many earlier historians who had previously studied native/English interactions. What Cronin offers is a well-researched, effectively-argued, and finely-honed explanation of this situation.
Chapters on the landscape and its changes over time, the different natures of agriculture among the native and English populations, ownership and patterns of use, and the interactions of both communities bring this together in a useful manner. Accessing standard historical materials as well as works in archaeology, anthropology, plant and animal science, and climatology Cronin synthesizes a major historical episode in a new way.
His greatest conclusion, at least from my perspective, harkens back to the “frontier thesis” of Frederick Jackson Turner. Turner asserted, and I believe Turner was correct that this was the case, that the broad expanse of land available dominated the thinking of Europeans coming to America and prompted a structuring of the American experience along a specific path. Cronin makes the case that this European path was uniquely destructive to the New England ecology. “They assumed the limitless availability of more land to exploit,” he wrote, “and in the long run that was impossible” (p. 169). Ultimately, Cronin noted, “the people of plenty were a people of waste” (p. 170).
Both the English and the Indians manipulated the natural forest to meet their own needs and expectations, but as they began to share the same landscape, new changes emerged. The story is much less simplistic than we were all taught and reminded me that we all shape the world we live in - whether we think we do or not,