Changes in the Land

Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England

William Cronon 1983


The American Indians had lived in the area we now call New England for thousands of years.  They were accustomed to a way of life that essentially left the ecology of the area in a perpetual  relationship.  They took from the land, but not so much to destroy a kind of status quo.  There were two components to this.  First was that they were small in number – they were only about 100,000 total in all of the New England area.  Secondly, they experienced scarcity during lean years, and certain times of the year.  They were used to this to the extent that they did not build up lots of reserves of food in fear of those lean periods.

The low population density also allowed them to be mobile.  In Southern New England most of the Indians (women) grew corn and a few other crops.  But when the fields had been used up and were not productive, they would just move to another area, let the ground be fallow, and plant in a new area.

The Indians had no such concept of personally owned land.  A village usually had an area that was identified as belonging to the village, but not exclusively.  The idea was that anyone that needed the land could use it. 

In particular, there was no concept of a wild animal belonging to anyone, even if it was found on the area of another village.

So, when the English arrived with their concept of property ownership, there was an inevitable misunderstanding between them and the Indians.  The Indians did not understand their ideas of ownership, and when the Indians sold certain properties, it was with the understanding that this was allowing the English to use the land with them.  It did not include concepts of exclusive rights.

Likewise, the Indians basically raised what they needed.  They hunted and gathered what they required in order to live.  Prior to the colonists’ arrival they traded only minimally.  But when the colonists arrived, trade became a major activity.  The Indian would hunt for beaver, not for himself, but to trade to the colonists.  This was brand new, and changed the Indian culture immediately.


However, the initiation of the capitalist approach resulted in the devastation of the woods, the grasslands, all the wildlife in the area.  Both the colonists and Indians over farmed, over hunted, and over fished that area because there was an unlimited demand for those things here and in Europe.


This book is a very interesting and well documented description of these years for the colonists and Indians.  Easy to read.