Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History

By Ted Steinberg | Go to book overview
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It was perhaps the most ill-timed expedition in the history of exploration. In 1587, Sir Walter Raleigh, the English courtier and navigator, recruited 117 people—men, women, and children—to venture to the New World under the command of John White. Their destination: a spot of land roughly ten miles long and two miles wide off the coast of North Carolina now named Roanoke Island. White put the settlers ashore and a few weeks later returned to England to find supplies and additional recruits for the venture. War with Spain, however, delayed his return. In 1590, when he finally managed to make his way back to Roanoke, he found not a bustling plantation, as he had hoped, but utter desolation. Not a trace of the colonists could be found. No one can say definitively what happened to the “Lost Colony.” Some suspect an Indian attack; others, that the settlers decided, on their own, to go off to live with the Native Americans. One thing, however, seems certain: Scientific analysis of tree rings reveals that the colonists at Roanoke lived through the worst drought in 800 years (1185 to 1984). Even the most foresighted and resourceful of explorers would have found the task of survival on the island a monumental challenge. 1 Raleigh could not have picked a worse time to launch his undertaking.

Until the voyages of the Vikings beginning in the eleventh century, North America remained isolated from Europe, two worlds going their own separate ecological ways. With the expeditions of the Norse and the subsequent ventures of Spain, Portugal, and Britain, however, the human will to unite the continents triumphed over age-old geologic forces.

As Raleigh's misadventure shows, the colonists encountered a new and potentially life-threatening world on the other side of the Atlantic. North America is a place of climatic extremes, the product of the continent's unique physical configuration. It is the only landmass in the world with both a wide base in the sub-Arctic and mountain ranges running in a north-south direction. Cold air from the Arctic can thus plunge south, where it often meets warm, moist air surging north from the Gulf of Mexico. 2 The result is a turbulent set of climatic conditions that make the land prone to weather extremes such as tornadoes, droughts, and floods. How did the colonists adjust to life in a brand new physical environment? What dilemmas did living in a


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