Liquid Landscape: Geography and Settlement at the Edge of Early America

Liquid Landscape: Geography and Settlement at the Edge of Early America

Liquid Landscape: Geography and Settlement at the Edge of Early America

Liquid Landscape: Geography and Settlement at the Edge of Early America


In Florida, land and water frequently change places with little warning, dissolving homes and communities along with the very concepts of boundaries themselves. While Florida's landscape of saturated swamps, shifting shorelines, coral reefs, and tiny keys initially impeded familiar strategies of early U.S. settlement, such as the establishment of fixed dwellings, sturdy fences, and cultivated fields, over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Americans learned to inhabit Florida's liquid landscape in unconventional but no less transformative ways.

In Liquid Landscape, Michele Currie Navakas analyzes the history of Florida's incorporation alongside the development of new ideas of personhood, possession, and political identity within American letters. From early American novels, travel accounts, and geography textbooks, to settlers' guides, maps, natural histories, and land surveys, early American culture turned repeatedly to Florida's shifting lands and waters, as well as to its itinerant enclaves of Native Americans, Spaniards, pirates, and runaway slaves.

This preoccupation with Floridian terrain and populations, argues Navakas, reveals a deep American concern with the challenges of settling a region so exceptional in topography, geography, and demography. Navakas reads a vast archive of popular, literary, and reference texts spanning Revolution to Reconstruction, including works by William Bartram, James Fenimore Cooper, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, to uncover an alternative history of American possession, one that did not descend exclusively, or even primarily, from the more familiar legal, political, and philosophical conceptions of American land as enduring, solid, and divisible. The shifting southern edge of early America produced a new language of settlement, belonging, territory, and sovereignty, and that language would ultimately transform how people all across the rapidly changing continent imagined the making of U.S. nation and empire.


What does it mean to take root on unstable ground? Ground that shifts, seeps, expands, and erodes cannot sustain the familiar practices of settlement that British colonists brought to North America’s Eastern Seaboard in the early seventeenth century. Enclosure, demarcation, and improvement— in the form of fixed dwellings, sturdy fences, and cultivated fields—defined landed property according to John Locke and many Enlightenment philosophers. These practices also marked ownership in British colonial America, and later they enabled political participation in the United States. Yet these practices, which have historically signaled and secured belonging in much of North America, are difficult to imagine, let alone pursue, on shifting ground. For such ground cannot bear fixed markers of possession.

People have taken root in Florida for thousands of years, despite the fact that Florida’s liquid landscape challenges crucial notions of land, space, and boundaries that underlie familiar British and Anglo-American forms and practices of founding. the Calusa, one of Florida’s many indigenous societies, established themselves on the shifting shoals of the southwest coast by way of wooden dwellings that floated above shell mounds when the waters inevitably rose. Florida wreckers, who salvaged distressed ships, made the Florida Reef their permanent home and source of income during much of the colonial and antebellum period by moving continually over coral terrain in small boats. Seminole Indians, who migrated south to Florida and there joined many Africans who escaped slavery during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, maintained communities on the spongy flatlands of the Everglades by constructing homes of thatched palmetto raised above the earth on poles made of cypress logs, and by planting crops on natural rises of dry ground known as hammocks. and the challenges of taking permanent hold on elusive, porous, and shifting ground continue to inform architectural . . .

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