Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Learning to Live with Nature: Colonial Historians and the Southern Environment

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Learning to Live with Nature: Colonial Historians and the Southern Environment

Article excerpt

WHEN CAPTAIN CHRISTOPHER NEWPORT GUIDED THREE SMALL SHIPS UP the James River in the spring of 1607, he and the hundred or so colonists on board had little reason to worry about the natural world. Virginia, they believed, was much like the Mediterranean coast, a notion based on the premise that the two regions lay in similar latitudes and therefore had similar climates. Balmy weather, leafy forests that sprouted from rich soils, plentiful fish and wildfowl, and the prospect of gold mined by submissive natives promised easy abundance in an Eden-like wilderness.

It did not take long to disabuse Jamestown settlers of such notions. In less than a year two-thirds of their number died from disease and malnutrition. Experiments with exotic crops failed miserably; fish and wildfowl disappeared when the weather turned cold. The sandy soil yielded no gold, and the natives proved far from compliant. Adjusting to the southern environment took decades and cost thousands of lives.

For colonial historians, as for Newport's settlers, learning to live with nature has presented significant challenges. The colonial South was a large and geographically varied region with an equally diverse human population. Any account of its environmental history must consider the ways in which three distinct cultures--Native American, European, and African--interacted with the natural world. Historians, perhaps more than other scholars, have also been hindered by their reluctance to ignore the denouement of European colonization. English and American institutions won out in the South, but for most of the colonial period, Spain and France wielded considerable influence in the region. Therefore, scholars interested in environmental questions must look well beyond Jamestown in both space and time. Most important, like Newport's colonists, historians have had to rethink some long-accepted theories and employ new strategies that allow better insights into the complicated relationship between people and nature.

The initial challenge facing historians of the colonial South is to develop a meaningful understanding of how native people lived on the land before the arrival of colonists and slaves. It is a scholarly endeavor fraught with potential pitfalls, one of which surfaced in the first history of Virginia, written by Robert Beverley in 1705. Beverley noted that "before the English went thither," Indians had enjoyed the land's "natural production ... without the Curse of Industry, their Diversion alone, and not their labor, supplying the Necessities." In one form or another, that notion--the idea that native people fulfilled their needs with little effort--has exerted a powerful influence on colonial history. As recently as the 1960s and 1970s, some college-level texts still depicted Indians as primitive or, worse, savage people who made little use of America's resources. However, the most persistent image among both scholars and the general public has been that of a noble Indian who lived close to nature and maintained the land in a state of near pristine wilderness. (1) Only over the last thirty years have southern historians--with some crucial guidance from other disciplines--been able to offer a more realistic depiction of native life.

In 1976 anthropologist Charles Hudson published The Southeastern Indians, a book that, in keeping with the tenor of the times, leans heavily toward the image of natives in harmony with nature. Even so, Hudson's work laid the foundation for a new generation of scholarship on the South's native people. For the first time in a highly readable volume, scholars got an anthropologist's view of Indian hunting and farming within the context of a powerful natural setting. The work also called attention to the forgotten century of southern history--the 1500s--during which contact with Spanish explorers and colonists began to transform native cultures. (2)

Hudson's book was part of the relatively new but by then thriving genre of ethnohistory, a scholarly hybrid that employs methodology from both history and anthropology. …

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