The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History

By Carolyn Merchant | Go to book overview

2
The New England Wilderness
Transformed, 1600–1850

The environmental history of the New England forests focuses on three stages of use: Indian subsistence; the colonial forest economy; and wilderness appreciation. It also explores two core themes—the human labor needed to extract useful commodities, and the transformation of the idea of wilderness. Indians used the forest for hunting and cleared openings for horticulture. Colonists introduced European livestock and crops and established permanent settlements, while extracting forest products for overseas trade. Human settlement and resource depletion brought about ecological changes in the forest, fostering a transformation in the perception of wilderness from savage to sublime. This chapter investigates how Native Americans and European immigrants both used and viewed the forest environment.


The New England Forest and Indian Land Use

The New England forest provided rich, although different, resources for Native Americans and European colonists. It is made up of three primary ecological regions. The northern forest is composed of conifers, such as balsam, fir, and spruce, and hardwoods, such as aspen and birch—food for the beavers prized by Indians and colonists for their furs. In the middle band, where Indians established horticulture and hunted deer, immigrants found white pine for ship masts, red and white oak for barrel staves, and hickory for farm tools. The southernmost band of the forest is the oak and pitch pine region, suitable for agriculture and for naval stores— products such as pitch, tar, and turpentine, needed by the colonial shipping industry. The bands vary with topography and blend together in transition zones, but foster different patterns of settlement and economic use.

The New England forest at the time of colonial settlement was an open, park-like terrain created by Indians accustomed to burning the land and clearing the underbrush in the spring and fall. Indians set fires to ease their

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