John's Reviews > Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England

Changes in the Land by William Cronon
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's review
Jun 18, 2009

really liked it

Very good Marxist-influenced historical anthropology of the ecological changes wrought upon Native lands by European occupation. Written not theoretically, but with lots of detail from first-hand sources (colonial land records, memoirs, Native testimonials, etc.).

Particularly fascinating are discussions of differences in land rights between Natives and colonists - the Natives did have notions of property and rights, sovereignty over the land being identified with a sachem (which referred both to a specific leader and the whole community). But this sovereignty meant rights for the whole community over specific USES of the land. The mercantile colonists, on the other hand, enforced (through combination of 'legal' and dubious devices) notions of abstract, alienable property rights 'owned' to an individual land-holder. The landholder did not own the land in specific relation to its use, but abstractly, that is regardless of the character or relationship to the function of the land. The Natives did 'own' the land in different ways, but had no 'market' associated with it.

Cronon relates differences in how the land was named and bounded by Native and colonist to demonstrate this: Natives used specific-use names like "place-to-rest-between-the-waters" or "maize-growing-land", while the colonists employed names of the landholder (Williamsbridge) or referring back to English towns (New Hempstead). Native land boundaries often attached to specific features in the landscape, a vale or ridge or forest edge; colonial boundaries referred to abstract quantitative measurement (so many kilometers from such and such).

Cronon's great eye for ecological detail and relationship comes through in a later chapter on the destructive effects of animal husbandry and pasturage in New England. Cattle roaming literally stamped down on the earth, limiting its ability to recycle water and nutrients; rampant forest clearing (to clear pasture for cattle and pigs and sell timber for a terribly expanding market in wood), produced lands susceptible to drought and flood, where once before were steady streams. (Native used wood for fires, and lots and lots of fires, which awed the colonialists. But this dwindles in comparison to the colonialist's insatiable demand for it wood, both in manufacture and in home-building - Natives lived much in thatch houses, small enough to dissemble and move around in a few hours time; colonialists built big houses from large wood planks.)

This is not a book about Native resistance, although Cronon relates evidence more and more acknowledged now that European transmitted diseases killed, in many places, 90-95% of the Native population in a generation in waves of epidemics in the 1600's. This calamity and the psycho-social-economic disruption of Native societies it caused, relates to the relative speed of European colonization and weakness of Native resistance. Many communities simply lacked the labor to work the lands to sustain themselves and provide enough security and resources to fight.

The book also has a thorough bibliographic essay at the end; something not done much in great short treatises like this one.

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