Wednesday’s Book Review: “Changes in the Land”

Changes in the LandChanges in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. By William Cronin. New York: Hill and Wang, 2003 edition.

Perhaps it is appropriate that this book review be done at this particular time; since it is so much about the convergence of cultures in early America and how the use of resources changed as a result. This is especially important as we pause for Thanksgiving and the bounties that are so much a part of that national holiday.

William Cronin has been a leading figure in the study of the environmental history of the American West for a generation. This book is one of the reasons why. It is an elegant study, at once entertaining and enlightening as well as seminal in its characterization of the New England frontier and the relationships of the native population to the English immigrants in their homeland.

Cronin’s thesis is straightforward. As he characterized it: “the shift from Indian to European dominance in New England entailed important changes—well known to historians—in the ways these peoples organized their lives, but it also involved fundamental reorganizations—less well known to historians—in the region’s plant and animal communities. To the cultural consequences of the European invasion—what historians sometimes call ‘the frontier process’—we must add the ecological ones as well” (p. xv). So true, but that insight was lost on many earlier historians who had previously studied native/English interactions. What Cronin offers is a well-researched, effectively-argued, and finely-honed explanation of this situation.

Chapters on the landscape and its changes over time, the different natures of agriculture among the native and English populations, ownership and patterns of use, and the interactions of both communities bring this together in a useful manner. Accessing standard historical materials as well as works in archaeology, anthropology, plant and animal science, and climatology Cronin synthesizes a major historical episode in a new way.

His greatest conclusion, at least from my perspective, harkens back to the “frontier thesis” of Frederick Jackson Turner. Turner asserted, and I believe Turner was correct that this was the case, that the broad expanse of land available dominated the thinking of Europeans coming to America and prompted a structuring of the American experience along a specific path. Cronin makes the case that this European path was uniquely destructive to the New England ecology. “They assumed the limitless availability of more land to exploit,” he wrote, “and in the long run that was impossible” (p. 169). Ultimately, Cronin noted, “the people of plenty were a people of waste” (p. 170).

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