As most are aware, there are a number of myths and stereotypes associated with the people who inhabited North and South America before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. These people, commonly referred to as Native Americans first arrived on the American land mass some 12,000 years ago by crossing the Bearing land bridge that connected present day Alaska to Asia. (Diamond 1997) Within two thousand years, humans had spread over the entirety of North and South America, and adapted to most of the different environs they encountered. To deal with these myriad different habitats, human beings evolved many different and diverse cultures which would come to influence when exactly these native peoples would make contact with Europeans.
In my first year teaching this subject I detected that among my students one of the more prevalent stereotypes about Native Americans was that they existed as a homogenous and monolithic people. The stereotype continues that all Native Americans hunted buffalo, lived in teepees, and wore feathers in their hair, living in perfect harmony with nature. The first point of this unit will be to highlight the diversity of Native American life styles and cultures. In addition to the stereotype that all Native Americans lived on the North American prairie, many of my students seemed to believe that the original inhabitants of the Americas lived in perfect harmony with nature. This in fact is a fallacy that permeates our culture to this day. The truth of the situation is that Native American cultures from Tierra del Fuego to New England changed the land they lived on in a number of ways. Without looking at ancient native cultures it is impossible to understand why our forests look like they do today.(Foster, 2003) The story of European colonization in the new world is not as simple as saying Europeans came here and changed a pristinely natural ecosystem into something less natural. That account would be too simplistic. Instead they came to a land where many changes had already been forced upon the natural flora and fauna of the region by its original human inhabitants.
Fossil evidence indicates that native peoples had inhabited the land of New England for about ten thousand years prior to European arrival in the 16th century. In this time inhabitants invented many methods for maximizing the resources they could glean from the land. One such method developed by these native people was controlled burning of forests to clear underbrush. Many of the swaths of coniferous forest we see in New England today were able to flourish as a result of these anthropogenic forest fires.(Cronon 1983) Not only does fire fundamentally changes the chemical composition of soil, it also clears the predominant vegetation that exists, allowing for new species to take hold in areas that they otherwise would have been crowded out of. Thus, by burning boreal forests, coniferous tree species that would otherwise have not been able to flourish did, resulting in a wider variety of tree species living in New England. These coniferous forests then further changed the forests by lowering the pH of the soil they inhabited.
To Native Americans, the meadows created by burning sections of forest were an important part of their complex hunting strategies. By bating animals to eat the tender meadow grass that would populate previously burned areas, Native Americans maximized the amount of food they could hunt with the least possible effort. It is certain that Native Americans did not mind changing or defacing the natural landscapes of the places they lived if it helped them to reap maximum reward from the Earth.
Native Americans in New England were also skilled farmers who managed to feed themselves primarily through agriculture. Unlike European settlers Native American women were the primary farmers in the community. Also, unlike European farming techniques which relied on cleared fields which could be tilled, Native American farms moved with their owners. Living a semi-nomadic life allowed the Native Americans of New England to farm and live wherever the conditions allowed them to. Europeans invested massive amounts of labor into clearing farmland. This made them much less likely to abandon a settlement once they arrived. Natives on the other hand, whose settlements moved with the seasons farmed wherever the conditions presented themselves. If an area's soil was depleted they would simply move their settlement to a place which had not seen such intensive human land use. (Cronon 1983) Thus unlike European settlements which required an initial period of very intensive labor to clear land, Native farming techniques negated the need the stay in one place very long. The obvious result of this difference was that once Europeans settled in an area they were very unlikely to leave it.
Also alien to the first European settlers was the Native use of multi-crop fields. Europeans were unaccustomed to the ways in which Natives planted their fields. Native American farming looked like an unorganized mess of cornstalks, beans, and squash to the first colonists. Whether aware of it or not though, the planting of nitrogen fixing beans with other crops helped to maintain the fertility of the growing fields used by Native Americans. (Cronon 1983) All crops deplete the land of certain chemicals, some more than others, because they need them to grow. Corn in particular has an especially high need for nitrogen, and as one might imagine is known for robbing soil of its ability to support crops. Modern farmers overcome this problem by fertilizing fields with massive amounts of nitrogen rich compounds that artificially fertilize the land. Early settlers used methods such fertilizing with manure or carrion. Whether they knew it or not though, Native Americans had a method of farming which involved planting beans with their corn and squash crops. Beans naturally deposit nitrogen in the soil, and thus naturally fertilized the land for corn and squash. To underscore for students how different Native farming methods were from English ones, I this quote from famous explorer Samuel de Champlain, "with the corn they put in each hill three of four brazilian beans, which are different in colors. When they grow up, they interlace with the corn, which reaches to the height of from five to six feet; and they keep the ground very free from weeds." (Cronon 1983) As a result of these organic farming techniques Native Americans in New England were able to support communities that commonly reached 400 individuals during seasons of plenty. In times of scarcity, Native Communities would often splinter off into smaller kin groups to find sustenance. In this way Natives rarely over used the land to the point of depleting its natural resources.
A cautious reader may ask themselves then, "What is the difference between Native and European land use?" Why does it seem that the character of European land use had much harsher consequences associated with it, than Native land use? The answer lies not in the motives of these two different cultures, but in means by which they reaped the bounty of a productive Earth. To paraphrase William Cronon in his seminal work Changes in the Land¸ land use strategies of Native Americans in our part of the country were less intensive than European ones because they were less permanent and sedentary approaches to using the Earth's resources. (Cronon 1983) Simply put, Native Americans in New England had no problem harvesting the natural bounty that surrounded them. To harvest the Earth though, they used methods that drew from a number of sources and places, instead of clearing large swaths of land for farming. The result was a natural landscape that was greatly altered by human intervention, just not altered in such a way that was readily recognized by European explorers and settlers. Indeed to the first European settlers, New England seemed like an endless source of raw material.
In addition to simply commenting on how NE native peoples used the land, a discussion of Native ideas on property must be mentioned. Cronon points out that Native Americans in New England had very different ideas about property than the Europeans they would later encounter. Native Americans lived in ways that baffled the Europeans whom they encountered. The fact that individual Natives had no desire for material objects other than what could be used immediately confounded Europeans inculcated with beliefs in the value of capital and ownership. (Cronon 1983) As we will discuss in the section entitled Post Columbian America, this difference in value systems would play a significant role in the interplay between these two cultures.