During the seventeen century the social and economic pressures within England spawned the colonization across the Atlantic - New England. Colonists, known as Puritans because of their desire to purify the Protestant faith, traveled to the new land to make this happen. By removing themselves from the Anglicanism of England, which held ceremonial services and showed deference to the monarch, the Puritans could honor God in the manner they chose. They sought a distant refuge, where they could live apart from these structures and “purify” their churches, supervise one another and enact a code of laws derived from the Bible.
The first Puritan emigrants to New England were the Separatists, eventually known as the Pilgrims. The Separatists, a more radical group of Puritans, wanted to immediately leave their congregations instead of remaining within the Anglican Church and attempting to reform it. A group of them crossed the Atlantic in 1620 in the Mayflower to Plymouth on the south shore of Massachusetts Bay. The 102 colonists moved into an abandoned village but only half of them survived the long hard winter. After the difficult start in the new land, good crops and more emigrants from England expanded the colony and by 1630, Plymouth had a population of about fifteen hundred. As more Puritans arrived on the shores during the “Great Migration” more settlements formed along the cost line. By 1640, these settlements became new colonies north along the coasts of New Hampshire and Maine and in southeastern New England in Rhode Island, Connecticut and along the Long Island Sound. In 1660, the Puritans had expanded their presence to 33,000 inhabitants.
In colonial New England, two groups of human communities encountered each other, one Indian and one European. They quickly became inhabitants of one world but in the process of this coexistence, the landscape of New England became so transformed that the Indians earlier way of interacting with their environment became impossible.
The colonists saw the Indians as their opposite – as pagan peoples, living in the wild instead of laboring hard to conquer and transcend nature. Some Puritan leaders feared that their own people would degenerate into Indians from prolonged contact with the native ways and the native land. As a result of this concern, the colonists dispersed throughout the area to set up farms although this seemed a contradiction to their religious desire to live in communities of neighbors, able to watch over each other and to meet frequently to worship.
Colonists diligently reworked the landscape to resemble England – cleared and fenced English-styled fields, built English-styled homes, barns, mills and churches. They also worked hard to convert and transform Indians into Christians. The colonists labored to reassure themselves that they remained civilized Christians and resisted the temptations of an Indian life by changing the land and by converting the Indians a pious life.
Values of thrift, diligence and delayed gratification helped the colonists prosper in a demanding land. They had developed a culture that was both entrepreneurial and pious. Most were of the “middling sorts,” small property holders able to pay their own passage: farmers, shopkeepers and skilled artisans. Back in England, the Puritans tended to be self employed heads of households and held that men honored God and proved their own salvation by working hard in their occupation. They denounced conspicuous consumption and felt that many English people did not possess their virtues or zeal.
England labor was plentiful and cheap but land was scarce and expensive.
In New England the opposite was the case – abundant land but very little labor to develop and work productive farms, making it necessary to rely on family members for the labor. The colonists’ survival required that they manipulate the environment. They had to survive and prosper before they could begin to sell commodities across the Atlantic and that meant understanding the land they lived on. Hopes led them to the land of plenty from reports of the abundance of fish, fowl, and fruit of spring and summer not realizing the extremes of the colder seasons. It seemed the bounty would last throughout the year which led colonists to not lay up stores for the winter which meant many starved. They discovered setting up farms was a struggle.
For many years, the only New England known to Europe was near salt water. Because the Puritans expanded their settlements along the coastline and had not really ventured inland, maps that were constructed and sent back to England showed the Atlantic shoreline in detail with limited detail to the west.
The European perception of New England was that of a plentiful world, an abundance of plant and animal life which, when compared to England, it certainly was. Nothing in the colonists’ experiences in England prepared them for the vast quantities of fish in the streams, rivers, and bay. The waterfowl present is great numbers in the spring and the fall and turkeys, among other birds, could be hunted year round. Elk and deer, and other wildlife, were so numerous and available, unlike England where property owners and the Crown controlled the resources. One obvious absence was that of domesticated animals – horses, sheep, goats, swine, cats and cattle. To the colonists, it seemed there was an absence of disease and a remarkable healthiness. Their new environment kept them isolated from the devastating and life-threatening diseases prevalent in Europe.
Timber, again a resource controlled in England by property owners and the Crown, towered above the settlers up and down the New England coastline. To an Englishman, trees meant warmth in the winter, and with a fuel crisis back home, the many trees, and variety of trees held great comfort. From the southern coast of Maine and the Saco River all the way to the Hudson, the words appeared remarkably park-like at times. In colonial times, New England was dominated by a variety of hardwood – black, red and white oaks, chestnuts, hickories, beech, yellow birch and maples – as well as hemlock, white pine, spruce and fir. Colonists generally described the forest as open oak woodland even though there were certainly lowland areas. Indians would set fires to clear the underbrush leaving low thickets that offered excellent refuge for deer and surrounding areas were often prime hunting places. The Indians referred to these lowlands as “abodes of owls” and used them as hiding places during times of war.
Because the fires were kindled twice a year, in spring and fall, only a limited amount of brush would accumulate in between, making the fires manageable and workable in shaping an open forest of many tall trees and few small ones.
Indians had lived on the continent for thousands of years and had to an extent modified its environment to their purposes. The arrival of the Europeans brought destruction to the Indian communities through the important ecological changes. As William Cronon notes in
Changes in the Landscape: Indian, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England,
the choice is not between two landscapes, on with and one without a human influence; it is between two human ways of living, two ways of belonging to an ecosystem.
The shift from Indian to European dominance in New England entailed important changes in the ways these peoples lived their lives, but it also involved fundamental changes in the region’s plant and animal communities. The many ecological changes that occurred made the lifestyle impossible for the Indians to continue living as they had. The Quinnipiac Indians are an example of one tribe that experienced the severe and rapid changes in one area of New England.