Title: Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England
Author: William Cronon
Year: 1983
Categories: Environmental History, Indians, Interdisciplinary
Place: New England
Time Period: 1620-1800

Argument Synopsis
Cronon explores the ecological transformations in colonial New England through the confluence of Indians and European settlers and their relationship to the environment. For Cronon, it is a story of the triumph of capitalist commodification of nature. Prior to European settlement, Indians had interacted with the land in a way that minimized their impact (albeit this was not necessarily done consciously). Indian societies were marked by greater mobility, changing their location depending on the season: from agriculture to hunting to gathering. Far from a "golden age" of Indians living in harmony with nature, their relationship was one in which they altered the landscape but did so in a way that was less destructive (for example, using fire to clear woodland areas, replenish soil nutrients, and attract game animals), creating a mosaic or patchwork quality of tremendous diversity. Finally, Indians practiced a form of usufruct property whereby the land could be laid claim to by overlapping groups depending on how they USED the land. Game, fish, berries - these were not static property to own, but part of the land to be used.

Europeans, on the other hand, brought with them a system of fixity and sedentariness, in which land was a private commodity and an increasingly important piece of an individual's wealth. This conception of land was deeply tied to the market in that land became a means of supplying commodities to exchange. This capitalist commodification gets extended not just to land, but to other parts of the ecosystem. The fur trade revamps Indian society by encouraging hunting as a form of exchange that was driven on the Indian side by obtaining status-driven goods and has the fall-out effect of depleting animal populations. Similarly, lumbering and agriculture ends up deforesting much of New England, which Cronon argues is one of the greatest effect of European settlement. Fences become the ultimate symbol of a changed relationship to the land, in marking boundaries between privately-owned individual tracts that were geared towards production for a market. 

Key Themes and Concepts
fixity vs. mobility (and consequent impact on environment)

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U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries by Cameron Blevins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.