When the English arrived on the coasts of New England to form colonies in the 17th Century, they generally viewed Native Americans as savages who, despite their skills at hunting and farming, didn’t rightfully own the land they occupied.
The northern tribes didn’t practice agriculture at all, and the southern tribes were partially agricultural: during temperate months they would harvest corn, beans, and squash, and when winter came they moved north because it was easier to track and hunt animals in the snow. All tribes were fairly nomadic; every year they picked up their few possessions and traveled wherever seasonal sustenance was to be had.
In the King James edition of the Bible, which Pilgrims carried across the ocean, Genesis 1:28 has God commanding man to “fill the earth and subdue it.” To say the least, Puritan colonists took these words very seriously. When they saw that Native Americans weren’t taming the land as the norms in Europe dictated, it was clear evidence that they did not have the right to own it.
As European diseases such as smallpox claimed up to a 95% death rate on countless Native American villages, many colonists took this to be a divine sign. “God hath thereby cleared our title to this place,” wrote John Winthrop, founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in 1629. He claimed that converting heathen and subduing the earth ensured that the “new world” wasn’t left empty and untapped for long — a sort of early idea of manifest destiny.
Subduing the earth for the most part meant parceling it out to townspeople who would officially own it, fence it in, till it with steel plows, and allow livestock to graze the fields. The settlers called this activity “improving the land,” and saw the Native Americans as inferior for failing to do the same. The colonists would stay in the same area once they settled down, so they needed to ensure the production of a surplus to survive the winter months — they felt that the Native Americans’ migration north was a sign of heathenism: why go hungry and cold looking for animals if one could establish farms and and build relatively warm houses? What the settlers didn’t realize was that the Native Americans’ tradition of switching between agriculture and hunting/gathering allowed land and wildlife to recuperate each season. Estimates of the pre-colonial North American native population range between 3 and 4 million (and between 70,000 and 100,000 Native Americans in New England in 1600 compared to 93,000 English by 1700). There is no doubt that this number of humans could have had serious consequences on the land and fauna if unchecked.
Since Native Americans didn’t use fences or livestock, and changed farm locations relatively frequently, they weren’t “improving the land” (thus no entitlement), the Pilgrims appropriated it in the name of God and the King (to make a fairly short story shorter). According to William Cronon, author of “Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England,” when colonists were “improving the land,” they were clearing almost all the forest close to settlements by burning, animal grazing, and cutting. They were making
local temperatures more erratic, soils drier, and drainage patterns less constant. A number of smaller streams and springs no longer flowed year-round … water and wind erosion were taking place with varying severity, and flooding had become more common … the first of many European pests and crop diseases had already begun to appear.
Turkey, wolf, bear, deer, and beaver, which had been common before Europeans arrived, were now gone from large areas of southern New England, and replaced by pigs, cattle, horses, sheep, and goats. These livestock
brought hundreds of miles of fences. With fences had come the weeds: dandelion and rat alike joined alien grasses as they made their way across the landscape.
All the colonists were doing was what had been done in Europe for the past couple centuries. They didn’t necessarily intend to bring about some of the changes listed by Cronon, but they could certainly see the negative consequences of these effects and infer the causes. Nevertheless, they continued fulfilling God’s command and pursuing economic gain.
What interests me the most about this idea of “improving the land” is the contrast between the 17th-19th Century definition of the phrase and that which we would use today. More on that in the next few days.