Behold: A short essay for a historical geography course.
I took it because I needed a credit and most classes were filled – but I ended up loving it more than I expected. Learning about the impacts of people on the land around us over the centuries was fun – it added a depth to history I had never considered.
Beyond the Myth
Chapter one of North American Odyssey briefly goes over the impact indigenous people had on the geography of North America via the effects of agriculture. However, the examples presented focused primarily on East coast Native Americans encountered by the likes of Jamestown settlers and the Southwest Native Americans of the desert. North America is made up of many more regions than those two, and each region varied in the cultures it hosted.
The primary belief that is taught in the United States about Native Americans is referred to as the “Pristine Myth”. The Pristine myth alleges that North America was a mostly unpopulated and wildland with very few people. What people who were here were nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived in harmony with the land rather than altering it, creating “a world of barely perceptible human disturbance.” (Denevan, 1992)
It would seem that this idea of a sparsely populated America was started and continues for a few different reasons. The first was a rapid population decline in Native populations after initial contact was made. When European expeditions, such as Columbus’, first began to make contact with the native people they also spread various diseases to which the locals had no immunity (Colton, 2014). This may have led to the demise of as much of ninety percent of the population. This would have led to much smaller communities with smaller agricultural needs. Fields were abandoned and allowed to become overgrown and become a part of the surrounding natural landscape once more. This would have appeared to have been untouched land to later waves of settlers. This is likely how the myth was born. However, it has continued in large part thanks to the likes of writers and painters who depict the ‘New World’ as such. Descriptions of a ‘virgin forest’ or a ‘forest primeval’ (Longfellow, 1847) abound in poetry and literature about early America (Day, 1958). Examples given by Day include descriptions of the eastern forests as being completely unbroken, where one could travel the length of the country without seeing sunlight or coming out of the forest (Day, 1958). Depictions of early America such as these by authors, poets and scholars alike allow the erroneous view of an untouched wilderness to continue to flourish.
Even if we ignore the population before Europe’s arrival, and focus only on the diminished population post-contact, the idea of a virgin forest simply is not possible. The land would have had to have been cleared for villages, structures, fuel and agriculture (Day, 1958). The landscape would also have had needed to be cleared for the sake of hunting, foraging and traveling (Day, 1958). Some believe the native population numbered as much 3.8 million in North America alone, and 40-80 million in the New World as a whole before Europe made contact with the Americas (Denvan, 1992). With such large populations, it is clear that Native Americans would have had to have had a larger impact on the land than romantic notions would suggest. Even with depopulation, the impact of the larger population from year’s past would have had a significant effect on the land while the remaining population would have had a continued impact. It may be that regrowth that newer settlers saw acted as a cloak, shielding the native’s true impact on the land from the untrained eyes of new settlers thus affecting their descriptions of the place and influencing future descriptions of the land.
It can also be true that these tales of untouched land have been so eagerly told, retold and passed down because they served a larger purpose (perhaps unintentionally, perhaps not) of legitimizing the claims of European settlers to the land. If the land was mostly unpopulated and if what natives that were present were mostly nomadic having little impact on the land then does that not make the land seem that much more open to ‘settling’ rather than an invasion of foreign land? The mindset of the early settler and then, later, pioneers, as the country expanded westward, seemed to be one that was constantly minimizing the existence of the ‘Indian’.
How the land was impacted by its original inhabitants varies from region to region, depending on the climate and available resources. In the western reaches of the country, the land does not lend itself easily to agriculture. It was here that canals and irrigation ditches had to be dug or alternative methods of capturing or utilizing available water had to be developed. The Zuni of the southwest and the Pueblo of the Colorado Plateau both utilized similar irrigation methods (Damp, 2002), however there were areas of fields that utilized summer rainfall to grow fields of corn such as the Hopi in Arizona (Brew, 1973) who also took advantage of accumulated winter waters and seepage to water their crops (Colton, 2014, p. 17). Planting styles included creating ridges and furrows (Colton, 2014, p. 15) and, back east, fields were common. Natives would clear wide swaths of land for agricultural purposes, with fields that were described by early explorers as being hundreds of hectares in area (Colton, 2014, p. 15). Early descriptions of expansive fields come from not only the East coast but places like Florida and Hispaniola (Denevan, 1992). While many fields have been lost to time, evidence of fields still exists across the New World like the 500,000 hectares of fields that survived in the San Jorge Basin in Colombia (Denevan, 1992).
Forest clearing was a common way that landscapes were altered along the East coast of America. Natives utilized fires in order to hunt, steering the game towards hunters. They also cleared paths in order to create roads and paths – with Europeans describing paths that a horse and carriage could easily traverse. Burning woods also assisted in creating a more favorable environment for gatherable foods (Denevan, 1992) indicating that natives exerted some significant control over their environment as opposed to living passively within it. In Boston, the area had been cleared to the point that European settlers had to go to the harbor’s islands for fuel (Day, 1958) which conflicts with any idea of an untouched land.
Regardless of romanticized tales of the ‘noble savages’ living in a wildland (Colton, 2014, p. 12), the Americas were far from an untouched wilderness. The civilizations of the Native peoples left their mark across the New World continents through village and city building, through agriculture and hunting, and through infrastructures such as roads and canals. While the population in North America specifically may not have been as significant as in Central America or South America, they were not passive residents of the land they lived on. They took control of their environment in order to make it livable for the population that resided there.
Brew, A. (1973). Development and Change: The Changing Pattern of Hopi Agriculture. Maitland Bradfield. American Anthropologist, 75(2), 461-462.
Colten, C., & Buckley, G. (Eds.). (2014). North American Odyssey: Historical Geographies for the Twenty-first Century (pp. 69-114). Rowman & Littlefield.
Damp, J., Hall, S., & Smith, S. (2002). Early Irrigation on the Colorado Plateau near Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico. American Antiquity, 67(4), 665-676.
Day, G. (1958). The Indian as an Ecological Factor in the Northeastern Forest. Ecology, 34(2), 329-346.
Denevan, W. (1992). The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 82(3), 369-385.
Longfellow, H. W. (1847). Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie.