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William Cronon, Changes in the Land

Changes in the Land deals with the impact on the ecosystems of New England by Native Americans and colonial British settlers.

Cronon’s basic premise is that Native and English populations viewed the land and its use in fundamentally different ways, and that the decreasing population of the former and the increasing population of the latter led to a fundamental change in land use among both.

This in turn influenced the very environment itself, as the reordering of economies and land-use changed the landscape, the flora, the fauna, water quality… New England would have been almost unrecognizable in 1800 to someone who had seen it two hundred years prior.

The way man interacts with his environment fundamentally alters that environment. If Braudel was writing about how mountains and bodies of water influence human history, Cronon is writing about how human history influences mountains and bodies of water.

Cronon’s basic thesis—and the implications of adding the environment to how we view history—are unassailable and invaluable. This is definitely one of those books that’s a classic for good reason.

However, there were two small, niggling inaccuracies I noticed—things I only knew about due to later scholarship—that nevertheless I think point to some of the work’s biases. I don’t feel that either of these damage the worth of the book, by any means, but they are telling or at least interesting.

First—on page 14, and again on pages 92-93, Cronon explicitly argues that part of the difference between Indian and English economies is one of scale. While this is true, the scale of the pre-Columbian North American economy is somewhat underestimated by Cronon, who argues that it was exclusively limited to inter-village and occasionally regional trade.

While it is true that there weren’t Native wholesalers shipping stuff out to the Pacific in the able hands of Indian Teamsters, Daniel Richter’s Facing East From Indian Country has demonstrated that the pre-Columbian Native American trade network was definitely a continental one, while still supporting Cronon’s assertion that it wasn’t a centralized one. Cronon, researching this book in the late seventies and early eighties, makes the common (and often but not always accurate) conflation of “low-impact” or “sustainable” with “small.”

Second—when comparing English and Indian views of land use, husbandry, and property, Cronon dismisses the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s understanding of land ownership as the product of land improvement as “little more than an ideology of conquest…” (57) While this is true in terms of how it was applied to Native Americans, it only tells half the story. In a working paper for the Rappaport Institute of Greater Boston, Harvard’s James Levitt has pointed out that this was actually a policy borne of quite progressive ideals.

The Massachusetts Bay Corporation, being allowed by its charter to govern itself from America without a direct overseer in London, brought many more of its shareholders to the new world than other of these colonial corporations. Once there, they quickly established this rule of land improvement as grounds for ownership—and then went the further step of making all land-holders members of the corporation. The result by 1631 was near-universal manhood suffrage in a direct democratic system via elections and town meetings—a level of franchise unmatched in the southern English colonies, and even in England after the English Civil War.

In focusing the book so exclusively on environmental concerns, Cronon’s history can at time lose sight of important things like civil rights and just governance.

Overall, though, I loved the book. It was a great read. I’ve been meaning to get around to it for a long time, and I’m glad that my Historiography class has finally forced me to do so.