Book Review

Out From Under Their Feet

Updated November 25, 2021

How Native Americans Saw the Land Differently than the English

When the English alighted on the U.S. shores 400 years ago they left the beavers for the Indians to hunt.

Beavers were too much trouble and only the “lazy” Native Americans had time to go after them, the English reasoned.

In reality tho, the Indians were just far more adept at hunting, and they didn’t hunt any more than they needed to get by. They were part of a balanced ecosystem that had been in place for thousands of years.

There was a lot about this land Europeans didn’t understand, just as there was a lot about the European ways that the Native Americans didn't get, namely something known as “Property Rights.” Such rights were divined into being by English culture -- a King and the Bible. Why would the Native Americans fight for something they didn't even see as a thing?

The Indians were mobile, moving to wherever the best food supply for that season happened to be, be it a fishing lake or a forest teaming with game.

"Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England"
William Cronon

The churn of tribes moving from one location to another reduced the stress on the land, agriculturally. In turn, the land's yield limits kept the human population at a modest level -- reflecting Liebig's law that populations are limited by the amount of food available at its scarcest availability.

"The New England Indians seek to obtain their food wherever it was seasonably most concentrated in the New England ecosystem. Doing so required an intimate understanding of the habits and ecology of other species," wrote William Cronon in the groundbreaking 1983 book "Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England."

Over time, those tribes who stayed put long enough to grow crops multiplied faster. A 100 miles of land hosting the non-agricultural Indians of Maine served as home to about 41 people; the crop-raising southern Indian lived at 287 people per 100 miles.

Agriculture may have helped people flourish in the short term, but it also tied them to the land, and that may have proved to be their undoing.

The Indians had suspected that the English were driven to their fruitful shores by some sort of fuel crisis back home, "a feign to follow the wood." In fact, they were correct. England was indeed facing a severe wood shortage (which soon would lead to the conversion to coal as its source of fuel).

"Neigh, all Europe is not able to afford so great fires as New England," one visitor gushed of the abundance of wood.

Life was good on these shores. People actually lived longer in the U.S. then.

"I will not tell you that you may smell the corn fields before you see the land; Neither must men think that corn doth grow naturally (or on trees), nor will the deer come when they come when they are called or stand still and look on a man until you shoot him, not knowing a man from a beast," Christopher Levett wrote, deflating the expectations of those who sought to come to the land (at considerable length).

"Nor the fish leap into the kettle, nor on the dry land. Neither are they so plentiful that you may dip them up in baskets nor take cod in nets to make a voyage, which is no truer than the fowl will present themselves to you with spits through them."

But tabindex he difference in how the two cultures lived was striking. "The way Indians had chosen to inhabit that world posed a paradox almost from the start for Europeans accustomed to other ways of interacting with the environment," Cronon wrote.

Unlike the monocultural fields of the Europeans, Indian crops intermingled different food plants. "Cornstalks served as beanpoles. Squashes sent their tendrils everywhere," Cronon wrote.

This approach to planting the ground came with its own benefits: "The resulting harvest of beans and corn provided the amino acids necessary for a balanced diet of vegetable protein," Cronon wrote.

They took a similar approach to game. The Indians would burn fields to attract deer to the resulting fresh fields, actually increasing the populations.

How Native Americans Saw the Land Differently than the English

The elk deer, turkey, hare, quail, and porcupine also brought with them their own predators, such as hawks, eagles, linx, foxes and wolves. All of which were also of benefit to the Indians. "People accustomed to keeping domesticated animals lacked the conceptual tools to realize that Indians were practicing a more distant kind of husbandry of their own," Cronon wrote.

The English could not understand why the Indians didn't store more of their food and other needed supplies for the lean seasons of winters.

Indians just assumed there would be lean times. They did not store a lot. Instead they just moved to where the resources would be.

"Diversity and mobility led New England Indians to avoid acquiring much surplus property, confident as they were that their mobility and skill would supply any need that arose," Cronon wrote.

The differences of how women were regarded was marked between the two cultures as well. In Native American villages, the men hunted while the women grew the crops. "Indian men seemed to acknowledge that their wives were a principle source of wealth, and mocked Englishmen for not working their wives harder," Cronon wrote.

Indians would mock the English women as "lazy squalls," and wondered why the men were our in the field doing all the work. But they did not recognize all the work English women were doing as work: making butter and cheese, sewing, making butter, spinning, weaving, caring for children, gardening, cooking.

Another example:the English men saw hunting and fishing that the Indians were doing as "leisure," rather than as essential food gathering.

This trivialization provided a justification for taking control of the land: that the indigenous people were not sufficiently exploiting it.

"In a vacant soil, he that taketh possession of it, and bestoweth culture and husbandry upon it, his right it is," wrote 17th century Massachusetts minister John Cotton, using Biblical verse for justification.

How Native Americans Saw the Land Differently than the English

Recorded transactions documenting the ownership of the land was then a recent invention, an innovation that clearly favored the Europeans.

"Whereas Indian villages moved from habitat to habitat to find maximum abundance through minimal work, and so reduce their impact on the land, The English believed in and required permanent settlements," Cronon wrote.

The English needed clear ownership of the land because they were dependent on raising animals for their economy. In 1634, William Wood defined the Massachusetts Bay Colony through its livestock: "Can they be very poor, where for four thousand souls there are fifteen hundred head of cattle, besides four thousand goats and swine innumerable?"

Whereas the Indians concentrated their hunting of deer, mooose and beaver in the fall and winter, the English "sought a much more total and year-round control over their animals lives."

Settlement brought investment: fields were cleared, buildings were erected, roads were built. All of these work brought a value to the land itself.

When it came to the idea of "property," Indians tribes only claimed the resources on the land -- the fish, the deer, the farmable land -- but not the land itself.

This difference could be seen in how the Indians and the English named their lands. The English named their lands either after themselves or after "localities in their homeland. In contrast, the Indian named their lands after its use or value: "late spring or summer place"

So when they came to the bargaining table, the English and the Native Americans were thinking about two different things almost entirely. The Indians thought they were trading off usufruct rights, perhaps unaware of the repercussions around the European notion of owning land outright.

"It is clear that the Indians conceived of this sale as applying to only very specific uses of the land. They gave up none of their most important hunting and gathering privileges, they retained right to their cornfields and and evidently intended to keep living on the land much as they had been doing before," Cronon wrote.

The Indians did not see themselves as poor, Cronon wrote, noting that there are two ways to be rich: Producing much or desiring little.

Quotes and Notes

"The shift from Indian to European dominance in New England entailed important changes, well-known to historians, in the ways these peoples organized their lives. But it also involved fundamental reorganizations, less known to historians, in the region's plant and animal communities."

"New England mortality rates, for Europeans, were on average much lower than comparable rates in Europe."

"People sought to give their landscape a new purposefulness, often by simplifying its seemingly chaotic tangle. Different peoples of course did this in different ways."

Liebig's law of the minimum: "Biological populations are limited not by the total annual resources available to them but by the minimum amount that can be found at the scarcest time of the year."

hunting and agriculture: "the mobility of village sites and the shift between various subsistence bases reduced potential strains on any particular segment of the ecosystem, keeping the overall human burden low"

"The annual reoccupation of fixed village and planting sites meant that the area around field and camp experienced heavy human use, intensive food gathering, the accumulation of garbage and,most importantly, the consumption of firewood. One on the main reasons Indians moved to winter camps was that their summer sites had been stripped of the fuel essential for winter fire."

"Indians who hunted game animals were not just taking the unplanted bounties of nature. in an important sense they were harvesting a food stuff which they had consciously been instrumental in creating."

"The English used this Indian reliance on hunting not only to condemn Indian men as lazy savages, but to deny that Indians had a rightful claim to the land they hunted. European perceptions of what constituted a proper use of the environment thus reinforced what became a European ideology of conquest."

Indians vs. English conflicting perceptions of land: "The struggle was over two ways of living and using the seasons of the year, and it expressed itself in how two peoples conceived of property, wealth, and boundaries on the land."

How Native Americans Saw the Land Differently than the English

Wigwams moved every few months, fields abandoned for years: "Once abandoned, a field returned to brush until it was recleared by someone else and no effort was made to set permanent boundaries around it that would hold it indefinitely for a single person."

"What the Indians owned -- or more precisely what their villages gave them claim to -- was not the land but the things that were on the land during the various seasons of the year. It was a conception of property shared by many of the hunter-gatherer and agricultural peoples of the world but radically different from that of the invading Europeans"

"It is clear that the Indians conceived of this sale as applying to only very specific uses of the land. They gave up none of their most important hunting and gathering privileges, they retained right to their cornfields and and evidently intended to keep living on the land much as they had been doing before."

"...Not to possess the land as a trade-able commodity but to use it as a ecological cornucopia."

Deeds on Eastern Mass, when they existed at all, typically took these forms: "extinguishing all Indian rights and transferring them either to an English purchaser, or in this case, to an English group with some corporate identity."

the deeds "what was sold was not a bundle of usufruct rights applying to a range of different "territories," but the land itself, an abstract area whose bounds in theory remained fixed, no matter what the use to which it was put. Once the land was bounded in this way, a host of ecological changes followed almost inevitably."

"Land was allocated to inhabitants using the same Biblical philosophy that had justified taking it from the Indians in the first place: Individuals should only possess as much land as they were able to subdue and make productive."

"Initial divisions of town lands, with their functional classifications of woodlot and meadow and cornfield, bore a superficial resemblance to Indian usufruct rights, since they seemed to define land into terms of how it was to be used. Once transferred into private hands, however, most such lands became abstract parcels whose legal definition bore no inherent relation to their use. A person owned everything on them."

"Describing land as a fixed parcel with purely arbitrary boundaries made buying and selling it increasing easy, as did the recording systems -- an American innovation -- which kept track of such transactions."

"It was capital, the ability to store wealth in the expectation that one could increase its quantity, that set European societies apart from pre-Colonial Indian ones."

As the original settlers came across the Bering Straits 20-30,000 years ago, they left diseases behind with their sparse populations. As The Indians were susceptible to the diseases brought by the Europeans. A 1633 epidemic of Small Pox saw mortalities in many villages reached 95%. Syphilis and dysentery ravaged the population as well. In the first 75 years of the 17th century, the Indian popular shrunk from well over 70,000 to less than 12,000.

"The colonists themselves understood what they were doing almost wholly in positive terms, not as 'deforestation,' but as the progress of cultivation. The two descriptions were, in reality, simply inverse ways of stating the same fact."

The effects of deforestation: A bowl of water placed in an open pasture evaporated 1.5x as quickly as one placed within the shades of a forest.