Lecture #6: World of Fields and Fences

Suggested Readings:

Sumner Chilton Powell, Puritan Village (1963)

John Demos, A Little Commonwealth (1970)

Paul Wallace Gates, History of Public Land Law Development (1968)

William Cronon, Changes in the Land (1983; 2003)

Brian Donahue, The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord (2004)

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, The Age of Homespun (2001)

Hildegard Binder Johnson, Order Upon the Land (1976)

Andro Linklater, Measuring America (2002)


I. Changes in the Land as a Two-Point Causal Argument: Stories Again

Note the riddling structure of Changes in the Land: it opens with the January 24, 1855 entry from Henry David Thoreau's famous journal, in which Thoreau reflected on his reading of William Wood's 1635 book New England's Prospect and what it suggested to him about how the countryside he knew so well had changed in the intervening 220 years. Changes in the Land uses this journal entry to compare two moments in time, contrasting the native landscapes of New England prior to European colonization with the ways those landscapes looked to Thoreau in the middle of the nineteenth century.

If you'd like to read Thoreau's actual journal entry (this is not a requirement for our course), you'll find a transcription here: http://www.williamcronon.net/courses/460/handouts/460_handout_thoreau_journal_on_william_wood_1-25-1855.html

The two-point riddling structure of Changes creates a dramatic contrast which emphasizes difference more than similarity, so that the story of the book becomes a question: how and why did these ecological transformations of the regional landscape occur?

This contrast establishes the tension that drives the book forward, but only at the expense of reduced cultural complexity: the book tends to deemphasize similarities between groups in order to highlight causal differences that might explain landscape change.

Whatever the costs of this simplification, it does offer some useful perspectives: material cultures and relationships with different environments become windows on the ways people situate themselves geographically and culturally, and how they make their livings within in relation to the natural world.

The lecture offers as one key image of contrasting cultures: a fixed wooden frame house of the colonists vs. the much lighter and more mobile wigwam. These two structures imply very different degrees of fixity and mobility of the two groups, a dichotomy that Changes in the Land uses to explain many of the differences between New England's native peoples and the English colonists.'

Indian horticulture was intimately integrated into seasonal movements of hunting and gathering: communities migrated to locations where food and other resources were most abundant at any given time.

Native material cultures hinged on the ability to move when ecological cycles made doing so attractive.

This was in stark contrast to colonists, who sought to bring ecological cycles close to the sites of their fixed homes and farmsteads. In effect, the colonists sought to modify and regulate the seasonal cycles within the boundaries of their homesteads and villages.

II. A Material Culture of Colonialism

Today's lecture uses the remarkable living history museum of Plimoth Plantation to exemplify its arguments and interpretations: to learn more about it, see http://www.plimoth.org and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plimoth_Plantation

Again, one key image of colonial life: the post-and-beam timber structure symbolized by the Saugus ironmaster's much-restored wooden house from 1680s: fixed, stolid, with ecological cycles and relations of production made to circle around this human center.

Across local ecological boundaries, on the other side of the Atlantic, a broader series of connections to world trade, with the ocean-going ship (symbolized by Pilgrims' restored Mayflower) as a central symbol. You can think of the ship as an example of a "capstone technology" embodying many of the most important differences between Indians and colonists: sawed wood, metals, textiles, ropes, navigation, guns, sails, etc.; these in turn imply outward linkages with the wider markets of the Atlantic world.

The earliest English settlements (also true of the French and the Spanish) were stockaded for defense, implying readiness for the military violence of colonial invasion. (Such violence had as much to do with other European colonial powers as it did with native peoples.)

The Plimoth military blockhouse was also its religious and poitical meetinghouse; remembering the religious mission of the settlement, the famed "errand into the wilderness" implied a view of the surrounding landscape as a Biblical wilderness with all the rich allusions implied by a Biblical wilderness: outside the village, beyond the domesticated landscape of the colonial settlements, wild nature was dangerous, savage, sinful.

Inside the agricultural village, functional divisions of the landscape marked ecological relations of production.

Clearing land involved girdling bark from trees, planting amidst stumps, eventually cutting or burning to create fields for plowing.

Initial colonial settlements conducted agriculture much as Indians did: using hand tools (albeit with metal blades) planting corn (maize) as a crucial early crop. Compare also tobacco in the southern colonies as another early Indian crop brought to market within a system of increasingly forced labor: slavery.

Woodworking was a key technological difference between natives and colonists, and what the colonists created was very much a wooden world. Saws, axes, froes, and other tools were used for cutting and splitting wood. Construction became increasingly wood-intensive compared with England, as did burning wood for fires: wooden clapboards replaced plaster, shingles replaced thatch. Colonists ultimately abandoned the half-timbered framing of houses that was so characteristic of wood-scarce Tudor England.

Livestock represented an enormous difference between Indians and Europeans, with much else in the landscape following from these co-invaders: cattle, horses, hogs, etc. Livestock implied ownership of animals, animal power for plowing and hauling goods to market, to say nothing of all the uses to which animals were put for food, clothing, by-products, and other purposes.

But because colonists were planting crops at the same time that they were keeping animals, they had an inescapable need to protect crops from animals. The fence became a powerful physical symbol of English vs. Indian land tenure and subsistence, laws, animal pounds, etc. All of these driven by need to bring animals and crops into close proximity while keeping them separate at the same time.

In order to feed animals throughout the seasons of the year, the landscape had to be partitioned into mowing and grazing lands, where alien European grasses and clovers were introduced: timothy, blue grass, clover, etc.

Accompanying the grazers and the grasses was an invasion of weeds: dandelions, nettles, plantain. Indians even called plantain "Englishman's Foot" because it appeared wherever the colonists settled and kept animals.

Black stem rust (which colonists labeled "the blast" can serve as a metaphor for how profoundly Old World ecological relationships were being reproduced in the New: barberry bushes growing along weedy fence rows hosted rust that blighted wheatfields growing downwind. Serious failures in wheat crops began to occur by 1660s, thus making it ever more challenging for European farmers, raising European animals behind European fencerows that provided habitat for European weeds that hosted in turn a European fungal infection, to raise a key European crop.

Complex horticultures: the household gardens tended by colonial English women contained vegetables, herbs, flowers for dyestuffs, orchards for fruit. Men raised grain crops of maize, barley, rye, wheat while working with larger (more dangerous) animals in fields that were located at some distance from the homestead.

Task of scheduling: reproducing seasonal knowledge of peasant agriculture eventually involved publication of almanacs. These were based on the cycling wheel of the zodiac much like Indian subsistence, but here agricultural activity takes place in close proximity to human settlements, within fixed property boundaries marked by physical fences. Another example of the opening theme of mobility vs fixity.

III. A Moral for the Story: Abstracting Nature

The largest claim made by Changes in the Land is that: linkage to distant markets encouraged a growing sense that land was a commodity bought and sold in the market. (This important argument is most fully developed in Chapter 4 of the book.)

Earlier land systems:

  • metes & bounds surveys that characterized the southern colonies involved more or less random without systematic property boundaries, with lots of potential for future legal conflicts;
  • French long lots fronted on rivers, which served as the principal transportation routes of French settlements on the St. Lawrence and Mississippi Rivers, with long parallel property boundaries also facilitating plower;
  • New England towns favored coordinated village settlements, with a series of property divisions distributing land to individual colonists in a more systematic way.

The United States preferred the abstract grid of Enlightenment, the Cartesian coordinate plane, codified in the great 1785 Land Ordinance: square mile grid units (640 acres, with 36 square miles constituing a township) were imposed in the Northwest Territory by government survey to facilitate sale to settlers and speculators. This grid pattern proliferated outward to entire landscape west of Ohio River: affecting everything from rural road systems to farmers' fields to city streets. You'll see it almost everywhere when you fly over the western United States today.

Landscape of the grid defines much of the U.S.: how closely was this connected to Plymouth's "world of fields and fences"? (This is a question that History / Geography / Environmental Studies 469, "The Making of the American Landscape," explores in considerably more detail: http://www.williamcronon.net/courses/469/.)