Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy focuses on New England's largest watershed to explore how the participation of Native nations and English settlers in local, regional, and transatlantic markets for colonial commodities transformed the physical environment in one corner of the rapidly globalizing early modern world.
Jun 2019 | 280 pages | Cloth $45.00
American History / Ecology/Environmental Studies
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Table of Contents
Introduction. Conflicts, Choices, and Change
Chapter 1. Hunting Beaver: The Postdiluvian World of Fur Trade
Chapter 2. Raising Crops: Feeding the Market
Chapter 3. Gathering Firewood: Scarcity Amid Abundance
Chapter 4. Felling Timber: Profits and Politics
Chapter 5. Keeping Livestock: A Commerce in Beasts Domestic and Wild
Epilogue. A New Era in the Life of the River
Conflict, Choices, and Change
Metaphorically speaking, no ecosystem is an island, complete unto itself. Nature is no more fixed in character and features than are the human beings who inhabit it. And, like human beings, individual ecosystems are defined by their relationships. These relationships include the dense network of natural processes that tie regions together—the exchange of soil and seeds upon wind and waves, the migration of animal life on flippers, feet, and wings. Just as important are the links that humanity has created between far-flung ecosystems. Ever since the earth's Eastern and Western Hemispheres rediscovered each other in 1492, human networks of commerce and migration have been tying the ecosystems of the world ever closer together. This book is an exploration of how the early modern revolution in world commerce transformed human and ecological relations in the lands touched by European colonialism. At its heart lies the question of how and why, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the opportunities offered by transatlantic commerce led ordinary men and women—both settlers and Native peoples—to radically transform the ecology of one corner of their rapidly globalizing world.
The Connecticut Valley, like all landscapes, has not always been as it is now. A tradition kept alive by the Pocumtuck Nation recalls a time when the Kwanitekw, the "Long River," was not a river at all, but a great pond spreading out over the land. Far to the south Ktsi Amiskw, the Great Beaver, had erected a giant dam that held back the waters of the river. The lands to the south of the dam suffered from drought, while those to the north lay drowned. Ktsi Amiskw reveled in his giant beaver pond, devouring its fish and, when these became scarce, coming ashore to prey on the humans who inhabited its shores.
In time, Hobomok, a trickster figure and cultural hero of the Pocumtucks, grew annoyed with the evils committed against the land by Ktsi Amiskw and called on the Great Beaver to take down his dam. When Ktsi Amiskw refused, Hobomok took up a massive tree trunk and waded into the pond. With this mighty cudgel Hobomok slew Ktsi Amiskw and demolished the Great Beaver Dam, setting loose the waters of the Kwanitekw to run freely to the sea. The Great Beaver Pond subsided to form a bounteous valley and the ancestors of the Pocumtucks moved their homes amid the fertile meadows and game-filled woodlands that now bordered the banks of the newborn river.
In this telling the landscape of the modern valley was created through an act of destruction. Hobomok's violence offers a reminder that nature exists as a site of conflict and that every landscape holds multiple possibilities. The valley could not support both Ktsi Amiskw's beaver pond and the woodlands and meadows upon which the ancestors of the Pocumtuck depended for subsistence. In this story, human beings exist within nature and are at the mercy of its often brutal forces. But human beings are also shapers of nature. Like Hobomok, the historical Pocumtucks and their ancestors also destroyed beaver dams to transform the ponds behind them into verdant meadows. The myth of Ktsi Amiskw reminds us that humans are not alone in their ability to reshape the natural landscape. The Great Beaver held the power to reshape the valley to his liking, as did his more diminutive beaver cousins who historically inhabited much of New England. But in the end it was Hobomok, as a stand-in for the mortal humans with whom he dwelled, who triumphed in imposing his own vision upon the natural landscape.
The history of the Connecticut Valley that follows, like the tale of Hobomok and Ktsi Amiskw, is a narrative of conflict, choices, and change. Like many environmental histories, it considers how particular local environments changed over time, the role of human beings in creating those (often unexpected or unforeseen) changes, and the way that market pressures and incentives helped shape those human decisions. It employs instances of historical conflict as signposts to map scarcity along the Connecticut's course and to determine which natural resources were most in demand where and when. Most importantly, the following pages explore the growth of an overlapping network of local, regional, and transatlantic markets in natural resources and studies the impact that local inhabitants' choices within these markets had upon both the land- and waterscapes of the colonial Connecticut Valley. As soon as the river was freed from Ktsi Amiskw's dam, its waters ran down to the sea and mingled with the ocean beyond. No longer held back, the great pond became the Long River, which in time became a commercial highway tying the Pocumtucks, neighboring Native American communities, and eventually Euro-American settlers in the valley to the wider world beyond.
At first, the European colonists who joined the Pocumtucks in the Connecticut Valley recorded and repeated the story of Hobomok and the Great Beaver. But, in time, their descendants developed their own creation narrative for the region. By the early decades of the nineteenth century, Euro-Americans had crafted a creation tale for the Connecticut Valley that was set in the last ice age and began with a glacier moving down from the north. The advancing ice sheet carved out a great channel along the course of the Ammonoosuc Fault that separates the White Mountains in the east from the Green Mountains of the west. Steadily advancing, the glacier took the path of least resistance, plunging through the soft soils that lay between the mountains and finally reaching Long Island Sound around twenty-one thousand years ago. As the earth began to warm, the glacier melted, depositing sand and boulders picked up along its travels. Near present-day Middletown, Connecticut, a large moraine of such debris formed, arresting the seaward journey melting glacial waters. The result was a great lake stretching over two hundred miles long from what is today Middletown to Littleton, New Hampshire. The pent up waters gradually wore away the moraine dam and the lake drained to create, about twelve thousand years ago, the modern Connecticut Valley. As the waters receded, plants, animals, and the ancestors of the valley's historical Indian communities colonized the newly revealed lands. As rational as this description of natural forces may seem, it remained firmly wedded to a Eurocentric belief in progress and a circumscribed view of what constituted civilization. In this new myth, geology and biology (or what earlier generations referred to as Providence) prepared a "wilderness" to receive the civilizing efforts of America's Puritan forefathers.
In contrast to such narratives—which often identified progress with the triumph of Euro-American technologies over nature—recent environmental history recognizes that human economic activity exists within nature and both shapes and is shaped by the dynamics of natural ecosystems. At its heart, economics is the study of how humanity chooses to manage the scarce resources that nature provides. Consequently, economic activities stand at the forefront of this environmental history of the Connecticut Valley. The book that follows is not the first to consider how the natural environment has shaped New England's history. Nor is it the first to point out the important role that commodity production and exchange played in the development of an increasingly globalized "Atlantic World" in the early modern period. What this history proposes is to tie these two historical approaches together, to embrace the new methodological questions raised by recent transnational histories of commerce and empire in order to breathe new life into the older and increasingly dated environmental history of colonial New England.
Unlike other regions of colonial America, New England famously lacked a single foundational staple commodity—for example, sugar, tobacco, cotton, indigo—around which its early economy could be built. In 1679, only fifty years after the founding of the first English town in the Connecticut Valley, Parliament asked the government of Connecticut for a list of the commodities that the colony produced. In response the colony's general court provided an inventory of "the Comodities of the country" that boasted an array of grains, salted meats, livestock, cider, and timber products. Each of these commodities was important to the economy of the Connecticut Valley, but no single one could be said to underpin the region's economy in the way, for example, tobacco did for Virginia. A portion of these commodities, the general court continued, went directly into Connecticut's small, but growing, trade with the West Indies and the Spanish and Portuguese Wine Islands. The largest part was sold to merchants operating out of the mainland's greatest entrepôt, Boston, where Connecticut Valley products mingled with commodities from all over New England before being resold into the wider Atlantic World beyond. This official exchange highlights Connecticut's role as a colony within a larger imperial system—as a site of resource extraction for the good of the English Empire—and it emphasizes the commercial forces that linked colonial Connecticut Valley residents and their local environments to far-off markets.
For Americans raised on tales of Pilgrim forefathers and New England exceptionalism, it is worth remembering that colonial New England's lack of an economic staple actually made it—as one economic historian recently wrote—"something of a disappointment to those with an imperial vision." It was the Caribbean, not New England or any other mainland region, which provided the economic engine that drove the early modern British Empire in the Americas. As early as 1668, wealthy merchant and political economist Sir Josiah Child asserted that every English subject who immigrated to the West Indies provided for "the employment of Four Men in England, whereas peradventure of ten men that issue from us to New England . . . what we send to or receive from them doth not employ one." On the surface of things, Sir Josiah seems to have had a point. By the second half of the eighteenth century, the West Indies accounted for about 60 percent of the annual value of the exports coming out of Britain's American colonies. The combined value of New England's exports made up only about 7 percent of this total. New England's share of imperial wealth did increase slightly over the course of the colonial period, but the northern colonies never came close to generating the levels of profits or revenue generated by the Caribbean sugar islands.
The "sugar revolution" that began on Barbados in the 1640s transformed the English imperial economy. Over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, white planters throughout the Caribbean embraced sugarcane as a crop that seemed to promise instant wealth. European consumers clamored for sugar, turning what had once been a luxury "spice" into a household staple. Sugar replaced other common sweeteners in cuisine, encouraged the invention of new sweet concoctions, and served as a preservative for an array of foodstuffs. It also helped cut the bitterness of other exotic comestibles finding their way onto global markets around the same time, making commodities like tea, coffee, and cocoa acceptable for finicky European palates. English merchants, most in the metropole but also many in the colonies, amassed fortunes. The number and tonnage of English ships plying Atlantic waters underwent an astronomical expansion. Revenues poured into state coffers. By the late eighteenth century, taxes on sugar contributed more to the exchequer than duties on any other imported commodity, and the revenue from sugar and its products trailed only the land tax and taxes on domestic alcohol production in their importance to the imperial budget. Subsidiary trades—most notably the transatlantic slave trade that delivered African laborers into bondage on sugar plantations—flourished as a result.
For those shut out from the rarified business opportunities that offered obscene wealth to a lucky few planters and merchants (which is to say, the vast majority of Britons), the sugar revolution could still offer a chance at increased prosperity. The high profits offered by sugar (and tobacco, indigo, and other tropical crops) meant that planters were often loathe to devote valuable plantation lands to uses other than cultivating their staple. Colonists elsewhere in the Americas, including the Connecticut Valley, seized upon the opportunity to supply the West Indies with what the islands failed to provide for themselves: grain and flour, draft animals and meat, fish, and timber, as well as the barrels and ships needed to carry out the trade of an empire. The British Isles supplied some of these same commodities, as well as tools and the manufactured luxuries craved by the free planter class. The economic actors who supplied the sugar islands may not have grown sugar themselves, and most may not have participated directly in the slave trade, but they nonetheless profited from the sugar revolution and the labor of the enslaved millions who toiled on the plantations of the West Indies.
Historians have long suggested that the wealth generated by the trade in sugar and other slave-produced plantation commodities played an important role in laying the foundation for Britain's industrial revolution and the British-led transition to a modern capitalist economy in western Europe and the United States. Sugar and related commodity trades certainly contributed capital for later industrial investments, but, perhaps more importantly, sugar production undergirded an entire imperial system that fed consumer demand in the British Isles while also creating demand for British produced goods in far-flung regions of the world. Successful colonists—whether they participated directly in sugar production or were otherwise employed in ancillary sectors of production—indulged their tastes for imported British goods and, over time, consumed an expanding array of textiles, household furnishings, and luxury goods produced in or reexported through Britain. British goods, likewise, found their way outside of the empire, filling the demands of African traders engaged in the transatlantic slave trade (a crucial underpinning of the sugar trade) and of Europeans both on the continent and in the often poorly supplied colonies of French and Spanish America. Meanwhile merchants and the owners of capital in Britain invested in new ventures to meet these demands, employing workers who were themselves constituents of the "consumer revolution" of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These workers channeled their earnings into a domestic demand for commodities that had already been increasing in England since the beginning of the early modern era.
If not its centerpiece, commodity production in New England was, nonetheless, integral to this imperial economic expansion, a fact easily overlooked by scholars, such as Sir Josiah Child and his intellectual heirs, who place too much focus solely on the connection between colonies and the metropole. Furs for the European market were New England's first major transatlantic export commodity, tying the region into commercial networks that stretched north into New France and across the Northern Hemisphere to Siberia. However, by the second half of the seventeenth century, the fur trade had been supplanted in importance by New England's trade with the sugar islands. New Englanders played a critical role in creating and maintaining the slave labor-based plantation system of the West Indies. Boston merchants drew on their agricultural hinterland—which included the Connecticut Valley as well as the rest of New England—to establish a steady trade with the West Indies by the 1650s. The food, timber, ships and other commodities produced in New England, and elsewhere on the mainland, allowed Caribbean planters to specialize in cultivating staple crops. Nor did New Englanders limit their commerce to the British sugar islands, but also fed and supported European settlers in the French and Spanish Caribbean as well. In 1679, royal agent and customs official Edward Randolph observed critically that New England merchants were willing to "trye all ports" in search of customers and that Boston had consequently become "the mart town of the West Indies." In the late eighteenth century, the value of New England's commodity exports to the West Indies was over three and a half times that of its exports to the British Isles.
No single leg of Britain's intraimperial Atlantic trade was balanced. The West Indies exported more (in terms of value) sugar and other tropical commodities to the British Isles than they imported back in manufactured and luxury goods. By contrast, a small variety of New England-produced commodities flowed directly to Europe—most notably fish, agricultural goods, timber and wood products, and, early on, furs—but the northern mainland colonies purchased far more from Britain then they exported in return. On the other hand, New England and the Middle Colonies ran a trade surplus with the West Indies. New England, in particular, imported a good deal of sugar, molasses, salt, and some rum from the Caribbean, but these imports fell far short of balancing the interregional ledger. Instead, New Englanders effectively relied on their trade surplus with the West Indies to cover their shortfall with Europe. Trade within the empire roughly balanced, and regional specialization helped optimize productivity in the imperial system as a whole. Over the course of the eighteenth century, goods and services traded to the West Indies facilitated New England's rapid increase in per capita wealth and allowed New Englanders to raise their standards of living by indulging in imported European goods. In the words of economic historian Carole Shammas: "It is difficult to imagine a thriving New England post-1640 . . . without the sugar islands."
Like other works within the developing genre of "commodity histories," Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy connects commodity production and, to a lesser extent, consumption to the development of new commercial networks that united the emerging transatlantic world of the early modern period. William Cronon justified centering his Nature's Metropolis on a study of commodity markets by asserting that "few economic institutions more powerfully affect human communities and natural ecosystems in the modern capitalist world." This project shares Cronon's appreciation for the importance of commodity markets in shaping humanity's relationship to the natural world, but recognizes that the ability of such markets to profoundly alter natural ecosystems predated capitalist modernity. This book goes a step beyond other commodity histories by tying its analysis of commercial networks to a study of ecological change—effectively integrating not only human communities but also nonhuman fauna, flora, and even the nonorganic elements and physical systems of the Connecticut basin into its definition of the early modern British Atlantic economy. The result is a history that explores how markets connected consumers in far-flung communities not only to human producers but also to the natural resources that these producers exploited and the broader ecosystems from which these resources were drawn.
This ecological focus means that Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy differs from other commodity histories in a second important way as well: Instead of following a single commodity across the globe from its site of production to its site of consumption, this study seeks to understand how the historical production of a number of commodities impacted the societies and ecologies of a single region. The goal of this book is to produce a particular type of "Atlantic World history," what David Armitage has termed a "cis-Atlantic" history. This history will explore the "local particularity" of New England, and more specifically of the Connecticut Valley, while also asking what historical developments in this one corner of the early modern world can tell us about the larger processes at work within the "wider web of connections" that tied together the economies and ecologies of the far-flung lands bordering the Atlantic. Whereas, the two monographs which currently dominate the historiography of early New England's regional environment—William Cronon's Changes in the Land (Cronon's other seminal work of environmental history) and Carolyn Merchant's Ecological Revolutions—give only passing attention to the historical markets that drove environmental change in colonial New England, the new research presented here emphasizes the centrality of Atlantic markets.
Just as Pekka Hämäläinen has worried that "big-picture ecohistorical models" are to blame for "suffus[ing] history with biological determinism," it can likewise be claimed that many existing environmental histories of early America overindulge in a particular brand of economic determinism. Cronon and Merchant, for example, relied heavily on the abstract concept of "capitalism" as the driving force behind environmental change in early New England. This book, by contrast, pushes deeper into historical economic life to explore the way that the growth of specific markets—social networks connecting producers to consumers, often through several layers of economic intermediaries—contributed to a new, increasingly capitalistic, early modern Atlantic World. Capitalism was not an autonomous actor that pulled New England into modernity. Rather, the Indian and Euro-American inhabitants of early modern New England worked with economic actors elsewhere to build the expanding system of social and commercial networks that constituted modern capitalism.
Among other benefits, this new interpretive model highlights the importance of nonagricultural export commodities to New England's economic development and ecological transformation. The previous historiographical fixation on agriculture as the driving force behind economic growth in early modern New England has caused many scholars to overlook or downplay the ecological impact of other forms of commodity production in the region. For example, Cronon and Merchant's interpretive fixation upon capitalism was aggravated by their commitment to the theory (predominant in the historiography of the time) that the transition to capitalism was driven by late eighteenth-century agricultural improvements that encouraged the widespread adoption of commercial agriculture. As a consequence, they and other scholars have misdated the beginning of large-scale ecological change in the region to the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries.
The Connecticut Valley's rich soils, diversified colonial economy and strong ties to Atlantic trade recommend it especially well as the focal point of a study seeking to tie together early American economic and environmental history. The Connecticut River itself—the natural highway that connected the producers of these natural resources to the markets of the broader Atlantic World—is the longest in New England at approximately 410 miles. Its many tributaries stretching out to the east and west—embracing a basin of 11,250 square miles—expanded the commercial network of the Connecticut Valley even deeper into New England's hinterlands. The Connecticut River has its headwaters in the unimaginatively named Fourth Connecticut Lake, just 300 yards from New Hampshire's modern-day border with Canada. From its source, the river runs roughly south-southwest through a hard bedrock that keeps the valley walls rocky and steep. Around the modern site of Colebrook, New Hampshire, the river's waters take a more southerly turn, passing through softer rock, the sides of its valley less sheer. But it is not until Stewartstown that the valley begins to open up and meander. It is here that the famously rich meadows of the Connecticut Valley begin.
The commercial potential of the Connecticut River, especially its navigability, shaped the development of the valley's earliest English towns. The wealthy and powerful William Pynchon founded Springfield in 1636 just above the Connecticut's first major cataracts. Here goods coming from the upper valley would need to be unloaded from rafts and portaged around the falls. Springfield's position as the northernmost of the early towns also made it a funnel for receiving the Indian trade coming downriver and from the interior. William Pynchon's son John would build a commercial empire and transform himself into a veritable feudal lord by exploiting Springfield's fortuitous position. Running south from Springfield, the river continued its path beyond the bounds of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
The river may have formed the far frontier of early New Hampshire and Massachusetts, but in Connecticut the valley formed the very heart of the colony. Long the northernmost township in Connecticut, Windsor had been founded in 1635 at the confluence of the Connecticut and its largest tributary, the Farmington River. An important avenue for the local Indian fur trade, the Farmington would in later decades provide Windsor access to the produce of new towns founded in its own rich valley. Hartford, also founded in 1635, sat at the highest point on the river navigable by oceangoing craft, ensuring its commercial importance as the northernmost site where commodities from upriver could be loaded on ships bound for Atlantic markets, or goods sent in from England, the West Indies, and elsewhere unloaded and transferred to rafts and carts for sale to customers deeper in the interior. The earliest English settlers in the valley, those who founded "ancient" Wethersfield in 1634, claimed for themselves a site at the southernmost limit of the Connecticut's meandering meadows. Even though it was not settled until 1650, the site of Middletown, too, enjoyed certain advantages. If Hartford marked the absolute limit for oceangoing navigation, Middletown marked the border of convenient navigation. Above Middletown, seated upon its deep river bend, shifting shoals and sandbars plagued any moderately deep-hulled vessel. Below Middletown, the Connecticut once again cuts through a bed of hard rock, passing below steep banks as it turns sharply southeast toward Long Island Sound. Here, Saybrook was founded in 1635 to guard the river's mouth from imperial rivals, rounding out the list of the valley's oldest towns.
Timothy Dwight—travel writer, theologian, and president of Yale University in the early nineteenth century—once described the Connecticut as the "Beautiful River." What he meant was that the Connecticut and its valley corresponded to a Euro-American definition of aesthetics that identified beauty with agricultural fertility and agrarian productivity. Dwight encountered a Connecticut River frequented by cattle and sheep, interspersed with busy grist and sawmills, and everywhere flanked by the luscious meadows that for centuries had drawn both Native American and European settlers alike. For Dwight and his contemporaries, the banks of the Connecticut presented an image of utilitarian beauty. Although ostensibly he took the river valley as his subject, Dwight principally concerned himself with the region's recent human history.
By contrast, an environmental historian can discern the natural processes at work within Dwight's observations. The operations of glaciers had long ago stripped the valley of its best soil. The majority of what remained was the result of silt and sand, which had gradually accumulated at the bottom of Lake Hitchcock, together with a mix of clay washed down regularly from the mountains. Only along the banks of the river, where flooding deposited fresh earth every year, could the soil truly be called rich. Here, in the bottomlands regionally known as the intervales, nature presented a picture of agricultural plenty. Elsewhere crops grew, but not as well as grass or woods. Here were the luxurious green meadows, "which may [be] said literally to glow with verdure," that made the valley such an important site for livestock husbandry. The pastoral beauty observed by Dwight hid the thousands of years of geological activity that had created the soils upon which this human idyll was built.
The ecological transformations of landscapes and waterscapes that occurred in Dwight's time—the turn of the nineteenth century—and afterward have received the lion's share of historians' attention. The most visible human assaults upon the Connecticut River—canal building, industrial waste, electrical dams—were all the products of later decades. In fact, this work takes the 1790s as its endpoint precisely because that decade saw the rise of the large-scale canal building that marked a new ecological era in the life of the valley. But to ignore the equally dramatic changes brought about in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is to begin in the middle of the story.
Everything humans do on a river's banks, or on the terraces overlooking those banks, unavoidably impacts the river itself. For every bundle of pelts, barrel of salted pork, or "hundred" of pipe staves produced, something had been taken from the colonial valley's ecosystems. A particular choice, among conflicting options, had been made about how best to exploit its resources. In some way, great or small, the land- and waterscape of the valley had been changed. The valley's ecological history lay bound up in the commodities its human inhabitants chose to produce.
To combine the history of the river and its human inhabitants means to write a history of environmental changes in both the land and water. Consequently, this work is not so much a history of the Connecticut River itself as of the Connecticut Valley, of the river's watershed and the many human, animal, and plant communities that dwelled within it. In truth, a river and its valley are ecologically inseparable. The river creates its valley, slowly over millennia carving its way through rock and soil. Large rivers, like the Connecticut, define the climate of the lands that surround them, moderating temperatures and, in northern regions, extending the growing season for both wild plants and human crops. At least in the lowlands, a river determines the soils of its valley and determines which species of plants and animals will inhabit its banks. Rivers create land through the accretion of the sediments that they carry downstream. They also destroy land through erosion, shifting their banks sometimes rapidly—as when floods strike—but always gradually as the years, decades, and centuries pass. The relationship flows the other way as well, especially where human settlements flank the river's course.
This focus on human interactions with a physical, ecologically defined region further sets Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy apart from previous studies which have instead defined their scope through reference to political abstractions ("New England") largely independent of the natural landscape. Rather than delimiting nature within the political boundaries of a historically defined region, the research presented here recognizes that natural processes (in this case, located within a particular river basin) often shape and define their own logically discernable geographical regions. Nevertheless, the pages that follow (and also some that have preceded) make frequent mention of New England as a discrete region. The watershed formed an important part of this larger geopolitical space, and many of the ecological processes at work in the Connecticut basin in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are representative of developments taking place throughout New England (as well as other areas of North America). Taking the Connecticut basin as a spatial focus is not intended as a rejection of "New England" as an important category for historical study, but rather to suggest that an environmental history should, in its scope, be defined by the physical environment.
The Connecticut basin, as a geographical focus, is small enough to allow for detailed analyses of how various ecological changes affected local streams and soils in individual towns. The region is broad enough for generalizations about what those local changes meant for the hydrology and ecology of the river basin as a whole. And, finally, focusing on a discrete ecological unit like the Connecticut watershed offers a case study from which to explore the implications of the expanding ecological, commercial, and social networks in which the Connecticut Valley's inhabitants took part. In short, the book that follows conceives of the Connecticut Valley as a discrete ecological region, but one whose physical ecology was intimately tied to the larger geographical region of New England and to the transatlantic community beyond.
If the valley's earliest English settlers arrived already in possession of an Atlantic-oriented view of the world, its trade-savvy Native communities lost no time in exploring how best to exploit the new economic incentives that the Atlantic World had to offer. The lands of the valley were neither unpeopled nor ungoverned when the first English settlers arrived. For over ten thousand years the Native communities of the valley had traded with other Native populations living to their north, east, and west. The arrival of the English merely expanded these preexisting trade networks, integrating European markets with Indian ones and slowly reorienting the trade of the valley toward the markets of the Atlantic World.
Early English settlers often rejected the authority of the region's Indian occupants. In part, they did this by ignoring the presence of these earlier proprietors of the valley. The Puritan founders of Windsor referred to the valley as "the Lord's waste": an uninhabited and unclaimed land prepared by God for his chosen people. Even when they took note of Indians' presence and use of the land, these newcomers often asserted that the perceived inferiority of Native cultures and economies undermined the latter's title to territory. The Massachusetts Bay Colony's first governor, John Winthrop, put the English case succinctly: "This savage people ruleth over many lands without title or property; for they inclose no ground, neither have they cattell to maintayne it, but remove their dwellings as they have occasion.... Why may not christians have liberty to go and dwell amongst them in their waste lands and woods . . . ?" In English eyes, only settled occupancy and farming could justify the ownership of land. Although Winthrop advocated the usurpation of lands that Indians used for hunting and gathering wild foods, he did recognize the propriety of "leaving them such places as they have manured for their corne." Succeeding English generations were not always willing to make even this allowance for the rights of their Indian neighbors.
The Connecticut basin's Native populations never disappeared. Nor, in the face of increasing rates of environmental change, did they remain static in their practice of "traditional" cultures and economies. Generations of Pocumtucks, Podunks, Wangunks, Tunxis, Nipmucs, and others learned that while English livestock, crops, and weeds often undercut the ecological foundations of long-practiced economic pursuits, these exotic imports, when incorporated into Native practices, also offered the opportunity to create a new material culture.
The imposition of the English system of property rights—through a combination of honest purchase, judicious deceit, and outright force—displaced the collective sovereignty of Native communities and ushered in a creeping tide of usurpation and dispossession. The horrendous toll that disease took upon the indigenous populations of the Connecticut Valley (and of the American continents in general) is well documented. In the valley, tens of thousands of men, women, and children never survived to face the decision of how best to adapt to the new economy and new environment spawned by the arrival of Europeans. Thousands rejected these changes and perished at the hands of English violence in the Pequot War and King Philip's War or were sold into distant slavery, joining other victims of the transatlantic slave trade to supply the labor that kept the plantation system of the sugar islands profitably running. Of those who avoided death or enslavement, many decided relocating was their best option and moved west or north. Despite these losses, many of the valley's Native inhabitants chose to remain and build a place for themselves within this new economy, joining their own labors to the English transformation of the region's land- and waterscapes.
Much ink has been spilled discussing early English settlers' antipathy for the woodland wildernesses that faced them upon arrival in the Americas and which later offered sanctuary to Indian neighbors-cum-enemies. Puritan minister and poet Michael Wigglesworth, in a much quoted line, described the New England woods as "a waste and howling wilderness where none inhabited but hellish fiends and brutish men." But the woodlands of New England, and of the Connecticut Valley, were more than simply a symbol. Historical discussions of the imagined wilderness of the Puritan mind has led to too little consideration of the role that the physical landscape played in shaping the everyday lives of colonial New Englanders. Early Americans expressed their understanding of the world not just through what they wrote on paper but also by what they wrought upon the land. For the Puritans and for the later generations of Euro-American settlers who followed them, it was the mundane chores of economic production that most intimately defined their relationships with the woods and waters surrounding their New England homes. The ecological history of the valley can best be seen here, where human labor married itself to the natural world.
All too often violence tinges the outlines of these stories. For instance, tales of Indian attacks—of neighbors kidnapped and killed—fill the pages of the journal kept by farmer William Heywood of Charlestown, New Hampshire, in the years surrounding King George's War. Here, in the northern valley, western Abenakis committed to maintaining their access to hunting, fishing, and agricultural territories clashed repeatedly with the settlers at the vanguard of English expansionism. Heywood kept his entries short and stoic: "June 20th, 1749—about 3 o'clock the Indians fired on Ensign Sartwell and Enos Stevens as they were harrowing corn, killed Sartwell and took Enos, & killed the horse." Heywood never recorded the emotions that such events aroused, but the reader cannot help but imagine the fear that must have gripped him and his neighbors day in and day out. They would have warily eyed the woodlands of their frontier home, familiar from long habitation but now threatening, never knowing when danger might emerge from the cover of the trees. Still, even at the height of their danger, the woodlands could not be avoided. Heywood joined the local militia and spent each growing season during the war standing guard over his neighbors as they tended crops and cut hay ominously close to the threatening presence of the woods. Nor could the products of the woodlands themselves be dispensed with. Less than a month after the raid that resulted in Obadiah Sartwell's death and Enos Stevens' capture, Heywood ventured into the woods to chop firewood and cut poles to fence in a new turnip yard he was planting. As generations came and went, a lingering fear of the woods and the unknown dangers that they held may have lingered in the darkest corners of the minds of these Puritan descendants, but it was the mundane concerns of subsistence and commerce that truly defined early Americans' lived experience of their wilderness homes.
It is important, when considering the effect of transatlantic trade on the Connecticut Valley, to not regard the dispossession of New England's Indians or their eventual economic marginalization in the region as a foregone conclusion, or, to cite another popular trope, to see Indians as inherently backward and doomed to be eventually replaced by a more industrious/technologically savvy population. For instance, Cronon's Changes in the Land concludes by identifying "two central ecological contradictions" that explain environmental change over the course of the colonial period. The first insists that "the ecological relationships which European markets created in New England were inherently antithetical to earlier Indian economies." This is—as Cronon would likely admit—an oversimplification of the economic transition that took place in seventeenth-century New England. The assertion that the economic choices introduced by Euro-American merchants and settlers in the seventeenth century were "antithetical" to Native American economies undervalues the dynamism of those economies and belittles the adaptability of Indian societies.
The environmental history of the New England fur trade is not the simple story of a "traditional" Indian economy displaced by a European/Euro-American capitalist system. Far from seeing the expanding European economy as incompatible with their own existing commercial networks, Native communities often enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to partner with European traders. The existence of the seventeenth-century fur trade (among other cross-cultural economic exchanges) proves as much. Rather, seventeenth-century New England witnessed the rise, operation, and ultimate decline of a new economy—one that encompassed European merchants and supplied European consumers, but that was, on its production side, just as much of an "Indian" economy as that which had preceded it. The history of early New England is not the story of an economic system imposed from outside, but rather a process by which Indians and Europeans cocreated new economic and ecological systems.
The eventual decline of Native American economies in New England at the end of the seventeenth century can more appropriately be attributed to the historically contingent and culturally defined political and commercial choices that Indian communities made in the face of the fur trade and the ecological transformations it triggered. The abstract big-picture econohistorical models (to paraphrase Hämäläinen) of capitalist expansion embraced by Cronon, Merchant, and other scholars of early America downplay both human and nonhuman agency while obscuring regional historical processes. It was not, as Carolyn Merchant concludes, the simple introduction of "diseases and property rights" by Europeans that "destroyed [the] traditional patterns of subsistence" practiced by seventeenth-century New England natives. Certainly, Native American communities in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries suffered tragically high mortality rates following the introduction of foreign pathogens through commercial contact with Europeans. But it was Indian communities themselves who chose how best to adapt their subsistence strategies in response to ecological, economic, social, and political forces that included new diseases and Euro-American demands for land, as well as the "traditional" demands of Native networks of diplomacy and exchange.
The second of the "two central ecological contradictions" that Cronon identifies at the heart of the colonial economy was the tendency of Euro-American colonists to engage in "ecologically self-destructive" modes of production due to their assumption of "the limitless availability" of natural resources. For Cronon, colonial expansion was fueled by "the temporary gift of nature" and after "that gift was finally exhausted . . . expansion could not continue indefinitely." While such an interpretation of early American environmental and economic history contains a germ of truth, it nevertheless misrepresents the historical attitudes that it claims to explain. To put it another way, Cronon's final analysis of the early American economy—and the analyses of scholars that have followed him—better represents the viewpoint of a late twentieth-century environmentalist than it does the ecological perceptions of New England's seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Euro-American inhabitants.
To begin with, colonists did not assume "the limitless availability" of natural resources that they depended upon the New England landscape to provide. In fact, English settlers from the early decades of the seventeenth century forward remained ever mindful of the finite nature of locally available resources, continuously bemoaned the risk of shortages facing their settlements, and repeatedly drafted laws for conserving these resources. The historical irony at the heart of colonial resource exploitation is, in fact, the exact opposite of that presented by Cronon: even as colonists worried about impending resource shortages, these shortages rarely manifested themselves. (The one exception explored in this book is the regional exhaustion of fur stocks.)
The expansion of transatlantic markets into the North American mainland meant, in a very important sense, that the "gifts of nature" were not, in fact, "temporary" as Cronon claimed. The economic expansion of New England has continued, with some interruptions, from the seventeenth century through the twenty-first. Euro-American communities in New England never faced any prolonged or meaningful shortages of firewood, timber for construction, foodstuffs, or even agricultural lands. Commodity imports and population exports (outmigration) perpetually prevented (or at least took the sting out of) any impending shortages in these resources. Even after beaver disappeared from their own region, New Englanders could purchase hats and coats made from furs trapped around the Great Lakes or Hudson's Bay. In the nineteenth century, New Englanders who had formerly cut lumber for sale to far-off markets (or whose forebears had) became consumers of lumber sawn in the Midwest. Historical efforts at resource conservation slowed exploitation and, in most cases, prevented the absolute exhaustion of natural resources, but it was the continuous expansion of markets that transformed relative local resource scarcities into a purchasable abundance. Cronon was, of course, correct that natural resources are globally limited and exhaustible, but this is a realization born of modern ecology. The lived experience of early modern New Englanders was one of feared local shortages repeatedly avoided through market participation. Just as colonial New England offered England and its West Indies colonies access to resources scarce in those regions, New Englanders gradually came to depend upon territories elsewhere in North America to supply them with their furs, lumber, meat, and so forth.
This is not to say that many natural resources, readily available from the local environment in 1600, had not become scarce by 1800. Nor is it to deny that many ecological changes occurred which may justifiably be identified as examples of environmental degradation. The history that follows does not endorse the contention of Julian Simon and others like him that markets, in partnership with human ingenuity, can continue perpetually to overcome the limits placed upon humanity by a finite global environment. If market participation allowed New Englanders to avoid the hardships they might otherwise have faced from local resource exhaustion, this should be taken as a statement about the historical operation of commercial networks, not a prediction of the role that commodity markets might play in the future.
A focus on commerce and commodity production necessarily emphasizes the roles of some historical actors over others. This book's five chapters revolve around five commodities which were especially important for networks of local, regional, and/or transatlantic trade in the colonial period: furs, agricultural crops, firewood, timber, and livestock. The choice of these particular commodities dictates which groups of historical human actors have received the most analytical attention. Native American economic actors, for example, occupy a central role in Chapter 1's discussion of the Connecticut Valley fur trade and Chapter 2's study of valley farming but make only intermittent appearances in later chapters. This is not because Indians or Indian communities disappeared from the Connecticut Valley after the decline of the fur trade in the late seventeenth century. Indeed, there continued to be—indeed has always been—an Indian presence in the valley. Rather, Native Americans play a smaller role in later chapters because the most widely traded commodities coming out of the valley in the decades after the 1670s were overwhelmingly produced by Euro-American labor. Native Americans continued to participate in the production of these commodities, raising livestock or becoming wage laborers in the larger Euro-American economy, but their role in resource exploitation decreased markedly compared to the role of incoming settlers. Likewise, the essential role that women played in colonial society is only occasionally mentioned, not because women's labor was not crucial to maintaining the colonial economy, but because colonial society considered the production of each of these particular market commodities to fall within the realm of male labor.
An Ambiguous Legacy
Timothy Dwight wrote in an era when New England was already well on its way to becoming the commercial and industrial heart of a nascent American empire. With its furs depleted, its woodlands scarce, and its soils in decline, the nineteenth-century Connecticut Valley epitomized a region that had shed its past as a colonial site of resource extraction and was now embracing the new opportunities offered by millwork and manufacturing. Meanwhile, the southern states and the Midwest functioned, in effect, as colonies providing New England's workers and mills with the food, timber, and other raw materials that their own region had once produced for export.
Within this historical context, Dwight and most of his turn-of-the-nineteenth-century contemporaries looked at the valley and saw a narrative of economic progress written upon the landscape. Twentieth- and twenty-first-century historians have more often looked at the same economic processes and written, instead, of an environment in decline. This book aims to retire this declensionist narrative, not to replace it with a triumphal narrative of economic progress, but rather to examine how historical commodity producers in the region responded to market incentives to create a new landscape that offered both ecological challenges and opportunities. Progress and decline are ultimately in the eyes of the beholder, and the historical inhabitants of colonial New England who came before Dwight most often saw both in the changing environment around them. For New Englanders producing and consuming commodities in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the incentives offered by a globalizing Atlantic economy wrought an ambiguous legacy upon the land- and waterscapes of the physical world around them. This lesson—the inherent ecological ambiguities of commercial production and consumption—is perhaps the most important lesson about the power of global markets that an environmental history of early modern New England can present to a twenty-first-century reader concerned about the fate the global environment.