Environment, Environmental History, and Nature

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By the eve of the American Revolution, travelers in the mainland colonies of British America were encountering a natural environment that had been transformed in significant and lasting ways during the prior century. Though inland communities remained home to the subsistence cultures of rural farming families and Native Americans, who transformed the environment in their own distinct and often destructive ways, the main sources of environmental change in the eighteenth century were the efforts of European settlers, Native Americans, and enslaved Africans to adapt to the development of a transatlantic market economy. While farmers in New England and the middle colonies

had begun to supply wheat, lumber, and other daily necessities to Europe and the British West Indies, the planters of Virginia and the Carolinas provided exotic items such as tobacco, rice, and indigo to consumers throughout the Atlantic world. Overseas markets extended their influence as far west as the vast Indian country between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River, where organized networks supplied a booming fur and skin trade.

The impact of the new Atlantic commerce on North American ecology was profound. Inhabitants of colonial North America learned to perceive of their physical surroundings in basically capitalist terms. Natural resources increasingly were viewed as commodities, articles of value capable of being exchanged for other goods or money. Though ecological consequences varied according to region, every colony touched by the Atlantic economy suffered deforestation, epidemics, soil exhaustion, and decreasing numbers of game animals. Market forces would continue to transform the North American environment, east of the Mississippi River, during a period of national development and growth that extended from the American Revolution to the start of the Jacksonian era.

environmental change, 1776–1800

The environmental history of the post-Revolutionary period revolves around two key developments: the expansionist land policy of the new federal government and the commercial boom of the 1790s. When the North American colonies declared their independence in 1776, they complained that the Proclamation of 1763 had denied white colonists access to the fertile lands west of the Appalachians. The signing of the Treaty of Paris (1783) brought the era of British restrictions on colonial expansion to a decisive close. The Continental Congress worked quickly to promote settlement of western lands. The Land Ordinance of 1785 advanced a sweeping vision in which federal authorities would transform the vast terrain between the Appalachian Mountains, north of the Ohio River, and the Mississippi River into rectangular lots to be granted as private property to enterprising citizens. Such a vision left little room for coexistence with the tribes that had dominated Indian country for centuries, initiating as it did a fatal struggle between red and white peoples for exclusive control of eastern North America. East of the Appalachians, many white Americans enjoyed the benefits of a surging economy. With western Europe recovering from a series of wars, the demand for North American products rose dramatically. The price of wheat, for instance, climbed high enough to tempt subsistence farmers in the mid-Atlantic states, whose primary aim had previously been to feed, clothe, and shelter an extended family, to begin to produce large surpluses (quantities of farm products beyond what was required for subsistence) for overseas trade.

New England. While the environmental effects of these developments would be felt throughout eastern North America, the environments of New England and the South Atlantic colonies (Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia) have received the most extensive study. New England has been one focus of an important debate among environmental historians over the timing of the transition to a market economy and its role in the transformation of the early American environment. According to William Cronon's Changes in the Land (1983), by the eve of the Revolution, prior Native American and European understandings of the New England environment had given way to a perception of the landscape as a source of commodities. Deforestation due to trade in white pine masts, turpentine, pitch, and tar had resulted in a drier landscape more vulnerable to erosion from high winds. Beaver, fox, and lynx had grown scarce as trappers and traders sought valuable pelts.

In Ecological Revolutions (1989), Carolyn Merchant argues that market attitudes prevailed only among the wealthy elite of New England's coastal towns. Inland communities with little access to markets practiced a traditional blend of Native American and medieval European agriculture that aimed to feed, clothe, and reproduce the family. This form of subsistence farming was far more ecologically sensitive than farming for the market would later be. After clearing forest trees by cutting or burning, farmers used small lots for crops for just a few years, rotating corn, beans, and squash between three fields. Those fields then lay fallow (unused) or served as pastureland for up to eight years, then reverted to forest while a new lot was cleared for the growing of crops. Such methods worked effectively to preserve soil nutrients.

Environmental historians agree that ultimately, between the Revolution and 1800, broader developments would further integrate all of New England, including inland villages, into an expanding market economy. Federal land policy opened new terrain for settler farmers. The Iroquois lost title to two million acres in upstate New York in 1787. The peak in European demand for meat and grain in the 1790s, coupled with state-funded construction of turnpikes and canals, powered the growth of commercial agriculture.

At the same time, subsistence farming families also suffered the effects of another crisis. Though children were a necessary source of labor, sons needed to inherit farms when they came of age. As inland families grew due to sound farming methods, land in turn grew scarce. Within a few generations, many farms had been divided into small subunits in which less space for tillage, pasture, and woodlot could be spared.

Rural families responded to these tensions either by migrating to western lands, where they could preserve subsistence traditions, or by remaining in New England and raising cash crops for the market. For many families who did remain, the transition to commercial farming was disastrous. As more land was taken up by cash crops, the ecological balance of the entire farm was upset. Crop yields diminished as the soil was deprived of nutrients. The stage was set for the abandonment of New England farms in the nineteenth century.

The Chesapeake and the Carolinas. The ecological impact of the Atlantic economy was felt with even greater intensity in the region of warmer temperatures and more abundant rainfall that stretched from the Chesapeake Bay to the Carolina low country. Relying on the labor of enslaved Africans, southern plantation owners cleared Virginia forests and drained Carolina swamps to grow massive quantities of staple crops (including rice, tobacco, corn, and indigo) for overseas export. Merchants based in large towns, meanwhile, worked closely with southeastern Indians to organize a booming fur and deerskin trade as timber merchants cut oak, hickory, cedar, and pine to meet demands for lumber in the West Indies and Europe.

Europeans were not the only group to make an impact on the southern environment. Adapting to a transformed landscape, Native American tribes including the Creeks altered their subsistence ways to begin raising cattle for market. By the 1780s Back-country cane fields suffered from heavy grazing. African contributions to environmental change went beyond expertise in rice cultivation. Raising African imports including yams, eggplant, and peanuts in small provision gardens, slaves maintained a more ecologically balanced form of agriculture on the edges of southern plantations.

Plantation agriculture, hunting, and logging altered the southern environment in interconnected ways. Beavers, bears, buffalo, elks, muskrats, wild turkeys, and passenger pigeons grew scarce in large portions of the southern colonies by the mid-1760s as deforestation destroyed habitats. The lack of beaver dams in turn contributed to severe floods in the Chesapeake colonies throughout the 1770s. Those floods were so destructive in part because row crops such as tobacco were planted along ridges arranged in long, straight lines. Field slaves then used hoes to carve ditches between the ridges. Plantations laid out in this manner were vulnerable to erosion when rainwater turned the ditches into raging streams. Those same single-crop fields were more vulnerable to pests including insects, squirrels, and crows. Deforestation even altered the southern climate. The absence of oaks and flowering trees led to colder springs, warmer summers, and earlier frosts. Planters, slaves, and small farmers all suffered from changes in the disease environment. As the aedes mosquito found breeding grounds in new ditches and reservoirs, populous towns such as Charleston endured epidemics of yellow fever and malaria.

The environmental strains of plantation agriculture ultimately contributed to its westward expansion. Commercial tobacco growing, for instance, was hard on the rich soil of Virginia, leaving it acidic and less fertile within a few years. Pine, sedge, and sorrel quickly took over fields abandoned by slaveholders, replacing the oaks that originally had enriched the soil. Though some planters rotated crops and allowed fields to lie fallow, the soils of the tobacco South were depleted by 1800.

Large planters began to cross the Appalachians in search of new land. Small farmers had preceded them, settling the eastern Mississippi Valley in the late eighteenth century as the great planters bought up the best lands in Virginia and Carolina. In 1793 planters received further encouragement to migrate when Eli Whitney invented the gin that made commercial farming of cotton possible. Whitney's invention spelled the end of a South Atlantic region dominated by rice and tobacco and the beginnings of a new Cotton Kingdom that would extend south to Alabama and Mississippi and across the Mississippi River to the edges of the Great Plains.

a market environment, 1800–1829

During the early decades of the nineteenth century, government officials at the federal and state levels promoted a transportation and market revolution. Its beginnings were evident between 1796 and 1812 as the federal government moved to reduce the price of western land and ensure easy credit to speculators (investors gambling that the price of land would boom) and potential settlers. At the same time, eastern states saw a frenzy of turnpike, bridge, and plank road construction. The real revolution, however, began with the U.S. victory in the War of 1812 (1812–1815). With European demand for American foodstuffs again surging, national and state governments devoted public funds to the construction of roads and canals that would provide backcountry and western farmers easier access to markets.

The transportation and market revolutions altered the environment of eastern North America in two kinds of ways. Direct consequences included disruptions to the fragile ecosystems of rivers and lakes by canal and dam construction and the burning of vast quantities of firewood aboard new steamboats. Indirect consequences were perhaps more profound. New forms of transportation helped create new regions and economic zones. Vast stretches of southern North America, much of it formerly Indian country, become part of the Cotton Kingdom. The Great Lakes were integrated with the Erie Canal (1825) in western New York and the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Such developments created a sectionalized economy in which each region was dominated by a single form of enterprise. Southern plantations provided raw cotton to a New England focused on textile manufacturing. Pennsylvania and the Great Lakes region turned to coal, iron, and copper production, as the Midwest and the Northwest Territory north of the Ohio Valley took over as the primary growers of wheat. The environments of all these regions were transformed by their new economic roles.

The southern shift to cotton. Focusing on the cotton South and New England gives a more precise sense of the patterns of environmental change. Though corn remained the most common southern crop throughout the early nineteenth century, the shift to raising cotton for export marked a significant milestone. The boom in cotton prices after the War of 1812 inspired settler farmers to migrate south and west from Virginia and Maryland. Large numbers of wealthy planters quickly followed. Clustered around the main branches of the Mississippi River, planters began to integrate the region into worldwide commerce, shipping their harvests south to New Orleans on the Gulf of Mexico.

The environmental consequences of these developments followed a familiar pattern. New pathogens caused yellow fever and malaria epidemics in New Orleans and elsewhere. Prairies and pine forests felt the impact of grazing cattle. Hunters pursued wild species to the brink of extinction as planters and lumber merchants felled trees. Environmental damage was limited, however, by the low level of industrialization throughout the Cotton Kingdom. Due in part to the lack of suitable rivers, the entire region supported fewer sawmills than the state of New York. The consequences of row-crop agriculture, though, continued to be devastating. Heavy rains poured through the ditches in cottonfields and cornfields as they carried off valuable topsoil. Like any monoculture (an agricultural system dominated by a single crop), the plantation South was ecologically unstable. Single-crop fields promoted the development of soil toxins and the rapid multiplication of parasites, including the cotton bollworm. Planters imposed a cost on the soil that southern farmers would continue to pay throughout the nineteenth century.

Industrialization in New England. New England farmers also faced hardships due to environmental degradation. With access to better transportation, farmers began to participate in the market economy in new ways, beyond raising cash crops, that the landscape could not long sustain. Potash making, home manufacture of shingles and barrel staves, selling of firewood, and production of livestock placed excessive demands on New England ecosystems. Already reeling, New England farms suffered a fatal blow from the construction of the Erie Canal, which opened the region to overwhelming competition from the farms of the Midwest and upstate New York.

The eventual ecological decline of New England farms helped set the stage for early industrialization, which in turn created new environmental challenges. As farms faltered, many landless sons and daughters turned to wage labor in new manufactories including textile mills and sawmills. This new source of cheap labor, combined with the introduction of the power loom in 1815, fueled an explosive textile industry along New England rivers ideal for generating power. Sawmills also expanded, depleting forests as they worked further and further upstream. Construction of dams for the new industries altered the ecology of rivers in which fish, including salmon, were blocked from upstream spawning grounds. By the late 1820s, the signs of modern industrial pollution were already evident. As textile mills turned to steam power, burning coal transported from western mines through the new Erie Canal, smoke blackened the skies over fast-growing cities.

The real onset of industrialization would have to await the railroad and textile boom of the 1830s. Furthermore, the white settlement of western North America still lay in the future. Yet after little more than a half century of national development, residents of the United States found themselves faced with a set of environmental challenges that still confront them today.

See alsoAgriculture; Cotton; Economic Development; Lumber and Timber Industry; Nature, Attitudes Toward .


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Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.

Crosby, Alfred W. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

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Merchant, Carolyn. Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender, and Science in New England. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

——, ed. The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

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Worster, Donald. The Wealth of Nature: Environmental History and the Ecological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Christopher Iannini