American Environmental History: Summary lesson one.

Revolutions on the land small


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Focus point

"The river valleys of the Atlantic shore cut through the coastal plain, creating large numbers of estuaries, many of which are bordered by extensive tidal marshes. These coastal wetlands have been held in public trust since the original colonial grants. Unlike rights in other portions of the public domain, the public rights to fishing, hunting, and navigation on tidal lands could not be extinguished by sale to private concerns."

Marshes of the Ocean Shore, p. 18.


tree and grass


An artist's conception of Jamestown, Virginia on a tributary river in the Chesapeake Bay.


Pueblo revolt led to spread of horses in the West.


Dates to recall:

1519         Havana, Cuba founded by Spain

1607         Founding of Jamestown, on James River in Virginia

1620         Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts

1626         New Amsterdam (New York City) settled by the Dutch West India Company

1630         Boston founded in September as the Massachusetts Bay Colony capital

1642         The English Civil War begins between King Charles I & rebel Puritans

1676         Pueblo revolt in New Mexico & Amerindian revolt against Virginia colony

1680         Dodo - a flightless bird became extinct

1703         Newton's Optics is published

1763         Britain makes a colonial western boundary along the Appalachian Mountains

1775         Britain's demands lead to rebellion in Massachusetts

1776        The Thirteen colonies declare independence from the United Kingdom

1780         Los Angeles pueblo founded by the Spanish

1785         Land Ordinance & Public Domain declared by the Confederation Congress

1789         The Constitution was ratified and adopted

1803         Jefferson buy's Louisiana from Napoleon of France

1810         New York state surveys begin for the building of the Erie Canal

1848         Mexico cedes the southwest to the United States after a war

1849         Gold in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, San Francisco founded

Visualizing colonial life.  

A. Geographical determinism versus a worldview or cosmologies that differed

1. The settings

a. John White's drawings
b. European descriptions reveal a tension

Frontier of shifting capacities & contrasting values.
The roles of labor and land
Starting with coastal topographic changes.

2. Colonial economy
3. Colonial charters & rights
4. Frontier

B. Salient views with lasting impacts

To make "a whole Continent as fruitful and convenient for the use of man."

Jonathan Winthrop, Governor of Seventeenth Century, New England Protestant minister.

The counties of the Eastern Seaboard


Colonization of the Northeast & Southwest were examples of two related

ecological revolutions.

a. colony defined as a small enclave distant from home who share a similar set of behavior based on customs, rituals, beliefs and purpose

b. settlement patterns-parcels for farming required forests and springs

i. counties in the south (large, sprawling --within a day or two horse ride)
ii. townships in the north (confined to a measured --walkable scale)
iii. commons (pasture, timber marshes) often used a boundaries

    1. forests were called "coppice" & used for fuel, construction, utensils
    2. salt licks or mineral deposits (bog iron) used for preserving & tools

c. urban setting dense clusters of people: Boston, New Amsterdam, Newport as earliest port towns

Cities fostered reclamation

reclamation has two meanings:

  1. to make dry land from wetlands, marshes, or seas
  2. to bring fresh water to dry, arid, or desert land

altered landscapes and seascapes

Western cities

Eastern contrasts


d. commercial

i. trade with the West Indies and Europe
ii. African Slave Trade

Reasons for actions that altered the seaboard states

Religious theory of a person's worth

Labor Theory of Value

Rationalism in the theoretical service of democratic norms


landscapes change | worldviews | ecological core is | land as wealth | ecosystems are? | terms | dates | outline


Salem Common

Salem common is the oldest public land in the United States, its eight acres were set aside in 1630.


Despite the age of the Salem Common, Native America and Spanish settlements in the south and west predate the English arrival.

1. Legal types of terrain: public lands versus private "free-hold"

2. This requisite partnership is often denied.

3. But both sustained rapid population growth.


A Country of Illusion: America is more than we can grasp.

Storms in people's minds obscure reality
What is nature; what we know or what we think?

Expeditions and expectations
cities of gold & fountains of youth
savage cruelties

The expeditions revealed the stark reality of the places described, while the expectations fed by hope prompted a recurrent fostering of illusions that measured success of settlement by how much was altered by human and animal labor.

Geographical determinism versus worldviews that differed

Public domain statesSurvey

1539 Coronado’s expedition to the southwest
1776 Mission San Diego founded in California
1848 Treaty ending the Mexican War
1869 first Powell expedition
1888 Powell’s irrigation survey
1900 Theodore Roosevelt became President

Setting & context

contrast of habitats in North America
arid west & humid east

Spanish vs. Anglo cultural hearths


The Frontier

a. literal meaning– borderlands, between two (or more) groups of sparsely settled regions
b. figurative meaning– the existence of free-land in the West for homesteads
c. counter argument, reclamation and drainage

Spanish & French missionaries & settlers

    1. Spanish earliest and stayed in West and South, Gulf Coast
    2. French later and stayed in central: St. Lawrence, Ohio, Mississippi rivers
    3. Dutch, Swedes, Danes in East and in the West Indies
    4. English, latest started in Virginia, Massachusetts and Maryland

Children of the real borderlands and homesteaded territories

  1. Daniel Boone,
  2. Andrew Jackson,
  3. Abraham Lincoln,
  4. Samuel L. Clemens, or Mark Twain,
  5. John Muir,
  6. Thorstein Veblen, &
  7. John Wesley Powell,


A settled landscape or cultural landscape:

Thomas Jefferson’s secular dream (Land Ordinance of 1785)

  1. rational -- a system of "townships" and surveyed range line = "Township and Range system"
  2. agrarian -- farming was given preference in promoting settlement on the frontier
  3. state equality -- new states entered on equal status with 13 colonial states.


North, East, South and West.

Among the many great divisions of people in early American history the geographical remoteness and economic use of terrains and watersheds is called sectionalism. Eastern differed form western conditions such that cultures emerged with opposing interests to promote. The glaciated northern soils gave rise to an agricultural association of crops that differed from the laterite soils of the the non-glaciated and sub-tropical southern regions.

Buts it is the slow --almost imperceptible declines in reliable rainfall patterns to sustain agriculture that mark the important distinction between the Mississippi Valley and the Rocky Mountain west. Here the transitions from forested lands to prairies and then to arid plains before reaching high desert provided radical contrasts from the usually well watered and spring fed farms and cities of the Eastern seaboard.

Remoteness and lack of transportation led to a dependence on rivers and streams for conveyance of goods, people, animals, and resources until well after the Civil War (1861-1865) depending on the region. Only the coming of canals, railroads and turnpikes for wagons really altered, but never fully broke the isolation of the coastal and interior settlers alike. Thus communities became centered on key places where one form of transport was shifted to another. Richmond, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Nashville, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Santa Fe, or St. Louis all became the regional focal points in the early Republic of commerce, trade, manufacture and wealth from the countryside or frontier.

Besides agricultural grains, livestock and orchard crops, the frontier provided hides and furs, tallow, timber or finished lumber, coal, iron, and salt were all significant commodities until the 1920s. Some of these commodities remain so today.

East versus west divide

The Great West

The Colorado River and the desert southwest
• agrarian Indians, settled in pueblos on Mesas (to catch water)
• clues to subsistence -- corn, beans and squash in river bottoms, dry farming.

Country of the far west's geography: “great American Desert" but it was called "A Garden in the Grasslands” by promoters of settlement.

  1. Railroad promoters
  2. “rain follows the plow”
  3. 183 million acres acquired from Mexico and passed into Department of Interior authority (1849)
  4. Powell’s comprehensive land use plan for the west (1878)


The west has become today the catastrophe Powell predicted due to lack of water and expensive irrigation systems that have the tendency to make the soil more alkaline due to the evaporation of water with mineral salt content.

Reisner-chapter 1.

Western cities

Eastern contrasts

Merchant's model



Los Angeles & San Francisco as rival cities:

"The boom was predictably short lived .... By 1892, the population had dropped by almost one-half, but the bust was followed by an oil boom, and enough fortunes were made to pack the arriving trains again....Only one thing stood in the way of what looked as if it might become the most startling rise to prominence of any city in history--the scarcity of water."

p. 55.

Owens Valley

"The aqueduct took six years to build. The Great Wall of China and the Panama Canal were bigger jobs, and New York's Catskill aqueduct, which was soon to be completed, would carry more water, but no one had ever built anything so large across such merciless terrain and no one had ever done it on such a miniscule budget....It would cover 223 miles, 53 of them in tunnels....The entire concrete making capacity of Los Angeles was not adequate for this one project....and the whole job would have to be done with electricity...."

Reisner, p. 84.

"No one says or remembers much about the Reclamation service's involvement in the Owen's Valley story, which is ironic, because nothing in its history may have affected the interests of the nation-at-large quite as much."

"Small farmers do not matter much in the worldly scheme of things."

"The Owens River created Los Angeles, letting a great city grow where common sense dictated that one should never be, but one could just as well say that it ruined Los Angeles."

"....much of California is doomed to be insufferable"

Remi Nadeau, see also California Water

Reisner, pp. 102-103.

The New England frontier

"They fell with that land which is called Cape Cod ....where they rode in safety ....Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men? and what multitudes of them they knew not."

William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, [1635]. p 67 in Merchant.


God"It will be a service of great consequence to the Church . . . . to carry the Gospel into those parts of the world to encourage the conversion of the heathens and rayse [SIC] a bulwark against the Kingdom of [the] Antichrist....The whole earth is the lord's Garden and he hath given it to the sonnes [SIC] of man."

"Genesis 1:28 Increase and multiply , replenish the earth and subdue it, which was againe renewed to Noah....that man might enjoy the fruits of the earth and god might have his due glory."

Jonathan Winthrop, Conclusions for the Plantation in New England. pp.70-71. in Merchant.

tree and grass

As Nature hath for Canaan, not such
Another place, for the benefit and rest,
In all the Universe can be possest,

. . . .
Like a fiare virgin longing to be sped
And meete her lover in a Nuptial bed."

Thomas Morton, Praises, 1632. in Merchant. p. 72.


"There are two reasons for for this calling the beavers front and center from the vast ranks of our fellow mammals. One is that they manipulate the physical landscape more than any other animal besides the human....The second reason,,,,By simple accident of their fur...the beaver became an irresistible magnet that guided European penetration of the North American interior for nearly three centuries. The fur trade it was called."

"The results for the beaver were catastrophic."

"So the world in which the beaver had a spirit is hidden from history."

"find our way out of the cultural logic of capitalism."

"Fighting to understand the past is, after all, part of a bigger struggle to survive the future."

Jim O'brien, "A Beaver's Perspective on N. A. History," Merchant, pp. 79-82.

Labor Theory of Value

Abstract model

ecological core is the focal point of environmental history and as such it represents water in the east and west that brings both cities and western arid landscapes to life.

modelSo Merchant places ecology at the center of her concentric circular model of the dynamic conditions of existence.

Merchant's current views

ecological means?

ecological core is | model of wealth | ecosystems are? | landscapes change | terms

tree and grass



Ecological history

Based on the ecology of a region; the approach of an ecological historian is to see humans as partners in natural transformation since settlers change as they alter the terrain.

An ecosystem, or ecological system as a set of biophysical conditions that work best with ample water because energy is converted into matter in a particular area over time by the inhabitants, usually bacteria fungus an vegetation consumed by animals and these animals consumed by people. The presence of beavers alters the ecosystem in ways that allow other creatures to live where otherwise there would be insufficient quantities of water to sustain co-dependent species.

Keystone species: Castor canadensis


"In the course of blocking streams and accumulating a food supply, they cut down certain trees, drown others at their roots, raise the water table, check soil erosion and flooding, create a new home for a host of aquatic animals, and (over time...) leave rich meadow lands."

O'Brien, p. 79.

What are keystone species?

Other animals such a moose are attracted to the ponds and wolves attracted by moose add to the biological wealth of the area which are absent when the beaver are removed by hunting.

more on keystone species.

prokaryotic and eukaryotic bacteria and plants.




Both parts, the habitat and the biological community, fit and function together as a unit providing a source of wealth, stability and essential services.
      1. wealth
        1. resources such as fish, gold, oil, diamonds, domestic animals.
        2. real estate, property, mineral or water rights
        3. waterfalls exhibit gravitational power
        4. forests provide timber, drinking water, scenery
        5. water provides transport
      2. stability
        1. water bodies temper extreme heat and cold
        2. wetlands absorb flood water and purify water
        3. trees provide shade and protect soil from erosion
        4. plants moderate temperature and retard soil erosion
        5. wildlife indicate character of native conditions
      3. essential services
        1. moving water purifies wastes, transports sediment,
        2. mountains collect and store snow and rain water,
        3. aquifers, lakes and streams hold water,
        4. wind cleans away contaminated air,
        5. plants make oxygen, reduce the temperature (shade),
        6. bacteria and fungi assist vegetation growth.

        ecosystem services



model | ecology | web site | science




Do Reisner, Siry, or Merchant answer how landscape changes occur?


Alfred Crosby and Ecological Imperialism -- an alternative view of world history


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ecological core is | worldviews | ecosystems are? | landscapes change