34 pages 1 hour read

William Cronon

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

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1983

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Summary and Study Guide


William Cronon wrote a scholarly assessment of the ecological changes in the land wrought by the arrival of New England’s European settlers from about 1620 to 1800 called Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (1983). Cronon examines both the Native American and European land usage during the pre-colonial time period, including farming, hunting, fishing, and the commercial harvesting of the fruits of the land. In particular, Cronon explores the widespread farming of maize as a food crop and the commercial harvesting of trees for shipbuilding, home heating, and home and barn building.

Cronon’s historical analysis traces the interdependence between the European settlers and the land compared with the Native Americans’ previously established uses of the land, a comparison that reveals conflicting notions of land usage, and economic and environmental values. Through many contemporaneous written sources, Cronon establishes an argument that the European settlers themselves were aware of the competing economic and ecological imperatives that drove decision-making concerning land and resources.

Cronon’s chief point is that the study of these conflicting and intersecting views of the land is “not only to describe the ecological changes that took place in New England but to determine what it was about Indians and colonists—in their relations both to nature and to each other—that brought those changes about” (15). Nearly forty years after it was first published, Cronon’s work remains remarkable and relevant for two primary reasons. First, Cronon’s topic—the environmental history of pre-colonial New England— was original and groundbreaking; through it, Cronon established a new area of historical research called ecological history. Second, Cronon portrayed Native Americans’ husbandry, their contemporaneous opinions on the changes wrought by their European neighbors, and their usage of the land.