Deforestation, Depopulation, and the Fur Trade: An Analysis of Changes in the Land
By Paul Shannon
Posted on April 1, 2023
Cover Image Title: Transcending Trees
Cover Image by: Linaarika Das
Specification: Taken with a fish eye lens to capture a lengthy view from roots to treetop. Taken in San Fransisco, CA.
Year: 2021 (Picture Shooting) and 2023 (Post Production)
William Cronon's seminal book Changes in the Land (1983) lucidly outlines the profound natural changes that followed the European settlement of the Americas in the 16th century. It highlighted the initial colonization, their perspective thereof, the subsequent adaptation and spread of European ideals when confronted with foreign tradition, and generalized interactions between the two, as was provided by various first-hand accounts on both sides. Changes in the Land explores the profound natural changes brought about by European colonization of the Americas in the 16th century, including deforestation, depopulation, and wildlife extermination for the fur trade, as well as the impact these changes had on the interactions and perspectives between Europeans and Native Americans.
As noted by Cronon, widespread deforestation was observed throughout New England following the initial shift from Native to European dominance. They relentlessly pillaged the land, ultimately taking advantage of every natural commodity they believed could be potentially valuable. Chief among these resources was timber, which was widely utilized for home heating and shipbuilding, among a plethora of other reasons. Demand for such a resource would only increase as time passed, as the various industries which required it grew; this ultimately led to an extensively increased rate of harvesting, further contributing to the disturbing of various ecosystems within the general vicinity.
Cronon furthermore considers the overall Native American population decimation following European colonization—either as a result of direct extermination or indirectly through the spread of disease (as a result of their apparent lack of natural immunization, having lived within completely different areas)—looking back, we can evaluate the genuine implications of such a concept, as we have observed them first-hand. Native Americans, despite being human, were constituents of a larger ecological niche, and effectively played a significant role in maintaining the balance of their respective ecosystems. With consideration to this, it is reasonable to infer that the gradually increasing magnitudes of Native depopulation would impact the lands of New England negatively, as it would imbalance the food chain on a grander scale.
Cronon also cites the fur trade as another natural change that occurred following the European colonization of North America in the early sixteenth century. Native Americans would trade pelts of a wide variety of animals, which were quintessential to balancing local ecosystems. In exchange for these pelts and furs, Natives would receive weaponry, metals, woven fabrics, as well as other resources that they deemed valuable. Before intercontinental trade, Native Americans were known to barter among themselves: they traded corn, venison, fish, nuts, and other valuables between villages, from those who had a surplus thereof to those who exhibited a deficit. As such, an introduction of the vast majority of foreign goods into their “markets” would not necessarily impact them significantly; those that maintained a significant impact were goods that held certain qualities considered to be completely new to the area—or to Indian material culture—such as the aforesaid enhanced weaponry, which they would inevitably grow to become dependent on.
William Cronon's Changes in the Land provides a comprehensive examination of the radical environmental changes brought about by the European settlement of the Americas in the 16th century. The book sheds light on the consequences of European colonization, including deforestation, depopulation, and the extermination of wildlife for the fur trade, as well as their impact on the interactions and perspectives between Europeans and Native Americans. The destructive exploitation of natural resources, the decline of the Native American population, and the increasing demand for fur-bearing animals led to imbalances in the ecological systems of New England. The interactions between Europeans and Natives, characterized by a condescending European perspective, further exacerbated the degradation of the land. The insights presented in Changes in the Land highlight the importance of considering the long-term consequences of human activities on the environment and the need for more sustainable practices.
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[Writing Editor: Shubhay Mishra]