3d ser., 72, no. 1 January 2015
“Before 1607” was the theme of a WMQ-EMSI workshop held at the Huntington Library in May 2013, and this article responds to the papers and discussion. Fundamentally, it questions the traditional beginning of early American history with Jamestown in 1607, and argues that this truncated approach ignores both the very powerful and important empires in the continent’s interior and the crucial role of Spanish and French expeditions in creating the knowledge base that encouraged a commitment to foundation of permanent Spanish, French, and English colonies in the first decade of the seventeenth century. Santa Fe, Quebec, and Jamestown were all founded in this decade; Saint Augustine, the first surviving colony, was founded half a century earlier. The traditional approach, and its customary use of terms such as king, chief, tribe, and nation, overestimates the degree of national integration in Europe, while ignoring the great Indian polities in the interior has diminished our understanding of the kinds of empires that existed in America. Work on the period before 1607 requires scholars to move beyond written sources to bring knowledge from archaeology, geology, and historical climatology, as well as the Indians' oral tradition, into conversation with the written record.
Forum: Climate and Early American History
By Joyce E. Chaplin
Climate is the crucial issue of our era because significant changes to it will change everything else in nature, with terrible implications for the quality of human life and for the observance of justice among peoples and nations. Climate thus alters what it means to be a historian. “The true historian is like the ogre in the story,” the great French historian Marc Bloch once wrote: “wherever he smells human flesh he recognizes his prey.” “Nicely put,” countered Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, “but in spite of my immense admiration for Marc Bloch his definition has always seemed to me too narrow.” Le Roy Ladurie wanted historians to be omnivores. To the human-centered topics of conventional historical inquiry, he added a nonhuman part of nature, climate. The field of climate history is now blossoming. Early Americanists can (and should) make contributions to it that no other scholars could provide. We study what happened when one part of the globe, the Americas, was integrated into the rest after a long physical and cultural isolation. Climate studies prompt us to consider the physical and cultural dimensions of that reintegration together and to show other scholars how this conjoined interrogation of nature and culture can be done.
By Sam White
European explorers and colonists and the Native Americans they encountered faced challenges from severe winters and droughts characteristic of the Little Ice Age in North America during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. This article examines the impact of Little Ice Age climate and weather during the first century of European-Indian encounters in North America through a peculiar pattern of events found in many early colonial narratives: European and Indian efforts to predict and control weather through prayer and magic. Both textual evidence and high-resolution climate reconstructions indicate that these narratives were at least partly factual. Moreover, Native American groups described in these narratives likely did face real shortages of corn in times of adverse weather, threatening both their subsistence and the authority of chiefs and shamans. The encounters occurred during an important transition in European conceptions of prayer and magic, when Europeans were most likely to associate Indian weather rites with sorcery. Although European confidence in the power of their prayers to achieve weather miracles may have impressed some Indians at first, the efforts ultimately created mistrust and mutual suspicions of witchcraft.
By Thomas Wickman
In the 1690s and the first decade of the 1700s, two of the coldest decades of the Little Ice Age, severe winter weather in the American Northeast prompted adjustments first by Wabanakis and later by English colonists. Wabanaki people had generations of experience journeying through and drawing subsistence from their “winter lands.” With well-adapted seasonal practices and technologies, such as moose hunting on snowshoes, they knew how to cope with persistent cold and take advantage of periods of stable snow cover. In the Second Anglo-Wabanaki War (1688–99), Wabanakis launched winter raids against sites in northern New England, revealing a crucial seasonal vulnerability of English settlements. Frigid weather and Wabanaki attacks contributed to a sense of panic among New Englanders in the 1690s. During these years, however, English observers, soldiers, and captives also learned winter skills and strategies from their Wabanaki adversaries, which they used in the Third Anglo-Wabanaki War (1703–13). In 1703–4, colonial leaders began sending out hundreds of English “snowshoe men” to patrol Wabanaki hunting grounds, shifting the power dynamics in the winter woods. By appropriating an indigenous technology, English colonists adapted to a changing climate, provided greater security for their settlements, and dissipated fears of long winters.
By Fredrik Albritton Jonsson
Pehr Kalm’s voyage to America in 1748–51 produced a treasure trove of observations about climate, soil, and other matters of natural history. A close reading of Kalm’s travel journal, published writings, and correspondence reveals a deep ambivalence about the operation of the natural order in the New World. Kalm’s fieldwork and interviews with settlers charted processes of species extirpation, degeneration, soil exhaustion, and climate change. This interest in the environmental impact of settlement reflected in great part Kalm’s commitment to cameralist science. Kalm’s American voyage was a direct extension of his earlier biosprospecting tours in the Old World. He and his Swedish contemporaries hoped to transform the natural order of the nation through schemes of acclimatization and internal colonization. Such ambitions were in turn framed within a universal history of climate change. Kalm’s experience in the New World confirmed the global scope of these processes, while stressing the risk and uncertainty associated with projects of climate improvement. In this sense, Kalm’s voyage offers an important yet neglected entry point into the history of climate science.
Wild rice might have become the consummate alternative foodstuff of the British Empire. This edible native North American plant was the subject of significant, if subsequently forgotten, investigation between the Seven Years’ War and the Napoleonic Wars. During this period of ongoing military conflict, imperial expansion, and subsistence crises, colonists, naturalists, and officials also grappled with the possibility that climates were undergoing continuous, perhaps permanent, transformation. They envisioned wild rice as the pioneer plant of a responsive imperial ecology, uniquely suited to weathering all political seasons and untold natural upheavals. Neglecting Native American horticultural practice, they wrote about exploiting wild rice on a larger scale as the realization of a biblical and imperial dream of guaranteed abundance: a self-reproducing, prodigious staple impervious to unexpected developments, including “inexplicable” changes in the climate.