Author’s Note: This is the fourth part in a series of blog posts looking at the historical big picture of modern day urban flooding and the importance of trees. Go here for part one, part two, and part three. Read this blog post on why I’ve decided to take on this project.
One of the most amazing sights of this era must have been the flocks of the now extinct passenger pigeons. Flocks so great in numbers that they stretched from horizon to horizon in a near continuous stream of birds. They were so massive that they even blocked the sun and casted great shadows upon the land.
From John Muir’s The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, Chapter IV: A Paradise of Birds:
It was a great memorable day when the first flock of passenger pigeons came to our farm, calling to mind the story we had read about them when we were at school in Scotland. Of all God’s feathered people that sailed the Wisconsin sky, no other bird seemed to us so wonderful. The beautiful wanderers flew like the winds in flocks of millions from climate to climate in accord with the weather, finding their food–acorns, beechnuts, pine-nuts, cranberries, strawberries, huckleberries, juniper berries, hackberries, buckwheat, rice, wheat, oats, corn–in fields and forests thousands of miles apart. I have seen flocks streaming south in the fall so large that they were flowing over from horizon to horizon in an almost continuous stream all day long, at the rate of forty or fifty miles an hour, like a mighty river in the sky, widening, contracting, descending like falls and cataracts, and rising suddenly here and there in huge ragged masses like high-plashing spray. How wonderful the distances they flew in a day–in a year–in a lifetime!
Artist interpretations of North American passenger pigeon migrations.
To sustain such abundant populations of wildlife required a land rich in naturally sustained food sources, especially tree nuts. North America during this period also contained a rich and diverse population of trees. Trees, such as the massive centuries old 20 foot circumference 200-250 foot tall white pines of Maine, that were larger than the colonists encountered anywhere else.
These very same trees would eventually become the building blocks and symbolic cornerstone in the birth of a new nation.
In the early 1600s when the first European explorers where mapping North America, the deadly plagues that ravaged Europe (see part three of this series) were carried along as invisible stowaways on their travels. Many Indian tribes, especially those in New England, would become decimated by pox as a result of these initial encounters. The Indians, new to these diseases and lacking antibodies, experienced mortality rates reaching 95% in their populations. In 1600, New England Indian populations were estimated to be somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000. Within a single generation they dramatically fell to under 10,000. William Cronon’s Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England paints a terrifying picture of this relatively short period from the view point of the Native American.
It’s practically unimaginable. Just try to imagine, in a matter of just a decade, over 90% of your family, friends and neighbors perish from a from an unknown, mysterious and horrifying illness. Everyone you know, including you, is powerless to the onslaught. Even the greatest of Indian shaman healers and their best known remedies were of no use. The despair, hopelessness, and confusion must have been unconscionable.
Artist Rendition, The Great Dying of 1616-1619
As the first waves of permanent colonists arrived in New England they encountered previously known large Indian settlements abandoned and entirely wiped out by pox. Plymouth, Massachusetts, for example, was one such settlement. Many other settlements across New England saw fractions of Indians populations and the ones that remained were likely in a great weakened physical and psychological condition.
God had laid this country open for us, and slaine the most part of the inhabitants by cruell warres and a mortall disease; for where I had seene 100 or 200 people, there is a scarce ten to be found. – John Smith, 1622
With the wide open and unoccupied lands, the colonists engrained belief system was to subdue and cultivate the land as per holy gospel scripture. Task one was often to chop down down trees and clear forests. Shortly thereafter, use the wood to erect houses and create fencing. Then plant crops and put livestock in the fencing.
Again, from the great pen of John Muir:
In the settlement and civilization of the country, bread more than timber or beauty was wanted; and in the blindness of hunger, the early settlers, claiming Heaven as their guide, regarded God’s trees as only a larger kind of pernicious weeds, extremely hard to get rid of.
And this blindness was not the colonists fault. This was their engrained behavior from whence they came. The colonists had deeply rooted behaviors with regard to trees in Europe. None more evident was the vast wood shortages from their homelands back in England (see part two of this blog.)
Beyond just mere survival, the colonists ultimately had another objective. Arguably a much more pressing objective. They had to find a way to make money from their new land. They needed to repay their debts to the financiers back in London who paid for their trip across the Atlantic Ocean. Their investors, the struggling London Company, were eager for quicker profits. In response, they continued to send more ships and more people to New England to help out.
Make no mistake, North America was settled to generate and turn a profit. A profit that relied upon the marketable commodities taken from the land. The profits of which would then go to the English monarchy and wealthy investors of the London Company.
A profitable return on their investments was expected.
Filling the earth and subduing the land was expected.
Dominion over every living thing for profit was expected.
Participation in the global trade market for even more profit was expected.
The three “F”s: fish, furs, and forests would establish that market for the New England settlers. The colonists would rule and cast dominion over these marketable commodities. According to William Bradford on the first shipment back to London in 1621 on the 55-ton vessel Fortune, the ship contained:
“2 hoggsheads of beaver and otter skins and laden with good clapboard as full as we could stowe.”
Timber products, in addition to the fur trades, namely beaver, were among the earliest marketable commodities the colonies sent back to Europe. The rise of timber industry in New England occurred primarily from the 1630s onward and was centered within present day Maine and New Hampshire. The forests of these lands contained the highly prized centuries old and towering white pines. Their size made them ideal for the masts in ship building and became a deciding advantage for establishing English naval world dominance. By 1660 nearly all masts for English war ships came directly from the colonists in New England. The biggest and best ships for maritime warfare were undoubtedly English and partly North American made.
An English Ship in Action with Barbary Vessels, 1678, Willem van de Velde
In early New England, trees were also a key trading item within the “triangular trades” of the sugar cane plantations on the English colony of Barbados and the West Indies. During this period, sugar cane was one of the most coveted commodities in the world. There was just one major problem, sugar cane production came at a high cost due to the difficulty in harvesting the plant. Sugar cane harvesting required grueling back breaking labor. In order to turn a profit, the English captured slaves, reduced labor costs, and thereby turned the screws on this prized commodity.
In the late 17th century, many of the Caribbean Islands, including English Barbados, were completely deforested lacking any trees or wood items whatsoever. Wood building materials were needed to house slaves and millions of barrels were needed to ship sugar. New England trees would fill that need. By the 1670s Barbados and West Indies sugar plantations depended almost entirely on New England forest timber and its vast tree resources.
View of a Sugar Plantation, French West Indies, 1762
By the end of the 17th century, New England had marketable global commodities. Many port cities such as Boston were evolving into profitable and wealthy trading outposts. More and more colonists were arriving to get in on the action and the cheap cost of land.
The economic foundation and establishment of the English colonies in New England was in part due to trees.
The rise of the British Empire and its unmatched war ships was in part due to New England trees.
Those very same trees, in the next century, would help give birth to a new nation. One that would eventually turn itself into the next world power.
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