The Tragedy of the Wilderness: The Colonists and Indian Land, Part 4

Featured image: North Conway, 1907. The White Mountain National Forest was established in 1918.

In New England townships, common lands became increasingly smaller with each subdivision through distribution, sale, or inheritance. As commons shrank, conflicts over herding grew. The number and sizes of herds had to be regulated, as some settlers paid herdsmen to tend their animals and keep them to specified areas, while others let their animals loose to roam freely and mix with other herds, essentially getting paid services without paying for them.1

Dogtown in 1908
Dogtown in 1908. Photo by Alice May Curtis, from Good Morning Gloucester.

Even with regulation, overgrazing was a consequence of enclosure of the commons, which damaged the land. Overgrazing prevented regrowth, reduced biodiversity, and exposed acreage to soil erosion. Ultimately it would not support the herds, gradually impoverishing the commoners. Dogtown Common, when farming was abandoned there during the 19th century, is a case in point, the land unable to support even sheep.2

Settlers contributed to the problem through their land management practices. In 1701, for example, Manchester commoners were ordered to cut pine and hemlock brush from the fodder land for two days. According to the record:

“At that time the only hay for their cattle was cut from the natural meadows and swampy places, where there was a rank growth of a coarse variety of grass, and to keep back the encroachment of the woods the clearing above referred to was occasionally necessary. Dams were often built so as to kill the bushes and young trees by flooding them.”3

This intentional drowning of borderlands to extend meadowlands further prevented regrowth and reforestation.

Another result of the division and enclosure of common lands was a differential increase in poverty from one generation to the next as resubdivided parcels of land shrank in size or became unavailable through private ownership. These effects, coupled with the overpopulation of grazing animals, have been referred to as the “tragedy of the commons.” Biologist Garrett Hardin advanced the controversial tragedy of the commons theory in 1968 to show how the concept of the Commons is not necessarily best for the common good, because unregulated open access inevitably leads to unsustainable overuse and destruction of the environment. In this model the leveling effect of the Commons, instead of giving everyone equal advantage, ultimately works to everyone’s disadvantage—at least to the extent that everyone acts in self-interest.4

Native American harmony stereotype
Painting depicting Native American harmony stereotype on a German web site

Paralleling the tragedy of the commons is what I call the tragedy of the wilderness, in which both Native Americans and settlers managed to impoverish themselves through overexploitation of the wider environment. The tragedy of the wilderness is amplified by the fiction of “wilderness”, like “jungle”, as a construct. Native Americans both celebrated environmental change and changed their environment and did not conceive of wilderness as a perfect state of nature. Algonquian origin myths make a point of describing the Creator’s disappointment upon discovering that the Earth is not perfect.5

A common stereotype has Native Americans in harmony with nature and European colonists as despoilers of the land. These unexamined stereotypes are still prevalent here and abroad, taught to schoolchildren. One of my grandchildren was told by her teacher that the colonists even spoiled the Indians’ corn by mixing the colors of the kernels. The harmony stereotype has also become the basis of ersatz spirituality cults that appropriate Native American sacred symbols. The truth, however, is more complex. Both Native Americans and colonists significantly altered their landscapes, moved earth, diverted waterways, deforested entire regions, and exploited plant and animal species to extinction. At the same time, they both also selectively protected species, custom-designed habitats for them, and practiced common-sense conservation of trees, soil, fish stocks, and water.6

 The Oxbow by Thomas Cole
An 1836 painting (The Oxbow) by Thomas Cole of “wilderness” in Connecticut suggests the menace that Europeans saw in untamed American landscapes

There has never been, as Cronon puts it, a “timeless wilderness in a state of perfect changelessness, no climax forest in permanent stasis.”7 Forests emerge, age, decline, drown, and disappear without human involvement; mountains and seashores rise, move, and erode, and valleys dry up, flood, and fill. Humans can effect these changes, hasten or retard them, worsen or mitigate them, but “only a people whose relationship to the land was already alienated could hold up wilderness as a model for human life in nature.”8

Cronon’s point applies to us today, long alienated from the land, with our construct of “wilderness” as desirable, something to be saved. The construct of wilderness as undesirable, however, along with a low opinion of the aboriginal peoples who lived in it, persisted into the 20th century and influenced historians up to that time. It was the prevailing view. A naturalist writing in 1909, for example, refers to the forested Atlantic coast as a fringe-land and its native peoples as backward. He characterizes the environment as isolating, overwhelming, and unfertile, and blames this state of nature on a lack of agriculture:

“The effect of this fringe-land upon its native inhabitants was apparent in the low state of their culture. The aboriginal Atlantic tribes were unacquainted with the use of iron, …a characteristic of all fringe-land peoples. Their agriculture was of the rudest sort—the planting of maize, squashes and tobacco, with little or no tillage, hunting and fishing producing their chief food supply…. The Atlantic fringe-land as whole was thinly populated. Where many millions of Europeans now dwell on a sound basis of agriculture, the aboriginal population seemed barely able to hold its own, living as it were from hand to mouth. This failure to advance culturally and increase numerically through intelligent use of the soil is the underlying fact in all backward peoples, and their backwardness is, in large measure, the result of environment. Undoubtedly one of the factors in this environment is isolation, through many generations in a forest region, though we must also remember those inherent racial traits that tend to depress whole bodies of people, relegating them to the less desirable regions—overwhelming forests, unfertile tracts and fringe-lands. A non-agricultural people can not wrest a civilization of the wilderness.”9

In the 19th century this view explained and justified the marginalization and gradual disappearance of Native Americans from the landscape. In the 17th century this “disappearance” had been accomplished through Christian precepts and the principle of vacuum domicilium, and in the 18th century through military might and pity and disgust for the Indians—defeated, homeless, and mendicant.10 The naturalist goes on to describe Native American people as fauna of the forest in the Atlantic fringe.

“The effect of forest clearing and settlement on the larger wild animals of the region was…striking, since it caused their rapid disappearance from the vicinity of cultivated land. The wild animal life of the larger sort is always in inverse proportion to the increase of an agricultural population. The indigenous fauna increases in a land of aboriginal hunting folk of low culture, but decreases swiftly and surely in contact with civilized men. Aboriginal man is part of the fauna of a region. As a species he has struck a balance with other indigenous species of animals and as such is a ‘natural race’. Like the lower animals, the native man also vanishes from the region of settlement.”11

Tribal distribution in 1700

This view equates people with deer as animals that naturally disappear with the wilderness. By the beginning of the 20th century the “vanishing Indian” was finally becoming a reality as well as a stereotype. Two hundred years earlier colonists had boasted of it as progress, as in a 1700 advertisement for enticing new settlers to New England that proudly marks the Atlantic seaboard, including Agawam, as “Cleared of Indians.”12

For Native Americans, the tragedy of the wilderness included loss of game through overhunting for trade; loss of population through over-contact with Europeans; and loss of subsistence resources through loss of land by both eminent domain and deed, including the sale of new arable lands where beaver dams had once made meadows and ponds. As a consequence, Native Americans became increasingly dependent for subsistence on the settlers with their fences, commonages, trading posts, revolving credit, almshouses, poorfarms, and jails. The more dependent Native Americans became, the poorer they were and the more despised in settlers’ eyes, for mercantile capitalism equates poverty with moral turpitude. As beggars the Indians became pariahs, easier to demonize, brutalize, humiliate, or ignore.

This is a pattern in our species behavior—which, of course, doesn’t make it right. But in all societies and in all times and places, outgroups, underclasses, and minorities have undergone the same dehumanization process that humans have used forever to justify both genocide and neglect. And we are all part of that history, the murdered and murderers screaming together. A tragedy of humanity—which, however, like the tragedy of the commons and the tragedy of the wilderness, doesn’t mean it has to be that way.


1. Field, Barry C. October 1985. The evolution of individual property rights in Massachusetts agriculture, 17th – 19th centuries, Northeastern Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics: 99. At Land use.pdf.

2. Virginia Anderson, King Philip’s Herds: Indians, Colonists, and the Problem of Livestock in Early New England, in The William and Mary Quarterly(1994). For examples of the regulation of herds on common lands in Gloucester, see “Records of land grants, division bounds, thatch lots, herbage lots and wood lots, and highway” in The Commoner’s Book (1707-1820), Microfilm A 632 (Sawyer Free Library). Babson reports overgrazing in Dogtown Common, with sheep replacing cattle until the upland no longer supported even sheep, contributing to the decline and eventual abandonment of the community. See Mark Carlotto’s books on Dogtown. For an environmental perspective, see Redman and Foster, Agrarian landscapes in transition: Comparisons of long-term ecological and cultural change (2008).

3. Duane Hamilton Hurd, History of Essex County, Massachusetts: With BiographicalSketches of Many of Its Pioneers and Prominent Men. Philadelphia, PA: J. W. Lewis & Co (1888): Vol. 2: 1259.

4. Garrett Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons (1968). Science, 162:1243-1248.

5. Sources for the concept of wilderness include Joel Eno’s The Puritans and Indian Land, Magazine of History with Notes and Queries: 274-281 (1906); Charles Willoughby’s The Wilderness and the Indian: First Acquaintance 1605-1635, in Hart’s Commonwealth History of Massachusetts,Vol. 1 (1927); and Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (1973). For environmental perspectives see David Arnold’s The Problem of Nature: Environment, Culture, and European Expansion (1996), and William Cronon’s The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature, in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (1995).The Algonquian origin story of Earth as imperfectly created is retold in Joseph Nicolar’s The Life and Traditions of the Red Man (1893) and in anecdotes collected by ethnologists such as Frank Speck, in Wawenock Myth Texts from Maine (1928).

6. E.g., see Howard Russell, A long, deep furrow: Three centuries of farming in New England (1976), and Indian New England before the Mayflower (1980). Primary sources on Native American land use other than Champlain include Edward Winslow, Good Newes from New England (1624), William Wood, New Englands Prospect (1635), John Josselyn, New England’s Rarities Discoveredin birds, beasts, fishes, serpents, and plants of that country (1674), Daniel Gookin, Historical collections of the Indians of New England and their several nations, numbers, customs, manners, religion, and government before the English planted there (1674), and others. The painting depicting the Native American harmony stereotype is unattributed art on a German web site.

7. William Cronon and John Demos, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England (1983): 11.

8. William Cronon, The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature, in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (1996): 80.

An 1836 painting (The Oxbow) by Thomas Cole of “wilderness” in Connecticut suggests the menace that Europeans saw in untamed American landscapes.

9. Spencer Trotter, The Atlantic Forest Region of North America. Popular Science (October 1909): 378.

10. The 17th century view is expressed in the papers of John Winthrop; e.g., see pages 102-149 of Volume 2 of the Winthrop Papers. The 18th century view is expressed in many sources as a reflection of the changes that occurred in colonists’ relations with the Indians as a consequence of Metacomet’s Wampanoag War of 1675, the resistance movements that followed, and the confinement of Native Americans on reservations as wards of the state.

11. Trotter 1909: 387

12. Bernard Hoffman, Map of Native Territories in 1700, in Souriquois, Etechemin, and Kwedech–A Lost Chapter in American Ethnography (1955): Ethnohistory 2 (1): 65-87.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s