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Response to Review no. 930

It is a rare treat to have such a long review of one’s book, especially when the reviewer is as attentive – and positive in her assessment – as Robbie Ethridge is in this instance. Moreover, it is a pleasure to find in her review insights into Nature and History in the Potomac Country that had not occurred to me. Perhaps because Ethridge trained as an anthropologist rather than as an historian, she sees things that other reviewers have not. By the same token, historian-reviewers have noted what Ethridge and I both missed: that the book owes an obvious debt, in its chronological scope, ideas about historical significance and causation, and use of data from the natural sciences, to the Annales school. Having done my graduate work in the late 1980s and early 1990s and absorbed this literature at that formative stage, I did not realize how fundamentally this perspective had shaped my outlook, and thus did not acknowledge that debt in my work.

There are some signal differences, however, between my work and most of those writing more consciously within the Annales tradition, and many of those differences are traceable to a sharp break at around 1600 in the kinds of sources available for the study of the Chesapeake Bay region. Before the early 17th century the evidence comes almost entirely from archaeological evidence and data from the natural sciences, combined with a few precious snippets of Native American oral traditions and European documentary sources. Afterwards, however, a great deal of documentary evidence also becomes available. The problem was to find a narrative line that would unite these two time periods, making it possible to discern historical trajectories across this evidentiary divide. The solution I hit upon was to focus on the place where Natives and newcomers, and the varied types of evidence, converged: on the lands and waters of the Potomac basin itself. Consequently, the central story line is particularly informed by scholarship in cultural ecology and environmental history

This decision proved to be both constraining and liberating. It was constraining because I found much along the way that I would have liked to explore but could not really fit into an ‘environmental history’ narrative. It was also constraining because I had to limit my excursions outside the Potomac basin to events and developments that were directly relevant to life within it. It was frustrating, for example, not to be able to more fully explore developments in the Southeast, the region on which most of Robbie Ethridge’s scholarship focuses and the site of some fascinating and important developments during the same centuries dealt with in Nature and History. I would have dearly loved, for instance, to more fully explore the related phenomena of Indian slavery and the southern turn of Virginia’s Indian trade in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. However, as Ethridge herself notes in a recent essay the Indian slave trade was centered more in the southeast than in the northeast.(1) The Potomac basin occupies a transitional position in between these two regions, and so Indian slavery turned out to be part of the story but not of central significance, and thus had to be dealt with more summarily than I would have liked.

Yet finding a narrative arc based in environmental history was also liberating. To begin with, it made possible an account of colonial encounters in which Native American history had a trajectory of its own rather than serving as a static background – a trajectory in which there was some historical momentum to events and developments that could sweep up European and African newcomers as well as Native people. This showed me just how much it mattered that the Jamestown colony was established in 1607 and not in 1507, and that Maryland was founded in 1634 and not 1585; these things happened at particular, distinctive moments in time not only in English or European terms, but also within historically specific contexts for Native people.(2)

More broadly, adopting a narrative line in which European characters are introduced rather late in an ongoing story about Native peoples opened up several lines of thinking that environmental historians, ethnohistorians, and mainstream historians of colonial America have not developed as much as they ought to. Anthropologists such as Ethridge will find some of these lines of thought more novel than others, precisely because I have found their conceptual toolkit so useful for understanding the interplay of nature and history in the Potomac Country.

For example, environmental and early American historians seldom cross the divide between ‘prehistory’ and ‘history’. Although it would be difficult to find many practitioners who would defend the continued, uncritical use of the term ‘prehistory’, the fact is that in practice too few historians of North America have explored the ways in which reframing things in this manner might tend to highlight previously underappreciated sources of historical change, to prompt a re-evaluation of what is historically significant, or bring to the fore a different set of historical actors. In Nature and History, for instance, placing the Potomac Country’s ‘colonial period’ in the context of the preceding millennium of history in that same place exposes the ways in which climate change and other natural forces long predating the arrival of Europeans shaped the Native American cultures with which colonists had to reckon in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The great exception is tribal histories, which frequently bridge the divide between ‘prehistory’ and ‘history’. For ethnohistorians, then, the needed reframing might be in terms of space rather than time. How does it change things, for example, if we view the Great Plains as a complex region with a long-term past, rather than focusing more narrowly on the Cheyennes, Comanches, or some other prominent Plains Indian nation? Elliot West took this route in his prize-winning The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado, but more scholars might follow his example of thinking not just deep in time, but also wide in space.(3)

Environmental historians of North America, it should be noted, are especially in need of some alternative chronologies. Unlike environmental historians writing about other parts of the world, those focusing on North America have largely abandoned premodern history. Anyone doubting this statement need only consult the table of contents of the journal Environmental History or the program of the annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental history. Since the mid-1980s the outstanding breakthroughs in this subfield have been in the study of urban environments, environmental justice, and other inherently modern subject areas. The results have been impressive, and they often have direct relevance for those grappling with modern environmental issues, but the side effects of this narrow chronological focus can be severe. The risks include forgetting the existence of key concepts that might help environmental historians to better understand even modern subject matters, let alone the rest of human history – most notably, the utility of ethnographic conceptions of ‘culture’ and the applicability of the entire anthropological subfields of cultural ecology and ethnobotany. Other risks include leaving the analysis of deeper structures and the longue durée to non-historians, who might or might not produce work of use to historians, and who might or might not be attentive to the virtues and demands of historical thinking.

Finally, examining a thousand-plus years of nature and history in the Potomac Country forced upon me a reconsideration of narrative in environmental history, and by extension a rethinking of what actually constitutes ‘environmental history’. And here is the one place at which I must reluctantly take issue with Ethridge’s review. The problem lies with Ethridge’s perception that ‘other tendrils of the story … sometimes obscure the environmental story’, and that readers ‘hoping to learn about tobacco farming, crop rotations, estuary resource use in the colonial era, and so forth’ will be ‘disappointed’.(4)

This perception seems to arise from our differing ideas about constitutes ‘environmental history’. Not everything that I conceived of as environmental history while I was writing it registered as such for Ethridge while she was reading it. The gap is considerable: Ethridge appears to define the field more narrowly than most environmental historians would, while I was explicitly trying to define it more broadly than most practitioners would.

I wanted go extend the scope of early American environmental history by situating discrete historical events within the context of broad environmental processes. Scholars focusing on the interplay between nature and history in early America have tended to emphasize generalized processes such as the ‘Columbian Exchange’ of plants, animals, and other organisms, or (in Southeastern anthropology) the properties of ‘chiefdoms’ and the factors – often at least partly environmental in origin – governing the rise, fall and ‘cycling’ between chiefdoms and less hierarchical political and social systems. I wanted to subject this process-driven environmental history and cultural ecology to the discipline of narrative, and to think about how those general processes and broad historical forces played out for particular people, places, and histories. How, for example, might specific military, diplomatic, and political events have been related to the endless interplay of nature and culture?

Thus much of what I have to say about the colonial period focuses on events, but in ways, I hope, that demonstrate their relationships to the deeper forces that were at work. Seeking to avoid generalizations about catastrophic epidemics in Native communities, for example, I focused as much as possible on the timing, character, and consequences of individual epidemics for specific communities. Similarly, my way of getting at Europeans’ and Indians’ differing conceptions of land use, landscape, and property was to focus on specific conflicts rooted in such differences. For instance, I argued that the Potomac’s Algonquian peoples thought in terms of core areas for various uses – fishing spots, hunting areas, and fields, for example – while European colonists thought in terms of boundaries, of conceptually empty spaces in which the important thing was not the core but the periphery, the surveyed boundary. Looking at how this difference in their ‘ecological imaginations’ through specific examples, I hope, gets to the heart of the more general question of how the Indians lost their land.

Along these same lines, taking a narrative approach really drove home for me just how critical the English law of property, and the ways in which key features of the English ecological imagination were encoded within it, was to understanding why colonists waited so long (well into the 18th century) to establish a significant number of farms above the fall line. Ethridge notes other elements of my explanation for this puzzling phenomenon, such as the constraints imposed by geography and by the tobacco economy at the turn of the century, and she recognizes that endemic Indian warfare in the interior, which also discouraged colonial expansion, was rooted in the interplay of nature, culture, and history before the arrival of Europeans.

However, I also devoted a great deal of space to the story of how English notions about boundaries and exclusive property rights – inherently ideas about the proper relationship between humans and the rest of nature – long delayed the re-peopling of the interior by European farmers who, when confronted by overlapping colonial and proprietary boundaries, and by Indians who claimed the same lands but whose ideas about the conveyance of property did not match up with those of the colonists, decided not to risk taking up interior lands. The problem was not that they believed that they would fail to make a living there, but rather that their ecological imaginations would not allow them to commit their lives to building up farms that had not been properly bounded and certified by the proper authorities. This argument is well within the boundaries of environmental history as it is commonly practiced, and if it is understood as such then big swaths of the book come across not as digressions from an environmental history narrative, but rather as an integral part of that story.

The decision to situate discrete events within a narrative rooted in the interplay of nature and culture also led me to expand my own definition of environmental history. The book contains three intertwining narratives, two of which are immediately recognizable as environmental history. The first traces the ever-changing relationships between environmental conditions and humans’ systemic adaptations to their natural environment, while the second strand explores how new ways of living upon the land fostered new kinds of social relations. Environmental historians are fond of citing C. S. Lewis to this effect: ‘what we call Man’s power over Nature,’ he wrote, ‘turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument’.(4) This second narrative line encompasses, among other things, slavery and the dispossession of the Indians.

The third narrative strand, however, is not so obviously ‘environmental history’. In it I argue that just as humans must reckon with their natural environment, so too they must adapt to the landscapes and cultural systems created by their predecessors in negotiating that environment. Again, C. S. Lewis put it very nicely: ‘Each generation exercises power over its successors: and each, in so far as it modifies the environment bequeathed to it and rebels against tradition, resists and limits the power of its predecessors’. But resistance is often futile: the very last generation of humans, ‘far from being the heirs of power, will be of all men most subject to the dead hand of the great planners and conditioners’.(5) In Nature and History in the Potomac Country the ‘great planners and conditioners’ include the 14th-century Algonquian villagers who decided to make agriculture the centerpiece of their economy and society, and the 16th-century Indian communities that decided to place power in the hands of powerful hereditary chiefs, and also the long-dead men, far from the Potomac River, who wrote into the English common law tradition their most cherished ideas about the proper relationship between people and nature.


  1. Robbie Ethridge, ‘Introduction: mapping the Mississippian Shatter Zone,’ in Mapping the Mississippian Shatter Zone: The Colonial Indian Slave Trade and Regional Instability in the American South, ed. Robbie Ethridge and Sheri M. Shuck-Hall (Lincoln, NE, 2009), pp. 1–62. On the connections between the expansion of the Virginia traders’ activities in the Southeast and the contemporaneous rise of the Indian slave trade, see Paul Kelton, Epidemics and Enslavement: Biological Catastrophe in the Native Southeast (Lincoln, NE, 2007).Back to (1)
  2. Further explored in James D. Rice, ‘Escape from Tsenacommacah: Chesapeake Algonquians and the Powhatan menace,’ in The Atlantic World and Virginia, ed. Peter Mancall (Chapel Hill, NC, 2007), pp. 97–140.Back to (2)
  3. Elliot West, The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado (Lawrence, KS, 1998).Back to (3)
  4. Nature and History in the Potomac Country does in fact include detailed analyses of annual subsistence cycles and associated landscape features on a 17th-century tobacco plantation and on an 18th-century backcountry farm, as well as weaving similar but shorter sections into the narrative as needed, but on the whole Ethridge is correct in stating that I do not place the analysis of whole, coherent ecological systems or land-use systems at the center of the narrative. Readers who are genuinely disappointed by the lack of material on tobacco farming, crop rotations, and estuary resource use will feel much better after reading Lorena Walsh’s magisterial Motives of Honor, Pleasure, and Profit: Plantation Management in the Colonial Chesapeake, 1607–1763 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2010). The Lewis quotation is from The Abolition of Man (New York, NY, 1947), p. 35.Back to (4)
  5. Lewis, pp. 36–7.Back to (5)