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The Role of American Indians in Shaping The North American Landscape

By Doug MacCleery
USDA Forest Service

    "... and the songs of the birds seemed to make it impossible that a man would wish to leave that place, and the flocks of parrots darkened the skies, and    there are such diverse birds compared with our ones that it is marvelous."

                --From the Diary of Christopher Columbus, October 1492.
   The Nature of American Forests at Contact

Early explorers commonly wrote of the large areas of open, park-like forests and grasslands both east and west of the Appalachians, and of the frequency of Native American burning.

In 1528, Alvar Nunez Cabenza de Vaca noted that in the area that is now Texas:

  "The Indians of the interior...go with brands in the hand firing the plains and forests within their reach, that the mosquitos my fly away, and at the same time to drive out lizards and other things from the earth for them to eat.  In this way do they appease their hunger, two ot three times in the year..."

 In 1630, Francis Higginson wrote about the country around Salem, Massachussetts, that:

  "there is much ground cleared by the Indians, and especially about (their agricultural fields); and I am told that about three miles from us a man may stand on a little hilly place and see thousands of acres of ground as good as    need be, and not a Tree on the same."

 In 1637, Thomas Morton wrote that the Indians:

  "are accustomed to set fire of the Country in all places where they come, and to burne it twize, in the year, vis: as the Spring and fall of the leafe....so that hee that will looke to find large trees and good tymber...(will not) finde them on upland ground; but must seeke for them...in the lower grounds, where the grounds are wett."

 Roger Williams wrote that:

  "this burning of the Wood to them they count a Benefit, both for destroying of vermin, and keeping downe the Weeds and thickets."

 In surveying the boundary between the states of North Carolina and Georgia in 1811, Andrew Ellicott wrote that:

  "the greatest inconvenience we experienced arose from the smoke occasioned by the annual custom of the Indians in burning the woods.  Those fires scattered over a vast extent of country made a beautiful and brilliant appearance at night; particularly when ascending the sides of the mountains."

John Smith commented that in the forests around Jamestown in Virginia:

  "a man may gallop a horse amongst these woods any waie, but where the creekes and Rivers shall hinder."

 Andrew White, on an expedition along the Potomac in 1633, observed that the forest was:

  "not choked with an undergrowth of brambles and bushes, but as if laid out in by hand in a manner so open, that you might freely drive a four horse chariot in the midst of the trees."

 Smith's and White's observations of the open nature of eastern forests are  typical of those of most other early observers, who commonly spoke of the ease of riding a horse or driving a wagon under the forest canopy.  Reports of such open conditions were widespread in the coastal forests and in the forests west of the Appalachians as well, as far north as Quebec.  Such conditions could only have been created by frequent, low intensity ground fires, many of which were set by Indians.

 But frequent forest burning did more than reduce the undergrowth and improve the habitat for preferred species.  In many cases it created grasslands in
 areas where forests otherwise would have existed.  Prairies extended into Ohio, western Pennsylvania, and western New York.  In Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley
 -- a broad valley located between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Alleganies -- was one vast grass prairie which covered more than 1000 square miles.
 Native Americans burned the area annually.  R.C. Anderson writes that the eastern prairies and grasslands "would mostly have disappeared if it had not been for the nearly annual burning of these grasslands by the North American Indians."  In the West, as well, Indian burning also greatly extended the area of grasslands and reduced the area of forest.

 American Indians as Agriculturists

 In the eastern forests, most American Indians lived in fixed villages.  Domesticated crops commonly accounted for half or more of their diet, with the
 remainder provided by wild berries, nuts, and fruits gathered from the adjacent forest, and by game.

 It was a maize-based agriculture.  Agriculture based on maize was a relatively recent development in eastern North America, having come into widespread use only about 800-1000 A.D.  Because of agriculture, human population densities were at least five times that of the nomadic, hunter/gatherer societies to the north and west.

 Although traditional estimates have placed the presettlement population of Native Americans in North America at about one million, some authorities have
 suggested that the Indian population north of Mexico may have been much greater -- between eight and twenty million.  A large proportion of these Indians would have lived in the eastern third of the country.

 Often several thousand acres were cleared around individual Indian villages whose populations ranged from 50 to 200 or more people.  It was the women who
 did virtually all the work of forest clearing and the raising of crops.  They would kill the trees by piling dead branches around the trunks and setting them
 on fire.  After the leaves had fallen and the forest was opened to sunlight, the ground would be worked with hand tools.  Maize, pumpkins, beans, and squash
 would be planted together in mounds.

 Except in river bottomlands, it was a shifting type of agriculture.  As the productivity of the fields was depleted over time and fuel became scarce, the village would be moved periodically to another site.  Such moves generally would occur about once every twenty years.  As the old fields were abandoned, they returned to forest, and additional forest areas were burned and cleared.

 While we will never know fully the extent of forest clearing by native peoples, some indication can be gained from the writings of a Spanish chronicler on the
 1539-43 de Soto expedition.  In describing Indian agricultural fields in northern Florida, he wrote that they:

  "marched on through some great fields of corn, beans, and squash and other vegetables which had been sown on both sides of the road and were spread out as far as the eye could see across two leagues of plain" (Doolittle 1992).

 Dobyns has estimated that this single field covered about 16 square miles. These were no small family garden plots!

 In addition to areas largely cleared of trees, thousands of additional acres around each village were burned periodically to improve game habitat, facilitate travel, reduce insect pests, remove cover for potential enemies, enhance conditions for berries, and to drive game.

 Plants Domesticated By American Indians

The following plants were domesticated by native peoples: corn, squash, pumpkins, potatoes (both white and sweet), tomatoes, beans, a wide variety of  peppers, blue grapes, peanuts, strawberries, cocoa, vanilla, maple syrup, avocados, pineapples, cassava, tobacco, cotton, watermellons, as well as a variety of gourds.

 These plants have been a lasting legacy of the American Indian, which have profoundly affected the human history of the planet.

 Today, 60 percent of U.S. crop production, on a value basis, comes from crops originally domesticated by Native Americans.  These plants also sustain
 countless millions in other lands.  Since European Contact, there has been no native American plant domesticated for human food.  All that exist owe their
 origins to the efforts of native peoples.

 The Impact of Disease on American Indians:

 Most accounts of the effect of disease on American Indians are from European sources.  Only a few passages survive that bear the witness of those so
 terribly afflicted.  In one of these, a native account of one of the earliest disease outbreaks sometime between August 1519 and October 1520 in Guatamala (from the -Annals of the Cakchiquels-), describes the horror:

  It happened that during the twenty-fifth year the plague began, oh my sons!...It was truly terrible, the number of dead there were during that period....Little by little heavy shadows and black night enveloped our fathers and grandfathers and us also, oh my sons!...

  Great was the stench of the dead.  After our fathers and grandfathers succumbed, half of the people fled the fields.  The dogs and the vultures devoured the bodies.  The mortality was terrible.  Your grandfathers died, and with them died the son of the king and his brothers and kinsmen.  So it was we became orphans, oh my sons!...All of us were thus.  We were born to die!

  Native text on the the impact of small pox in Tenochtitlan, Mexico (1520):

  While the Spanish were in Tlaxcala, a great plague broke out (in Tenochtitlan)...and lasted seventy days, striking everywhere in the city and killing a vast number of people.  Sores erupted on our faces, our breasts, our bellies; we were covered with agonizing sores from head to foot.

  The illness was so dreadful that no one could walk or move.  The sick were so utterly helpless that they could only lie on their beds like corpses, unable to move their limbs or even their heads.  They could not lie face down or    roll from one side to the other.  If they did move their bodies, they screamed with pain.

  A great many died from the plague, and many others died of hunger.  They could not get up to search for food, and everyone else was too sick to care for them, so they starved to death in their beds.

 Aztec meditation on the fleeting nature of life on Earth:

  Truly do we live on earth?
  Not forever on earth; only a little while here.
  Although it be jade, it will be broken.
  Although it be gold, it is crushed.
  Although it be quetzal feather, it is torn asunder.
  Not forever on earth; only a little while here.

 The European Response to Indian Disease

 Many European settlers were appalled at seeing the dreadful suffering of the Indians.  William Bradford of the Plymouth Colony wrote of their "fearful" and
 "lamentable condition as they lie on their hard mats....what with cold and other distempers, they die like rotten sheep."

 Even so, it was common for Europeans to view what was happening as God's way of "sweeping away" the native populations and "making room" for the new arrivals.  John Winthrop wrote that:  "God hath hereby cleared our title to this place."

 Plymouth, as well as many other English settlements were located on Indian village sites abandoned due to epidemics (in the case of Plymouth, the epidemic
 of 1616).  Such sites were choice locations because they substantially reduced the labor needed to clear the forest for agriculture and were commonly the best
 agricultural lands.

Indigenous Social Disintegration
Wrought By European Disease

 The epidemics caused severe social disorganization to American Indian societies.  Traditional alliances and kinship ties were disrupted and confidence in leaders, medicine men and traditional ways was undermined.  Not surprisingly, such frightful losses severely demoralized those that survived.

 Robert Cushman wrote of the Indians near Plymouth in the early 17th century:

  "Those that are left, have their courage much abated, and their countenance is dejected, and they seem as a people affrighted."

 The fact that Indians were so severely affected, while Europeans were not, was taken by both the Europeans and the Indians themselves as a sign of the superiority of the European God and culture.  John Winthrop wrote that during the smallpox epidemic of 1633:

  "divers of them, in their sickness, confessed that the Englishmen's God was a good God; and that, if they recovered, they would serve Him."

 Many converted to Christianity in the hope that the European God would protect them from the dreadful sickness.  It was a false hope.  While precise numbers
 are not available, just in New England, American Indian populations went from over 70,000 in 1600, to less than 12,000 seventy-five years later.  Large areas of the eastern forest were virtually depopulated by the pestilence.  Tens of thousands of acres of Native American fields were abandoned and began to revert
 back to forest.

 Ecological Effect of Indian Depopulation

 By the time European settlers began to push away from the coastal areas in the late 1700s and early 1800s, American Indian populations in the interior were a  shadow of their former numbers.  Forest regrowth was well advanced on many abandoned Indian village sites and croplands.   It is likely that many European-American settlers did not even recognize them for what they were.

 In 1796, more than three centuries after the first European contact and a century and a half after the first English settlement at Jamestown,  a French naturalist visiting the new American nation wrote that:

  "The most striking feature (of the country) is an almost universal forest, starting at the Atlantic and thickening and enlarging to the heart of the country."

 He said that in his travels into America's interior that he "scarcely passed, for three miles together through a tract of unwooded or cleared land."

 It is quite likely that America was more heavily forested in 1800 than it had been in 1500.

 American Indian Population Decline

 While the numbers of native peoples in the Americas at time of Contact remains controversial, the current range of estimates is between 60 and 100 million in all of the Americas.

 By 1650, the Indian population is estimated to have dropped by more than 90 percent.

 By 1750, two and a half centuries after the beginning of the "Columbian  Exchange, the total human population of the Americas (European and American  Indian), was
only about 16 million, one forth or less of what it had been 250 years earlier.

 In North America, the pre-Contact Indian population has been estimated at between 8-19 million.  By 1800, it had dropped to one million or less.

 Introduction of European diseases to the Americas led to one of the greatest human tragedies in history.  Most of this holocaust went on out of sight of  Europeans, and hence, is unrecorded.


   The September 1992 issue of the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, "The America's Before and After 1492: Current Geographical
" (223 pp.).

  Bonnicksen, T.M. et al. American Indian influences on the development of North America's native forest ecosystems. Draft paper (1/12/97) for the Chief's Ecological Stewardship Conference, Tucson, Az, 12/95.

  Cronon, W. 1985. Changes in the land: Indians, colonists, and the ecology of New England. Hill and Wang. New York, N.Y.

  De Aristequi, Pilar. The Diary of Christopher Columbus. Transcribed by Fray Bartolome de las Casas, Euroherve Editorial: Madrid, Spain 1991.

  Delcourt, P.A. and H.R. Delcort. 1996. Holocene vegetation history of the northern Chattooga Basin, North Carolina. Tennessee Valley Authority Project,
 Personal Services Contract No. TV-95990V, University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

  Dobyns, H.F. 1983. Their number become thinned: Native American population dynamics in eastern North America. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

  Williams, M. 1989. Americans and their forests: an historical geography. Cambridge University Press. New York.

  Page udated November 2, 2004


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