U.S. Forest Service History > People > American Indians
"... 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."
the Diary of Christopher Columbus, October 1492.
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:
In 1630, Francis Higginson wrote about the country around Salem, Massachussetts, that:
In 1637, Thomas Morton wrote that the Indians:
Roger Williams wrote that:
In surveying the boundary between the states of North Carolina and Georgia in 1811, Andrew Ellicott wrote that:
John Smith commented that in the forests around Jamestown in Virginia:
Andrew White, on an expedition along the Potomac in 1633, observed that the forest was:
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Native text on the the impact of small pox in Tenochtitlan, Mexico (1520):
Aztec meditation on the fleeting nature of life on Earth:
Truly do we live on earth?
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
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,
Indigenous Social Disintegration
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:
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:
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
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:
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
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
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,
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