I've got four books in my "completed and need to be blogged about" stack. First up: William Cronon's Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, winner of the 1984 Francis Parkman Prize (awarded to the best book in American history each year). It has been sitting on my shelf for years; I finally hauled it down to complement The American West, which I'm halfway through. First I'll talk about Nephites and North American Indians, then I'll summarize the book. Oh, and keep your eyes open for my new blog widget.
North American Indians
There are plenty of good reasons for seeing North America as the primary setting for the Book of Mormon. It has a decisive advantage over the Central American limited geography hypothesis: Nephite artifacts were actually found in North America (the golden plates, Nephite interpreters, Zelph and Onandagus). Plus I see interesting parallels between textual descriptions of Nephites and what we know of North American Indians, such as a land of many waters (Mosiah 8:8, Mosiah 18, Mormon 6:4); fortified villages (Alma 53:4); and their material culture (Enos 1:20). Joseph's knowledge of Nephites was not limited to the text of the Book of Mormon — he shared his knowledge of Nephite religion and culture with his immediate family (as later recounted by his mother) before he even obtained the plates in 1827, and he placed them upon "this continent," i.e., North America:
During our evening conversations, Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of traveling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life among them.
(History of Joseph Smith, By His Mother, Lucy Mack Smith, Bookcraft, 1958, p. 83, in Chapter 18.) I'm not really arguing for this perspective, just explaining why it is reasonable to read the Book of Mormon against a North American setting. And why it is reasonable, when reading through a Mormon lens, to read scholarly accounts of North American Indian culture against Book of Mormon descriptions. The use and misuse of cultural and literary parallels is, of course, a highly disputed topic. But since the North American setting (for believing Mormons) actually links to real-world Nephite artifacts, that seems like the most reasonable working hypothesis for a simple guy like me. At least until someone from FARMS digs up actual Nephite artifacts in Guatemala or an LDS leader of comparable stature to Joseph Smith stands on a site somewhere in the Yucatan peninsula and says, "This is the place." I don't believe that has happened yet.
The Ecology of New England
With that introduction, let's talk about the book. It is an exercise in ecological history. The author shows how the Indians modified the ecology of New England in major ways, most significantly by clearing the forest underbrush by burning large tracts of forest. They lived in villages but not in fixed villages, a tricky concept to grasp. They would up and relocate the entire village every few years, after using up local resources, especially wood. And there was seasonal movement as well, again to find and gather game or plant resources (they were basically hunter-gatherers). This mobility shaped their whole view of rights in real property: they were oriented to rights in what grew or was found on the land (in legal jargon, profits and uses), not to permanent ownership of particular parcels of the land itself.
The English settlers who first trickled, then streamed into New England during the 17th century weren't willing to recognize Indian use of land as any sort of property right. To the Puritan settlers, you gained ownership of virgin land by enclosing and improving it. They saw Indian use of land as accomplishing neither of these goals, hence they were unwilling to grant the Indians title to anything but small garden plots worked by Indian women (p. 52-56). How convenient. Ironically, under the "New England land system," groups of settlers moving into a township first owned the land communally; it took years to progressively convert the township land to individual ownership (p. 69-72). The big picture is that the Indians were displaced from New England not so much because English settlers displaced Native Americans as that English property law (grounded in the assertion of English sovereignty over New England, all of it) displaced Indian property law. Even when they survived European diseases and learned to coexist with towns full of settlers, the Indians were simply unable to retain their rights to use the land in their territories as they previously had. They lost access to their way of life.
Arrival of Europeans
Chapter 5 recounts some of the details of the actual settlement. Recall that there was contact between fisherman and Indians along the coast, including trading for furs, for a century before English settlers arrived. One of the results was that some European diseases were communicated to the Indians before European settlers set foot there, with devastating results for the Indians.
Thomas Morton told of villages in which only a single inhabitant was left alive. So many died that no one remained to bury the corpses, and crows and wolves feasted on them as they lay. When colonists arrived a few years after the epidemic had spent itself, they found such quantities of bleached bones and skulls that, as Morton said, "it seemed ... a new found Golgotha."
(p. 87; ellipsis in original.) Depopulation on this scale did really occur in some villages (p. 89). For example, Squanto was the sole survivor of his Indian village, smallpox having killed the other inhabitants while he was away. Besides the diseases, there were a few European stragglers — possibly shipwrecked sailors — who actually lived with Indians, and many others who developed trade relations and from whom Indians picked up some familiarity with European langauges.
Explorers who were greeted by Indians speaking French, English, or Basque could have few illusions about being the first Europeans visitors to an area. When the Pilgrims first landed on Cape Cod in 1620, they discovered "a place like a grave" covered with wooden boards. Digging it up, they found layer upon layer of of household goods .... Still, what troubled the graverobbers were not these Indian things, ... [but] the remnants of a man: some of the flesh remained on the bones, and they realized with a shock that "the skull had fine yellow haire still on it." ... A blond European sailor, shipwrecked or abandoned on the Massachusetts coast, had lived as an Indian ... and had been buried in an Indian grave.
(p. 84.) That's enough to give you a flavor of the book. It continues with consideration of how European settlement affected the ecology of New England, bringing deforestation and soil exhaustion. How it became a country of "fields and fences" full of Europeans, their crops, and their domesticated animals, namely hogs, cattle, oxen, horses, and sheep (p. 129; compare 1 Nephi 18:25, Enos 1:21, Alma 17:27, Alma 18:9, and Ether 9:18, which collectively place all these animals in the pre-Columbian New World). And how the introduction of capital (property owned and held for production) allowed the creation of wealth, which had simply not existed in Indian culture which hunted and gathered only for seasonal consumption and which accumulated only small and portable personal property since the whole village would relocate every few years (i.e., there were no rich Indians). I'm sure you'll enjoy the different perspective Changes in the Land brings to the history of the settlement of New England.