Annual Meeting Preview: “Indigenous and Euro-American Resource Rights in the Northeast, 1730–1840”

This session takes place on Thursday, April 4, at the 2019 OAH Annual Meeting in Philadelphia and is endorsed by the OAH Committee on National Park Service Collaboration and the Western History Association

Chair and Commentator: Karen Auman, Brigham Young University

“A Scattered People: Protecting Haudenosaunee Mobility, Autonomy, and Ecosystems, 1730-1779
Kelly Hopkins, University of Houston

Conflict in the Commons: Rivers, Fishing, and Resource Rights in New England, 1760-1840
Erik Reardon, Colby College

“The Great Disadvantages We are Under”: Indians, Waterpower, and Dispossession in Colonial New England
Zachary Bennett, Rutgers University

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Indigenous And Euro-American Resource Rights In The Northeast, 1730–1840

Natives and Euro-Americans exploited multiple aspects of their local and distant geographic environment for subsistence needs. An expanding Atlantic World market economy, however, threatened longstanding subsistence practices and ecosystems. When Euro-Americans denuded the landscape for timber sales and colonial farms, for example, they eliminated woodlands essential for native hunting. Euro-American dams also blocked the fish runs on which natives and rural colonial communities depended for survival. In addition, Euro-American hunters and fishers competed with natives for increasingly limited environmental resources. This session illuminates indigenous and colonial practices that governed the harvest of natural resources and stresses the overlap and tension that shaped colonial and indigenous relationships with the natural world. An environmental history of Early America demonstrates how economic interests in distant Atlantic World markets challenged the subsistence practices, freedom of movement, and autonomy of different indigenous and Euro-American communities, as well as the varied responses of those impacted communities.

What do we hope attendees take away from this session? Collectively, these papers speak to the experiences of very different peoples within specific geographies and ecologies. The Northeast as a distinct bioregion offered a variety of pathways for success in subsistence and rural economies, such as game, fisheries, forests, and soils. But colonial and indigenous communities could not rely on inexhaustible supplies and with the increasing influence of European commodity markets, they struggled to redefine their position within colonial power structures and the regional ecology. Indians and Euro-Americans, however, were remarkably resourceful in managing the disruptive transformations to critical ecosystems that settler expansion and a distant Atlantic World market produced. Consequently, the papers in this session highlight an array of innovative indigenous and Euro-American responses to rapid colonial and market expansion into their respective homelands.

Although narratives of environmental declension so often characterize the Colonial and Early National Period, it is important to recognize that Native Americans and early Americans took meaningful steps to protect critical ecosystems and to curtail the over-exploitation of resources vital to maintaining their subsistence and rural economies. Historical maps that document settlement patterns, legislative commitments that outline community and legal protections, and in-depth data on specific resources offer new historical material that underscores efforts to strengthen the political and economic autonomy of impacted communities as well as a sensitivity to environmental decline not often attributed to early Americans.

The period between the Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution is still quite understudied. Yet this was the period when the colonial population skyrocketed and the carrying capacity of the land was put under serious strain. As a result, there is still room to explore colonial and indigenous communities as they negotiated the increasing demands on their environment and sought to place limits on their own and each other’s consumption of natural resources. In addition, while the intellectual and cultural origins of Imperial crises and Indian wars are well-studied, the work of the panelists suggests that the environment is a factor that may better explain the political changes North America underwent in the second half of the eighteenth century.


Kelly Hopkins, University of Houston

Posted: March 15, 2019
Tagged: Previews, Conference, OAH Works