Eyewitness Accounts

For many years, historians supported the argument that Native Americans had very little impact on the environment. Believing that Native Americans lived in harmony with nature, the first European explorers who arrived in the New World thought they were viewing an “untouched” landscape. In recent years, scholars have begun to rethink this line of reasoning, contending instead that Native Americans, much like the Europeans and all other people of the world, purposely altered their surroundings to better suit their needs.

In the previous exercise you learned that historians generally have to rely upon artifacts in order to gain a better understanding of prehistoric people. Although historians still use artifacts when studying the lives of Native Americans after European contact, another type of written evidence exists to help scholars unlock the mysteries of the past: eyewitness accounts written by European explorers and colonists.

In groups of 2-3 read the following 5 eyewitness accounts aloud. Think about the main idea of each and how the statements might relate to the historical debate surrounding prehistoric Native Americans and the environment.

  1. "[We] 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."
    - Description of Native American agricultural field in northern Florida by a Spanish chronicler writing about DeSoto’s expedition (1539-43).
  2. "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."
    - Francis Higginson writing about the country around Salem, Massachusetts in 1630.
  3. "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."
    - Observation of the forest by Andrew White while on an expedition along the Potomac in 1633
  4. “And this custom of firing the Country is the meanes to make it passable; and by that meanes the trees growe here and there as in our parks: and makes the Country very beautifull and commodious.”
    - Comment by Thomas Morton about Native American use of fire on the landscape in 1637
  5. "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."
    - Statement of a French naturalist in 1796, more than 3 centuries after the first European contact