Deep History

Prairie Erth by William Least Heat-Moon. Houghton-Mifflin Co. 1991.

This book is deep history of a single locality, Chase County Kansas, a thinly populated, largely rural part of the Flint Hills and the great North American grasslands. The book’s coverage extends far into the geologic past and up to the early 1990s. By then, as in much of rural America a peak of population and development had been passed, and its farms, ranches, villages and towns were becoming depopulated. Heat-Moon spent many months driving and walking about the county, systematically taking up one by one the grid of USGS topographic maps (twelve central ones and thirteen more that cover the edges) that include Chase County. He talked with a great many of the residents and others with connections to the land, the people and the history. He also read extensively, prefacing each of the twelve sections (one for each central topo map) with a series of excerpts from his commonplace book, relating to the themes he follows in that section. The quotations come from hundreds of books, newspapers, journals.

Geology, botany, zoology occupy almost as much of the six hundred pages as the people. A Native American himself, he devotes much space to the aboriginal people, the Kaw, also sometimes called the Kansa (among a host of other names that he cites) By the time he wrote, the few remaining members of that tribe resided on Oklahoma, to which they had been “removed” in the 1870s.

Summarizing this remarkable work of observation, listening and reflection is not possible. I was deeply impressed both by how fascinating a seemingly backwater place can be and by how deeply Heat-Moon engaged with the land and people. Despite often being seen as an eccentric outsider, he showed great respect for the locals and was able to win the confidence of many. His self reflections are often profound and often extremely amusing. The best travel writers often are like that: I think of Bill Bryson.

What I realized reading Prairie Erth was how much I am interested in the deep history of the places I have lived. I think that’s why I am captivated by books that lay out the events that shaped the landscapes I am most familiar with. If you have seen my earlier posts, New World History, Forgotten but not Gone, Ecosystem Lost and Found?, The Journeys of Holling C. Holling, and even Amphibious Reflections, you will have encountered my interest.

I live in the Pine Barrens region of southern New Jersey, on land once part of Gloucester Plantation, which was centered on Gloucester Furnace, an iron foundry. It can be fairly said that the Pine Barrens were one of the industrial centers of the early United States, although now, many people describe them as a “pristine wilderness.” This sort of blindness to the past seems endemic among us, as amply demonstrated in Forgotten Grasslands of the South and Looking for Longleaf.

Fortunately, there have always been some more inquiring minds, who have sought out the past and tried to preserve or at least document it. For my area, there are many books, like Forgotten Towns of Southern New Jersey, that record these past landscapes and communities. Many individuals like Jean Soderland, are researching the history of indigenous people. There is now a periodical devoted to all aspects of the regions history, SoJourn.

I have had at least five colleagues who dedicated their research to understanding the geological and cultural history of the region: a hydrologist, a geographer, a historian, an archaeologist and a geologist. The geologist started out in horticulture, but became so interested in the natural landscapes of the Pine Barrens that he took a PhD in geology to further his collaborations with a noted glacial geologist. He has contributed greatly to our knowledge of the ways that the Ice Ages shaped the topography of the Pine Barrens and indeed the entire North American coastal plain.

The North American Coastal Plain consists of marine of riverine sands and gravels accumulated on the edge of the ocean. From these soils develop that drain rapidly and are prone to severe drought. Fire has been a force in the landscape for millions of years, varying in frequency and intensity with climate and, since a few thousand years ago, with human activity. Groundwater saturates these porous sediments, often nearly to or above the surface. Upland vegetation historically burned often, the extensive lowlands only in severe droughts. 

 The ice age climate was dry, cold and ferociously windy as frigid air flowed off the ice sheets only a short way north. The landscape that developed as the climate warmed included wide but very shallow river channels, with streams too small for their valleys. These were created by melting permafrost. There are numerous shallow ponds in depressions, some nearly circular, created by powerful winds during full glacial periods, others long, winding and narrow, created by blowing sand blocking stream courses. Low, sandy ridges are the remains of ancient fields of dunes created by the same winds that blew out the depressions. 

Early European settlers cut the trees, dammed the streams and began creating mills, cranberry bogs and crop fields. They started many iron plantations in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries, utilizing the local bog iron, the pine forests (for charcoal) and the shell maddens left by the aboriginal inhabitants, the Lenape, to produce iron. As iron industry moved west, paper and glassmaking took over the old water powered mill sites.

Today, the former Gloucester Plantation tract has been through several phases of settlement and resettlement. The land was promoted in a real estate endeavor that became Egg Harbor City. A town was laid out, at first facing Landing Creek and the Mullica River, then reoriented to the railroad that was built in the 1850s from Philadelphia to Atlantic City. The hinterlands were sold as farms, mainly to German-speaking immigrants, most of whom left eastern cities to escape the anti-immigrant Know-nothings (see Before the Storm and Politics and War) Egg Harbor City thrived as an agricultural and small manufacturing town and then gradually faded until the advent of the FAA Technical Center, Stockton College (now University) and the Atlantic City Casinos. These brought in new residents, but not much new commerce, which developed mostly in the central and eastern parts of Atlantic County. The establishment of the Pinelands National Reserve in 1979 restricted commercial and industrial development and even residential development over much of the Gloucester tract.

 Farming continues, mainly commercial blueberries (a crop developed in the Pine Barrens) and, more recently, community supported agriculture. Much of the land, however, reverted to forest. Not the open woodlands of the years before fire suppression became the policy in New Jersey, but dense, closed canopy oak and pine forests, with thick understory of huckleberries. This lowered the groundwater table, drying up ponds and headwater streams. It also caused the native herbaceous plants to become much less frequent and with them their associated insects, especially butterflies and moths. Many are now only found in a few well managed preserves and, ironically, in utility line corridors and airports, which are kept open by mowing in the dormant season.  

The region’s roadsides, once a haven for native herbs, have been converted by mowing and addition of cool season grass, to monotonous and sterile strips. Unpaved roads, trails and open areas are now the domain of off-road vehicle enthusiasts, who flood the Pine Barrens on weekends, destroying habitat. The worst are the “mudders,” who have wiped out hundreds of localities for rare and endangered wetland plants. Species not native to the Pine Barrens are increasingly taking over, especially on recently abandoned cleared land. I am in continual struggle with autumn olive, multiflora rose, Asian barberry, and Eurasian bittersweet.

I pin my hopes on the position of the New Jersey Coastal Plain as the northernmost (excepting Long Island and Cape Cod) part of the great North American Coastal Plain biodiversity hotspot.  As climate change pushes populations northward and sea level rise shrinks the Coastal Plain, southern New Jersey may be a critical refuge for southern species. But who can tell? It could just as well succumb to rampant deregulation and competing interests, like the infernal off-roaders. 

Change over millions of years shaped the landscape and the evolution of the Pine Barrens’ characteristic flora and fauna. I tried to impress this on my students in the years I taught ecology. The processes that operate in the lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere – energy flow, nutrient cycling, population dynamics, evolution and cultural change – shape what we see around us. And every development leaves traces on the land and in the living organisms that inhabit it. Without an understanding of the history of the place you are in, you cannot understand its present or future.

Contact, Conflict and Cooperation

Soderland, Jean R. 2015. Lenape Country. Delaware Valley Society Before William Penn. Phila. U. Penn. Press. Early American Studies Series. 249 pp.

An interesting, if somewhat repetitive, account of the period from 1630s to mid-1700’s, when Lenape and Susquehanna Indians, Swedes and Finns, Dutch and English contended for the trade in beaver skins, etc. coming down from Canada. Soderland’s point is that most of this struggle was peaceful or at least not open warfare and the Lenape managed to remain masters of the territory surrounding the Delaware (Lenapewihittuck or South) River, until William Penn’s sons and other land swindlers got the last large tract on the west side from them in the 1700s. For much of that time, Swedes, Finns and Lenapes formed an alliance against the Dutch and English, resisting their attempts to acquire and govern large areas of territory. The Europeans were largely confined to small outposts along both sides of the river up to the time that the Quakers began to acquire large tracts for settlers.

Part of her contention is that Penn’s treaty was not anything really new. The Lenape had been fairly skillful negotiators all along and willing to employ threats and force to keep the other groups from extablishing large settlements and plantations, as Europeans had in Virginia and New England. They also had to deal with threats from Maryland settlers, but here they were aided by the other Europeans. She repeatedly points out that the only sizable massacre in the lower Delaware region was near the site of Lewes, Delaware, in 1631, an early show of willingness by the Lenape to use violence to stop large scale settlement.

The Europeans learned not to assume that their concepts of ownership and transfer of rights were understood by the Lenape, and they preferred to keep negotiating peace for the sake of continued trade rather than revenging past wrongs or trying for outright conquest. This may have simply been due to lack of means. Their “companies,” back in Sweden, the Netherlands and England had limited resources and aims and often could not supply trade goods or support for the settlers. Still, she implies that some of the local directors and governors were simply more inclined to diplomacy than war and that the Lenape were more than willing to go along, despite the mockery of other tribes, especially those to the north, who were often agitating for war. She claims that at one point, around the time of Bacon’s Rebellion and King Phillips’s War in the 1670s, if the Lenape had joined the rest of the native Americans in an all out assault, they might have driven out the Europeans. Seems unlikely, but they certainly could have dealt a massive setback in the whole mid-Atlantic region, with unimaginable future consequences, for example for the French position in North America, etc.

The background to all this, of course, is the gradual decline of the native population due to epidemic disease. Does this stark fact lend credence to Jared Diamond’s guns, germs and steel theory? I’d like to not think so. Part of what’s missing in that view is the central role played by trade in keeping both sides in contact with each other throughout the period. The other point is that both sides suffered a lot from diseases, although Europeans may have been somewhat more resistant. There is no suggestion that the epidemics were an actual weapon. In fact, they instigated revenge killings (she calls it “mourning war”) and so were a source of friction between Europeans and Americans.

The other point is that the Lenape and the Europeans rather quickly began to intermingle in many ways – tools, agriculture, marriage. The Lenape didn’t like the Europeans’ domestic animals, which were often a cause of conflict, and they showed little inclination to become Christians, which led a lot of preachers to accuse them of devil worship. But particularly with the Swedes and Finns, there seems to have been a fair amount of cooperation. There are several cases described in the book of both sides handling criminal complaints about the other side in a way that worked fairly well.

One aspect that surpised me was the very low estimate of the number of European heads of household in West Jersey as late as the count in 1671: seven men and no women. Was some segment of the population simply being missed? Do other records indicate that there were Europeans living in some places where they were missed in the count? One of the recent books she criticizes is Bernard Bailyn’s The Barbarous Years. (Knopf 2012), may be worth a look.

Image: Nautical chart of the Dutch colony Zwaanendael and Godyn’s Bay (Delaware Bay), 1639 – Wikipedia