Land Use Differences in Native and English Communities

Essay by Ann Daly, Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at Brown University

When Roger Williams fled the Massachusetts and Plymouth colonies in 1636, fearing prosecution for his religious and political beliefs, it was the middle of a winter so cold that even Narragansett Bay froze. For fourteen weeks, Williams went from Native village to Native village with little in the way of food and even less clothing. For the rest of his life, he spoke very little of the weeks he spent wandering in the snow, saying only that “ravens fed me in the wilderness.”

1John M. Barry, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty, (New York: Viking Press, 2012) 214.

Luckily for Williams, he had a piece of cutting edge navigational technology with him: a compass. This compass allowed him to navigate through unfamiliar wilderness in the deep snow on his seventy mile journey from Boston to the future site of Providence. When spring came, he climbed into his canoe, paddled into Narragansett Bay, and began scouting inlets and coves to find a site where he could build a town. While Williams walked and canoed into Narragansett and Wampanoag territory, he encountered both new environments and new ways of understanding the natural world.

English settlers in New England frequently marveled at the landscapes they encountered. Coming from England, a densely populated small island where the forests had long been cut down, the vast expanses of woods and oceans teeming with fish seemed unimaginably rich. As one English fur trader, Thomas Morton, remarked, “if this land be not rich, then is the whole world poor.”2Ibid, 180.

Native people had carefully managed the forests and lands Williams encountered. The New England landscape contained many different environments, from forested woodlands and freshwater ponds to shorelines teeming with clams and oysters. Before the arrival of European settlers, Native people moved from place to place throughout the year in order to take advantage of this natural bounty. In some native cultures women farmed, clearing land for fields and using fish as fertilizer for their crops. Other groups relied on hunting and gathering. These groups often burned the woods to clear the way for their hunters. By burning out the underbrush, these fires left only the largest and most mature trees and made it easier to move through the forest. When English fur traders first arrived in New England, they remarked that the forests appeared to be carefully managed. They even compared these forests to their own English parks and hunting grounds, with broad swaths of open space between large trees.

As much as Native land management practices may have resembled those of the English, Native people and English colonists had fundamentally different understandings of how to use natural resources. While Native people shaped the land in order to better suit their needs, they expected to take only what they needed to survive. The English expected the land to produce both substance and a surplus of goods that could be sold within a market. The demands of the English market eventually affected both the land and Native culture. The demand for American furs in England led to overhunting, and the English desire for wampum forced Native people to settle into sedentary villages near the shells needed for production. In importing European economies and culture into lands that, ecologically, did not support those forms, the English changed and devastated the environment.


Wampum: A currency of clamshell beads

Sedentary: Inhabitants remained in one location throughout the year


Why did Roger Williams leave the Massachusetts colony in 1636?

Why did Native people move from place to place throughout the year?

What were some differences in how Native people and English settlers used natural resources?

  • 1
    John M. Barry, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty, (New York: Viking Press, 2012) 214.
  • 2
    Ibid, 180.