Forest Burning and Clearing by Hudson Valley Indians 1000 Years Ago

Posted by Edward V. Curtin on July 28, 2010 in Archaeology |

(This is the second in a series of posts about the environmental context of human ecosystems and archaeological sites, ca. AD 800-1700).

Goldkrest site vicinity

Vicinity of the Goldkrest site, Papscanee Island, May 2010

In describing and interpreting the results of her investigation of the Goldkrest Site near Albany, New York, archaeologist Lucianne Lavin (2004) referred to the radiocarbon dating of burned soil patches with associated charcoal as evidence of forest clearing through the use of fire.  This evidence was found near the transition between soil strata that indicated a stabilizing landscape about AD 1000.  The implication of this information is that as floods became less frequent and less violent due to changes in the Hudson River channel; this section of the Hudson River floodplain became more attractive for gardening to the ancestors of the Mohican Indians.

Thus began a process of clearing the Papscanee Island forest at the Goldkrest site by cutting trees and burning the timber and understory.  Over time, these fields were expanded, and beginning in the 1400s, a small Mohican settlement was established at the Goldkrest site.  This settlement may have been occupied most often during the warmer and drier months.  Although flooding most likely limited year-round settlement at the Goldkrest site, excavation has revealed ample evidence of corn production during the time of year when the site could be used.  In addition, the Mohican name for this site, Nanosech, may have referred to warm-season fishing in this location (Huey 1996).  Perhaps the use of a traditional fishing site grew to include farming as the floods slowed and became less frequent.

The knowledge that Indians burned the Northeastern forests in order to clear settlement space and gardens, or to remove under-story, replenish soil nutrients, and encourage new growth in

Papskanee Island

Papscanee Island, May 2010

recurrently managed forests is not new, but, it seems, this information may be overlooked too frequently.  Too few archaeological surveys and data recovery programs have found evidence of these practices, although Lavin’s interpretation of the Goldkrest site helps to illustrate the role of forest burning in human ecology.  The ethnologist Gordon Day (who had already enjoyed a first career in forestry and botany) provided a seminal synthesis of this subject as early as 1953.  Day discussed in great detail the ethnohistorical literature on the Northeastern Indian use of fire for land clearing, finding that extensive agricultural fields surrounded Indian villages during the early historic period (or otherwise were available for European settlement on abandoned or relinquished tracts during the initial contact period).  Day also described the effect of set fires in the forest to clear out underbrush to make hunting and traveling easier, and foster new growth to attract game animals.

Day’s findings often are repeated by other researchers.  The ecologically-minded historians Stephen Pyne (1982) and William Cronon (1983) developed this subject of forest burning further and brought it to a wider audience, sometimes challenging the conventional wisdom of natural scientists, and influencing a new generation of archaeologists and anthropologists in New York, New England, and the mid-Atlantic region.

A little later, in time for the Christopher Columbus quincentennial of 1992, the Association of American Geographers devoted considerable attention to the pre-contact domesticated landscapes of Native America.  They contemplated an ancient world significantly shaped and managed by human activity, much of it not only intentional, but involved in complex, intricate, and traditional cultural practices.  In doing so, geographers such as Butzer (1992), Denevan (1992), and Doolittle (1992) worked to identify and dispel the “pristine myth” of Native America.  According to Denevan (1992:369), the pristine myth relates that the landscape encountered by the first European explorers in the Americas was “primarily pristine, virgin, a wilderness nearly empty of people”.  Or as the science writer Charles C. Mann (2006:5) has observed, the pristine myth is ‘the belief that the Americas in 1491 were an almost untouched, even Edenic land, “untrammeled by man,” in the words of the Wilderness Act of 1964…’

In another publication marking the Columbian quincentennial, the botanist Stanwyn Shetler (1991:225-226) continued to emphasize the iconic view of the pristine Americas, referring to this world as the “First Eden”.  Primarily concerned with environmental change since 1492, and using contrast to illustrate change, Shetler overemphasized the pristine view compared to the transformation of the Americas after European contact.  While noting that the First Eden began to change when humans first entered the New World, he wrote that the Americas before European contact largely remained “a pristine natural kingdom…The native people were transparent in the landscape, living as natural elements of the ecosphere.”

But what about all that use of fire to clear forests for planting, and to create park-like hunting grounds described by early European explorers and settlers, so nicely researched by Gordon Day?  What of the alternative to the pristine myth that Denevan (1992:369) asks about?  Was the pre-Colombian landscape, in Denevan’s words, actually “a humanized landscape, with the imprint of Native Americans being dramatic and persistent?”  (Denevan [1992] considers not only the effects of set fires, but also road, earthwork, terrace, and other Native American construction in his perspective of a dramatic and persistent human imprint).

At the same time that Lucianne Lavin and colleagues (1996) began to publish on the Goldkrest site, archaeologist Roger Moeller (1996) brought an ecological perspective to the archaeology of the late prehistoric period, exposing the pristine myth and adopting the perspectives of Day, Cronon, Pyne, Denevan, and others who had been concerned with showing that American Indians could not be considered as “transparent” on the landscape, or “living as natural elements” during the long period before contact with Europeans.  Moeller importantly drew attention to the long time frame during which humans altered the environment by creating settlement space and taking advantage of the changes that their activities created, including increases in the frequency and spatial distribution of useful plant and animal species.

Moeller also focused attention on the edge-effect, the increase in plant and animal species diversity and abundance at the forest edge.  Making clearings and expanding them over time increased the edge-effect, in turn increasing the richness of locally available food sources and other products, and effectively adding resilience to the human ecosystem.  Integrating agriculture into this patchy system could further increase resiliency, especially if different micro-environments were used for gardens.  Given today’s concern with the effects of climate change, it is particularly intriguing to think about Moeller’s (1996:65) observation that the successional effects introduced by ancient land-clearing in the Eastern Woodlands “exceed those of climate change over the short term.”  Could it be that the environmental diversity associated with humanly-created patchworks of woods and clearings– containing ample edge area– buffered Native American populations from the effects of climate change during the Medieval Warm Period (AD 800-1300) and the Little Ice Age (AD 1300-1860)?

Recent research by Pederson et al (2005) has observed significant evidence of the Medieval Warm Period in the lower Hudson region.  Some of this evidence is a substantial influx of wood charcoal into stream sediments at that time, as revealed in soil cores taken from Piermont Marsh.  While the current assumption is that the charcoal indicates increased natural burning during extended droughts (which are also indicated by other, complementary evidence), it may well be time to entertain the possibility that increased evidence of fire ca AD 800-1300 may partially, or perhaps mainly, indicate human activity, such as controlled burns designed to enhance hunting, and the gradual but progressive expansion of humanly created settlement space, meadows, agricultural fields, and forest edges.


Butzer, Karl W.
1992  The Americas Before and After 1492:  An Introduction to Current Geographical Research.  In The Americas Before and After 1492:  Current Geographical Research, edited by Karl W. Butzer.  Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82(3):345-368.

Cronon, William
1983  Changes in the Land:  Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England.  Hill and Wang, New York.

Day, Gordon M.
1953  The Indian as an Ecological Factor in the Northeastern Forest. Ecology 34(2):329-346.  (Reprinted 1998 in In Search of Native New England’s Past:  Selected Essays of Gordon M. Day, edited by Michael K. Foster and William Cowan, pp. 27-48, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst).

Denevan, William M.
1992  The Pristine Myth:  The Landscape of the Americas in 1492.  In The Americas Before and After 1492:  Current Geographical Research, edited by Karl W. Butzer.  Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82(3):369-385.

Doolittle, William E.
1992  Agriculture in North America on the Eve of Contact:  A Reassessment.  In The Americas Before and After 1492:  Current Geographical Research, edited by Karl W. Butzer.  Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82(3):386-401.

Huey, Paul
1996  A Short History of Cuyper Island, Towns of East Greenbush and Schodack, New York, and Its Relation to Dutch and Mahican Culture Contact.  In A Northeastern Millennium:  History and Archaeology for Robert E. Funk, edited by Christopher Lindner and Edward V. Curtin.  Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology 12:131-147.

Lavin, Lucianne
2004  Mohican/Algonquian Settlement Patterns:  An Archaeological Perspective.  In The Continuance – An Algonquian Peoples Seminar, edited by Shirley Dunn.  New York State Museum Bulletin 501, Albany.

Lavin, Lucianne, Marina E. Mozzi, J. William Bouchard, and Karen Hartgen
1996  The Goldkrest Site:  An Undisturbed, Multi-component Woodland Site in the Heart of Mahikan Territory.  In A Northeastern Millennium:  History and Archaeology for Robert E. Funk, edited by Christopher Lindner and Edward V. Curtin.  Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology 12:113-129.

Mann, Charles C.
2006  1491:  New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.  Vintage Books, New York.

Moeller, Roger W.
1996  Some Thoughts on Late Woodland Ecology.  In A Northeastern Millennium:  History and Archaeology for Robert E. Funk, edited by Christopher Lindner and Edward V. Curtin.  Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology 12:61-66.

Pederson, Dee Cabaniss, Dorothy M. Peteet, Dorothy Kurdyla, and Tom Guilderson
2005  Medieval Warming, Little Ice Age, and European Impact on the Environment during the Last Millennium in the Lower Hudson Valley, New York, USA.  Quaternary Research 63(2):238-249.

Pyne, Stephen J.
1982  Fire in America:  A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire.  Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.  Reprinted by University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1997.

Shetler, Stanwyn G.
1991  Three Faces of Eden.  In Seeds of Change, edited by Herman J. Viola and Carolyn Margolis,  pp.  225-247.  Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington.


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  • Howard Katz says:

    Ed,You might recall that after your May, 2010 presentation at the Auringer-Seelye Chapter of NYSAA, I spoke to you of my research re: modeling archaeolgical site burial in soil, and interest in reviewing as many field reports as possible of such sites. You told me of your dig of the John Robinson 2 site, an Archaic site buried in soil. If in hard copy only, perhaps you could send me a copy of your final report, or, alternatively bring a copy of the report to the April 2011 NYSAA Conference which I’ll be attending and at which I see you’re presenting. If digitized, perhaps you could e-mail it to me. Thank you, Howard.

  • […] sites within its landscape; and explored concepts such as circular community plans, histories of forest clearing and alteration, and some possible Garnetiferous gneiss bannerstone fragment (Curtin […]

  • […] summer I wrote about ancient forest clearing practices of American Indians in the Eastern Woodlands region, particularly in reference to the Mohawk and […]

  • […] Curtin on August 12, 2011 in Archaeology, Paleoecology | Subscribe (The fourth in a series of posts about the environmental context of human ecosystems and archaeological sites in eastern North […]


    I suggest that for a primary source witness to forest burning you reference Adriaen Van Der Donck’s Description of New Netherlands, recently retranslated by the New Netherland Project.

  • Ed Curtin says:

    Rudy,thank you for bringing this up and mentioning the new translation. I indirectly referenced Van Der Donck by citing the seminal article on Indian forest clearing by Gordon Day, which is also highly recommended. Day made a broad geographic survey of many colonial sources, including observations made in the Albany area or elsewhere in the Hudson valley, Staten Island and Long Island by Jogues, Van Der Donck, De Vries, and Rasieres. Day’s infernce based specifically on Van Der Donck is that the amount of land cleared in this region by Indians is probably underestimated, since Van Der Donck noted that there would be more “meadows” if the forest did not grow back so quickly (providing a great snapshot of the dynamics of 17th century human ecology in the Hudson valley area). The translation of Van Der Donk that Day used in 1953 was published in 1841. The copy that resides on my bookshelf appears to be the same, except with editing by Thomas O’Donnell (published in 1968). It is important to have a current translation, informed by recent scholarship– Kudos to the New Netherland project!

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