Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History

The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History

Carolyn Merchant
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History
    Book Description:

    How and why have Americans living at particular times and places used and transformed their environment? How have political systems dealt with conflicts over resources and conservation? This is the only major reference work to explore all the major themes and debates of the burgeoning field of environmental history. Humanity´s relationship with the natural world is one of the oldest and newest topics in human history. The issue emerged as a distinct field of scholarship in the early 1970s and has been growing steadily ever since. The discipline´s territory and sources are rich and varied and include climactic and geological data, court records, archaeological digs, and the writings of naturalists, as well as federal and state economic and resource development and conservation policy. Environmental historians investigate how and why natural and human-created surroundings affect a society´s development. Merchant provides a context-setting overview of American environmental history from the beginning of the millennium; an encyclopedia of important concepts, people, agencies, and laws; a chronology of major events; and an extensive bibliography including films, videos, CD-Roms, and websites. This concise "first stop" reference for students and general readers contains an accessible overview of environmental history; a mini-encyclopedia of ideas, people, legislation, and agencies; a chronology of events and their significance; and a bibliography of books, magazines, and journals as well as films, videos, CD-ROMs, and online resources. In addition to providing a wealth of factual information, The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History explores contentious issues in this much-debated field, from the idea of wilderness to global warming.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50584-0
    Subjects: History of Science & Technology, Environmental Science, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xiii-xx)

    The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History introduces the many dimensions of human interaction with nature over time. As people have lived and spread out over the planet, they have modified its forests, plains, and deserts. Those changes in turn have affected the ways in which people organize their social and religious systems. The Guide offers the reader a brief history of that interaction as it took place in North America; a mini-encyclopedia of concepts, laws, agencies, and people pertinent to the field; a timeline of important events; and a set of print, visual, and electronic resources for further reading...

  5. Part I. Historical Overview:: Topics and Themes

    • 1 The American Environment and Native-European Encounters, 1000–1875
      (pp. 3-23)

      The physical environment that constitutes the present United States can be characterized in terms of its area, location, climate, rainfall, and topography. Its total area is approximately 3.6 million square miles. The 48 contiguous states extend from the 24th parallel at the tip of Florida to the 49th parallel at their northern border with Canada, falling between 66 and 125 degrees west longitude. Alaska lies between 54 and 72 degrees north latitude and 130 degrees east longitude, with the westernmost point of the Aleutian Islands being in the Eastern Hemisphere at 172 degrees east longitude. The tropical Hawaiian Islands are...

    • 2 The New England Wilderness Transformed, 1600–1850
      (pp. 24-38)

      The New England forest provided rich, although different, resources for Native Americans and European colonists. It is made up of three primary ecological regions. The northern forest is composed of conifers, such as balsam, fir, and spruce, and hardwoods, such as aspen and birch—food for the beavers prized by Indians and colonists for their furs. In the middle band, where Indians established horticulture and hunted deer, immigrants found white pine for ship masts, red and white oak for barrel staves, and hickory for farm tools. The southernmost band of the forest is the oak and pitch pine region, suitable...

    • 3 The Tobacco and Cotton South, 1600–1900
      (pp. 39-58)

      Nature’s fecundity greatly impressed the English who first settled on the southeastern coast of North America—first on Roanoke Island (present-day North Carolina) in 1585 and then permanently, in 1607, further north at Jamestown (present-day Virginia) near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. Off the coast of the future state of North Carolina, Arthur Barlowe reported in 1584 that his expedition encountered “so sweet and so strong a smel, as if we had bene in the midst of some delicate garden.” And on Roanoke Island, the soil was “the most plentifull, sweete, fruitful and wholesome of all the world.” The following...

    • 4 Nature and the Market Economy, 1750–1850
      (pp. 59-79)

      The environmental costs of commercial production did not reach most of America until the nineteenth century. Above the fall line and beyond the reach of coastal markets, retreating Indians were supplanted by Euro-American subsistence farmers attracted by cheap land. Their small farms spread over the hills of upland New England, the woodlands of western Pennsylvania, the southern Piedmont, and the valleys of the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains. In these areas, limited production supplied the rude comforts of subsistence, and transportation costs prohibited open-ended production for the market. Economic and social relationships were based largely on bartering and cooperation, as...

    • 5 Western Frontiers: The Settlement of California and the Great Plains, 1820–1930
      (pp. 80-99)

      The western United States was acquired in several stages during the first half of the nineteenth century. The Louisiana Purchase in 1803, which extended westward from the Mississippi River to the Continental Divide, had inspired President Thomas Jefferson to send Merriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers. They crossed the mountains in Idaho and followed the Columbia River to the Pacific. Following their successful return, numerous expeditions were mounted by fur traders and explorers into the Rocky, Sierra Nevada, and Cascade Mountains. By the 1840s, most of the land west of the Mississippi had...

    • 6 Urban Environments, 1850–1960
      (pp. 100-119)

      Living nature disappeared from everyday experience for most Americans by the mid-twentieth century. Amidst the urban world’s masonry, steel, and asphalt, manicured remnants of greenery camouflaged the built environment’s dependence on the natural world of forests, waters, air, and wildlife. Urbanization and industrialization, the twin processes propelling this shift, had moved into high gear following the market revolution of the early nineteenth century.

      In 1800, only 320,000 people—or 6 percent of the population of the United States—lived in urban areas of more than 2,500 persons. Except for the northeastern seaboard, the country was largely rural. By the advent...

    • 7 Conservation and Preservation, 1785–1950
      (pp. 120-139)

      American land was the lure for the greatest human migration in modern history. Nowhere else was such a bounteous environment—fertile in soil and temperate in climate, well-watered, amply wooded, and richly stocked with minerals—so ready to wrest from its native inhabitants. Until the conservation movement of the late nineteenth century, an exploding populace of European immigrants and their descendants reveled in unfettered exploitation of this favored land as private property. The New World’s abundance of cheap land held out opportunities unimaginable in an Old World where land was too scarce and expensive to meet the needs of the...

    • 8 Indian Land Policy, 1800–1990
      (pp. 140-158)

      The lands of the eastern states, beginning with the thirteen original colonies, were ceded to English proprietors by Indians who could neither read nor fully appreciate the implications of the agreements they signed. In many cases, tribal members did not completely comprehend the size of the ceded lands, or that—in many cases—they were giving up long-established hunting and fishing rights. In other cases, whites negotiated with chiefs from whom they could receive the most land, and used fraud and bribery to accomplish their desired ends. The proclamation line of 1763, established at the end of the Seven Years’...

    • 9 The Rise of Ecology, 1890–1990
      (pp. 159-173)

      Ecology derives from the Greek word oikos, meaning “household,” and is the study of the relationships among organisms and their surroundings. The science was named by German biologist Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919), who introduced the term in several works in the 1860s and 1870s, first in German and then in English, inspiring others to develop the science. In his Generelle Morphologie (General Morphology, 1866), Haeckel included a section entitled “Oecologie und Chorologie,” in which he defined ecology as the study of the organic and inorganic conditions on which life depends. “By ecology, we mean the whole science of the relations...

    • 10 The Era of Environmentalism, 1940–2000
      (pp. 174-190)

      According to environmental historian Samuel P. Hays, the period between the conservation movement of the mid-twentieth century and the emergence of the environmental movement in the 1960s and 1970s displayed a shift in emphasis from resource efficiency to that of quality of life based on “beauty, health, and permanence.” Hays notes: “We can observe a marked transition from the pre-World War II conservation themes of efficient management of physical resources, to the post-World War II environmental themes of environmental amenities, environmental protection, and human scale technology. Something new was happening in American society, arising out of the social changes and...

  6. Part II American Environmental History A to Z: Agencies, Concepts, Laws, and People
    (pp. 191-248)

    Abbey, Edward (1927–89). An avid proponent of desert preservation through books and essays, Edward Abbey served as a National Park Service ranger and firefighter in the Southwest. His book Desert Solitaire (1968) opposed “industrial tourism” by automobiles and excessive development in the national parks as being both destructive to the parks and to those who visit them. The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975) and Hayduke Lives! (1990) made the case that the West was being destroyed by dams, irrigation systems, bulldozers, and logging trucks. His work inspired the movement Earth First! to advocate “monkeywrenching,” or the practice of sabotaging the...

  7. Part III Chronology: An Environmental History Timeline
    (pp. 249-268)

    The Bering Land Bridge allowed people to cross from Eurasia to North America. Humans arrived in present-day Alaska at least by 13,000 b.p., and in the present-day lower United States by 11,500 b.p.

    In 1492, following Viking voyages, Columbus began the exploration of the New World. He was followed by John and Sebastian Cabot’s voyage from England to the present-day Canadian coast in 1497, the French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1534–45, and by Giovanni da Verrazano’s 1524 exploration of the Atlantic coast of the present-day United States. Between 1540 and 1542, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado explored the American Southwest,...

  8. Part IV. Resource Guide

    • Visual Resources: Films and Videos
      (pp. 271-290)

      Video purchase information accompanies each entry; prices may vary.

      The Columbian Exchange, video, 60 min. 40.00 purchase. (From Columbus and the Age of Discovery series. Available on interlibrary loan from The Valley Library, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Ore.) (E-mail:

      Interchange of horses, cattle, corn, potatoes, and sugar cane between the Old and New Worlds and its impact on people of both worlds. Illustrates Alfred Crosby’s concepts in his 1972 book The Columbian Exchange. (1991)

      “Confronting the Wilderness,” video, 58 min. (From The Land of the Eagle series Time-Life, No. 2 in series of 8 videos. Available on interlibrary...

    • Electronic Resources
      (pp. 291-310)

      American Environmental History Resources

      American Society for Environmental History

      The Web site for the American Society for Environmental History, the national academic organization.

      Directory of Environmental History Internet Sources


      Nature Transformed: The Environment in American History

      Teacher Serve Web site from the National Humanities Center.

      The Environment and World History Web Sites

      Environmental History

      An on-line guide to the joint publication of the Forest History Society and the American Society of Environmental History.

      Environmental History: An Introduction

      Environmental History Bibliography

      A Web version of the bibliography compiled by Jessica Teisch...

    • Bibliographical Essay
      (pp. 311-322)

      Environmental history incorporates into history the characteristics of particular environments and the methods people have used to exploit or conserve forests, waters, soils, and animals. In Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986), Alfred W. Crosby spells out his theory of the “portmanteau biota”: the cooperative, if unconscious assistance that livestock, crops, and microbes provided Europeans as they explored and conquered native populations around the world. Following Crosby’s foundational work, Jared Diamond published Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998) to expound on the idea that the...

    • Bibliography
      (pp. 323-422)
  9. Index
    (pp. 423-448)