Adriaen van der Donck was a lawyer who in 1641 transplanted himself to the Hudson River Valley, then part of the Dutch colony of Nieuw Nederland. He became a kind of prosecutor and bill collector for the Dutch West India Company, which owned and operated the colony as a private fiefdom. Whenever possible, van der Donck ignored his duties and tramped around the forests and valleys upstate. He spent a lot of time with the Haudenosaunee, whose insistence on personal liberty fascinated him. They were, he wrote, “all free by nature, and will not bear any domineering or lording over them.”
When a committee of settlers decided to complain to the government about the Dutch West India Company’s dictatorial behavior, it asked van der Donck, the only lawyer in New Amsterdam, to compose a protest letter and travel with it to The Hague. His letter set down the basic rights that in his view belonged to everyone on American soil—the first formal call for liberty in the colonies. It is tempting to speculate that van der Donck drew inspiration from the attitudes of the Haudenosaunee.
The Dutch government responded to the letter by taking control of New Amsterdam from the Dutch West India Company and establishing an independent governing body in Manhattan, thereby setting into motion the creation of New York City. Angered by their loss of power, the company directors effectively prevented van der Donck’s return for five years. While languishing in Europe, he wrote a nostalgic pamphlet extolling the land he had come to love.
Every fall, he remembered, the Haudenosaunee set fire to “the woods, plains, and meadows,” to “thin out and clear the woods of all dead substances and grass, which grow better the ensuing spring.” At first the wildfire had scared him, but over time van der Donck had come to relish the spectacle of the yearly burning. “Such a fire is a splendid sight when one sails on the [Hudson and Mohawk] rivers at night while the forest is ablaze on both banks,” he recalled. With the forest burning to the right and the left, the colonists’ boats passed through a channel of fire, their passengers as goggle-eyed at the blaze as children at a video arcade. “Fire and flames are seen everywhere and on all sides…a delightful scene to look on from afar.”
Van der Donck believed that North America was only “several hundred miles” across, and apparently assumed that all its inhabitants were exactly like the Haudenosaunee. He was wrong about the first belief, but in a sense correct about the second: from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Hudson’s Bay to the Río Grande, the Haudenosaunee and almost every other Indian group shaped their environment, at least in part, by fire.
Early in the last century, ecologists discovered the phenomenon of “succession,” the more or less well-defined sequence by which ecosystems fill in open land. A textbook example occurred after the eruption in 1980 of Mount St. Helens, in southern Washington State, which inundated more than two hundred square miles with magma, volcanic ash, and mud. Surviving plants sprang quickly to life, sometimes resprouting within weeks. Then colonizing species like lupine appeared, preparing the ground for the return of the grasses. Fifteen years after the eruption, the ravaged slopes were dotted with trees and woody shrubs: red alder, lodgepole pine, willow bush. Here and there gleamed the waxy red boles of madrone. Forest giants like hemlock, Douglas fir, and Sitka spruce waited in the wings. In the classic successional course, each suite of plants replaces its predecessor, until the arrival of the final, “climax” ecosystem, usually tall forest.
If ecological succession were unstoppable, the continents would be covered by climax-stage vegetation: a world of great trees, dark and silent. Early-succession species would have vanished. Luckily for these species, succession is often interrupted—Nature does not move in lockstep. Windstorms, lightning fires, landslides, volcanic eruptions, and other natural calamities knock down trees and open up the forest, or prevent open country from turning into forestland. A few years or decades of tranquility may see grasses replaced by shrubs and trees which are in turn flattened by a violent thunderstorm, permitting the grass to thrive again. After a while, the shrubs and trees return, only to be wiped out by a flood. And so on. Different types of disturbance shape different ecosystems: floods in the Nile, landslides on the steep pitches of the Andes, hurricanes in the Yucatán Peninsula. For more than ten thousand years, most North American ecosystems have been dominated by fire.
In the Greek myth of Prometheus the gift of fire forever severs humankind from the natural world—the burning torch is the icon of the constructed and artificial. On the mundane, factual level, though, this resonant tale is wrong: Nature has always used fire as a mallet to beat landscapes into other forms. Prometheus only helped human beings to pick up the handle. “The earth,” wrote the pioneering fire ecologist Edward V. Komarek, “born in fire, baptized by lightning, since before life’s beginning has been and is, a fire planet.” Set off by lightning, wildfires reset the ecological clock, dialing the array of plants and animals back a few successional stages. Fire benefits plants that need sunlight, while inhibiting those that love the cool gloaming of the forest floor; it encourages the animals that need those plants even as it discourages others; in turn, predator populations rise and fall. In this way fire regulates ecological character.
Fire is a dominating factor in many if not most terrestrial landscapes. It has two main sources: lightning and Homo sapiens. In North America, lightning fire is most common in the western mountains. Elsewhere, though, Indians controlled it—at least until contact, and in many places long after. In the Northeast, Indians always carried a deerskin pouch full of flints, Thomas Morton reported in 1637, which they used “to set fire of the country in all places where they come.” The flints ignited torches, which were as important to the hunt as bows and arrows. Deer in the Northeast; alligators in the Everglades; buffalo in the prairies; grasshoppers in the Great Basin; rabbits in California; moose in Alaska: all were pursued by fire. Native Americans made big rings of flame, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “by firing the leaves fallen on the ground, which, gradually forcing animals to the center, they there slaughter them with arrows, darts, and other missiles.” Not that Indians always used fire for strictly utilitarian purposes. At nightfall tribes in the Rocky Mountains entertained the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark by applying torches to sap-dripping fir trees, which then exploded like Roman candles.
Rather than domesticate animals for meat, Indians retooled ecosystems to encourage elk, deer, and bear. Constant burning of undergrowth increased the numbers of herbivores, the predators that fed on them, and the people who ate them both. Rather than the thick, unbroken, monumental snarl of trees imagined by Thoreau, the great eastern forest was an ecological kaleidoscope of garden plots, blackberry rambles, pine barrens, and spacious groves of chestnut, hickory, and oak. The first white settlers in Ohio found woodlands that resembled English parks—they could drive carriages through the trees. Fifteen miles from shore in Rhode Island, Giovanni da Verrazzano found trees so widely spaced that the forest “could be penetrated even by a large army.” John Smith claimed to have ridden through the Virginia forest at a gallop.
Incredible to imagine today, bison roamed from New York to Georgia. A creature of the prairie, Bison bison was imported to the East by Native Americans along a path of indigenous fire, as they changed enough forest into fallows for it to survive far outside its original range. When the Haudenosaunee hunted these animals, the historian William Cronon observed, they
were harvesting a foodstuff which they had consciously been instrumental in creating. Few English observers could have realized this. People accustomed to keeping domesticated animals lacked the conceptual tools to recognize that the Indians were practicing a more distant kind of husbandry of their own.
Indian fire had its greatest impact in the middle of the continent, which Native Americans transformed into a prodigious game farm. Native Americans burned the Great Plains and Midwest prairies so much and so often that they increased their extent; in all probability, a substantial portion of the giant grassland celebrated by cowboys was established and maintained by the people who arrived there first. “When Lewis and Clark headed west from [St. Louis],” wrote ethologist Dale Lott, “they were exploring not a wilderness but a vast pasture managed by and for Native Americans.”
In 1792 the surveyor Peter Fidler examined the plains of southern Alberta systematically, the first European to do so. Riding with several groups of Indians in high fire season, he spent days on end in a scorched land. “Grass all burnt this day,” he reported on November 12. “Not a single pine to be seen three days past.” A day later: “All burnt ground this Day.” A day later: “The grass nearly burnt all along this Day except near the Lake.” A month later: “The Grass is now burning [with] very great fury.”
Every fall & spring, & even in the winter when there is no snow, these large plains either in one place or other is constantly on fire, & when the Grass happens to be long & the wind high, the sight is grand & awful, & it drives along with amazing swiftness.
Fidler acknowledged that the fires could be “very dangerous” but understood their purpose. “These fires burning off the old grass,” he observed, “in the ensuing Spring & Summer makes excellent fine sweet feed for the Horses & Buffalo, &c.”
When Indian societies disintegrated from disease and mistreatment, forest invaded savanna in Wisconsin, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and the Texas hill country. Europeans forgot what the landscape had looked like before and why. Captain John Palliser, traveling through the same lands as Fidler six decades later, lamented the Indians’ “disastrous habit of setting the prairie on fire for the most trivial and worse than useless reasons.” Afterward even the memory of indigenous fire faded. By the twentieth century biologists were stoutly denying its existence. The “open, park-like woods” seen by early settlers, Harvard naturalist Hugh Raup asserted in 1937, were not caused by fire; they “have been, from time immemorial, characteristic of vast areas in North America.” Raup’s summary description of the idea that they were due to regular, wide-scale Indian burning? “Inconceivable.” “It is at least a fair assumption,” a widely used college forestry textbook remarked in 1973, “that no habitual or systematic burning was carried out by Indians.” In the western United States, the geographer Thomas R. Vale wrote in 2002, the “modest” Indian population “modified only a tiny fraction of the total landscape for their everyday living needs.”
Vale is in the minority now. Spurred in part by historians like Cronon, most scientists have changed their minds about Indian fire. Using clever laboratory techniques, they have convinced themselves that in most cases the tribal lore and old chronicles were right all along: Indian embers were sparkling in the American night for centuries before the Sumerians climbed their ziggurats.
Carrying their flints and torches, Native Americans were living in balance with Nature—but they had their thumbs on the scale. Shaped for their comfort and convenience, the American landscape had come to fit their lives like comfortable clothing. It was a highly successful and stable system, if “stable” is the appropriate word for a regime that involves routinely enshrouding miles of countryside in smoke and ash. And it was a system that Indians were abandoning in ever-rising numbers at the time when Europeans came.