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Nature and History in the Potomac Country

From Hunter-Gatherers to the Age of Jefferson

James D. Rice

Publication Year: 2009

James D. Rice’s fresh study of the Potomac River basin begins with a mystery. Why, when the whole of the region offered fertile soil and excellent fishing and hunting, was nearly three-quarters of the land uninhabited on the eve of colonization? Rice wonders how the existence of this no man’s land influenced nearby Native American and, later, colonial settlements. Did it function as a commons, as a place where all were free to hunt and fish? Or was it perceived as a strange and hostile wilderness? Rice discovers environmental factors at the center of the story. Making use of extensive archaeological and anthropological research, as well as the vast scholarship on farming practices in the colonial period, he traces the region’s history from its earliest known habitation. With exceptionally vivid prose, Rice makes clear the implications of unbridled economic development for the forests, streams, and wetlands of the Potomac River basin. With what effects, Rice asks, did humankind exploit and then alter the landscape and the quality of the river’s waters? Equal parts environmental, Native American, and colonial history, Nature and History in the Potomac Country is a useful and innovative study of the Potomac River, its valley, and its people.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

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Preface: The Hole in the Map

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pp. ix-xii

Much of the 14,670 square miles drained by the Potomac River offers fertile soil, good fishing, and excellent hunting. Yet early seventeenth-century maps and archaeological evidence alike show that much of the Potomac basin—a region encompassing vast swaths of modern-day Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania—was uninhabited on the eve of European colonization. Although ...

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A Note on Language and Usage

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pp. xiii-xiv

This book is primarily an environmental history, but it is largely peopled by Native Americans. Any attempt at writing about Indians raises certain questions about language, which ought to be addressed at the outset. For example, should one speak of “Native Americans”? “Indians”? “First Nations”? “Indigenous People”? Wherever possible I have avoided all of those terms, preferring to high- ...

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pp. 1-14

Ahone made the world with the help of four other gods, who came as winds from the corners of the earth. After shaping the earth, the Hare paused to contemplate his creation. He pondered what kinds of creatures he should make and how he should go about introducing them into the world. Eventually he decided to begin by creating women and men. But after he had already made the first ...

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1. Ahone‘s Waters

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pp. 15-25

The Great Hare created a dynamic, ever-changing world. Successive generations of humans accumulated knowledge about the world in which they had been placed, and they passed on their wisdom to their descendants. Plants and animals came and went over the millennia, sometimes preferring one part of the world, then another. The very rivers, coastlines, and valleys shifted shapes. Yet change ...

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2. Foragers into Farmers

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pp. 26-46

The foragers of the Potomac adapted to their environment in careful increments, altering their habits but little from one generation to the next. Yet the foragers’ incremental adaptations to their environment before 900 CE contained the seeds of more radical changes that would come after that date, when climate change, population growth, a deepening commitment to farming, and competition for ...

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3. “Kings” of the Potomac

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pp. 47-70

Fourteenth- and fifteenth-century migrants from the north were almost certainly preceded by small advance parties sent out to reconnoiter the situation along the Potomac and its tributaries. It requires no great leap of imagination to envision a dozen men, well armed but also prepared to engage in a little bit of trade and diplomacy, working their way down rivers and streams during the ...

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4. The Nature of Colonization

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pp. 71-91

The arrival of English colonists at Jamestown in 1607, and the regular contact they initiated with the peoples of the Potomac the following year, marked the intersection of two previously separate historical trajectories and the meeting of two significantly different environmental sensibilities. Contrary to stereotype, however, regular contact between the Potomac nations and English colonists did...

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5. Peltries and “Papists”

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pp. 92-107

In the course of 1621, while Opitchipam, Opechancanough, and their allies were still planning the massive uprising of 1622, three previously unrelated Englishmen embarked on American adventures that would eventually, through a series of coincidences, hasten and profoundly shape the integration of the Potomac into the English provincial world. Two of these men traveled to Jamestown ...

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6. “You Come Too Near”

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pp. 108-129

As late as 1650 neither grain traders, nor fur traders, nor even the first generation of English planters had done much to change life along the Potomac. Forty years after the establishment of Jamestown and fifteen years after the founding of Maryland, Algonquians still outnumbered the English. They had escaped the full impact of the newly introduced diseases that so often decimated Native commu- ...

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7. Microbes, Magistrates, and Migrations

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pp. 130-142

The waves of colonists washing over the outer coastal plain after 1650 amounted to a biological problem for Algonquian societies; they were, in the words of one historian, a “biotic factor” as well as a political and economic force.1 And like any other species whose population grew sixfold in the space of a single generation, the colonists forced other organisms within the same ecosystem to adjust to ...

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8. “Away with All These Distractions”

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pp. 143-160

In the early 1670s it must have seemed to English planters along the Potomac that Indians would soon disappear from the scene. Granted, the Treaty of 1666 had set aside a large reservation for the Piscataways, Nacotchtanks, Mattawomans, and Pamunkys, while the Chopticos held on to their patch of land on Maryland’s Wicomico River. Smaller groups lingered at Matchotic Creek and the Wicomico ...

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9. “Frightened Away by Some Threatening Discourses”

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pp. 161-173

The partial reprieve of the 1680s did not last long. The Potomac nations barely survived the 1690s, and shortly after the turn of the century they were forced to leave the Potomac basin altogether. The final destruction of the Potomac nations as independent polities came about through a combination of forces. As usual, hostilities with the northern Iroquoians—conflicts rooted in the environmental ...

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10. “I Can Not Live in This Beautiful Land”

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pp. 174-188

With the Piscataways out of the way, the interior seemingly lay wide open to resettlement by English colonists, and those who had already explored the interior saw great opportunities there. Maryland ranger Richard Brightwell, for example, found the Piedmont “extraordinarily rich.” Louis Michel, who sought to establish an enclave of Swiss Protestants in America, was drawn to “the rather ...

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11. The Trouble with Boundaries

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pp. 189-205

In 1722 two of the three main barriers to backcountry settlement had been lowered, though not fully removed. Tobacco incomes improved somewhat, especially in 1719 and 1720, and the crossfire between northern and southern Indians lessened in the wake of the 1722 Albany treaty. Consequently a few more colonists ventured into the Piedmont, and land speculators began to take a greater interest ...

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12. The Backcountry Transformed

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pp. 206-226

Farmers considering a move to the Potomac interior in the early 1740s were well advised to proceed with caution. Part of the problem lay in their cultural predilection for boundaries, which was near the heart of the English relationship with the natural world. The need for precisely defined boundaries had spawned an elaborate system of surveys, plats, patents, and deeds. All of this generated...

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13. “The Finest Country I Ever Was In”

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pp. 227-246

The 1744 Treaty of Lancaster had given backcountry farmers more secure title to their lands, and it provided for the more peaceful transit of northern warriors through the backcountry. It did not, however, bring peace to the backcountry. On the contrary, the treaty created new problems and glossed over others, allowing them to fester beneath the surface. It left many Shawnees and Delawares ...

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CODA: Ahone‘s Legacy

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pp. 247-258

Much has changed along the Potomac since Nicholas Cresswell made his escape from Alexandria in 1776. The changes range from the patently obvious (a population that has mushroomed into the millions and the rise of an automobile-centered economy, society, and culture) to the nearly invisible (such as radical changes in the prevalence of certain single-celled floating organisms beneath the ...


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pp. 259-330


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pp. 331-338

E-ISBN-13: 9781421402628
E-ISBN-10: 1421402629
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801890321
Print-ISBN-10: 0801890322

Page Count: 360
Illustrations: 6 halftones, 2 line drawings
Publication Year: 2009

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Nature -- Effect of human beings on -- Potomac River Valley -- History.
  • Potomac River -- History.
  • Potomac River Valley -- History.
  • Indians of North America -- Potomac River Valley -- History.
  • Potomac River Valley -- Colonization.
  • Landscape changes -- Potomac River Valley -- History.
  • Potomac River -- Environmental conditions.
  • Human ecology -- History -- Potomac River Valley.
  • Potomac River Valley -- Environmental conditions.
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