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  • Nature and History in the Potomac Country: From Hunter-Gatherers to the Age of Jefferson by James D. Rice
  • Isaac J. Emrick
Nature and History in the Potomac Country: From Hunter-Gatherers to the Age of Jefferson. By James D. Rice. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. Pp. xvi, 338.)

Much like the work of environmental histories from the late twentieth century, Rice's second book connects the regional history of the Potomac River to the ecological interactions of human residents to the development of the region. His 2009 work advances the conversation way beyond the environmental determinism of previous analyses and instead focuses on the similarities and conflicts between human ecological imaginations and their real-world effects across a wide span of history. He begins with the development of indigenous ecological practices along the Potomac in the deep past and traces the complex interplay between human choices and climate change from 900AD till the development of maize agriculture and onward into the height of the Little Ice Age. Mirroring the historical reality, Rice begins placing Europeans in the Indian-controlled landscape and examines the gradual process of shifting influence in ecological decisions in the Potomac throughout the seventeenth century. The second half of the book shifts toward more traditional geopolitical narratives as Rice examines the changes in western Potomac land control and usage during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The discussion closes where it began, highlighting the legacy of indigenous ecological imagination in the overall history of the human occupation along the Potomac River.

Native Americans' active and diverse roles within the Potomac region and beyond are handled with nuanced cultural understanding and scientific supports throughout Rice's writing. Native people are neither determined by their landscape nor are they inscrutable ecological marvels. In fact, Rice's discussions remain grounded in the realities they faced and experimented with regularly to maintain themselves. Likewise, Rice complicates the assumption that English ecological desires were incompatibly different from Indians, as seen in the work of Patricia Seed's Ceremonies of Possession. Rice explains that until the 1670s the English "embraced a diversity of landscapes within an encompassing market economy and thus did not require the Potomac Valley should be remade into a Little England" (82). This desire for cohabitation was marked by a great similarity and compatibility with entrenched Algonquian ecological practices. Far from flattening the indigenous understanding of landscapes and their interactions, Rice is careful to explain different indigenous groups' diverse ecological imaginations, effectively treating them with the same historiographical care as one would when discussing European environmental history.

While land ownership always lingers in the background of Rice's discussion in the first seven chapters, the narrative turns away from ecological [End Page 123] and environmental concerns and focuses on more traditional "ownership" and geopolitical mechanisms during the intercultural chaos of the late seventeenth century through the mid-eighteenth century. Though extremely well researched and exciting to read, this section veers away from the environmental focus and strengths of previous chapters. It is a solid and balanced ethnohistorical synthesis of the period but is loosely connected to previous ecological analysis. In the last few chapters, Rice returns to the environmental concerns and what happens as the English gained demographic control over the Potomac above the falls. He explains why the English continued to restrict their settlements below the falls until well into the eighteenth century by focusing on the cross section of tobacco agriculture, Indian-Indian warfare, and limited geographic knowledge of the interior (175). This echoes the prevailing understanding of much of the eighteenth-century historiography.

There is a final, noticeable but certainly understandable, shift in the last two chapters that focuses more on the dramatic shifts in landscape allocation through land title and the new economic concerns of small-scale backcountry farmers. The conversation does not ignore Native American involvement; in fact, it underlies each of the decisions of the European settlers in the far western regions of the Potomac River. Rice suggests that the economic shifts of farmers toward "regional exchange economies" is shortlived after the Seven Years' War and Pontiac's Rebellion, and they returned to connected market economy (237). The economic concerns...


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