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Environment and Society, Transformation of the American Landscape

export lumber, fur pelts, Native American groups, gray whale, whaling industry

Before the arrival of European settlers in the western hemisphere, Native Americans occupied the land. The earliest groups were nomadic hunters and gatherers who moved from place to place, taking advantage of the plants and animals spread over a variety of locations. The environment supplied them with the food and resources they needed to survive.

When the development of agriculture supplemented hunting and gathering among most Native American groups, they no longer had to move in search of food. Communities settled in small, permanent villages with houses constructed of local materials. Although a culture known as the Mound Builders constructed large towns centered around raised earthen platforms along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, Native American groups seldom left permanent marks on the countryside.

European settlers, upon their arrival in North America, had a very different attitude about the environment than did Native Americans. The settlers, who founded colonies mainly along the Atlantic Coast, sought to exploit what seemed to them to be a land of plenty. They cleared trees and other natural vegetation from the land to establish farms and towns. They harvested trees to build houses and to export lumber to England. Trappers decimated the population of beaver, otter, muskrat, mink, and other animals, whose fur pelts were in high demand on European markets. By offering European goods in exchange for pelts, colonists also encouraged Native Americans to increase their take of these animals.

Almost as soon as the early colonists were permanently settled along the coast, they began moving west. Trappers and hunters usually established the first European presence in a frontier region. When they returned from western lands to the eastern colonies, they told tales of gold, silver, furs, and endless free land. These stories attracted farmers westward. They followed the routes established by trappers and hunters. As pioneers cleared huge tracts of forest, wilderness gave way to farms, cattle ranches, and organized settlements. By the mid-1800s much of the vast forest that had covered the northern and eastern regions of the nation had disappeared. On wide areas of the Great Plains, cultivated crops, such as corn and wheat, replaced natural grasses.

As human presence grew and transformed the landscape, it affected the native animal population in the United States. Trappers and hunters reduced the population of certain animal species. Animals with commercially valuable pelts decreased in number, first in the Northeast and Great Lakes region, then further west. Hunters decimated the massive herds of bison, also known as buffalo, that roamed the Great Plains, reducing the population to a small fraction of its former size. Many predatory animals, including eagles, grizzly bears, and wolves, declined drastically in number as their natural habitat decreased. Farmers and ranchers, seeking to protect their livestock from potential attacks, hunted and poisoned many of these animals.

Human interference with animal species also extended to offshore waters. The U.S. whaling industry, which included about 80 percent of the world’s whalers by the mid-1800s, hunted some species of whales, such as the gray whale and the blue whale, almost to extinction.

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