Saturday, October 15, 2016

Speculating About Population Change in the Peri-Contact Old Northwest: Floating Tom Has Taken His Last Dive

"Floating Tom Hutter" is a character in The Deerslayer: Or, The First Warpath [1841], the James Fenimore CooperLeatherstocking novel that comes last by publication date, first in chronological order. An awful character, who gets what he deserves. 

But that's to get ahead of the narrative by a few pages, and three weeks. In 1740, a twentyish Natty Bumppo, called "Deerslayer," as he is not yet blooded and so is known by a boy's name, and not yet "Hawkeye", emerges from the dark forest onto the Glimmerglass, Lake Otsego. (That's a metaphor, faithful readers! Stop asking, because you'll never know more about Bumppo's childhood. It happened in the darkness of the forest!) Bumppo and his lifelong friend, Chingachgook, are pursuing a Huron raiding party which has kidnapped Chingachgook's fiancee, insofar as pre-conversion Lenape Indian braves have fiancees. (Really: there's a girl. So stop with the slash fiction. Okay, no, don't.)

At Lake Otsego, they find a primeval wilderrness, inhabited only by Hutter and his non-identical twin daughters, dark and light, who live in Muskrat Castle, a structure built directly on an underwater rock which does not quite break the surface of the shimmering lake. The Indians, who travel on Lake Otsego but to not tarry, call Hutter, "Muskrat." Hence the name. 

One interpretation. You will see a less imposing one below.

Everyone then has assorted proto-Western adventures, in the course of which the awful  Hutter is caught alone at the Castle by some Huron braves, and scalped. Fenimore Cooper makes the Hurons comment that they have "skinned" Muskrat, the only use I am aware of what should be a fairly obvious analogy between taking pelts and taking scalps. 

Later, Natty and Hutter's daughters find the mortally wounded Hutter, and, per his last request, lay his body to rest in the lake, weighting his shroud and lowering the body to the same rock shelf below the Castle that Hutter had used as a last resting place for his wife, years before. "Muskrat has made his last dive," Natty muses. Then he rummages through Hutter's chest, discovering all sorts of secrets about Hutter's piratical past, and that of his wife, the mother of the two girls, for Hutter is not otheir father, and their mother is, as Judith will be, a "fallen woman." (Hint hint!) The rest of the secrets, we are told, Bumppo is too naive to interpret. Not only that, but Cooper takes the time to tell us  that this trove of secrets was all washed away in the next flood. Yes! They existed. And you will never know more than has already been hinted! I can see where critics like Mark Twain get frustrated with Cooper. Nevertheless, James Fenimore can hardly make his authorial practice more explicit than he does in this bit. He is all about the hinting, and if you want to know more, you have to interpret the hints.

Having brought America's greatest Southwestern Whig/Republican humourist up, I will continue, because Deerslayer is probably better known today as the main subject of Twain's "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences" than as a novel. In particular, I want to talk about the sequence, two pages or so in, where Twain launches into an extended critique of the physical plausibility of a sequence in which a group of Huron braves attempt to leap, or, rather, dive down from the branches of trees which ark over the East Banch of the Susequehanna River as it emerges from Lake Otsego, onto the deck of Hutter's houseboat, The Ark. 

Now, Twain is right about many aspects of this discussion as a matter of strict realism. Cooper is performing premature magic realism her; but he has a reason, and I honestly cannot tell whether Twain is aware of the myth of Earth Diver or whether he is just being dishonest. Since I do not want to divert you to a link you might not follow, the Earth Diver creation myth can be very succinctly summarised as: In the beginning, there is only flood. A pregnant woman falls from the Heavens.  ("Fallen woman," you see.) Turtle catches her, but there is not enough room for her to give birth. A series of woodland  animals attempt to reach the bottom of the water and bring up mud to build a bower for her. Finally, Muskrat succeeds (and sometimes dies). The bower becomes Turtle Island. That is, the world. Fallen Woman gives birth to twins dark and light. Various further myths ensue. Twain can reasonably be genuinely unaware of the myth, which is buried in Schoolcraft and tainted by hoax. On the other hand, there are enough mythological references that one would think that Twain would be alert to the possibility that something like this is going on.

The other thing Twain makes heavy going of is the notion that Cooper is presenting the upper Susquehanna as much wider than it in fact is at Cooperstown. He's wrong again, but in a much more defensible way, in that he can hardly be expected to have poured over one of Cooper's secondary (at best) novels (Wyandotte: Or, the Hutted Knoll) or the historical introduction to The Pioneers, and discovered that Lake Otsego frequently jams at with flotsam at the outlet, and that on at least one, and probably many more occasions, it has been deliberately dammed there. When the dam built by General John Sullivan's troops was broken on 6 August 1778 specifically, was broken, the released floodwaters lifted the bateaux carrying his supplies down streeam and then up the West Branch into the heart of the Six Nations. More commonly, the dams would have eased the downstream passage of trading canoes, of which more maybe someday. Here, I just want to bring out the point about dams, and broken dams, and their relationship with flooding. Muskrats are not beavers, but muskrats and beavers are semi-aquatic, fur-bearing animals important to the fur trade. 

Anyway, I get to feel special, because, as far as I know, I am the first person to point Cooper's mythological source out --although Lauren Goff caught the emphasis on the flooding and connected it with the myth of the canoe volant, the "flying canoe," which is awfully clever. This is kind of sad, because it doesn't strike me as an insight that would escape over-much academic attention. Cooper is a terrible writer, but being a terrible writer does not make you an uninfluential one. Come on, Americanists! This is a hugely important writer, and the fact that Nineteenth Century Federalist literary critics have little to say about him, says, in turn, a great deal more about Federalist literary critics than the antebellum American literatry scene. 

On the other hand again, maybe the American academy doesn't particularly want to parse Cooper's hints. From Anti-Masonic through Whig through Republican, the American-party-that-isn't-the-Democrats can be, well, weird. 

Hee. I said "Whig."

On a completely unrelated subject, the point here is that skinned/scalped Muskrat is the creator/originator/first settler/real estate developer of the Cooperstown area. 

Tom Hutter (second from left) and his lake cabin, as imagined in Chingachgook: Die Grosse Schlange [1967]. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, etc. 
And that he's got, figuratively, a muskrat pelt for a scalp. Given the week it's been, I just wanted to point that out.
Forrest Tucker, 29 years after playing Tom Hutter in The Deerslayer (1957) and starting to look like a character out of a dystopian movie I watched once. Something about groping women, starting nuclear wars, and building walls? 

That will be quite enough over-close parsing of awful old books and reflecting on recent debates for one post. After the break, I try to get serious, talking about the problem populations, ecology, and the economic geography of the early fur trade. And people who wear strange things on their heads.

I. Populations

There is a well-established genre of "history" about the pre-Columbian Americas that holds that 

"Before it became the New World, the Western Hemisphere was vastly more populous and sophisticated than has been thought—an altogether more salubrious place to live at the time than, say, Europe."
Writing in The Atlantic, Charles C. Mann, author of 1491, a book that by itself justifies (to me) the sneer quotes on "history," goes on to say:
New evidence of both the extent of the population and its agricultural advancement leads to a remarkable conjecture: the Amazon rain forest may be largely a human artifact
The New World is an unspoiled, idyllic paradise of nature; but one that it is heavily populated; but with people who Respect Nature; but who have carried out the ecological modification of the entire vast region of Amazonias. Whipsawing contradictions aside, long time readers of this blog as the "terre preta" hypothesis, in which the Amazon forest is found to be underlain by anthropogenically modified soils created by swidden farmers. Charcoal burners and swidden farmers don't actually live in a pre-Edenic paradise free of exploitation and want, but it's safe to say that this really is a radical and timely reinterpretation of the pre-Columbian everyday history of the Amazon. 

Eero Jarnefelt gives agro-primitivist hippies sad eyes. 
The problem with this interpretation is that it takes all of this trouble to conjure up a larger (and sometimes nicer) pre-Contact population than traditional historiography would support. It then gets rid of that population in the same way that the old historiography does (epidemics of "European diseases" sweep the peri-Columbian hemisphere), and then concludes that since more (nicer) people died of the same causes, European colonialism and ecological imperialism were worse than has been supposed. 

I don't know about you, but when I think about the crimes of colonialism and imperialism, my mind is drawn more nearly to the Bengal Famine and Sonderkommandos than inadvertently-spreading-smallpox. Perhaps I haven't strayed as far from my libertarian youth than I imagine, but I'm not entirely convinced that infecting other people with a disease that you don't know is infectious (leaving the whole blankets-with-smallpox thing for another day) is even a crime. As for spreading earthworms to the Western Hemisphere, which I hope has been edited out of recent runs of Crosby's Ecological Imperialism, what is this I can't even

Notwithstanding the idea that the "low count" of North America's pre-Columbian population is a legacy of the old days when guys were racists and stuff, the strongest critic of the high count is a more recent scholar, David Henige. Whether you accept his critique or not, it has the invaluable property of stripping the junk science out of peri-contact epidemiology. If populations are low, then the epidemics that swept the New World don't have to have been far more lethal than the ones recorded in the Old, and human immune systems do not have to function in ways not well-supported by current immunology. (In particular, they don't have to be like  muscles, in that they get stronger as they are exerecised; and do not need to have a large component of hereditary resistance.)

I would like economic historians to stop pretending that they know that the Antonine Plague/Plague of Justinian/Black Plague killed 30%, or 40%, or, who the fuck knows, a million-jillion percent of the population in 1346 or whenever.* Right, wrong or turquoise bicycle shoe fins, we just don't have that data! I know that the doctors like the idea of Yersinia pestis being a mass killer, but that's because there's money in a vaccine. After all, the main consequence of the hyptohesis are that it gives econometricians a playground to construct models in which the whole work force dies off and model-building is a fairly harmless hobby as these things go; and more money for public health, which, again, is hard to quarrel with. So, yes, there are some pretty unanswerable counter-arguments to the Black Death thesis. Going back to full century Annalistes, there is an argument about the mortality structure of epidemics in general. Diseases that kill too many people do not spread, and the Nineteenth Century had a great deal of experience with raging, out-of-control and new epidemics --including Yersinia pestis itself, which famously spread to Hawaii and the American Southwest via San Francisco during the Fifth Pandemic. As for that disease, it is not  incredibly infectious today, clearly does not flourish in the European climate today, and is hardly likely to have been eradicated by minor social changes back in Renaissance times when we cannot get rid of it in the Los Angeles basin today. It might not even be that lethal, although here the data is clouded by the new push for a vaccine, since what looked, five years ago, like a clear picture of numerous persons with Yersinia pestis immunity due to asymptomatic infections is less clear today. (If these people did have asymptomatic infections of Yersinia pestis, the high lethality rate is due to only including people with already-critical infections when they presented to medical authorities.)  J. F. D. Shrewsburgy, Graham Twigg, Samuel Cohn, Susan Scott, Christopher Duncan, and David Henige have critiqued the thesis. 

But I am not, and should not be talking about the Black Death, but rather the meta-history of plagues. There has been a great deal of work on the history of epidemics. I find the ones that talk about the politicisation of quarantine and the horrific human rights abuses that can flow from quarantine to be disturbing, not least Mark Harrison's demonstration that the Black Death is the first instance in which plague talk and quarantines intersected with trade issues.  Others are darkly amusing. Have you heard about the 1885 Chicago cholera epidemic that killed 90,000 people --so many that the sewers carried bodies out into Lake Michigan? I hope not, because this is an urban myth, albeit one given credence by a 2005 Chicago Tribune  article. The point is, if something so completely invented could become "the first draft of history," you have to wonder about epidemic history in general. We are in danger of a mode of historical explanation that reduces to "A wizard did it." We can sweep broad masses of population on and off the stage as and when we please. Throw in some under-documented migrations, and we have a way of adding the, too. . 

As a broad rule, then, it should suffice to say that at any point down from the peri-Contact period to the "closing" of any nearby frontier, the actually-existent population beyond the frontiers of settlement in temperate North America was on the order of one person per square mile. This is, obviously, quite low by comparison with contemporary Europe, and Charles C. Mann will yell at me, but the absence of cities seems like a strong argument in favour of a low count. Although, it is a high count once we get close to historic times. There are fewer Native Americans to populate our Edenic paradise in 1491, a lot more to account for in 1619, or 1670, or 1801, or 1849.

II. Ecology

By Jumpingmaniac - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I kept that Mann quote because it's a great two-fer. It's not just that Amazonias had more people, pre-Columbus, than was supposed, and that they lived a pre-lapsarian life of ecological purity by conducting swidden farming. It's that they curated the landscape. That is, that's the fancy term that current generations of anthropologists are using for the way in which pre-Neolithic populations intervened to make sure that the land they lived in supported more game and more foreagable plants. It is not agriculture, and it greatly predates agriculture, and we need to get away from the idea that the transition to agriculture was a matter of "inventing" the lifestyle, or even  of discovering the right plants. Stephen Pyne is the great apostle of the idea that "primitive" populations intervened in the landscape on such a scale that we can speak of "firestick farming" in Australia and a "dawn of fire" in Neolithic Europe; but he is certainly not alone, and we can now add the Eastern Woodlands to the list. 

In particular, forest historian Michael Jenkins has shown that the forest ecosystems of Southern Indian, Indiana's "butternut country,"** were continuously maintained as semi-open mast forests from the beginning of the Holocene to --1674. After that, fire cultivation ended until 1801. Fire cultivation continued until 1849, by which time the Indian population had been replaced by European farmer-settlers, who continued to practice the same agricultural techniques, until, in the last decade before the Civil War, the lowland prairie country to the north was opened up by steel plows, and the mountain country was left to the forest.  

These uncultivated prairies are often seen as a trans-Mississippian phenomena, although in fact the Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimates that 5% of Ohio, or 1500 square miles, was open grassland at the "time of settlement." These open, grassland-dominated ecosystems are new, having apparently not existed before the last glaciation. But, in the post-glacial, the tall grass prairie "migrated eastward through Illinois, Indiana, and established itself in Ohio." This might have been a  natural process in the earliest Holocene, but the disappearance of tallgrass prairie east of the Mississippi shows that it was maintained by Native Americans. The Ohio DNR fingers fire as the primary means for maintaining the prairie ecosystem, but the often-wet tallgrass prairies might also have been kept unforested by periodic flooding; and, of course, by promoted grazing.  Buffalo, and especially the ubiquitous white-tailed deer were the crucial allies of humanity in maintaining this open habitat. 

But what about beaver? I've previously argued here that the eastward expansion of the American bison was human-caused --that humans were opening up grazing for bison right down to the peri-Columbian period. Or, rather, I've linked to Nineteenth Century naturalist William T. Hornaday making basically that argument. I'd link to my own, but it's aready late this Saturday afternoon, and this post isn't going to get done today without unsatisfactory compromises. I almost gave up on making Google tell me that there is evidence of prairie habitat in New York State, around Buffalo, before finally coming up with something from the Niagara Escarpment Commission: southern Ontario is going to have to be close enough.

The idea that buffalo, and beaver/muskrat habitat was being extended in this period is, I hope, not particularly controversial. At least, I hope that it isn't. Cooper's historical digression at the beginning of Wyandotte explains exactly how "patent-" seeking Europeans located large beaver ponds in New York and Pennsylvania, broke the dams, and planted the bottoms. Farmers replaced beavers, precisely and exactly. On the other hand, I also find the argument that it was overhunting that destroyed the beaver population adjacent to the initial, coastal colonies. (At least this source notes the larger environmental impact of the presence or absence of beavers.)

At the periphery of both European contact and of history, the Iroquois Confederacy launched a series of "Beaver Wars," beginning with throwing the Algonquin-speaking Mahicans out of the Albany area, or, possibly, exterminating a postulated population of "St. Lawrence Iroquians" between Champlain and Cartier. (Whether we can speak of "Iroquois" in the St. Lawrence, in this period, is unclear, given that the Iroquian-speakers of the St. Lawrence in historic times are the hostile Huron nation goes to the murky oral history of the foundation of the Iroquois Confederation as a federal league of five tribes in upstate New York.) On the  other hand, Brad Loewen argues that, in this "dark age" of French contact, in which Spanish Basque whalers had a monopoly on contact with native populations of Acadia and the lower St. Lawrence, an acculturation process occurred, in which the Iroquians of Cartier's "Canada," or "Stadacona" became "Canadians." (Because Canadiens speak French, it is much more permissible to hint that they are the product of an ethnogenesis of an Indian-Metis population than it is of the Yengisee of New England.)  

Whatever the confusion of the period only shortly preceding 1628, we know that in that year, with Montreal and Albany fully established, and the French aligned themselves with the Iroquian-speaking Hurons, the Confederation of the Five (Six) Nations and the Dutch authorities at New York could reasonably see themselves as natural allies. From the Dutch point of view, if the Iroquois could expand the region of northeastern North America in which there was an active beaver industry, they stood to benefit as the trade partner of the Five Nations. In the ensuing wars, the best known victims of Iroquois aggression were other Iroquian-speakers: the Susquehannock, who lived along that river in Pennsylvania; the Neutral Nations, who lived around Lake Ontario, and then the Hurons. Finally, in the second half of the the seventeenth century, the English allies of the Susquehannock turned against them, while an ongoing war of raiding burned out in the Old Northwest, with Algonquian-speaking tribes tradiing with the French in Indiana and Illinois, while Ohio was left as a nominally deserted "Middle Ground," a free hunting zone for the Iroquois. But, again --hunting of just what, exactly? Although the beaver trapping industry depended on highly mobile human labour, and thus on the production of pemmican, the key issue is beaver habitat. The Iroquois obviously want to prevent people from breaking dams and settling in the fertile bottoms of former beaver ponds --but what about the cessation of controlled burns in the upland country?

The key issue here is the ongoing nature of human-beaver interaction. Oh --and of muskrat-human interaction. The issue here is that while beaver and muskrat share the same habitat, the muskrat do not create or maintain that habitat; however, they also breed much more quickly than beavers. They are not nearly as valuable a fur animal, but their pelts are worth good money, and a pond will yield an annual crop, at least in the reasonably temperate Ohio country. 

It's at this point that I find myself almost unbearably frustrated. Benjamin Church matter-of-factly describes "breaking corn dams" as one of the standard tactics of his harrying war against Native American nations during King Philip's War.  I can see how "corn dams" would work; it seems like such a logical way of preparing ground for growing Indian corn. 

It's so full of hippie-dippiness that I can barely make myself repeat it, but corn can be a highly productive garden plant. Planted on the top of mounds raised in the middle of a flood plain, with beans and squash planted around it on the mound, the "three sisters," or "trinity" grows together into the raw material of a fine succotash. (Well, except for the squash. People tell crazy stories about how that noxious stuff is eaten by people, but I'm going to have to see a lot more evidence.) The flood plain planting, the garden preparation -it's probably key to the Olmec domestication of corn in the beginning, and it might even be the source of the cosmological symbolism of the traditional Western Hemisphere pyramid. 

And then there's this. As late as 1956, Wisconsin had 397 muskrat farms with 50,550 cumulative acres of land. As the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture told us, way back in 1951, if you want to farm muskrat, especially in "dry marsh" areas, you need to provide water so that the muskrats can find food in the winter months, and so that their houses do not freeze up. By the 1950s, farmers were using dams, dykes and even pumps to maintain water, and ditching where they could not impound water without affecting their neighbours.  Given the destruction that muskrats (and beavers) can wreak o, you probably want to break the dams and rebuild them on a regular basis, anyway. Here's an environmental history of Trempeleau, Wisconsin (close enough to yodelling country), where the consequences of the introduction of dams and channels, specifically to improve navigation on the river, included the creation of major new muskrat habitat. As far as locals were concerned, this was pretty secondary to improvements for fishing; but, then, there's not much of a market for muskrat fur, any more.  

Is there a takeaway, here? Yes! If my wild speculations are correct, the peri-contact ecological/environmental history of the Eastern Woodlands is not one of ancient, unchanging ways encountering settlers (or, in a more sophisticated account, Iroquois genocide), but rather one of rapid alteration of the landscape --first to produce furs for export, and then, just as quickly, a turn from the production of pelts to corn, also for export. Obviously I've used an elastic definition of the Old Northwest, turning to James Fenimore Cooper as my Ancient Sage again, and thus dragging in evidence from southern upstate New York, and pointing to an ethnogenesis in the lower St. Lawrence --but that's the evidence I have. 

Muskrat dives an Indian, dies, comes up an American, and all to save the bastard children of Fallen Woman. So if Muskrat is who I think he is, he's definitely not the man (animal) he once was. 

*Yersinia pestis is an endemic infection of fleas that cycles between them and rodent hosts. (Rodents work because their life cycles are so short that new hosts become available before the infection runs its course. However,cold, wet winters break the inter-infection cycle, limiting the areas in which the disease is endemic to dry tropical-to-temperate, Continental climates, including California and the American Southwest.)) Epizootics occur in which Yersinia pestis spreads to longer-lived mammal populations, usually because of unusual weather. Epizootics occur in human populations. They are observed phenomena, and immune response tests of populations in areas in which Yersinia pestis is endemic show that many more people have been infected with Yersinia pestis than show symptoms. (More recently, work has been done to show that Yersinia pestis is unusually good at evading immune system responses, but this work seems to be directed at selling vaccines, so I maintain my skepticism about the very high death rates claimed for Yersinia pestis infection in its own right, as distinct from the course of the disease once acute symptoms manifest.) Historically, epizootics were also common in European port cities trading with regions with endemic Yersinia pestis, such as London, Marseilles and Livorno and other Tuscan ports. Russian workers in Manchuria proposed that one manifestation of Yersinia pestis, a lung infection, can independently become an aerosol disease in humans. This is incorrect: pneumonic infection is extremely rare. Therefore, Yersinia pestis was not the disease which spread widely across Europe in 1346 and killed many people; although it is quite likely that there were seasonal Yersinia pestis epizootics during the plague period. If, in fact there was a plague period: we need to be more skeptical about our sources, which are often over-interpreted. Scientifically, there is reason to think that epidemics, even ones of novel diseases for which no herd immunity exists, do not kill demographically significant numbers of individuals of the affected species. Therefore, we can say with certainty that mortality rates in under-documented historic epidemics has been routinely exaggerated, sometimes to the point of absurdity; and with a high level of plausibility that the actual demographic impact of the historic plagues referenced in this sentence has been greatly exaggerated. Here is some interesting scholarship available online. Now back to North America.

*Butternut, or the white walnut, is a common nut tree of the Eastern Woodlands sometimes used as a souce of dyes giving colours ranging from light yellow to dark brown. In the pre-Civil War periood, Amateur historians of the Confederate Army are enormously puzzled by the fact that some Confederate regiments from the plateau upland woodlands are described in contemporary sources as "butternuts." Is it because they dyed their uniforms with butternuts? What is the difference between them and regular brown-clad Confederates. It is so puzzling!

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