Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Nature and History in the Potomac Country: From Hunter-Gatherers to the Age of Jefferson • James D. Rice • Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009
Reviewed by Drew A. Swanson, doctoral candidate in history at the University of Georgia. His most recent article on the southern environment is "Wormsloe’s Belly: The History of a Southern Plantation through Food," which will be published in volume 15, number 3 of Southern Cultures (2009).
Few environmental histories have taken the Annales School call for longue durée history as seriously as Nature and History in the Potomac Country. As the complete title implies, Rice examines the environmental and social linkages of the Potomac River watershed over a period spanning more than a millennium, from 700 AD to the beginnings of the American Revolution. Telling a story over such a long period of time is a difficult task, and Rice turns to "that which every inhabitant of the region had in common, both before and after the advent of written sources: a relationship to the land itself" (p. 5). From the Allegheny Mountains to the Chesapeake Bay, he uses the Potomac and its tributaries as a framework for exploring the opportunities and barriers presented by the physical environments of the mid-Atlantic.
The first third of Rice's book, in which he describes Native American life along the river before European colonization, is the most innovative section. Among other topics, he examines hunter-gatherer relationships with the Potomac landscape, the role of a warming trend between 900 and 1300 AD in promoting the development of regional agriculture, and an in-depth discussion of the annual cycles of Algonquin life. Throughout these three chapters Rice relies heavily on archeological sources and imaginative passages that draw the reader into ground-level explorations of Native American land use. Rice stresses the need for histories that take pre-contact history as seriously as events after the Columbian exchange. Indeed, in an aside he decries "the common practice of beginning with a chapter describing an Indian society on the eve of colonization, then moving on to the real history in chapter 2" (p. 11). Following contact, native peoples do not disappear from Rice's narrative. Indeed, the fur trade, Indian agricultural practices, warfare between the Algonquin and Iroquois peoples over hegemony of the river system, and the Albany and Lancaster treaties, which altered geographical boundaries and control over natural resources, remain central events in his narrative of life and nature along the river. As late as the American Revolution, Rice states, "the trajectory of Native American history before John Smith's visitation in 1608 had not been entirely cut off nor subsumed into the trajectory of Euro-American history” (p. 254).
As this quotation suggests, Rice's most important contribution to American environmental historiography is his emphasis on the relative continuity of both the natural world and human uses of the environment before and after European contact. Nature and History in the Potomac Country offers a gentle corrective to the characterization of contact as a social and environmental cataclysm, a viewpoint epitomized by the works of William Cronon, Alfred Crosby, and Carolyn Merchant. Although epidemic diseases, slavery, warfare, and even livestock quickly blazed across stretches of post-Columbian America, Rice demonstrates that the Potomac portion of the New World environment remained relatively unchanged by European colonization for half a century. He declares that "compared to the tumultuous fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, the first half of the seventeenth century brought relatively few major changes to the Native peoples of the Potomac" (p. 71). Rice does not deny the importance of contact and the Columbian Exchange, but he does provide a reminder that the effects of contact were mediated through local environments and cultural systems, and they did not proceed in a uniform manner. Nature and History in the Potomac Country is a well-executed regional history that serves as a powerful example of the necessity of environmental history focused on the intimate details of both natural and cultural landscapes.