A valley white with mist: Settlers, nature, and culture in a North Woods river valley, 1800--1870

Date of Completion

January 2005


History, United States|Geography




In the late 1700s and early 1800s tens of thousands of people migrated from Southern New England (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, southern New Hampshire, and southwestern Maine) to Northern New England (Vermont and the rest of Maine and New Hampshire). Several thousand of them moved to the Piscataquis River Valley in northern Maine. In doing so, they moved from one distinctive ecological and climatic zone (the Eastern Oak-Hickory Forest) to another (the North Woods). Faced with longer, colder winters; shorter, cooler summers; deeper wintertime snow; taller, craggier mountains; more extensive bogs; and more ferocious spring freshets than they were used to, and confronted with an unfamiliar forest dominated by fir, spruce, paper birch, and other northern trees, the migrants had entered into a strange and unfamiliar land. To survive, they would either have to change the environment, adapt their culture, or both. They did both. ^ Environmental historians emphasize the ways in which settlers have transformed environments to suit their cultures, but have generally ignored the ways in which they have altered their cultures to better fit into new environments. But it is important to understand both halves of the process. In the Piscataquis Valley, the settlers cleared about half of the forest plants and an even larger portion of the wild animals and replaced them with new plants and animals imported from Southern New England. But they also adapted by changing their crops, adopting a more spread-out settlement pattern with a lower population density, and slowing or even halting the shift towards commercial agriculture. Yet for every change they made in the environment, they were compelled to further adapt their culture, and for every cultural adaptation they made, they were compelled to make more changes in the environment. The result was a ceaseless process of change and adaptation that never reached a state of equilibrium. ^