European Land Use and the Transformation of the Northeast - By Kevin Sweeney


At the heart of the conflicts that arose between European colonists and Native peoples in the Northeast was a struggle for control and ownership of land. For millennia, Native homelands had provided their residents with food, clothing and shelter. These homelands shaped cultural and spiritual traditions, a process that was evident in Native place names that mapped landscapes in terms of sacred places, natural resources and historic events. European explorers and traders saw these same lands as underutilized, unimproved, and, at times, vacant. Most European colonists saw Native lands as "free land" that could serve as the basis for creating a new France or a new England in which certain European customs could be implanted and replicated. By 1700 European customs, ideas and peoples had divided and dramatically transformed the lands of the Northeast.

Native Use of Lands

In many ways Native land uses in the Northeast differed radically from those found in Europe. Unlike Europeans, who had fixed farmsteads and bounded fields, Algonkian peoples in the Northeast, such as the Pocumtuck and the Wôbanakiak, moved about their homelands making use of a variety of sites: falls and rapids in the spring to catch migrating fish, bottom lands along rivers to grow maize, beans and squash in the summer, and forests in the fall and winter to hunt game. In addition they gathered nuts and berries in forests to supplement diets and took firewood for fuel and wood to fashion shelters. Iroquoian peoples such as the Wendats (Hurons) and the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy lived a more settled, less wide-ranging existence centered on large villages where women tended crops while men periodically left to hunt, fish and trade. When fields lost their fertility or wood became scarce, Native peoples simply moved the location of their fields or entire villages. Periodic mobility cushioned the impact of Native peoples on the region's patchwork landscape of rivers, fields, and woods and enabled them to live within a well defined if expansive and bounded homelands.

Native peoples did have a clear sense of possession and territorial rights although it differed from Europeans' concept of ownership. The Native understanding depended heavily on use; the European understanding on abstract notions of legal title recognized by sovereign authorities. Individual Natives owned personal possessions that they made and used. A Native nation possessed rights to use the landscape that made up its homeland, even though the exact boundaries of a particular homeland might change from one generation to the next. Places that required labor to be productive, such as fields used for growing crops, belonged to those individuals who used them, and because of this fact English colonists found that Native women were often recognized as the "owners" of arable lands. Fishing sites or hunting grounds might be shared by more than one group of people. A Native people's right to use the patchwork of lands that constituted a homeland could be vested in its leaders, and Plymouth colonist, Edward Winslow observed that "every sachem knoweth how far the bounds and limits of his own Country extendeth." (1)

French Acquisition of Lands

The French put more emphasis on the fur trade than on farming in their colony's earliest years. With relatively few farmers in need of land and with much of the Saint Lawrence Valley sparsely populated by Native peoples because of climate change, warfare, and disease, French colonists settled at the abandoned sites of the Native villages of Stadacona (Quebec) and Hochelaga (Montreal) in the early 1600s. Settlers appropriated these Native lands based on the French king's claim to them which rested on the explorer Jacques Cartier's "discovery" of them in the 1530s. They made no effort to compensate Native peoples for lands along the Saint Lawrence, but took what they wanted. As the population of New France grew from about 1200 in 1650 to around 14,000 in 1700 the demand for farm land did increase.


French officials looked upon the lands along the Saint Lawrence as a resource for populating their colony by attracting settlers. Grants of land could also be used to give its society a hierarchical structure roughly approximating that of France. Beginning in 1634, land was given French names and divided into large tracts, called seigneuries, that covered hundreds or thousands of acres. These seigneuries were given mostly to prominent individuals and religious communities. While not all seigneurs were nobles, most nobles were seigneurs, and one-quarter of the seigneuries were owned by the Church. By 1663 most of the land that bordered the Saint Lawrence between Quebec and Montreal had been given to seigneurs, though much of it remained undeveloped for years or decades in some cases.

The French crown required that seigneurs, who received these tracts of land, in turn grant their lands in smaller but sufficient portions to attract settlers to the colony. From a seigneur, habitants received oblong-shaped pieces of land that usually fronted a river. With the land came a cession contract that set forth the grant's boundaries and outlined the recipient's duties. The habitant usually owed his seigneur rent (with the amount fixed in the contract) and a fixed number of days' labor, the courvee, annually to fix roads and bridges. In addition, the habitant's grain had to be ground at the seigneur's mill and a portion of the flour given to the seigneur, as well as a portion of fish caught in the river fronting the seigneury. The seigneur also had the right of first refusal when land was sold, and he collected a fee on land transfers. In all, the seigneur may have collected a tenth of the production of his landholders' farms. But in most instances these returns remained rather meager until the mid-1700s, and seigneurs depended on the fur trade or government employment, usually in the military, for their income.

The Habitants' Farms

The clearing of the land for farming was done by the habitants, who made up the bulk of the colony's population. They worked hard to turn their land grants into a collection of tracts devoted to specific uses. Habitants used their arable land to grow wheat and barley to feed themselves, to pay their rents and dues, and, occasionally, to produce modest surpluses that were used to acquire other necessities. They created pastures to raise livestock. Some land remained as woodlots to provide firewood for fuel and building materials. At various times of the year they would also hunt and fish, but unlike the Native peoples they rarely traveled far from the fixed and bounded farmsteads that stood at the center of their subsistence economy. Laws and customs governing inheritance enabled families to pass on their lands to their children and thus provide for the next generation. Access to land, a healthy diet and freedom from taxes produced a higher standard of living than was found among the peasants of France.

Native Communities in New France

Native communities at Kahnawake, La Montagne, and Lorette were established on land held by either the Jesuits or Sulpicians who as seigneurs acted as trustees for Native peoples that they wanted to convert to Catholicism. The village of Odanak was in the seigneury of the Crevier family. Within these communities, Natives continued to follow traditional, seasonal subsistence patterns, growing corn, beans and squash and departing at various times of the year to hunt and trap. As the land lost its fertility, they relocated their fields. The Kanienkehaka at Kahnawake moved their entire village four times in the late 1690s and early 1700s. Residents of these villages were not subject to the rents and dues paid by French habitants to their seigneurs because they were intended to be mission villages and to serve as military buffers for New France. As the French population increased in areas around Quebec and Montreal, demand for farm land increased, and the villages at La Montagne and Lorette were all relocated in the 1690s after their clerical seigneurs promised the Natives new lands at Sault-au-Récollet and Jeune (New) Lorette. Habitants took over the land that Natives had cleared and improved.

English Acquisition of Lands

English settlers who took up lands in the Northeast based their claims to the land on "discovery" by explorers and charters granted by the king to colonial corporations that established the actual colonies. Leaders of Massachusetts also argued that Native lands were vacuum domicilium, vacant land waiting to be improved. The land appeared "natural" and unimproved to the English because they had little or no understanding of the ways in which Native peoples manipulated and used their lands. To English eyes Native peoples' seasonal migration about their homelands to fish, farm, and hunt appeared to be no use at all since there were no fixed habitants or fenced fields, or in other words, no evidence of what the English saw as improvement. Only fields planted with crops which bore some resemblance to English land uses appeared to be occupied, but these were the lands that colonial farmers most desired. Despite these rationales and both unwitting and willful misunderstandings, the English compensated Natives for the occupation of their lands and negotiated deeds of sale.

Native Deeds

image name: chaukdeed.jpg

With this document, a Pocumtuck sachem named Chauk "sold" the land that became the town of Deerfield to the Dedham proprietors. In the deed, he reserves his people's fishing, hunting and gathering rights. Click here to link to the deed's artifact page for a closer look at the text and more information.
Copyright Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Deerfield, MA. All rights reserved.

To a degree these deeds of sale were exercises in mutual misunderstanding with the English seemingly buying one thing and Native peoples selling another. The English ultimately sought to obtain exclusive ownership and complete control of the land they acquired. At first Native peoples intended to convey to the English only certain uses of the land while often explicitly, as in the Chauk deed for Pocumtuck, retaining certain uses such as fishing and hunting. Contrary to English expectations, Native peoples did not always vacate the lands that they deeded. Over time, English encroachment, epidemics and wars confined Native communities on ever diminishing tracts of land or forced them to relocate to what are today Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Canada.

Establishing Towns

image name: 1671survey.jpg

A partial map of the Deerfield town street and north meadows, circa 1680-1700, showing numbered house lots and fields. Click here to go to the survey's artifact page for more information and a closer view.
Copyright Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Deerfield, MA. All rights reserved.

Acting on the basis of the Massachusetts charter's land grant from the king, the colonial government of Massachusetts granted at no cost blocks of land to groups of colonists who sought to establish new towns. The recipients of these lands became proprietors who formed a land corporation and apportioned shares in the land grant according to an individual's wealth and value to the community, creating a social hierarchy that would implant itself on the landscape. Despite this effort to fashion a social hierarchy with land grants, the resulting distribution of land created a more equitable and egalitarian pattern of landholdings than that existing in England or than that envisioned by the granting of seigneuries in New France. These proprietors or the individuals to whom they sold their shares settled new towns. In most of New England, the settlers created towns consisting of separate farmsteads. But in Connecticut River Valley towns such as Deerfield, the proprietors and settlers created nucleated villages surrounded by long, narrow strips of land lying side-by side in large, open fields enclosed by a single, commonly maintained fence. While the individual strips of farm land were privately owned, the town or proprietors managed the use of such fields, deciding when it was time to plant and time to harvest.

English Use of Lands

English immigrants and their numerous offspring expected to take up land and recreate family farms approximating those found in England. With them, the colonists brought English livestock, crops and farming methods. Unlike Native fields that grew maize, beans and squash together, English fields were devoted to the cultivation of single crops such as wheat, oats, or maize, which they adopted from Native agriculture. They tilled their fields with plows pulled by oxen. The demands of the colonists' unfenced and prolific livestock disrupted Native agriculture and hunting and created a constant need for more pasture land. With lands obtained from Native peoples and with crops, livestock, and techniques imported from home, English colonists, like their counterparts in New France, produced larger families and a higher standard of living than were found among people of similar station in England. Needless to say, the larger families produced an insatiable need for more land.

A New Old World

In 1700 the lands of New France and New England formed part of the western frontier of an expanding Europe. This frontier was not a fixed boundary, but a zone in which colonists and Natives interacted, though things moved in a direction that increasingly favored the European settlers. Land in particular moved from Native uses to European control as new peoples and livestock colonized the Northeast. As a rule the newcomers distanced themselves from native animals and plants, and in New England, from Native peoples as well. For many Natives a town such as Deerfield embodied the cutting edge of an aggressive and expansionist culture and thus was a legitimate target.

Further Reading

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