The First Gardeners: Native Americans and New Jersey’s Environment at First Contact

Matthew Knoblauch


This work examines the region’s physical environment around 1600 using contemporary observations of extant fauna and flora as well as a historiography of scholarship on Native American land management, and concludes not only that there was never a primeval forest in the east, but that European intrusion actually caused the forests to grow thick with neglect. Upon European arrival, the forest was a widely-spaced, open landscape that was frequently burned and actively managed by the Native Americans. After European arrival, epidemic disease devastated indigenous populations such that the forests grew wild outside of the agrarian corridors in the Delaware Valley and Piedmont. This, combined with long-standing dehumanizing racism against Native Americans, cemented the notion of the pristine myth into popular history. The argument begins with a description of early European observations from the seventeenth century, progresses to an assessment of the evolution of modern understanding of how Native Americans managed the forest through fire and other techniques, and concludes with an analysis of the persistence of the pristine myth balanced with the reality that, as Natives were killed by epidemic disease or otherwise vacated the region, there truly was an unmanaged forest growing at the periphery of the colonial world for a brief moment in history.

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