SOCIAL institutions are born of two elements, - the land and the people. In the childhood of society these two elements in action and reaction are almost the only factors to be considered. Later the inertia of social institutions may become a far more powerful factor in social evolution than either of the primary factors.1 We have seen something of the character of those who peopled this continent. We have learned a little of the society from which they came, and of the forces that sent them across the ocean. They were now to build up a society in a new world. As materials to this end they brought with them a vast store of things that mankind had been countless ages in acquiring: the knowledge of reading, and printing and gunpowder, of making tools of iron and steel, of spinning and weaving and making of clothing, social and governmental institutions, churches, laws, creeds, beliefs, prejudices, superstitions. All these things, developed in the complex civilization of Europe, were now transplanted to a world where they had hitherto been unknown.

      It was as if some giant hand had gathered a multitude of seeds of all kinds and manner of plants from all the ends of the earth and had flung them at random upon the

1 Paul Goode, "The Human Response to the Physical Environment," in the Journal of Geography, Vol. III, No. 7.



American hills and plains. Some would never sprout; others would die with the first frost, or be shriveled with overmuch heat. Some would be drowned with too much rain, while others would lack the tropical downpour essential to life. Some would find the new conditions so exceptionally favorable that they would grow to giant weeds, choking out other plants of greater intrinsic value.

      Let us look upon the land where this plentiful load of old achievements, beliefs, and institutions are to be thrown, that we may see which are most suited to survive and flourish, and where each kind may reach its highest development. The Atlantic coast is a good colonial seed bed. Contrast its abundant harbors, long tidal rivers, and general open appearance with the smooth, closed wall of the Pacific coast. Here is room for many communities to grow up independent of one another. It is almost an axiom of history that peninsulas form a sort of social hotbeds in which nations grow rapidly to a high stage of maturity. A handful of colonists could scarcely have been thrown at any spot from Maine to Georgia without finding a favorable opening in which to lodge and sprout and grow.

      In the days when the colonists came to America, and, indeed, in all the years before that time, rivers were the principal means of communication, even in old countries, while in new countries they were almost the only highways of commerce and travel. The region in which the first American colonies were located was amply provided with these natural highways. Abundant navigable rivers afforded access far into the interior. Only in New England was the "fall line" so close to the ocean as to give


rise to the short swift rivers which confine settlement to the coast and supply power to turn the wheels of industry.

      An examination of these rivers will tell us much of the history of the region they drain. The broad deep Hudson and Susquehanna tapped country rich in fur in the beginning, which was later to become a bountiful farming region. These facts suggest that some day an Aster should rise and rule at the mouth of one of these rivers and that both should become the seat of great commercial cities. The Rappahannock and the James ebbed and flowed with the tide for many miles through rich alluvial silt, which was to be marked off into broad plantations, first for tobacco and later for cotton. Ocean vessels could sail up these tidewater streams to the wharves of the rich planters, who ruled over armies of chattel slaves and sold their products directly in foreign markets.

      When society was so closely connected with the tilling of the soil, the character of that element played an important part in determining social evolution. The glaciated clay of New England with its coating of ice-brought boulders was difficult of cultivation but slow of exhaustion. It invited small permanent farms, with such small profits as to require an auxiliary industry like fishing, hunting, or trading to maintain a living. The alluvial silt of the South was the opposite in its characteristics. Easy of conquest in the beginning, it invited the cultivation of staple crops with high profits which quickly exhausted the soil, compelling continuous change of location. Slavery was almost as impossible under the former conditions as it was inevitable under the latter. Climate plays its part in deciding historical events. It would be as hard to imagine the individualistic, ener-


getic, dogmatic Puritan of New England preaching, fighting, trading beneath the torrid sun of the Carolinas, as to think of the fox-hunting, gambling, slaveholder building his plantation mansion with its broad verandas on the bleak New England hills.

      While the various peninsulas and river systems into which the Atlantic coast is divided favored a high development of individual colonies, and tended to produce and emphasize local peculiarities, the ocean which connected all the colonies constituted a broad and ever open highway that bound them together. Whatsoever interests like commerce and fishing required the use of this common means of transportation tended to unite the various colonies, and we shall find these interests playing a prominent part in the formation of a united nation. As each colony crept back from the ocean and away from the river, its peoples came into contact with those of its neighbors. At the headwaters of the rivers there would soon arise a body of people more closely united to each other than to any single colony. This process was hastened by the fact that there extended along the full length of the settlements a broad mountain range that set a limit to western expansion during most of the colonial period. Once the Indians had been driven beyond the Appalachians, these mountain ranges formed a protecting barrier for the colonies against further attacks. This protecting barrier to expansion fostered colonial solidarity. It hastened the evolution of society to that partially self-supporting stage, which rendered possible the common action that resulted in political independence and national existence. To understand what the absence of such a limiting and protecting barrier might have


meant, it is only necessary to glance at the French spreading over all Canada and the Mississippi Valley, forming no political organizations, and establishing no social or political unity between their widely scattered settlements. In the first stages of industrial evolution only the "extractive industries" are developed. These are the industries that extract raw material directly from the earth, as contrasted with those that work up such raw material into the finished products used by a more complex civilization. In any such industrial stage the social organization will depend quite largely upon the nature of the raw materials to be "extracted."

      Off the coast of New England lay the Newfoundland Banks, the richest fishing grounds in the world. From Cape Cod to the Arctics there stretched away the "green pastures" of the whale. These two facts determined political and military relations, affected treaties, repeatedly threatened war, determined colonial and national legislation for more than three centuries, and set in motion streams of influence that even to-day mightily affect the current of industrial and social life.

      The Atlantic coast plain, the Appalachians, and the whole eastern bank of the Mississippi Valley were covered with a dense growth of forest. It is almost impossible to exaggerate the influence which this fact played in colonial history. It was the pine forests of New England, in combination with the near-by fishing grounds, that laid the foundation for the great commercial life of that section. Although the choicest trees were marked with the "broad arrow" of the king to indicate that they were to be cut only in order to be shipped to England for use in the royal navy, yet the colonists were seldom


troubled with an overly tender legal conscience, and many a "broad arrow" was removed and the tree which it marked converted into masts for some New England merchantman.

      The forest was at once an obstacle to settlement and cultivation, a shelter for the Indian, the home of fur-bearing and meat-carrying animals, and a regulator of climate and flow of water. Just how great a part the forest has played in American history we are only beginning to appreciate when it has almost disappeared.

      Hunting, both for food and furs; lumbering; shipbuilding; and the manufacture of such diverse products as turpentine, charcoal, and pearlash; the blockhouse for defense, and the log cabin for shelter, - all these various and most characteristic features of American life owe their existence to this great forest belt.

      To follow but one of these features, and that not the most important, but a little way along its ramifications The woods teemed with animals, large and small, whose furry coverings were coveted by man - or woman. In pursuit of this fur men explored rivers, founded cities, cut the trails through the forest that marked the lines of a future commerce, and sketched in outline the geographic basis of American social life. The fur trade made and modified Indian policies, directed the course of population, located national boundary lines, laid the foundation of much of our present financial organization, created the first of the race of American millionaires, and in a hundred other ways set its stamp upon our social institutions.

      Throughout colonial times agriculture was the basic dominant industry in all the colonies, with the possible


exception of some of the fishing communities of New England. A large number of the staple crops of Europe were successful here, including wheat, flax, apples, and grapes. Most of the domestic animals of Europe were transplanted to this country with little change. America gave three new plants to agriculture, - corn, tobacco, and potatoes, - and it far exceeds all the rest of the world in the production of another - cotton. The first two and the last one have made and unmade social systems and governmental policies, and have determined the methods of life for great sections of the population. A complete account of any one of these three would give a far more accurate history of America (though still warped and incomplete) than the biographies of any half-dozen "great men" that have lived on this continent.

      Only two animals that are peculiar to America have had any great influence on agriculture, - the turkey and the bison. Until within the last decade the influence of the latter was similar to that of all other wild animals, merely as a competitor in supplying meat, but attempts at domestication and cross breeding with domestic cattle would now indicate that this animal may be destined to play a more important part in the future, unless the slight remnant of his blood is too small to found a new race.

      America was not an untrodden land when Englishman and Spaniard first set foot upon its shores. Thinly scattered over its vast reaches there lived a race, just evolving out of the hunting and fishing stage into that of a rude agriculture. The Indian has exercised a profound influence upon American history. He was the ablest savage fighter the


world has ever known. Man for man he has taken his weapons from the white man and yet held his own in the centuries-long battle from the Atlantic to the Pacific. He has retreated before superior numbers. He has never acknowledged defeat. The existence of a relentless watchful foe compelled compactness of settlement, determined the location of towns and villages, and developed a race of frontier fighters that proved the decisive influence in every war in which this nation has been engaged. The Indian trails marked the roads that were followed by the traders, the makers of highways, and the builders of railroads, each in turn. Tobacco and corn had both been domesticated by the Indian, and he taught the white man how to raise them. In the fur trade the Indian was always an important factor, and the trade with Indian tribes was for more than two centuries an important part of American commercial life.

      It has been generally accepted by historians, based upon the observation of almost countless examples, that when two unlike nations of unequal strength come into conflict, the succeeding steps will be: invasion, conquest, enslavement, amalgamation. The relation of the Indian to the white race has lacked the last two steps. Although the present population of the United States is the most composite in the world, it contains little more than a trace of the blood of the original inhabitants. Neither was the Indian transformed into a slave, as has been the case with multitudes of conquered peoples. This was not because of any lack of inclination in that direction by the white invaders. From the New England Puritans, who divided up the Pequod women and children after massacring the men, and sold King Philip's son to West


Indian sugar planters, to the Spaniards, who, with whips and hot irons, drove a multitude to a horrible death in the mines of Central and South America, attempts to enslave the Indian were never lacking. Yet so far as the race was concerned these attempts were a striking failure. The Indian would die, but he would not serve. During the time of Southern negro slavery if it became known that ever so little Indian blood flowed in the veins of a slave, his value quickly fell off or entirely disappeared, for it was recognized that it was always but a question of time until either the master or the slave would die a violent death.

      Had the Indian not possessed this characteristic, how different American history might have been. With a servile native population, acclimated to all portions of the country, the negro need never have been stolen from Africa; slavery would have been a national instead of a sectional institution; the Indian would have been absorbed by the whites or bred in slavery until his numbers were equal to, or exceeded, those of his masters, and - but when one enters the realm of historical "ifs, " there is no place to stop.

      We have seen something of what the colonists found when they came to America. We have said nothing of the minerals and the natural wealth that were found at a later time. This chapter is meant only to suggest some of the things that will be discussed at much greater length, as occasion arises. Yet the history of America is just the story of how these raw materials, natural resources, indigenous products, and peoples were used by those who came to this country, and by their descendants in satisfying their wants.

Go to the previous chapter       Return to the Index       Go to next chapter