Nature and History in the Potomac Country: From Hunter-Gatherers to the Age of Jefferson

This study of the Potomac River country by the State University of New York history professor James D. Rice reflects the latest understandings provided by environmental history and ethnohistory. The broad trends that he exposes will not necessarily surprise specialists, but the specific details and, most significantly, the approach that he utilizes and the lessons that he draws are invaluable reminders of the crucial importance of place in explaining how and why people interacted. The Potomac River country was unique in the colonial period for reasons that are only clear if one employs, as Rice does, a Braudelian three-tiered approach that encompasses geological time, sociopolitical and economic developments, and specific historical moments.

Rice lays the groundwork for later trends with his discussion of the era before European contact that witnessed the gradual introduction of agriculture in the Potomac River country and the impact of the “little ice age” (during the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries). With the rise of agriculture, native groups moved upriver and away from the outer coastal plain to access better soils. As the growing season shortened in the 1500s, the Potomac River became a climatic and cultural border area between northern indigenous groups and southern Indians who could still practice extensive farming. Indians along the upper Potomac River above the fall line moved downriver and constructed fortified villages with increasing social hierarchy and spiritual specialization in response to northern raids. As Europeans inserted themselves into the region in the 1600s, they were shaped by these native settlement patterns and intercultural conflicts. Pursuing first the fur trade and then, after several decades, tobacco farming, Europeans in the Potomac River region encountered the same climatic and cultural boundary that had been established along the Potomac before their arrival. Rice incorporates nearly every major event in the first hundred years of Virginia and Maryland history and shows how they were shaped by earlier historical trends along the Potomac or how they changed the dynamics of Potomac region history. Complex and ever-changing alliances and conflicts between specific Indian groups and various English, Dutch, Catholic, Anglican, Puritan, Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania actors are explained in large measure, according to Rice, by the deeper ecological and indigenous structures already present. Not until the eighteenth century did Europeans attempt in substantial numbers to settle above the Potomac fall line, and then the Virginia and Maryland colonial governments encouraged non-English settlers—Swiss, Germans, and Scots—to provide a buffer against Indian attacks, thus bringing the influence of the Potomac border zone well into the postcontact era.

Rice’s book demonstrates the pervasive and substantial impact on the colonial era of human and environmental actions predating the arrival of Europeans. “By the time of the American Revolution,” Rice writes, the Indian “presence could still be discerned in the appearance of the land, as well as in the cultural, political, social, and economic lives of the region’s newer inhabitants” (p. x). “Thus Indians in effect governed the timing, extent, and character of colonization” (p. 255). This refreshing book should serve as a model for future studies of colonial America examining particular places and the peoples who lived there.

Greg O’Brien
University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Greensboro, North Carolina