What Did New England Look Like Before Settlement?

The sea level was lower tens of thousands years ago, and a land bridge near modern-day Alaska and Russia may have allowed people to move into North America. Historians think they may have arrived via the sea even earlier than that, but one thing is for certain: by the time European settlers traveled to the New World, Native Americans had already settled into every nook and cranny. There may have been a population of 50 million, give or take.

They didn’t have the same domesticated plants or animals that Europeans enjoyed. They didn’t have horses. They grew corn and beans and squash in many places. They had domesticated dogs and turkeys. There were no pigs, cows, or sheep.

Around 5000 BCE, corn was domesticated from an almost unrecognizable plant. That allowed the transition from a nomadic to agricultural way of life. We rarely think of the Native Americans as having large communities, but they did. There were smaller tribes here and there, but there were well-traveled roads and cities populated by tens of thousands of people. The largest may have had up to a million inhabitants.

That’s wildly different from how Native Americans are usually portrayed on TV. Most of these cities arose in the southwestern parts of North America and down into Central America. The population of Native Americans in New England prior to settlement would have been much much lower–a few million at the most.

Forests probably looked quite a bit different, too. Many of the plants and animals that made their home in New England before European settlement have since died out. There were different types of trees that were either killed through deforestation or by fungal infection. Earthworms were only introduced into these environments after settlement!

The new plants and animals changed the way these forests grew, and therefore the way they look today. The forests had more trees, but they were well-managed by the natives. They set controlled fires because they knew that the life would grow back stronger and be less susceptible to fires caused by mother nature. Believe it or not, some historians claim that the beginning of our climate change problems found its root in those controlled burnings–which would have released huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the air.