The Great Change Begins: Settling the Forest of Central New York

Alan Taylor * (University of California at Davis)

Published in New York History, Vol. LXXV, No. 3 (July 1995), pp. 265-290.

Copyright © 1995, New York State Historical Association, and placed online with its kind permission.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Settlers from New England and elsewhere replaced the native peoples of central and western New York. But that was only the beginning. Alan Taylor is the author of William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic (Alfred A. Knopf, 1995) and winner of the 1995 New York State Historical Association Manuscript Award. He is a member of the Department of History at the University of California at Davis.

During the early republican era — the forty years after the end of the Revolution — Americans experienced unprecedented and accelerating social and environmental changes. Between 1780 and 1820 American settlers occupied, cleared, and farmed more land, and founded more new communities, than in the preceding 180 years of colonization. Collaterally, native Americans suffered the loss of more land and independence than ever before. The early American republic was a land of increasing internal migration and of proliferating new communities created on the frontier margins. 1

Slow to develop as a colony, New York quickly became the most dynamic state in the newly independent American republic. During the 1780s and early 1790s treaties dispossessed the shrinking Iroquois tribes of most of their lands, thereby opening central and [266] western New York to rapid resettlement by American citizens. By 1794 the Iroquois population in New York had shrunk to 3,500, less than half of their pre-war numbers. At the same time, thousands of Yankees flocked from crowded New England into upstate New York to displace the Iroquois and outnumber the longer-resident, more ethnically-mixed colonial population of New York. Owing primarily to that invasion, New York’s population quadrupled from 340,120 in 1790 to 1,372,812 in 1820. In 1790 New York had been the nation’s fifth state in population, lagging behind Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. By 1820 New York had become the most populous state in the nation as well as the national leader in commercial exports. Most of the newcomers settled in northern, central, and western New York, which dramatically shifted the distribution of the state’s population: In 1785 three-fourths of New Yorkers still lived in the Hudson Valley or along the Atlantic coast; in 1820 three-fourths of the state’s people lived in the newer counties to the north and west of Albany. In 1820 most New York towns were less than forty years old and most of their residents had migrated from somewhere else. Thirty-eight of the state’s fifty-four counties had been formed after 1780. The new nation’s explosive demographic growth, territorial expansion, and environmental change exceeded in pace and extent the experience of any preceding American generation; and New York was the vanguard state of the developing nation. 2

New York’s post-revolutionary settlers wrought a dramatic environmental transformation as they replaced the Indians on the land. In the mid-nineteenth century, Susan Fenimore Cooper observed the effect on Otsego County:

The white man came to plant a home on this spot, and it was then [267] [that] the great change began; the axe and the saw, the forge and the wheel were busy from dawn to dusk, cows and swine fed in thickets whence the wild beasts had fled, while the ox and the horse drew away in chains the fallen trunks of the forest. The tenants of the wilderness shrunk deeper within its bounds with every changing moon. ... The open valley, the half-shorn hills, the paths, the flocks, the buildings, the woods in their second growth, even the waters in the different images [that] they reflect on their bosom, the very race of men who come and go, all are different from what they were.

The Iroquois economy had consisted of a subsistence agriculture supplemented by extensive hunting and gathering. The settlers used more land more intensively because they came in vastly greater numbers and because they sought a marketable surplus as well as family subsistence from their agriculture. Where the relatively small Iroquois population confined their agriculture to the best bottom-[268]lands along the larger rivers, the settlers came by the thousands and expanded up onto the hills and ridges, pushing their multiplying farms into almost every corner of the new state. In contrast to the Indians, who obtained most of their meat from fishing and hunting for wild, roaming animals, the settlers relied on domesticated livestock kept as private property. To secure meat, Indians needed extensive forests (and free-flowing rivers) in addition to the agricultural fields that provided their vegetables, fruits, legumes, and grains. In contrast, the settlers cleared away most of the forests and destroyed most of the wild mammals to render the landscape safe and productive for their livestock and for their more extensive fields of grain. Settlers dedicated their new farms to pastures and hayfields for their cattle and to fields of grains, especially wheat and Indian corn. In their drive to create tangible property, to produce grains for external markets (as well as for their own subsistence), and to maximize the number of privately-owned animals, settler families cleared and fenced much more land and built more and larger buildings than did the Indians. 3

Settlement radically diminished nature’s wild diversity (already partially affected by the Indians’ use of the land) and the wholesale substitution of the settlers’ domesticated plants and livestock. They simplified the ecosystem, defined by Donald Worster as “the collective entity of plants and animals interacting with one another ... a local or regional system of plants and animals working together to create the means of survival.” Advancing into the forest with guns, axes, and fire, settlers attacked the trees and decimated the wild mammals, birds, and reptiles. The newcomers brought along cattle sheep, horses, pigs, and chickens and the seeds to plant rye, wheat, corn, flax (for making linen), and potatoes. Except for corn and potatoes adopted from the Indians, the settlers’ domesticated plants and animals came into North America from Europe with the invading colonists during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. By rooting out, eating up, or shouldering aside the native plants and smaller animals, the introduced species helped their human allies [269] change the land. Unwanted pests also accompanied the invaders from Europe and into the North American forest: brown and black rats, house mice, an array of weed plants, and microbes that preyed upon crops, animals, or humans. In the words of the environmental historian Alfred Crosby, the allied members of this imported biota worked together in “a team effort by organisms that had evolved in conflict and cooperation over a long time.” 4

Thanks to the work of William Cronon and Carolyn Merchant this process of agroecological transformation is well developed for colonial New England, but there is a want of similar work for New York. This essay attempts a sequel to the story told by Cronon and Merchant: an examination of the environmental process as the Yankee settlers expanded into New York — with special reference to the region around Otsego Lake, between the Mohawk and Susquehanna Rivers. 5

Newcomers to central New York were awed by the size and majesty of the old-growth forest. They especially marveled at the complex diversity of life, the chaotic tangle of numerous plant and animal species, and the interplay of living and decomposing matter within the forest. Both death and life existed in an awesome exuberance. One European visitor to the New York forest remarked,

Over our heads stretched a vast dome of vegetation. Below this thick veil and amid the damp depths of the forest, there lay one vast confusion, a sort of chaos. Trees of all ages, foliage of all colours, plants, fruits and flowers of a thousand species, entangled and intertwined. Generations of trees have succeeded one another there [270] through uninterrupted centuries and the ground is covered with their debris. ... Amid them a thousand different plants press in their turn towards the light. They glide between these immobile corpses, creep over their surface and under their decaying bark raise and disperse their powdered debris. It is like a fight between death and life.

Travelling in 1794 through a New York forest of immense and tightly packed pine trees, the Englishman William Strickland marveled, “The whole scenery cannot be described in words that can convey an adequate description nor can it be conceived by those, who have not witnessed it.” 6

During his visits to Otsego during the 1760s and 1770s, Richard Smith — an amateur naturalist as well as a land speculator — was similarly astonished by the abundant, large, and diverse plant life, especially on the fertile bottoms beside the rivers and larger streams. He noted ferns three-feet high; wild carrot plants five-feet high; and wild parsnips that towered eight-feet high. In mid-summer wild hops, red currants, grape vines, raspberries, gooseberries, strawberries, blackberries, and wild leeks abounded, as did a “great Variety of Flowers in every direction.” Poison lurked amidst the plenty; hellebore grew three-feet tall and was “common all over the Low Lands.” Smith also noted the frequent sounds,signs, and sightings of the larger mammals: beavers, wolves, bears, elk, and, especially, deer. In 1777 one settler told Smith that “his Boys had taken 12 or 15 Deer that Winter near the House. In traversing the vast forest Smith often heard wolves howling, owls hooting, and the songs of swamp robins, sounds he never heard at home in long-settled Burlington, New Jersey. 7

The efflorescence of life in the Otsego spring powerfully impressed the memories of those who grew up in settler families. George Peck [271] remembered, “By night, the low whisper of the rustling leaves, the weird notes of the whip-poor-will, the startling note of the great owl, or the querulous notes of the smaller [owl], with the distant howl of an occasional wolf, formed a sylvan chorus which filled the mind with mingled emotions of awe and pleasure.” Similarly, Henry Clarke Wright recalled, “The sounds that came up from that wilderness from ten thousand throats of insects, reptiles, beasts and birds, as the sun went down and night settled over the scene, were the sweet lullaby of my childhood.” Writing as adults living in the comparative silence and monotony of a more subdued nature, these men felt nostalgic for the diverse sights and sounds of their Otsego boyhood. 8

Enormous flocks of passenger pigeons were the most amazing spectacle of life’s extraordinary vitality in the Otsego forest. No other species of bird in North America ever approached the numbers of passenger pigeons prior to their mass destruction in the nineteenth century (and extinction at the start of the twentieth). The ornithologist A. W. Schorger estimates their peak population at three-to-five billion birds. They accounted for at least a quarter, and perhaps as many as two-fifths of the total bird population in the United States and Canada. Sixteen inches long with strong chests and long pointed wings, they were handsome, stately birds. The males were especially colorful: “brilliant fiery orange” eyes, a black bill, slate blue head, a neck “resplendent” with “gold, green, and purplish crimson,” a reddish- brown breast, white belly, and a dark slate colored back and tail. Because they fed primarily on beech nuts and oak acorns, the pigeons frequented the hardwood forests of northern Pennsylvania and upstate New York. 9

In North America no other bird species lived and migrated in such vast flocks of several million birds. The sight was doubly spectacular because of the rapidity of their flight — sixty to seventy miles [272] per hour — and the low altitude at which they flew, often just a few feet over the heads of the awed observers. Obscuring the sun by their numbers, they darkened the sky for hours, and sometimes — in intermittent pulses — for several days. Their drumming wings and “cheerful cries of ‘tweet, tweet’” accumulated into a din that drowned out all other sounds in the forest. The hail of their dropping dung filled the air with an acrid odor. The sight, sound, and smell alarmed men and beasts when they first witnessed a migrating flock. In 1796 the sky-darkening flocks that passed over Cooperstown led several elderly settlers to declare “that they have seen more [pigeons] in one morning, the week past, than in their whole lives before.” In his 1823 novel The Pioneers, James Fenimore Cooper described such a flock near Cooperstown: “It extended from mountain to mountain in one solid blue mass, and the eye looked in vain over the southern hills to find its termination.” 10

In April and May the pigeons settled into extensive nesting grounds in the forest. They filled almost every tree with as many as thirty nests — each one the home of an egg that hatched into a squab subsequently fattened on beechnuts and oak scorns that were gathered, consumed, and regurgitated by its parents. Branches snapped under the weight, dung piled-up several inches deep on the ground, and the host trees often died from the ammonia accumulating at their roots. Alexander Wilson, an early nineteenth-century naturalist, reported: “The view through the woods presented a perpetual tumult of crowding and fluttering multitudes of Pigeons, their wings roaring like thunder. In 1753 the Reverend Gideon Hawley, an Indian missionary, marveled at an Otsego nesting ground six-to-eight miles long where the “wild pigeons breed in numbers almost infinite.” In 1770 the surveyor Nathaniel Edwards stumbled upon an Otsego colony that was at least twenty miles long and two miles wide where every mature tree had at least ten nests. 11

[273] There was a mysterious allure in the unknown potential of a newly occupied “wilderness.” The possibility of unprecedented marvels heightened the imagination of the men who tried to make sense of their new surroundings. Otsego’s leading land speculator (and the novelist’s father), Judge William Cooper, insisted that moose occasionally interbred with cattle; one “half cow, half moose” belonging to an Otsego settler bore calves “always inclined rather to brouze upon the trees and shrubs, than to feed upon the grass.” In 1797 the Cooperstown newspaper reported the sighting on Lake Canadarago of a serpent fifteen-feet long and as thick as a man’s thigh, with a sharp horn set between its eyes. The beast had “been heard to make [274] a noise in the Lake, for about two years past.” The serpent eluded a settler’s gunshot and never reappeared in the pages of the Otsego Herald. The forest’s complex abundance of life was so very striking, intriguing, and mysterious, even alarming, because the invaders came from the more settled landscapes of the Hudson Valley, New England, and Europe — where people had worked for generations to simplify nature. 12

The newcomers began to deconstruct nature’s complexity in Otsego by singling out particular resources that could be harvested and either consumed locally or processed for the market. The settlers overcame their initial awe — derived from a comprehensive view of the complex and confusing array of life — by narrowing their vision to focus on particular plants and animals as potential commodities. These acts of selective perception were the first critical steps in the process of simplifying nature to make it more profitable to settlers. In addition to his unusual interest in the full range of life, the traveler Richard Smith also paid conventional attention to the economic potential of particular resources. In his journals, he carefully noted the types of timber, the quality of soils, and, especially, the potential sites to harness water-power. At the outlet to Gilbert’s Lake he observed: “a fine place for a mill. I never saw a place where a dam could be made so effectually and so cheap and easily.” 13

The newcomers sorted the diverse, interdependent life into three distinct categories: those plants and animals which could be exploited for immediate subsistence or profitable sale; those sentenced to systematic destruction because they competed for the valued plants and animals; and those deemed inconsequential (and often obliterated without a thought as the settlers cleared away the forest). In A Guide in the Wilderness, a handbook for New York settlers, William Cooper considered nature in particularistic and utili[275]tarian terms. “The deer are found in abundance in every new settlement, and for the first ten years, form an article of provisions in every family; their skins, when dressed, are used by glovers and breeches-makers, and often to make cloathing for children.” He took for granted that the settlers would deplete the local deer within ten years. According to Cooper, the other “useful animals” that produced “annually a very handsome remittance,” included the fur-bearing martin, fox, sable, fisher, mink, raccoon, beaver, otter, and muskrat. Elk and moose meat had an “excellent flavour, and their hides make a strong and useful leather.” Squirrels and hares were good to eat. “The [wild] birds which afford any profit to the farmer” were ducks, pigeons, geese, partridge, pheasant, quail, woodcock, snipe, and plover. On the other hand, eagles, hawks, crows, blackbirds, and jays were pests because they ate the poultry or grain raised by settlers. Among the mammals, the bear, wolf, and panther were noxious animals” that should be extirpated because they attacked the crops and livestock of the settlers. After listing the animals “useful or noxious to the settler,” Cooper dismissed “the others, of which there is an endless variety,” as “unimportant to the farmer, neither yielding him advantage on the one hand by their flesh or their fur, nor on the other giving him any annoyance.” In common with his settlers, Cooper believed that humans had a mandate selectively to winnow nature. 14

In sizing up the economic potential of a tract of land, surveyors, speculators, and settlers paid particular attention to the trees. First, they calculated their potential as commodities: as lumber, timber, firewood, and potash. But, above all, the newcomers read trees to detect the quality of the soil beneath. They anticipated removing the trees and substituting fields of wheat as well as pastures and meadows of grasses to feed cattle. Settlers, speculators, and surveyors regarded the prevalence of deciduous hardwoods (except birch) as a sure sign of a fertile soil, especially if the trees were tall and thick. On the other hand, land scouts did not expect to find good soil wherever birches and evergreens predominated. In their commercial, competitive, agricultural, and rapidly expanding so[276]ciety, men prospered or failed largely on the basis of their ability to judge and acquire superior lands. The economic race of life rewarded those who correctly read the diverse forested landscape for the signs of agricultural potential and who then acquired the best tracts most cheaply. The speculator who obtained the best lands could charge premium prices and outstrip the competitor who had only poor lands to sell or lease. Similarly, the farmer who correctly gauged the long-term fertility of a tract was more apt to prosper than one who paid too much for an inferior farm. 15

Because the Otsego hills presented an especially daunting challenge to settlement, the region attracted few settlers until the 1780s — after the better lands in the nearby Mohawk Valley had been occupied. On the one hand, Otsego was all too richly endowed with the wild life that settlers needed to subdue; a heavy, thick forest of hardwood and hemlock trees covered the hills and sheltered large populations of carnivorous mammals: bears, panthers, and wolves. On the other hand, Otsego seemed relatively unpromising for the grains and livestock introduced by settlers. Owing to its elevation, 1,000 to 2,000 feet above sea level, Otsego had a growing season of only 100-150 days, compared to 150-180 days in the lower, warmer Hudson and Mohawk Valleys. The broad bottomlands beside the Hudson and the Mohawk were annually replenished by spring floods that deposited humus-rich topsoil. In contrast, Otsego was a hilly upcountry with only a few, narrow flats beside the Susquehanna and its tributary streams. As a well-watered land where coniferous stands accounted for about two-fifths of the forest cover, Otsego had a high proportion of acidic soils that would not bear up well under sustained grain cropping. Compared to the lower, flatter, warmer, more alluvial and less acidic [277] tracts in the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys, Otsego was marginal for long-term grain cultivation. 16

The longer-resident Dutch and German settlers of New York disdained the uplands and clung close to the rivers, farming the fertile alluvial flats. Subject to annual floods, the flats were rich in topsoil and annual plants but relatively free of large thick trees. A surveyor noted, “The Flats in general are easy Cleared; in many Places a Man might Clear an Acre in a Day” — in contrast to the heavily timbered hills where it ordinarily took a man at least two weeks to clear an acre. To the Dutch and Germans, the heavy labor needed to clear the uplands hardly seemed worthwhile, considering that, unlike the durable flats, the relatively thin topsoils of the hills began to wear out after a few years of grain cropping. Nahum Jones, a Yankee sojourning in the Mohawk Valley, observed, “The Dutch People seldom attempt new settlements. They stick to the old Hive. A half dozen sons with their families will settle and continue upon the old farm with their father — though it contains no more than 200 acres. Before the [New] English came among them, they thought the upland of no worth.” 17

Unlike the old-stock Yorkers, the Yankee newcomers who flocked into upstate New York after the Revolution readily settled in the hills that resembled their New England homeland. Adept at conquering a heavily timbered land and reconciled to hilly terrain, the Yankee settlers preferred to avoid the bottomlands as unhealthy and too expensive (and too crowded with the Dutch and Germans). Yankees were hill people; Yorkers were valley people. In defying New York’s authorities, Ethan Alien of Vermont boasted, “The Gods of the hills are not the Gods of the valley.” Mutual prejudice and [278] animosity also worked to keep the two populations apart, concentrated in their different environmental niches. 18

The Yankees possessed particular skills at managing a tool, an animal, and an element that facilitated clearing the heavily forested hills. First, the Yankees had earned a collective reputation as the most skilled handlers of the axe in America. They were simply less daunted by the hard work of felling extensive tracts of hardwoods and hemlocks than were most Yorkers. Second, the Yankee was just as proverbial for his skill in handling oxen. Yankees traditionally employed oxen as draught animals, in contrast to the middle-state farmers who preferred the more tractable, albeit less powerful, horses. Properly managed, oxen were better suited than horses to the strain of moving the heavy logs of hardwood trees. Third, the Yankee settlers had mastered the use of fire to reduce the dead trees to ashes. They felled the trees with their axes, permitted them to dry for several months, and then used the oxen to haul the logs and brush into heaps that would then be set ablaze. The great fires converted hardwood trees into mounds of ashes rich in potassium salts; these ashes could be spread on the land as a fertilizer or gathered and sold to storekeepers who made potash. Unlike the Yorkers or Pennsylvanians, the Yankees were preadapted for exploiting the Otsego hills because they had developed a particular system of clearing and cultivating the New England uplands. 19

Making a farm began with clearing away trees to expose a growing patch of land to the sun. Some settlers, usually non-Yankees, killed the trees by girdling: cutting away a strip of bark around each tree to cut off the circulation of sap and, thereby, doom the tree to wither and die. Girdling was quick, easy, and cheap, but it left an ugly landscape of dead trees and provided none of the potash sought by Yankees. Worse still, over the years, as the dead trees [279] rotted and toppled, they menaced the crops, livestock, and people on the ground below. 21

Most Yankee settlers preferred to cut down and burn the forest. There were five steps to the Yankee system: felling, logging, drying, burning, and ash-gathering. Settlers usually felled the trees in May or June, after they had leafed out; if cut earlier, before leafing, the stumps might subsequently sprout, thereby keeping the roots alive. After cutting away the underbrush and smaller trees, men and older boys turned upon the larger trees. According to Levi Beardsley, the settlers tried to fell the trees “parallel with each other” and “in such a manner that on logging they may be rolled down hill.” An especially skilled axeman could fell the trees on a single acre in a week by using the “driver tree” method; after chopping half-way through the same side of a line of trees, the axeman felled the rearmost tree, to topple onto and snap the next one, in a domino effect that brought down the whole row. 21

Second, the settler turned his axe upon the dead, fallen trees, subdividing them into logs of about fourteen feet in length. Because the bases of the trees provided the densest, most durable wood, the settlers reserved the lowest logs of the hardwood trees for splitting into rails and stakes for fences. Using oxen and the slope of the land, the settler drew the top logs, the branches, and the brush together into heaps. “Three men and a yoke of oxen would log an acre per day, sometimes more, if the timber was light, and well felled and cut,” Beardsley recalled. Third, the settler left the logs and brush to dry, at least through July and August — ordinarily the hottest, driest months of the year — but usually through the summer, fall, and winter until the following May. Fourth, the settler and his family conducted a “good burn,” setting fire to the windward side of the great heaps. Visible for miles, the huge fires were great spectacles that occasionally got out of control, spreading to [280] the uncut trees, producing great forest fires. After a fire dwindled, leaving half-burnt logs, men and oxen consolidated the fragments and reset the fire. It was, Beardsley remembered, “most dirty, smoky, disagreeable work. 22

The fires generated heaps of hardwood ashes. In the fifth step, settlers gathered the potassium-rich hardwood ashes, either to scatter over the clearing as a fertilizer or, more commonly, to convey to the nearest merchant for sale to make potash. Indeed, by offering good prices for ashes, storekeepers invited settlers to accelerate their clearing and burning. James Wadsworth, a land speculator in western New York, explained:

Many times when a new settler was under the necessity of raising money, or stood in need of store trade, he would go into the forest, chop down maple and elm trees, roll them together, and burn them, for the ashes alone, without reference to clearing. The proceeds of ashes have supplied many a log cabin in this region with the common necessaries of life, in the absence of which there would have been destitution.

An acre of hardwood land ordinarily yielded 60 to 100 bushels of ashes; in 1790 a bushel was worth 6 pence at William Cooper’s store in Cooperstown. Therefore, a settler could earn at least £1.6.0 and as much as £2.10.0 ($3.25 to $6.25) from potash — a considerable subsidy toward the $7.50 cost to have an acre cleared by hired labor. A settler’s son recalled that “ashes were silver and gold to the young or poor farmer.” He remembered the trip to the store with a wagon-load of ashes as “an affair of high holiday and solemn responsibility,” because nothing else the family produced yielded such a good price and ready credit; nothing else provided a quicker or more profitable return on their labor. 23

Potash-making was a process of applying increasing heat to extract the potassium salts that comprised about 5 percent of hardwood ashes. Settlers brought bushels of ashes to a potashery and [281] dumped them into a tapered, wooden hopper. The potash maker added water mixed with lime to begin the slow leaching process. Filtering slowly down through the hopper, the solution gradually dissolved the salts in the ashes and accumulated as a lye in troughs at the bottom. The maker removed the lye for boiling in a large cast-iron kettle mounted on bricks. Bulky and expensive, the cast-iron kettle was the key implement in the production of potash. About an inch thick and forty-two to sixty inches in diameter, a potash kettle contained from 400 to 1,000 pounds of metal, and had a capacity of 65 to 90 gallons. An intense, hardwood fire heated the kettle, boiling off the water and leaving a dark, crude, crystalline residue of “black salts.” Adding more fuel to the fire, the maker heated the kettle to a crimson glow that burned off organic impurities to leave the pink-and-gray-colored alkali known as potash. The larger, better-capitalized makers further refined the potash by baking it in a kiln — a process known as “pearling” — to make “pearlash. Once the kettle (or kiln) had cooled, the maker tightly packed and sealed the potash (or pearlash) into barrels made of white-oak staves. Wagons or sleighs bore the barrels to market in Albany, the great collection and transshipment point for the potash of upstate New York. Albany’s merchants shipped the potash and pearlash down the Hudson to New York City’s export merchants who gathered cargoes bound for Great Britain. 24

During the later eighteenth century, the industrial revolution in Great Britain steadily increased the demand for potash as an alkali used to manufacture soap, saltpetre, dyes, glass, and some drugs. The especially dynamic textile industry needed potash to bleach linens, scour woolens, and print calicoes. Responding to British demand, potash manufacture developed and boomed in the American northeast. In 1760 Britain imported only ten tons of American potash: less than 1 percent of all the potash imported into Britain. [282] By 1770 America supplied 1,782 tons (63 percent of Britain’s potash imports). After the interruption wrought by the American Revolution, Britain’s demand for American potash continued to surge. In 1770 the United States shipped 7,504 tons to Britain (83 percent of imported potash). The combination of extensive hardwood forests, an unparalleled river system for internal transportation, and the best port in the new nation made New York state the preeminent potash producer in the union. In 1800 New York supplied almost half of the American potash exported to Britain. Otsego’s trees fell and burned in ever growing numbers to supply Britain’s swelling industrial demand for potash. Britain’s industrial revolution, the rapid commercialization and urbanization of Albany and New York City, and the extensive development of the New York frontier were all interdependent, all linked through the potash trade. 25

By applying fire to the hardwood forest, settlers purchased immediate advantage at the expense of the long-term fertility of the land. By transforming trees into minerals with a cash value, settlers interrupted the circulation of energy and nutrients on their land. In a natural cycle, the trees would die, fall, and rot to enrich the topsoil with the humus that nourished living plants. By killing and burning the trees, settlers wasted much of the bio-mass which was degraded into the heat and smoke of the fires. Those settlers who kept the ashes to spread over the fields retained some of the organic nutrients to benefit their new crops of domesticated plants. Indeed, they obtained a short-term windfall because the phosphorus and potassium in the ashes counteracted the natural acidity of the Otsego soil, enhancing crop growth for the first few years (but, at a cost to the soil’s durability). However, when settlers carted away their ashes for sale to make potash, they entirely sacrificed the fertilizing potential of their trees — and forsook a supply of future fencing, firewood, lumber, and tools. 26

Although short-sighted from the perspective of the land and its plants, the strategy of turning trees into potash (rather than fertilizer) made sense to poor, transient settlers in debt for their lands. [283] By selling the ashes, they immediately enhanced their standard of living with store goods and kept up the annual interest payments on their land purchases. If their particular lot failed to bear up under sustained cropping and grazing, many settlers were prepared to pull up stakes and move on, confident that they could find another, better farm elsewhere on the frontier. In effect, potash production both derived from and perpetuated the rapid turnover of settlers and farms characteristic of the Yankee migration into and through upstate New York. 27

As an ecological war-zone, the frontier farm was not a pretty sight. Basil Hall, a visitor to the New York frontier, found the settlers struggling to subdue a daunting mass of wood:

Some of the fields were sown with wheat, above which could be seen numerous ugly stumps of old trees; others allowed to lie in [the] grass, guarded, as it were, by a set of gigantic black monsters, the girdled, scorched, and withered remnants of the ancient woods. Many farms were still covered with a most inextricable and confused mass of prostrate trunks, branches of trees, piles of split logs, and of squared timbers, planks, shingles, great stacks of fuel; and often in the midst of all this, could be detected, a half-smothered log-hut without windows or furniture, but well-stocked with people.

Alexis de Tocqueville similarly described his impressions of a New York clearing: “Some trees cut down, trunks burnt and charred, and a few plants useful to the life of man sown in the midst of the confusion of a hundred shapes of debris, led us to the pioneer’s dwelling.” 28

Although the fires consumed the smaller stumps and the roots near the surface, the larger stumps and deeper roots persisted, rendering plowing impossible for a few years. The clearings bristled with stumps, two-to-three feet high. After conducting their burn in their second May on the land, most settlers used hoes to turn up the exposed soil between the stumps. They made many small hills, three to four feet apart, planted with corn (maize) seeds in the middle and with pumpkins and beans on the side. This Indian mode of [284] agriculture applied to virgin soil ordinarily provided an abundant first crop of forty bushels of corn and dozens of pumpkins per acre. After harvesting the corn, pumpkins, and beans in September the settler harrowed his land, sowed grain (usually winter wheat, sometimes rye), and followed with a second harrowing to bury the seed. The grain sprouted in the late fall, but remained dormant through the winter to mature during the following growing season. After about five or six years the roots had sufficiently rotted and loosed their grip for settlers to force an ox-drawn plough through the topsoil. A traveller in upstate New York saw “ploughs, always drawn by oxen, making their sturdy way amongst the stumps like a ship navigating through coral reefs, a difficult and tiresome operation. After about ten years, farmers could begin to pull the rotting stumps up and away with oxen and chains. 29

To keep out deer and their own livestock, a settler fenced in his new grainfield, using the stakes and rails made from some of the dead trees. Settlers fenced in their crops, not their animals, who were left to roam and browse in the much larger, surrounding forest. Instead of investing the considerable labor to dig postholes settlers constructed zig-zag fences composed of stacked rails, braced at their junctures by stakes. Each section of rails was fourteen feet long and stood eight rails, or about five-to-six-feet, high. These fences used massive quantities of wood, to the horror of visitors from deforested Europe; but their construction required much less labor than did posthole fences. Zig-zag fences made sense on the American frontier where wood abounded and labor was scarce. They had the additional benefit of being moveable; when a settler shifted his grain cultivation to a new field and let the old one lie fallow, he could readily disassemble, haul away, and reconstruct his fence. 31

[285] In their first few years, settlers dedicated their small clearings to grains and other food crops, primarily for human consumption. The grainfields also produced wheat straw and corn stalks and husks to feed their cattle, but too little. Until the settler could clear enough additional land to provide warm-weather pastures and meadows of hay to store and feed to the cattle through the winter, the livestock had to rely primarily on wild plants browsed from the forest. Bearing bells and an owner’s mark cropped in their ears, cattle roamed through the hills, returning occasionally to the clearing’s edge for salt put out by their master. In the warm months the cattle could largely fend for themselves, feeding heavily on wild leeks — a widespread plant in the low, moist, shady grounds by creeks and hollows. Cows that consumed the leeks produced milk and butter that reeked of onion. Settlers were forced by necessity to consume the tainted milk and butter but they hated the stuff and considered its consumption one of the hardships of frontier life. In winter, when the low-lying plants died and lay under the snow-cover, settlers had to help their starving cattle by felling basswood, birch, and maple trees to bring their edible twigs and buds within reach. 31

Prosperity required at least twenty acres of cleared land, equally subdivided into three components: grain tillage, hay fields, and pastures. At four acres a year, twenty acres was five years of work. But the settler could not then rest, for the first clearing steadily lost fertility from repeated annual grain crops because the settlers lacked sufficient manures and did not see the need to practice a rotation that alternated grains with nutrient-fixing clover. Instead, after about six or seven years of steady cropping for corn, wheat, and rye the settler had to let his original clearing lie fallow. A fallow field sprouted new brush for twenty years as it gradually recovered nu[286]trients. In the meantime, the settler had to clear new fields to replace those left fallow. After about ten years of clearing and cultivation, the frontier farm of 100 acres had about 20 acres in active use as tillage, pasturage, and mowing, another 20 in brush fellow and the remaining 60 served as a wood lot. A critic insisted, “[The settlers] commence cropping, which is continued without intermission, until the fertility of the ground has been exhausted, which renders fresh soil and further clearing necessary, and this new spot also undergoes the same destructive process.” But the settlers’ preference for an extensive system of farming made short-term sense where land was abundant relative to the labor and capital necessary for a more intensive mode of agriculture. 32

The human population of Otsego County surged from 1,721 in 1790 to 21,251 in 1800 and 38,425 in 1810 — a timing and pace of settlement typical of upstate New York in the early republic. [n 1810 Otsego had a population density of thirty-seven people per square mile. As a mature county, Otsego discharged more emigrants to the more western counties than it received in newcomers from the east. After 1810 natural increase by the residents continued to push up the Otsego population but at a markedly slower rate, owing to the growing outmigration. Between 1810 and 1820 Otsego’s population grew by 16 percent, down from the 81 percent of the preceding decade. 33

Empowered by their swelling numbers and sustained labor, the Otsego settlers gradually gained the upper hand over the forest and its beasts. By 1820 Otsego had been transformed by twenty-to-thirty years of hard labor with axes, saws, oxen, and fire. Two-fifths of the county’s land had been cleared and improved, primarily for agriculture. Two of the three most deforested townships were Otsego (63 percent improved) and the adjoining town of [287] Hartwick (55 percent), both located at the county core. The least cleared townships lay on the county’s southern and western periphery (for example, Pittsfield, 14 percent, and Otego, 19 percent). In general, “mountain ridges, half tilled, half wood” overlooked well-cultivated valleys “sprinkled with farms and hamlets.” In 1848 Susan Fenimore Cooper marvelled of the valleys: “one might readily believe these lands had been under cultivation for ages.” 34

The systematic clearing and burning and the impact wrought by the introduction of heavy, grazing cattle devastated the native wild plants. This created niches for the more tenacious weeds which had followed the settlers from Europe to New England and which were well adapted to survive, even flourish, with farmers and their cattle. In 1821 a Butternuts farmer warned that “the noxious weeds, such as all sorts of Daisies, Johnsworth, and now and then a patch of Canada Thistles” had made “such progress within a few years” that, unless checked soon, “the whole county will be overrun by [288] these intruders.” In 1848 Susan Fenimore Cooper took stock of the weed species and found that invaders predominated and were “choking up all our way-sides” and “growing too plentifully under fences and in waste spots.” She specified burdock, nettle, thistle, chickweed, purslane, dock, mulleins, burweed, doorweed, plaintains, pigweed, and goosefoot. “These foreign invaders are a bold and hardy race, driving away the prettier natives. It is frequently remarked by elderly persons familiar with the country, that our own wild flowers are very much less common than they were forty years since.” 35

The local populations of the larger mammals — especially deer, bear, panthers, beaver, and wolves — collapsed under the dual pressures of increasing hunting and the loss of habitat wrought by clearing. In 1791, just five years after his settlement began, William Cooper boasted that wolves had already retreated from the vicinity of Cooperstown: “those Swamps that four years ago was a safe retreat for those devouring animals are now become plentiful Pastures.” By 1810 the major mammals had virtually disappeared from Otsego, save for a few in the mountains on the southern fringe. The extinction of the passenger pigeon did not occur until the start of the twentieth century, but by the 1820s Otsego residents already noted a decline in the formerly immense flocks. And the local sighting of lake serpents was a thing of the past. 36

In 1848 Susan Fenimore Cooper took stock of the wildlife in Otsego County and found that all of the game birds and large mammals hated or valued by men had been extirpated. Bears, beaver, wolves, panthers, moose, and deer had formerly abounded but by 1848 none could be found in Otsego — except for an occasional stray from wilder Delaware County to the south. She dated their [289] virtual disappearance from Otsego to the decade 1800-1810. No panther had been seen in Otsego county for forty years wheat, on November 15, 1848, Susan Fenimore Cooper recorded the “strange story going about the village” that respectable men had seen one in the local hills. She became a believer by December 1, when she reported that hunters had found tracks and heard cries. The drama culminated on December 27, when she learned that the panther had been killed in adjoining Montgomery County. “It is rather mortifying that he should not have been killed in this County, where he chose to show himself repeatedly, but, in fact, our sportsmen were too much afraid of being hoaxed to go out after him.” Caught up in vicarious excitement, she felt the disappointed pride of a local hunter beaten by rivals from another county. Even someone as sensitive and refined as Susan Fenimore Cooper continued to partake in the enthusiasm for killing wild predators. 37

But as the settlers wiped out the major predators who afflicted their livestock, they unwittingly exposed their grain crops to increased attacks from squirrels and chipmunks. Wild rodents proliferated as they were liberated from the attacks of foxes, wolves, panthers, and bears and as they found an increased food supply in the fields of grain that expanded as the forest contracted. In response, after 1800 Otsego’s settlers conducted group hunts meant to eradicate rodents. The hunters simultaneously worked together to drive game into a narrowing circle and competed with one another (or with a rival team) to kill the greatest number of animals. At a predetermined day and time, the men gathered, elected captains, strung themselves apart in a semi-circle, and advanced to close the circle, trapping and killing the animals within. After counting up the dead and recognizing the victors, the hunters closed the day with festive eating and drinking. One day in June of 1807 two hunting parties, each composed of eighteen men, scoured the hills of Worcester until sunset when two referees counted their kill; the party led by Francis Benedict won the hunt with 1,540 squirrels and one bear to the 828 squirrels and single porcupine killed by Enos Spencer’s party. In 1820 a similar hunt in part of the same town accounted for a total of 5,383 heads taken from “those spe[290]cies of birds and quadrupeds that prey upon our farm-yards or cornfields.” 38

Settlement was a dual process: of emigration from older to newer communities and of environmental transformation into a landscape that better suited the settlers’ desires. The forest’s complex diversity offered a daunting challenge to the settlers; they measured themselves by their success in altering that nature to a replica of their former homelands. The essence of their agriculture was to reduce diversity by favoring certain plants and animals at the expense of the rest. The settlers steadily killed the trees and grubbed up the smaller forest plants to make grassy pastures and meadows for livestock and to create fields of grain for themselves and distant consumers. In the process, the settlers eliminated the habitat of forest animals and systematically killed those that adapted to change by preying upon the cultivated grains or domesticated livestock introduced by the newcomers. The settlers truncated nature, cultivating and protecting a few plants — especially grain producers — and animals — particularly cattle, horses, pigs, sheep, and dogs — at the expense of myriad others. The result was, in Donald Worster’s words, “a domesticated ecosystem” that was capable of supporting a larger human population but was more vulnerable to crises: to disease, drought, erosion, weeds, and pests. 39


1 David Hackett Fischer, The Revolution of American Conservatism: The Federalist Party in the Era of Jeffersonian Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 199; Nancy E Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood: ‘Woman’s Sphere’ in New England, 1780-1835 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), 3; Wood, “The Significance of the Early Republic,” Journal of the Early Republic8 (Spring 1988), 13-20.

2 Anthony F. C. Wallace, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), 196; William Wyckoff, The Developer’s Frontier: The Making of the Western New York Landscape (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 104-105; Stuart Bruchey and Jim Potter, “Social and Economic Developments after the Revolution,” in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, ed. Jack P. Greene and J.R. Pole, (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1991), 566; David Paul Davenport, “The Yankee Settlement of New York, 1783-1820,” Genealogical Journal17 (1988-1989), 63-88; David Maldwyn Ellis, “The Rise of the Empire State, 1790-1820,” New York History56 (January 1975), 5-6; James Macauley, The Natural, Statistical and Civil History of the State of New York ... , 3 vols. (New York: William Gould &; Co., 1829), 1: 417-18; Franklin B. Hough, ed., The New York Civil List From 1777 to 1860 (Albany: Weed, Parsons, & Co., 1860), 2.

3 Susan Fenimore Cooper, Rural Hours, By a Lady (New York: Putnam, 1850), 19-91: Wallace, Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, 24; Carolyn Merchant, Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender, and Science in New England (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 87.

4 Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 25, 29, 102, 287-93 (quotation, 293); E.L. Jones, “Creative Disruptions in American Agriculture, 1620-1820,” Agricultural History48 (October 1974), 51-18; Donald Worster, “Transformations of the Earth: Toward an Agroecological Perspective in History,” Journal of Environmental History76 (March 1990), 1088.

5 William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang 1983); Merchant, Ecological Revolutions; James Arthur Frost, Life on the Upper Susquehanna 1783-1860 (New York: King’s Crown Press, 1951); Francis Whiting Halsey, The Old New York Frontier: Its Wars with Indians and Tories, its Missionary Schools, Pioneers and Land Titles, 1614-1800 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912); Peter C. Mancall, The Valley of Opportunity: The Economic Culture of the Upper Susquehanna Valley in the Eighreenrh Century (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991).

6 Alexis de Tocqueville, Journey to America, ed. J.P. Mayer, (London: Faber and Faber 1960), 321-22; William Strickland, Journal of a Tour in the United States of America, 1794-1795 (New York: New-York Historical Society, 1971), 139, 142-46; Metchie J.E. Budka, ed., “Journey to Niagara, 1805: From the Diary of Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz,” New-York Historical Society Quarterly44 (January 1960), 86.

7 Richard Smith, “Notes of a Tour,” May 15, 20, 21, 24, 30, June 2, 1769, Du Simitiere Manuscripts, Library Company of Philadelphia; Smith, “Journal,” July 20, 24, 27, 1773, in Willard V. Huntington, “Old Time Notes Relating to Otsego County and the Upper Susquehanna Valley” (Typescript, New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown), 350. See also Richard Smith, Four Great Rivers: The Hudson, Mohawk, Susquehanna, and Delaware, Francis Whiting Halsey, ed., (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906).

8 Levi Beardsley, Reminiscences; Personal and Other Incidents: Early Settlement of Otsego County ... (New York: Charles Vinten, 1852), 29; Josiah Priest, Stories of Early Settlers in the Wilderness ... (Albany: J. Munsell, 1837), 21; George Peck, The Life and Times of Rev. George Peck, D.D. Written by Himself (New York: Nelson and Phillips, 1874), 18; Henry Clarke Wright, Human Life, Illustrated in My Individual Experience as a Child, a Youth, and a Man (Boston: Bela Marsh, 1849), 26.

9 A.W. Schorger, The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1955), 14-15, 54, 95, 199, 204-5; Alexander Wilson, Wilson’s American Ornithology, ed. T.M. Brewer, (New York: T.L. Magagnos, 1854), 401-2.

10 Wilson, American Ornithology, 394-7; Schorger, The Passenger Pigeon, 54-65; De Witt Clinton, “Remarks on the Columbia Migratoria, or Passenger Pigeon,” The New York Medical and Physical Journal2 (June 1823), 210-15; Priest, Stories of Early Settlers, 22; Otsego Herald, Mar. 31, 1796; James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers, or the Sources of the Susquehanna; A Descriptive Tale, ed. James Franklin Beard, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980 crit. ed. of New York, 1823), 249.

11 Wilson, American Ornithology, 396-98; Schorger, The Passenger Pigeon, 78-87, 105-19; William Cooper, A Guide in the Wilderness; or, the History of the First Settlements in the Western Counties of New York, with Useful Instructions to Future Settlers (Cooperstown: New York State Historical Association, 1986 repr. of Dublin, 1810), 46; Gideon Hawley, “Rev. Gideon Hawley’s Journey to Oghquaga, Broome Co., 1753,” in E.B. O’Callaghan, Documentary History of Nov York, 4 vols. (Albany: J. Munsell, 1849-51) 3: 632; Nathaniel Edward, survey journal of Hillington Patent, Nov. 2, 1774, William Cooper Papers, Hartwick College Archives (WCP, HCA hereafter).

12 W. Cooper, A Guide in the Wilderness, 434; “A Fisherman,” Otsego Herald, Oct. 5, 19, 1797. The newspaper continued to report appearances by Lake Ontario’s still larger serpents. See Otsego Herald, Sept. 12, 1805.

13 Cronon, Changes in the Land, 20; Richard Smith. “Journal,” July 26, 1773, in Huntington, “Old Time Notes,” (Transcript, New York State Historical Association), 353; “Cooperstown,” Albany Gazette, Oct. 7, 1796; [William Cooper], “A Description of the Country Round the Source of the Susquehanna,” Burlington Advertiser (N.J.), May 25, 1790

14 W. Cooper, A Guide in the Wilderness, 38-48; [William Cooper], “A Description of the Country Round the Source of the Susquehanna” Burlington Advertiser (N.J.), May 18, 1790.

15 Donald Culross Peattie, A Natural History of Trees in Eastern and Central North America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966), 3-7; Robert Charles McGregor, “Radical Environmental Change: Deforestation in the Upper Delaware River Valley, 1800-1875,” (Ph. D diss., State University of New York at Binghamton, 1984), 20; W. Cooper, A Guide in the Wilderness, 38-40, 59-60; [William Cooper], “A Description of the Country Round the Source of the Susquehanna,” Burlington Advertiser (N.J.), May 18, 1790; Richard Smith, “Notes of a Tour,” May 17, 31, 1769, Du Simitiere Manuscripts, Library Company of Philadelphia; Robert Lettis Hooper, Hillington survey field book, Aug. 11, 1770, WCP, HCA; Robert Piken, “A Rough Sketch of a Certain Tract of Land on the Susquehanna River, Viewed in November 1768,” Allinson Family Papers, Haverford College; Potter Goff, survey field book of Pittsfield, Dec. 7, 1803, WCP, HCA.

16 W. Cooper, Guide in the Wilderness, 17, 60; Horatio Gates Spafford, A Gazetteer of the State of New York (Albany: B.D. Packard, 1824), 416; Merchant, Ecological Revolutions, 30, 155; Ebenezer Emmons, Agriculture of New York, 5 vols. (Albany, 1846-1854) 1: 229-31, 307, 309, 358; John H. Thompson, ed., Geography of New York State (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1966), 74-78, 108-9; James O. Morse, “A Memoir of Otsego County,” Dec. 20, 1830, Albany Institute Collection, box 1, Albany Institute.

17 Gurdon Evans, “A General View and Agricultural Survey of the County of Madison,” New York State Agricultural Society, Transactions11 (1851), 671, 674; Patrick Campbell, Travels in the Interior Inhabited Parts of North America in the Years 1791 and 1792 (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1937 reprint of Edinburgh, 1793), 223; Huntington, “Old Time Notes,” 640; Robert Piken, “A Rough Sketch of a Certain Tract of Land on the Susquehanna River Viewed in November 1768,” Allinson Family Papers, Haverford College; Nahum Jones, Diary, Aug. 15, 1795, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Mass.

18 Allen quoted in Dixon Ryan Fox, Yankees and Yorkers (New York: New York University Press, 1940), 170.

19 John Lorain, “Account of the Modes Pursued in Clearing Land in Pennsylvania, and on the Fences in New Settlements,” in Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, Memoirs3 (1814), 112, 116; Samuel Preston, “Journey to Harmony,” in Patricia H. Christian, ed., Samuel Preston, 1789-1989: From Buckingham to Buckingham (Equinunk, Penn.: Equinunk Historical Society, 1989), 83, 116; Henry Wansey, Journal of an Excursion in the United Stares in the Summer of 1794 (London: G. T. Wilkie, 1796), 191; Merchant, Ecological Revolutions, 160-62.

20 David Maldwyn Ellis, Landlords and Farmers in the Hudson-Mohawk Region, 1790-1850 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1946), 73-74; Evans, “A General View and Agricultural Survey of the County of Madison,” 681-682; Merchant, Ecological Revolutions, 160.

21 Cooper, The Pioneers, 19-91; Beardsley, Reminiscences, 35-36; Evans, “A General View and Agricultural Survey of the County of Madison,” 681-84; Samuel Preston, “Clearing the Land,” New England Farmer1 (Dec. 28, 1822), 172; John Harriott, Struggles Through Life, Exemplified in the Various Travels and Adventures in Europe, Asia, Africa and America, of Lieut. John Harriott , 2 vols. (New York: Innskeep and Bradford, 1809) 2: 108.

22 Beardsley, Reminiscences, 35-36; Evans, “A General View and Agricultural Survey of the County of Madison,” 681-84; Samuel Preston, “Clearing the Land,” 172: Wright, Human Life, 107-8; Merchant, Ecological Revolutions. 160-61.

23 McGregor, “Radical Environmental Change,” 104; Richard Smith, “Notes of a Tour,” May 14, 19, 1769, Du Simitiere Manuscripts, Library Company of Philadelphia; James Wadsworth quoted in Neil Adams McNall, An Agricultural History of the Genesee Valley, 1790-1860 (Philadelphia, 1952), 89; Thurlow Weed, The Life of Thurlow Weed, ed. Harriet A. Weed, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside Press, 1883) 1: 11.

24 Harry Miller, “Potash from Wood Ashes: Frontier Technology in Canada and the United States,” Technology and Culture21 (1980), 187-208; Weed, Life of Thurlow Weed1: 11, 17; Huntington, “Old Time Notes,” 1222; Joel Munsell, ed., Annals of Albany, 4 vols. (Albany: J. Munsell, 1869), 235-36; Alexander Coventry, Memoirs of an Emigrant: The Journal of Alexander Coventry, M.D., 2 vols., (Albany: Albany Institute, 1978) 1: 546; Henry Drinker, “Journal, 1776-1791,” 346 (Nov. 19, 1789), 439 (Oct. 30, 1790), Drinker, “Journal, 1791-1798,” 18, 57, 60 (April 16, Oct. 18, Nov. 2, 1791), Henry Drinker Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania; William Cooper and Richard R. Smith, “Store Book,” 1 (1790-1791), WCP, HCA.

25 William I. Roberts, “American Potash Manufacture Before the American Revolution,” American Philosophical Society, Proceedings116 (1972), 383, 390-91; Miller, “Potash from Wood Ashes,” 187-208.

26 Merchant, Ecological Revolutions, 153-56, 161, 191; John L. Vankat, The Natural Vegetation of North America: An Introduction (New York, 1979), 6-21, 34-41.

27 Ellis, Landlords and Farmers, 75, 91-92, 118-20, 135-36.

28 Basil Hall quoted in McNall, Agricultural History of the Genesee Valley, 83; Budka, ed., “Journey to Niagara, 1805,” 93; Tocqueville, Journey to America, 322.

29 Dan Bradley, “Comments on the Soil and Agriculture of Onondaga County,” Board of Agriculture of the State of New-York, Memoirs3 (1826), 90; Evans, “General View and Agricultural Survey of the County of Madison,” 684; John Maude, Visit to the Falls of Niagara in 1800 (London: Longman, 1826), 72; Clarence H. Danhof, Change in Agriculture: The Northern United States, 1820-1870 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969), 117-20; Isaac Weld, Travels Through the States of North America ... During the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797, 2 vols. (New York: Johnson reprint corp, 1968 repr of London, 1807) 1: 232; Strickland, Journal of a Tour, 95-6; Samuel Preston, “Journey to Harmony, 96, 116; Michael Williams, Americans and Their Forests: A Historical Geography (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 115; Harriot, Smrggles Through Life2: 108.

30 Richard L. Bushman, “Opening the American Countryside,” in James A. Henretta, Michael Kammen, and Stanley N. Katz, eds., The Transformation of Early American History: Society, Authority, and Ideology (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), 244; Danhof, Change in Agriculture, 118; Lois Green Carr, Russell R. Menard, and Lorena S. Walsh, Robert Cole’s World: Agriculture & Society in Early Maryland (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 66; Weld, Travels Through the States of North America1: 32.

31 Danhof, Change in Agriculture, 120; Evans, “General View and Agricultural Survey of the County of Madison,” 685; Maude, Visit to the Falls of Niagara, 52; Beardsley, Reminiscences. 29, 55; Frederick Pursh, Journal of a Botanical Excursion in the Northeastern Parts of the States of Pennsylvania and New York During the Year 1807 , ed. William M. Beauchamp (Syracuse: Onondaga Historical Society, 1923), 26; Weed, Life of Thurlow Weed, 19; Priest, Stories of Early Settlers in the Wilderness, 22; W. Cooper, Guide in the Wilderness, 17-18.

32 Lorain, “Observations Upon the Agriculture,” 100; Carr, Menard, and Walsh, Robert Cole’s World, 36-37, 66; Bushman, “Opening the American Countryside,” 242-43; Merchant, Ecological Revolutions, 157-58, 181; Williams, Americans and Their Forests, 77-78.

33 Between 1810 and 1820 Otsego’s population grew by only 6,130 — down from the previous decade’s increase of 17,174. If the 1810 population had grown at 3 percent annually (the prevailing rate of natural increase in rural America), Otsego should have had an 1820 population of 51,798; the actual population of 44,555 suggests a net loss to outmigration of 7,243 between 1810 and 1811). See U.S. Bureau of the Census returns from Otsego Co. for 1810 (series M252, reel 34) and 1820 (series M33, reel 74), National Archives.

34 S. F. Cooper, Rural Hours, 144-48 (quotations), 182, 193, 206-7, 223-25; Otsego Co. Tax Valuation Abstract for 1820, Otsego Co. Board of Supervisors, Minute Book, 1804-1823, OCCO; New York (State) Journal of the Assembly of the State of New-York at their Forty-Fifth Session (Albany: Cantine & Leake, 1822), 37-38.

35 Merchant, Ecological Revolutions, 16-67; “Agriculture,” [Cooperstown, N.Y.], Watch-Tower, May 11, 1818; Franchot, address, Ibid, Oct. 15, 1821; S. F. Cooper, Rural Hours, 80-1, 105-6; Crosby, Ecological Imperialism, 145-70.

36 Jeptha R. Simms, Trappers of New York, or a Biography of Nicholas Stoner & Nathaniel Foster ... (Albany: J. Munsell, 1850), 255; Macauley, The Natural ... History of the Stare of New-York1: 449; Strickland, Journal of a Tour, 147; W. Cooper, Guide in the Wilderness, 44; Cooper to Henry Drinker, Nov. 3, 1791, Henry Drinker Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania; Cooper and Smith, Storebooks, I and II, June 18, 19, 26, Sept. 7, Oct. 1, 1790, Jan. 3, 17, 19, 24, Oct. 15, 1791, WCP, HCA; James Fenimore Cooper, Notions of the Americans, Picked Up by a Travelling Bachelor, 2 vols. (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1963, reprint of Philadelphia, 1828) 1: 241.

37 S.F. Cooper, Rural Hours, 12, 240, 306, 451 (quotation), 496, 498, 502.

38 Huntington, “Old Time Notes,” 1331; “Great Slaughter,” Freeman’s Journal, June 5, 1820.

39 Samuel L. Mitchell, “Oration,” New York Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, Arts, and Manufactures, Transactions1 (1801), 18-19; Cronon, Changes in the Land, 33; Priest, Stories of Early Settlers, 21; Budka, ed., “Journey to Niagara, 1805,” 86; Worster, “Transformations of the Earth,” 1088.

* Alan Taylor presented an earlier version of this essay as the Alexander Flick Lecture at the Conference on New York History, at the State University College at Brockport on June 2, 1995.