Early settlers fortunate to land on East Coast

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Great Falls Park

The civilization that has grown up in the United States was launched a little more than four centuries ago by a group of European emigrants, mostly English. They crossed the Atlantic in search of new livelihoods in a New World.

They came in small sailing crafts that bobbed on the ocean surface like a cork. The treacherous voyage lasted between six and 12 weeks, during which time the passengers subsisted on bread, salted meats, fish, stale water and beer — all meager rations at best.

The vessels were overcrowded with people and animals who were plagued with diseases of all kinds. Usually, about one-quarter of the ship’s emigrants did not survive the journey.

The land wholly within the temperate zone freed the settlers from arctic cold and tropic heat. Because the land possessed every other variety of climate, every degree of rainfall, every texture and composition of soil, its agricultural possibilities were limitless.

Fruitful forest

Approaching the coastline of the New World, the emigrants received their first glimpse of the dense forest that spread backward from the seacoast and extended from Maine to the Carolinas. The forest, with its prolific stand of trees, offered the settlers an abundance of cheap fuel and lumber for houses, barns, furniture and tools.

To England, the virgin forest seemed like a treasure house because wood occupied a place in her economy comparable to iron, steel and concrete in our living. The forest was the raw material for ships, potash, dyes and naval stores like pitch, tar ad resin that made ships seaworthy and watertight. The iron, glass and copper industries had a source of cheap fuel.

Native food

Equally inviting were the native food products that were readily accessible. From the sea, there were oysters, crabs, bass, lobsters, catfish, trout, salmon — the list goes on. On the land, turkeys filled the trees; on the ground were rabbits, quail, squirrels, pheasants, elk and deer which were much larger than those of England. The woodlands were full of raspberries, strawberries, grapes, plums, crab apples and nuts of all kinds.

The good soil summoned the farmer to raise, like the Indians, peas, beans, corn, pumpkins, squash, melons, sweet potatoes and onions for their larders. The land and climate were suited to common English grains of wheat, oats, spelt, barley and rye.

The swine that were imported fattened quickly and cheaply on acorns and other nuts in the woods. When protected from wolves and other predators, sheep and goats did well, as did cattle and horses.

Transplanted fruit trees — apple, pear and apricot — soon found themselves on the hillside of Colonial orchards. This gave a variety to the settlers’ diet.

Ideal for imports

Despite the richness of the New World’s resources, the settlers had to keep in touch with Europe to import the many articles they could not produce. The geography of the Atlantic Coast served them well, providing innumerable inlets and harbors that beckoned the settlers to inhabit.

Only North Carolina and southern New Jersey lacked for ocean-going vessels, but their shores cold be visited by smaller crafts from adjacent colonies. The awe-inspiring rivers that reached back to the fall line, like the Delaware, Susquehanna, Potomac, York and Savannah, linked the coastal plain to the seaports that looked to Europe.

Since the seaboard area had many rivers flowing across it to the ocean, it was possible for many independent colonies to develop, each with its own outlet to the Old World. The highway of rivers and the geography of the coastline had a tendency to spread the population north and south along the Atlantic Ocean.

Slow move inward

On the other hand, the New World environment prevented a rapid extension into the interior lands. The forests retarded a westward movement as an obstacle to travel and trade but also by virtue of the hard task of clearing the heavily wooded land for farming.

The rivers of North America, except for the Hudson and St. Lawrence, extended westward only to the Appalachian Mountains their major source. The mountains were a major hindrance to reaching the Ohio Valley until they found the Cumberland Gap, which opened into Kentucky.

So formidable was the mountain barrier, it took over 100 years to begin the western development.

In the long run, geography and resources shaped the way of life for the Colonies. Those blessed turned to industry, fishing and sea commerce.

Had the morning of America been like the coastline of the Pacific Ocean, few European settlers would have come to live in North America.

That’s your history!

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Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to: editorial@farmanddairy.com.

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