Climate Change and Colonization

Algonquian Village Economy (Secota)
Lookout Post to Protect Corn Crop

Climate change during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries of European colonization of North America featured periods of frozen rivers and extreme droughts. Two broad periods of different temperatures have been recorded: 800 – 1200 A.D. where temperatures were slightly warmer than today predated colonization; 1400-1800 was known as the “Little Ice Age,” when rivers at times were frozen over.

Off and on, drought years brought additional challenges for the :

  • Spanish in 1570
  • English at Roanoke, 1584-87
  • English at Jamestown, 1607-09

Periods of drought put limitations on output and availability of plant foods, such as corn, a staple food source for indigenous populations and a convenient source of food for colonizers without sufficient supplies of food to last for long periods between resupply. Drought also limited the harvest of squash and beans, other important foods for Indian populations. It might also restrict the intake of shellfish and other forms of seafood.

Fishing at Night

Impact of Climate Change

Climate change led to food shortages. It also added pressure to Indian-invader relations. The invaders assumed indigenous people would supply them with corn and when they resisted or refused, the invaders took corn by force. In the case of the Paspahegh tribe, when they refused, the English cut off the hand of a Paspahegh tribesman and sent him back to the tribe as a warning. When no response came, they sent an armed force to the village, burned the houses and corn fields, took the queen and children and executed them. The Paspahegh refused because they only had enough corn to feed themselves, due to the drought.

However, it would be a mistake to conclude that drought caused this outcome. Climate is a powerful force, but forces do not cause change, people do. The invaders had alternatives, but chose to use force. The English were dependent upon the Algonquians for survival. Yet they refused to accept their dependency. The Algonquian Exchange provided opportunities for knowledge transference on how to survive in a frontier environment. The Algonquians knowledge of fishing, hunting, and horticulture was a model. Failure to make use of this knowledge led to the starving winter of 1609-1610.