Native American use of fire

The Grass Fire, Frederic Remington 1908, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.

In addition to simple cooking, Pre-Columbian Native Americans used fire in many and significant ways, ranging from protecting an area from fire to landscape-altering clearing of prairie.[1]

Human-shaped landscape

Many people believe that North America, before the coming of the Spanish explorers, missionaries, and settlers, was a totally pristine, natural, wilderness world with ancient forests covering the landscapes. This ideal world was populated by millions of Indian people who, somewhat amazingly, “were transparent in the landscape, living as natural elements of the ecosphere. Their world, the New World of Columbus, was a world of barely perceptible human disturbance.”[2] This peaceful, mythic, magical ideal sometimes referred to as tabula rasa has symbolized the thinking behind much of the modern environmental movement. However these impressions of a "benign people treading lightly on the land" is wrong in its view of an entirely natural landscape: natives played a large role in determining the diversity of their ecosystems.[3][4]

The most significant type of environmental change brought about by Precolumbian human activity was the modification of vegetation. … Vegetation was primarily altered by the clearing of forest and by intentional burning. Natural fires certainly occurred but varied in frequency and strength in different habitats. Anthropogenic fires, for which there is ample documentation, tended to be more frequent but weaker, with a different seasonality than natural fires, and thus had a different type of influence on vegetation. The result of clearing and burning was, in many regions, the conversion of forest to grassland, savanna, scrub, open woodland, and forest with grassy openings.(William M. Denevan)[5]

Fire scientists and ecologists often find old fire scars in trees going back hundreds of years. Geographers studying lake sediments often find evidence of charcoal layers going back thousands of years, attributing the data to prehistoric fires caused by climatic warming and drying conditions. Since the trees and sediments cannot document how the fires started, lightning becomes the easiest natural explanation. Early researchers thought that no large burning was carried out by natives, but research during the latter half of the 20th century has shown that many or most of the presettlement fires were intentionally caused . Keeping large areas of forest and mountains free of undergrowth and small trees was just one of many reasons for using fire in ecosystems. Intentional burning greatly modified landscapes patches across the continent in many subtle ways that have often been interpreted as natural by the early explorers, trappers, and settlers . Many research scientists who study presettlement forest and savanna fire evidence tend to attribute most prehistoric fires to lightning rather than by humans. This problem arises because there was no systematic record keeping of these fire events. Thus the interaction of people and ecosystems may be downplayed or ignored, which can lead to the conclusion that people are necessarily a threat to the integrity of ecosystems perceived as natural, whereas they might be one the primary forces in their development .

Romantic and primitivist writers such as William Henry Hudson, Longfellow, Francis Parkman, and Thoreau were major contributors to the myth of pristine pre-Columbian landscapes, which became part of American heritage.[4] At the time of their writings, however, enormous tracts of land had already been allowed to succeed to climax thanks to the reduction in anthropogenic fires caused by the collapse of aboriginal populations brought about by epidemics of diseases introduced by Europeans in the sixteenth century. Influenced by Western noble savage views of hunter-gatherer societies, many people still believe that Native Americans lived in complete harmony with the environment and neither disturbed nor destroyed but took only what was absolutely needed for survival. One of the powerful technologies which Native Americans had was fire, and they clearly changed the landscape with it. Sometimes to clear the woods for hunting or travel, sometimes to create a berry patch, the changes could be found in patches across the continents.[1][3][6]

Role of fire by natives

Fire regimes of United States plants. Savannas have regimes of a few years: blue, pink, and light green areas.

Although there are no written documents describing the intentional, controlled burning of forests, it is believed that the cumulative impact of burning by Native Americans profoundly altered the landscape. When first encountered by Europeans, many ecosystems were the result of repeated fires every one to three years, resulting in the replacement of forests with grassland or savanna, or opening up the forest by removing undergrowth. More forest exists today in some parts of North America than when the Europeans first arrived. In South America, the cerrado of South America has been coexisting with fire since ancient times; initially as natural fires caused by lightning alone, but later, also by fires caused by man. Terra preta soils, created by slow burning, are found mainly in Amazonia, where estimates of the area covered range from 0.1 to 0.3%, or 6,300 to 18,900 km² of low forested Amazonia to 1.0% or more (twice the surface of Great-Britain).[7][8][9]

There is some argument about the effect of human-caused burning when compared to lightning in western North America. There is agreement that natives played a significant role across the eastern part of that continent. As Emily Russell (1983) has pointed out, “There is no strong evidence that Indians purposely burned large areas....The presence of Indians did, however, undoubtedly increase the frequency of fires above the low numbers caused by lightning.” As might be expected, Indian fire use had its greatest impact “in local areas near Indian habitations.”[10][11]

Generally, the American Indians burned parts of the ecosystems in which they lived to promote a diversity of habitats, especially increasing the "edge effect," which gave the Indians greater security and stability to their lives.

Most primary or secondary accounts relate to the purposeful burning to establish or keep "mosaics, resource diversity, environmental stability, predictability, and the maintenance of ecotones." These purposeful fires by almost every Native American tribe differ from natural fires by the seasonality of burning, frequency of burning certain areas, and the intensity of the fire. Indians tended to burn differently depending on the resources being managed. Hardly ever did the various tribes purposely burn when the forests were most vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire. Indeed, for some Indians, saving the forest from fire was crucial for survival. Those Indian tribes that used fire in moist ecosystems tended to burn in the late spring just before new growth appears, while in areas that are drier fires tended to be set during the late summer or early fall since the main growth of plants and grasses occurs in the winter. For the most part, tribes set fires that did not destroy entire forests or ecosystems, were relatively easy to control, and stimulated new plant growth. Indians burned selected areas yearly, every other year, or intervals as long as five years.[1][3]

the modification of the American continent by fire at the hands of "Indigenous people" was the result of repeated, controlled, surface burns on a cycle of one to three years, broken by occasional holocausts from escape fires and periodic conflagrations during times of drought. Even under ideal circumstances, accidents occurred: signal fires escaped and campfires spread, with the result that valuable range was untimely scorched, buffalo driven away, and villages threatened. Burned corpses on the prairie were far from rare. So extensive were the cumulative effects of these modifications that it may be said that the general consequence of the Indian occupation of the New World was to replace forested land with grassland or savanna, or, where the forest persisted, to open it up and free it from underbrush. Most of the impenetrable woods encountered by explorers were in bogs or swamps from which fire was excluded; naturally drained landscape was nearly everywhere burned. Conversely, almost wherever the European went, forests followed. The Great American Forest may be more a product of settlement than a victim of it.
Steve Pyne, [3]

Arrival of the Europeans

Fires indicated the presence of humans to many European explorers and settlers. In San Pedro Bay in 1542, chaparral fires provided that signal to Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, and later to others across all of what would be named California.[12]

By the 17th century, as most European explorers, fur traders, and settlers began to arrive in North America, native populations were on the verge of collapse because of new diseases (such as smallpox) and widespread epidemics (the flu) against which the Indians had no immunity. In addition, warfare (with old enemies and new immigrants), new technologies (horse, iron, and firearms), change of economy (to fur trading and sheep grazing), different food sources (European-style farming and imperial handouts), and treaties (restricting or removing Indians from traditional lands) all had significant consequences mainly negativeon native cultures and populations.

By the 19th century, many native languages and tribes were becoming extinct and knowledge of the old ways was dying. Only a handful of ethnographers and anthropologists (many employed by the Smithsonian Institution and/or the American Bureau of Ethnology) felt the need to record the Indian languages and lifestyles before the last of many tribes disappeared. Even fewer of these researchers asked questions about the native peoples deliberately changing ecosystems.[3]

Settlers and the rich prairies

Early explorers and fur trappers often observed huge burned-over or prairie/barren areas with many dead trees "littering" the landscape, without knowledge of whether the fires were natural or caused by Indians. Written accounts by early settlers remain incomplete, although many noted that there was evidence of burned or scorched trees and open prairies or Savannas with tall grasses in every river basin. There are many other accounts of travelers in forest areas commenting on the ability to see long distances through the forest, which was lacking in shrubs, brush, and small trees. The abundance of open prairie areas, which could be millions of acres large, was often incorrectly thought to be the result of poor soils that would not support trees or even crops.

However, a number of settlers/farmers saw that the prairies were potentially rich land (besides the fact that it was "ready for the plow" without having to clear the land). This grass-covered prairie land was one of the primary reasons for settlers to head west to the Oregon Territory and California, and later to homestead the Great Plains. In the late 19th century until today, the Great Plains of the U.S. and Canadian Prairies were to become the farming “breadbasket” for the two nations.

Through the turn of the 20th century, settlers often used fire to clear the land of brush and trees in order to make new farm land for crops and new pastures for grazing animals – the North American variation of slash and burn technology – while others deliberately burned to reduce the threat of major fires – the so‑called "light burning" technique. Since the uplands were still in government ownership (public domain), many settlers adjacent to the hills often either deliberately set fires and/or allowed fires to "run free." Also, sheep and cattle owners, as well as shepherds and cowboys, often set the alpine meadows and prairies on fire at the end of the grazing season to burn the dried grasses, reduce brush, and kill young trees, as well as encourage the growth of new grasses for the following summer and fall grazing season.[3]

Reasons for burning

Henry T. Lewis, who has authored more books and articles on this subject than anyone else, concluded that there were at least 70 different reasons for the Indians firing the vegetation. Other writers have listed fewer number of reasons, using different categories. In summary, there are eleven major reasons for American Indian ecosystem burning:[1][3][6][13]

See also

Further reading


  1. 1 2 3 4 Williams, Gerald W. (Summer 2000). "Introduction to Aboriginal Fire Use in North America" (PDF). Fire Management Today. USDA Forest Service. 60 (3): 8–12. Retrieved 2008-08-24.
  2. Shetler, Stanwyn G. (1991). "Faces of Eden". In Herman J. Viola and Carolyn Margolis. Seeds of Change: A Quincentennial Commemoration. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press. p. 226. ISBN 1-56098-036-2.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Williams, Gerald W. "REFERENCES ON THE AMERICAN INDIAN USE OF FIRE IN ECOSYSTEMS". USDA Forest Service. Retrieved 2008-08-24.
  4. 1 2 Denevan, William M. (1992). "The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492". Annals of the Association of American Geographers. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Geographers. 82 (3): 369–385. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8306.1992.tb01965.x. ISSN 0004-5608.
  5. David L. Lentz, ed. (2000). Imperfect balance: landscape transformations in the Precolumbian Americas. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. xviii–xix. ISBN 0-231-11157-6.
  6. 1 2 Chapeskie, Andrew (1999). "Northern Homelands, Northern Frontier: Linking Culture and Economic Security in Contemporary Livelihoods in Boreal and Cold Temperate Forest Communities in Northern Canada". Forest Communities in the Third Millennium: Linking Research, Business, and Policy Toward a Sustainable Non-Timber Forest Product Sector. USDA Forest Service. pp. 31–44. Retrieved 2009-08-01.
  7. “Discovery and awareness of anthropogenic amazonian dark earths (terra preta)”, by William M. Denevan, University of Wisconsin–Madison, and William I. Woods, Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville. Archived August 20, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  8. “Classification of Amazonian Dark Earths and other Ancient Anthropic Soils” in “Amazonian Dark Earths: origin, properties, and management” by J. Lehmann, N. Kaampf, W.I. Woods, W. Sombroek, D.C. Kern, T.J.F. Cunha et al., Chapter 5, 2003. (eds J. Lehmann, D. Kern, B. Glaser & W. Woods); cited in Lehmann et al.., 2003, pp. 77-102
  9. "Carbon negative energy to reverse global warming".
  10. Keeley, J. E.; Aplet, G.H.; Christensen, N.L.; Conard, S.C.; Johnson, E.A.; Omi, P.N.; Peterson, D.L.; Swetnam, T.W. Ecological foundations for fire management in North American forest and shrubland ecosystems. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-779. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. p. 33.
  11. Barrett, Stephen W.; Thomas W. Swetnam; William L. Baker (2005). "Indian fire use: deflating the legend" (PDF). Fire Management Today. Washington, D.C.: Forest Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 65 (3): 31–33. Retrieved 2009-08-08.
  12. Neil G. Sugihara; Jan W. Van Wagtendonk; Kevin E. Shaffer; Joann Fites-Kaufman; Andrea E. Thode, eds. (2006). "17". Fire in California's Ecosystems. University of California Press. p. 417. ISBN 978-0-520-24605-8.
  13. Krech III, Shepard (1999). The ecological Indian: myth and history (1 ed.). New York, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. pp. 101–122. ISBN 0-393-04755-5.

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