- Author: Jane Callier
The first known Thanksgiving in English America was celebrated on December 4, 1619, at Berkeley Hundred, a brand-new plantation about 30 miles west of Jamestown.
As we now all know, immigration to the New World changed the landscape forever. Early settlers had no concept whatsoever of environmental impact and with their arrival came much more than the colonists themselves. Instead they brought a parade of insects, plants, mammals, and microorganisms. Along with colonists' differences and concepts of the land, the ground literally changed the beneath the Indians' feet.
An article from National Geographic cites more agricultural and natural influences by colonists. Jamestown's tobacco was a popular hit and by 1620 the colony exported up to 50,000 pounds of it and increased every year. Neither natives nor newcomers understood the environmental impact of growing tobacco on a massive scale. "Tobacco has an almost unique ability to suck the life out of soil," says Leanne DuBois, the agricultural extension agent in James City County. "In this area, where the soils can be pretty fragile, it can ruin the land in a couple of years." Constantly wearing out their fields, the colonists cleared ever more forest, leaving behind sparse pastureland.
Ships arrived to load up tobacco. Ballast was dumped containing mostly stones and soil, but also English earthworms. Native earthworms had apparently been wiped out in the last Ice Age. Over time, the worms triggered big changes. In a worm-free environment, leaf litter piled up on the forest floor. When earthworms were introduced, they did away with the litter in a few months, leaving northern trees and shrubs beneath the forest canopy without the litter they used for food. Water leached away nutrients formerly stored in the litter, and the forest became more open and dry.
The largest ecological impact may have been the European honeybee. Native bees are adapted to pollinate only a few species. European honeybees live almost anywhere and pollinate almost anything in sight. They swarmed from their hives and became established throughout the Americas. Pollination wasn't widely understood until the late 19th century and the English colonists imported the bees for honey, not to pollinate crops. Of course, crops and orchards up and down the East Coast were pollinated anyway. Without them, many of the plants the Europeans brought with them wouldn't have become established. The European honeybee was so critical to European success that Indians came to view it as a harbinger of invasion.
Thinking about pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving may invoke a school days image of an Indian showing a colonist how to put fish into planting holes to use as fertilizer. A paper by Cooperative Extension agents disagrees this ever happened and says fish fertilizer has been used on crops since the Roman expansion, and in medieval France, where shellfish debris was used to raise luxuriant crops. The use of fish in hills of corn was an ancient tradition developed in Europe and not in the New World, as early New England scholars have claimed. At the time, Atlantic Coast Indians had to move their gardens each year, because they didn't know how to fertilize the soil.
Today, we know a lot more about fish soluble nutrients, if not how they were used or not used at the time of the pilgrims.
- They promote plant growth.
- They retard senescence.
- They reduce stress at time of transplanting. It has been shown that there is less loss and quicker adjustment.
- They delay flowering and fruiting. This has been observed in tomatoes, but more work is needed to determine responses of other plants. It could be used when frost is expected in early spring, or to extend the time a single variety would be available for picking.
By 1781 changes to the landscape were fully underway. The Atlantic coast was had monoculture alien crops of wheat, rice, and West Indian tobacco, and black rats from Europe were here to stay.
UC Master Gardeners of Napa County provide free home gardening advice. Visit, call or complete the Plant Problem Diagnosis Sheet for assistance.
Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.
UC Cooperative Extension 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa
(707) 253-4143 http://ucanr.edu/sites/ucmgnapa/