The New Western Continent: First Impressions

The European settlement of North America, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and westward expansion created major changes in the world.

By the end of the nineteenth century the United States had stabilized to the point where citizens and publishers had the breathing room to stop and take stock of the situation and get down in print the story of their local areas.

The county histories produced at this time make up Accessible Archives’s American County Histories collection. Most of these volumes were produced between 1880 and 1910 and provide a critical resource for genealogists and family historians by providing history anecdotes that add color and  details that go beyond a list of names and dates.

The New Western Continent: First Impressions

When the first Europeans visited the western continent they found very large areas in what is now New England, the States of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, etc., and Upper Canada consisting of what may be termed open prairies. These open tracts were produced by periodical burnings by the natives, for the early attributed purpose of keeping back excessive growth of trees, shrubs, vines and other rank vegetation, which would have obstructed rapid passage through it and cut off vision.

Later observation assigned a more probable reason for these burnings, in the consequent destruction of forest growth and the annual upspringing of tender and nutritious grasses, which enticed the deer, elk, moose, buffalo and other large game upon which the Indians largely subsisted. What were popularly called “oak openings” by our pioneers were doubtless once open prairies like those of the far Western States, which originated in the manner described; and what have been called “plains” in the local vicinity have an important relation to this part of the subject. These plains have been adequately described by intelligent early travelers.

Theodore Dwight, who visited Buffalo Creek in 1803, wrote as follows on the subject:

From the appellation of plains, usually given to these tracts, you will naturally think as I did, that they are level grounds. This, however, is a mistake. They are generally elevated, and everywhere present a surface rolling easily, without any sudden declivity except on the borders of streams or swamps. The variations of the surface are, however, continual, and some of the eminences rise considerably above the common level. These grounds are also termed openings, as being in a great degree destitute of forests. The vegetation with which they are covered consists of grass, weeds and shrubs, of various kinds.

This traveler then proceeds to describe the objects of the annual burnings by the Indians and their effects upon the appearance of the face of the country.

So, also, an English traveler named Weld alludes to the same subject in connection with his account of a journey made from the Indian settlement on Buffalo Creek to the Genesee River in 1796:

We found the country as we passed along, interspersed with open plains of great magnitude. Some of them, I should suppose, not less than fifteen or twenty miles in circumference. The trees on the borders of these having ample room to spread, were luxuriant beyond description… These plains are covered with long coarse grass, which at a future day will probably afford feeding to numerous herds of cattle; at present they are totally unfrequented.

Native American Artifacts from around Buffalo, NY

Native American Artifacts from around Buffalo, NY


Our County and its People, a Descriptive Work on Erie County
Edited By Truman C. White for The Boston History Company, 1898.

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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