Monday, April 01, 2019

Coastal and Riverine Settlements

I recall being fascinated in the 1980s by James Michener's Chesapeake, with its description of how interaction was much more along waterways than over land. It took a long time to get a train route down the center of the Delmarva Peninsula, because few people went that far inland. Michener's books often had the theme of geography=destiny, never more obviously than in that book. For one raised in a world of streets, roads, and highways, it was a new idea, and I marveled at how odd the Chesapeake area was. Though I no longer lived there, it did help me understand in retrospect some of what I had seen at college.

Since then I have encountered the water-centric perspective in the geography of other places, but until recently, still regarded it as odd. It's not odd.  It's much more the norm for thousands of years.  The American perspective is different because we think so strongly in terms of expansion across the continent, from Atlantic to Pacific. As our expansion started just about at the time of the Revolution and was mostly complete by 1900 that map-filling drama across land is a lot of how we think of ourselves. Yet even for us, settlement was coastal until the Scots-Irish came in and leapfrogged to the unsettled areas. And they didn't build cities, they wanted land for each family, because of what they had come through in Great Britain. Towns for trading was about it. The French had explored the rivers, but the English did not pay much attention to the Great Lakes and the Mississippi until the Louisiana Purchase. Even after that, exploration was along those waterways before there was much striking out across the territory.

Heck, lots of it is still pretty empty.

Last week I learned the coastal settlement was even stronger than I had previously thought.  Tracing all ancestral lines back to the immigrant ancestors as far as could be determined, I noticed how absolutely everything was right on the coast or a town away at most for the whole first hundred years of settlement.  Dedham and Concord, MA were the frontier at less than 10 miles in for the first century of colonisation. Similar patterns held in the other New England states.  Except Vermont, which was mostly empty until the Revolution.

In your junior high social studies book about great empires, huge swaths of territory around the Mediterranean would be colored in, showing what Alexander conquered or the Ottomans controlled. Yet these deceive.  What they conquered and controlled was often cities on coasts or rivers.  that was where most of the people were, and those cities had powerful influence on the rural areas around them.  City-states, or something like it.  Their influence waned as one got farther from the city walls, but then, so did the population density. We see it also now in maps of China or Russia.  Yes, they do "control" large amounts of territory, in the sense that no one is going to secede or stage a coup from those remote areas, but they are often ignored back there as well.  Yes, even in dictatorships you can do that, so long as you don't draw attention to yourself, because it just takes too many people to keep an eye on you.  China's enormous population is on the coast, and up a couple of major rivers.

Even back to the Indo-European tribes entering Europe, which looks on the map like it's across land, is less so once one leaves Asia.  The settlement patterns are along the Danube and Dniester, eventually meeting distant cousins who have worked their way along the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts and entered by the Rhone or the Rhine.

1 comment:

Grim said...

One of the striking things about the Northmen -- to include the British after the Norman conquest -- is how comfortable they were holding kingdoms that were divided by seas or oceans. Cnut the Great didn't mind having a kingdom with a part in Denmark and another part in England and another part in Norway. Harald Hardrada didn't think twice about invading England while King of Norway. William the Bastard didn't think twice about having a kingdom in England and a duchy in Normandy. Richard the Lionheart was happy to take to the seas, conquering islands in the Med and trying for Jerusalem, dying in France and king of England. And, of course, the later British Empire bestrode the world for a while.