COOL CLASSES: “Early American Environmental History”

A history course that explores how early Americans shaped their environments, and, in turn, were shaped by their environments.

Class name: “Early American Environmental History”

Taught by: Visiting Assistant Professor of History Kate Mulry


Here’s what Mulry has to say about the course:

The class is about the centrality of nature to human history. Too often, if we think about the environment at all, we see it only as an unchanging backdrop or setting. In this class I encourage students to consider the environment’s formative and dynamic role in American history. Looking through the lens of environmental history offers new insights, including novel chronologies and explanatory frameworks that can subvert traditional narratives and timelines. For example, what if we started American history not with the arrival of European colonists but with the breakup of Pangea and subsequent continental drift? What if climate history and information about the Little Ice Age could help us reimagine early Native American and European encounters and help restore the dynamism of that foundational period? Environmental history gives us the tools to ask these new kinds of questions.

The class examines the profoundly complex ecological transformation that resulted from the Columbian exchange of people, microbes, plants and animals across the Atlantic Ocean. While some changes to the American environment were intentional, many were not. The class also considers the cultural, religious, and scientific attitudes towards nature held by the varied inhabitants of colonial America. In other words, we examine how Native Americans, Africans, and European colonists conceived of their relationship to nature and how these attitudes and beliefs shaped the societies they created and recreated. In turn, environmental factors such local climate, geography, and ecology shaped the kinds of societies, economies, and labor systems that could be established. For instance, while some forms of agricultural production were possible in New England, others were not. This had profound effects on the course of New England’s history. Of course, it is important to remember that colonists did not arrive in an untouched wilderness. The land had long been shaped by Native American inhabitants who had their own ideas about nature and their own modes of agriculture.

Early Americans shaped their environments, but they were shaped by these environments in return. I hope students come away from the class with a firm sense of nature’s active, dynamic role in the American past. As one scholar has recently argued, “Where we live shapes how we live.” This is a key lesson for anyone thinking about the American past as well as the American present and future.


See what other courses the History Department is offering this semester.

Cool Classes is a recurring series on the Haverblog that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford College experience.