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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 landscapeEdit

Romantic and primitivist writers such as William Henry Hudson, Longfellow, Francis Parkman, and Thoreau contributed to the widespread myth[2] that pre-Columbian North America was a pristine, natural wilderness, "a world of barely perceptible human disturbance.”[3] At the time of these writings, however, enormous tracts of land had already been allowed to succeed to climax thanks to the reduction in anthropogenic fires after the native population collapsed due to epidemics of diseases introduced by Europeans in the 16th century. In fact, Native Americans had played a major role in determining the diversity of their ecosystems.[4][2]

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 lightning. Early researchers did not believe that large burning was carried out by natives, but research during the latter half of the 20th century showed that many of the fires were intentionally caused.[citation needed]

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 was used to keep large areas of forest and mountains free of undergrowth for hunting or travel, or to create berry patches.[1][4][6] Intentional burning greatly modified landscapes across the continent in many subtle ways that were often interpreted as natural by the early explorers, trappers, and settlers.[citation needed]

Role of fire by nativesEdit

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 the Amazon basin, 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][4]

Arrival of the EuropeansEdit

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 Rodríguez 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 negative—on 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.[4]

Settlers and the rich prairiesEdit

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.[4]

Reasons for burningEdit

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][4][6][13]

  • Hunting ‑ The burning of large areas was useful to divert big game (deer, elk, bison) into small unburned areas for easier hunting and provide open prairies/meadows (rather than brush and tall trees) where animals (including ducks and geese) like to dine on fresh, new grass sprouts. Fire was also used to drive game into impoundments, narrow chutes, into rivers or lakes, or over cliffs where the animals could be killed easily. Some tribes used a surround or circle fire to force rabbits and game into small areas. The Seminoles even practiced hunting alligators with fire. Torches were used to spot deer and attract fish. Smoke was used to drive/dislodge raccoons and bears from hiding.
  • Crop management ‑ Burning was used to harvest crops, especially tarweed, yucca, greens, and grass seed collection. In addition, fire was used to prevent abandoned fields from growing over and to clear areas for planting corn and tobacco. One report of fire being used to bring rain (overcome drought). Clearing ground of grass and brush was done to facilitate the gathering of acorns. Fire was used to roast mescall and obtain salt from grasses.
  • Insect collection ‑ Some tribes used a "fire surround" to collect and roast crickets, grasshoppers, Pandora Pinemoths in pine forests, and collect honey from bees.
  • Pest management ‑ Burning was sometimes used to reduce insects (black flies, ticks, and mosquitos) and rodents, as well as kill mistletoe that invaded mesquite and oak trees and kill the tree moss favored by deer (thus forcing them to the valleys). Fire was also used to kill poisonous snakes.
  • Improve growth and yields ‑ Fire was often used to improve grass for big game grazing (deer, elk, antelope, bison), horse pasturage, camas reproduction, seed plants, berry plants (especially raspberries, strawberries and huckleberries), and tobacco. Fire was also used to promote plant structure and health, increase the growth of reeds and grasses used as basket materials, beargrass, deergrass, hazel, and willows.
  • Fireproofing areas ‑ There are some indications that fire was used to protect certain medicine plants by clearing an area around the plants, as well as to fireproof areas, especially around settlements, from destructive wildfires. Fire was also used to keep prairies open from encroaching shrubs and trees.
  • Warfare and signaling ‑ Indians used fire to deprive the enemy of hiding places in tall grass and underbrush, to destroy enemy property, and to camouflage an escape. Large fires (not the Hollywood version of blankets and smoke) were ignited to signal enemy movements and to gather forces for combat.
  • Economic extortion ‑ Some tribes also used fire for a "scorched earth" policy to deprive settlers and fur traders from easy access to big game and thus benefiting from being "middlemen" in supplying pemmican and jerky.
  • Clearing areas for travel ‑ Fires were sometimes started to clear trails for travel through areas that were overgrown with grass or brush, especially along ridgelines. Burned areas helped with providing better visibility through forests and brush lands for hunting and warfare purposes. It also reduced cover for wolves, bears, cougars, as well as enemy tribes who often hid along the edges of trails.
  • Felling trees ‑ Fire was used to fell trees by boring two intersecting holes into the trunk, then dropping burning charcoal in one hole, allowing the smoke to exit from the other. This method was also used by early settlers. Another way to kill trees was to surround the base with fire, allowing the bark and/or the trunk to burn causing the tree to die (much like girdling) and eventually topple over. Fire also used to kill trees so that it could later be used for dry kindling (willows) and firewood (aspen).
  • Clearing riparian areas ‑ Fire was commonly used to clear brush from riparian areas and marshes for new grasses and sedges, plant growth (cattails), and tree sprouts (to benefit beaver, muskrats, moose, and waterfowl), including mesquite, cottonwood, and willows.

See alsoEdit

Further readingEdit

  • Blackburn, Thomas C. and Kat Anderson (eds.). 1993. Before the Wilderness: Environmental Management by Native Californians. Menlo Park, CA: Ballena Press. Several chapters on Indian use of fire, one by Henry T. Lewis as well as his final “In Retrospect.”
  • Bonnicksen, Thomas M. 2000. America’s Ancient Forests: From the Ice Age to the Age of Discovery. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Especially see chapter 7 “Fire Masters” pages 143-216.
  • Boyd, Robert T. (ed.). 1999. Indians, Fire, and the Land. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press. An excellent series of papers about Indian burning in the West.
  • Lewis, Henry T. 1982. A Time for Burning. Occasional Publication No. 17. Edmonton, Alberta: University of Alberta, Boreal Institute for Northern Studies. 62 pages.
  • Lutz, Harold J. 1959. Aboriginal Man and White Men as Historical Causes of Fires in the Boreal Forest, with Particular Reference to Alaska. Yale School of Forestry Bulletin No. 65. New Haven, CT: Yale University. 49 pages.
  • Pyne, Stephen J. 1982. Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 654 pages. See Chapter 2 “The Fire from Asia” pages 66–122.
  • Russell, Emily W.B. 1983. "Indian‑Set Fires in the Forests of the Northeastern United States." Ecology, Vol. 64, #1 (Feb): 78‑88.
  • Stewart, Omer C. with Henry T. Lewis and M. Kat Anderson (eds.). 2002. Forgotten Fires: Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. 364 pages.
  • Vale, Thomas R. (ed.). 2002. Fire, Native Peoples, and the Natural Landscape. Washington, DC: Island Press. An interesting set of articles that generally depict landscape changes as natural events rather that Indian caused.
  • Whitney, Gordon G. 1994. From Coastal Wilderness to Fruited Plain: A History of Environmental Change in Temperate North America 1500 to the Present. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. See especially Chapter 5 “Preservers of the Ecological Balance Wheel” on pages 98–120.


  1. ^ a b c d 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. ^ a b 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. ISSN 0004-5608. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8306.1992.tb01965.x. 
  3. ^ 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. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Williams, Gerald W. "REFERENCES ON THE AMERICAN INDIAN USE OF FIRE IN ECOSYSTEMS". USDA Forest Service. Retrieved 2008-08-24. 
  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. ^ a b 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. ^ [1] “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” [2] 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. 

  This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the United States Department of Agriculture.