The English colonists who founded the colonies that would eventually become the United States joined the quest for New World empires very late in the game. The first English attempts to colonize North America came a full century after the Spanish inaugurated the Columbian Exchange. The colonists of Jamestown and Plymouth Plantation thus arrived in landscapes—and among peoples—already heavily touched by the forces of ecological imperialism.
But they didn't know it.
When they arrived in America, English colonists found a landscape of great woods, abundant game, and relatively few Indians. Their mistake was to assume that it had always been this way. The forests the colonists mistook for primeval wilderness had in fact been more like orchards, carefully and deliberately shaped by Indian fires to provide better sustenance for human populations. And the small nomadic tribes the colonists mistook for the timeless inhabitants of those lands were, in fact, only the shattered survivors of history's worst population catastrophe. European diseases, arriving in places like Massachusetts and the Chesapeake long before permanent European settlers did, opened up the country for successful colonization.
Neither Europeans nor Indians had any scientific understanding of the ecological processes that had so profoundly shaped their encounter. Both groups understood phenomena like agricultural abundance or epidemic disease in spiritual terms, as the respective blessings or punishments of their gods.
Thus, the undeniable facts of the European-American encounter—that Indians seemed to be wasting away, opening bounteous lands to the newcomers from across the Atlantic—acquired deep cultural and ideological meanings in the minds of the colonists who eventually founded the United States. Not understanding the scientific processes at work, Anglo-Americans interpreted their ongoing good fortune as proof of God's special endorsement of their nation.
For example, John Winthrop—Puritan elder and first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony—perceived divine blessing of the colonists' venture in the Indians' Great Dying: "For the natives," Winthrop wrote, "they are neere all dead of Small poxe, so as the Lord hathe cleared our title to what we possess."3 A Frenchman on La Salle's voyage down the Mississippi captured the idea even more bluntly: "Touching these savages, there is a thing I cannot omit to remark to you, it is that it appears visibly that God wishes that they yield their place to new peoples."4
Through generations of successful colonization—in which the descendents of Europe built some of the world's healthiest and wealthiest societies in the lands vacated by the Indians—white Americans' conviction that their presence in America had received a special blessing from God only grew stronger. The cultural and ideological origins of "manifest destiny" and "American exceptionalism" can be found in the exceptionally uneven terms of the Columbian Exchange. Only recently have we become fully aware that the special advantages enjoyed by Europeans in their encounter with Indians were bestowed less by God than by ecology.