Teaching the Climate Crisis in Early American History Courses

Camille Suárez
Back and white photography of a gold mining operation that looks quite messy and decrepit.

Cromwell’s Claim, Maine Bar, Middle Fork, American River, 1858. Courtesy of Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

Given our current climate emergency, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to incorporate environmental history into my Early American history courses, especially the first half of the U.S. survey. In 2018, Bruno Latour, a French philosopher, published Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime, which interrogates the causes of global inaction in relation to climate change. Latour proclaims that “everyone now knows that the climate question is at the heart of all geopolitical issues and that it is directly tied to questions of injustice and inequality,” but political and economic leaders have refused to act.[1] The solution, according to Latour, is to initiate a cultural shift in how we think about our responsibility to other humans throughout the world and the responsibility of western nations, like the United States, to the people it has colonized and exploited. As historians, we can help spark this cultural shift in our classrooms.

We must frame the present ecological crisis, not as a twentieth-century development, but as the result of centuries of human manipulation of landscapes as part of colonization, and extraction schemes. The first half of the U.S. survey is the perfect venue to do this work. To construct a narrative of early U.S. history that incorporates the environment, I organize my courses around two geographical points, New England and the West. My primary objective is for students to consider alternative ways of thinking about the land and to reject simplistic narratives of progress and declension that revolve around human control over nature. When framing history around narratives of progress or decline, we leave our students with only two options for thinking about the future: one, technological innovation will resolve the current climate emergency, and, two, human society needs to return to a particular past state with nature.

I begin my history survey courses with Indigenous creation stories to encourage students to consider the diversity of belief systems about nature and to stress that Indigenous peoples managed the land well before European colonization. Because I teach in Los Angeles, I begin with the Chumash creation story.[2] Before covering the European colonization of the Americas, I discuss how Indigenous people managed the land to encourage greater harvests and biodiversity. In the California context, students learn how the Mono pruned acorn trees for better acorn yields, and how many tribes, such as the Yurok and the Hupa, utilized controlled burning to reduce harmful pests and as part of the harvesting process for acorns.[3] Students also learn about the use of controlled burning and the creation of New England forests, but, in my classes, they are most interested in California history.[4] By beginning the course this way, I hope to have students realize that there are alternative ways of managing the land and that the biodiversity and natural characteristics of California and New England are the result of Indigenous land management.

Stereoscope card depicting an open pit mine being mined with a jet of water.

Hydraulic Mining at Gold Run, #61, 1863. Courtesy of the California State Library.

When teaching Westward Expansion and the growth of extractive industries during the nineteenth century, I construct a narrative of human interaction with the landscape, rather than of human domination over nature. In my survey courses, I frame the California Gold Rush as a crucial turning point in environmental history. I focus on how hydraulic mining altered the landscape and how overhunting devastated animal populations, such as the grizzly bear and elk. The use of photographic images allows students to see the changes caused by the search for gold.

I also link the construction of contemporary, mainstream American ideas about the environment to Westward expansion. Students learn how white U.S. citizen settlement in the West shaped the contemporary “American wilderness ideal”—the idea that true nature is uninhabited land.[5] To accomplish this, I teach students about the history of Yosemite Valley. I begin with the Mariposa War of 1850, in which Anglo American settlers violently removed the Ahwahneechees to take land and, in doing so, “discovered” Yosemite Valley. I then discuss the subsequent efforts to preserve Yosemite Valley as a tool of Indigenous dispossession, as well as an event that hardened the American wilderness ideal. By learning about hydraulic mining alongside wilderness preservation, students are left to consider how nineteenth-century U.S, society’s thoughts and valuation of nature affect contemporary ideas about the environment.

Incorporating environmental history into our curriculums excites curiosity and allows students to draw meaningful connections between the past and the future. In December 2021, the Save the Redwoods League, a non-profit conservation group, returned more than 500 acres of the Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ (which translates to Fish Run Place) to the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, a consortium of ten tribal nations in Northern California.[6] This was the second donation to the council, which is now the eco-cultural steward of 4,530 acres of land. During our open question sessions, my students had mentioned other Land Back achievements, so I shared this victory with the class. My students and I discussed the council’s and league’s joint statement, which announced they would “apply a blend of Indigenous land guardianship principles, conservation science, climate adaptation and fire resiliency concepts and approaches to help ensure lasting protection and long-term healing for Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ and its diverse flora and fauna.”[7] I asked my students, what does this mean for our collective future? Students expressed support for more Land Back achievements and hope for approaches, like the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council’s, that applied a blend of Indigenous land guardianship principles and conservation science. We did not arrive at any solutions, but I could see that my students better understood the long history of climate change and the importance of history when thinking about our collective approaches to combatting climate change.

As historians of early America, the task before us is to figure out how to incorporate “the climate question” into our research and our teaching. Failing to do so, as philosopher Bruno Latour states, “is to act as though nothing were happening and to protect ourselves behind a wall” that won’t keep climate change out.


[1] Bruno Latour. Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime, translated by Catherine Porter (Medford, MA, 2018), 14.

[2] I use the Chumash story housed on the National Park Service site for the Channel islands because we discuss the creation of National Parks in a later class. “Limuw: A Story of Place,” National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/chis/learn/historyculture/limuw.htm#:~:text=Hutash%2C%20the%20Earth%20Mother%2C%20created,lightning%20bolts%20with%20his%20tongue. Accessed Sept 29, 2022.

[3] Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources (Berkeley, 2005), 141–145.

[4] William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York, 1983, 2003), 51.

[5] Mark David Spence. Dispossessing the Wild: Indian Removal and the Making of National Parks (Oxford, UK, 1999).

[6] “Protecting Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ—Restoring Indigenous Guardianship,” Intertribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, https://sinkyone.org/news. Accessed Sept 29, 2022.

[7] “Press Release” Save the Redwoods League. https://www.savetheredwoods.org/wp-content/uploads/files/PR-20220125_Tc%E2%80%99ih-L%C3%A9h-D%C3%BB%C3%B1_Fish-Run-Place.pdf. Accessed Sept 29, 2022.

1 June 2023

About the Author

Camille Suárez is assistant professor of history at California State University, Los Angeles.

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