Doctoral Dissertation Research: Informing Environmental History with Historical Ecology: Agricultural Wetlands in New Netherland, 1620-1840

  • Holdsworth, Deryck William (PI)
  • Teale, Chelsea C.L. (CoPI)

Project: Research project

Project Details


The contiguous United States has lost more than one-half of its original wetlands after the Colonial Era. The remaining wetlands are highly valued as habitat for rare species, for water filtration, for flood control, and for other ecosystem services. Wetland function is related to biota, but unlike studies of forests and early successional habitats, the environmental legacies of past agriculture have generally not been considered in wetlands research. Wetlands often were intensively used in colonial North America?s mixed-husbandry agriculture system as sources of native hay, but they are understudied as relict agroecological systems. Furthermore, in the long-settled Northeast where demand was great for hay and where wetlands are common, most research on colonial agriculture focused only on the cultural hearths of New England and New France. New Netherland is overlooked because of the short duration of Dutch settlement and paucity of written records, and as a result, there is a geographical gap in colonial land-use history for glaciated Atlantic America and incomplete understanding of wetland vegetation change in that biophysical region. This doctoral dissertation research project will use a combination of historical and proxy records to document colonial Dutch agriculture and its impact on vegetation in wetlands of New York's Hudson River Valley and western Long Island. Images, maps, herbarium records, and colonial texts will be used to locate agricultural wetlands and explain their use, management, and agricultural abandonment following introduction of upland European forage species. This information will provide context for a case-study using paleoecological techniques to identify the impact of wetland agriculture on vegetation in a representative Dutch area. Sediment samples from a known agricultural wetland will be stratigraphically analyzed for plant macrofossils, phytoliths, charcoal, and organic material. Together with known benchmark dates, at least ten accelerator mass spectrometer (AMS) radiocarbon dates will provide a high-resolution timeline within which to analyze land-use and vegetation change during the colonial and early American eras.

By utilizing newly-translated Dutch colonial records, this project will contribute to a growing understanding of the Dutch colonial experience and legacy in North America. The location of New Netherland within a physiographic and biogeographic province similar to New England and New France suggests that Dutch, English, and French activities should be considered together to create a regional-scale environmental history of landscape change. The application of traditional paleoecological techniques and incorporation of an emerging method (phytolith analysis) has potentially broader impacts for biogeographers and ecologists interested in extending the historical record for wetlands in the Northeast and elsewhere in temperate latitudes, because phytoliths may be the only available proxy record of vegetation change in hydrologically unstable environments like agricultural wetlands that are rarely described in the historical record and yield few other proxy records. As a Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement award, this award also will provide support to enable a promising student to establish a strong independent research career.

Effective start/end date8/15/107/31/12


  • National Science Foundation: $7,406.00


Explore the research topics touched on by this project. These labels are generated based on the underlying awards/grants. Together they form a unique fingerprint.