The Red Man’s Continent, A Chronicle of Aboriginal America by Ellsworth Huntington

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  • 1919
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In writing this book the author has aimed first to present in readable form the main facts about the geographical environment of American history. Many important facts have been omitted or have been touched upon only lightly because they are generally familiar. On the other hand, special stress has been laid on certain broad phases of geography which are comparatively unfamiliar. One of these is the similarity of form between the Old World and the New, and between North and South America; another is the distribution of indigenous types of vegetation in North America; and a third is the relation of climate to health and energy. In addition to these subjects, the influence of geographical conditions upon the life of the primitive Indians has been emphasized. This factor is especially important because people without iron tools and beasts of burden, and without any cereal crops except corn, must respond to their environment very differently from civilized people of today. Limits of space and the desire to make this book readable have led to the omission of the detailed proof of some of the conclusions here set forth. The special student will recognize such cases and will not judge them until he has read the author’s fuller statements elsewhere. The general reader, for whom this book is designed, will be thankful for the omission of such purely technical details.





Across the twilight lawn at Hampton Institute straggles a group of sturdy young men with copper-hued complexions. Their day has been devoted to farming, carpentry, blacksmithing, or some other trade. Their evening will be given to study. Those silent dignified Indians with straight black hair and broad, strong features are training their hands and minds in the hope that some day they may stand beside the white man as equals. Behind them, laughing gayly and chattering as if without a care in the world, comes a larger group of kinky-haired, thick-lipped youths with black skins and African features. They, too, have been working with the hands to train the mind. Those two diverse races, red and black, sit down together in a classroom, and to them comes another race. The faces that were expressionless or merely mirthful a minute ago light up with serious interest as the teacher comes into the room. She stands there a slender, golden-haired, blue-eyed Anglo-Saxon girl just out of college–a mere child compared with the score of swarthy, stalwart men as old as herself who sit before her. Her mobile features seem to mirror a hundred thoughts while their impassive faces are moved by only one. Her quick speech almost trips in its eagerness not to waste the short, precious hour. Only a strong effort holds her back while she waits for the slow answers of the young men whom she drills over and over again in simple problems of arithmetic. The class and the teacher are an epitome of American history. They are more than that. They are an epitome of all history.

History in its broadest aspect is a record of man’s migrations from one environment to another. America is the last great goal of these migrations. He who would understand its history must know its mountains and plains, its climate, its products, and its relation to the sea and to other parts of the world. He must know more than this, however, for he must appreciate how various environments alter man’s energy and capacity and give his character a slant in one direction or another. He must also know the paths by which the inhabitants have reached their present homes, for the influence of former environments upon them may be more important than their immediate surroundings. In fact, the history of North America has been perhaps more profoundly influenced by man’s inheritance from his past homes than by the physical features of his present home. It is indeed of vast importance that trade can move freely through such natural channels as New York Harbor, the Mohawk Valley, and the Great Lakes. It is equally important that the eastern highlands of the United States are full of the world’s finest coal, while the central plains raise some of the world’s most lavish crops. Yet it is probably even more important that because of his inheritance from a remote ancestral environment man is energetic, inventive, and long-lived in certain parts of the American continent, while elsewhere he has not the strength and mental vigor to maintain even the degree of civilization to which he seems to have risen.

Three streams of migration have mainly determined the history of America. One was an ancient and comparatively insignificant stream from Asia. It brought the Indian to the two great continents which the white man has now practically wrested from him. A second and later stream was the great tide which rolled in from Europe. It is as different from the other as West is from East. Thus far it has not wholly obliterated the native people, for between the southern border of the United States on the one hand, and the northern borders of Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay on the other, the vast proportion of the blood is still Indian. The European tide may in time dominate even this region, but for centuries to come the poor, disinherited Indians will continue to form the bulk of the population. The third stream flowed from Africa and was as different from either of the others as South is from North.

The differences between one and another of these three streams of population and the antagonisms which they have involved have greatly colored American history. The Indian, the European, and the Negro apparently differ not only in outward appearance but in the much more important matter of mentality. According to Brinton* the average brain capacity of Parisians, including adults of both sexes, is 1448 cubic centimeters. That of the American Indian is 1376, and that of the Negro 1344 cubic centimeters. With this difference in size there appears to be a corresponding difference in function. Thus far not enough accurate tests have been made upon Indians to enable us to draw reliable conclusions. The Negro, however, has been tested on an extensive scale. The results seem to leave little doubt that there are real and measurable differences in the mental powers of races, just as we know to be the case among individuals. The matter is so important that we may well dwell on it a moment before turning to the cause of the differences in the three streams of American immigrants. If there is a measurable difference between the inherent brain power of the white race and the black, it is practically certain that there are also measurable differences between the white and the red.

* D. G. Brinton. “The American Race.”

Numerous tests indicate that in the lower mental powers there is no great difference between the black and the white. In physical reactions one is as quick as the other. In the capacity of the senses and in the power to perceive and to discriminate between different kinds of objects there is also practical equality. When it comes to the higher faculties, however, such as judgment, inventiveness, and the power of organization, a difference begins to be apparent. These, as Ferguson* says, are the traits that “divide mankind into the able and the mediocre, the brilliant and the dull, and they determine the progress of civilization more directly than do the simple fundamental powers which man has in common with the lower animals.” On the basis of the most exhaustive study yet made, Ferguson believes that, apart from all differences due to home training and environment, the average intellectual power of the colored people of this country is only about three-fourths as great as that of white persons of the same amount of training. He believes it probable, indeed, that this estimate is too high rather than too low. As to the Indian, his past achievements and present condition indicate that intellectually he stands between the white man and the Negro in about the position that would be expected from the capacity of his brain. If this is so, the mental differences in the three streams of migration to America are fully as great as the outward and manifest physical differences and far more important.

* G. O. Ferguson. “The Psychology of the Negro,” New York, 1916.

Why does the American Indian differ from the Negro, and the European from both? This is a question on which we can only speculate. But we shall find it profitable to study the paths by which these diverse races found their way to America from man’s primeval home. According to the now almost universally accepted theory, all the races of mankind had a common origin. But where did man make the change from a four-handed, tree-dwelling little ape to a much larger, upright creature with two hands and two feet? It is a mistake to suppose that because he is hairless he must have originated in a warm climate. In fact quite the opposite seems to be the case, for apparently he lost his hair because he took to wearing the skins of slain beasts in order that he might have not only his own hair but that of other animals as a protection from the cold.

In our search for the starting-place of man’s slow migration to America our first step should be to ascertain what responses to physical environment are common to all men. If we find that all men live and thrive best under certain climatic conditions, it is fair to assume that those conditions prevailed in man’s original home, and this conclusion will enable us to cast out of the reckoning the regions where they do not prevail. A study of the relations of millions of deaths to weather conditions indicates that the white race is physically at its best when the average temperature for night and day ranges from about 50 to 73 degrees F. and when the air is neither extremely moist nor extremely dry. In addition to these conditions there must be not only seasonal changes but frequent changes from day to day. Such changes are possible only where there is a distinct winter and where storms are of frequent occurrence. The best climate is, therefore, one where the temperature ranges from not much below the freezing-point at night in winter to about 80 degrees F. by day in summer, and where the storms which bring daily changes are frequent at all seasons.

Surprising as it may seem, this study indicates that similar conditions are best for all sorts of races. Finns from the Arctic Circle and Italians of sunny Sicily have the best health and greatest energy under practically the same conditions; so too with Frenchmen, Japanese, and Americans. Most surprising of all, the African black man in the United States is likewise at his best in essentially the same kind of weather that is most favorable for his white fellow-citizens, and for Finns, Italians, and other races. For the red race, no exact figures are available, but general observation of the Indian’s health and activity suggests that in this respect he is at one with the rest of mankind.

For the source of any characteristic so widespread and uniform as this adaptation to environment we must go back to the very beginning of the human race. Such a characteristic must have become firmly fixed in the human constitution before primitive man became divided into races, or at least before any of the races had left their original home and started on their long journey to America. On the way to this continent one race took on a dark reddish or brownish hue and its hair grew straight and black; another became black skinned and crinkly-haired, while a third developed a white skin and wavy blonde hair. Yet throughout the thousands of years which brought about these changes, all the races apparently retained the indelible constitutional impress of the climate of their common birthplace. Man’s physical adaptation to climate seems to be a deep-seated physiological fact like the uniformity of the temperature of the blood in all races. Just as a change in the temperature of the blood brings distress to the individual, so a change of climate apparently brings distress to a race. Again and again, to be sure, on the way to America, and under many other circumstances, man has passed through the most adverse climates and has survived, but he has flourished and waxed strong only in certain zones.

Curiously enough man’s body and his mind appear to differ in their climatic adaptations. Moreover, in this respect the black race, and perhaps the red, appears to be diverse from the white. In America an investigation of the marks of students at West Point and Annapolis indicates that the best mental work is done when the temperature averages not much above 40 degrees F. for night and day together. Tests of school children in Denmark point to a similar conclusion. On the other hand, daily tests of twenty-two Negroes at Hampton Institute for sixteen months suggest that their mental ability may be greatest at a temperature only a little lower than that which is best for the most efficient physical activity. No tests of this sort have ever been made upon Indians, but such facts as the inventiveness of the Eskimo, the artistic development of the people of northern British Columbia and southern Alaska, and the relatively high civilization of the cold regions of the Peruvian plateau suggest that the Indian in this respect is more like the white race than the black. Perhaps man’s mental powers underwent their chief evolution after the various races had left the aboriginal home in which the physical characteristics becamefixed. Thus the races, though alike in their physical response to climate, may possibly be different in their mental response because they have approached America by different paths.

Before we can understand how man may have been modified on his way from his original home to America, we must inquire as to the geographical situation of that home. Judging by the climate which mankind now finds most favorable, the human race must have originated in the temperate regions of Europe, Asia, or North America. We are not entirely without evidence to guide to a choice of one of the three continents. There is a scarcity of indications of preglacial man in the New World and an abundance of such indications in the Old. To be sure, several skulls found in America have been supposed to belong to a time before the last glacial epoch. In every case, however, there has been something to throw doubt on the conclusion. For instance, some human bones found at Vero in Florida in 1915 seem to be very old. Certain circumstances, however, suggest that possibly they may not really belong to the layers of gravel in which they were discovered but may have been inserted at some later time. In the Old World, on the contrary, no one doubts that many human skulls and other parts of skeletons belong to the interglacial epoch preceding the last glacial epoch, while some appear to date from still more remote periods. Therefore no matter at what date man may have come to America, it seems clear that he existed in the Old World much earlier. This leaves us to choose between Europe and Asia. The evidence points to central Asia as man’s original home, for the general movement of human migrations has been outward from that region and not inward. So, too, with the great families of mammals, as we know from fossil remains. From the earliest geological times the vast interior of Asia has been the great mother of the world, the source from which the most important families of living things have come.

Suppose, then, that we place in central Asia the primitive home of the thin-skinned, hairless human race with its adaptation to a highly variable climate with temperatures ranging from freezing to eighty degrees. Man could not stay there forever. He was bound to spread to new regions, partly because of his innate migratory tendency and partly because of Nature’s stern urgency. Geologists are rapidly becoming convinced that the mammals spread from their central Asian point of origin largely because of great variations in climate.* Such variations have taken place on an enormous scale during geological times. They seem, indeed, to be one of the most important factors in evolution. Since early man lived through the successive epochs of the glacial period, he must have been subject to the urgency of vast climatic changes. During the half million years more or less of his existence, cold, stormy, glacial epochs lasting tens of thousands of years have again and again been succeeded by warm, dry, interglacial epochs of equal duration.

* W. D. Matthew. “Climate and Evolution,” N. Y. Acad. Sci., 1915.

During the glacial epochs the interior of Asia was well watered and full of game which supplied the primitive human hunters. With the advent of each interglacial epoch the rains diminished, grass and trees disappeared, and the desert spread over enormous tracts. Both men and animals must have been driven to sore straits for lack of food. Migration to better regions was the only recourse. Thus for hundreds of thousands of years there appears to have been a constantly recurring outward push from the center of the world’s greatest land mass. That push, with the consequent overcrowding of other regions, seems to have been one of the chief forces impelling people to migrate and cover the earth.

Among the primitive men who were pushed outward from the Asian deserts during a period of aridity, one group migrated northeastward toward the Kamchatkan corner of Asia. Whether they reached Bering Sea and the Kamchatkan shore before the next epoch of glaciation we do not know. Doubtless they moved slowly, perhaps averaging only a few score or a hundred miles per generation, for that is generally the way with migrations of primitive people advancing into unoccupied territory. Yet sometimes they may have moved with comparative rapidity. I have seen a tribe of herdsmen in central Asia abandon its ancestral home and start on a zigzag march of a thousand miles because of a great drought. The grass was so scanty that there was not enough to support the animals. The tribe left a trail of blood, for wherever it moved it infringed upon the rights of others and so with conflict was driven onward. In some such way the primitive wanderers were kept in movement until at last they reached the bleak shores of the North Pacific. Even there something–perhaps sheer curiosity–still urged them on. The green island across the bay may have been so enticing that at last a raft of logs was knotted together with stout withes. Perhaps at first the men paddled themselves across alone, but the hunting and fishing proved so good that at length they took the women and children with them, and so advanced another step along the route toward America. At other times distress, strife, or the search for game may have led the primitive nomads on and on along the coast until a day came when the Asian home was left and the New World was entered. The route by which primitive man entered America is important because it determined the surroundings among which the first Americans lived for many generations. It has sometimes been thought that the red men came to America by way of the Kurile Islands, Kamchatka, and the Aleutian Islands. If this was their route, they avoided a migration of two or three thousand miles through one of the coldest and most inhospitable of regions. This, however, is far from probable. The distance from Kamchatka to the first of the Aleutian Islands is over one hundred miles. As the island is not in sight from the mainland, there is little chance that a band of savages, including women, would deliberately sail thither. There is equally little probability that they walked to the island on the ice, for the sea is never frozen across the whole width. Nevertheless the climate may at that time have been colder than now. There is also a chance that a party of savages may have been blown across to the island in a storm. Suppose that they succeeded in reaching Bering Island, as the most Asiatic of the Aleutians is called, the next step to Copper Island would be easy. Then, however, there comes a stretch of more than two hundred miles. The chances that a family would ever cross this waste of ocean are much smaller than in the first case. Still another possibility remains. Was there once a bridge of land from Asia to America in this region? There is no evidence of such a link between the two continents, for a few raised beaches indicate that during recent geological times the Aleutian Islands have been uplifted rather than depressed.

The passage from Asia to America at Bering Strait, on the other hand, is comparatively easy. The Strait itself is fifty-six miles wide, but in the middle there are two small islands so that the longest stretch of water is only about thirty-five miles. Moreover the Strait is usually full of ice, which frequently becomes a solid mass from shore to shore. Therefore it would be no strange thing if some primitive savages, in hunting for seals or polar bears, crossed the Strait, even though they had no boats. Today the people on both sides of the Strait belong to the American race. They still retain traditions of a time when their ancestors crossed this narrow strip of water. The Thilanottines have a legend that two giants once fought fiercely on the Arctic Ocean. One would have been defeated had not a man whom he had befriended cut the tendon of his adversary’s leg. The wounded giant fell into Bering Strait and formed a bridge across which the reindeer entered America. Later came a strange woman bringing iron and copper. She repeated her visits until the natives insulted her, whereupon she went underground with her fire-made treasures and came back no more. Whatever may have been the circumstances that led the earliest families to cross from Asia to America, they little recked that they had found a new continent and that they were the first of the red race.

Unless the first Americans came to the new continent by way of the Kurile and Aleutian Islands, it was probably their misfortune to spend many generations in the cold regions of northeastern Asia and northwestern America. Even if they reached Alaska by the Aleutian route but came to the islands by way of the northern end of the Kamchatkan Peninsula, they must have dwelt in a place where the January temperature averages – 10 degrees F. and where there are frosts every month in the year. If they came across Bering Strait, they encountered a still more severe climate. The winters there are scarcely worse than in northern Kamchatka, but the summers are as cold as the month of March in New York or Chicago.

Perhaps a prolonged sojourn in such a climate is one reason for the stolid character of the Indians. Of course we cannot speak with certainty, but we must, in our search for an explanation, consider the conditions of life in the far north. Food is scanty at all times, and starvation is a frequent visitor, especially in winter when game is hard to get. The long periods of cold and darkness are terribly enervating. The nervous white man goes crazy if he stays too long in Alaska. Every spring the first boats returning to civilization carry an unduly large proportion of men who have lost their minds because they have endured too many dark, cold winters. His companions say of such a man, “The North has got him.” Almost every Alaskan recognizes the danger. As one man said to a friend, “It is time I got out of here.”

“Why?” said the friend, “you seem all right. What’s the matter?”

“Well,” said the other, “you see I begin to like the smell of skunk cabbage, and, when a man gets that way, it’s time he went somewhere else.”

The skunk cabbage, by the way, grows in Alaska in great thickets ten feet high. The man was perfectly serious, for he meant that his mind was beginning to act in ways that were not normal. Nowhere is the strain of life in the far north better described than in the poems of Robert W. Service.

Oh, the awful hush that seemed to crush me down on every hand, As I blundered blind with a trail to find through that blank and bitter land;
Half dazed, half crazed in the winter wild, with its grim heartbreaking woes,
And the ruthless strife for a grip on life that only the sourdough knows!
North by the compass, North I pressed; river and peak and plain Passed like a dream I slept to lose and waked to dream again. River and plain and mighty peak–and who could stand unawed? As their summits blazed, he could stand undazed at the foot of the throne of God.
North, aye, North, through a land accurst, shunned by the scouring brutes,
And all I heard was my own harsh word and the whine of the malamutes,
Till at last I came to a cabin squat, built in the side of a hill,
And I burst in the door, and there on the floor, frozen to death, lay Bill.*

* From “Ballads of a Cheechako.”

The human organism inherits so delicate an adjustment to climate that, in spite of man’s boasted ability to live anywhere, the strain of the frozen North eliminates the more nervous and active types of mind. Only those can endure whose nerves lack sensitiveness and who are able to bear long privation and the strain of hunger and cold and darkness. Though the Indian may differ from the white man in many respects, such conditions are probably as bad for him as for any race. For this reason it is not improbable that long sojourns at way stations on the cold, Alaskan route from central Asia may have weeded out certain types of minds. Perhaps that is why the Indian, though brave, stoical, and hardy, does not possess the alert, nervous temperament which leads to invention and progress.

The ancestors of the red man unwittingly chose the easiest path to America and so entered the continent first, but this was their misfortune. They could not inherit the land because they chose a path whose unfavorable influence, exerted throughout centuries, left them unable to cope with later arrivals from other directions. The parts of America most favorable for the Indian are also best for the white man and Negro. There the alerter minds of the Europeans who migrated in the other direction have quickly eliminated the Indian. His long northern sojourn may be the reason why farther south in tropical lands he is even now at a disadvantage compared with the Negro or with the coolie from the East Indies. In Central America, for instance, it is generally recognized that Negroes stand the heat and moisture of the lowlands better than Indians. According to a competent authority: “The American Indians cannot bear the heat of the tropics even as well as the European, not to speak of the African race. They perspire little, their skin becomes hot, and they are easily prostrated by exertion in an elevated temperature. They are peculiarly subject to diseases of hot climates, as hepatic disorders, showing none of the immunity of the African. Furthermore, the finest physical specimens of the race are found in the colder regions of the temperate zones, the Pampas and Patagonian Indians in the south, the Iroquois and Algonkins in the north; whereas, in the tropics they are generally undersized, short-lived, of inferior muscular force and with slight tolerance of disease.”* “No one,” adds another observer, “could live among the Indians of the Upper Amazon without being struck with their constitutional dislike to heat. The impression forced itself upon my mind that the Indian lives as a stranger or immigrant in these hot regions.”** Thus when compared with the other inhabitants of America, from every point of view the Indian seems to be at a disadvantage, much of which may be due to the path which he took from the Old World to the New.

* D. G. Brinton, “The American Race,” pp. 34, 35.

** H. W. Bates, “The Naturalist on the River Amazons.” vol.II, pp. 200, 201.

Before the red man lost his American heritage, he must have enjoyed it for thousands upon thousands of years. Otherwise he never could have become so different from his nearest relative, the Mongol. The two are as truly distinct races as are the white man and the Malay. Nor could the Indians themselves have become so extraordinarily diverse except during the lapse of thousands of years. The Quichua of the cold highlands of Peru is as different from the Maya of Yucatan or the Huron of southern Canada as the Swede is from the Armenian or the Jew. The separation of one stock from another has gone so far that almost countless languages have been developed. In the United States alone the Indians have fifty-five “families” of languages and in the whole of America there are nearly two hundred such groups. These comprise over one thousand distinct languages which are mutually unintelligible and at least as different as Spanish and Italian. Such differences might arise in a day at the Tower of Babel, but in the processes of evolution they take thousands of years.

During those thousands of years the red man, in spite of his Arctic handicap, by no means showed himself wholly lacking in originality and inventive ability. In Yucatan two or three thousand years ago the Mayas were such good scientists and recorded their observations of the stars so accurately that they framed a calendar more exact than any except the one that we have used for the last two centuries. They showed still greater powers of mind in inventing the art of writing and in their architecture. Later we shall depict the environment under which these things occurred; it is enough to suggest in passing that perhaps at this period the ancestors of the Indians had capacities as great as those of any people. Today they might possibly hold their own against the white man, were it not for the great handicap which they once suffered because Asia approaches America only in the cold, depressing north.

The Indians were not the only primitive people who were driven from central Asia by aridity. Another group pushed westward toward Europe. They fared far better than their Indian cousins who went to the northeast. These prospective Europeans never encountered benumbing physical conditions like those of northeastern Asia and northwestern America. Even when ice shrouded the northern part of Europe, the rest of the continent was apparently favored with a stimulating climate. Then as now, Europe was probably one of the regions where storms are most frequent. Hence it was free from the monotony which is so deadly in other regions. When the ice retreated our European ancestors doubtless followed slowly in its wake. Thus their racial character was evolved in one of the world’s most stimulating regions. Privation they must have suffered, and hardihood and boldness were absolutely essential in the combat with storms, cold, wild beasts, fierce winds, and raging waves. But under the spur of constant variety and change, these difficulties were merely incentives to progress. When the time came for the people of the west of Europe to cross to America, they were of a different caliber from the previous immigrants.

Two facts of physical geography brought Europe into contact with America. One of these was the islands of the North, the other the trade-winds of the South. Each seems to have caused a preliminary contact which failed to produce important results. As in the northern Pacific, so in the northern Atlantic, islands are stepping-stones from the Old World to the New. Yet because in the latter case the islands are far apart, it is harder to cross the water from Norway and the Lofoten Islands to Iceland and Greenland than it is to cross from Asia by way of the Aleutian Islands or Bering Strait. Nevertheless in the tenth century of the Christian era bold Norse vikings made the passage in the face of storm and wind. In their slender open ships they braved the elements on voyage after voyage. We think of the vikings as pirates, and so they were. But they were also diligent colonists who tilled the ground wherever it would yield even the scantiest living. In Iceland and Greenland they must have labored mightily to carry on the farms of which the Sagas tell us. When they made their voyages, honest commerce was generally in their minds quite as much as was plunder. Leif, the son of that rough Red Eric who first settled Greenland, made a famous voyage to Vinland, the mainland of America. Like so many other voyagers he was bent on finding a region where men could live happily and on filling his boats with grapes, wood, or other commodities worth carrying home.

In view of the energy of the Norsemen, the traces of their presence in the Western Hemisphere are amazingly slight. In Greenland a few insignificant heaps of stones are supposed to show where some of them built small villages. Far in the north Stefansson found fair-haired, blue-eyed Eskimos. These may be descendants of the Norsemen, although they have migrated thousands of miles from Greenland. In Maine the Micmac Indians are said to have had a curious custom which they may have learned from the vikings. When a chief died, they chose his largest canoe. On it they piled dry wood, and on the wood they placed the body. Then they set fire to the pile and sent the blazing boat out to sea. Perhaps in earlier times the Micmacs once watched the flaming funeral pyre of a fair-haired viking. As the ruddy flames leaped skyward and were reflected in the shimmering waves of the great waters the tribesmen must have felt that the Great Spirit would gladly welcome a chief who came in such a blaze of glory.*

* For this information I am indebted to Mr. Stansbury Hagar.

It seems strange that almost no other traces of the strong vikings are found in America. The explanation lies partly in the length and difficulty of the ocean voyage, and partly in the inhospitable character of the two great islands that served as stepping-stones from the Old World to the New. Iceland with its glaciers, storms, and long dreary winters is bad enough. Greenland is worse. Merely the tip of that island was known to the Norse –and small wonder, for then as now most of Greenland was shrouded in ice. Various Scandinavian authors, however, have thought that during the most prosperous days of the vikings the conditions in Greenland were not quite so bad as at the present day. One settlement, Osterbyden, numbered 190 farms, 12 churches, 2 monasteries, and 1 bishopric. It is even stated that apple-trees bore fruit and that some wheat was raised. “Cattle- raising and fishing,” says Pettersson, “appear to have procured a good living . . . . At present the whole stock of cattle in Greenland does not amount to 100 animals.”* In those days the ice which borders all the east coast and much of the west seems to have been less troublesome than now. In the earliest accounts nothing is said of this ice as a danger to navigation. We are told that the best sailing route was through the strait north of Cape Farewell Island, where today no ships can pass because of the ice. Since the days of the Norsemen the glaciers have increased in size, for the natives say that certain ruins are now buried beneath the ice, while elsewhere ruins can be seen which have been cut off from the rest of the country by advancing glacial tongues.

* O. Pettersson, “Climatic Variations in Historic and Prehistoric Times.” Svenska Hydrogrifisk–Biologiska Kommissioneur Skrifter, Haft V. Stockholm.

Why the Norsemen disappeared from the Western Hemisphere we do not exactly know, but there are interesting hints of an explanation. It appears that the fourteenth century was a time of great distress. In Norway the crops failed year after year because of cold and storms. Provinces which were formerly able to support themselves by agriculture were obliged to import food. The people at home were no longer able to keep in touch with the struggling colony in Greenland. No supplies came from the home land, no reenforcements to strengthen the colonists and make them feel that they were a part of the great world. Moreover in the late Norse sagas much is said about the ice along the Greenland coast, which seems to have been more abundant than formerly. Even the Eskimos seem to have been causing trouble, though formerly they had been a friendly, peaceable people who lived far to the north and did not disturb the settlers. In the fourteenth century, however, they began to make raids such as are common when primitive people fall into distress. Perhaps the storms and the advancing ice drove away the seals and other animals, so that the Eskimos were left hungry. They consequently migrated south and, in the fifteenth century, finally wiped out the last of the old Norse settlers. If the Norse had established permanent settlements on the mainland of North America, they might have persisted to this day. As it was, the cold, bleak climate of the northern route across the Atlantic checked their progress. Like the Indians, they had the misfortune of finding a route to America through regions that are not good for man.

Though islands may be stepping-stones between the Old World and the New, they have not been the bringers of civilization. That function in the history of man has been left to the winds. The westerlies, however, which are the prevailing winds in the latitude of the United States and Europe, have not been of much importance. On the Atlantic side they were for many centuries a barrier to contact between the Old World and the New. On the Pacific side they have been known to blow Japanese vessels to the shores of America contrary to the will of the mariners. Perhaps the same thing may have happened in earlier times. Asia may thus have made some slight contribution to primitive America, but no important elements of civilization can be traced to this source.

From latitude 30 degrees N. to 30 degrees S. the tradewinds prevail. As they blow from the east, they make it easy for boats to come from Africa to America. In comparatively recent times they brought the slave ships from the Guinea coast to our Southern States. The African, like the Indian, has passed through a most unfavorable environment on his way from central Asia to America. For ages he was doomed to live in a climate where high temperature and humidity weed out the active type of human being. Since activity like that of Europe means death in a tropical climate, the route by way of Africa has been if anything worse than by Bering Strait.

By far the most important occurrence which can be laid at the door of the trade-winds is the bringing of the civilization of Europe and the Mediterranean to the New World. Twice this may have happened, but the first occurrence is doubtful and left only a slight impress. For thousands of years the people around the Mediterranean Sea have been bold sailors. Before 600 B.C. Pharaoh Necho, so Herodotus says, had sent Phenician ships on a three-year cruise entirely around Africa. The Phenicians also sailed by way of Gibraltar to England to bring tin from Cornwall, and by 500 B.C. the Carthaginians were well acquainted with the Atlantic coast of northern Africa.

At some time or other, long before the Christian era, a ship belonging to one of the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean was probably blown to the shores of America by the steady trade-winds. Of course, no one can say positively that such a voyage occurred. Yet certain curious similarities between the Old World and the New enable us to infer with a great deal of probability that it actually happened. The mere fact, for example, that the adobe houses of the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico are strikingly like the houses of northern Africa and Persia is no proof that the civilization of the Old World and the New are related. A similar physical environment might readily cause the same type of house to be evolved in both places. When we find striking similarities of other kinds, however, the case becomes quite different. The constellations of the zodiac, for instance, are typified by twelve living creatures, such as the twins, the bull, the lion, the virgin, the crab, and the goat. Only one of the constellations, the scorpion, presents any real resemblance to the animal for which it is named. Yet the signs of the zodiac in Mediterranean lands and in pre-Columbian America from Peru to southern Mexico are almost identical. Here is a list showing the Latin and English names of the constellations and their equivalents in the calendars of the Peruvians, Mexicans, and Mayas. *

* See S. Hagar, “The Bearing of Astronomy on the Problems of the Unity or Plurality and the Probable Place of Origin of the American Aborigines, in American Anthropologist,” vol. XIV (1912), pp. 43-48.

Sign English Peruvian Mexican Maya ——————————————————– Aries Ram Llama Flayer —

Taurus Bull (originally Stag)
Stag Stag or Deer Stag

Gemini Twins Man and Woman Twins Two Generals

Cancer Crab Cuttlefish Cuttlefish Cuttlefish

Leo Lion Puma Ocelot Ocelot

Virgo Virgin (Mother Goddess of Cereals) Maize Mother Maize Mother Maize Mother

Libra Scales (originally part of Scorpio) Forks Scorpion Scorpion

Scorpio Scorpion Mummy Scorpion Scorpion

Sagittarius Bowman Arrows or Spears
Hunter and War God Hunter and War God

Capricornus Sea Goat Beard Bearded God —

Aquarius Water Pourer Water Water Water

Pisces Fishes(and Knot) Knot Twisted Reeds —

Notice how closely these lists are alike. The ram does not appear in America because no such animal was known there. The nearest substitute was the llama. In the Old World the second constellation is now called the bull, but curiously enough in earlier days it was called the stag in Mesopotamia. The twins, instead of being Castor and Pollux, may equally well be a man and a woman or two generals. To landsmen not familiar with creatures of the deep, the crab and the cuttlefish would not seem greatly different. The lion is unknown in America, but the creature which most nearly takes his place is the puma or ocelot. So it goes with all the signs of the zodiac. There are little differences between the Old World and the New, but they only emphasize the resemblance. Mathematically there is not one chance in thousands or even millions that such a resemblance could grow up by accident. Other similarities between ceremonies or religious words in the Old World and the New might be pointed out, but the zodiac is illustration enough.

Such resemblances, however, do not indicate a permanent connection between Mediterranean civilization and that of Central America. They do not even indicate that any one ever returned from the Western Hemisphere to the Eastern previous to Columbus. Nor do they indicate that the civilization of the New World arose from that of the Old. They simply suggest that after the people of the Mediterranean regions had become well civilized and after those of America were also sufficiently civilized to assimilate new ideas, a stray ship or two was blown by the trade-winds across the Atlantic. That hypothetical voyage was the precursor of the great journey of Columbus. Without the tradewinds this historic discoverer never could have found the West Indies. Suppose that a strong west wind had blown him backward on his course when his men were mutinous. Suppose that he had been forced to beat against head winds week after week. Is there one chance in a thousand that even his indomitable spirit could have kept his craft headed steadily into the west? But because there were the trade-winds to bring him, the way was opened for the energetic people of Europe to possess the new continent. Thus the greatest stream of immigration commenced to flow, and the New World began to take on a European aspect.


America forms the longest and straightest bone in the earth’s skeleton. The skeleton consists of six great bones, which may be said to form a spheroidal tetrahedron, or pyramid with a triangular base, for when a globe with a fairly rigid surface collapses because of shrinkage, it tends to assume this form. That is what has happened to the earth. Geologists tell us that during the thousand million years, more or less, since geological history began, the earth has grown cooler and hence has contracted. Moreover some of the chemical compounds of the interior have been transformed into other compounds which occupy less space. For these reasons the earth appears to have diminished in size until now its diameter is from two hundred to four hundred miles less than formerly. During the process of contraction the crust has collapsed in four main areas, roughly triangular in shape. Between these stand the six ridges which we have called the bones. Each of the four depressed areas forms a side of our tetrahedron and is occupied by an ocean. The ridges and the areas immediately flanking the oceans form the continents. The side which we may think of as the base contains the Arctic Ocean. The ridges surrounding it are broad and flat. Large parts of them stand above sea-level and form the northern portions of North America, Europe, and Asia. A second side is the Pacific Ocean with the great ridge of the two Americas on one hand and Asia and Australia on the other. Next comes the side containing the Indian Ocean in the hollow and the ridges of Africa and Australia on either hand. The last of the four sides contains the Atlantic Ocean and is bounded by Africa and Europe on one hand and North and South America on the other. Finally the tip of the pyramid projects above the surrounding waters, and forms the continent of Antarctica.

It may seem a mere accident that this tip lies near the South Pole, while the center of the opposite face lies near the North Pole. Yet this has been of almost infinite importance in the evolution not only of plants and animals but of men. The reason is that this arrangement gives rise to a vast and almost continuous land mass in comparatively high latitudes. Only in such places does evolution appear to make rapid progress.*

* W. D. Matthew, “Climate and Evolution,” N. Y. Acad. Sci., 1915.

Evolution is especially stimulated by two conditions. The first is that there shall be marked changes in the environment so that the process of natural selection has full opportunity to do its work. The second is that numerous new forms or mutants, as the biologists call them, shall be produced. Both of these conditions are most fully met in large continents in the temperate zone, for in such places climatic variations are most extreme. Such variations may take the form of extreme changes either from day to night, from season to season, or from one century to another. In any case, as Darwin long ago pointed out, they cause some forms of life to perish while others survive. Thus climatic variations are among the most powerful factors in causing natural selection and hence in stimulating evolution. Moreover it has lately been shown that variations in temperature are one of the chief causes of organic variation. Morgan and Plough,* for example, have discovered that when a certain fly, called the drosophila, is subjected to extremes of heat or cold, the offspring show an unusually strong tendency to differ from the parents. Hence the climatic variability of the interior of large continents in temperate latitudes provides new forms of life and then selects some of them for preservation. The fossils found in the rocks of the earth’s crust support this view. They indicate that most of the great families of higher animals originated in the central part of the great land mass of Europe and Asia. A second but much smaller area of evolution was situated in the similar part of North America. From these two centers new forms of life spread outward to other continents. Their movements were helped by the fact that the tetrahedral form of the earth causes almost all the continents to be united by bridges of land.

* Unpublished manuscript.

If any one doubts the importance of the tetrahedral form, let him consider how evolution would have been hampered if the land of the globe were arranged as isolated masses in low latitudes, while oceans took the place of the present northern continents. The backwardness of the indigenous life of Africa shows how an equatorial position retards evolution. The still more marked backwardness of Australia with its kangaroos and duck-billed platypuses shows how much greater is the retardation when a continent is also small and isolated. Today, no less than in the past, the tetrahedral form of the earth and the relation of the tetrahedron to the poles and to the equator preserve the conditions that favor rapid evolution. They are the dominant factors in determining that America shall be one of the two great centers of civilization.

If North and South America be counted as one major land mass, and Europe, Asia, and Africa as another, the two present the same general features. Yet their mountains, plains, and coastal indentations are so arranged that what is on the east in one is on the west in the other. Their similarity is somewhat like that of a man’s two hands placed palms down on a table.

On a map of the world place a finger of one hand on the western end of Alaska and a finger of the other on the northeastern tip of Asia and follow the main bones of the two continents. See how the chief mountain systems, the Pacific “cordilleras,” trend away from one another, southeastward and southwestward. In the centers of the continents they expand into vast plateaus. That of America in the Rocky Mountain region of the United States reaches a width of over a thousand miles, while that of Asia in Tibet and western China expands to far greater proportions.

From the plateaus the two cordilleras swing abruptly Atlantic- ward. The Eurasian cordillera extends through the Hindu Kush, Caucasus, and Asia Minor ranges to southern Europe and the Alps. Then it passes on into Spain and ends in the volcanoes of the Canary Islands. The American cordillera swings eastward in Mexico and continues as the isolated ranges of the West Indies until it ends in the volcanoes of Martinique. Central America appears at first sight to be a continuation of the great cordillera, but really it is something quite different–a mass of volcanic material poured out in the gap where the main chain of mountains breaks down for a space. In neither hemisphere, however, is the main southward sweep of the mountains really lost. In the Old World the cordillera revives in the mountains of Syria and southern Arabia and then runs southward along the whole length of eastern Africa. In America it likewise revives in the mighty Andes, which take their rise fifteen hundred miles east of the broken end of the northern cordillera in Mexico. In the Andes even more distinctly than in Africa the cordillera forms a mighty wall running north and south. It expands into the plateau of Peru and Bolivia, just as its African compeer expands into that of Abyssinia, but this is a mere incident. The main bone, so to speak, keeps on in each case till it disappears in the great southern ocean. Even there, however, it is not wholly lost, for it revives in the cold, lofty continent of Antarctica, where it coalesces once more with the other great tetrahedral ridges of Africa and Australia.

It is easy to see that these great cordilleras have turned most of the earth’s chief rivers toward the Atlantic and the Arctic Oceans. That is why these two oceans with an area of only forty-three million square miles receive the drainage from twenty million square miles of land, while the far larger Indian and Pacific Oceans with an area of ninety-one million square miles receive the rivers of only ten million square miles. The world’s streams of civilization, like the rivers of water, have flowed from the great cordilleras toward the Atlantic. Half of the world’s people, to be sure, are lodged in the relatively small areas known as China and India on the Pacific side of the Old World cordillera. Nevertheless the active streams of civilization have flowed mainly on the other side–the side where man apparently originated. From the earliest times the mountains have served to determine man’s chief migrations. Their rugged fastnesses hinder human movements and thereby give rise to a strong tendency to move parallel to their bases. During the days of primitive man the trend of the mountains apparently directed his migrations northeastward to Bering Strait and then southeastward and southward from one end of America to the other. In the same way the migrations to Europe and Africa which ultimately reached America moved mainly parallel to the mountains.

From end to end of America the great mountains form a sharp dividing line. The aboriginal tribes on the Pacific slope are markedly different from those farther east across the mountains. Brinton sums the case up admirably:

“As a rule the tribes of the western coast are not connected with any east of the mountains. What is more singular, although they differ surprisingly among themselves in language, they have marked anthropologic similarities, physical and psychical. Virchow has emphasized the fact that the skulls from the northern point of Vancouver’s Island reveal an unmistakable analogy to those from the southern coast of California; and this is to a degree true of many intermediate points. Not that the crania have the same indices. On the contrary, they present great and constant differences within the same tribe; but these differences are analogous one to the other, and on fixed lines.

“There are many other physical similarities which mark the Pacific Indians and contrast them with those east of the mountains. The eyes are less oblique, the nose flatter, the lips fuller, the chin more pointed, the face wider. There is more hair on the face and in the axilla, and the difference between the sexes is much more obvious.

“The mental character is also in contrast. The Pacific tribes are more quiet, submissive, and docile; they have less courage, and less of that untamable independence which is so constant a feature in the history of the Algonquins and Iroquois.”*

* D. G. Brinton, “The American Race,” pp. 103-4.

Although mountains may guide migrations, the plains are the regions where people dwell in greatest numbers. The plains in the two great land masses of the Old World and the New have the same inverse or right- and left-handed symmetry as the mountains. In the north the vast stretches from the Mackenzie River to the Gulf of Mexico correspond to the plains of Siberia and Russia from the Lena to the Black Sea. Both regions have a vast sweep of monotonous tundras at the north and both become fertile granaries in the center. Before the white man introduced the horse, the ox, and iron ploughs, there prevailed an extraordinary similarity in the habits of the plains Indians from Texas to Alberta. All alike depended on the buffalo; all hunted him in much the same way; all used his skins for tents and robes, his bones for tools, and his horns for utensils. All alike made him the center of their elaborate rituals and dances. Because the plains of North America were easy to traverse, the relatively high culture of the ancient people of the South spread into the Mississippi Valley. Hence the Natchez tribe of Mississippi had a highly developed form of sun-worship and a well-defined caste system with three grades of nobility in addition to the common people. Even farther north, almost to the Ohio River, traces of the sun-worship of Mexico had penetrated along the easy pathway of the plains.

South of the great granaries of North America and Eurasia the plains are broken, but occur again in the Orinoco region of South America and the Sahara of Africa. Thence they stretch almost unbroken toward the southern end of the continents. In view of the fertility of the plains it is strange that the centers of civilization have so rarely been formed in these vast level expanses.

The most striking of the inverse resemblances between America and the Old World are found along the Atlantic border. In the north of Europe the White Sea corresponds to Hudson Bay in America. Farther toward the Atlantic Ocean Scandinavia with its mountains, glaciers, and fiords is similar to Labrador, although more favored because warmer. Next the islands of Great Britain occupy a position similar to that of Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island. But here again the eastern climate is much more favorable than the western. Although practically all of Newfoundland is south of England, the American island has only six inhabitants per square mile, while the European country has six hundred. To the east of the British Isles the North Sea, the Baltic, and Lakes Ladoga and Onega correspond in striking fashion to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the river of the same name, and the Great Lakes from Ontario to Superior. Next the indented shores of western France and the peninsula of Spain resemble our own indented coast and the peninsula of Florida. Here at last the American regions are as favored as the European. Farther south the Mediterranean and Black seas penetrate far into the interior just as does the Gulf of Mexico, and each continent is nearly cut in two where the canals of Suez and Panama respectively have been trenched. Finally in the southern continents a long swing eastward in America balances a similar swing westward in Africa. Thus Cape Saint Roque and Cape Verde are separated by scarcely 16 degrees of longitude, although the extreme points of the Gulf of Mexico and the Black Sea are 140 degrees apart. Finally to the south of the equator the continents swing away from one another once more, preserving everywhere the same curious inverse relationship.

Even more striking than the inverse resemblance of the New World to the Old is the direct similarity of North and South America. In physical form the two continents are astonishingly alike. Not only does each have the typical triangular form which would naturally arise from tetrahedral shrinking of the globe, but there are four other cardinal points of resemblance. First, in the northeast each possesses an area of extremely ancient rocks, the Laurentian highlands of Quebec and Labrador in North America and the highlands of Guiana in South America. Second, in the southeast lie highlands of old but not the most ancient rocks stretching from northeast to southwest in the Appalachian region of North America, and in the Brazilian mountains of the southern continent. Third, along the western side of each continent recent crustal movements supplemented by volcanic action on a magnificent scale have given rise to a complex series of younger mountains, the two great cordilleras. Finally, the spaces between the three mountain masses are occupied by a series of vast confluent plains which in each case extend from the northern ocean to the southern and bend around the southeastern highlands. These plains are the newest part of America, for many of them have emerged from the sea only in recent geological times. Taken as a whole the resemblance between the two continents is striking.

If these four physiographic provinces of North and South America lay in similar latitudes in the respective continents we might expect each pair to have a closely similar effect on life. In fauna, flora, and even in human history they would present broad and important resemblances. As a matter of fact, however, they are as different as can well be imagined. Where North America, is bathed by icy waters full of seals and floating ice South America is bathed by warm seas full of flying-fish and coral reefs. The northern continent is broadest in the cool latitudes that are most favorable for human activity. The southern expands most widely in latitudes whose debilitating monotony of heat and moisture is the worst of handicaps to human progress. The great rivers of the northern continent correspond very closely to those of the southern. The Mackenzie, however, is bound in the rigid bands of winter for eight months each year, while the Orinoco, the corresponding South American river, lies sweltering under a tropical sun which burns its grassy plains to bitter dust even as the sharp cold reduced the Mackenzie region to barren tundra. The St. Lawrence flows through fertile grain fields and the homes of an active people of the temperate zone, but the Amazon winds its slow way amid the malarious languor of vast tropical forests in which the trees shut out the sky and the few natives are apathetic with the eternal inertia of the hot, damp tropics.

Only when we come to the Mississippi in the northern continent and the Rio de la Plata in the southern do we find a pair of rivers which correspond to any degree in the character of the life surrounding them, as well as in their physiographic character. Yet even here there is a vast difference, especially in the upper courses of the river. Each at its mouth flows through a rich, fertile plain occupied by a progressive, prosperous people. But the Rio de la Plata takes its rise in one of the world’s most backward plains, the home of uncivilized Indians, heartless rubber adventurers, and the most rapacious of officials. Not infrequently, the degenerate white men of these regions, yielding to the subtle and insidious influence of the tropics, inflict the most outrageous abuses upon the natives, and even kill them on slight provocation. The natives in turn hate their oppressors, and when the chance comes betray them or leave them to perish in sickness and misery. The upper Mississippi, on the other hand, comes from a plain where agriculture is carried on with more labor-saving devices than are found anywhere else in the world. There States like Wisconsin and Minnesota stand in the forefront of educational and social progress. The contrasts between the corresponding rivers of the two Americas are typical of the contrasts in the history of the two continents.


The four great physical divisions of North America–the Laurentian highland, the Appalachian highland, the plains, and the western cordillera–are strikingly different in form and structure. The Laurentian highland presents a monotonous waste of rough hills, irregular valleys, picturesque lakes, and crooked rivers. Most of it is thinly clothed with pine trees and bushes such as the blueberry and huckleberry. Yet everywhere the ancient rock crops out. No one can travel there without becoming tiresomely familiar with fine-grained, shattered schists, coarse granites, and their curiously banded relatives, the gneisses. This rocky highland stretches from a little north of the St. Lawrence River to Hudson Bay, around which it laps in the form of a V, and so is known as the Archaean V or shield.

Everywhere this oldest part of the Western Hemisphere presents unmistakable signs of great age. The schists by their fine crumpling and scaly flakes of mineral show that they were formed deep in the bowels of the earth, for only there could they be subjected to the enormous pressure needed to transform their minerals into sheets as thin as paper. The coarse granites and gneisses proclaim still more clearly that they must have originated far down in the depths of the earth; their huge crystals of mica, quartz, hornblende, feldspar, and other minerals could never have been formed except under a blanket of rock which almost prevented the original magmas from cooling. The thousands or tens of thousands of feet of rock which once overlay the schists and still more the granites and gneisses must have been slowly removed by erosion, for there was no other way to get rid of them. This process must have taken tens of millions of years, and yet the whole work must have been practically completed a hundred or perhaps several hundred million years ago. We know this because the selfsame ancient eroded surface which is exposed in the Laurentian highland is found dipping down under the oldest known fossiliferous rocks. Traces of that primitive land surface are found over a large part of the American continent. Elsewhere they are usually buried under later strata laid down when the continent sank in part below sea-level. Only in Laurentia has the land remained steadily above the reach of the ocean throughout the millions of years.

Today this old, old land might be as rich as many others if climate had been kind to it. Its soil, to be sure, would in many parts be sandy because of the large amount of quartz in the rocks. That would be a small handicap, however, provided the soil were scores of feet deep like the red soil of the corresponding highland in the Guiana region of South America. But today the North American Laurentia has no soil worth mentioning. For some reason not yet understood this was the part of America where snow accumulated most deeply and where the largest glaciers were formed during the last great glacial period. Not once but many times its granite surface was shrouded for tens of thousands of years in ice a mile or more thick. As the ice spread outward in almost every direction, it scraped away the soil and gouged innumerable hollows in the softer parts of the underlying rock. It left the Laurentian highland a land of rocky ribs rising between clear lakes that fill the hollows. The lakes are drained by rapid rivers which wind this way and that in hopeless confusion as they strive to move seaward over the strangely uneven surface left by the ice. Such a land is good for the hunter and trapper. It is also good for the summer pleasure-seeker who would fain grow strong by paddling a canoe. For the man who would make a permanent home it is a rough, inscrutable region where one has need of more than most men’s share of courage and persistence. Not only did the climate of the past cause the ice to scrape away the soil, but the climate of the present is so cold that even where new soil has accumulated the farmer can scarcely make a living.

Around the borders of the Laurentian highland the ice accomplished a work quite different from the devastation of the interior. One of its chief activities was the scouring of a series of vast hollows which now hold the world’s largest series of lakes. Even the lakes of Central Africa cannot compare with our own Great Lakes and the other smaller lakes which belong to the same series. These additional lakes begin in the far north with Great Bear Lake and continue through Great Slave Lake, Lake Athabasca, and Lake Winnipeg to the Lake of the Woods, which drains into Lake Superior. All these lakes lie on the edge of the great Laurentian shield, where the ice, crowding down from the highland to the north and east, was compressed into certain already existent hollows which it widened, deepened, and left as vast bowls ready to be filled with lakes.

South and southwest of the Laurentian highland the great ice sheet proved beneficial to man. There, instead of leaving the rock naked, as in the Laurentian region, it merely smoothed off many of the irregularities of the surface and covered large areas with the most fertile soil.

In doing this, to be sure, the ice-cap scoured some hollows and left a vastly larger number of basins surrounded in whole or in part by glacial debris. These have given rise to the innumerable lakes, large and small, whose beauty so enhances the charms of Canada, New England, New York, Minnesota, and other States. They serve as reservoirs for the water supply of towns and power plants and as sources of ice and fish. Though they take land from agriculture, they probably add to the life of the community as much in other ways as they detract in this. Moreover glaciation diverted countless streams from their old courses and made them flow over falls and rapids from which water-power can easily be developed. That is one reason why glaciated New England contains over forty per cent of all the developed water-power in the United States.

Far more important, however, than the glacial lakes and rivers is the fertile glacial soil. It comes fresh from the original rocks and has not yet been exhausted by hundreds of thousands of years of weathering. It also has the advantage of being well mixed, for generally it is the product of scrapings from many kinds of rocks, each of which contributes its own particular excellence to the general composition. Take Wisconsin as an example.* Most parts of that State have been glaciated, but in the southwest there lies what is known as the “driftless area” because it is not covered with the “drift” or glacial debris which is thickly strewn over the rest of the State. A comparison of otherwise similar counties lying within and without the driftless area shows an astonishing contrast. In 1910 the average value of all the farm land in twenty counties covered with drift amounted to $56.90 per acre. In six counties partly covered with drift and partly driftless the value was $59.80 per acre, while in thirteen counties in the driftless area it was only $33.30 per acre. In spite of the fact that glaciation causes swamps and lakes, the proportion of land cultivated in the glaciated areas is larger than in the driftless. In the glaciated area 61 per cent of the land is improved and in the driftless area only 43.5 per cent. Moreover, even though the underlying rock and the original topography be of the same kind in both cases, the average yield of crops per acre is greater where the ice has done its work. Where the country rock consists of limestone, which naturally forms a rich soil, the difference in favor of the glaciated area amounts to only 1 or 2 per cent. Where the country rock is sandy, the soil is so much improved by a mixture of fertilizing limestone or even of clay and other materials that the average yield of crops per acre in the glaciated areas is a third larger than in the driftless. Taking everything into consideration it appears that the ancient glaciation of Wisconsin increases the present agricultural output by from 20 to 40 per cent. Upwards of 10,000,000 acres of glaciated land have already been developed in the most populous parts of the State. If the average value of all products on this area is reckoned at $15 per acre and if the increased value of agricultural products due to glaciation amounts to 30 per cent, then the net value of glaciation per year to the farmers of Wisconsin is $45,000,000. This means about $300 for each farmer in the glaciated area.

* R. H. Whitbeck, “Economic Aspects of Glaciation in Wisconsin”, in “Annals of the Association of American Geographers,” vol. III in (1913), pp. 62-67.

Wisconsin is by no means unique. In Ohio, for instance, there is also a driftless area.* It lies in the southeast along the Ohio River. The difference in the value of the farm land there and in the glaciated region is extraordinary. In the driftless area the average value per acre in 1910 was less than $24, while in the glaciated area it was nearly $64. Year by year the proportion of the population of the State in the unglaciated area is steadily decreasing. The difference between the two parts of the State is not due to the underlying rock structure or to the rainfall except to a slight degree. Some of the difference is due to the fact that important cities such as Cleveland and Toledo lie on the fertile level strip of land along the lake shore, but this strip itself, as well as the lake, owes much of its character to glaciation. It appears, therefore, that in Ohio, perhaps even more than in Wisconsin, man prospers most in the parts where the ice has done its work.

* William H. Hess, “The Influence of Glaciation in Ohio,” in “Bulletin of the Geographical Society of Philadelphia,” vol. XV (1917), pp. 19-42.

We have taken Wisconsin and Ohio as examples, but the effect of glaciation in those States does not differ materially from its effect all over southern Canada and the northern United States from New England to Kansas and Minnesota. Each year the people of these regions are richer by perhaps a billion dollars because the ice scraped its way down from Laurentia and spread out over the borders of the great plains on the west and of the Appalachian region on the east.

We have considered the Laurentian highland and the glaciation which centered there. Let us now turn to another highland only the northern part of which was glaciated. The Appalachian highland, the second great division of North America, consists of three parallel bands which extend southwestward from Newfoundland and the St. Lawrence River to Georgia and Alabama. The eastern and most important band consists of hills and mountains of ancient crystalline rocks, somewhat resembling those of the Laurentian highland but by no means so old. West of this comes a broad valley eroded for the most part in the softer portions of a highly folded series of sedimentary rocks which are of great age but younger than the crystalline rocks to the east. The third band is the Alleghany plateau, composed of almost horizontal rocks which lie so high and have been so deeply dissected that they are often called mountains.

The three Appalachian bands by no means preserve a uniform character throughout their entire length. The eastern crystalline band has its chief development in the northeast. There it comprises the whole of New England and a large part of the maritime provinces of Canada as well as Newfoundland. Its broad development in New England causes that region to be one of the most clearly defined natural units of the United States. Ancient igneous rocks such as granite lie intricately mingled with old and highly metamorphosed sediments. Since some of the rocks are hard and others soft and since all have been exposed to extremely long erosion, the topography of New England consists typically of irregular masses of rounded hills free from precipices. Here and there hard masses of unusually resistant rock stand up as isolated rounded heights, like Mount Katahdin in Maine. They are known as “monadnocks” from the mountain of that name in southern New Hampshire. In other places larger and more irregular masses of hard rock form mountain groups like the White Mountains, the Green Mountains, and the Berkshires, each of which is merely a great series of monadnocks.

In the latitude of southern New York the crystalline rocks are compressed into narrow compass and lose their mountainous character. They form the irregular hills on which New York City itself is built and which make the suburbs of Westchester County along the eastern Hudson so diverse and beautiful. To the southeast the topography of the old crystalline band becomes still less pronounced, as may be seen in the rolling, fertile hills around Philadelphia. Farther south the band divides into two parts, the mountains proper and the Piedmont plateau. The mountains begin at the Blue Ridge, which in Virginia raises its even-topped heights mile after mile across the length of that State. In North Carolina, however, they lose their character as a single ridge and expand into the broad mass of the southern Appalachians. There Mount Mitchell dominates the eastern part of the American continent and is surrounded by over thirty other mountains rising to a height of at least six thousand feet. The Piedmont plateau, which lies at the eastern foot of the Blue Ridge, is not really a plateau but a peneplain or ancient lowland worn almost to a plain. It expands to a width of one hundred miles in Virginia and the Carolinas and forms the part of those States where most of the larger towns are situated. Among its low gentle heights there rises an occasional little monadnock like Chapel Hill, where the University of North Carolina lies on a rugged eminence which strikingly recalls New England. For the most part, however, the hills of the Piedmont region are lower and more rounded than those in the neighborhood of Philadelphia. The country thus formed has many advantages, for it is flat enough to be used for agriculture and yet varied enough to be free from the monotony of the level plains.

The prolonged and broken inner valley forming the second band of the Appalachians was of some importance as a highway in the days of the Indians. Today the main highways of traffic touch it only to cross it as quickly as possible. From Lake Champlain it trends straight southward in the Hudson Valley until the Catskills have been passed. Then, while the railroads and all the traffic go on down the gorge of the Hudson to New York, the valley swings off into Pennsylvania past Scranton, Wilkesbarre, and Harrisburg. There the underlying rock consists of a series of alternately hard and soft layers which have been crumpled up much as one might wrinkle a rug with one’s foot. The pressure involved in the process changed and hardened the rocks so much that the coal which they contain was converted into anthracite, the finest coal in all the world and the only example of its kind. Even the famous Welsh coal has not been so thoroughly hardened. During a long period of erosion the tops of the folded layers were worn off to a depth of thousands of feet and the whole country was converted into an almost level plain. Then in the late geological period known as the early Tertiary the land was lifted up again, and once more erosion went on. The soft rocks were thus etched away until broad valleys were formed. The hard layers were left as a bewildering succession of ridges with flat tops. A single ridge may double back and forth so often that the region well deserves the old Indian name of the “Endless Mountains.” Southwestward the valley grows narrower, and the ridges which break its surface become straighter. Everywhere they are flat-topped, steep-sided, and narrow, while between them lie parts of the main valley floor, flat and fertile. Here in the south, even more clearly than in the north, the valley is bordered on the east by the sharply upstanding range of the crystalline Appalachians, while on the west with equal regularity it comes to an end in an escarpment which rises to the Alleghany plateau.

This plateau, the third great band of the Appalachians, begins on the south side of the Mohawk Valley. To the north its place is taken by the Adirondacks, which are an outlier of the great Laurentian area of Canada. The fact that the outlier and the plateau are separated by the low strip of the Mohawk Valley makes this the one place where the highly complex Appalachian system can easily be crossed. If the Alleghany plateau joined the Adirondacks, Philadelphia instead of New York would be the greatest city of America. Where the plateau first rises on the south side of the Mohawk, it attains heights of four thousand feet in the Catskill Mountains. We think of the Catskills as mountains, but their steep cliffs and table-topped heights show that they are really the remnants of a plateau, the nearly horizontal strata of which have not yet been worn away. Westward from the Catskills the plateau continues through central New York to western Pennsylvania. Those who have traveled on the Pennsylvania Railroad may remember how the railroad climbs the escarpment at Altoona. Farther east the train has passed alternately through gorges cut in the parallel ridges and through fertile open valleys forming the main floor of the inner valley. Then it winds up the long ascent of the Alleghany front in a splendid horseshoe curve. At the top, after a short tunnel, the train emerges in a wholly different country. The valleys are without order or system. They wind this way and that. The hills are not long ridges but isolated bits left between the winding valleys. Here and there beds of coal blacken the surface, for here we are among the rocks from which the world’s largest coal supply is derived. Since the layers lie horizontally and have never been compressed, the same material which in the inner valley has been changed to hard, clean-burning anthracite here remains soft and smoky.

In its southwestern continuation through West Virginia and Kentucky to Tennessee the plateau maintains many of its Pennsylvanian characteristics, but it now rises higher and becomes more inaccessible. The only habitable portions are the bottoms of the valleys, but they are only wide enough to support a most scanty population. Between them most of the land is too rough for anything except forests. Hence the people who live at the bottoms of the valleys are strangely isolated. They see little or nothing of the world at large or even of their neighbors. The roads are so few and the trails so difficult that the farmers cannot easily take their produce to market. Their only recourse has been to convert their bulky corn into whisky, which occupied little space in proportion to its value. Since the mountaineer has no other means of getting ready money, it is not strange that he has become a moonshiner and has fought bitterly for what he genuinely believed to be his rights in that occupation. Education has not prospered on the plateau because the narrowness of the valleys causes the population to be too poor and too scattered to support schools. For the same reason feuds grow up. When people live by themselves they become suspicious. Not being used to dealing with their neighbors, they suspect the motives of all but their intimate friends. Moreover, in those deep valleys, with their steep sides and their general inaccessibility, laws cannot easily be enforced, and therefore each family takes the law into its own hands.

Today the more rugged parts of the Appalachian system are chiefly important as a hindrance to communication. On the Atlantic slope of the old crystalline band there are great areas of gentle relief where an abundant population can dwell. Westward on the edges of the plateau and the plains beyond a still greater population can find a living, but in the intervening space there is opportunity for only a few. The great problem is to cross the mountains as easily as possible. Each accessible crossing-place is associated with a city. Boston, as well as New York, owes much to the low Mohawk-Hudson route, but is badly handicapped because it has no easy means of crossing the eastern crystalline band. Philadelphia, on the other hand, benefits from the fact that in its vicinity the crystallizes are low and can readily be crossed even without the aid of the valleys of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. It is handicapped, however, by the Alleghany escarpment at Altoona, even though this is lower there than farther south. Baltimore, in the same way, owes much of its growth to the easy pathways of the Susquehanna on the north and the Potomac on the south. Farther south both the crystalline band and the Alleghany plateau become more difficult to traverse, so that communication between the Atlantic coast and the Mississippi Valley is reduced to small proportions. Happy is New York in its situation where no one of the three bands of the Appalachians opposes any obstacle. The plains of North America form the third of the four main physical divisions of the continent. For the most part they lie between the great western cordillera on one side and the Laurentian and Appalachian highlands on the other. Yet they lap around the southern end of the Appalachians and run far up the Atlantic coast to New York. They remained beneath the sea till a late date, much later than the other three divisions. They were not, however, covered with deep water like that of the abysmal oceans, but only with shallow seas from which the land at times emerged. In spite of the old belief to the contrary, the continents appear to be so permanent that they have occupied practically their present positions from the remotest geological times. They have moved slowly up and down, however, so that some parts have frequently been submerged, and the plains are the parts that remained longest under water.

The plains of North America may be divided into four parts according to the character of their surface: the Atlantic coastal plain, the prairies, the northwestern peneplain, and the southwestern high plains. The Atlantic coastal plain lies along the Atlantic coast from New York southward to Florida and Alabama. It also forms a great embayment up the Mississippi Valley as far as the Ohio River, and it extends along the shore of the Gulf of Mexico to the Rio Grande. The chief characteristic of this Atlantic and Gulf coastal plain is its belted nature. One layer of rocks is sandy, another consists of limestone, and a third of clay. When uplifted and eroded each assumes its own special topography and is covered with its own special type of vegetation. Thus in South Carolina and Georgia the crystalline Piedmont band of the Appalachian province is bordered on the southeast by a belt of sandstone. This rock is so far from the sea and has been raised so high above it that erosion has converted it into a region of gentle hills, whose tops are six hundred or seven hundred feet above sea-level. Its sandy soil is so poor that farming is difficult. The hills are largely covered with pine, yielding tar and turpentine. Farther seaward comes a broad band of younger rock which forms a clayey soil or else a yellow sandy loam. These soils are so rich that splendid cotton crops can be raised, and hence the region is thickly populated. Again there comes a belt of sand, the so-called “pine barrens,” which form a poor section about fifty miles inland from the coast. Finally the coastal belt itself has emerged from beneath the sea so recently and lies so nearly at sea-level that it has not been greatly eroded, and is still covered with numerous marshes and swamps. The rich soil and the moisture are good for rice, but the region is so unhealthy and so hard to drain that only small parts are inhabited.

Everywhere in the coastal plain this same belted character is more or less evident. It has much to do with all sorts of activities from farming to politics. On consulting the map showing the cotton production of the United States in 1914, one notices the two dark bands in the southeast. One of them, extending from the northwestern part of South Carolina across Georgia and Alabama, is due to the fertile soil of the Piedmont region. The other, lying nearer the sea, begins in North Carolina and extends well into Alabama before it swings around to the northwest toward the area of heavy production along the Mississippi. It is due to the fertile soil of that part of the coastal plain known as the “cotton belt.” Portions of it are called the “black belt,” not because of the colored population, but because of the darkness of the soil. Since this land has always been prosperous, it has regularly been conservative in politics.

The Atlantic coastal plain is by no means the only part of the United States where the fertility of the soil is the dominant fact in the life of the people. Because of their rich soil the prairies which extend from western Ohio to the Missouri River and northward into Canada are fast becoming the most steadily prosperous part of America. They owe their surpassing richness largely to glaciation. We have already seen how the coming of the ice-sheet benefited the regions on the borders of the old Laurentian highland. This same benefit extended over practically the whole of what are now the prairies. Before the advent of the ice the whole section consisted of a broadly banded coastal plain much older than that of the Atlantic coast. When the ice with its burden of material scraped from the hills of the north passed over the coastal plain, it filled the hollows with rich new soil. The icy streams that flowed out from the glaciers were full of fine sediment, which they deposited over enormous flood plains. During dry seasons the winds picked up this dust and spread it out still more widely, forming the great banks of yellow loess whose fertile soil mantles the sides of many a valley in the Mississippi basin. Thus glaciers, streams, and winds laid down ten, twenty, fifty, or even one hundred feet of the finest, most fertile soil. We have already seen how much the soil was improved by glaciation in Wisconsin and Ohio. It was in the prairie States that this improvement reached a maximum. The soil there is not only fine grained and free from rocks, but it consists of particles brought from widely different sources and is therefore full of all kinds of plant foods. In most parts of the world a fine-grained soil is formed only after a prolonged period of weathering which leaches out many valuable chemical elements. In the prairies, however, the soil consists largely of materials that were mechanically ground to dust by the ice without being exposed to the action of weathering. Thus they have reached their present resting-places without the loss of any of their original plant foods. When such a soil is found with a climate which is good for crops and which is also highly stimulating to man, the combination is almost ideal. There is some justification for those who say that the north central portion of the United States is more fortunate than any other part of the earth. Nowhere else, unless in western Europe, is there such a combination of fertile soil, fine climate, easy communication, and possibilities for manufacturing and commerce. Iron from that outlier of the Laurentian highland which forms the peninsula of northern Michigan can easily be brought by water almost to the center of the prairie region. Coal in vast quantities lies directly under the surface of this region, for the rock of the ancient coastal plain belongs to the same Pennsylvanian series which yields most of the world’s coal. Here man is, indeed, blessed with resources and opportunities scarcely equaled in any other part of the world, and finds the only drawbacks to be the extremes of temperature in both winter and summer and the remoteness of the region from the sea. Because of the richness of their heritage and because they live safely protected from threats of foreign aggression, the people who live in this part of the world are in danger of being slow to feel the currents of great world movements.

The western half of the plains of North America consists of two parts unlike either the Atlantic coastal plain or the prairies. From South Dakota and Nebraska northward far into Canada and westward to the Rocky Mountains there extends an ancient peneplain worn down to gentle relief by the erosion of millions of years. It is not so level as the plains farther east nor so low. Its western margin reaches heights of four or five thousand feet. Here and there, especially on the western side, it rises to the crest of a rugged escarpment where some resistant layer of rocks still holds itself up against the forces of erosion. Elsewhere its smooth surfaces are broken by lava-capped mesas or by ridges where some ancient volcanic dike is so hard that it has not yet been worn away. The soil, though excellent, is thinner and less fertile than in the prairies. Nevertheless the population might in time become as dense and prosperous as almost any in the world if only the rainfall were more abundant and good supplies of coal were not quite so far away. Yet in spite of these handicaps the northwestern peneplain with its vast open stretches, its cattle, its wheat, and its opportunities is a most attractive land.

South of Nebraska and Wyoming the “high plains,” the last of the four great divisions of the plains, extend as far as western Texas. These, like the prairies, have been built up by deposits brought from other regions. In this case, however, the deposits consist of gravel, sand, and silt which the rivers have gradually washed out from the Rocky Mountains. As the rivers have changed their courses from one bed to another, layer after layer has been laid down to form a vast plain like a gently sloping beach hundreds of miles wide. In most places the streams are no longer building this up. Frequently they have carved narrow valleys hundreds of feet deep in the materials which they formerly deposited. Elsewhere, however, as in western Kansas, most of the country is so flat that the horizon is like that of the ocean. It seems almost incredible that at heights of four or five thousand feet the plains can still be so wonderfully level. When the grass is green, when the spring flowers are at their best, it would be hard to find a picture of greater beauty. Here the buffalo wandered in the days before the white man destroyed them. Here today is the great cattle region of America. Here is the region where the soul of man is filled with the feeling of infinite space.

To the student of land forms there is an everpresent contrast between those due directly to the processes which build up the earth’s surface and those due to the erosive forces which destroy what the others have built. In the great plains of North America two of the divisions, that is, the Atlantic coastal plain of the southeast and the peneplain of the northwest, owe their present form to the forces of erosion. The other two, that is, the prairies and the high plains, still bear the impress of the original processes of deposition and have been modified to only a slight extent by erosion.

A similar but greater contrast separates the mountains of eastern North America and those of the western cordillera–the fourth and last of the main physical divisions of the continent. In both the Laurentian and the Appalachian highlands the eastern mountains show no trace of the original forms produced by the faulting of the crust or by volcanic movements. All the original distinctive topography has been removed. What we see today is the product of erosion working upon rocks that were thousands of feet beneath the surface when they were brought to their present positions. In the western cordillera, on the contrary, although much of the present form of the land is due to erosion, a vast amount is due directly to so-called “tectonic” activities such as the breaking of the crust, the pouring out of molten lavas, and the bursting forth of explosive eruptions.

The character of these tectonic activities has differed widely in different parts of the cordillera. A broad upheaval of great blocks of the earth’s crust without tilting or disturbance has produced the plateaus of Arizona and Utah. The gorges that have been rapidly cut into such great upheaved blocks form part of the world’s most striking scenery. The Grand Canyon of the Colorado with its tremendous platforms, mesas, and awe-inspiring cliffs could have been formed in no other way. Equally wonderful are some of the narrow canyons in the broadly upheaved plateaus of southern Utah where the tributaries of the Virgin and other rivers have cut red or white chasms thousands of feet deep and so narrow that at their bottoms perpetual twilight reigns. It is a curious proof of the fallibility of human judgment that these great gorges are often cited as the most striking examples of the power of erosion. Wonderful as these gorges certainly are, the Piedmont plain or the northwestern peneplain is far more wonderful. Those regions had their grand canyons once upon a time, but now erosion has gone so far that it has reduced the whole area to the level of the bottoms of the gorges. Though such a fate is in store for all the marvelous scenery of the western cordillera, we have it, for the present at least, as one of the most stimulating panoramas of our American environment. No man worthy of the name can sit on the brink of a great canyon or gaze up from the dark depths of a gorge without a sense of awe and wonder. There, as in few other places, Nature shows with unmistakable grandeur the marvelous power and certainty with which her laws work out the destiny of the universe.

In other parts of the great American cordillera some of the simplest and youngest mountain ridges in the world are found. In southern Oregon, for example, lava blocks have been broken and uplifted and now stand with steep fresh faces on one side and with the old surface inclining more gently on the other. Tilted blocks on a larger scale and much more deeply carved by erosion are found in the lofty St. Elias Mountain of Alaska, where much of the erosion has been done by some of the world’s greatest glaciers. The western slope of the Wasatch Mountains facing the desert of Utah is the wall of a huge fracture, as is the eastern face of the Sierra Nevadas facing the deserts of Nevada. Each of these great faces has been deeply eroded. At the base, however, recent breaking and upheaval of the crust have given rise to fresh uneroded slopes. Some take the form of triangular facets, where a series of ridges has been sliced across and lifted up by a great fault. Others assume the shape of terraces which sometimes continue along the base of the mountains for scores of miles. In places they seem like bluffs cut by an ancient lake, but suddenly they change their altitude or pass from one drainage area to another as no lake-formed strand could possibly do.

In other parts of the cordillera, mountains have been formed by a single arching of the crust without any breaking. Such is the case in the Uinta Mountains of northwestern Utah and in some of the ranges of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. The Black Hills of South Dakota, although lying out in the plains, are an example of the same kind of structure and really belong to the cordillera. In them the layers of the earth’s crust have been bent up in the form of a great dome. The dome structure, to be sure, has now been largely destroyed, for erosion has long been active. The result is that the harder strata form a series of concentric ridges, while between them are ring-shaped valleys, one of which is so level and unbroken that it is known to the Indians as the “race-course.” In other parts of the cordillera great masses of rock have been pushed horizontally upon the tops of others. In Montana, for example, the strata of the plains have been bent down and overridden by those of the mountains. These are only a few of the countless forms of breaking, faulting, and crumpling which have given to the cordillera an almost infinite variety of scenery.

The work of mountain building is still active in the western cordillera, as is evident from such an event as the San Francisco earthquake. In the Owens Valley region in southern California the gravelly beaches of old lakes are rent by fissures made within a few years by earthquakes. In other places fresh terraces on the sides of the valley mark the lines of recent earth movements, while newly formed lakes lie in troughs at their base. These Owens Valley movements of the crust are parts of the stupendous uplift which has raised the Sierra Nevada to heights of over 14,000 feet a few miles to the west. Along the fault line at the base of the mountains there runs for over 9.50 miles the world’s longest aqueduct, which was built to relieve Los Angeles from the danger of drought. It is a strange irony of fate that so delicate and so vital an artery of civilization should be forced to lie where a renewal of earthquake movements may break it at any time. Yet there was no other place to put it, for in spite of man’s growing control of nature he was forced to follow the topography of the region in which he lived and labored.

On the southern side of the Mohave Desert a little to the east of where the Los Angeles aqueduct crosses the mountains in its southward course, the record of an earthquake is preserved in unique fashion. The steep face of a terrace is covered with trees forty or fifty years old. Near the base the trees are bent in peculiar fashion. Their lower portions stand at right angles to the steeply sloping face of the terrace, but after a few feet the trunks bend upward and stand vertically. Clearly when these trees were young the terrace was not there. Then an earthquake came. One block of the earth’s crust was dropped down while another was raised up. Along the dividing line a terrace was formed. The trees that happened to stand along the line were tilted and left in a slanting position on the sloping surface between the two parts of the earth’s crust. They saw no reason to stop growing, but, turning their tips toward the sky, they bravely pushed upward. Thus they preserve in a striking way the record of this recent movement of the earth’s crust.

Volcanoes as well as earth movements have occurred on a grand scale within a few hundred years in the cordillera. Even where there is today no visible volcanic activity, recent eruptions have left traces as fresh as if they had occurred but yesterday. On the borders of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado one can see not only fresh cones of volcanic ash but lava which has poured over the edges of the cliffs and hardened while in the act of flowing. From Orizaba and Popocatepetl in Mexico through Mount San Francisco in Arizona, Lassen Peak and Mount Shasta in California, Mount Rainier with its glaciers in the Cascade Range of Washington, and Mount Wrangell in Alaska, the cordillera contains an almost unbroken chain of great volcanoes. All are either active at present or have been active within very recent times. In 1912 Mount Katmai, near the northwestern end of the volcanic chain, erupted so violently that it sent dust around the whole world. The presence of the dust caused brilliant sunsets second only to those due to Krakatoa in 1883. It also cut off so much sunlight that the effect was felt in measurements made by the Smithsonian Institution in the French provinces of North Africa. In earlier times, throughout the length of the cordillera great masses of volcanic material were poured out to form high plateaus like those of southern Mexico or of the Columbia River in Oregon. In Utah some of these have been lifted up so that heavy caps of lava now form isolated sheets topping lofty plateaus. There the lowland shepherds drive their sheep in summer and live in absolute isolation for months at a time. There, as everywhere, the cordillera bears the marks of mountains in the making, while the mountains of eastern America bear the marks of those that were made when the world was young.

The geysers and hot springs of the Yellowstone are another proof of recent volcanic activity. They owe their existence to hot rocks which lie only a little way below the surface and which not long ago were molten lava. The terraces and platforms built by the geysers are another evidence that the cordillera is a region where the surface of the earth is still being shaped into new forms by forces acting from within. The physical features of the country are still in process of construction.

In spite of the importance of the constructive forces which are still building up the mountains, much of the finest scenery of the cordillera is due to the destructive forces of erosion. The majestic Columbia Canyon, like others of its kind, is the work of running water. Glaciers also have done their part. During the glacial period the forces which control the paths of storms did not give to the cordillera region such an abundance of snow as was sifted down upon Laurentia. Therefore no such huge continental glaciers have flowed out over millions of square miles of lower country. Nevertheless among the mountains themselves the ice gouged and scraped and smoothed and at its lower edges deposited great moraines. Its work today makes the cliffs and falls of the Yosemite one of the world’s most famous bits of scenery. This scenery is young and its beauty will pass in a short time as geology counts the years, for in natural scenery as in human life it is youth that makes beauty. The canyons, waterfalls, and geysers of the cordillera share their youth with the lakes, waterfalls, and rapids due to recent glaciation in the east. Nevertheless, though youth is the condition of most striking beauty, maturity and old age are the condition of greatest usefulness. The young cordillera with its mountains still in the making can support only a scanty population, whereas the old eastern mountains, with the lines of long life engraved upon every feature, open their arms to man and let him live and prosper.

It is not enough that we should picture merely the four divisions of the land of our continent. We must see how the land meets the sea. In low latitudes in both the Old World and the New, the continents have tended to emerge farther and farther from the sea during recent geological times. Hence on the eastern side of both North and South America from New Jersey to Brazil the ocean is bordered for the most part by coastal plains, uplifted from the sea only a short time ago. On the mountainous western side of both continents, however, the sea bottom shelves downward so steeply that its emergence does not give rise to a plain but merely to a steep slope on which lie a series of old beaches several hundred and even one thousand feet above the present shore line. Such conditions are not favorable to human progress. The coastal plains produced by uplift of the land may be fertile and may furnish happy homes for man, but they do not permit ready access to the sea because they have no harbors. The chief harbor of Mexico at Vera Cruz is merely a little nick in the coast-line and could never protect a great fleet, even with the help of its breakwater. Where an enterprising city like Los Angeles lies on the uplifted Pacific coast, it must spend millions in wresting a harbor from the very jaws of the sea.

In high latitudes in all parts of the world the land has recently been submerged beneath the sea. In some places, especially those like the coasts of Virginia and central California which lie in middle latitudes, a recent slight submergence has succeeded a previous large emergence. Wherever such sinking of the land has taken place, it has given rise to countless bays, gulfs, capes, islands, and fiords. The ocean water has entered the valleys and has drowned their lower parts. It has surrounded the bases of hills and left them as islands; it has covered low valleys and has created long sounds where traffic may pass with safety even in great storms. Though much land has thus been lost which would be good for agriculture, commerce has been wonderfully stimulated. Through Long Island Sound there pass each day hundreds of boats which again and again would suffer distress and loss if they were not protected from the open sea. It is no accident that of the eight largest metropolitan districts in the United States five have grown up on the shores of deep inlets which are due to the drowning of valleys.

Nor must the value of scenery be forgotten in a survey such as this. Year by year we are learning that in this restless, strenuous American life of ours vacations are essential. We are learning, too, that the love of beauty is one of Nature’s greatest healers. Regions like the coast of Maine and Puget Sound, where rugged land and life-giving ocean interlock, are worth untold millions because of their inspiring beauty. It is indeed marvelous that in the latitude of the northern United States and southern Canada so many circumstances favorable to human happiness are combined. Fertile soil, level plains, easy passage across the mountains, coal, iron, and other metals imbedded in the rocks, and a stimulating climate, all shower their blessings upon man. And with all these blessings goes the advantage of a coast which welcomes the mariner and brings the stimulus of foreign lands, while at the same time it affords rest and inspiration to the toilers here at home.


No part of the world can be truly understood without a knowledge of its garment of vegetation, for this determines not only the nature of the animal inhabitants but also the occupations of the majority of human beings. Although the soil has much to do with the character of vegetation, climate has infinitely more. It is temperature which causes the moss and lichens of the barren tundras in the far north to be replaced by orchids, twining vines, and mahogany trees near the equator. It is rainfall which determines that vigorous forests shall grow in the Appalachians in latitudes where grasslands prevail in the plains and deserts in the western cordillera.

Forests, grass-lands, deserts, represent the three chief types of vegetation on the surface of the earth. Each is a response to certain well-defined conditions of climate. Forests demand an abundance of moisture throughout the entire season of growth. Where this season lasts only three months the forest is very different from where it lasts twelve. But no forest can be vigorous if the ground habitually becomes dry for a considerable period during which the weather is warm enough for growth. Desert vegetation, on the other hand, which consists primarily of bushes with small, drought-resistant leaves, needs only a few irregular and infrequent showers in order to endure long periods of heat and drought. Discontinuity of moisture is the cause of deserts, just as continuity is the necessary condition of forest growth. Grasses prevail where the climatic conditions are intermediate between those of the forest and the desert. Their primary requisite is a short period of fairly abundant moisture with warmth enough to ripen their seeds. Unlike the trees of the forests, they thrive even though the wet period be only a fraction of the entire time that is warm enough for growth. Unlike the bushes of the desert, they rarely thrive unless the ground is well soaked for at least a few weeks. Most people think of forests as offering far more variety than either deserts or grass-lands. To them grass is just grass, while trees seem to possess individuality. In reality, however, the short turfy grass of the far north differs from the four-foot fronds of the bunchy saccaton grass of Arizona, and from the far taller tufts of the plumed pampas grass, much more than the pine tree differs from the palm. Deserts vary even more than either forests or grass-lands. The traveler in the Arizona desert, for example, has been jogging across a gravelly plain studded at intervals of a few yards with little bushes a foot high. The scenery is so monotonous and the noon sunshine so warm that he almost falls asleep. When he wakes from his daydream, so weird are his surroundings that he thinks he must be in one of the places to which Sindbad was carried by the roc. The trail has entered an open forest of joshuas, as the big tree yuccas are called in Arizona. Their shaggy trunks and uncouth branches are rendered doubly unkempt by swordlike, ashy-yellow dead leaves that double back on the trunk but refuse to fall to the ground. At a height of from twelve to twenty feet each arm of the many-branched candelabrum ends in a stiff rosette of gray-green spiky leaves as tough as hemp. Equally bizarre and much more imposing is a desert “stand” of giant suhuaros, great fluted tree-cacti thirty feet or more high. In spite of their size the suhuaros are desert types as truly as is sagebrush.

In America the most widespread type of forest is the evergreen coniferous woodland of the north. Its pines, firs, spruces, hemlocks, and cedars which are really junipers, cover most of