Review: The Once and Future Great Lakes Country

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Reviewed By: Matthew S. Wiseman (Wilfrid Laurier University)riley

Published: The Otter-NiCHE (August, 2014)

Riley, John L. The Once and Future Great Lakes Country: An Ecological History. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013. 516 pp. ISBN 9780773541771. $29.95 (paper). Rural, Wildland and Resource Studies Series, number 2.

Tracing the impact of European contact and globalization on North America’s Great Lakes region, John Riley explores ecological and human history at the intersection of conflict and change.

The Once and Future Great Lakes Country is very much an extension of author John Riley’s personal connection to Mono Township. Situated just northeast of Orangeville in south-central Ontario, his home region instilled in him a passion for the environment and for the pursuit of scientific knowledge to preserve heritage and increase ecological sustainability. Tracing the history of the Great Lakes region, Riley’s book is temporally focused on the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This time period has been covered well by scholars across a wide disciplinary range, but certainly not with the bold methodological reach of Riley’s fascinating study.[1]

This book provides a detailed history of European settlement, Indigenous peoples, and wildlife in and around the fertile lands of the lower Great Lakes. Focusing especially on the regional areas that include Lakes Erie and Ontario, Riley explores the historical impact of colonialism on peoples and non-human animals in addition to lands and waters. He does so through the careful examination of a large volume of original sources and published secondary works. Quoting personal diaries, journals and early as well as recent histories of Native-European contact, Riley provides a history of the Great Lakes region as told by explorers, cartographers, missionaries, settlers, traders, and the scholars who have since reconstructed their story. Woven into a single yet nuanced narrative, Riley’s history builds on colonial studies which portray the sociocultural and environmental ruination of peoples and regions that were once peaceful and fruitful, such as John Weaver’s The Great Land Rush and Theodore Binnema’s Common and Contested Ground.[2] Indigenous peoples to the Great Lakes region of North America once cultivated, harvested and hunted to sustain life based on a diet that included beans, berries, corn, squash, and a variety of game. However, European disease, raid and settlement disrupted such First Nation communities as the Cayuga, Iroquois, Huron, Mohawk, Onondaga, and Seneca.

Riley’s treatment of European colonialism is in line with recent investigations into pre-Confederation Canada and Indigenous history more generally, but his work is special in its unique perspective.[3] Having been employed as a botanist, geologist, ecologist, and conservation professional at a variety of institutions, including the Royal Ontario Museum and the Ontario Geological Survey, he combines the deep investigative techniques of the historian and the strident data analyses of the environmental scientist to shed new light on topics that seldom intersect in scholarly study. Riley’s current position as a senior science advisor at the Nature Conservancy of Canada also made an impact on this book, and in an act of subtle environmental advocacy, he uses the history of the Great Lakes region – home to his child and adulthood life – as a call to increase awareness and education to support efforts towards environmental action.

The beauty and intrigue of Riley’s work is in his recognition and assessment of Indigenous life in the Great Lakes region prior to European contact. With such techniques as clearing and firing set back forest closures to dry, warm and release nutrients from the soil, First Nations were practicing methods of environmental sustainability in ways that are far more advanced than most scholarly studies appreciate. “It is not just that Natives managed their land and waters,” Riley argues, but “that they managed them so productively for so long, supported by a sophisticated horticulture and fire and game-harvest technologies.” (pp. 306-7) Insights such as this further illuminate the destructive legacy of European colonialism in Canada, and add to the value of this book as both a work of environmental science and cultural history.

It is for these reasons and more that distinguished Canadian historian Ramsay Cook provides his stamp of approval in a succinct foreword that flatters the author’s qualifications as an environmental scientist — qualifications which, according to Cook, enabled Riley “to write a fully informed study of the region’s environmental past, its present, and its future prospects,” and perhaps in a manner that would elude the professional historian. (pp. xi-xii)

Despite its title, this book does not discuss each of the Great Lakes nor their immediate surrounding ecosystems in great depth. Although Riley covers a geographical scope that touches both sides of the North American border, describing regions of the Atlantic coast, lakes Erie and Ontario, as well as the Hudson, Mississippi and Ohio rivers, he only discusses in brief lakes Huron, Michigan and Superior. Similar methodological issues arise in a different context when considering both the wide temporal and topical scope of the study. The breadth of Riley’s subject matter is such that his topic becomes difficult to distill into a narrative that is both educational and accessible to its reader. This is not to suggest that Riley’s work is without merit. The extent of his research will leave the historian in awe, but his writing style does deter from the overall quality of what is otherwise a thoroughly researched and impressive investigation that is filled with sociocultural and environmental considerations.

As a senior science advisor turned historian and advocate, Riley asks pertinent questions of a paramount importance to past, present and future considerations of the Great Lakes region. His book cannot be classified as strictly archaeological, ecological, environmental, or sociocultural; it probes each of these fields of inquiry and more to offer a unique perspective of importance for both historical and contemporary study. The end result is a book whose valuable lessons are provided in an unconventional and somewhat disorganized manner, but lessons that nonetheless derive from comprehensive research and original findings. Accordingly, The Once and Future Great Lakes Country is deserved of its place alongside important examinations into the early environmental history of geographical regions that encompass parts of modern day Canada and the United States.

Matthew Wiseman is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Wilfrid Laurier University. His doctoral dissertation examines the impact of Canadian defence science and technology in government and the wider public during the first-half of the Cold War era, between 1947 and 1974. Matthew can be contacted at:

Citation: Matthew S. Wiseman “Review of John L. Riley’sThe Once and Future Great Lakes Country: An Ecological History. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013.” The Otter ~ La Loutre Reviews. (August, 2014).


If you are interested in reviewing recent publications in Canadian environmental history please contact Denny Brett at:

Notes [1] For environmental histories of Canada between the seventeenth and nineteenth century, see Neil Forkey, Shaping the Upper Canadian Frontier: Environment, Society, and Culture in the Trent Valley (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2003); Claire Elizabeth Campbell, Shaped By the West Wind: Nature and History in Georgian Bay (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2005); and Cole Harris, The Reluctant Land: Society, Space, and Environment in Canada before Confederation (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2008).

[2] John C. Weaver, The Great Land Rush and the Making of the Modern World, 1650-1900 (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003); Theodore Binnema, Common and Contested Ground: A Human and Environmental History of the Northwestern Plains (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004).

[3] Additional works on European colonialism in pre-Confederation Canada include Bruce Trigger, Natives and Newcomers: Canada’s ‘Heroic Age’ Reconsidered (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1985); J.R. Miller, Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens: A History of Indian-White Relations in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989); and John Lutz, Makúk: A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2008).

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