Mary Ellen Lepionka, May 21, 2018
This is Part 5 of a six-part series on The Colonists and Indian Land. The first four parts were published in Historic Ipswich (https://historicipswich.org/).
Aside from the matter of sheer scale—impacts of Europeans on the environment rose as their population densities rose across the continent, the chief difference between them and Native Americans lay in their definitions and use of the land they occupied. Consider the forests. The earliest accounts of European explorers describe the peninsulas north and south of the Great Marsh as “forests primeval”. On the northern tip of Cape Ann, tree species included a mixture of softwoods such as black spruce, red spruce, hemlock, cedar, and fir, and hardwoods, such as white oak, rock maple, sugar maple, elm, ash, sycamore, hickories, chestnut, walnut, beeches, aspen, black birch, dogwood, and basswood (linden). Today, some of these species remain, and some have disappeared. Present-day dominant tree species include red oak, black willow, flowering shad, black cherry, and pitch pine.1 According to another source, the original forest in Essex County was a mixed deciduous forest of white pine, oak, chestnut, poplar, maple, birch, and some other hardwoods and conifers. In the early 20th century Cape Ann had second-growth oak and chestnut trees in uplands and scrub oak and pitch pine in areas with dry sandy soil.2
Today, chestnut trees and sugar maples are in decline, with the old elms long gone and native magnolias, hemlocks, and dogwoods endangered. Some American elm and white ash may still be found, and red and white oak, white cedar, red spruce, juniper, black walnut, and white pine are still here. Black oak and scarlet oak predominate in tree communities recovering in watersheds such as Dogtown, which also has red maple, gray birch, paper birch, red cedar, black gum, black cherry, sassafras, pitch pine, white pine, and beech. Most of the trees there are less than 135 years old.3
Champlain remarked on the cedars of Cape Ann, which he referred to as cypresses:
The woods are full of oaks, nut-trees, and very fine cypresses, which are of reddish colour and have a very pleasant smell….4
The Atlantic forest, as a mixed deciduous-coniferous forest, thus contained an incredible diversity of species. Native Americans both exploited and maintained this diversity.
They designed, marked, and protected individual trees for specific uses, often well into the future—big oaks for dugouts, big birches for canoes, burled trees for wooden bowls, young ash and dogwood for arrow shafts, cedars for sleeping platforms and storage pits, red spruce roots for bowstrings, knotted plum tree roots for clubs, medicinal trees for the leaves or bark—such as hemlock needles or slippery elm phloem, oak bark for winter wigwam covers, and numerous trees and shrubs for berries fruits, and nuts. Many species were multipurpose. Pines, for example, provided softwood to carve for many uses, and the needles were woven into baskets or stored as fire-starting brands. Pine pitch, boiled into tar, was an essential ingredient for caulking canoes, waterproofing baskets, applying to wounds, and burning in lamps and torches.5
Cape Ann lies near the southern boundary of birchbark canoe culture and the people also made dugout canoes. According to William Wood:
[They] crosse…rivers with small cannowes, which are made of whole pine trees, being about two foot & a half over, and 20 foote long: in these likewise they goo a fowling, sometimes two leagues to sea; there be more Cannowes in this town [Salem] than in the whole Patent; every household having a water-house [water-horse, common name for a canoe] or two.6
It is perhaps only a matter of time before remains of a log boat will be discovered in the mud in Jones River or in the banks of Cape Pond. Log boats remained popular with colonists into the eighteenth century. They were used to ferry passengers, animals, and goods across rivers and island channels and to haul manure and salt marsh hay. Individuals even reserved certain trees for making canoes. In 1679 in Essex County, for example, Robert Cross, Jr. testified that one Samuel Pipen [Phippen] “sold deponent a canoe tree that grew upon the north side of a hill amongst ledges of rocks”. Some towns even enacted laws to protect so-called “canoe trees”.7
So it is that the Algonquians preserved in large groves the trees they used for food, tools, fibers, medicine, building materials, and transportation (e.g., oak, chestnut, walnut, cedar, beech, ash, sugar maple, birch, witch hazel, sassafras, willow, slippery elm, and pitch pine). They also conserved trees that forest animal species they used depended on, especially cone-bearing trees that provided winter subsistence for deer (e.g., firs, hemlocks, and pines). There is no evidence that the people planted trees to replace those they took, although they undoubtedly protected selected saplings to ensure sufficient forest for the future.
For Native people, forests were essential resources to be governed, while for the English, forests represented wilderness to be tamed. Expecting to find forested wilderness in coastal New England, Europeans were surprised to find instead vast expanses of managed land: grassy parkland with evenly spaced trees cleared of undergrowth. They also found planted, cultivated, and cover-cropped fields; protected wild food resource areas; and contained groves of diverse old-growth trees. These effects were achieved through Native stewardship and routine controlled burning of the land.8
The Algonquians cleared forest undergrowth twice a year, spring and fall, by setting fire to it. The process provided a collective hunting opportunity to drive game to kill sites. It also kept trails clear and made any approaching enemies visible. The burned vegetation returned nutrients to the soil and maintained habitats for berries (especially wild blueberries and mulberries, which still depend on periodic burning). Burning spared most conifers and left behind roasted cones to collect for the pine nuts or to leave as winter forage for deer. Burning also encouraged the growth of grasses in new clearings as forage for deer and created new habitat for small game. The burned ground at the same time deposited potash-rich pockets of inter-forest soil, which the people mounded up after each rainfall to conserve moisture in the soil in preparation for future cultivation. Demand for new soil was constant, as corn is a heavy nitrogen feeder and needs new ground to grow in every two to three years.
William Wood observed in 1635 that Native Americans burned the tops and slopes of hills but left stands along the river bottoms untouched, perhaps as hunting blinds and to screen trails from canoe traffic on the rivers. The heat and ashes from controlled burns conserved soil warmth and fertility.
For the Indians burning it [the ground] to supresse the Underwood, which else would grow all over the Countrey, the Snow falling not long after, keepes the ground warme, and with its melting conveighs the ashes into the pores of the earth, which doth fatten it.9
Fall burnings thus were most desirable. However, because fires sometimes got out of control, the General Court in 1631 passed a law making it illegal for colonists and Native Americans alike to set fire to the land in any months other than March or April, when damp spring weather would help control conflagrations. Court records clearly suggest that fire was a routine hazard. A 1638 law banned tobacco smoking in or near any common land at any time of year, and a 1652 law banned the starting of wood fires outdoors between January and March and on Fridays and Sundays generally.10
So Europeans were not solely responsible for deforestation and practices that altered or damaged the environment, as is commonly believed. They cut a lot of white pine for masts and spars and a lot of red oak for hulls and planks for the British royal navy and shipyards as well as for the growing New England shipbuilding industry. Timber for masts and spars for the royal navy and sassafras for the treatment of syphilis were the earliest exports other than furs.11 For more than 5,000 years, however, countless generations of Native people routinely killed trees for firewood, resource wood, and bark by girdling, burning, cutting saplings for wigwam frames, felling trees for dugout and birchbark canoes, and clearing land by the “slash and burn” method for the practice of swidden agriculture, growing maize in mounds of ash and soil where forests once stood.
At the same time, both Native people and colonists practiced conservation. In their slashing and burning, Native people were careful not to clear-cut forests, for example, saving thin forests soils from loss to erosion. In a sense, Native Americans were more future-oriented than Europeans. Their conceptualization of time was circular rather than linear: all times were one time, and that time was the present. Life, as lived, was an expression of all time, integrated on both a spiritual and a material plane. So while Europeans frequently took environmental resources for immediate consumption or application or for stockpiling or export, Native people often modified the environment with no expectation of immediate benefit. The idea was that in a year or two or three, or even in some future generation, some benefit would accrue. Examples include girdling trees to harvest in some years’ time as dry firewood, fashioning tools in living wood, and shaping trees to mark trails or to wrap spirit rocks in ceremonial landscapes.12
The timber industry on Cape Ann, well underway by 1645, specialized in the manufacture of boards, clapboards, hoops, and staves, as well as the cutting of cordwood for outside consumption. Streams and tides were channeled to power a gristmill at Beaver Dam in 1642 and later sawmills on Sawmill Brook and in Riverdale, West Gloucester, and Freshwater Cove. Allied barrel and shingle making enterprises sprang up. Salem and Boston were the chief markets for Cape Ann timber and wood products and for her wooden barrels and boxes, which were crucial to the fishing industry and transatlantic trade. Mackerel, cod, cider, flour, and tobacco were packed in them. Consumption of wood quickly threatened to outstrip supply, however, and the people were fully aware of it. As early as the mid-17th century they rationed wood lots and enacted conservation laws. In 1667 Gloucester voted to restrict the cutting of cordwood to the area between Brace’s Cove and Good Harbor Beach, for example. Then, in 1669 the sale of low-cost cordwood out of town was prohibited (it had to fetch a minimum of 3 shillings and sixpence per cord), and each family was limited to cutting 20 cords of wood per year on the Commons (Dogtown).13
Wooded areas today have less diversity because of land management practices of the English settlers, which called for a more ambitious selection and removal of trees as part of the process of taming the wilderness and establishing timber and shipbuilding industries. Nevertheless, surviving groves containing old growth specimen trees of diverse species in proximity are very likely a result of Native agency. Few old-growth stands of trees remain in eastern Essex County. The Manchester-Hamilton area known as Chebacco Woods and Gordon Woods contains trails through old forest, and the Manchester-Essex woods (including Cathedral Pines, the Millstone Hill Conservation Area, and the Cedar Swamp Trail) has 1,500 acres of forest that were never farmed. In Gloucester, Ravenswood Park and Mount Ann Park contain specimens of old trees. The Cox Reservation in Essex has a grove of red cedars growing through an Algonquian clam midden and dating at least to colonial times, and Choate Island preserves ancient hickories growing up through an enormous clam midden, bearing nuts feasted upon by colonist’s hogs. Single ancient trees of great girth, sometimes called “founder trees”, may also be found abutting parks, playgrounds, and cemeteries throughout Essex County.14
Notes and Reference
1. Oaks, elms, sycamores, one pine tree, and John Endicott’s famous pear tree are featured in James Raymond Simmons’ 1919 book on The Historic Trees of Massachusetts, reflecting the enduring priorities of English colonists.
2. Other accounts of trees then and now include Foster and O’Keefe, New England Forests through Time: Insights from the Harvard Forest Dioramas (2000); Fergus, Trees of New England: A Natural History (2005); and Wessels, Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England (1997). See also the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees: Eastern Region.
3. This information comes from Harold Cook’s 1908 Handbook on Forest Mensuration of the White Pine in Massachusetts and from Melvin Copeland and Elliott Rogers’ 1960 book, The Saga of Cape Ann. See also Rogers’ article, Botanist’s Eye View of Dogtown Flora, in the Gloucester Daily Times (August 27, 1954).
4. Champlain is quoted in Volume 1 of Langdon and Ganong, The works of Samuel de Champlain (1922): 351-352, as well as in other translations.
5. See Tom Seymour’s Foraging New England: Edible Wild Food and Medicinal Plants from Maine to the Adirondacks to Long Island (2013). A primary source on Native American plant use is John Josselyn’s 1674 New England’s Rarities Discovered in birds, beasts, fishes, serpents, and plants of that country. An ethnographic source is Ralph Dexter and Frank Speck, Utilization of Animals and Plants by the Micmac Indians of New Brunswick (1952), in the Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences 41 (8): 250-259. A Native American source is Indigenous Plants and Native Uses in the Northeast on the NativeTech web site: http://www.nativetech.org/plantgath/plantgaht.htm.
6. Wood (the 1897 Boynton edition), p. 35.
7. Robert Cross Jr.’s canoe tree is referenced in Essex County Court Records 1913-1919, Vol. 7, p. 203. For insight on Native canoes and dugouts, see especially Gordon Day’s article on pp. 148-159 in Vol. 15 of the Handbook of North American Indians (1979, Bruce Trigger, ed.); Ann Marie Plane’s 1991 article, New England’s Logboats: Four centuries of watercraft, in the Bulletin of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society 52 (1): 8-18; Howard Chapelle’s article, Colonial and Early American Boats, in American Small Sailing Craft: Their Design, Development, and Construction (1951); and Edwin Tappan Adney’s 1964 (2014), Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America.
8. All the early explorers and settlers remarked on the Algonquian practice of setting fire to the woods. For example, see accounts in Champlain Voyages (1605), Higginson, New England’s Plantation (1629) and General consideracons for ye plantacon in New England (1630); Johnson, Wonder-Working Providence (1654) and Good Newes from New England (1658); and Wood, New England’s Prospect (1634).
9. Wood, p. 17.
10. Laws related to fires are in the Book of the General Laws of the Inhabitants of the Jurisdiction of New-Plimoth, and Generall Laws of the Massachusetts Colony (1632-1676). See http://www.princelaws.pdf.
11. For a perspective on the pre-colonial and early colonial lumber industry, see New England masts and the King’s Broad Arrow by S. F. Manning (1979). Read about the timber industry on Cape Ann in Eleanor Parsons’ book, Fish, Timber, Granite & Gold (2003). See also Bishop, Freedley, and Young, A History of American Manufacturers, from 1608 to 1860, Volume 1 (1864).
12. See Mavor and Dix (1989) Manitou: The Sacred Landscape of New England’s Native Civilization; Mitchell (1984) Ceremonial Time; and Downes (2011) Native American Trail Marker Trees.
13. The tree cutting laws of 1667 and 1669 are reported in Babson, pp. 203-204. See also Alina Bradford’s 2015 article, Deforestation: Facts, Causes and Effects, in Live Science: http://www.livescience.com/27692-deforestation.html. A “cord of wood” is a stack of logs 4 feet high, 4 feet deep, and 8 feet long.
14. Friends and stewards of Chebacco Woods, Gordon Woods, Cathedral Pines, Millstone Conservation Area, Cedar Swamp, Ravenswood, Mount Ann, the Cox Reservation, and Choate Island all maintain informative websites. See the web sites of the Trustees of Reservations, Essex County Greenbelt Association, Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, Norton Memorial Forest, New England Forestry Foundation, Norton Tree Farm, Natti Woodland, Annisquam Woods, Willowdale State Forest, Bradley Palmer State Park, Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, Parker River Wildlife Refuge, and Cape Ann Trial Stewards. Of special interest is GloucesterForests.pdf, containing Liam O’Laughlin’s 2010 report in The North Gloucester Woods Study.
Mary Ellen Lepionka lives in East Gloucester and is studying the history of Cape Ann from the Ice Age to around 1700 A.D. for a book on the subject. She is a retired publisher, author, editor, textbook developer, and college instructor with degrees in anthropology. She studied at Boston University and the University of British Columbia and has performed archaeology in Ipswich, MA, Botswana, Africa, and at Pole Hill in Gloucester, MA. Mary Ellen is a trustee of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society and serves on the Gloucester Historical Commission.