Many people think of pre-colonial New England as an “untouched” wilderness; however the various Native American people who lived here were excellent farmers and land managers. Primary sources tell us, when the first Europeans began to arrive, they found acres upon acres of land cleared for agricultural purposes and paths through the woods, which were routinely cleared of undergrowth by fire.
My own neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island was originally Native American farmland which was traded to Roger Williams and his followers not long after his canoe landed on Fox Point. Roger Williams was not a woodsman by any means. He was a city boy from London who was exiled by the Puritans of Massachusetts for religious reasons. He depended heavily on the Wampanoag and Narragansett people for survival and the area he’s credited for “settling” was already well used by the time he showed up in 1636:
“A Native trail, which stretched from the Massachusetts Bay along the coast to New York, ran around the eastern edge of this cove. The English called this trail Towne Street. Emptying into the cove on the west side of the trail was a fresh water spring. East across the trail from this spring Roger built his house, on the lower slope of a great hill…This area was a resource used by Native Americans for as much as 5000 years. When the salmon were running, members of the Massachusett, Nipmuc, Wampanoag and Narragansett tribes would gather around the cove…” -National Park Service, Roger Williams: Founding Providence
Beyond these Native American settlements and trails were vast forests and mountains where few people ventured. The first Europeans who walked through these woods did not do so for recreation. They were either trappers or frontier folk who intended to make the woods their home, a place where they could settle down, raise some crops and start a family. Native Americans often served as instructors and guides, until they were driven out, decimated by disease or relocated to “Prayer Towns”.
With the influx of European settlers throughout the 1600 and 1700’s many of these wild places were quickly inhabited and more land was cleared. This continued all the way up until the mid to late 1800’s, when most logging and farming operations began to fizzle out. The industrial revolution took hold, farms were abandoned and the people migrated back towards the urban centers to work in the factories and mills popping up. Proof of this can be found in the rock walls that snake endlessly throughout the woods.
Since then, New England has bounced back with 80% of the region now covered by woods again. Compared to 1850 when only 28% of the land was forested this is a huge recovery, especially if you consider there are about ten million more people living throughout the region today. Most of this forest is relatively young; with the only remaining “old growth” woods being found in the Northern and Western parts of Maine. Regardless, according to a Harvard study, New England is the most heavily wooded region in the United States. Hidden throughout these woods is a rich and diverse history and culture which should be discussed and celebrated. I hope this to be the first in a new series of short posts exploring the history of New England, its woods, and its people.