When English colonists arrived on the shores of Massachusetts four hundred years ago, they beheld an unfamiliar territory almost devoid of features that might have reminded them of home. There were no carriage paths or cattle pastures, no rooting hogs or crowing roosters, no church steeples or tolling bells. Steep drumlins loomed above the coast, beyond which forests and marshland stretched westward. Mountain lions skulked behind boulders. Wolves howled at night. To settlers accustomed to a treeless countryside subdued beneath the plow, New England was a “vacant wilderness…a place not inhabited but by the barbarous nations.” Little did they understand the way of life that those nations had created over the past three thousand years.
Massachusetts during the Woodland Period (3,000-400 BP) was not a pristine wilderness, but an increasingly manipulated landscape home to tens of thousands of Native Americans. As post-glacial sea levels stabilized, Woodland peoples adopted new patterns of habitation and movement that spurred agricultural, technological, and cultural development. Many gravitated toward coastal areas and established long-term seasonal settlements, where they began to plant crops. Initially, they selectively bred weedy vegetation including sunflower, goosefoot, and sumpweed, and boiled the seeds in porridges. By 1000 CE, Central American cultivars – maize, squash, and beans – had arrived in New England and were becoming increasingly important in local diets. Woodland peoples’ migratory lifestyles enabled them to diversify their food sources. Archeological evidence, such as shell middens (ancient trash heaps) on Spectacle Island, suggests that Native Americans settled in large villages during the spring and fall, where they planted and harvested crops, fished, clammed, and hunted, and held political meetings (indeed, in 1614, explorer and colonist John Smith recorded that Native peoples grew maize on the Harbor Islands). During the summer and winter, many villages disbanded. Residents moved to smaller settlements in the region to better exploit food sources while crops ripened or the ground lay frozen.
Agriculture transformed the Massachusetts landscape. Though the area remained heavily forested at the time of European contact, patches of cleared ground reflected repeated seasonal use. Native Americans believed that they owned the use of land, rather than the land itself; instead of adopting permanent farming sites, they tilled soil until it was no longer fertile (about eight to ten years) and then relocated. Women cleared new land by setting fires at the base of trees to kill them, and, once the dead wood fell, by burning it away. This method, along with the practice of burning fires all night during both the winter and summer, meant that localized deforestation was common. Thousands of acres near Boston were treeless by 1630; elsewhere, the whitened trunks of girdled trees surveyed cornstalks intertwined with bean and squash vines. Far from a “vacant wilderness,” Massachusetts was an intensively used homeland.
Fire enabled local tribes not only to grow crops and stay warm, but also to hunt, gather, and travel. English colonists were astounded that Woodland peoples set large ground fires in the forests during the spring and fall, and were equally impressed with the effects. The woods near Native villages tended to be clear of tangled undergrowth. The widely spaced trees, grass, and pioneering berry bushes created a park-like setting that attracted game, facilitated hunting, and limited the risk of future fires burning out of control. The relative openness of Woodland Period forests also eased long-distance travel. Overland routes developed over thousands of years, crisscrossing tribal territories. Among the most famous was the Old Connecticut Path: it began near present-day Cambridge, following the Quinobequin ("meandering," later Charles) River through Massachusett territory before curving southwest into Nipmuck land. From there, it passed south of present-day Worcester and continued on to the area along the Connecticut River that would eventually become Hartford. (Parts of the route remain heavily traveled today – the Old Connecticut Path is now known as MA Route 9 and MA Route 126.) Europeans arriving in New England did not have to build everything from scratch. They entered a region that already had the equivalent of an international highway system, which they used to expand their settlements.
At the dawn of the seventeenth century, modern Native tribes were well-established in Massachusetts. They occupied defined homelands and engineered the environment to facilitate a migratory lifestyle that maximized the yield of local resources. They were also increasingly aware of the world beyond the Atlantic – a world that appeared on the horizon as billowing ship sails, dropped anchor and fishing lines in Massachusetts Bay, and, until 1620, never stayed for long.
Last Friday, November 9, the Hingham Student Conservation Association Historical Preservation crew spent the day volunteering at the Speedway Headquarters. Ten young men and women braved blustery weather and mid-autumn chill as they removed vegetation, fallen leaves, and clutter from the complex, filling two 30-yard dumpsters. The work was scheduled in response to concerns expressed by community members at the September public information session that the site was beginning to look untidy, particularly along Western Ave. Thanks to the SCA crew and DCR staff, the Speedway has been spruced up and is ready for construction to begin next spring!
Below are a series of before-and-after photos of the site:
AHF is trilled to announce that in two weeks we will host a Student Conservation Association crew at the Speedway. Affiliated with AmeriCorps, the SCA aims "to build the next generation of conservation leaders" by providing opportunities for teens and young adults to work on public lands. On November 9, eleven members of the Hingham SCA Historic Preservation crew will remove encroaching vegetation from the Speedway property in preparation for the Spring 2019 construction start date.
A big thank-you to the SCA crew members for their eagerness to serve, and to DCR for reaching out to them! We look forward to working with you!
When Boston Harbor was dry land, mastodons roamed. Tusked and shaggy, they foraged along a coastal plain that ended as sedimentary sludge eleven miles east of present-day Long Wharf. They wound their trunks around spruce branches and tugged sharply to dislodge a repast of sweet needles, unaware that their vast boreal habitat would soon be supplanted by sun-loving hardwoods. Occasionally, the beasts glanced up at a nearby drumlin. One could never be too careful of the growing bands of humans who so often lurked behind boulders, lying in ambush with fire and spears.
Such was Massachusetts ten thousand years ago, a land of warming climate and rising seas, home to megafauna on the brink of extinction. For the past million years, Earth had experienced dramatic climatic changes. Temperatures fluctuated, plunging the planet into ice ages interspersed with warmer periods. The most recent Ice Age – through which we are living today – began twenty-five thousand years Before Present (BP). Long winters and cool summers created a snowpack that eventually compacted into an ice sheet stretching from the Arctic to present-day New Jersey. At its maximum extent, the ice contained 5% of the planet’s water, lowering ocean levels by hundreds of feet. As the glaciers expanded and moved, they accumulated silt, pebbles, and boulders. These sediments were deposited when the glaciers began to melt around 18,000 BP, leaving a stony landscape of glacial features familiar to Bostonians today: moraines (Cape Cod), drumlins (the Harbor Islands, Bunker and Beacon Hills), and kettle ponds (Walden Pond), among others. By 14,000 BP, the ice sheet had completely receded from Massachusetts. What remained was a treeless, frigid tundra whose coastline would gradually disappear beneath waves of glacial meltwater.
As vegetation returned to the region, animals and ancient humans arrived as well. Paleo-Indians and their Archaic Period descendants (8,000-3,000 BP) settled along the coastline and rivers, where they enjoyed abundant fish, shellfish, and game. Over time, they transitioned from living in small bands to inhabiting villages. Archaic peoples led a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, migrating seasonally between hills and lowlands, forests and estuaries to secure food and supplies. They built canoes and fish weirs from wood, carved harpoons and awls from bone, and chiseled arrow and spear points, knives, pestles, and gaming pieces from stone. They wove baskets and decorated animal hide clothing with beads. Archaic peoples were deeply familiar with the Boston-area landscape and waterways. Such knowledge enabled Boston-area inhabitants to survive and thrive.
Archaeologists have identified many Archaic settlements throughout Boston. The Harbor Islands, popular fishing and clam digging sites, are littered with artifacts, from net weights to jewelry. In 1913 and the 1940s, subway construction workers unearthed four thousand-year-old fish weirs along Boylston Street, a former wetland. Later, in 1982, archaeologists discovered hearths, earthen pits, and various artifacts associated with hunting, stone tool production, and food preparation near the Charlestown Navy Yard – relics of three temporary occupation sites spanning the years between 5000 and 1,200 BP. This period witnessed the transformation of local Native civilization. Plants became a dietary staple to such an extent that villages began to develop agricultural practices. Emerging long-distance trade routes supplied people with goods from as far away as the Hudson River and, perhaps, the Great Lakes. Women used glacial deposits of clay to create ceramics, refining their artistry in ways that enable today’s archaeologists to date excavation sites by analyzing the pottery they contain. These dramatic developments in Northeast American civilization marked the transition from the Archaic to Early Woodland Periods. They gave rise to modern Native tribes and set the stage for the cultural and economic conditions that Europeans encountered when they first set foot in Massachusetts four hundred years ago.
As we finalize our plans for the Speedway redevelopment project, AHF is doubling down on community engagement. We are excited to announce the launch of the Speedway Instagram page! Follow us: charlesriverspeedway
A friendly reminder that the Speedway is also on Facebook, and that AHF is on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Stay in touch!
Imagine a world where South America is at the South Pole, Siberia, along the Tropic of Capricorn, and Greenland, at the Equator. In this world, Florida is a frigid strip of coast connecting South America and Africa. Canada bakes beneath a bright equatorial sun. The rest of North America is a scuba-diver's paradise – assuming scuba-divers numbered among the primitive, single-cell organisms that existed 550 million years ago.
Welcome to the Late Precambrian, an era of dramatic geological change and the beginning of New England’s story. At this point, the earth was 3.5 billion years old. It had already experienced multiple episodes of continental drift, volcanism, and glaciation. The Grenville Mountain chain, formed during an earlier period of tectonic collision, had eroded. All that remained was a small layer of bedrock and a large amount of sediment that would eventually become western Massachusetts. Three major continents contained most of the planet’s land mass: Laurentia, Baltica, and the supercontinent Gondwana, whose coastline roiled with volcanic activity. The earthquakes and lava flows were symptoms of tectonic subduction (when one tectonic plate dives beneath another) and rifting (when two plates diverge). Over time, these subterranean stirrings formed the Avalon mountain range and Boston Rift Basin off the coast of present-day South America. We now call this region New England.
As Earth entered the Cambrian Period, Avalon broke away from Gondwana. Sediments filled the rift basin and compressed into the Cambridge Argillite and Roxbury Conglomerate (puddingstone) rock formations underlying Greater Boston today. Between 430 and 390 million years ago, Avalon collided with Laurentia, forming the Northern Appalachians. This period of tectonic uplift coincided with rising oxygen levels and an explosion of multicellular life. Complex organisms spread across the globe as New England rose from the depths of the ocean.
Over the succeeding eons, the planet’s crust continued to transform. The continents collided again 250 million years ago to form Pangaea, lifting the Appalachians to Himalayan heights, and then separated fifty million years later. This period of rifting created today’s continents and instigated more lava flows. We can still see evidence of this geological turbulence in the igneous and metamorphic rocks of Worcester County.
Volcanic activity subsided as the continents drifted to their present locations. Massachusetts was thereafter shaped by deposition, weathering, and erosion. Temperatures rose, fell, and rose again, causing frequent glaciations that carved the Northeastern bedrock. Meanwhile, life evolved. The region was alternately submerged in shallow seas teeming with crustaceans and fish, and raised high and dry, a coastal forest where dinosaurs roamed. By the time Homo sapiens arrived in New England twelve thousand years ago, the region was a frozen tundra. The latest Ice Age scarred the landscape with eskers, dimpled it with kettle ponds, and pimpled it with erratics – a rugged topography that determined where humans settled, and upon which they would eventually unleash their transformative might.
The Architectural Heritage Foundation is thrilled to announce the launch of our Instagram and Twitter pages! Follow us:
Four steeds rounded the bend, their hooves churning the dusty track. Nostrils dilated, they strained against the leather straps fastened tight across their chests and tossed their manes against the tug of the reins. Pulled along in their wake stood a reincarnated Porphyrius: proudly erect on a painted chariot and squinting against the sun's glare, his toga billowing in the horses' slipstream. Over the clattering of his carriage, he could hear the roar of spectators crowding the track and the thunderous hoofbeats of his competitors not far behind.
Leslie Jones snapped a photograph.
Far from occurring in a Roman stadium, this scene took place in 20th-century Brighton. The mile-long Speedway racetrack that ran along present-day Soldiers Field Road was a popular site for a variety of racing competitions: horseback, harness, bicycle...and chariot. Dressed in a togas, each competitor harnessed four horses (likely stabled in the Speedway Headquarters complex) to his chariot and, with the Harvard Colosseum - sorry, Stadium - as a backdrop, vied for the glory of becoming Boston's best charioteer.
Boston photographer Leslie Jones (1886-1967) documented a Speedway chariot race sometime between 1917 and 1934. A self-described "camera-man" who worked for the Boston Herald-Traveler, he photographed both notable events and everyday life in the city. Today, his work is an invaluable record of 20th-century Boston history and can be viewed in the Boston Public Library's digital collections: https://www.digitalcommonwealth.org/collections/commonwealth:2j62s484w. Below are Jones' pictures of a Speedway chariot race.
Although chariot racing isn't part of AHF's revitalization plans for the Speedway, we look forward to creating a similarly vibrant atmosphere in the redeveloped complex. Until then, why not take a modern chariot for a spin down Soldiers Field Road or along the Charles River bike path and enjoy the fall foliage?
Today representatives from AHF, DCR, and Nitsch Engineering took a tour of the Speedway's drainage system. We're working on a plan to modernize the system so that it protects the Charles River from run-off. Here are some photos of our visit:
Thanks to all who came to yesterday's public information session about AHF's plans for the Speedway! We appreciate your input and look forward to updating you on the Speedway's progress over the coming months. Feel free to contact us with any other questions.