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.
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.