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Topsfield's Pre-Colonial Forest

Page history last edited by Topsfield Town Library 4 years, 3 months ago


Topsfield’s Pre-Colonial Forest: The “Witness Tree” Record

paper by Bruce R. Bolnick, revised 2016

Everyone in Topsfield gets great pleasure from the town’s beautiful wooded landscapes. But have you ever wondered what the forest looked like when the first colonists arrived? Forest conditions have certainly not been static since Chief Masconomet deeded his tribe’s “Woodes, Swampes Timber and whatsoever ells” to Governor John Winthrop and the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1638. When early settlers came up the Agawam/Ipswich River to the location they called New Meadows—soon to be renamed as Toppesfield—they found swampy wetlands, riverine meadows, fields that the Indians had cleared for agriculture, and ancient woodlands dominated by majestic old-growth trees. William Wood, writing in 1634, wrote that many of the woodlands in eastern Massachusetts Bay Colony were open and park-like, without a thick tangle of undergrowth, due to regular brush fires set by the Indians to facilitate hunting.


In time, the ancient forests were cut down as colonists cleared the land for farming, cattle grazing, building material, furniture, firewood, shipbuilding, and other practical uses, such as burning hardwood trees to produce potash for soap and fertilizer. Cronin (2003) cites a document in the 1790s by General Benjamin Lincoln, in Hingham, indicting that coastal residents by that time had to travel 30 to 40 miles inland to obtain timber and planks for building. Historical records for Topsfield indicate that by the early 1800s, the view from the top of Bradstreet Hill (where the Audubon Sanctuary office is now located) was open for many miles in every direction, unobstructed by trees. After the Civil War, when the railroads brought Midwestern crops to eastern cities, farming throughout New England quickly declined and the land began to revert to forest.


How, then, did the pre-colonial forest differ from the regenerated forest that we see today? One way to answer the question would be through the study of pollen grains in soil and pond sediments (called palynology). But only a few locations in the region have been subject to this type of analysis.
Instead, researchers at the Harvard Forest in Petersham, Massachusetts, and later in collaboration with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, spent decades combing through original land division survey records and property deeds from the early colonial era, to study the forest composition at that time. The researchers extracted data from these records in nine northeastern states covering 1300 towns, including Topsfield. More specifically, the researchers examined the early deeds and records to find references to the “witness trees” that surveyors at the time used to mark property corners and road boundaries. Altogether they found records for more than 350,000 witness trees across the northeast. This historical record constitutes a grid-based “eye-witness” sample of the forest composition back in the days when property lines were first established throughout the region.

The researchers had to rely, of course, on tree names given by surveyors, who did not have the benefit of studying an authoritative tree guide. In fact, the early surveys even pre-dated creation of the Linnean system of taxonomy that codified species identifications. Even so, the Harvard researchers contend that early surveyors were “skilled naturalists” by virtue of their trade, as well as having personal familiarity with forest products as part of their everyday life.
One challenge facing the research team was to decipher a variety of vernacular tree names found in the witness tree records, as well as creative spellings (as in maple, mapall, maypole). Overall they found 131 tree names, which they matched to 49 recognizable species—leaving a few odd names as “enigmas” (as in Wicerpee and Tobacco Wood). In addition, many of the eye-witness records cited the tree genus (such as maple) but not the tree species (as it red maple, sugar maple, silver maple?). In some cases the researchers could narrow down the species based on ecological considerations, while in other cases the data set simply shows the genus classification.

One member of the Harvard-Smithsonian research team, Senior Ecologist Jonathan Thompson, kindly provided the present author with the full data file for Massachusetts in the form of an Excel spreadsheet. For Essex county, the data set covers 6469 witness trees, including 125 trees for Topsfield from the period 1674-1715. The relatively small sample size for Topsfield might be attributable to the fact that many of the original property grants involved large parcels, such as: 550 acres to Governor John Endicott; 500 acres to Governor Simon Bradstreet; 800 acres to John Whittingham; and 700 acres to William Paine (Dow, 1940). Large parcels created fewer property corners than would be the case, say, with the smaller plots of 40 to 60 acres that were common in many other colonial towns.


Although the sample size for Topsfield is not especially large, the results are still interesting. Based on the witness tree records, the Topsfield forest in the mid to late 17th century included:
70% Oak, with a nearly even split between white oak and red/black oak.
9% Walnut [see next paragraph]
6% Elm
5% Poplar
3% Pine
3% Maple
2% Ash
2% Other

In short, the local forest at that time was predominantly Oak. It is intriguing to see that the witness tree data for Topsfield included no specific mention of Red Pine, Hemlock, Beech, or Shagbark Hickory—all of which are easy to find today, and would presumably have been identifiable four hundred years ago. According to Cronin (2003), however, the early colonists probably categorized hickories as “walnuts,” and possibly regarded hemlocks as a type of pine.


Judging from the full data set for Essex county, the pine species recorded for Topsfield would have been mostly White Pine, perhaps with Pitch Pine in areas with poorer soil conditions. None of the “maple” trees for Topsfield were recorded at the species level, nor for Essex county as a whole. But most were probably Red Maple (or Soft Maple), which is well suited to swampy, lowland areas, whereas the Sugar Maple (also called Hard Maple or Rock Maple) was typically an upland tree found in western Massachusetts and further north in New England. According to historian Howard Russell (1980), the Sugar Maple was uncommon and did not propagate easily in lowland areas of New England, and maple sugar was not part of the diet of native Americans in those areas. Russell reports that there was not even a word for “sugar” of any sort in a dictionary of the Natick language compiled in 1830 by Josiah Cotton. The earliest mention of maple sugar in the colonial documents from New England, according to Russell, was a hearsay report in 1664 by Robert Boyle. The earliest English-language description of sugaring did not appear until 1720 in a paper presented to the Royal Society by Paul Dudley of Massachusetts—nearly a century after the Pilgrims arrived. (The French in Canada reported on tapping maple trees for sugar much earlier.)


The Harvard-Smithsonian researchers also compared pre-colonial witness tree records with modern forest inventories conducted by the U.S. Forest Service between 2003 and 2008. Although this data set did not include Topsfield, the overall results for the Eastern Broadleaf Forest eco-region (which includes Topsfield) show that maples have increased their forest share by 20 percentage points since the early colonial days, while the share of oak trees has dropped by 22 percentage points. This is a notable change to the forest ecology, because the acorns produced by oak trees are an important source of nourishment for many forest creatures. Otherwise changes in the forest composition have been surprisingly small, considering the wholesale clearing that took place during the first 200 years of settlements.1

One further forest attribute cannot be neglected here: tree size. When the early settlers arrived at New Meadows, they would have seen an old-growth climax forest. We now see a regenerating forest with relatively youthful trees. Pre-colonial Red Oaks could have been more than 400 years old and over 100 feet tall. White Oaks could have been more than 250 years old, reaching up to 140 feet. And the White Pines could have been 300 to 400 years old, growing up to 150 feet tall (inland, they can reach over 180 feet). If you want to enjoy seeing such big trees today, you can find locations for the Massachusetts “champion trees” at: http://www.nativetreesociety.org/fieldtrips/mass/big_trees_ma_1999.htm.

Of course the forest composition is inherently dynamic over the long term. When the glaciers retreated from this area about fourteen thousand years ago, the land was entirely devoid of trees, having been scraped bare by the ice sheet. Over ensuing centuries and millennia the forests were established through a natural process of succession suitable to the local ecology. Today the ecology is again changing due to introduced tree diseases, insect pests, competition from invasive species, and the gradual effects of climate change. For a glimpse at what a warmer, wetter future may bring to New England’s forests, see: http://www.nrs.fs.fed.us/pubs/gtr/gtr_nrs99.pdf.


Footnote 1.

Topsfield had an unusually high representation of elm trees in the witness tree data. These trees have largely been eliminated by the Dutch elm disease. Elm was not common in the witness tree records for the Eastern Broadleaf eco-region as a whole, so the modern forest data at that level show little change for this species.



Cronin, William, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, New York: Hill and Wand, 1983 (reissued in 2003).  View library catalog record.

Dow, George Francis, History of Topsfield, Topsfield: Topsfield Historical Society, 1940. View library catalog record; read online at the Internet Archive.

Russell, Howard S., Indian New England Before the Mayflower, Hanover: University of New England Press, 1980.  View library catalog Record.

Smithsonian Institution, “400-Year Study Finds Northeast Forests Resilient, Changing,” Smithsonian Science News, 5 September, 2013. http://smithsonianscience.si.edu/2013/09/400-year-study-finds-northeast-forests-resilient-changing-%EF%BB%BF/.

Thompson, Jonathan R., Dunbar N. Carpenter, Charles V. Cogbill, and David R. Foster, “Four Centuries of Change in Northeastern United States Forests,” Plos-One 8:9 (September, 2013), e72540. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0072540.


References / Further Reading    

Bolnick, B.R. (2016) Topsfield's Pre-Colonial Forest: The "Witness Tree" Record. [Used by permission of the author. A printed copy may be found in the Topsfield Town Library Vertical File.]




Topsfield Times: A Community and Local HIstory Resource





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