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In the Classroom > Unit Overview > Lesson 3

Lesson Three
The Landscape in the Colonial Period

by Susan McGowan

"In the beginning all the world was America." John Milton (1608-1674)

The Europeans who came to New England were, in general, an ordered, religious kind of people and they pursued a rational process of settlement, in keeping with their interpretation of the Bible. That good book had taught them that the Garden of Eden was a disciplined and, therefore, good environment and the wilderness into which Adam and Eve were cast out was chaotic and, therefore, bad. Their views toward the Native people were similar - that is, that the harshness of the wilderness accounted for the savage state of the Natives. The Natives lived an untamed existence in an untamed world and the mission of the new settlers was to civilize the people and the land to European specifications. The challenge of the yeoman farmer was to convert the land from a (useless) wilderness to a (useful) garden, in the name of God. They began immediately to wrest the land from a forested state and to make it flourish in the tradition of husbandry they had brought with them from England. Their tools were the ax and the plow.

The English believed wholeheartedly in the concept of "vacuum domicilium." For, "it is a principle in nature that in a vacant soyle, hee that taketh possession of it and bestoweth culture and husbandry upon it has an inviolable right to the land."

Although they believed they had a right to the "vacant land," the first wave of English immigrants did not expect to realize the full benefits of the taming of the wilderness. As one moves from a civilized environment into unsettled, wild areas, one loses some aspects of the life that one has had and which might not be recovered by that generation. The initial journey from English shores to those of the new land resulted in loss as well as gain. Their standard of living was diminished, but that loss was balanced by the fact that the land on which they lived was theirs to own. Each push westward - from the seat of the Massachusetts Bay Colony at Boston to Watertown or to Medfield, to Dedham and hence to Deerfield - resulted in both losses and gains. There was only the promise of prosperity and it would come to the descendants of those who stayed.

Most of the English settlements in New England were agricultural from the beginning because their founders intended them to be permanent, and no settlement could survive if it could not feed itself. Virtually all the immigrants drawn to the rich soil along the Connecticut River received some land to insure that families had the means to provide for their basic sustenance. The towns in the Connecticut River Valley, as elsewhere in New England, were settled in an orderly way, as towns, and not as individual homesteads.

The river towns were laid out on the site of previously cleared lands, used by the Natives for agriculture in the 1600s. The woods were not dense thickets because the Indians had burned them, usually annually in the autumn, to keep them open for ease of travel and for the purpose of observing approaching enemies. The English utilized the first terrace above the river for tillage, taking advantage of the refertilization supplied by the spring floods, and assigned the second river terrace for the village street with designated homelots. These elevated plains attracted settlers because they were devoid of trees and provided sufficient height for protection against floods. Families were assigned long lots that were developed with a house, garden, orchard, and outbuildings, averaging three to six acres in size. The colonists saw no reason to make a place for nature on their homelots; to the people of the pre-industrial age, nature was not an entity to be courted and admired, but rather to be used to the best advantage. The fertile land near the river was used for planting and the rushing streams promised power to operate sawmills and gristmills. The woodlots, separate from the homelots, were used mainly for fuel -3/5ths of a standing acre was necessary for each family annually.

Springfield, established in 1636, was the earliest Massachusetts town along the Connecticut River, and developed into a unique community that resembled a cross between a feudal manor and a company town, largely owing to the tight controls invoked by founder William Pynchon and his son, John. During the 1650s and 1660s settlers established, with John Pynchon's assistance and encouragement, a series of towns along the Connecticut River north of Springfield.

These towns were a product, not of long continuous development, but instead, of a rapid process of town planning which was not constrained by existing physical structures and property lines of previous European settlement. The tightly clustered settlements of large and small land holders living adjacent to one another were focused on the meetinghouse and maintained a high degree of internal social order and self-maintenance. Attendance at religious worship and at town meetings was obligatory and enforced by town meeting. There was a strong sense of interdependency and community early on and on a daily basis. The nucleated village, one of many forms present in England during the medieval period, is associated with attempts to reorganize and control agricultural production and to facilitate control over the village's population through an emphasis on ordered land use and face-to-face observation of each villager's daily activities. These nucleated villages were laid out along a single street, surrounded by common fields. Townsmen owned their land individually; the adjacent farm land or plow land was laid out in long strips beyond the actual homelots. The farming of the common fields that surrounded the homelots was a group enterprise. Both labor and equipment were shared; lack of adequate tools and danger of straying too far from the village were undoubtedly two of the reasons. The town meeting regulated grazing seasons, planting time, and when the fences or bars would be raised or lowered. In Deerfield all landowners were required to maintain a portion of the common field fence; by the early eighteenth century that fence was nearly fourteen miles long.

Most of the families moving into western Massachusetts were headed by yeomen farmers of modest means or young men coming of age who were lured by the reports of rich meadow lands. The younger and generally poorer settlers were able to afford land in the more-exposed settlements north of Springfield and Hadley and were content to make do with considerably less than their neighbors further south. The dangers were apparent immediately. In King Philip's war of 1675-1676, because of their isolated location and relatively small populations, the river towns in western Massachusetts suffered particularly heavy losses of both life and property.

Deerfield was one of the new towns along the valley of the Connecticut River in the 1660s. As the General Court granted 8,000 acres "in the wilderness" to the Proprietors of Dedham, Massachusetts, and, as they declared ownership to the place, Dedham people were not ignorant of the fact that "other people" had lived on their newly-claimed lands. In 1665 many of the Pocumtuck peoples had been destroyed in war with the Mohawks and the remainder of the population scattered. The Natives did not necessarily move back to the settlement, but they continued to lay claim to their homelands and to utilize the land. In the purchase of the land from the Pocumtucks by the men from Dedham (five deeds survive), while a concept that the Natives probably did not clearly understand, the system, fully understood by the English, served to legally legitimize the English claims to the land.

The next step in the orderly process was to hire a surveyor to lay out the homelots and the fields. The plan of 1671 by Dedham surveyor Joshua Fisher served to permanently transform the land at Pocumtuck from the source of livelihood for a mixed agricultural, hunting and gathering people without permanent dwellings or fixed claims to the land, to an ordered and owned landscape of English agriculture and husbandry, strengthening the already accepted premise that by enclosure, agriculture, and the establishment of permanent dwellings that a long-term claim to the land could be established. When Joshua Fisher presented his report on May 16, 1671, he had defined forty-three houselots laid out on both sides of a six-rod-wide common street running north to south on a mile long elevated "banke or ridge of land."

The Proprietors first determined the location of each Proprietor's houselot based on a random drawing and then worked out each lot's size based on the number of cow commons each Proprietor held in Dedham. The eventual placement of the houses, facing each other on the mile-long street, suggested both a Puritan watchfulness and a healthy respect for the dangers of the wilderness behind them.

Although the layout of the town and the system of governance that was adopted followed common practices of other English settlers in other English towns, there were some departures. Only a few of the Dedham men came to Deerfield; most of the original Proprietors speculated with the lands and sold to others from the east or from towns south in the Connecticut River Valley. As a result two very different groups of people established residence: 1) the Dedham Proprietors, a formal, careful, legalistic body who ordered the Town Plan; 2) the Others, a rougher, poorer group of risk-takers.

By 1673 the new town of "Paucomptucke" - soon to be Deerfield - was granted, by the General Court, "the liberty of a towneship." This meant the actual settlers would manage the affairs of the town, since most of the men with strong Dedham connections had sold or had failed to claim their rights. In addition, the General Court increased Pocumtuck's land holdings from 8,000 acres to a tract "seven miles square," provided an "able and orthodox minister" be settled within three years. In 1675 there were about two hundred residents, the adults ranging in age from eighteen to sixty-six. Early Deerfield was as poor as any village in Massachusetts. The struggle to survive in the hostile environment took time and energy away from the task of making a living and, in its position "at the very tip of a thin knife blade of settlement" up the Connecticut Valley, the town was isolated from resources and markets for trade. The very fact that the settlers had placed themselves at the narrow north end of their seven-mile-long grant, far from the neighboring town of Hatfield, implies that they knew where the good farm land lay and were willing to accept isolation in the bargain.

In its governance, economics, religion, and social order, Deerfield was inwardly directed, closed, interdependent, and communal. As for "rugged individualism," a trait often associated with people on the frontier, in Deerfield the frontier drove people together and actually inhibited individualism. The people may have had a vision of what their town could be but they were driven by what it had to be in a rough, rude, violent, and unpredictable world. In a sense, they maintained not one community but a web of communities: first, a ring of governance that was small, tight, and rarely extended beyond Deerfield itself; second, a ring of economics that was slightly wider and included the nearby towns with barter and trade; third, a ring of kinship and religion that stretched further down the Valley; and fourth, a ring of military involvement which included the larger world of Springfield, Hartford, Boston, and even Europe and England. Deerfield was alone, but it was not hermetically sealed; it was a part of a larger world.

Deerfield sat on the edge of English settlement for forty years and while it did the frontier dominated its life. The frontier was fluid and was capable of expanding and contracting, more porous than hedge-like, with trade and interaction between Indian and Indian, English and Indian, and English and English throughout the 17th century, but the risk of disappearing was a risk that was felt every day. When the frontier line of settlement moved on after about 1715, with the establishment of the line of forts across the northern boundaries of present-day Massachusetts, the re-establishment of Northfield, and the eventual settlement of the hill towns to the west, Deerfield changed. The people gained a security which, in turn, bestowed continuity. After half a century the town kept a generation of settlers intact and began to witness steady growth from within. Protected by water and hills, tamed to their standards, and surrounded by rich farmland, neatly cultivated, with their fruit trees arranged in neat rows, the people in the town of Deerfield could see, from every direction, order wrought from chaos.


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