- Historic Sites
The Woods Around Us
For those with the eyes to read them, New England’s forests, pastures, and stout stone walls reveal cycles of rural life
August 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 5
Once the first settlements were chipped out of the edge of the wilderness, immigrants arrived in increasing numbers. In many cases entire communities came directly from England to start a new life together in the New World. Then, as immigration and natural increase brought crowding in the first tight little communities, groups began to split off and settle in new places.
Naturally the most fertile and accessible regions filled up first. By 1700 there were 80,`0 people living in the low-lying areas along the coast and up the great central valley of Connecticut and Massachusetts as far as Northfield. By 1776 Thomas Pownall could write that the land between New Haven and Hartford was “a rich, well cultivated Vale thickly settled & swarming with people. … It is as though you were still traveling along one continued town for 70 or 80 miles on end.”
As time went on, the flood tide of settlement moved westward and northward, creeping up out of the broad valleys and into the more rigorous hills. Litchfield, in the upland of western Connecticut, was founded in 1719. Petersham in central Massachusetts was settled between 1733 and 1750; Grafton County, New Hampshire, between 1760 and 1772. By 1780 the farthest frontier stood in central Maine and Vermont.
The years between 1830 and 1860 were the heyday of New England agriculture. Probably every American’s response to the idea of living in the country is colored by the image of the family-sized New England farm of those days. The farm was as nearly as possible a self-contained economic unit, with useful work for everyone, however large the family might grow. The littlest ones could hold the skein of yarn to be wound for grandmother’s knitting or set out milk for the cats, who in turn earned their keep as mousers. A boy was needed for man’s work as soon as his muscles were strong enough. And a woman’s life was filled with the routine but tangibly constructive work of sewing and cooking and the eternal details of keeping a family clean and comfortable.
Pleasures were simple and homemade. It the household needed outside distractions, there were plenty of neighbors within gathering distance for barn-raisings or quilting parties. Odell Shepard, writing about Connecticut, said, “In early days our people could see the lights in one another’s windows and could communicate by shouting from farm to farm. An old man has told me that in his youth it was possible to arrange a barn dance among a dozen of his neighbors without any man’s stirring from his front door. … Another old man has told, me of the time, far back, when he, sitting under his elm tree on a Sunday afternoon, could see seven or eight friends of his sitting in front of their several houses and under their own elms.” For the most sobersided there was always Sunday church meeting and the excitement of occasional camp-meeting revivals.
We have an outsider’s picture of the times from Harriet Martineau, an English “authoress” who traveled widely in America in 1834–36 and wrote a charming and lively account of what she saw and what she thought about it. One of the houses where she visited stood on a hilltop in Stockbridge, a handsome old town in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. From her host’s doorway she could see everything that went on in the busy village, since, apart from the forest-covered mountains, the entire landscape consisted of lush green fields, broken only by the road and the Housatonic River. She also visited Gloucester and thought that “the place has the air of prosperity that gladdens the eye wherever it turns, in New England”; and she saw what Karl Marx never realized, that “as a mere matter of convenience, it is shorter and easier to obtain property by enterprise and labour in the United States, than by pulling down the wealthy.”
Although the first aim of a farm in those days was to provide the family’s material needs, a cash crop of some sort was needed on even the meagerest place to provide for a few necessities such as iron tools and salt; and many of life’s amenities were available for the buying. Most of the scant plowable land was needed for subsistence crops, but there was plenty of steep and stony land that made satisfactory grazing for cattle as soon as it was cleared of trees. Over the years, consequently, more and more cattle were raised for a market crop, and an increasing proportion of farmland was devoted to hay and pasture.
Even in the midst of this happy summer season, and before the frontier tide had reached the northern limits of the country, the ebb had begun almost unnoticed from the earlier settled regions. It was the little towns in the hills that slipped first. It took only a generation or two of life on a high, remote farm, where summers are short and winters long and bitter, and where the sheep need sharp noses to graze between the rocks, to send a farmer off looking for a more promising place. There is the case of the Connecticut hill town of Hartland, scarcely twenty miles from Hartford. The population of Hartland Township has shown a decrease in every federal census since the first one in 1790. The condition soon spread; and by 1820 many towns in rural areas of southern Vermont and New Hampshire had begun to lose population.
For a long time the trend of the migration was northward into the still-empty parts of upper New England. Gradually, however, an even stronger tide to the west set in as the front line of advancing settlement poured out onto the fertile, level lands beyond the Alleghenies. The floodgates to the Midwest really swung wide with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the beginning of steam navigation on the Great Lakes in the 1830’s.