Focal Places in Burlington

The Intervale : Intervales In New England

Human history in New England’s river valleys goes back at least 14,000 years, when people travelled north following the melting of glaciers and inhabited the newly exposed tundra landscape. Early inhabitants of New England hunted big game animals, fished in rivers and along coastlines, and gathered wild plants as food, medicine, and technology. As the climate warmed and Ice Age megafauna went extinct, human communities shifted their lifeways towards horticulture, agriculture, and semi-permanent settlements. This new pattern of settlement and land use was concentrated along coastlines and around intervales.

Intervales weave through the mountains of Vermont, visible on this map in yellow. The Champlain Valley’s flatter topography also appears yellow in this map, but contains the western extension of four major intervales –

Intervale huskcherry
Intervale Huskcherry
the Otter Creek, Winooski, Lamoille, and Mississquoi river valleys – which originate in the Green Mountains to the east. To learn more about the ancient history of New England people, Frederick Matthew Wiseman’s The Voice of the Dawn and Reclaiming the Ancestors, as well as William Haviland’s The Original Vermonters are excellent resources. Jan Albers’ Hands on the Land also provides a nice, concise introduction to Vermont's first inhabitants.

The rich alluvial soils redeposited in floods generation after generation, milder climate at low elevations, abundance and diversity of river & floodplain ecosystems, and ease of travel by foot and boat made intervales the “common pot” of native communities throughout New England. In particular, the long growing season and rich soils made intervales much more suitable for agriculture than upland sites.

Intervale sunchoke
Intervale Sunchoke
First with Eastern Agricultural Complex crops such as Jerusalem artichokes, sunflowers, groundnuts, husk cherries, and tobacco, and later with the Three Sisters guild of corn, beans and squash, native people in interior New England grew the staple crops that their communities relied on primarily in intervales.

Traditional land use in intervales included:

  • Diverse annual and perennial crop agriculture
  • Burning to maintain meadows and prairies
  • Harvesting wild food, medicine, and tool crops from floodplain forests
  • Hunting game animals and managing their habitat through clearing and fire
  • Managing nut groves (butternut, hickory, chestnut, oak) through clearing and fire for tree health, mast size, and understory crops
  • Fishing with spears, nets, weirs, and traps