HST 296E: Rural Life in the United States
University of Vermont
Prof. Dona Brown

Donahue, Brian, The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord. (New London: Yale University Press, 2004.)

About the Book: On occasion, a history book will be written that fundamentally changes how a topic should be approached thereafter. This is one of those books. It makes us wonder how any study of early colonial settlers could have left out the most fundamental aspect of that life: the land they settled on. Beautifully written and meticulously researched, the book traces the land around Concord as it was settled and altered during the first hundred years of Anglo occupation.

About the illustrations:
Most of the photographs were taken by Herbert Gleason during the early 20th cent. Donahue chose them to show an environment that was closer to original land use patterns. He bases much of his research on GIS maps, some compiled from records of the mid 17th century.


Did excessive deforestation and extensive farming by colonialists wear out the land to the point that, by 1850, it could not support the population? Donahue's intention is to answer that question by looking at how the land was actually used.

Though there are no comprehensive records for the period before the tax valuation of Concord was in 1749, which recorded number of acres plowed and planted, number of livestock, and amount of harvests he has been able to piece together information about the how the land was used by examining assessors' maps using GIS.

"My contention is that colonial agriculture in Concord was an ecologically sustainable adaptation of English mixed husbandry to a new, challenging environment." (p. xv) The object of early colonial farmers was a comfortable subsistence that would be generationally secure. It's practice relied on careful husbandry, a balance between plowlands, orchard, meadow, pasture, woodland, and manure. It was not exploitive in the sense that overproduction to extract a single commodity was its goal. Rapid population growth and an increasingly important market economy put pressure on this model.

Donahue explores how English husbandry was adapted to Concord and how well it held up for five generations. He takes an ecological approach, exploring the ecosystem through the use of maps. It is not a comprehensive look at NE ecosystems in general, (for example he does not examine the transformation of native flora and fauna), rather a look at farming systems. He also does not examine women's roles and activities. However, he brings his own experience with mixed husbandry to bear. "Where we live, good plowland is often poor for grass, and good grassland is difficult to plow. I don't recall ever reading this simple fact in a book about New England's agricultural history. . . It is a thing you learn by watching the arable home field scorch in an August drought, while those rockbound hillsides stay green." (p. xviii)

"I set out expecting to find that my forbears on this soil and in these woods were primarily agents of the dominant tradition of market exploitation, perhaps in spite of themselves. What I found instead--and what I think is the most significant story I have to tell--is that here we have an unusual interlude in American agrarian history in which the tradition of sustainable husbandry was, for several generations at least, more powerful than the extractive drive." (p. xix)

Chapter 1: Introduction

Concord was the first inland settlement of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. "This book is about what a few dozen square miles of land surrounding the Great Meadow were made of, how that land came to be the way it was, and what the English husbandmen who arrived in 1635 made of it." (p. 2)

The land is a result of glaciation. The Town and Bridge meadows lie on top of a former glacier lake bed, thus the soil is easy to work, though prone to wet. This combination grows coarse native hay, very good for animals.

The earliest settlers came from the open-field tradition in England, based on communal farming, including the fencing system to keep animals out of crops. It involved dividing land according to its usefulness. Portions would be owned by individuals but used communally. (p. 7) Communal improvements were also made. The Great Meadow produced good hay only when the river did not flood excessively. Thus, early ecological transformations focused on controlling flooding. (p. 8)

During the First Division of the land granted to the settlers, 1/4 of 30,000 acres was alloted, with the remainder left as Common land. Homes were built clustered together in the village, with the workable land surrounding that. In the next generation, the land was divided again. This Second Division saw more privatization of land. Normally, younger sons retained the village lot and the father's holdings, while older sons got consolidated 2nd division parcels.

Chapter 2: Musketaquid: The Native Ecological System

The land which is now called Concord was periodically covered with ice during the “ice ages” that Earth goes through due to its orbital tilt and other variables such as carbon dioxide and ocean currents. During this time, the land was molded by the ever advancing and retreating ice – accompanied by water.

The last time the ice shelf retreated was some 13000 years ago, and we currently live in on of the typically short inter-glacial periods (10.000 years on average), the Holocene Epoch.

Soil makeup in Concord after the last retreat of the ice shelf. (Table 2.1. – page 27.)
As the ice had departed, the creation of the “real” soil started, as scientists choose to label the soil that the glacier leaves behind “parental material”. This “real” soil consists of all the biomaterial that is packed upon the parental material and would include all living organisms and vegetation. At first the developing soil would have been labeled tundra as we now find in the Northern parts of Canada and Russia, but soon other vegetation moved in from the south. Forest returned to Concord some 12000 years ago, and from that time the flora has changed continuously. Scientists can study this development through fossil pollen grains, and as time passed, more hardwood species such as elm, ash and maple migrated into the area. Important nut species such as Hickory and Chestnut were slow to migrate – 5000 and 2000 years ago respectively.

Humans made their way across the ice shelf connecting Asia and America, and humans have been present in Concord during the last 10.000 years (at least). Paleoindians probably arrived in strength just after 11000 years ago, and these people were hunter/gatherers. During their time, a number of large game animals such as caribou, and mammoths were either migrating somewhere else or going extinct and so the Paleoindian way of life could not be sustained. However, human presence was lingering after that, and other food sources such as shellfish, small game and nuts became more important in the diet.

1000 years ago horticulture was adopted by natives in Southern New England, which allowed for much greater populations compared to the hunter/gatherers in Northern New England. These people called the place that later became Concord, Musketaquid = Grass-ground River. 

Donahue speculates whether these Musketaquid Indians used fire to control their environment and older data even suggests that their predecessors used fire to some extent. He also raises the question on whether the Musketaquid way of life would have been sustainable if the Europeans would not have arrived and answered that question for him. Did they also degrade the land?

Chapter 3: Mixed Husbandry: The English Ecological System

In 1635 English settlers arrive in Concord and introduce a new kind of agriculture to the land – one that had developed over centuries in England. Donahue calls this mixed husbandry as the English depended on both livestock and arable farming. The largest part of these people came from a pastoral area of England, while other prominent families came from arable regions. “The story of Concord” for the next centuries “revolves around the adaptation of that English heritage to a new environment” (p. 54).

Mixed husbandry has some advantages over simple agrarian or pastoral life. Livestock produces important sources of protein such as milk, meat and other byproducts such as leather and wool. Livestock also enabled the farmer to plow and cultivate harder and rockier lands, where the hoe (that the Native Americans used primarily) would not do. Furthermore, the livestock could cart heavy things around and provide manure for fertilizing the cropland.

As English mixed husbandry started to reach the upper levels of its sustainability during the late Middle Ages, the land used for growing grass for the livestock came in shorter supply as more land was used for cropping. “Meadows covered only about 4% of the English landscape by the 13th century and they were the most valuable kind of land” (60). This meant that there was less manure to fertilize the arable land and so this agricultural system was beginning to crack.

Wooded lands were also very scarce in England, and “by the end of the Roman era Britain was well cultivated. By 1086 England was only about 15% wooded, and by 1350 only 10% of the ancient woodland remained” (61).

The 14th century basically sucked for England, and Donahue compares it to the convergence of the four apocalyptic horsemen. Between 1315 and 1322 wet weather destroyed harvests resulting in the “Great Famine”. “In some areas population was already down 30% even before the Black Death” (p. 66) which arrived in 1348 from the mainland. The plague killed at least one-third of the remaining population and brought it down to about 3 million. Growth did not return until the middle of the 16th century, but by 1650 the population was about to reach similar size as before the 14th century (5m +). 

The same thing happened in the 17th century, and the forests and the meadows suffered at the expense of the cropped land. However, this time the population could be vented off over to America and so the mixed husbandry did not strain the land too much. Furthermore, technological advances in agriculture allowed for greater yield which was further fueled by an emerging market. This involved rotating crops with clover and legumes which replenished the soil with nitrogen. This would not work as well in New England as the soil there was more acidic and there were no readily available sources of lime that could remedy this.

Chapter 4: The First Division and the Common Field System

Donahue begins this section with the creation and frontier myths of the European settling of New England: Edward Johnson's Wonder-Working Providence of 1654 which depicts the pioneering Puritans braving an inhospitable land to found a new settlement; the famous Concord farmers that sparked the Revolutionary War; and with the "launcher" of the American ecological movement, Henry Thoreau.

The first settlers did not come into an untamed wilderness, though they may have considered it so. What they found was a land that had been supplying trappers for some years, and also had been terra-formed to a certain extent by the indigenes that preceded them and who, after decimation by disease in the twenty years before their arrival, had all but disappeared from the scene. The colonists task was to adapt their cultural model of mixed husbandry to the land and climate in which they found themselves.

The town was laid out near the meadows and abutting fields previously tilled by the Indians. Many of the settlers came from open-field/commons communities in England and so structured their settlement the same way.

The Commons System in Concord

There is no direct record of how land was divided in the First Division, however, the divisions were recorded in the 1650s-60s in preparation of the Second Division. Donahue bases his conclusions on that. The land was divided into:
Ecological Challenges Facing the Commons Systems in Concord

The settlers, in trying to transplant a fairly complex communal husbandry system developed over time in England, to the new environment of Concord. In so doing they faced two problems: 1) "finding the right combination of crops and livestock, integrating them into a working system," and 2) determining if the commons system could work under these new circumstances (as opposed to individual farms). (p. 87)

They determined early on that traditional English grains would not do as well as Indian corn, with the exception of rye. The soil in Concord was suited to Indian farming with its longer use/fallow cycles, the use of felled and burned trees for enrichment, and the light texture that could be worked by hoe. It was less suited to the more intensive and plow-based English farming, so Concord farmers began fertilizing it, first with fish, later with dung as their livestock numbers increased.

Folding, the process of allowing livestock, especially sheep, to graze and fertilize fallow fields, was more difficult in New England. Sheep were not as easy to raise (climate, soil and predators), the grazing season was much shorter and so not that much manure would be produced, and the timing was wrong: folding in England was done prior to sewing winter wheat when the herd was largest. Folding in New England would have needed to be done before sewing corn in the spring. So, manure had to be carted from the barnyard. Given the wide dispersion of fields, this eventually became an impractical process.

Another challenge was providing enough hay for fodder for the longer New England winters. Meadows in Concord were often two wet to mow. Regulating the water of hay meadows had occurred over generations in England. Such work, crucial to the colonists farming practice, was also undertaken in Concord and continued for generations. Again, the land lots were dispersed to ensure that all farmers had access to hay, even though they might have to cart it from great distance.

New England had provided food for browsing animals, especially deer, but was not rich in grasses that "responded well to constant grazing." (p. 95) Rainfall patterns were also different from England, with similar total numbers but a different distribution: more long dry stretches that resulted in soil ill-suited to traditional English grazing plants. Settlers could choose between clearing more common land for marginally good grazing, or, as they actually did, they could improve their own lots.

Wood was also a challenge: they had plenty but needed more than in England for fuel (remember those longer winters!). They also, early on, ran into a conflict between wood for fuel and necessities which was cut from common land, and wood that was prized for selling by individuals for its commercial value (white oak). Privatizing woodlots to control who had access to white oak and its profits became a contentious part of the Second Division process.

The Decline of the Commons in Concord

The 1640/50s in Concord added two additional challenges: exceptionally cold weather, and Civil War in England that disrupted trade and diminished immigration. Concord was almost abandoned. "In England, the common field system had appeared during the Middle Ages when sufficient population pressure made the tight regulation of field rotations necessary, to maximize grazing with the expanding arable fields and to integrate the delivery of manure by the sheepfold." This worked less well in Concord and so as the second generation came of age they decided to move to an individual farm system, mostly as a way to protect the "best lands" for their heirs.

Chapter 5: The Second Division

"On January 2, 1653, the householders of Concord assembled in town meeting and agreed to a sweeping division of the commons" (p. 102) although they retained rights for communal pasturage on the commons. The town was divided into thirds with each group made responsible for its portion (determining how the land would be divided, creating and  maintaining roads, controlling animals, etc.) The division was communitarian, but not egalitarian--people of greater wealth and standing received more land. Nor was it divided in a grid system. Settlers bargained for diverse holdings, and so the resulting division is quite complicated. It also occurred over several generations. (Donahue looks at these divisions in detail, tracing them through GIS maps based on the records.) Once common property became personal property it was taxed. Taxes were needed to pay the General Court (the governmental organization in Boston), for surveying, clearing titles, building a meetinghouse and hiring a minister, and roads and bridges.

Land Division Strategies

Land was divided based on two main desires; providing sufficient land for one's heirs, and providing diverse enough land to support them without recourse to use of the commons (i.e. they needed tillage, pasture, meadows, woodlands)
Persistence of the Commons

Despite the divisions that apportioned them to individual ownership, the Great Field and the Great Meadow remained in common use, with that use being strictly regulated. These jointly managed areas were fenced as two communal units, for two weeks in October to keep grazing livestock in, but for most of the year to keep animals out. Maintaining this dense and tall fence required fairly intense labor. Some areas were vulnerable (and once in, livestock could damage the entire area) while some areas were inconvenient (roads with gates  throughout the commons). The area fenced dwindled and the fenced commons was finally dissolved in 1778.

"The transition to private, enclosed farming was more nearly completed by the 1730s, when Concord had been settled to its borders and almost all land and livestock had come under individual management as well as ownership. But this did not mean that farmers even then became single-mindedly devoted to maximizing individual profits from their land. Throughout the colonial period, they remained bound one and all by family and community obligations and expectations and by the limitations of their environment and their markets into a system that was oriented primarily toward yielding a comfortable way of life directly from the diverse elements of Concord's landscape." (p. 127)

Chapter 6: Settling the East Quarter

How were lands divided in subsequent generations? While there was consolidation, distribution among several heirs meant that a balance of land needed to be passed on. Thus, a blend of tillage, houselot, pasture, meadow, and woodlot continued to be carved out of available land. "The result was a pattern of fragmented farms, often knitted together into complex kin neighborhoods, across the landscape of Concord. A family trade such as blacksmithing or tanning (also passing from generation to generation) was often central to the family economic and social fabric." (p. 135)

In the remainder of the chapter, Donahue follows the land inheritance of several families through several generations. In some cases those generations overlapped by quite a few years, the families overlapped by intermarriage, and the "crazy quilt" division of land become quite pronounced. As the generations passed some families consolidated land holdings. Regardless, Concord was expanding outward as well as filling in as population increased.

Favorite example: "Like the Meriams, the Brooks family chose not to partition their land into solid blocks and disperse their houses, but to keep their homes within sight of one another along a quarter mile of road and make a hash of their outlands. The exception was Joseph Brooks. It appears that Joseph had a homelot alongside his brothers granted him by his father in 1605, but when he finally came to marry in 1704, he decided instead to sell a piece of this to his brother Hugh and live off by himself. We cannot tell what motivated Joseph Brooks. We can only notice that, coincidentally or not, things never did seem to go well for him or his progeny." (p. 147)

Chapter 7: The Ecological Structure of Colonial Farming

Elements of Husbandry
Chapter 8: A Town of Limits

Demographic problems
Chapter 9: Epilogue: Beyond the Meadows

Donahue concludes with a look at the Concord of 1850 that Thoreau would have seen. Much of the woodlands have been converted to meadow and pasture, crops and dairy are now produced for external markets, and the population is divided between original families and newcomers who would rewrite our memory of Concord's past. "To this day, we tend to view colonial agriculture largely through the sharply critical eyes of the self-confident nineteenth-century improving men who knew it in its dotage and who wrote its obituary." (p. 222)

By 1850, Concord's land use patterns had changed dramatically. Concord had the same response to population stresses that their English ancestors did: "control fertility, emigrate, intensify subsistence production, or specialize in commercial production." (p. 225) The population, through limiting family size and emigration, stabilized between 1780 and 1820. English husbandry continued to be adapted successfully, with some high-yield, high-nutrition crops becoming more prominent (ex: beans and potatoes). Higher yield crops also meant less dung was needed. Cattle (for meat and hides) and wood remained the major "cash crops."

This changed in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. "Concord farmers looked mainly to their cattle to find their market specialty: first beef, then butter and cheese, and, with the coming of the railroad in 1844, milk. The herd enlarged dramatically, and Concord became a town of dairy farmers. The increase in commercial production . . . was made possible partly by farmers' raising of fodder instead of bread on the tilled land, but mostly by a sharp rise in hay." (p. 228) Woodlots were sacrificed for haylots as coal became available for fuel and dimensional lumber was imported for housing. This deforestation had a damaging effect on the environment, encouraging flooding and the growth of useless underbush.

Donahue's conclusion: "Colonial farming was not extensive farming, moving on constantly to fresh land as what lay behind was exhausted. On the contrary, it was intensive farming, in which a great deal of labor was concentrated on much the same lands, and a workable balance among those lands was established and carefully maintained. . . The remarkable thing about colonial Concord is that here, at the very moment when the English world was setting a capitalist course based on the denial of natural limits, long generations of new Americans put in place and steadily improved a workable version of an older mixed-husbandry village culture and economy, based on an ever-deepening understanding of their local environment . . . What emerged by the end of the colonial era had all the makings of a durable agrarian village economy on the ancient English model, a fundamentally sound agroecosystem." (pp. 230-231)

And the Great Meadow itself? In 1862 the meadow owners lost their case--that worsened flooding which ruined hayfields was caused by the Billerica milldam--when "an august scientific commission appointed by the legislature to investigate the flowage controversy but dominated by the mill interests, ruled against them. . . After two centuries at the heart of Concord's husbandry, the river meadows had scant value in the new world of commercial farming." (p. 233) But a change in language had already signaled a change in attitude: the colonials had called the communal meadows the Great Meadow. By Thoreau's time they were divided, privately owned, and called the Great Meadows.

Submitted by: Johannes Gislason, Hope Greenberg, Hannah Zimpritch
Location: http://www.uvm.edu/~hag/personal/portfolio/hst296e/great-meadow.html