The North River, as viewed from the water. Rivers were once the highways of our region.

I have been reading about the prehistoric populations of our region, the native bands that inhabited southeastern New England for thousands of years, long before Europeans arrived. We tend to think first of the Wampanoag, the tribe whom the Pilgrims encountered when they came ashore in 1620. But there were others before them.

Thirteen thousand years ago, or about 500 years after the retreat of the Late Wisconsinan glacier, a band of Paleo-Indians came to New England, following herds of mastodon and caribou, from whose carcasses they took their nourishment. Back then, the features of the environment were changing rapidly. Over the course of a few generations, the post-glacial tundra would become a pine, spruce and lichen forest. Because of such changes, food sources were unreliable. The band had to move camp frequently, following the path of the game they hunted.

Their camps were small villages of skin-covered shelters. The men worked with stone, making or repairing scrapers, drills, and fluted points. The women packed food into woven bark and grass containers. Most mornings they rolled up their shelters and moved on.

Advance forward ten thousand years. The woods have transformed completely. Now a fully developed forest, there are chestnut, hickory, beech, and oak trees growing amongst the pine, spruce and hemlock. The shores of the North River are an ideal base camp.

Picture a row of oblong wigwams along the banks of the river. This is an autumn hunting and fishing station, typical for the Native Americans of the Early Horticultural period. A man, spear in hand, has just killed a deer; a woman butchers the meat with a stone blade, saving the bones and hide to be used later for tools and clothing. One man fishes with a hemp line and bone hook, while others cruise the river in dugout canoes with nets. A weir is set up on a nearby creek. A small group of women and children gather nuts, which later they will grind with stone mortars and pestles.

When the weather grows colder, they will move inland, to the banks of a stream or pond. Since they will have preserved and stored much of the previous summer’s harvest, there will be food to eat when fish and game become scarce. In the spring they will return to the riverside camp; in summer, they will settle close to the ocean.

At the oceanside camp, using stone axes to fell trees, they will clear space for fields, and work the land with stone hoes and digging sticks. For these, the first generation of southeastern Massachusetts natives to know the skills of agriculture, corn and beans will be the chief crops. Shellfish, especially soft-shelled clams cooked in soapstone pots, will supplement the diet of fish and gathered foods.

The native cultures that inhabited this land for twelve thousand years before European settlement conceived of land ownership differently than we do today. The Indians viewed the land as something on which they could hold sovereignty, but not as a commodity they could buy or sell.

In Native American thought, since both man and the land were part of the system of nature, man could not have power over the land. Man could possess the use of the land, but not the land itself. Thus, while not giving up its own rights, a village or tribe could grant others permission to use a berry patch, for example, or a fishing pond, shellfish bank, or hunting ground.

The Native Americans did not measure and record boundaries; instead they defined their territory by more general markings — the shore of a river, perhaps, or the edge of a forest. Rather than building permanent, year-round settlements, they moved seasonally, establishing hunting, fishing, or agricultural camps.

Periodic migrations such as these helped to prevent the exhaustion of resources in any given place. While a Native American band or tribe held rights to a large domain, only small sections of this land were settled, planted on, or otherwise developed; large tracts of forest were preserved for hunting and gathering.

From the European perspective, this indicated that the Native Americans were squandering their resources. In 1630, Francis Higginson wrote, “The Indians are not able to make use of the one fourth part of the Land, neither have they any settled places, as Townes to dwell in, nor any ground as they challenge for their owne possession, but change their habitation from place to place.”

Can you imagine what our region looked like in 1630? How sparsely populated and barely developed it must have been? Could those who lived then even conceive of what the South Shore looks like now – with so many towns approaching build-out, and urban sprawl spreading to every horizon?

Fortunately for us, there are still small pockets of open space scattered here and there throughout the region. On certain bends of the North River, where the marsh extends in every direction and there’s not a single house or highway in sight, one came imagine what the landscape was like 400 – or even 4,000 – years ago.

By Kezia Bacon-Bernstein, Correspondent
July 2004

Kezia Bacon-Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.