By Jim Glinski, Scituate

2015 aerial photo of North River and ditches courtesy of Gary M. Banks and William E. Richardson.

Author’s Note: Although the focus of this article is on the marshes of the North and South Rivers, the information and issues generally apply to the salt marshes of all South Shore coastal communities.

As a guide on the North and South Rivers Watershed Association’s History of the North River pontoon boat tours, I would inevitably be asked questions about the many ditches in the river marshes. My initial response was that they were dug as boundary lines by colonial farmers to designate ownership of the salt marsh hay flats. After doing more research and discussing the issue with people who knew the river better I learned that others believed that the ditches were dug to control the mosquito population of the marshes. The reality appears to be that both answers are correct.

From the early settlement of the South Shore until the great storm of 1898, the Portland Gale, the ditches were the result of the importance of salt marsh hay to the local economy and were dug to both improve the harvesting of salt marsh hay and as markers of individual farmers’ salt marsh hay meadows. However, beginning in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and continuing to the present, the ditches were primarily dug as components of mosquito control programs. As William Gould Vinal stated in his booklet, Salt Haying in the North River Valley (1648-1898), how and why these ditches were dug remains the “$64.00 question” for those interested in the history of the marshes.1

Salt Marsh Ditches Before 1898

When English settlers first came to the South Shore of Massachusetts they found an area that had been home to Indigenous peoples for over 10,000 years. Most New England Native Americans lived in villages of perhaps a few hundred people. These villages changed their size and location as the seasons changed, depending on where they could find the largest supply of natural food. Unlike Native Americans who lived on the northern New England coast, the Native Americans who lived on the South Shore also raised crops, such as corn, beans, and squashes. These crops were raised by women while the men would hunt and fish in the spring, summer, and fall. In March and April runs of migratory fish like smelt, alewives, sturgeon, and salmon would supply plentiful food which would be followed in May by fish such as brook trout, flounder, and striped bass caught with nets or weirs, and offshore, by cod, caught with hook and line.

Although there is some evidence that Native Americans conducted ditching in the salt marshes, extensive ditching would not occur until the arrival of English settlers.² The South Shore Native American fishing techniques, especially the use of fish weirs, and the fact that they did not harvest salt marsh hay to the great extent that the English settlers did, meant that they had no reason to dig ditches in the marshes.³

However, for English settlers, the presence of salt marsh hay was a major factor in determining the location of towns settled before 1650, such as Scituate, Marshfield, and Duxbury, as the settlers of Plymouth left the town and set up new towns with extensive salt hay marshes.⁴ It would soon become clear to the settlers of these areas that the salt marsh hay, which grew in abundance in the marshes, was there to be harvested largely for livestock feed, but also roofing thatch and wall insulation. “The huge tracts of God-given salt-hay lands required no clearing, grubbing, rolling out boulders, plowing, manuring, planting, hoeing, or weeding.” Salt marsh haying was essentially harvesting a wild crop.⁵

The ditches farmers dug helped to drain the marshes that allowed cattle to graze and farmers to cut salt marsh hay. The harvesting of this valuable commodity would continue for over 250 years, until the November 1898 Portland Gale changed the nature of the salt marshes of the region. Now, instead of flooding a few times a month, the marshes flooded twice a day with greater volumes of salt water, making salt marsh haying more difficult and changing the type of grasses that grew in the marshes. These changes, along with the decreasing need and demand for salt marsh hay, put an end to the large-scale harvesting of salt marsh hay.

Even after the Portland Gale of 1898 anyone traveling over the salt marshes or through them in a boat could observe the numerous salt marsh ditches that were dug over the 250 years of salt marsh haying. Why did farmers over those 250 years dig these ditches? There were two primary reasons. The first was to drain the marshes, which would allow cattle to graze and farmers to cut salt marsh hay. The second was to mark the property boundaries of the individual farmer’s salt marsh property.

William Gould Vinal believed that salt marsh haying remained essentially unchanged over the years and that the salt marsh property of farmers “was passed on from generation to generation in as good condition as it is received.”⁷ This is not a completely accurate statement. Scientists such as Susan C. Adamowicz from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Sara Grady of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association have conducted recent studies of salt marshes. They show that over the first 200 years salt marsh hay farmers developed new techniques to increase salt hay production, such as large embankment systems to freshen the hay beds and increase salt hay yields. Using 1935 USGS maps and 2005 GoogleEarth imagery to study Bartlett’s Island in Marshfield, these scientists were able to identify changes made in the use of ditches over 200 years, including the use of terraced embankments to increase crop yields.⁸

Ditches at Bartlett’s Island Marshfield. Photo by Jim Glinski

Ditching also provided easier access to harvest hay especially in areas further away from the high meadows and extending further into the river. In some of these areas, horses were fitted with “meadow shoes” of wood, iron, and leather, which allowed them to move across the muddy salt marsh flats, similar to snow shoes allowing us to move across snow. However, the ditches were sometimes impediments for both horses and men harvesting salt marsh hay with both sometimes falling into the ditches. Most salt marsh meadows were not completely accessible by land and required the use of specially designed boats known as gundalows.

A gundalow was a large flat-bottomed boat, which could be up to 40 feet long and could carry 2-8 tons of hay, which was rowed or sailed to an upstream landing where it would be loaded onto carts for transport to market. The extensive use of gundalows required ditching on a much larger scale and sometimes the widening of natural creeks. While the early digging of ditches was done exclusively by farmers, with the increased use of gundalows it became a profession that paid 16 cents per rod.⁹

c.1890s gundalow loaded with hay. Photo courtesy of Norwell Historical Society.

Adopting land practices from the regions of England from which they came, in the early years of the settlements on the South Shore the salt marshes were held in common by the freeholders of a town and often worked cooperatively with no private ownership of salt marsh lots. Most towns initially divided town lands according to their function as meadows, woodlots, or cornfields. Scituate would be different because its settlers came from a region in England where farmers owned their land and as a result, they were interested in quickly transferring land from common to private property. However, ”the colonial systems for fixing property boundaries were not fully articulated until late in the seventeenth century.” Once land began to be transferred into private hands, deeds began to more precisely define property boundaries and there was a tremendous increase in real estate transactions.¹º

c.1890s painting of gundalow with sails by George W. Harvey. Used with permission of Cape Ann Museum and Archives.

It is unclear when the first ditches were dug in the salt marshes of the South Shore. Because of the land ownership practices discussed previously, it is hard to determine, even in Scituate, when the first ditches were dug and used as boundary markers. A good source to find evidence of ditches as boundary markers is Jeremy Bangs’s exhaustive digest of seventeenth deeds in the Town Records of Scituate. A careful reading of Bangs reveals that there were land grants of marshland to individuals as early as 1636/37, at the time of the 1636 incorporation of Scituate. By the 1660s there were numerous deeds indicating the sale of marsh meadow that used terms such as channel or straight line to delineate property boundaries, but it appears that the first specific reference to a ditch as a boundary description occurred in June 1666. “On June 27, 1666, William Randolph sold eighteen acres of upland on the westerly side of the North River to Josiah Wormall, carpenter, for an unspecified sum;…the other meadow parcel being two acres, bounded to the east to a ditch dividing it from the meadow of John Bryant, to the south to a ditch dividing it from the meadow of William Curtis….”¹¹ Another issue that complicated the identification on the use of the term ditch as boundary lines is the use of words used to label a ditch. This can be seen in a deed dated February 18, 1686/7 which states: “Laid out to Joasepth Oatice Three ackers of swampe Land being granted to John Oatice deceased by the former Comity in sittuate and is Bounded as ffolloeth beginning at the end of a dick Ston wall being the Northeast Corner of the Land….” As Bangs notes, does dick mean ditch or dyke?¹²

The use of the term ditch as a boundary marker in deeds became commonplace in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. William Gould Vinal cites old deeds of salt marsh purchases by his ancestors on the South Shore (ditch emphasized in the following examples). In 1796, Peter Sears, his great-great-grandfather bought two and one-quarter acres of salt meadow marsh from Elijah Clapp described as “adjoining Wills’s Island (so-called) thence Easterly with the Herring River (so-called), to a ditch which separates it from the aforesaid Capt. Joshua Jacobs meadow, thence with said ditch and said Jacobs range to the first named corner….” In 1800, “Nathaniel Cushing, Gentleman and Charles Cushing, yeoman, both of Pembroke, for the sum of $15.00 sold Peter Sears of Scituate, Gentleman 44 rods of salt meadow lying and being in Scituate beginning at a stake in a ditch, etc.” In 1829, a land division deed divided salt meadow land lying in Scituate between Ichabod Jacobs and Abial Farrow with “their dividing line to commence at a stake in the ditch line near the shores… and that Abial own and occupy the Easterly side of the line and the said Ichabod occupy the Westerly side of said line.”¹³

The use of ditches as boundary markers was not limited to salt marsh meadows. In July 1692, the Town of Marshfield appointed a jury of 15 men to lay out the town’s highways. One section of their report stated that the boundary of one highway was “also from the aforesaid way that leadeth from Samuel Little’s on to said Barker’s land southward to the eastward of a white-oak tree, and so along to the eastward swamps by the ditch, and so along between the house and barn of said Barker…”¹⁴

As noted earlier, the 1898 Portland Gale changed the nature of many of the salt marshes on the South Shore, which would lead to the demise of the harvesting of salt marsh hay in the region. However, other developments contributed to the end of the importance of salt marsh hay. One factor was that the region’s farmers were now growing hay to feed their livestock on inland farms away from the marshes, which was less arduous than harvesting salt marsh hay.

Even before the Portland Gale changed the environment of the North and South Rivers there were construction projects on the coast, most notably in Marshfield’s Green Harbor. In 1872, the construction of a dyke that changed the course of the Green Harbor River, the installation of a series of jetties, and later a seawall at the beaches made the beaches more attractive for recreational activities at a time when social changes made oceanfront recreation more popular. Meanwhile the advent of railroads, and later automobiles, made South Shore towns more accessible to city dwellers who began to rent or build homes in Scituate, Marshfield, and Duxbury, creating what became known as the Irish Riviera. All of these developments initiated the transition of the region from an agricultural-based economy into bedroom communities, ending the importance of salt marsh hay.¹⁵

The collapse of salt marsh haying on the South Shore did not mean the end of ditching in the marshes. Instead for several reasons, including some outside the scope of the South Shore, ditching entered its new stage of being a component of mosquito control programs.

In my search for information on salt marsh ditches I have been joined by local historian and author, Lyle Nyberg. For those interested in learning more about this topic I have attached the link to Lyle’s web site which includes his bibliography of sources on salt marsh ditching and his upcoming book, Ditching the Marshes: A History and Bibliography.


  1. William Gould Vinal. Salt Haying in the North River Valley (1648-1898) (Cohasset, MA: by author, 1953, 25.
  2. William Cronon. Changes in the Land: Native Americans, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983), 38-40.
  3. Lucianne M. Lavin and Mark Banks.  Connecticut’s First Fishermen: Lebeau Fishing Camp and Weir (State Archaeological Preserve, Killingly, CT, 2008),
  4. Scott W. Nixon. The Ecology of New England High Salt Marshes: A Community Profile. Chapter 5: Human Impact on the High Marsh ( U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 1982) 50-51.
  5. Vinal, 24.
  6. Kezia Bacon. Salt Haying on the North and South Rivers. Posted on North and South Rivers Association (NSRWA) Blog, April 22, 2008).
  7. Vinal, 24.
  8. Mass Audubon and NSRWA. “Salt Marshes of the South Shore.” Video talk with Susan C. Adamowicz (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) and Sara Grady (NSRWA).
  9. Massachusetts Open Marsh Water Management Workgroup. “Mosquito Control Open Water Marsh Management Standards” 2010 at website of State Reclamation and Mosquito Control Board. Appendix A: History of Salt Marsh Management for Mosquito Control in Coastal Massachusetts.
  10. Cronon, 74.
  11. Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs.The Seventeenth-Century Town Records of Scituate, Massachusetts, Volume One (Boston: New England Genealogical Society, 1997).163 and 260.
  12. Bangs, 375.
  13. Vinal, 6-8.
  14. Joseph C. Hagar. Marshfield: The Autobiography of a Pilgrim Town: 1640-1940(Marshfield Tercentenary Committee,1940). 62.
  1. Cranberry County Magazine. “What Are Those Lines On The Duxbury Marshes? Theory 2: Mosquito Control. Posted on June 24,2015.