by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent

I led a walk last weekend at the John Little Conservation Area in North Marshfield. In preparation, I spent some time reviewing the history of that particular part of town. Things have changed, of course, since North Marshfield was developed in the 17th and 18th centuries, yet because certain aspects of this village remain unchanged – especially in comparison to other parts of our region – it’s easy to image what life was like when the European settlers first arrived.

The John Little Conservation Area, located at 905 Union Street, was established in 2009, thanks to Community Preservation funds to purchase an initial 25 acres. The following year, additional CPA funding permitted the acquisition of an additional 49.8 acres. In the past several years, Marshfield has created trails and boardwalks within the property, as well as a long, beautiful walkway that leads to a dock on the North River. The 75 acres include pasture, forest, and marsh, along with some gorgeous views of the river. Walking the trails, one encounters old stone walls and cart paths, which offer a glimpse of the property’s agricultural past.

The North River valley was populated well before European settlers arrived in the mid-1600s. Native American tribes considered the North River a major highway. The Wampanoag traveled regularly along a network of waterways from Narragansett Bay to Massachusetts Bay — from the Nemasket and Taunton Rivers, to the ponds of Pembroke, to the North River and out to sea. Numerous archaeological sites along the hillsides of the river valley reveal evidence of their summer camps.

The first European settlers to put down roots in North Marshfield were from Scituate and South Scituate (now Norwell). According to the book Marshfield: A Town of Villages, by Cynthia Krusell and Betty Bates, families who worshipped at the Quaker meeting house across the river near Wanton Shipyard began arriving around 1649.  These included the Tildens, Rogers, and Oakmans.

Sometime before 1700, Elisha Bisbee began running a ferry at the site of today’s Union Street Bridge, followed by the Oakman and Tolman families. In 1801 the town erected a toll bridge at the site. In 1850, when sufficient tolls had been collected to pay for the construction costs, they celebrated by holding a jubilee, and making the bridge a “free” one going forward. Subsequent bridges were constructed in 1889, 1917, 1972 and 2010. From the ferry/bridge site, a cart path extended south for several miles. Portions of it still remain – particularly within the conservation lands that border the river.

It is said that if it weren’t for the salt hay along the rivers, the European settlers would not have survived here. There was very little unforested land, and what they managed to clear, they needed for growing crops for human consumption. Thus they fed their livestock salt marsh hay. (It was also used for roof thatch and wall insulation.) By the late1600s, land rights had been granted to all of the area’s salt marshes. Ditches were cut to serve as property boundaries. Thus, Two Mile, the village just south of North Marshfield, earned its name. From 1640 to 1788, a parcel two miles long and one mile wide (measured from midstream in the river to the upland) was deeded to South Scituate, for salt haying rights.

Driving through North Marshfield today, it’s easy to imagine the village’s agricultural past. Many open fields and stone walls remain, as well as the occasional working farm. The John Little Conservation Area was named for the family who operated a dairy farm there. Jack and Grace Little’s Little Jersey Farm offered milk and cream from the 1930s to the 1950s. Jack’s son Christopher still operates the family farm, on the parcel he retains, across the street, raising cattle for beef. Indications of the village’s other industries are harder to come by. Other than the dam that forms Rogers Pond on Cove Creek, one might never know of the grist mill, fish hatchery, or blacksmith shop, nor the tannery, rivet factory or box/shingle mill.

A more prominent industry, by far, in this area was shipbuilding. The North River was known nationwide for its ships. From 1645 to 1871 there were 24 shipyards along its banks, producing more than 1,000 vessels. There were two major shipyards in North Marshfield. From 1790 to 1819, the Rogers Shipyard operated at Gravelly Beach, at the end of present-day Cornhill Lane. And just downstream, at what is now the Union Street Bridge, was the Brooks-Tilden Shipyard (1837-1847). Because the lands along the rivers were richly forested, there was plenty of timber available. Teams of oxen dragged oak and pine to the Hatch sawmill nearby, or to saw pits at the shipyards themselves. Today all that remains of the shipyards are metal historic markers erected at some of the sites. Once the forests were stripped bare, and the greater world sought ships too large to be built on this particular river, the local industry faded out.

Last weekend’s event at Little Conservation Area was the first of what I hope will be a series of walks I’ll be leading this winter and spring for the North and South Rivers Watershed Association (NSRWA). If you’d like to be in the loop, I recommend you sign up for NSRWA’s bi-weekly e-news.

Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to protecting our waters. For membership information and a copy of the latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit To browse 20 years of nature columns, visit