Boston from Ice-Age to Fish Weir

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"And this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells talk to the Cabots,
And the Cabots talk only to God."
-- John Collins Bossidy, 1910



"The sobriquet hub of the universe (solar system) given in ridicule has a spice of truth at the bottom. Boston is a city of extremes. It grows the intensest snobs, the meanest cowardice and thickest skinned hypocrites, by the side of saintly virtues, intellectual vigor, general intelligence and a devotion to the highest interest of humanity, unsurpassed by any city in the world. Its fashionable manners seem imported from Nova Zembia. Nowhere else does one friend give another only two fingers to shake, without intending an insult. But the same man is prompt with his bank check for the public welfare. If a stranger judge Boston only by its snobs, Pharisees, and frozen zone atmosphere of personal scrutiny and reception, he will coincide in the worst opinions of her enemies.

But it takes a rich soil to grow strong weeds. Far outweighing its shortcomings, he will find, on looking farther, self-sacrificing hearts, quick to respond to noble instincts; souls ripe in devotion to generous ideas; a practical clearheadedness, a not-to-be-bribed-or-turned-aside love of justice, an earnest willingness of labor, and, above all, a freedom which admits an intellectual growth in all directions, despite time-honored prejudices, the seductions of fashion and luxury, or the gibberish of cant. With such rich salt of humanity vivifying her history, Boston need envy no other city its opportunity for greatness."

-- BS V44 From "The Art Idea," James Jackson Jarves   (BS = Bostonian Society files)



"A wide commerce, while it had insensibly softened the asperities of Puritanism and imported enough foreign refinement to humanize, not enough foreign luxury to corrupt, had not essentially qualified the native tone of the town. Retired sea captains (true brothers of Chaucer's shipman) whose exploits had kindled the imagination of Burke, added a not unpleasant savor of salt to society. They belonged to the old school of Frobisher, Gilbert, Hawkins and Drake, parcel-soldiers all of them, who had commanded armed ships, and had tales to tell of gallant fights with privateers or pirates, truest representatives of those Vikings who, if trade in lumber or peltry was dull, would make themselves Dukes of Dublin or Earls of Orkney. If trade pinches the mind, commerce liberalizes it, and Boston was also advantaged with the neighborhood of the country's oldest college, which maintained the wholesome traditions of culture -- where Homer and Horace are familiar, there is a certain amount of cosmopolitanism -- and would not allow bigotry to become despotism. Manners were more self-respectful, and therefore more respectful of others, and personal sensitiveness was fenced with more of that ceremonial with which society armed itself when it surrendered the ruder protection of the sword. We had not then seen a governor in his chamber at the State House with his hat on, a cigar in his mouth, and his feet upon the stove."

BIBL: Atlantic Monthly, November 1867

"Boston is a famous town
Both for wit and knowledge
Some they whipt and some they hanged
And some they sent to college"


"Every fine old city is as individual as a human being -- those particular events which have made Boston so different from other cities: its birth as a result of religious controversy, its struggle against the wilderness, its early days as a strictly Puritan community, the broadening influence of the Provincial governors, its place as a leader in the stirring events leading to the Revolution, its place of artistic, scientific, and cultural leadership in the years following the Revolution, the European invasion and its effect, its growth under the mayors, and finally Boston's place among the modern cities of the Continent."



Geology to 3500 BP, The Woman of the Rock, The Journey, Quincy Quarry, Boylston fishweir

"from the beginning of time, since the first day of light"

BSN (Bostonian Society Notes): Boston is a basin rimmed about by hills composed of granite rock. The basin was invaded by the sea; sediment, mud, sand and pebbles deposited. Volcanic eruptions followed and the sediment was overlaid with lava above which was another layer of sediment. This was smothered by ice sheets during the ice age, followed by centuries of erosion which have left Boston in its present form.

BSN: "The massive dignity of the New England Mutual building - the ancient fish weir in the office of Mr. George Smith, the president of the company. Barnacles of a type found only in tropical waters. Think of the implication of this! Sea shells with thickened side showing how the waters of the Merrimac once swirled through the Back Bay before the Glacier of the Ice Age forced the river into its present Channel."

"The greatest trek in history -- a reconnaissance of two great continents in something of the order of 10 centuries."

From north-east Asia, across a broad section of land (Beringia,) and entered unglaciated part of coastal Alaska. Corridor between the Laurentide and Cordilleran Ice Sheets. Came into the country east of the Rockies.

Voyage from the high plains to North-East took several centuries. Glacial melt-water-- something to float on? They raft, swim, struggle in this great rush of gray-brown water or perhaps they wait to cross the ice bridges of winter.
Hazard of insufficient food and migration. Intestinal parasites. Soil they walked on could've contaminated a wound with organisms that produce tetanus or gangrene. Arrivals could've transmitted trichinoses or lung pathogens that if not fatal would have forced healthy to slow down and tend the sick or leave them.
Transient explorers: High mobility, low fecundity. Death was a constant companion for individuals and bands.
Settler groups: Perhaps they stuck to the river valleys--some close to tundra and ice -- caribou.

"Country at the end of the endless journey"

Folsom (1908) -- 10,000 years ago.
Clovis +/- 1000 years -- 12,000 years ago.
Meadowcroft, PA 16,200-19,000 years? Bark from basketry
Monte Verde, Chile 35,000 years ago? Row of huts, tools

Atlatl -- javelins, especially darts propelled by atlatls. Aztec for spear-thrower. 25 yards, not much good in close cover. On the open plains represented a technical advance of tremendous significance. (Bow = 2000 years ago)

A blitzkrieg against mammoths -- It is entirely possible that hunters gave the coup de gráce to big animals already weakened by deterioration of habitat. Tens of millions of animals disappeared as the Holocene arrived. -- In the NE, the dearth of skeletons is explained by acidity of the soils.

"In New England the Ice Lip of 18,000 years ago lay along a line running up the spine of Long Island and over Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. The Nantucket Shoals and George's Bank were capes or islands. Water ran out on the flats of the exposed continental shelf. Cut slots where the shelf steepened into slope, and shot into the North Atlantic"

"Ice wall" -- During the first stage of the last ice period this ice-sheet was over two thousand feet thick in eastern Massachusetts, and its front lay in the sea at least fifty miles to the east of Boston. At this time the glacial border stretched from New York to the far north in an ice-wall that lay far to the eastward of the present shore, hiding all traces of the land beneath its mass.

By 13,500 years ago the lid of ice over New England was gone from Connecticut and from western Massachusetts hills. Over next 1500 years the margin had crossed to the northern edge of the St. Lawrence Valley. By 7,000 years ago, similar to what we know today -- 5,000 BC.

By beginning of the Holocene, roughly half of the ice sheets had melted. Meltwater and slowly rising ocean temperatures contributed to a general rise in the sea level -- to about 90 feet below present levels on the Atlantic coast.
By the turn of the Holocene -- 10,500 years ago -- North-East: "They could wander out onto the dry continental shelf but that was apt to be swampy and boggy.

Late Pleistocene. Woodlands of the East: Giant beavers -- 350 pounds -- acted more like muskrat than beaver. No evidence of woodworking -- Sloths the size of a good Jersey bull. Saber tooth cats. Smilidon. Smaller scimitar cats. Hunted peccaries etc. Bears.
(Great Plains -- 10,000 or more years ago. Bison. (No horses, though evolved here. Mounted warriors were "the chevalier of the Big Sky")

Native Americans first arrived in Boston area 11,000 years ago following Ice Age.

At that time Boston harbor wasn't a harbor but open land. What we call Spectacle Island was a low hill. Paleo-Indians may have used the hill to watch herds of caribou which they hunted.

Bull Brook site in Ipswich/Debert, Newfoundland, both show evidence of having been visited several times
Bull Brook visits -- more than occasions for transfer of information and for martial arrangements between groups. Naming went on/ naming of ponds and hills and sentinel trees and trails, of plants, animals and winds. Naming is essential to a sense of place. An intimacy with the landscape.

10,000 years ago, all of Boston was dry land and its islands were grass and spruce covered hills.
11 miles or a three to four hour walk to downtown Boston area
Delta three to four miles out into the ocean
10,000 to 3,000 years ago saw a rise in population x glacial melt -- to within eight miles
Between 6000 and 5000 years ago the ocean rose 23 feet -- to 3.5 miles
2500 years ago = modern level

It wasn't until 2000 years ago that the shoreline around Spectacle Island reached its modern position. This is when the campsite was established. Beginning about 1400 years ago, the midden began to pile up and grew over the next 1000 years until native Americans stopped coming to the site around 1600 AD.

Spectacle Isle -- cod? Offshore but in late fall come closer to coast to spawn x cod bone
1600 AD -- small groups made trips around this time to gather food, particularly shell fish and wild fowls:
Buck duck
Brant goose
Bay duck
Scoter duck

First people looked much like native Americans who watched the first Europeans land: "lithe, well-muscled with a skin that tanned easily. Dark-eyed with dark or thick-stranded hair on their heads and not much elsewhere."

(Europe: Modern Europeans out-competed Neanderthals.)

Hunter-gatherer societies are egalitarian, fluid but stable. They disdain the dependent person and the braggart. They are not strangers to violence but fear it as a threat not only to themselves but to their way of life: it is not wise to stalk an animal while being stalked by an enemy. Groups may go so far as to ambush and kill a member who is constantly flying off the handle. Sharing is essential in a life where luck on the hunt is never ubiquitous or enduring. Apportionment also minimizes accumulations that might otherwise slow down a ranging band. Elders might have been men and women over 40 -- exercise some influence but in general decisions are made tacitly. Affection keeps couples, familiars and groups together. Lack of it results in people leaving to join other bands or form new ones. Abandonment is greatly feared as a punishment, yet the hunter who has broken an ankle, the woman irreparably injured in childbirth, and the arthritic godfather expect to be abandoned. The need to retain mobility is paramount.

Foraging societies tend to be open societies. Living an ethic of independence, focusing on one another but not bonding. Anxieties and uncertainties stress those lives like they stress ours but releases are at hand. Friends are there to hear grievances and break up quarrels. Shamans are there to intercede and to extend the powers of trance and vision.
(BIBL The Domestication of the Human Species -- Peter J. Wilson)

North East -- Rise of deciduous forests shaped new association of animals. Oaks, hickories and other trees sent seasonal showers of nuts and other rich foods to lie as mast on the forest floor. Browsers moved in to feed, led in numbers and adaptability by the deer. Deer spread through these forests and elk fed in the glades and along the edges. Turkey clucked and ratcheted, and grouse made that eerie drumming that is more often felt than heard. They were part of an army of wild animals and wild plants that nurtured a way of life, perhaps the most sustainable that humans have developed so far, generally called the Archaic in North America and the Mesolithic in Eurasia. In eastern US, the archaic flourished from 10,000 to 3,000 years ago.

A hungry woman could collect rabbits or possums or squirrels or birds in nets and snares, by herself or as part of a group, and collect berries, nuts, tubers and greens. A hungry man, more often assigned by the culture to go after larger animals could take beasts in their winter dens. He could join with other hunters to locate gatherings of elk by their distinctive smells if the wind was right. Best of all, he could follow the whitetail deer.

Drives using fire or other techniques to force the animals into killing grounds in land traps or deep water. In the north, they did more stalking or in groups. Young men would run their prey down in snowshoes, outrun a floundering deer or moose.

NY State Museum: "a bull elk drinks from a small stream. His head is up. He crouches, sensing but not seeing a hunter with his throwing arm cocked, his dart aimed just below the rib cage."

Deer: brain went to process hides, rawhide went to make bindings or glue. Tanned hide became clothing pouches and containers of all sorts. Antlers were worked into points for weapons, into knapping tools, decorations, fishhooks, needles. Bones became scrapers, musical instruments, gaming pieces. Hooves made rattles and glue. All this after the meat had been cut away, muscle by muscle, dried, smoked, ground, mixed with fat, berries or nuts. Or eaten boiled, broiled or raw, sometimes several pounds at a sitting.

A native deer would dress out at 100 pounds, a moose at 800. Lip of a moose was a special delicacy; beaver's tail a luxury. Hunting ground or deer pasture at a distance, which was kept open, its herbage kept succulent by seasonal fires. There the large animals might eat their fill or browse; berries in simmer and fall.

Late fall/late winter = hunting parties. Long, often bone-chilling days of hunting

Nutting center: Hickory -- smack it and throw it into water with hot rocks from fire, the shell bits sink to the bottom, the meats and oils float. Scoop them out and work to right consistency -- hickory butter

Fishing: Stranded whales were a great gift

BSN: Fish weir

Stakes -- Trimmed of branches, crudely sharpened, usually driven butt down, random sizes
Random kinds of wood, estimated 65,000 stakes. Wattling a mass of branches and shrubs
Tops of stakes all at the same level
Stakes and wattles may have been to trap oyster sets rather than fish.
Type of wood in order of frequency: Sassafras, oak, alder, beech, dogwood, hop-hornbeam
Wattling made of branches crowded down among the stakes -- no evidence of weaving or tying. Much of the wattling seems to be branches cut from stakes.

Area of stakes includes region between Boylston St. and Newbury St, Clarendon and Arlington St.
Copley Square was originally a swamp visited only by duck hunters.
The fishweir establishes that humans lived in the Charles River estuary when the level of the land was about 15'8" lower than now.

Fish weir ( 1913 during the construction of Boylston street Subway through Back Bay district) 65000 stakes x two acres x 650 days x 100 a day to cut and trim
Former mud flat and marsh land which was forerunner of Back Bay region
A thriving community of appreciable size x all these stakes had to be laboriously cut, sharpened, and driven with handmade stone and wooden tools. A certain amount of communal organization for there must have been one person or group which was responsible for the execution of the plan" (BIBL Boylston Fish Weir -- Frederick Johnson, 1942)

In building the weir the aborigines drove stakes vertically into the bottom of ancient Back Bay and laid brush, here called wattling, horizontally among them. 1) four to eight stakes in a group which occupied about one square foot 2) multitude of single stakes. -- estimated 65,000 stakes x minimum of one per square foot-- the actual number of only passing interest, the point being that the stakes were in sufficient numbers to indicate the presence of a structure of incredible size and proportions

More recent studies indicate no single weir of massive size but smaller traps renewed/rebuilt/repositioned season after season.

14 feet of silt between time man planted the fishweir and the artificial filling of Back Bay + 18ft of fill--The silt rested on a stratum, of blue clay, the so-called glacial flour, derived from a melting glacier

Excavations for NE Mutual Life located in block bounded by Boylston, Clarendon, Newbury and Berkeley Streets. Evidences of the weir were distributed over nearly sixty-five thousand square feet--In no place was there any indication that the margin of the structure had been uncovered.

Controversy: Is the "structure" a fishweir, an oyster spat collector, a revetment (!), or the remains of pilings upon which houses were built. The term "fishweir" was first applied in 1913, to account for the presence of stakes and wattles--never challenged , yet inconclusive.

Lutin: recent investigations seem to suggest that these stakes constituted numerous small weirs built over many centuries -- Dincauze
Late Archaic x Tidal Weirs

Paleo-Indian (ca. 11,000 - 9000 BP); Early (9000 - 8000 BP), Middle (8000 - 6000 BP) and Late (6000 - 3000 BP) Archaic; Early (3000 - 2000 BP), Middle (2000 - 1000 BP) and Late (1000 - 400 BP) Woodland; and Contact (400 - 200 BP).
From the "Story of our Town" (Needham) by Mildred Barney Talmadge, we learn how it was done:

"The river was a source of food for the Indians. It is known that they had a fish weir at the Upper Falls. It is thought that they cut large branches of saplings and trimmed off the lower branches leaving the upper ones, making something not unlike a big broom. There would be several canoes with an Indian at the bow of each, holding one of these big brushes. With an Indian paddling each canoe they would start way up the river and drop the brush end of these poles well into the water. Then they would paddle down stream sweeping the fish before them. At a narrow place in the river above the Upper Falls the squaws would be ready with nets woven out of reeds. The fish would be driven into them and dragged up on the bank. There the Indians would build fires, smoke the fish and lay them away in a cave to be eaten in the winter."

(Quincy Quarry) "They found outcroppings of stones that the best of them could work to perfection. They quarried and reduced it to shapes and weights easy to carry. It is possible they traded some of the stone always looking for the flawless and often the beautiful."
Special powers attributed to special stones."

Fluted points -- "the afternoon light shone through the flutes"

Pets: Baby wolves and bears and raccoons, even moose but pets often ended up in pot.


Little Ice Age of Northeast -- early 15th century

"Cloud-splitter" -- skilled archer or javelin thrower

"ancient and alien ones" (Navajo)

"societies of the time built their communities to a certain density and left them when dwindling rainfall or fishing resources or cultural pressures declined. The survivors lived more simply for a time and, where and when they could, started over."

Ron la France, Mohawk: "People are visual and oral. You show me something. I will remember. That's a discipline that's been passed on. Our people have to know our complete relationship to our environment. Spiritual, psychic, material, human. If we have no sense of that, we have no sense of place." Umbilical cord -- la France knows exactly where his is. He knows precisely where his body will go when he dies. Where his spirit will go.

New Hampshire's Prehistoric Settlement and Chronology by Virginia Bunker: