Monday, December 27, 2010

A unique view of early New England, part 1

 One of the most detailed accounts of the geography, climate, weather, plants, and animals of New England in the 17th century did not come from a person who lived there, but from an English traveller named John Josselyn.  A moderately wealthy man with connections to the original non-Puritan rulers of Maine, he travelled to the Massachusetts Bay colony and Maine as a fairly young man in the 1630s, and again as an older man in the 1660s (by which time Maine had become part of Massachusetts Bay).  He wrote two books, one called New England's Rarities, discovered in Birds, Beasts, Fishes, Serpents, and Plants of that Country, and the other one called An Account of Two Voyages to New-England.  These works, especially An Account of Two Voyages to New-England, are written in a meandering, sometimes almost stream-of-consciousness style.  An Account of Two Voyages mixes all sorts of information on New England with accounts of some of his own personal experiences and his opinions about various subjects ranging from geography meteorology to astronomy to mining to law and government.  In spite of his tendency to go off on tangents in his writing, it has a lot of interesting information about the condition of New England in the first generations of English settlement, and an interesting perspective on what New England looked like to an early traveler from "Old" England.

"The shore is rocky, with high cliffs, having a multitude of considerable harbors; many of which are capacious enough for a navy of 500 sail, ... the country within rocky and mountainous, full of tall wood, one stately mountain there is surmounting the rest, about four score mile from the Sea ... between the mountains are many ample rich and pregnant valleys as ever eye beheld, beset on each side with variety of goodly trees, the grass man-high unmowed, uneaten and uselessly withering; within these valleys are spacious lakes or ponds well stored with fish and beavers ... manifesting the goodness of the soil which is black, red-clay, gravel, sand, loam, and very deep in some places, as in the valleys and swamps, which are low grounds and bottoms infinitely thick set with trees and bushes of all sorts ... others having no other shrub or tree growing, but spruce, under the shades whereof you may freely walk two or three mile together; being goodly large trees, and convenient for masts and sail-yards.  The whole country produces springs in abundance replenished with excellent waters, having all the properties ascribed to the best in the world." - John Josselyn, An Account of Two Voyages to New-England, p. 37-38.

The description of a rocky coast and spruce forests probably reflects the time he spent in what is now Maine more than what is now Massachusetts - Josselyn doesn't always distinguish one part of New England from another when evaluating it.  It is clear that he was impressed by the abundance of both large trees and the beaver and fish along and in the lakes and rivers.  These resources that later became very depleted from intense use - beaver were almost wiped out in much of New England by the 18th century, which changed the whole landscape, greatly reducing the number of small lakes, ponds, and swamps, many of which had been created by beaver dams.

   It is also clear that there was plenty of fresh water springs in many places - always an important factor for early settlers.  The description of the richness of the soil is somewhat optimistic.  There is indeed good black loam in some parts of New England, but it is often quite thin, and in the more hilly areas there is often barely more than an inch of good topsoil before one hits clay or sand or bedrock underneath it.

"The mountains and rocky hills are richly furnished with mines of lead, silver, copper, tin, and divers sorts of minerals, branching out even to their summits, where in small crannies you may meet with threads of perfect silver; yet have the English no maw to open any of them, whether out of ignorance or fear of bringing a foreign enemy upon them ... The stones in the country are for the most mettle-stone, free-stone, pebble, slate, none that will run to lime, of which they have great want, of the slate you may make tables easy to be split to the thickness of an inch, or thicker if you please, and long enough for a dozen men to sit at.  Precious stones there are too ..."- John Josselyn, An Account of Two Voyages to New-England, p. 38-39.

Josselyn is apparently falling into the trap that many earlier explorers had fallen into - assuming that every part of the Americas was full of precious metals.  Although there were small amounts of metal ore in a few places, there were no large veins of metal ore anywhere in New England.  The reason that the English settlers weren't setting up big mines is that there wasn't very much to mine in the first place.  There were later a variety of stone quarries and smaller mines, but although New England became well-known for its rockiness, most of that rock did not have anything valuable in it.

One accurate thing that he notes is that there is no limestone or chalk in most parts of New England, in contrast to many parts of England.  The lack of rocks that produce lime meant that they usually had to import lime from elsewhere, and it also led to the soil in most parts of New England being quite acidic, with no lime to make it alkaline.

"The climate is reasonably temperate, hotter in summer, and colder in winter than with us, agrees with our constitutions better than hotter climates, ..." - John Josselyn, An Account of Two Voyages to New-England, p. 39.

Here Josselyn nails the most fundamental difference between the continental climate of New England and the maritime climate of old England - the wider temperature extremes.  When early explorers briefly landed in places like New England or Nova Scotia or Quebec or New York in the summer, they usually assumed that the winters must be mild.  This was based on the warm summer temperatures and the fact that what later became the northeastern USA and southeastern Canada are at a lower latitude and closer to the equator than much of Europe (Boston is on almost the same latitude as Rome).  The first winters that Europeans spent in these areas were usually an unpleasant surprise.

The comment about the climate "agreeing with our constitutions better" than warmer climates may actually be referring to the relative lack of disease, because disease was widely thought to be caused by the effects of climate on the "constitution" of the body.  For the white settlers, New England was one of the healthiest climates in the world.  Diseases like smallpox existed, but were less common than in Europe, while warm-weather diseases like malaria were also rare.  For the American Indians, on the other hand, the disease environment was a disaster, with even the occasional introduced European disease running wild among a population with very little resistance.

"Mid-March their spring begins, in April they have rain and thunder; so again at Michaelmas [late September], about which season they have either before Michaelmas or after outrageous storms of wind and rain. ... Cold weather begins with the middle of November, the winters perpetually freezing, insomuch that their rivers and salt-bays are frozen over and passable for men, horse, oxen, and carts ... The north-west wind is the sharpest wind in the country.  In England most of the cold winds and weathers come from the sea, and those seats that are nearest the seacoasts in England are accounted unwholesome, but not so in New-England, for in the extremity of winter the north-east and south-wind coming from the sea produces warm weather, only the north-west-wind coming over land from the white mountains (which are always, except in August, covered with snow) is the cause of extreme cold weather, always accompanied with deep snows and bitter frosts, the snow for the most part four and six foot deep, which melting on the surfaces with the heat of the sun (for the most part shining out clearly every day) and freezing again in the night makes a crust upon the snow sufficient to bear a man walking with snow-shoes upon it.  And at this season the Indians go forth on hunting of deer and moose, twenty, thirty, forty miles up into the country.  Their summer is hot and dry proper for their Indian wheat [i.e., corn or maize] ; which thrives best in a hot and dry season, the sky for the most part summer and winter very clear and serene; if they see a little black cloud in the north-west, no bigger than a man may cover with his hat, they expect a following storm, the cloud in short time spreading round about the horizon accompanied with violent gusts of wind, rain, and many times lightning and terrible thunder." - John Josselyn, An Account of Two Voyages to New-England, p. 45-47.

If the winters Josselyn describes sound a little harsher than those in Massachusetts or southern Maine today, with saltwater harbors freezing over deeply and 4-6 feet of snow, this may be because many parts of North America and Europe really were colder 350 or so years ago.  This was the later part of what is sometimes called the "Little Ice Age", a period of somewhat colder than average weather that lasted from the 1400s through the early 1800s.  This was an era when the Thames River in England and the canals of the Netherlands froze over deeply enough most winters to walk and skate on - and that was in the relatively mild winters of western Europe.  In New England, average winter temperatures were considerably colder than average winter temperatures today - Massachusetts probably felt more like Maine, and Maine might have been almost as cold as central Quebec.

Other aspects of the weather that Josselyn describes are quite familiar to modern New Englanders - the rainstorms of spring and fall, the icy crust that forms over snow from freezing and thawing, and the sudden changeability of the weather, where a small dark cloud on the horizon often means a total change of weather very soon.

No comments: