The Heritage of Landscape

By Michael P. Dyer
Librarian and Maritime Historian, New Bedford Whaling Museum
A talk presented to the Congregational Church of South Dartmouth
Upon their bicentennial anniversary
March 17, 2007

My intent this evening is to attempt to convey, less the letter of our local history and more its value to the community, its nature and texture. When I speak of the “Heritage of Landscape” it is to serve as a reminder of the inherent dignity and respect that is owed to this place. As our wars overseas are conceived and enacted with the express purpose of espousing freedom, it will not do to forget the reasons for our settlement in the first place; the sorts of people that are the roots of our local stock and that war once ravaged the very doorsteps of Dartmouth. There is no better way to support our country, no better act of patriotism than to preserve with careful respect the land on which we live, its architecture wherever possible, and at all costs, its history.

We are extremely fortunate that our local history has been a subject of passionate interest, bordering on obsession, by the citizens of this region since the mid-19th century. Great tomes are devoted the subject, many fine paintings interpret it, and several fine institutions and dynamic and aggressive organizations are devoted to its preservation, dissemination and understanding. I beg your indulgence for a few minutes this evening to outline a very few points of this illustrious history and I thank the board of the Dartmouth Heritage Preservation Trust for the opportunity to do so.

The following quotation has absolutely nothing to do with the specificity of tonight’s discussion but everything to do with its inspiration. It is taken from J. R. R. Tolkien’s volume two, The Two Towers of his trilogy The Lord of the Rings, “It seems that you have heard in Rohan of the words that troubled Minas Tirith. They spoke of the Halfling. These hobbits are Halflings.” “Halflings!” laughed the Rider that stood beside Eomer. “Halflings! But they are only a little people in old songs and children’s tales out of the North. Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?” “A man may do both,” said Aragorn. “For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!”

William Allen Wall (1801-1885). Buttonwood Brook, circa 1850s. Oil on canvas. ODHS #1977.55, purchased in memory of Kathleen G. Barney with funds donated by her husband, Lawrence H. Barney, Jr.

William Allen Wall (1801-1885). Buttonwood Brook, circa 1850s. Oil on canvas. ODHS #1977.55, purchased in memory of Kathleen G. Barney with funds donated by her husband, Lawrence H. Barney, Jr.

A mighty matter of legend though you tread it under the light of day. Truer words were never written. The Old Dartmouth region in which we live is a landscape rife with “mighty matters of legend.” Think, for instance, of the legends of place-names. Consider the crushing weight that some of them displace and think of what it is that they have come to encompass. Think of what it means to live and walk around in such a deeply storied landscape and the quality of life inherent in dwelling here. Quite apart from the map of our current physical environment of pavement, shopping malls, sub-divisions and interstate highways, are layers and strata, foundations, and boundaries long disposed but nonetheless delineated in ancient deeds and documents – but most often these very early reminders are evident only in the occasional squat, four-square wooden house with a central chimney like the Akin house or stone walls running seemingly at random through our young woods but which 150 years ago was an almost treeless landscape.

Take three obvious examples, Dartmouth, Apponagansett and Padanaram. The names alone evoke mind-pictures like tapestries through which blow sperm whales, sail fleets of high-sterned Elizabethan galleons, little sloops and big, fat whalers, Wampanoag Indians wading and fishing in the shallows and bible-quoting colonists driving their oxen down earthen paths intent on fulfilling “heaven’s appointed call.”

Dartmouth itself was probably named for the Devonshire district seaport town in the southwest of England (about 20 miles east of Plymouth) from whence in September of 1620 sailed the Mayflower’s leaky consort the Speedwell onboard of which was a supplemental batch of disenfranchised religious zealots commonly referred to in American history as “The Pilgrims”. When one thinks of The Pilgrims, Plymouth with its famous rock immediately springs to mind but we forget how Cape Cod and the South Coast were of immediate importance to those original settlers in the ensuing decades. If one travels the road between Plymouth and the Sagamore Bridge today, there is precious little to even remotely evoke the heritage of that landscape. It is one solid subdivision, the sea is invisible, almost inaccessible and the roadways are now solely devoted to shunting thousands through this regional keystone of American history as efficiently as possible.

Eighteen years before the Mayflower and the Speedwell sailed, a vessel called the Concord, Bartholomew Gosnold, master, had also sailed from Dartmouth, England, on a voyage of exploration to the “North Part of Virginia” as this region was called before it became so aptly named “New England.”

“Not any lovelier spot, I ween, had England’s noble Captain seen, Since, by the virgin Queen’s command, from Dartmouth’s old historic strand, the wide-spread ocean field to plow, he guided forth the Concord’s prow upon his venturous quest.” (These lines were written by James B. Congdon, originally, in 1840, a cashier at the New Bedford Merchant’s Bank and later city treasurer. He wrote them in an 1864 poem originally penned to celebrate the bi-centennial of the incorporation of the town of Dartmouth. The citizenry of this region have been fascinated with its history for a very long time and out of that bi-centennial the New Bedford City Council published a 175 page volume which, incidentally, opened with a toast to Abraham Lincoln, then-President of the United States.)

Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902). Gosnold at Cuttyhunk, 1859. Oil on canvas. ODHS #1904.63

Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902). Gosnold at Cuttyhunk, 1859. Oil on canvas. ODHS #1904.63

Gosnold came to cut sassafras trees for their perceived medicinal uses back home (sassafras has a beguiling odor and a diffusion in boiling water yields a liquid of such a peculiar shade that those encountering it for the first time believed it simply had to be good for something) and his voyage, among the earliest to describe the landscape of the coast right on our doorstep, was sponsored by no less a personage than Sir Walter Raleigh who once plundered Spanish treasure galleons on the high seas at the request of Queen Elizabeth I. Think of that. These associations border on the medieval and Dartmouth figures as a lonely name along with Plymouth, Yarmouth and Sandwich on the Captain Cyprian Southack’s 1717 chart of New England, the first printed in North America. Gabriel Archer recorded his ideas of this place while sailing with Gosnold in 1602:

“This Maine is the goodliest continent that ever we saw promising more by far than we any way did expect: for it is replentished with faire fields, and in them fragrant flowers, also meadows and hedged in with stately groves, being furnished also with pleasant brooks, and beautified with two main rivers that as we judge may haply become good harbors, and conduct us to the hopes men so greedily do thirst after.”

Archer’s keen discernment not only of the beauty of the region but its potential for future exploitation entirely defines and foreshadows the destiny of the region. Those “good harbors” and the “hopes men so greedily do search after” became entwined. Through the years of colonial growth, ores were mined from local bogs, the “stately groves” were harvested for ship timber and charcoal to fuel the blacksmith’s forges and furnaces, granite was quarried for wharves and permanent structures and the industrial base of the American experience became established. New Bedford is the place where a little of that landscape can still be glimpsed.

Padanarum, the place where Laban dwelt, it’s name a biblical legend in and of itself, a place sanctified by God Almighty : “And God said unto him, I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee, and kings shall come out of thy loins; And the land which I gave Abraham and Isaac, to thee I will give it, and to thy seed after thee will I give the land.” (Genesis 35:9-12). Its adoption, so the story goes, is first mentioned on a deed of 1828 although the name was probably applied in the 18th century. It was applied by one Laban Thacher, a resident of Dartmouth and one of the original founders of this very Congregational Church, who evidently was in a position to apply his own personal predilections to a landscape so raw that he could name it at will. Laban took the story of his namesake “Laban” from the Bible (Genesis 28:2, “Arise, go to Padanaram, to the house of Bethuel, thy mother’s father; and take thee a wife from thence.”) after he found his wife Sarah nearby. By dint of this lucky occurrence, Laban Thacher named the region of his new residence, “Padanarum.” Imagine dwelling in a place so raw that you were granted permission, built into the original 1652 deed that allowed you “have liberty to make such orders as may conduce their good in town concernements.” Such was life in the New World.

Dartmouth, our “green earth in the daylight” was to 17th century English eyes the New World. One may well ask, “New to whom?” People already lived here. It is a curious fact of geography that rivers, East Coast waterways in particular, have either retained their native names or have retained native names from some adjacent locale. The retention of the names themselves, however, is a most fortunate aspect of the geography of this region because they implicitly, if inadvertently, perpetuate an acknowledgement of the people who first lived here. “Apponagansett,” for instance has been variously interpreted to mean “shell fish roasting place” or “place where waters mingle.” This latter term would describe the locale well especially given the Paskamansett and Coaksett Rivers which drain fresh water but respond to the tides. This place was not new to those who named their familiar landmarks Acushnet, Paskamansett and Coakset. They’d been here for 5000 years maybe even 10, 000 years we’re not sure as sea levels were lower then and their camping sites may be a half mile out to sea these days. The “stately groves” of Archer’s aforementioned description, implies less a tangled wilderness than a forest without undergrowth, that is, a park-like setting consistent with the earliest engravings from the New World by John White. These show a forested landscape similar to a hunting park where natives hunt the deer beneath the eaves of the trees.

In any event, the natives did not seem to mind a few Englishmen coming to live with them. In fact, to the Wampanoags, this was a pretty good deal because such powerful friends made useful allies against their landed rivals to the westward, the Narragansetts. As the few Pilgrims grew to a population of 5000 many of them Baptists and Quakers and Congragationalists who came to settle Cape Cod and the south coast, however, and their dwelling places became increasingly consolidated as settlements the Wampanoags came under frustrating pressures to conform to the new English rules and regulations. These settlers, described by one historian as “sturdy and unconquerable,” were probably undoubtedly perceived by the natives more like encroaching and uncompromising. The lands of Old Dartmouth had been purchased by those stolid American patriarchs whose grave and hoary names are carved into the American memory – William Bradford, Miles Standish, John Winslow and John Cooke whose ideals of equality, justice and religious freedom framed much of the early picture of life in this region. (John Cooke, incidentally, was one of the earliest settlers in the region building a farm in 1660 near what is now Oxford Point in Fairhaven. Of course, Russell’s Mills, that fabulous shady and complicated little corner at the tidal head of the Paskamansett River was home to one of the first grist mills in the region and thankfully today retains much of its historic character).

At the risk of romanticizing the past one does have to admire the practicality with which regions were sometimes named and almost uniformly exploited. Take the Shingle Island River, for instance. This stream that winds through the woods of North Dartmouth drains a large cedar swamp that was surveyed by Benjamin Crane and Benjamin Hammond in 1718 and at the time belonged to an Indian named Quamawin. Even at that early date it was referred to as “Shingle Island” and a glance at Henry Walling’s 1856 map of Dartmouth shows half a dozen shingle mills in the immediate vicinity of the swamp. It’s a safe assumption then that the cedar swamp was producing enough cedar shingles to last for at least 130 years.

Many of the people that settled this region were more independent-minded than even their Plymouth Puritan leaders. William W. Crapo described them as “the protestants of the Puritans.” They wanted to run their churches and their lives without paying local taxes to Plymouth for the support of a ministry with whom they were not in accord. Their steadfast refusal to pay this tax to Plymouth persisted in court cases and legal disputes that culminated in the 1724 imprisonment of selectmen Philip Taber and John Akin of Dartmouth and Joseph Anthony and John Sisson of Tiverton. The case was decided ultimately in the favor of the south coast Baptists and Quakers by no less a personage than the King’s Most Excellent Majesty and all the Lords of the Privy Council. The region thus, maintained its spiritual freedom for a “church without a bishop.” Rather, the first Congregational Society was organized in Acushnet with Samuel West as pastor and the strong religious roots of the region supported vigorous local trunks.

As is often told, the lands, encompassing the current locales of Fairhaven, Acushnet, New Bedford, Dartmouth and Westport were bought from the Wampanoag sachem Massasoit and his son Wamsutta in 1652 for “30 yards of cloth, eight moose skins, fifteen axes, fifteen hoes, fifteen pair of breeches, eight blankets, two kettles, one cloak, two pounds of wampum, eight pair of stockings, eight pair of shoes, one iron pot and ten shillings in other commodities” and in 1664 Dartmouth received its name and corporate existence. Massasoit’s son, however, one Philip, Sagamore of Pockanockett, also known as Metacom resenting the encroaching and unyielding English settlers, whose ideas of land ownership did not exactly parallel those of the natives, in 1675 launched total war on the frontier settlements and burned Dartmouth to the ground “killing many people after a most barbarous manner.” The surviving colonists had rallied at John Russell’s garrison house, a substantial log structure with a thick, stone foundation, located near the head of the Apponagansett River and can be seen today at the end of Lucy Street just off Elm Street. This “green land” was, hence, scorched and bloody before the turn of the 18th century and this is no legend but a cold fact.

King Philip’s War resulted in the marginalizing of native peoples in Massachusetts and much of New England. King Philip and many of his followers were rounded up and, to coin a phrase of Mark Twain’s Missouri memories, “sold down the river” into slavery to the Spanish West Indies, an equally barbarous fate indeed. The Indians were defeated and the colonists got back to the business at hand. In the case of south eastern Massachusetts, the business at hand was seafaring, including whaling, shipbuilding and maritime trade. The soil simply was not good enough for large-scale agriculture although it was just fine for subsistence farming. Daniel Ricketson in his 1858 History of New Bedford Massachusetts called the local inhabitants “a maritime people like ourselves.” A maritime people. Think what that means. The name of Westport, Massachusetts was coined to delineate the western end of maritime Massachusetts. Eastport, Maine anchored the other end and to our forebears the entire coast of Massachusetts was a continuous maritime community. Maine was considered part of Massachusetts from 1691-1820 and local connections to the Maine shipbuilding and timber industries remained integral to the function of 19th century New Bedford.

One glimpse at a 19th century map of New Bedford will show a community, not facing inward as so many New England towns were structured around a church-centered common, but a place facing outward to the water and the world with railroad tracks leading into the interior. Maritime communities connect the world and New Bedford was first and foremost a town of shipping and as soon as possible, industry and railroads built to move people and goods deep into the American hinterland.

Chart of the Coast of New England, 1829

Chart of the Coast of New England, 1829

The region’s personality was set in its developing years and its windblown and salty complexion is one retained to this very day. One of the earliest surviving logbooks of a whaling voyage the sloop Manufacture of Dartmouth, John Taber, master, sailed down the Acushnet River in April of 1756. It is interesting to note that even at this early date, the Acushnet River was the place from which the vessels sailed. They cruised out to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, presumably to obtain supplies then spent just under two weeks sperm whaling due east of Cape Hatteras. While out on the high seas of the Atlantic Ocean in their single-masted sloop, these mariners encountered several dead sperm whales, some of them with irons still in them. This was the spring of 1756 and whaling was becoming part and parcel of south coast life. The very fact that this single vessel, in the space of two weeks encountered struck and lost sperm whales speaks to the growing intensity of this business. That intensity would not remit until the American Revolution changed the complexion of this place forever. That same vehemence of independent spirit that compelled the Puritan stock to resist incursions upon the management of their churches manifested itself many times over in the resistance to English onerous taxations. The Acushnet River and the Apponagansett Harbor became refuges for American privateers that harassed the British Navy and merchant marine. Joseph Russell himself owned a brig named the No Duty on Tea and the first vessel built in New Bedford, the brig Dartmouth, carried the tea into Boston harbor that was later thrown overboard off the brig Beaver in the Boston Tea Party. This vessel was owned by Francis Rotch, merchant of the village.

That harassment as well as general sympathy and support for revolutionary activities incurred military retaliation. On September 5, 1778, Major-General Grey under orders of Sir Henry Clinton and guided by a local Tory came ashore at Clarks Cove and burned down the town including all of the shipping in the harbor and at the wharves. This put an end the whaling out of the port for many years afterward which the population of 6800 people had to re-build from the ground up. It would not be until after the War of 1812 that the New Bedford region built its fleet and infrastructure back to the point where it could pursue its favored industry. As far as the Manufacture was concerned, however, that was decades into the future and while on their whaling cruise they took two or three sperm whales that they “cut on deck” and then cruised for home “to gratify the crew.”

Laban Thacher is one perfect example of the Dartmouth settler, as he was a shipbuilder with a strong religious background. He built the foundations of the famous Matthews and Mashow shipyard once located where the New Bedford yacht club is today that built over 38 vessels including several famous whalers. John Mashow, one of the more important ship builders in the region was a black man whose handiwork can be seen on exhibit at the Whaling Museum in the form of two hand-crafted half-hull models. There is other evidence however. One old manuscript in the Whaling Museum collection records payment made to one Peleg Smith for “helping get ship timber up Rock Donder and half a day marking and hewing that timber.” Rock Dunder was the name of the locale known today as Rock O’ Dundee Road and he probably was not hauling ship timber up to there but rather taking it from there to another place. Much like Joseph Russell in Wall’s painting, Smith owned a team of oxen that he used for all kinds of work. It was with such beasts of burden that the local fields were cleared of rocks, that timber was hauled from the deep woods and that the tracks upon which we drive today were first trampled. This Smith had also recorded his 1791 trading voyage as master aboard the sloop Polly to the Croatan River in North Carolina where he traded some undisclosed commodity for 2600 bushels of corn which was then sold throughout the community. Whether it was food for people or for stock is not clear but it is evident that bulk grains were unavailable or insufficient locally to provide for the combined needs of people and animals.

This cursory overview will doubtless leave you-all scratching your heads as many, many of your questions remain to be answered. That is the whole point of tonight’s experience. Get to know your neighbors. Many of them are incredibly knowledgeable. Please do become members of the New Bedford Whaling Museum and the other local historical societies in Westport, Mattapoisett and Marion. Support the local Land Conservation groups who are doing a good job of securing whatever tracts of land they can which preserve views and open spaces of incredible community value. These places are important. Remember how the people, Native and Settler alike, fought hard for this land and that the landscape has not forgotten those fights. We have our own fights ahead of us, namely cultural homogeneity and complacency, which can creep into the heart of a community and sap its strength. With the weight of history behind us, however, and the granite building blocks of our foundations everywhere evident, we know better than to let that happen.

One response to “The Heritage of Landscape

  1. First off I want to say excellent blog! I had a quick question which I’d like to ask if you do not mind.
    I was curious to find out how you center yourself and clear your head before writing.
    I’ve had difficulty clearing my thoughts in getting my thoughts out.
    I do take pleasure in writing but it just seems like the first 10 to
    15 minutes are generally wasted just trying to figure out how to begin. Any suggestions or tips?
    Appreciate it!

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