The Agricultural Roots of the New England Planters.

By Kerr Canning


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"Before the salt marshes were considered wastelands in need of “reclamation,” and even longer before they were elevated to the rank of a “sacred cow” in the environmental movement, the marshes were clearly, and intimately, a part of the early New Englander’s “life support system”

Nixon, Scott W. 15 March 2011. The Ecology of New England High Salt Marshes: A Community Profile. Fish and Wildlife Service, US Department of the Interior 1982 [cited 15 March 2011]. Available from p 47

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The New England Planters: Descendents of European Peoples Attracted to Salt Marshes..

The Utilization of Wetlands by Humans

Wetlands, both freshwater and saltwater, are important ecosystems that have attracted human settlement since pre-historic times. Interest in studying why humans have been attracted to marshlands is a more recent development involving the research efforts of archeologists, post-glacial geologists, historians and historical geographers. Their findings are extensive and show, to the surprise of some, that previously held views on who developed and practiced dykland agriculture and salt marsh utilization are simplistic and inadequate. Simon Fraser University Professor George P. Nicholas, whose major research focus is the archaeology and human ecology of wetlands, offers the following explanation for why the new understanding of the long-term relationship that humans have had with wetlands was such a surprise

“One reason twentieth century scholars express
surprise that many peoples found wetlands attractive
is that they do not. In other words, we tend to impose
our own cultural geography upon past landscapes.”
(Hatvany, 2002, p.128).

Dr. Matthew G. Hatvany, a Université Laval Historical Geography Professor researching the human use of tidal wetlands, concludes that while scientists may only have recognized the rich resources of the wetland environment in the last 40 years, historical evidence shows an “organic” understanding of the importance of wetlands is found among marsh-dwelling peoples in the Americas and Europe dating back into prehistoric times. In his words, “such peoples, living in daily contact with wet land environments, intuitively recognized, exploited, and altered such environments for their abundant natural resources” (Hatvany, 2002, p.128).

The Wetlands of Western Europe

Western European countries such as the British Isles, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany have large low-lying coastal plains that contain extensive tracts of both fresh water and saltwater wetlands. It is in the long history of how the inhabitants of these coastal marshes utilized their wetland environment that we find the background material for the agricultural roots of the New England Planters. It is a story that begins with the development, over a long period of time, of dyking methods for preventing inundation from flooding due to run-off from heavy rainfall and by high tides. This examination is important to our understanding of the agricultural practices of the New England Planters because a significant number of the colonial settlers of North America’s Atlantic Coast were farm families from Western Europe’s coastal wetlands and had practiced marshland agriculture. As well, they had at least a rudimentary understanding of dyke (sea wall) and aboiteau (tide gate) construction.

Wetland Agriculture in Western Europe: Supportive Quotes from the Literature

The development of the wetland agriculture in Western Europe originates with agricultural improvements that developed after the fall of the Roman Empire.

1) Agricultural improvements after the fall of the Roman Empire (Hatvany, 2003, p. 31 to 32).

"Agricultural improvements, including diking, emerged across a wide area of Europe following the confusion precipitated by the fall of Rome. By the 600s low sea walls were being erected in areas of western Europe, while in the next century Anglo-Saxon charters in England document the legal status of the foreshores for varied forms of human exploitation including the diking of the Fenlands. In Medieval Italy agricultural land was extended by diking and draining. In The Netherlands and Germany, diking of the lowlands against transgressions is said to have commenced on a large scale around 900 AD."

2) 13th century marsh diking and a lack of easily arable land (Hatvany, 2002, p.132 to 133).

"It was in the 13th century that marsh diking became widely employed along virtually all of the Atlantic coastline of western Europe. During that epoch (c. 1050-1250), mounting demographic pressure on arable land led to an unprecedented era of agricultural expansion. This augmentation included not only the massive clearing of forest land, but also extensive marshland diking in a movement led by the great religious houses of the day. Examples are the coastal monasteries of the Benedictine and Cistercian monks, who, writes Étienne Clouzot, prescribed work for the body as part of monastic life, attacking the marshes in the same manner that inland monasteries were clearing the forests. As research points out, these diking efforts were part of a general European response to the environmental problem of mounting demographic pressure and a lack of easily arable land. The solution was widespread forest clearance and the concurrent development of marsh-diking activity throughout today’s British Isles, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France"

The 13th century is in the so called Medieval Climate Optimum, an epoch also known as the Medieval Warm Period.

Colonial Settlers from the Wetlands of Western European

The area between the Delaware Bay and the Saint Lawrence River, called the “Northeast Region of the Colonial Epoch (1600-1850)” by Hatvany (Hatvany 2002, p 122) contains tidal wetlands that were formed by a complex process at the end of the last Ice-Age (Sebold, 1992, Chapter 2), see Fig.1. The early European settlers such as the Acadians and the ancestors of the New England Planters were attracted to these post glacier wetlands (Russell, 1976). This is not surprising since a significant number of the colonial settlers who migrated to the Northeast Region came from the marsh-dwelling regions of Europe. These settlers must have brought with them a wetland agricultural heritage and knowledge which was adapted to the marshlands of North America’s northeast Atlantic coast.

The agricultural roots of the New England Planters in the marsh-dwelling regions of Western Europe impacted how these colonial settlers practiced salt marsh agriculture in the New World. The remainder of this presentation will examine some of the research findings that indicate a transfer and adaptation of European marsh land technology did take place. In particular, it will look at how the New England Planters not only inherited the outcome of this transfer and adaptation of wetland agriculture but continued the process when they moved to Nova Scotia.

The Transfer of Western European Wetland Agricultural Practices to the Wetlands of the Northeast Region.

When the colonial settlers from Western Europe arrived in New England and New Jersey they sought out saltmarshes in order to make use of salt marsh hay. Eventually those settlers and/or their descendents who were ablr to organize and to work cooperatively were able to construct dykes and aboiteaus.

The Aboiteau or Tide Gate

Dyked salt marshes required sluiceways with tide operated one-way valves to prevent seawater from inundating the marsh at high tide. Tide operated sluiceways, called aboiteaus by the Acadians, aboteau in France before the colonization of Acadia (Hatvany 2002, p.124), and tide gate in England and the United States, were used in Roman settlements in the Netherlands in the first century AD (Rippon 2000, p. 84-90). The image links below show a Roman aboiteau and a present day aboiteau.

Roman Aboiteau or Tide Gate

Drawing of Roman Aboiteau or Tide Gate

Reconstruction drawing, by Kelvin Wilson, of an Early Roman sluice-gate.

Location of Roman Aboiteau or Tide Gate

Present Day Aboiteau or Tide Gate at Advocate. Image1

Present Day Aboiteau or Tide Gate at Advocate. Image2

Present Day Aboiteau or Tide Gate at Present Day Aboiteau at Great Village. Image 1

Present Day Aboiteau or Tide Gate at Great Village.Image 2

Present Day Aboiteau at Present Day Aboiteau or Tide Gateat Great Village. Image3

Wetland Agriculture in the Northeast Region: Supportive Quotes from the literature

1) Salt Marshes and Massachusetts Bay Townships (Russell, 1976, p. 47)

"All along the winding Massachusetts Bay shore, wherever salt grass caught the eye, exploring stockmen were petitioning the General Court to be allowed to set up townships. The adjoining upland might be only moderately fertile, even chiefly ledges and woods, yet cattlemen brought up amid England’s grassy vales and tidal marshes coveted the salt hay in the lowlands…..Fresh-water marshes exhibited drawing power also."

2) New England settlers recognized the importance of salt marshes. (Seabold 1998, Page 18, Chapter2)

"From the earliest times, New England settlers recognized the importance of saltmarshes in the establishment of stable communities as they depend upon the lowland grasses for a ready supple of hay. Saltmarshes became an impetus for initial settlement in Massachusetts, and also later expansion into the coastal regions of new Hampshire and Maine."

3) Increasing demographic pressure and a lack of good arable land (Hatvany, 2002, p. 132)

"...increasing demographic pressure and a lack of good arable land that frequently led coastal farmers from New Jersey to Quebec to turn to transforming the marsh environment, just as the Acadians had done in the early 17th century. Any lingering doubt as to how these non-Acadian marsh dikes and tidal sluice gates operated can be assuaged, since a clear description is given by the naturalist Peter Kalm. In the mid-18th century, Kalm visited the former Swedish colony of Raccoon in southern New Jersey. There he observed the dikes and tidally operated sluice gates built along the shores of the Delaware River. Not only did Kalm write extensively of the exploitation of salt-marsh pasturage and marsh hay in this region, but he also observed that:"

"The country here was very low.... The plains on the banks of the
[Delaware] river were flooded at every ... flowing of the tide,
and at the ebbing they were left dry again. However the inhabitants
of the country hereabouts met this situation, for they had in several
places thrown up walls or dykes of earth near the river to prevent its
overflowing the land.... In the dykes were gates ... they were sometimes
placed on the outside of the wall, in such a way that the water in the
meadows would force them open while the river water would shut them."


Hatvany, Matthew G. 2002. The Origins of the Acadian Aboiteau: An Environmental-Historical Geography of the Northeast. Historical Geography 30, Also available at

Hatvany, Matthew George. 2003. Marshlands : four centuries of environmental change on the shores of the St. Lawrence, Aboiteaux of Kamouraska. Sainte-Foy, Quebec : Presses de l'Université Laval.

Rippon, Stephen. 2000. The transformation of coastal wetlands : exploitation and management of marshland landscapes in North West Europe during the Roman and medieval periods, British Academy postdoctoral fellowship monograph. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Russell, Howard S. 1976. A Long, Deep Furrow: Three Centuries of Farming in New England: University Press of New England, Hanover, N.H.

Sebold, Kimberly R. From Marsh to Farm: The Landscape Transformation of Coastal New Jersey. National Park Service, 1992 [cited 3 May 2011. Available from

Sebold, Kimberly R. 1998. Low Green Prairies of the Sea: Economic and Cultural Construction of Salt Marshes Along the Gulf of Maine, Ph.D Thesis, History, University of Maine.