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Agriculture

Although Europeans had established a military presence on Lake Champlain as early as 1666, it wasn't until the next century, under the pressure of a growing population in southern New England, that the first wave of permanent settlers arrived in the Champlain Valley. With the defeat of the French confirmed by the Treaty of Paris in 1763, and with western lands still closed to colonists, northern New England was the logical site for colonial expansion. Farms in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island had been portioned off until there was little left to bestow, and new generations of New Englanders found themselves lacking the very resource the New World was supposed to offer in such abundance. Throughout the eighteenth century, they forged their way north, seeking the fertile agricultural land that was in such short supply in southern New England.

Settling the Valleys
How Vermont was Settled

Map showing where and when eighteenth century settlement in Vermont occurred. Click on image for larger view. Used with permission of the Orton Family Foundation and the Middlebury College Department of Geography

Vermont's Champlain and Connecticut River Valleys promised everything that southern New England now lacked. Former soldiers who had been stationed on Lake Champlain described flat, fertile farmland, potential millsites on innumerable streams and rivers, and established access routes on the old military roads. The Champlain Valley boasted a milder climate and a longer growing season than other regions in northern New England due to the moderating effect of the Lake and the protection afforded by the mountains. Furthermore, sedimentation from glacial Lake Vermont had provided the Valley with rich agricultural soil, "furnishing some of the finest farms in New England."

Settlement in the Champlain Valley occurred rapidly, especially in the southern region, where most of the land along the Lake was surveyed, granted and claimed before the Revolutionary War. New settlers faced many of the same obstacles as their colonizing ancestors: the densely forested 'wilderness' was virtually untraversable without a guide, and, once claimed, presented a population whose survival depended on agriculture with the daunting task of clearing the land. Clearing was as much a pragmatic necessity as a cultural ritual, in which settlers established their rightful claim to the land by opening it up to cultivation. [Lesson Clearing the Land]

Consequences of Clearing the Land

Between the late 1700s and the late 1800s, industrious European settlers removed more than half of Vermont's six million acres of forest cover, unknowingly effecting the most dramatic ecological transformation in the region's recent history. Closed forest and woodland had dominated the Vermont landscape for 12,000 years, playing a central role in a complex ecological system encompassing climate, drainage patterns, soil composition and quantity and species of wildlife. Deforestation literally transformed the landscape, and its effects were immediately perceptible. As early as 1794, Vermont historian Samuel Williams noted that cleared land soon became "warm and dry," while streams and brooks no longer supplied consistent waterflows.

Drawing of clearing the land

A drawing by Rowland Robinson of Ferrisburgh, Vt. depicts hard-working settlers clearing the forest, dragging the logs to market and burning the remaining wood in pits. Used with permission of the Rokeby Museum

Eighteenth and early nineteenth century farmers naturally saw potential for agriculture in forestland characerized by rich soil. But, as modern environmental historian William Cronon points out, "forests caused soils as much as soils caused forests." The character of the soil changed dramatically with the clearing of forestland: nutrients supplied by annual forest cycles were lost, drainage patterns changed unpredictably as water-retaining root systems were removed, and exposure to the considerable effects of direct sunlight widened the range of local climate conditions. Cleared land froze more deeply in the winter and thawed more quickly in the warm months, and while spring brought floodwater, the hot summer months often left streams and rivers dry. Furthermore, beyond depriving agricultural land of valuable topsoil, soil erosion contributed to the siltation of streams, ponds and lakes. Changes in the composition of waterways in turn gave rise to changes in water flows and in aquatic animal populations.

Deforestation contributed to the displacement and, in some cases, extinction of native land animals as well. Due to the coupled effects of forest-clearing and hunting, beaver, otter, deer, bear and catamount populations diminished radically in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Elk, caribou, and wolverines completely disappeared. Historians Christopher Klyza and Stephen Trombulak speculate that even in the absence of game hunting, many of these species would have been eliminated entirely by loss of habitat due to forest-clearing. [Lesson Change Over Time: Vermont Wildlife]

Chipman Hill deforested, ca. 1860sChipman Hill, reforested, ca. 1900sChipman Hill, reforsted, 1980s

Details of photographs of Chipman Hill in Middlebury show reforestation between the 1860s and the 1980s. This transformation occured in reverse during the settlement period, although tree species differ significantly between old and new growth forests. Click on images for larger view. From the collection of the Stewart-Swift Research Center at the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History

George Perkins Marsh and the Conservation Movement

Deforestation significantly and permanently altered the Champlain Valley ecosystem. Neither native Abenaki nor eighteenth century European settlers fully comprehended the complex ecological role of the forest, and neither group could have predicted the dramatic changes in the landscape caused by its removal. In the mid-nineteenth century, however, connections between deforestation and otherwise inexplicable environmental changes came into the public awareness, largely through the efforts of Vermont naturalist and historian George Perkins Marsh. Marsh expanded on the observations of his predecessor Samuel Williams, showing that changes in the microclimates, waterways and wildlife populations directly resulted from the clearing of forestland. [Lesson Meet Vermont's Naturalists] At a time when Vermont's agricultural economy was in serious decline, Marsh urged state and local agricultural agencies to direct reforestation efforts wherever possible in order to offset environmental damage already done.

Marsh's vision of an endangered natural world was controversial and pervasive, and gave rise to the first national conservation movement in the late nineteenth century. Ultimately, conservation efforts combined with the decline of New England's agricultural economy allowed 77 per cent of the Vermont landscape to return to forest. In the twentieth century, second-growth forests replaced much of the grassland and field habitat found on former farm and pastureland, and introduced tree, plant and wildlife species different in type and quantity from those of the old-growth forest habitat. The legacy of 'clearing the land' lies in this newly forested landscape, in the far-reaching ecological and economic implications of reforestation.