Embattled Landscapes
09 Aug 2020

Embattled Landscapes

09 Aug 2020

Embattled Landscapes

By: Marta Olmos


National Park Service Arrowhead at Minute Man Visitor Center

I have been using a lot of my project time to research agricultural improvements and the enlightenment in the New England context. In the 18th century, the land that now falls within Minute Man National Historical Park was mostly agricultural land used by the residents of Concord, Lincoln, and Lexington. This land was carefully managed by the farmers of those towns through what Historian Mary Babson Fuhrer described as ‘ecological calculus’: “the floods fed the meadow, the meadow and the pasture fed the cows, the cows fed the tillage, the tillage fed the people, and the land remained healthy and fertile, ready to support the next generation.” The land was the breadbasket of the community and it fed their rapid population growth across the 18th century.

18th colonial hay harvest

This system of specialized land use was partially driven by Enlightenment philosophies about agricultural improvements, which sought to solve humanitarian problems through the new scientific methods of the era. Improvers sought to emulate Linnaeus’ ‘economy of nature,’ wherein “nothing is wasted and the expenditure of energy is minimal.” They achieved this “through a program of enclosure, drainage, manuring, crop selection and rotation, and other yield-boosting technologies.” Scottish Enlightenment philosopher John Gregory wrote in 1788 that, through improvement, “the civil and natural history of Mankind becomes a study not merely fitted to amuse and gratify curiosity, but a study subservient to the noblest views, to the cultivation and improvement of the Human Species” (never mind that this work was done on stolen land using stolen bodies—their humanity did not count). These methods were highly efficient, but they were also highly extractive and invasive, destroying ecosystems and biodiversity in favor of mono-crops and constant harvests.

The wetlands near the Brook’s village, on the battle road trail, are a great example of the complicated impacts of improvement in Minute Man. In the 18th century, the area was ditched and drained so it could be used as a hayfield. Hay was an important agricultural product in the colonies, and it took generations of labor and adjustments to improve the wetland so it could be used as agricultural land. Ditches and drainage systems controlled every drop of water in the colonial landscape to control ground conditions and maximize agricultural yields. These improvements greatly benefitted the colonists by increasing production, reducing hunger, and supporting a larger population. They also damaged the ecosystem and destroyed biodiversity. Today, that land has been restored as a marsh to protect the ecosystem and encourage an increased diversity of plants and animals.

The wetlands as they exist today

By the 1770s, yields had begun to flatten, as soil—no longer allowed to fully rest and restore—became less nutrient-dense and there was not enough manure to fertilize it. Farmers increased their cattle holdings and depleted the meadows until “on the eve of the Revolution, Lexington farmers reported needing nearly twice the land required at mid-century to maintain a cow.” At the same time, communities were facing a profound demographic crisis. Each new adult son needed his own farm of a minimum of 60 acres to sustain and feed a family, but there was no land left to give. The farmers had improved every acre they could, but it was not enough to support their growing communities and maintain their old way of life. 

This was the world of those embattled farmers on April 19, 1775. Their communities were collapsing, their family structures were changing, and their way of life was in the process of changing forever. Questions of land and land use were directly tied to anger over taxation and restrictions of the backcountry coming out of Parliament in the lead-up to that fateful conflict. The farmers had been fighting nature long before they picked up their muskets, and the land that now makes up Minute Man National Historical Park was a battlefield long before those first shots were fired.

Dr. Samuel Prescott in the Minute Man Visitor Center

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