South Taconics Forest: A History. Part Three

Homo sapiens

By at least 12,000 years ago, that most puzzling of all species had reached the region: human beings.  They would have moved in from the north and west, and survived in a land of megafauna and cold.  A nineteenth century Mohican leader described Native tradition thus: “A great people came from the Northwest; crossed over the salt waters, and after long and weary pilgrimages, took possession, and built their fires upon the Atlantic  Coast.”

Etowohkoam, Mohican sachem, on a 1710 visit to London

There’s no evidence that Native Americans ever built settlements in the Taconics; their villages were close to the transportation routes and food sources of the major rivers and streams.  But it’s likely they hunted in the Taconics, and their hunting methods may have had a major impact on the forest.

Adrian Van der Donck, an early settler in New Amsterdam, wrote of Native-set burns along the Hudson and Mohawk : “Such a fire is a splendid sight when one sails on the rivers at night while the forest is ablaze on both banks.”  An early Massachusetts settler opined that “The Lord had mitigated the labors (of colonists) by the Indians’ frequent firing of the woods.”  William Wood, another Massachusetts pioneer, described a landscape where there was “scarcely a bush or bramble to be seen.”

Native tribes used fire for clearing farmland, and to ease travel, and to create habitat for game species, and to hunt.   Picture a circle of Mohicans, diameter very wide, each one scraping flint to start a little pyre.  You wonder how they avoided burning each other, but the object was to ensnare game in a noose of flames.  Before the European invasion, elk and bison roamed the valleys and hills, and of course white-tailed deer and black bear were common.  (The original name of Alander Mountain was “Elk Hill.”)  By regular, controlled burns, Natives encouraged the sort of shrubby vegetation their prey favored, and made it easier to track and shoot.  Twenty-first century humans have inadvertently accomplished something similar with suburban lawns and gardens.

So there seems little doubt that Natives used fire to shape the landscape to their needs.  But how extensive were these fires? Charcoal levels in New England lake sediment cores display little evidence for widespread burning: at Larkham Pond in the Berkshires there’s no trace of fire for five hundred years before European settlement.  If fire was a tool used mainly for clearing fields, as seems likely, then burning would have been concentrated in the lowlands.  The observations quoted above come from visitors to settled areas, the places most likely to be torched.  Not all forests are equally burnable: think of the dense, moist duff under hemlocks.   Even the relatively low summits of the Taconics receive more precipitation than the valleys.

My guess would be that the Taconics were spared regular fires.  Take a walk in the mountains today: consider the many hemlocks and oaks.  Hemlocks’ shallow roots leave them vulnerable to fire, and they require much moisture and many years in order to establish themselves.  We know they were common in the past as well, so: if Natives regularly reduced the woods to shrubs via flame, how did substantial hemlock groves survive?  What about all those oaks, which which welcome occasional, but not regular fire?  

But consider the testimony of a Salisbury cleric who devoted his 1803 New Year’s sermon to a history of the town.  He reported Native burning so extensive that, to the first settlers: “The face of the town did not wear a very pleasant and inviting aspect.”  Native fires “with ponds, mountains and clefts of rock, made the face of nature forbidding,” and “Due to (burning’s) ravages, there was less wood than there is today.”  He also mentions the memory of one soul who was a victim of those circular fires, an “…Indian lad trapped in a quick moving burn and killed.”

  But then, what about all the chestnuts that once thrived in the mountains?  They’re better able to survive burns because they sprout quickly from stumps.  It’s possible that Natives might have used burns to encourage the growth of nut trees like chestnuts and hickories.  (Could they even have cultivated them?). This seems one — of the many — historical questions where an honest answer is a shrug.

The Mohicans, however, shaped the forest in other ways, long before Henry Hudson met them.  Evidence indicates that the Hudson Valley was well settled by 6-4000 years ago, and agriculture began about a thousand years back.  Villages existed on the edges of the mountains in historic times, in the Copake flats area, where the Green River met the Housatonic, and to the south around Salisbury.   These Natives would have collected wood for cooking and heat (usually deadwood) and cut trees to build canoes (usually tulip poplar).  They may not always have been conservation-minded; Van der Donck complained that “chestnuts would be plentier if it were not for the Indians who destroy the trees by stripping off the bark for covering of their houses.”  He also noted Mohicans cutting off chestnut branches to gather nuts.  

Virginia longhouses, similar in construction to Mohican

One gentler use of trees: tapping maples for syrup.  Another indirect impact, but perhaps a powerful one: deer hunting.  Van Der Donck saw deer everywhere, and reported that:  “The Indians through the year and every year (mostly in the fall) kill many thousands and the wolves, after the fawns are cast, also destroy many, still the land abounds with them everywhere, and their numbers appear to remain undiminished.”  Today, unchecked deer populations can browse forests so heavily that they prevent new growth, so it’s possible that Mohicans (along with the wolves) helped maintain forests by controlling the grazers.  

In any case, the impact of Native Americans on the Taconics would have been constrained by their numbers.   The effects of pandemics on Native populations vexes all guesses and has led to wildly different estimates — Van Der Donck stated flatly that “nine tenths of them have died,” (from disease.)   But the highest guesstimate comes from John Quinney, a Mohican chief who in 1845 wondered: “Where are the 25,000 in number, and the 4,000 warriors, who constituted the power and the population of the great Muh-he-con-new Nation in 1604?” Compare that to the current population of just Columbia and Rensselaer Counties — about 221,000 — and it’s clear there’s a limit to how many chestnut branches the Mohicans lopped off.                    

Hudson reported sailing past land that “abounds in trees of every description.”  So it seems accurate to picture the Taconics, far inland from the river, as mostly forest-covered, and teeming with animal life: not just the still-familiar deer, beaver, otter, bear, squirrel, porcupine, grouse, ducks, and geese but also now vanished species such as bison and elk, flocks of passenger pigeons that darkened the skies (extinct) the heath hen (extinct) and those wolves — red wolves, the eastern variety. 

“History” begins

Whoever the first Europeans to explore the Taconics were, they left no records.  But there is one particularly effective means of envisioning the Taconic forest at the beginning of settlement.  This is the proprietors’ deeds for the town of Mount Washington.


The first farms in the Taconics would have resembled this

Mount Washington occupies most of the South Taconics, aside from a strip of Copake/Hillsdale, New York, on the western flank, and a chunk of Salisbury, Connecticut to the south.  The first settlements within the town boundaries date back to 1689, but the stubborn land claims of those Columbia County manor lords, the Livingstons, led to a long and sometimes violent struggle, so the town was not incorporated until 1779.  Typically, settlers making first claim to unincorporated lands made payment to the Massachusetts General Court.  The leaders of Mount Washington sought to avoid this, in a plea worth quoting as a rough image of the South Taconics in that year:

“The said proprietors of said Tauconnuck Mountain did make a bona fide purchase of the whole land included within the limits of said town of Mount Washington, of the aboriginal natives, the then rightful and independent lords of the soil, that said town is situated on a hight and the land in a state of nature so charged with wood and timber, that considering its almost inaccessible situation the labor necessary to bring it into a state of cultivation would cost nearly as much as the land could be sold for.”

But consider the following detailed census, from a 1751 petition to the General Court pleading for incorporation into Massachusetts:   

# houses #
Years in
Orchards # barrels
Andrew Brasse 1 70 50 30 50 1 10
Cornels Brasee 1 50 30 10 22

Js Eliot 1 2 1 2 2

Henry Brasee 1 60 10 15 60 1 3
Francis Brasee 1 20 15 4 4

Jeremiah Butler
5 1 1 1

Jonathan Darby 1 8 7 2 2

Jacob Decker, 2nd 1 1 1 1 1

Christopher Brasee 1 60 20 15 60 1 2
Philip Fraa 1 60 60 10 10

Js Gillet
15 7 2 2

Simon Doby — lives with Gillet

John Hallenbeck 1 70 60 17 60 1 8
Wm Hallenbeck Jr — son to John

Mathew Hallenbeck 1 5 1 1 1

Michael Hallenbeck 1 70 60 18 30 1 6
Jon Hallenbeck Jr (son to Michael)

Robert Hallenbeck (son to Michael)

Zeph Harvey 1 5 4 2 2

Ambrose Hunt 1 6 3 1 1

Jacob Loomis 1
3 cleared

Josiah Loomis 1 30 20 9 9

Josiah Loomis Jr — 3 acres under improvement

Lousy Newell


Jo Orcutt


Trees girded
Andrew Race 1 70 60 16 26 1 young
Andrew Race 2nd 1 30 15 3 3

Comel Race 1 Possessor with Eph

Eph Race 1 60 40 16 50 1 2
John Race – son to Andrew

Wm Race 1 1 1 15 15

Wm Race jr 1 30 16 10 10

George Robinson 2 Dwelling houses pulled down

Adam Shaver holds under David Ingersoll 1 30 15 4 28 1 4
Henry Smith
10 3 1 1

Jonas Smith 1 70 50 27 27 1 8
Abraham Spoor 1 40 30 18 60 1 3
Rich’d Spoor 1 40 30 18 60 1 3
Nicholaus Spoor — son to Richard

James Van Dusen 1 20 18 4 4

Robert Van Dusen
2 1 1 1

Wm. Weeb
6 5 1 1

Kyle Wenard 1 1 1 1 1


In that year Mount Washington had forty-four heads of family, 966 acres fenced (seven percent of the town’s total acreage) 772 acres improved, and 12 orchards that produced 49 barrels of “syder.”   (The population is a little harder to pin down: if there were children, surely there were some women in town?) So some skepticism must greet that description of a wild and remote settlement, written by men who had an obvious pocketbook reason to exaggerate.  Still, it’s safe to say there were lots of trees up there in 1751.

We can get a fair idea of the types of trees from the surveys of these original parcels, beginning with John Van Gilder and Ichabod Avery’s 68 acres surveyed in 1787, and continuing to the last of the undivided land, Ira Schutt’s 37 acres measured in 1837.   

That’s because a survey must begin at some recognizable corner marker, and the handiest markers, in the eighteenth century, were trees.  Boulders and stone piles also served, but trees were most common.  

When I first learned of this method of forest time-travel, I imagined a long search through dusty closets rewarded by feather-pen scratches on faded parchment.  But an online search led to a phone call to a pleasant woman at the Registry of Deeds who told me how to access the original surveys with a few clicks on-line.  There they were, all eighty pages  — and someone, at some point, had transcribed that eye-straining old cursive into type!  All I needed was the patience to read through them and tally up the most commonly mentioned trees.

Because the town was divided into lots of roughly equal size, it’s as if — almost as if — someone had gazed down from above and randomly selected and recorded tree species.  But, for several reasons, the deeds don’t provide quite that level of accuracy.  For one, I couldn’t tell when I’d counted the same trees more than once, as different lots no doubt shared the same “witness trees.”  (But there’s no reason to suppose one species was double-counted more than another.)  And: pines were particularly prized at the time for their height and strength.  Would surveyors have avoided using these trees as corner markers, knowing they were more likely to be cut?  Also: for understandable reasons, the initial lots were all laid out in the valley between the Taconics’ two ridges, and these seem to have been smaller than the upland lots.  Are species suited to heights therefore undercounted?   

In any case, the data is valuable.  

Species Number of trees Percentage
Chestnut 415 29%
White Oak 167 12%
Black Oak 113 8%
Red Oak 48 3%
Rock Oak 9 Less than 1%
Oak 86 6%
Hemlock 134 9%
White Birch 97 7%
Black Birch 9 Less than 1%
Dry Birch 3 Less than 1%
Birch 49 3%
Soft (silver) Maple 37 3%
Hard (Sugar) maple 20 1%
White Maple 1 Less than 1%
Maple 23 2%
Beech 55 4%
Yellow pine 47 3%
White pine 26 2%
Pitch pine 10 Less than 1%
Pine 20 1%
Walnut 9 Less than 1%
Poplar (popple) 14 Less than 1%
Witch hazel 8 Less than 1%
Red ash 6 Less than 1%
White ash 1 Less than 1%
Ash 1 Less than 1%
Cherry 2 Less than 1%
Butternut 1 Less than 1%
Basswood 1 Less than 1%
Shad bush 2 Less than 1%
Deer wood 1 Less than 1%

(Note also that some surveyors simply recorded generic “oak” or “pine,” making the count less exact than we might wish. ) 

The most striking takeaway from this table is, of course, the number of chestnuts, a blight victim now almost vanished from the mountains.  But the accuracy of this count is buttressed by Hitchcock’s 1841 description of the Taconics “Almost covered with the lofty and graceful chestnut.”  Recent research indicates that the common perception of chestnuts once ruling the eastern forest, as bison once ruled the plains, is inaccurate – except in certain areas.  Pollen counts pin down one specific area: Northwest Connecticut, and show that the chestnut was particularly a tree of the mountains.  

Typical size of today’s blight-stricken chestnuts

Oak and hemlocks are still prominent in the 21st century, as they were two hundred years ago.  But some trees, now common, barely show up in these surveys:  where are all the hickories, basswood, ash and cherries?  Sugar maples now brighten many an autumn mountainside, but even adding “maple” to “sugar maple” leaves you with a population of only three percent in the early nineteenth century.  Perhaps the sudden vanishing of the chestnuts allowed more forest diversity as years went by. 

A little more evidence, below: a tree count based on the proprietors’ deeds for Salisbury, 1755-1806.  Here it must be kept in mind that Salisbury stretches well beyond the limits of the mountains.  But this date helps to bring a general picture into view.

Tree Species Percentage

Oak 43

Walnut 16

Chestnut 15

Beech 7

Birch 6

Hemlock 2

White pine 2

Maple 2

The size of these “original” trees is suggested by the typical fine levied in eighteenth century New England for “timber trespass” — cutting down trees on land that wasn’t yours.  Forty shillings was a considerable sum at the time, indicating trees of a considerable size.  

A forest dominated by oak and chestnut, with areas of major disturbance supporting white pine, and cool moist conditions favoring hemlock and beech.  That seems a believable portrait of the South Taconics in the 17th-18th century, although a few details must not be overlooked.  A 1737 Connecticut writer described “Laurel jungles impassable by man or beast” — one thing that surely hasn’t changed!  A clear picture must also include the spots that had no forest at all.  Mount Everett was originally called “Bald Mountain” for a reason, and Timothy Dwight in 1781 noted “a most extensive and splendid prospect spread around me,” similar to the 360 degree view that moved Hitchcock in 1841.  Everett, Alander and Brace are open summits to this day, as they’ve likely been since glacial times.  Finally, don’t forget that the South Taconics, like every aspect of this world, are alway being shifted and remade.  It’s not as if they were static before Europeans arrived. 

Yet the forest I’ve just described thrived on the cusp of an era of wedges, axes, saws and fire, an invasion effecting changes more sudden and dramatic than any seen before or since.