In popular memory, the modern history of Massachusetts began in 1620 with a group of English religious zealots. These men, women, and children are said to have ventured into an unknown region of the New World, a wilderness home to Native Americans who previously had never seen a European face. Massachusetts Bay, the story goes, was discovered, explored, and exploited by English dissidents. But popular memory often plays tricks. The Pilgrims encountered a region that was neither unmapped nor unaware of the wider world. Rather, it had played a role in the imperial Atlantic power struggle for decades.
The coastal plains and rolling hills that would become so important in United States history were and remain home to many Algonquian-speaking tribes. Massachuseuck territory, named for the sacred Great Blue Hill (Massachusett, “Big Hill Place”), stretched across present-day Greater Boston. To the west lay Nippenet (“Freshwater Pond Place”), land of the Nipmuck. Their neighbors included the Wampanoag along the Cape; the Pocumtuck, Nonatuck, Woronock, and Agawam along the Connecticut River; the Muheconeok in the Berkshires; and the Penacook and Squagheag to the north. Dozens of long-distance trails connected villages throughout New England, facilitating trade, inflaming rivalries, and strengthening allegiances. Not only people and goods, but information traveled along these routes. When oddly clad strangers appeared offshore, the news would have spread like brushfire.
Five hundred years after Vikings first reached Newfoundland, Europeans became a regular presence in northern American waters. Basque, Portuguese, English, and French fishermen plied their trade off the coast of Canada, and there is evidence that they came into contact with Mi’kmak or Abenaki tribes in Maine as early as 1519. By the end of the century, a steady stream of European fisherman hunted whales and cod around Massachusetts Bay. They probably ventured ashore for fresh water and, perhaps, to trade with Native inhabitants.
Official European exploration of New England began with an Italian working for France. In 1524, Giovanni da Verrazzano sailed west aboard La Dauphine in search of the fabled Northwest Passage. Upon reaching the lands of Siouan-speaking tribes (North Carolina), he kidnapped a boy to bring back to France and then turned north, hugging the coastline. He ventured into the areas of Mahican and Nahigansett (New York and Rhode Island), sailed past treacherous sandbanks and a “high promontory” that he named Pallavisino (Cape Cod), and proceeded to Wabanakhik (northern Maine), before ending his expedition in Beothuk territory (Newfoundland). Like many Renaissance voyagers, Verrazzano portrayed North America as a resource-rich idyll; present-day Rhode Island was “suitable for every kind of cultivation – grain, wine, or oil,” while Cape Cod “showed signs of minerals.” Notably, he described Natives’ varying attitudes towards the Europeans. Most, including the Narragansett, were “generous” and “gracious;” some were fearful; and the Abenaki were downright hostile: they insisted on trading “where the breakers were most violent,” attacked sailors who came ashore, and mooned Verrazzano’s crew upon its departure. Such behavior suggests that Maine tribes had a painful encounter with European fishermen even before La Dauphine arrived. Their neighbors to the south would soon have similar experiences.
Exploration increased in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, spurred by stories of a northern El Dorado. Maps of the New World increasingly identified present-day Maine and southeastern Canada as the mythical Norumbega, a region of vast wealth that captured Europeans’ imaginations. In a possibly fictive and certainly fanciful travel account published in 1589, the sailor David Ingram claimed to have journeyed overland from Florida to Cape Breton and to have visited Bega, a city replete with “rubies six inches long,” pearls, and gold. The rumors lured Samuel de Champlain across the Atlantic in 1605. Though he discovered neither Norumbega nor the Northwest Passage, he did produce one of the earliest maps of Boston Harbor and an account of the people living there: “We saw in this place a great many little houses, which are situated in the fields where they sow their Indian corn. Furthermore in this bay there is a very broad river which we named the River Du Gas.” To the Massachuseuck, this river was the Quinobequin. To the Puritans, it would become the Charles.
Europeans continued to frequent Massachusetts Bay in the years leading up to the founding of Plymouth Colony. Henry Hudson, John Smith, and Thomas Dermer all made the voyage, with disastrous consequences for Native peoples. In 1614, Smith’s associate Thomas Hunt kidnapped twenty-four members of the Patuxet tribe, including the renowned Tisquantum (Squanto), to sell as slaves in England. Hunt’s action upended the delicate trade relationship between the tribes and the English, initiating a period of open hostility. Indeed, local inhabitants might have stymied later colonization attempts if not for an invisible enemy that ravaged New England populations prior to 1620.
With the boatloads of Old World fishermen and explorers came an influx of Old World pathogens. Intermittent epidemics may have begun as early as the sixteenth century. Scholars debate which diseases swept through New England before the Pilgrims arrived; leptospirosis seems most plausible. One thing is clear, however: between 1616 and 1619, a plague decimated Native tribes. In 1619, Tisquantum returned home to a dead village. Scholars estimate that disease claimed the lives of 75-90% of eastern Massachusetts peoples over the course of the seventeenth century. The survivors were hard-pressed to repulse the thousands of colonists who poured into the region – and with whom the recorded history of Brighton and Worcester begins.
When English colonists arrived on the shores of Massachusetts four hundred years ago, they beheld an unfamiliar territory almost devoid of features that might have reminded them of home. There were no carriage paths or cattle pastures, no rooting hogs or crowing roosters, no church steeples or tolling bells. Steep drumlins loomed above the coast, beyond which forests and marshland stretched westward. Mountain lions skulked behind boulders. Wolves howled at night. To settlers accustomed to a treeless countryside subdued beneath the plow, New England was a “vacant wilderness…a place not inhabited but by the barbarous nations.” Little did they understand the way of life that those nations had created over the past three thousand years.
Massachusetts during the Woodland Period (3,000-400 BP) was not a pristine wilderness, but an increasingly manipulated landscape home to tens of thousands of Native Americans. As post-glacial sea levels stabilized, Woodland peoples adopted new patterns of habitation and movement that spurred agricultural, technological, and cultural development. Many gravitated toward coastal areas and established long-term seasonal settlements, where they began to plant crops. Initially, they selectively bred weedy vegetation including sunflower, goosefoot, and sumpweed, and boiled the seeds in porridges. By 1000 CE, Central American cultivars – maize, squash, and beans – had arrived in New England and were becoming increasingly important in local diets. Woodland peoples’ migratory lifestyles enabled them to diversify their food sources. Archeological evidence, such as shell middens (ancient trash heaps) on Spectacle Island, suggests that Native Americans settled in large villages during the spring and fall, where they planted and harvested crops, fished, clammed, and hunted, and held political meetings (indeed, in 1614, explorer and colonist John Smith recorded that Native peoples grew maize on the Harbor Islands). During the summer and winter, many villages disbanded. Residents moved to smaller settlements in the region to better exploit food sources while crops ripened or the ground lay frozen.
Agriculture transformed the Massachusetts landscape. Though the area remained heavily forested at the time of European contact, patches of cleared ground reflected repeated seasonal use. Native Americans believed that they owned the use of land, rather than the land itself; instead of adopting permanent farming sites, they tilled soil until it was no longer fertile (about eight to ten years) and then relocated. Women cleared new land by setting fires at the base of trees to kill them, and, once the dead wood fell, by burning it away. This method, along with the practice of burning fires all night during both the winter and summer, meant that localized deforestation was common. Thousands of acres near Boston were treeless by 1630; elsewhere, the whitened trunks of girdled trees surveyed cornstalks intertwined with bean and squash vines. Far from a “vacant wilderness,” Massachusetts was an intensively used homeland.
Fire enabled local tribes not only to grow crops and stay warm, but also to hunt, gather, and travel. English colonists were astounded that Woodland peoples set large ground fires in the forests during the spring and fall, and were equally impressed with the effects. The woods near Native villages tended to be clear of tangled undergrowth. The widely spaced trees, grass, and pioneering berry bushes created a park-like setting that attracted game, facilitated hunting, and limited the risk of future fires burning out of control. The relative openness of Woodland Period forests also eased long-distance travel. Overland routes developed over thousands of years, crisscrossing tribal territories. Among the most famous was the Old Connecticut Path: it began near present-day Cambridge, following the Quinobequin ("meandering," later Charles) River through Massachusett territory before curving southwest into Nipmuck land. From there, it passed south of present-day Worcester and continued on to the area along the Connecticut River that would eventually become Hartford. (Parts of the route remain heavily traveled today – the Old Connecticut Path is now known as MA Route 9 and MA Route 126.) Europeans arriving in New England did not have to build everything from scratch. They entered a region that already had the equivalent of an international highway system, which they used to expand their settlements.
At the dawn of the seventeenth century, modern Native tribes were well-established in Massachusetts. They occupied defined homelands and engineered the environment to facilitate a migratory lifestyle that maximized the yield of local resources. They were also increasingly aware of the world beyond the Atlantic – a world that appeared on the horizon as billowing ship sails, dropped anchor and fishing lines in Massachusetts Bay, and, until 1620, never stayed for long.
Eighteen thousand years ago, Worcester was smothered beneath 1,800 feet of ice. The blue-white wasteland extended in all directions, burying Mount Wachusett and slowly scouring away the soft sedimentary rock of more recent eons from ancient, underlying schists. Locked in an ice sheet that stretched from the Arctic to present-day New Jersey, Worcester County was unrecognizable: a crevassed expanse of silence reaching toward the rising sun and tumbling into Atlantic waters that were hundreds of feet lower than they are today.
The Laurentide ice age was the culmination of one million years of glaciations that dramatically altered the New England landscape. Fluctuating temperatures during the Pleistocene resulted in glaciers repeatedly advancing and retreating across the region. The most recent major ice age – which, according to geologists, is still occurring – began 25,000 years Before Present (BP). Long winters and cool summers caused more snow to fall than melt. The snow eventually compacted under its own weight into an ice sheet that left a rugged legacy in Massachusetts. As the glaciers moved, they accumulated silt, gravel, and even boulders; water seeped into cracks in the bedrock, froze, and expanded, breaking off large chunks of stone that were carried away by the ice. When the ice began to melt around 17,500 BP, it deposited these sediments unevenly throughout the landscape. Leisurely hikes in Worcester County often reveal glacial features: Dexter Drumlin, Purgatory Chasm, eskers in Worcester’s Hadwen Park, erratics in Holbrook Forest, and innumerable wetlands, often the result of poor drainage in areas of tightly packed glacial till. Gradually the ice sheet receded from the region. By 14,000 BP, the barren earth was once again exposed to the sky.
Another thousand years would pass before humans braved the tundra of Massachusetts. Archaeological evidence suggests that Paleo-Indians initially settled near major rivers and bodies of water. In 2015, an amateur archaeologist unearthed a small, triangular piece of flint in a Northampton potato field. He recognized it as a what it was right away – a Clovis point arrowhead. Researchers soon confirmed that the arrowhead was 12,800 years old, one of the oldest artifacts ever discovered in the state. Other archaeological sites in Western Massachusetts indicate that Paleo-Indians used the lush Connecticut River Valley as a seasonal hunting ground. Although similar prehistoric evidence is scarcer in Worcester County, fluted points have been found in the Chicopee and Blackstone River Drainages. Local Paleo-Indians likely lived in small, migratory bands, hunting mastodon as well as smaller game and fishing in the region’s many streams and ponds. They adapted to a warming climate that turned the tundra into a vast boreal forest, which, in turn, gave way to hardwoods. By 9,500 BP, ecological change and over-hunting had eradicated the megafauna and created a landscape that would shape humans’ lives for the next nine millennia.
Worcester County became more densely populated during the Archaic Period (9,000-3,000 BP). Human settlement spread to present-day West Brookfield, Westborough, and other areas, where archaeologists have discovered projectile points, stone tools, and burial sites. Like their ancestors, Archaic peoples were predominantly hunter-gatherers. They travelled between seasonal hunting grounds in pursuit of game and were deeply familiar with the movements of birds and fish. They mined quartzite from local quarries to fashion weapons and tools, littering the ground with stone flakes that enable today’s archaeologists to identify sites of habitation (such as the Cracked Rock rockshelter in Millbury). Throughout this period, Archaic cultures evolved. The ancient residents of Worcester County adopted new styles of stone and bone craftsmanship as technology improved and fashions changed. They also came to depend more heavily on plant foods, giving rise to the development of local agriculture 3,000 years ago. This milestone was one of many that marked the transition from the Archaic era to the Woodland Period (3,000-450 BP). The millennia preceding European colonization would witness the genesis of contemporary Native American tribes and of the vibrant civilizations that greeted English settlers on the shores of the New World.
Imagine a world where South America is at the South Pole, Siberia, along the Tropic of Capricorn, and Greenland, at the Equator. In this world, Florida is a frigid strip of coast connecting South America and Africa. Canada bakes beneath a bright equatorial sun. The rest of North America is a scuba-diver's paradise – assuming scuba-divers numbered among the primitive, single-cell organisms that existed 550 million years ago.
Welcome to the Late Precambrian, an era of dramatic geological change and the beginning of New England’s story. At this point, the earth was 3.5 billion years old. It had already experienced multiple episodes of continental drift, volcanism, and glaciation. The Grenville Mountain chain, formed during an earlier period of tectonic collision, had eroded. All that remained was a small layer of bedrock and a large amount of sediment that would eventually become western Massachusetts. Three major continents contained most of the planet’s land mass: Laurentia, Baltica, and the supercontinent Gondwana, whose coastline roiled with volcanic activity. The earthquakes and lava flows were symptoms of tectonic subduction (when one tectonic plate dives beneath another) and rifting (when two plates diverge). Over time, these subterranean stirrings formed the Avalon mountain range and Boston Rift Basin off the coast of present-day South America. We now call this region New England.
As Earth entered the Cambrian Period, Avalon broke away from Gondwana. Sediments filled the rift basin and compressed into the Cambridge Argillite and Roxbury Conglomerate (puddingstone) rock formations underlying Greater Boston today. Between 430 and 390 million years ago, Avalon collided with Laurentia, forming the Northern Appalachians. This period of tectonic uplift coincided with rising oxygen levels and an explosion of multicellular life. Complex organisms spread across the globe as New England rose from the depths of the ocean.
Over the succeeding eons, the planet’s crust continued to transform. The continents collided again 250 million years ago to form Pangaea, lifting the Appalachians to Himalayan heights, and then separated fifty million years later. This period of rifting created today’s continents and instigated more lava flows. We can still see evidence of this geological turbulence in the igneous and metamorphic rocks of Worcester County.
Volcanic activity subsided as the continents drifted to their present locations. Massachusetts was thereafter shaped by deposition, weathering, and erosion. Temperatures rose, fell, and rose again, causing frequent glaciations that carved the Northeastern bedrock. Meanwhile, life evolved. The region was alternately submerged in shallow seas teeming with crustaceans and fish, and raised high and dry, a coastal forest where dinosaurs roamed. By the time Homo sapiens arrived in New England twelve thousand years ago, the region was a frozen tundra. The latest Ice Age scarred the landscape with eskers, dimpled it with kettle ponds, and pimpled it with erratics – a rugged topography that determined where humans settled, and upon which they would eventually unleash their transformative might.
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