Landscape History of Beverly, Massachusetts


Before the human inhabitants arrived in North America, forests covered vast stretches of land, especially those in the region now called New England. As time passed, hurricanes, wind storms, ice storms and natural fires created by lightning strikes affected the landscape of the forests. These occurrences changed the forests in terms of size, density, and species of plants and animals across the entire region.

As with the rest of the forests in New England, the forests in what is now Beverly, Massachusetts were affected by these same natural forces. A major factor in the evolving landscape of New England forests was the ever-changing availability of water. [1] This was the most common reason for the metamorphosis of the landscape because it determined the survival of the plants and animals. If the water availability was low then the forest would not be as large or live as long as others. The availability of water was affected by factors such as rain and beaver dams. Forests with high water levels have larger amounts of shrubs (see app. 1) than in the forests with lower water amounts.

Although natural occurrences had an overwhelming impact on the landscape of pre-settlement forests, humans also had a large impact on the landscape. Native Americans created clearings in the forests for their villages. One technique used by the Native Americans was to burn extensive strips of land to create clearings for farming and improve hunting. This was the most popular of the clearing techniques because it got the job done quickly. It killed off all the trees, and cleared most of the thick underbrush found at forest beds [2]. These changes to the landscape gave European explorers and settlers many challenges as well as new opportunities for success in the New World. In northern New England the presence of Native Americans was very noticeable to settlers. The Native Americans tended to live a more nomadic lifestyle, growing plants and following animals season to season. Because of the Native Americans' tendency to do so there was always a dense layer of underbrush no matter the composition of the tree pattern. On the other hand the Native Americans who subsided in the south of the region cultivated a variety of plants. After clearing a piece of land the Native Americans would return to the site so that they could use it for farming or hunting. The Native Americans would use the farmland until the soil was exhausted from all the farming; at this time they would move on to a different piece of land and start all over again. This technique used by the Native Americans created many open forests with a very small amount of underbrush.

Central New England's landscape at the time of European settlement contained a large variety of broad leafed and coniferous trees. In northern Massachusetts there is an area called the transition zone, where the northern hardwood (hemlock/white pine) forests overlap with the central hardwood or oak/hickory forests. This area was used to the advantage of new farmers and settlers who were moving here from England. In Beverly there are some of the southern species of trees on more exposed areas, such as ridges, and in areas with well drained soil. Northern species of trees are located in places of high elevation with cool misty conditions. The new settlements that were here were usually those of farmers because they used all the open land that was cleared by the Native Americans. After European settlement the size of forests in Beverly as well as in the neighboring cities decreased rapidly as farmers cut down acres upon acres of land for farming. Because of a large timber trade in New England there was a consistent decrease in the sizes of forests across the area. By the time the timber trade was dying down the evolution of new transportation caused the farms in Beverly and the rest of New England to become abandoned because of minimal profits.

The period from 1775-1825 is known as the golden age of stone wall building, as wooden fences were used in the Revolutionary war for fuel and the homes of many were destroyed in battle. [3] With most of the supply of timber gone, stone became the most efficient way to build. Stone walls also provided a longer lasting fence than those made out of timber. They were built as property lines and as fencing for farm animals (see app. 2). The use of the stone walls by farmers was also more efficient than the old wooden fences because animals could not destroy them.

According a study by David R. Foster of Harvard University, New England in 1700 was mainly covered by forests (90%). Over the next 150 years the forest cover plummeted down to only 45%.[4] The arrival of settlers in New England destroyed half of what was once an extensive stretch of flourishing woodland territory. Along with the destruction of the New England forests, the settlers brought with them many new plant species to the area, such as weedy grasses, dandelions, nightshade and stinging nettle. These new plants quickly invaded and transformed the entire landscape of New England.

During the years prior and during the settlement of Europeans in new England we see that the landscape changed drastically as more and more settlers came. Before the settlement of Europeans, Native Americans developed the land so that when the settlers came they found it mostly cleared. All they had to do was build the boundaries for their farms. As settlers arrived more and more of the landscape was cleared for farmland. Eventually New Englanders were finding that there was no space to build any more farms, so they began to move west where there was a much longer growing season that could feed the growing country. Once the Industrial Revolution began transportation of goods became easier and goods from western states became cheaper. This evolution in transportation brought about the eventual downfall of the eastern farms. 


[1] Foster, David R. and O'Keefe, John F. New England Forests Through Time: Insights from the Harvard Forest Dioramas

[2] Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England.

[3] Allport, Susan. Sermons in Stone: The Stone Walls of New England and New York

[4] Foster, David R. "New England Wide Regional Studies at Harvard Forest" Harvard Forest 2005. Harvard University 25 April 2005. <>