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Native American Use of Fire Shaped Much of Connecticut’s Pre-settlement Landscape

By Emery Gluck, Retired State Lands Forester and Pitch Pine Enthusiast

🌳 The forest found by European settlers was likely different from that of today. This was largely due to the relatively frequent fires Native Americans set, in some places, to make the land more habitable for themselves. Fires were prevalent enough that seafarers said that you could smell the land before you could see it 🔥.

The forest burns increased grasses which attracted their game animals, increased berry production, made travel easier, reduced pests, aided in defense, facilitated the collection of firewood and acorns as well as providing numerous other benefits. Moderate-intensity fires killed smaller trees and larger thin-barked fire-sensitive trees. If the area was not burned for many years, oak and chestnut sprouts would shoot up in gaps (created by fire) in the forest canopy, possibly grow thick fire-resistant bark before the burning resumed, and then might eventually join the older trees in the overstory.

Native Americans may have burned to promote nut-producing trees such as oaks and chestnuts.The fires killed thin-barked trees leaving the oaks and chestnuts more room to expand their crowns and produce more nuts. Acorn meal and acorn mush were important to their diet.

Native American mortar
Native American mortar

This Native American mortar was probably used to grind corn and/or acorns. It is approximately 20” wide, 20” deep, and was carved into moss-covered bedrock in Union, Connecticut. White oaks were known to the Native Americans as the sweet acorn, as they had less tannins than red oaks which produced the bitter acorns. Acorns were soaked in water to remove the tannins prior to being prepared as food.

Forests near Native American villages, encampments and main trails were probably open woodlands. They had fewer trees than today’s forests and a grassy understory, as they were probably burned frequently.

Oak woodlands after burn and harvest in Nehantic State Forest, Salem, CT
Oak woodlands after burn and harvest in Nehantic State Forest, Salem, CT

Oak savannas, grasslands where the fires left only a few larger thick-barked trees, were reported on the first 15 miles of the Quinnipiac River, starting in New Haven. Along the coast and major rivers, where more Natives lived, there apparently was so much intense fire in some places that the forest reportedly gave way to grasslands. In the 1660’s, Connecticut Governor John Winthrop said, “Pine knots were all that remained from generations of fallen trees in fields burned clear by the Indians”. A study by Clark University documented that 17 towns in Connecticut settled by Europeans prior to 1650 were founded in openings that were previously cleared by Native Americans. Stonington, one of the 17 towns, had a Native place called Wadawannuc, which meant a place destitute of trees.

There are many places in Connecticut that have or had native names meaning “cleared, opened or broken up land” that are in the following towns: Poquonnoc (Poquonock village in Windsor), Pequonnock (Bridgeport, one of the 17 towns), Pequonnock plains (village of Pequonnock Bridge in Groton), Poquetannuck (Preston); Paquanauge (Glastonbury), and Pacoquarocke (Antonia & Derby, one of the 17 towns). Places named for naturally clear land or open country include Poconock (Milford Point), Packquahaks (plains in Milford, one of the 17 towns), Pahquioke or Paquaiaug (Danbury plains), and Poquiogh (Waterford). Mattatuck, the native name for Waterbury, meant “a place without trees”.

Fires and/or tree girdling with stone axes were used to clear land for planting. After years of use, the planted areas were often abandoned as the soil become less productive, and because nearby sources of firewood would be exhausted. The “old land” or “abandoned land” was known as “Tawawag” to the Pequots. This was one of the Native names for New London. Mattaneaug meant abandoned field and was the Native name for Windsor. Much of the land cleared by Natives was abandoned as their population was decimated by European diseases and war.

Though the extent of Native American use of fire has been debated, it apparently had been frequent enough to support sufficient grasslands, savanna, and open woodlands for large grassland grazers. Bison made it to Massachusetts in the 17th century according to Stephen Pyne’s “Fire in America”🦬. Elk bones have been found in Rhode Island. The last elk in Massachusetts was reportedly shot in 1732.

Further from Native American population centers, there were fewer fires. The forests were more like the dense closed canopy forest prevalent today. Even the grasslands, savannas, and open woodlands rapidly filled in with trees when the burning stopped, to become dense closed canopy forest. Author Wendell Berry stated, “The forest is always waiting to overrun the field”.

White oaks proliferated after fire. A study of the pre-settlement forest found approximately half of the trees in eastern Connecticut (probably near and east of I-395) were white oaks. They are among the most rot-resistant of native oaks. The flaky bark absorbs significantly more rain from stemflow than other trees and takes considerable time to dry. The moist bark provides added protection from fires. Fire injury would impact red maple the most as it is thinned-bark and rot-prone.

Fire damaged maples in Nehantic State Forest, Lyme, CT
Fire damaged maples in Nehantic State Forest, Lyme, CT

Without fire, red maple has replaced red oak as Connecticut’s most abundant tree. According to a study at Yale Forest, red maple produces the most methane of all the native trees, probably due to its high percentage of decayed wood. Other thin-barked trees such black birch and beech have also flooded in with the absence of fire.

The Natives believed that they were given responsibility for caring for the land.This meant actively participating. “The natural world relies on us to do good things and to contribute to the well being of the world.” “Fire helps a lot of plants and animals. We’re told that’s why the Creator gave people the fire stick - to bring good things to the land.” One elder is quoted “The land gives us so many gifts; fire is a way we can give back. In modern times, the public thinks fire is only destructive, but they’ve forgotten, or simply never knew, how people used fire as a creative force. The fire stick was like a paintbrush on a landscape. Touch it here in a small dab and you’ve made a green meadow for elk; a light scatter there burns off the brush so the oaks make more acorns…🌳 🦌

This article is the second of a pair by retired State Lands Forester Emery Gluck. They first appeared in local CT publications and are re-printed here.

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