Historical Description of the Vegetation of the
Boston Harbor Islands: 1600–2000
JULIE A. RICHBURG
1 AND WILLIAM A. PATTERSON III1,*
Abstract - Historical accounts and descriptions of the Boston Harbor Islands
were searched for references to the islands’ vegetation. They indicate dramatic
changes in vegetation structure and composition since 1600. Many of the
islands were wooded prior to European settlement, although Native American
use is evident before 1600. Forests were cleared for agriculture, building materials,
and firewood. Through the centuries since European settlement, the
islands have variously supported municipal and military facilities, some of
which have since been abandoned. As use of the islands changed, the vegetation
of the islands also changed; in some cases native trees and other species
returned to abandoned areas, while in others new, exotic species became
established or were planted. By the end of the 20th century the vegetation
had become a mixture of woodlands (roughly 25% of the islands as a whole),
shrub thickets, open lands, and manicured landscapes, all of which include a
large component of non-native species.
Being a focal point for the early history of the United States, Boston
and its people have been studied for centuries. From the establishment
of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to the Tea Party and the lives of early
presidents, Boston holds a special place in the history of Massachusetts,
New England, and the United States. The islands of Boston Harbor have
also been studied for their role in protecting the new colony via forts
and lighthouses, in commerce and fishing, and in social services. The
islands, with their connection to the land and sea around them, have
captured the imagination of people for centuries, if not millennia.
Although much is known of the cultural history of the Boston Harbor
Islands, there has been little exploration of the islands’ vegetation.
Unlike the White Mountains of Maine and New Hampshire and the
off-shore islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, the Harbor islands
were not valued for their plant life, but rather for how the islands
themselves could be used to support the growing population of Boston
and its environs. This paper describes the history of the vegetation of
1Department of Natural Resources Conservation, Holdsworth Natural Resources
Center, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA 01003. *Corresponding author
Boston Harbor Islands National Park Area: Natural Resources Overview
2005 Northeastern Naturalist 12(Special Issue 3):13–30
14 Northeastern Naturalist Vol. 12, Special Issue 3
the Boston Harbor Islands and how it has changed based on written accounts
of early explorers, colonists, and others.
Vegetation, as a component of a functioning ecosystem, is dynamic
and constantly changing in response to factors as varied as damaging
windstorms, wildfire, and long-term climate change. It is possible, however,
through historical analyses, to understand what vegetation was
like in the past and how it was and is being altered by human activity.
With this information, we can project how the vegetation may change in
the future in response to changing environmental and social factors. In
the northeastern US, such analyses often involve investigations of how
Native American Indian populations used natural resources, and how
nearly 400 years of “European” land use has changed the vegetation that
was observed by the first European explorers of the North Atlantic coast.
In this study, our goal is to understand the character of the vegetation of
the islands at the time of “first contact” with Europeans, the factors influencing vegetation dynamics at that time, and how land-use activities
during the past 400 years have influenced the vegetation on the Boston
Harbor Islands today. A consideration of the prehistoric vegetation of
one island—Calf, in the outer Brewster group—is presented elsewhere
in this issue (Patterson et al. 2005).
Boston Harbor Islands Recreation Area
The Boston Harbor Islands range in size from less than 0.4 to 105
hectares (< 1 to 259 acres) and have had similar variations in the sizes
of the settlements on them. Some islands have been permanently connected
to the mainland via causeways, whereas others are as much
as 16 kilometers (10 mi) offshore. All were formed or influenced by
glacial activity in what has become Massachusetts Bay. Most are partially
drowned drumlins, part of the only drumlin field that intersects
the Atlantic Ocean (Crosby 1928). Several of the islands (e.g., The
Graves and Slate Island) are glacially scoured bedrock outcroppings.
Many are underlain by granite, slate, or puddingstone bedrock, all of
which have been quarried to some extent. The islands have elevations
of less than 30 meters (110 ft) above mean sea level with flat to gently
rolling topography (Better Boating Association 1994). Soils of the islands
are excessively well-drained to well-drained sandy loams formed
from glacial till or outwash deposits (Peragallo 1990). Water depths
immediately surrounding the islands vary from 1 to 10 meters (3 to 30
ft) with a few channels of up to 18 meters (60 ft) depth (Better Boating
Human use of the islands started with seasonal use by Native Americans
long before the arrival of Europeans (Luedtke 1996). With the
arrival of Europeans in the Boston area, the islands served as farms, fish2005
J.A. Richburg and W.A. Patterson III 15
ing villages, military outposts, summer colonies, and public institutions
(e.g., prisons, hospitals, quarantine facilities, schools). Each use impacted
the vegetation of the islands through a combination of activities:
timber harvesting, land clearing, plowing, and introducing non-native
plant and animal species.
The varied topography, soils, and bedrock characteristics of each
island as well as their varied flora and historic land uses, have resulted
in a mosaic of modern vegetation types and wildlife habitats.
Early successional habitats, including old fields and shrub-dominated
communities, are not as common now as they were in the past. Other
habitats present include woodlands, salt marshes, freshwater wetlands,
rocky beaches and cliffs, and manicured landscapes. Many of
these are dominated by non-native species (Elliman 2005). Originally
brought to the islands for uses ranging from soil stabilization
to ornamental plantings and also via accidental introductions through
livestock feed, many of these “exotics” have become naturalized.
Management of the islands’ vegetation is done by the agencies and
organizations that own the islands in coordination with the Boston
Harbor Islands Partnership.
Sources of Information
Reference materials including writings by early explorers and colonists,
published and unpublished histories of the region, maps, manuscripts
dealing with the archaeology and paleoecology of the islands,
photographs, and artwork were collected and reviewed for information
on past vegetation composition and land-use activities that would have
affected vegetation patterns. The collections of the leading repositories
of Boston’s historical information were searched (e.g., Boston Public
Library, Massachusetts State Archives, Massachusetts Historical Commission,
Massachusetts Historical Society, the University of Massachusetts
library system [at Boston and Amherst], Harvard University’s map
collection, Harvard University Herbarium library, Harvard University’s
library system, and the New England Botanical Club library). Previous
analyses of the islands’ history (Connelly 1933, Shurtleff 1891, Snow
1971, Stark 1880, Sweetser 1888) were reviewed as well.
Vegetation and Land Use by Time Period
Following is a discussion of the general vegetation patterns on the islands
as described in historical documents and reference materials. Five
broad periods are described: pre-European settlement (before 1621),
early European settlement (1600s), Colonial era (1700s), and the 19th
and 20th centuries.
16 Northeastern Naturalist Vol. 12, Special Issue 3
Pre-European settlement (before 1621)
Vegetation patterns have been influenced for millennia by climatic
warming and cooling since the glaciers retreated from New England
12,000–15,000 years before present (B.P.). Initial tundra vegetation was
replaced by spruce/fir forests, then by pine and birch forests, and eventually
by oaks and hickories (Davis 1983). Chestnut dominated southern
New England forests from ca. 7500 B.P. to the early 20th century, when
an introduced blight destroyed all mature stems and converted the species
to a stump-sprouting shrub (Anagnostakis and Hillman 1992). Locally,
vegetation patterns have been influenced not only by a changing
climate, but also by wind (e.g., hurricanes), fire, and other exogenous
disturbances (e.g., ice storms, insect pests, flooding).
The arrival of paleo-indians (12,000–8000 B.P.) and their successors
influenced vegetation patterns through the establishment of hunting
grounds and settlements (Luedtke 1996, Robinson 1996, Russell
1980). At the time of their arrival in the early Holocene (i.e., earlier
than about 9000 B.P.), lower sea levels meant that the Boston Harbor
Islands were part of the mainland (Casjens 1976; Luedtke 1975, 1996).
Although no evidence of paleo-indian activity has been found on the
islands themselves, a paleo-indian site is documented along the Neponset
River just 25 km (15.5 mi) from the Harbor (Luedtke 1996). Archaeological
evidence (including several human bone artifacts) locates
subsequent native peoples on many of the “islands” including Bumpkin,
Gallops, Grape, and Thompson Islands through the Archaic and
Woodland prehistoric periods (8000 B.P.–1500 A.D.) (Casjens 1976;
Dudek 2000; Luedtke 1975, 1996). These populations used the lands
of Massachusetts Bay (eventually the Boston Harbor Islands) for fishing
and gathering other marine food resources, as sources of materials
(e.g., clay, rock, shell), and eventually for agricultural use (Braun
1974, Luedtke 1996). Nutshell fragments of shagbark and possibly bitternut
hickory, kernels of corn, and charred oak, birch, maple, hickory,
ash, and conifer wood fragments were found in cooking pits and middens
on Calf, Bumpkin, Gallops, Grape, Thompson, and Spectacle
Islands and at Worlds End (Luedtke 1975, 1980, 1990, 1996; McHargue
1996). Although some of the species indicated by these fragments
may have grown on the islands, they may also have been brought to
the islands by humans or ocean currents (i.e., as driftwood). The inner
harbor islands were likely more heavily used than the outer islands due
to their proximity to the mainland and their larger sizes, but even Calf
Island, one of the outermost islands, was used by native peoples prior
to European settlement (Luedtke 1980).
Around the time that Columbus and other early explorers were making
their way to the western hemisphere, Indian use of the Boston Harbor
Islands was generally limited to seasonal occupation (most likely
2005 J.A. Richburg and W.A. Patterson III 17
autumn) (Luedtke 1975, 1980, 1996). Luedtke (1980) hypothesizes
that through most of prehistory, the Boston Harbor Islands were used
as bases for acquisition and processing of coastal resources (including
fish and shellfish) and not for long-term habitation. Although many of
the islands were apparently forested, some of the smaller islands and
those composed mostly of exposed bedrock may never have supported
large stands of trees. Trees likely to have occurred on the islands as
indicated by soil-borne wood macrofossils (Luedtke 1975) include
birch, oak, ash, maple, pine, and cedar. Pollen analyses of sediment
cores from the islands suggest that walnut, hickory, linden, and sassafras
were also present (Luedtke 1980), though the role of pollen blown
from the mainland makes it hard to interpret their relative importance.
Many of the islands of the outer harbor have shallow soils (Luedtke
1975) and experience heavy winds, suggesting that any trees would
have been short. These islands likely supported low, shrubby stems
with espalier forms, a variety of graminoid and herbaceous species,
and wetland species in lowlands.
Mann (2002) and others describe an eastern North American landscape
that was changing rapidly during the 1500s and early 1600s as
native populations died of diseases brought by early European explorers
(Bragdon 1996, Dacey 1995, Robinson 1996). Native populations
affected the landscape by clearing areas and planting crops, setting fires
(on purpose and accidentally), and clearing the woods of downed wood
for fuels necessary for cooking and warmth. These impacted habitats,
once abandoned, began to revegetate with early successional species
and eventually with oak-dominated woodlands. Thus, dramatic changes
in the vegetation of the Harbor Islands may have begun before the arrival
of European settlers on the islands.
Early European settlement (1600s)
Island forests changed dramatically during the 1600s. Early colonists
arriving in Massachusetts Bay established trading posts, farmsteads,
and towns. Many of the islands were purchased or taken from Native
Americans, who were cultivating land on some islands. Thompson Island,
where the first trading post is believed to have been established by
David Thompson in 1625, was probably being farmed when John Smith
entered Boston Harbor in 1614 (Luedtke 1996).
Many writers during this period were either explorers interested in
economic gains or colonists interested in encouraging others to come to
the new settlements. Modern historians and ecologists, therefore, often
interpret early-17th-century descriptions of the landscape with caution
(Cronon 1983, Russell 1983, Whitney 1994). Descriptions of open,
pastoral landscapes seem too reminiscent of the 17th-century English
countryside, from which settlers were being encouraged to emigrate,
18 Northeastern Naturalist Vol. 12, Special Issue 3
to be completely trustworthy. Nonetheless, descriptions of the islands
and surrounding areas suggest a mix of wooded and open habitats, with
extensive use by Native Americans. In 1616, Smith writes of “many Iles
all planted with corne; groves, mulberries, salvage gardens” (Barbour
1986). Although likely not describing the islands of Boston Harbor specifically, Samuel de Champlain in 1605 relates a similar scene with this
description: “All along the shore there is a great deal of land cleared up
and planted with Indian corn. The country is very pleasant and agreeable;
and there is not lack of fine trees” (Russell 1980:10, Winship
1968). In his 1635 account, William Wood ( 1993:61) describes
the islands as “abound[ing] with woods and water and meadow ground,”
while Shurtleff (1891:439) notes “history, as well as tradition, tells that
these islands were mostly well wooded in the earlier days of the New
England settlement, and that they had been inhabited before the arrival
of the forefathers.” Mourt’s Relation from 1621 states “At the entrance
of the Bay are many Rockes; and in all likelihood very good fishing
ground. Many, yea, most of the Ilands have been inhabited, some being
cleared from end to end, but the people are all dead, or removed”
By this time, native populations had likely been decimated by
disease brought by early European explorers (Dacey 1995, Robinson
1996). Mann (2002) concludes that the areas first settled by Europeans
may already have undergone drastic changes in the vegetation in the
years prior to settlement due to abandonment following decimation of
whole populations by disease.
In 1616, Smith identifies some of the tree species observed on the
islands and coastal mainland including “Firre, pyne, walnut, chestnut,
birch, ash, elme, cypresse, ceder, mulberrie, plumtree, hazell, saxefrage,
and many other sorts” (Barbour 1986; Table 1). In 1603, Martin Pring
was especially interested in sassafras, due to its medicinal uses, and
found this species in abundance along the coast as well as “vines, cedars,
okes, ashes, beeches, birch trees, cherie trees bearing fruit …, hasels,
wich-hasels, … walnut-trees, maples … with divers other sorts of trees
to us unknowne” (Winship 1968). In addition to species which naturally
occurred on the islands, by 1635 European settlers had begun planting
orchards and vineyards (Wood  1993), the first of which was
reportedly on Governors Island (Josselyn 1833). This introduction of
species not native to coastal Massachusetts, and indeed some not native
to the continent, was the beginning of a shift in the composition of the
Early in the 17th century, farms and small homesteads were established
on several of the islands including Bumpkin, Gallops, Grape, and
Long (Luedtke 1975, Ritchie et al. 1984). Along with the establishment
of these island farms and homesteads, there was an increased harvest of
2005 J.A. Richburg and W.A. Patterson III 19
wood for building materials and firewood. Carroll (1973:28) writes of
this period that almost all of the islands in Boston Harbor “that are now
completely denuded of trees nurtured valuable timber” for fuel and construction
material. As wood was initially plentiful on the islands, it was
also gathered for use on the mainland, especially for the treeless peninsula
of Boston, in spite of the difficulty in doing so (Carroll 1973). In
Colonial greater Boston, all timber was often cut down within a decade
of a new town’s establishment, leaving no material for building, heating,
etc. (Carroll 1973, McManis 1975). As early as 1635, there were
wood shortages on the mainland. William Wood ( 1993:58) refers
to Boston’s plight when he notes that “their greatest wants be wood and
meadow ground, which never were in that place, being constrained to
fetch their building timber and fire wood from the islands in boats. …”
The town of Boston was built on a small peninsula surrounded by other
developing settlements including Charlestown and Dorchester (Shurtleff
1871). Therefore, wood for Boston was removed from the peninsula
in the earliest years of the settlement. The nearest mainland supplies
of wood were likely used by the other settlements, so the most readily
accessible wood supply was on the Harbor Islands. Governor Winthrop
Table 1. Woody plants listed in early accounts and their modern Latin names.
Historic citation Scientific name (inferred) Reference *
Ash Fraxinus spp. 1, 2
Beech Fagus grandifolia Ehrh. 1
Birch Betula spp. 1, 2
Ceder, cedar Thuja occidentalis L., 1, 2
Juniperus virginiana L. or
Chamaecyparis thyoides (L.) B.S.P.
Cherie Prunus spp. 1
Chestnut Castanea dentata (Marsh.) Borkh. 2
Cypresse Chamaecyparis thyoides (L.) B.S.P. 2
Elme Ulmus spp. 2
Firre Abies balsamea (L.) P. Mill., Picea spp., 2
or Tsuga canadensis (L.) Carr.
Hazell, hasel Ostrya virginiana (Mill.) K. Koch, 1, 2
Hamamelis virginiana L.,
Corylus americana Walt.
Maple Acer spp. 1
Mulberrie Morus rubra L. 2
Oke Quercus spp. 1, 2
Plumtree Prunus (pennsylvanica L. f.), 2
Pyne Pinus spp. (probably P. strobus L.) 2
Sassafras, saxefrage Sassafras albidum (Nutt.) Nees 2
Walnut Carya spp. 1, 2
Wich-hasel Hamamelis virginiana L., 1
Ostrya virginiana (Mill.) K. Koch
* 1 - Pring in 1603 from Winship (1968); 2 - Smith in 1616 from Barbour (1986).
20 Northeastern Naturalist Vol. 12, Special Issue 3
wrote on January 13, 1638 that “about thirty persons of Boston went out
on a fair day to Spectacle Island to cut wood (the town being in great
want thereof). …” (Hosmer 1908:258).
Consumption of wood from the islands was so rapid that laws were
enacted to control the harvest of any remaining stands. Stark (1880)
and Shurtleff (1891) list several examples, including Noddles Island
where “as far back as 1631, an order was passed by the Court of Assistants,
restraining persons from putting cattle, felling wood, or taking
slate from Noddle’s Island.” But by 1633, the island was granted to Mr.
Samuel Maverick on the condition that he allow Boston and Charlestown
to “fetch wood continually as their needs requires.” “Either the
island was extremely well wooded at the time the order was passed, or
the towns of Boston and Charlestown were very sparsely inhabited”
(Stark 1880:2). Deer Island provides another example where “at this
time the island appears to have been of no special use to the inhabitants
except to procure fire-wood from; for an order was passed in 1636, as
follows: “Also it is agreed yt ye Inhabitants who doe want wood, shall
have liberty to get for their vse at Deare Island, so as yt they psently
take & carrye away what they doe get, & whatsoeuer they have felled
there to be at liberty for others to take away.” This use of Deer Island
for wood was continued through the 1600s with references to the wood
on the island made in transfer documents through 1662 (Shurtleff
1891, Stark 1880:32).
By the end of the 17th century, most of the islands were inhabited,
cultivated, and likely totally deforested. Shurtleff (1891:47) quotes
an unknown author from around 1687: “… we arrived at Boston, after
having fallen in with a Number of very pretty Islands that lie in Front
of Boston, most of them cultivated and inhabited by Peasants, which
form a very fine view.” European weeds (e.g., sheep sorrel, plantain),
often introduced accidentally, quickly became naturalized as the islands
were deforested and cultivated (Gray1880). In addition to the
agricultural use of the islands, a few were used for temporary internment
camps, military forts, and the quarrying of slate. A fort was constructed
on Castle Island, the closest to mainland Boston, beginning
in 1634 and completed in 1654 (Shurtleff 1891, Snow 1971). With
the removal of the trees that once dominated these islands, and with
the planting of crops and introduction of grazing animals, the islands’
vegetation was transformed.
Colonial era (1700s)
During the 1700s, the islands were primarily used for agricultural
activities producing “grain and hay, the latter sufficient to export
from some of them,” and pasture for sheep, cattle, and horses (Kales
and Kales 1983, MA Historical Society Collections 1794:241). In ad2005
J.A. Richburg and W.A. Patterson III 21
dition, there was expanding use for forts and batteries in defense of
the Harbor and the colony. Shurtleff (1891:60) quotes Daniel Neal in
an excerpt written in 1719 that Boston is “guarded from the Roughness
of the Ocean by several Rocks appearing above Water; and by
above a Dozen Islands, many of which are inhabited. … The most
remarkable of these Islands, is called Castle-Island, from the Castle
that is built in it.” In the 1770s, French troops dug earthen batteries
on Gallops Island to protect Boston Harbor. Peddocks, Long,
and Thompson Islands were used by British troops (and their cattle
and sheep) in 1775, until the colonial militia took over the islands in
1776. At this point, 600 men were stationed on Peddocks Island to
guard the Harbor (Connelly 1933), and earthen batteries were built
on the eastern end of the island. Other islands were acquired by the
city of Boston to erect quarantine hospitals (Rainsford and Spectacle
Islands) and a cemetery (Rainsford Island).
The vegetation of the Harbor Islands, as well as that of the expanding
colony on the mainland, continued to be heavily influenced by the
colonists’ intense use of the land. Carroll (1973:25) states that “devastation
of flora and fauna proceeded at such a rapid pace that as early as
the eighteenth century, much of eastern Massachusetts, with its gently
rolling hills, looked like the tame and treeless English countryside.” The
cleared and plowed islands presented a striking change from the wooded
islands observed by the first European settlers a century before. In addition,
lands that were heavily disturbed, such as those where batteries
were built, provided an excellent opportunity for exotic invasive species
to grow and spread.
During the 19th century there was a shift from using the islands primarily
for agriculture, to using them for recreation, defense, mariner
safety (lighthouses), and public facilities such as hospitals, sewage
treatment and garbage reclamation facilities, and schools (including the
Thompson Island Farm School). Hospitals were located on Deer, Gallops,
Long, and Rainsford Islands for at least a portion of the 19th century,
and in most cases these were converted into almshouses or prisons
by the end of the century. Each of these uses impacted the vegetation
on the islands. Management ranged from highly manicured lawns to
complete neglect, and from large-scale topographical alteration, like
the elimination of cliffs on Gallops Island, to being left topographically
largely untouched (Snow 1971). Some of the smaller or more rocky
islands were uninhabited or had small fishing colonies and lighthouses.
Many of the islands supported military facilities during the Civil War.
Others, such as Gallops, Long, Peddocks, Rainsford, Ragged, and Spectacle,
had hotels, inns, or summer cottages. With the increased use of
22 Northeastern Naturalist Vol. 12, Special Issue 3
the islands as a recreational destination, writers and visitors began to
lament the lack of trees. Emerson (1878:9) wrote of the greater Boston
area including the islands:
The northern and southern sides of Boston are not essentially unlike
in their natural features; yet the hills of Brookline and Roxbury,
capped with hickory and chestnut, whose sides are clothed with oaks
and pines, give the impression of a rich and happy country, of which
only pleasant memories are carried away, while the bare hills of Chelsea
suggest images of bleak and barren desolation. Three or four trees upon
Apple Island make it a gem among the islands in Boston Harbor. What a
scene would the Bay present, if all the islands were so covered! … The
happy effect of three or four trees on an island in Boston harbor has been
already mentioned; a single one on Pettick’s Island gives an agreeable
relief to the eye.
Frederick Law Olmsted (reprinted in 1988) echoes Emerson’s comments
in his 1887 proposal to reforest the islands with his own opinion that
“let any one, passing through the harbor, imagine [the islands] clothed
with foliage of any kind, and it will be felt how much more agreeable its
character would be if they were generally wooded.”
Stark (1880:2) further laments how “nowadays very little wood
except chips from the shipyards can be obtained from Noddle’s Island,
for the oldest inhabitant can only remember two trees growing upon
the island previous to its purchase by the East Boston Co. in 1833. At
that time the island did not contain one-tenth as many inhabitants as at
the present time.” Bouve (1893:178) comments on the islands within
Hingham Harbor, writing that Ragged and Sarahs Islands are rocky islands
covered with sumacs and other wild shrubs, while Button Island
is a “little heap of rock and gravel, bearing no trees nor shrubs and but
little grass.” He also describes Langlees Island as one with steep ledges
and gravelly beaches with shrubs in the uplands and “a fine linden.”
The owner of this island “has planted many small trees, which will
eventually cover it with forest growth, as was originally the case when
the country was settled, and restore it to the condition in which all the
islands of Boston Harbor should be” (Bouve 1893:178). Deer Island
also had trees planted on it during this time period, although environmental
factors hampered their growth. Stark (1880:32) describes Deer
Island: “for now it is with the greatest difficulty that trees can be made
to grow upon the island, on account of the easterly sea-winds which
are so unpropitious to their cultivation. A few willows and silver-leaf
poplars of quite recent planting are now the only trees on the island.”
Gray (1880) attributes the difficulty in reforesting the islands following
agricultural abandonment to poor soils.
With the use of the islands for other than agricultural uses and the
increased desire for a more commodious appearance, there was an in2005
J.A. Richburg and W.A. Patterson III 23
crease in the maintenance of the grounds of island facilities, including
the planting of trees on some. Thompson Island’s farm school planted
trees, and in their annual report the Board of Metropolitan Parks Commissioners
(1893:27) stated, “The well-grown plantations of trees, both
deciduous and evergreen, that mark this island, add greatly to its beauty
and attractiveness.” In their 1893 annual report, the Board considered
the economic value of the islands, noting that if the islands could be
made to be more attractive, they might bring tourist money to the area.
The Board further comments on other islands in the Harbor:
[Apple Island, near East Boston and Winthrop] is given an exceptional
prominence and attractiveness by a group of handsome elm
trees. [Bumpkin Island is owned by Harvard University] and as it is at
present barren and unimproved, the idea naturally suggests itself that an
admirable use of it would be for the University to give it in charge of
its important department, the Arnold Arboretum, which might put it to
good service as an experiment station for arboriculture under maritime
conditions. … The great fault of the bay, from a landscape point of view,
lies in the barren aspect of its islands and shores, the hard naked lines
of their thin slopes covered only with turf, and unrelieved, except in
rare instances, by any trees, or even shrubbery. These islands and shores
were formerly well clothed with woods, which were cut away in the
colonial days.… In this connection attention may be called to the small
rocky islands in Hingham harbor. The work of Mr. Brewer, their owner,
in planting them with trees and shrubs and caring for them in a way that
enhances their natural beauty, is worthy of all praise. … and care should
be taken to see that their present character is permanently preserved.
(Board of Metropolitan Parks Commissioners 1893:27–31)
Stark (1880:15) also commented on Thompson Island: “This is one
of the best-cultivated and most fruitful islands in the harbor, and one
thing that distinguishes it from all others is the growth of trees which
is now beginning to make quite a show on the island, and which all the
other islands are so sadly deficient in.” This fine growth of trees was
only about 50 years old when Stark wrote that description, as Luedtke
(1996) reports that there were “no trees on the island when it was purchased
in 1833, and most of the existing trees were planted by the Farm
School over the next century.” Manicured lawns and tree and shrub
plantings often occurred on the grounds of recreational facilities like the
Long Island House, a large hotel located on the center part of that island
While restoration of the forests on the islands began to occur
during the 19th century, some of the islands continued to see alteration
of natural resources for utilitarian uses. The creek and pond
located between the two heads of Thompson Island were diked and
drained, respectively, to produce “meadow-land” for growing crops
24 Northeastern Naturalist Vol. 12, Special Issue 3
(Stark 1880). Castle Island was connected to the mainland to improve
access for waterside recreation (Board of Metropolitan Parks Commissioners
1893). The landscaping of facilities, as well as attempts
to revegetate the islands, brought more new and often exotic species
to the islands, some of which escaped cultivation and have become
dominant in some areas.
The 20th century saw a dramatic increase in the height of the vegetation
on the Boston Harbor Islands. Several islands and their facilities
were abandoned, while the early successional trees and shrubs
(e.g., quaking aspen, gray birch, black cherry) that had invaded
previously abandoned areas grew taller. Woody species invaded areas
previously dominated by low-growing herbaceous species and
grasses (Levering 1988). Planting continued with the efforts of Civilian
Conservation Corps crews in the 1930s and efforts by the Arnold
Arboretum throughout the early part of the century (Anderson 1988).
Groups such as the Friends of the Boston Harbor Islands continue that
tradition today. The islands were increasingly acquired and developed
as park land, and fewer areas were being farmed or maintained as
open land. Many of the buildings on the islands were abandoned or
removed by the end of the 20th century. Exceptions include one island
that still has summer cottages (Peddocks Island), the City of Boston
public health campus (Long Island), and sewage treatment facilities
(Deer Island, Nut Island).
Synthesis and Commentary
The vegetation of the Boston Harbor Islands, and the northeastern
US in general, has been continually changing since the glaciers
retreated more than 12,000 years ago. The landscape that early European
settlers found had been altered by a changing climate and by human
use. Native American use of the islands dates to early post-glacial
time when the islands were part of the mainland. Later, in the period
before European exploration of the coast, the islands were most
likely used seasonally by Indians as ports for fishing, places to gather
specialized materials, and for agriculture (Luedtke 1996 and others).
Native Americans probably set fires, which they used for a variety of
purposes including improving game habitat, controlling pests (e.g.,
mosquitoes), and signaling among members of their tribe (Day 1953,
Patterson and Sassaman 1988). In addition to intentionally setting
fires, campfires were used for cooking and warmth, and some of these
undoubtedly escaped from time to time to burn the islands’ vegetation.
Evidence of (presumably) Indian burning activity is found in the
abundant charcoal in pre-European peat from Calf Island (Patterson
2005 J.A. Richburg and W.A. Patterson III 25
et al. 2005). Natural disturbance processes including wind storms,
salt-spray, and erosion influenced the islands’ vegetation, resulting
in short stature forests. The islands experienced a generally harsh
maritime environment. This is probably especially true of the small,
outer islands, like Calf, which were continually exposed to wind and
salt-spray. On the larger islands and those near shore, early successional
communities, such as open fields and shrub-dominated lands,
may have been interspersed among more wooded areas and low, open
wetlands (including salt marshes). Open communities may have been
maintained by the natural processes mentioned above, or by early Indian
burning and clearing for camps or cultivation of crops.
During the past four centuries, humans (European settlers, initially,
and more recently the expanding population of the City of Boston)
have become important agents for vegetation change on the Boston
Harbor Islands. The proximity of the islands to the mainland, their
exposure to wind and salt-spray, and the resources found on them influenced
how they were used by humans and how well they were able
to recover after those disturbances. The earliest colonists probably
used the islands’ resources as had the Indians who preceded them, but
the Colonial era need for lumber and fuel wood soon exceeded that of
the native peoples as permanent settlements were established. This
resulted in nearly complete deforestation of greater Boston and the
islands, and the use of this cleared land for pasture and agriculture.
This regional deforestation is detected in the decline in pine and oak
pollen in the Calf Island peat core (Patterson et al. 2005). Europeans
also introduced many exotic species both intentionally by planting agricultural
crops (including fruit trees) and unintentionally through feed
and hitchhikers on other plantings. Exotic species initially established
on the mainland were carried to the islands by birds, animals, the wind,
and tidal currents.
By the 19th century, Bostonians were attempting to reforest many of
the islands by planting hearty European species such as English oak.
Throughout the 20th century, there has been abandonment of many of
the facilities on the islands and a return of early successional shrubby
habitats. The islands are characterized by shrubby and woodland vegetation
to a greater degree today than at any time during the past 200 years,
with most of the growth occurring during the past 50 years (Richburg
and Patterson, in prep.). However, many of these woody species are not
native to the New England area (Elliman 2005).
Although we can describe the general character of the early vegetation
of the islands and list some of the more important species, we cannot
reconstruct the past vegetation of the islands with the great detail
necessary to identify all or even most species present during any given
time period (Tolonen 1983). We can, however, derive an understanding
26 Northeastern Naturalist Vol. 12, Special Issue 3
of some of the natural and anthropogenic processes that influenced the
vegetation. More important than identifying which species occurred
where and at what time, is knowing that the vegetation of the islands
(and of the Northeast in general) has been continually changing. Future
management of the islands should focus on perpetuating or mitigating
(or in some cases excluding) natural and anthropogenic influences on
vegetation, rather than on trying to re-create a static landscape from
the past. Eliminating undesirable species and conditions (e.g., exotic
invasive species, erosion, grazing, etc.) and reintroducing species and
processes that may have been important in the past (e.g., native tree
species now eradicated, or the controlled use of fire) might be useful
land management goals. In some instances, there may be specific types
of vegetation that would capture the historical significance of past landscapes,
but re-creating these landscapes may be difficult as a changing
environment may interfere (e.g., climate warming may preclude the
reestablishment of red and/or white spruce, which occur on islands north
along the coast and may have occurred on at least some of the Boston
Harbor Islands [Argus and Davis 1962]).
Our work and that of others clearly identifies the important role that
invasion by exotic species has played in the development of the modern
vegetation. In his 17th-century survey of New England, Josselyn (1672)
reported the presence of many European species (e.g., sorrel, purslane,
ground-ivy, and tansy). At Calf Island more than half of the current
flora is exotic species (Elliman 2005). Deliberate and accidental introductions
of plant species have altered the composition and structure of
many of the islands. Our analysis of the peat core from the Calf Island
wetland suggests that exotics have been present since at least the 19th
century. In some instances, these exotic species have not expanded beyond
the local areas where they were planted, but elsewhere they have
taken over large portions of the landscape and have crowded out native
species. Any attempt to return the islands’ flora to pre-European conditions
will require efforts targeted at eliminating these species. But in
certain instances, it may be desirable to keep the species as examples of
Defining historic vegetation composition is limited by the types
and sources of information available about conditions hundreds or
even thousands of years ago. The concept of a single, original, pristine
landscape present prior to European settlement is now understood to be
overly simplistic (Foster 2000). Natural and anthropogenic disturbance
of landscapes has always occurred, and will so in the future. In many
cases it is difficult to separate “natural” from anthropogenic disturbance
histories when interpreting past vegetation composition and change. The
vegetation of the Boston Harbor Islands is no exception.
2005 J.A. Richburg and W.A. Patterson III 27
Clearly humans have had a large impact on the vegetation of the
Harbor Islands over the past 300–400 years, and probably longer.
Many islands were wooded, at least in part, when the first European
settlers arrived in the early 17th century, yet most had been the location
of Indian encampments prior to arrival of the colonists. The
islands were subsequently deforested, and the removal of trees from
the islands had an impact not only on the vegetation of the islands
as a whole, but also on the character of individual islands. Loss of
vegetative cover and the new uses to which the islands were put (e.g.,
pasture, quarrying, farmland), increased erosion rates. With demand
for firewood and locally produced crops in decline, forest returned to
the islands, though with the inclusion of new exotic species. The current
vegetation, nearly 400 years after initial settlement of the islands
by Europeans, includes a mixture of woodlands, shrub thickets, open
lands, and manicured landscapes, all of which include a large component
of non-native species (Elliman 2005).
Our work was funded by the National Park Service on behalf of the Boston
Harbor Islands Partnership. We would like to thank the staff of all the institutions
that we visited. Edward Bell guided us through the filing system of the Massachusetts
Historical Commission and allowed us to review documents that had yet to
be cataloged. Glenn Motzkin, Brian Hall, and others at the Harvard Forest suggested
institutions and other reference sources. Dick Gelpke and John Looney of
the University of Massachusetts–Boston provided great insight to the past history
of Boston Harbor. Lawrence Kaplan willingly shared his paleobotanical knowledge
and data from his Harbor Island projects. Ted Elliman provided descriptions
of the current vegetation, and Don Pfister described past and present lichen and
moss floras. Steven Hamburg, Charles Cogbill, and an anonymous reviewer provided
helpful comments on the manuscript.
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