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1927 Map of the Arboretum


Lauren Miller
lilacs and visitors

How did we get here? Historically, we’ve tended to start the story of the Arboretum around 1872, our founding year. But the history of this 281-acre landscape, the factors that contributed to the Arboretum’s founding, and our own actions over the past 150 years are a complicated web.

Indigenous History

Archaeological remains indicates that various Indigenous Peoples passed through this area during the Archaic and Woodlands periods (7,500–400 years ago). Evidence suggests that they may have visited the area as a seasonal hunting ground.

The last Indigenous group that we believe passed through this landscape before European settlement was the Massachusett People. In 2021, we worked with representatives of the Massachusett Tribe to craft a land acknowledgment that includes more information about the history of Indigenous Peoples of this area and the archaeological evidence found in our landscape.

Legacy of Slavery at the Arboretum

In spring of 2022, Harvard University President Larry Bacow shared the findings of the Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, a major initiative focused on researching and day-lighting connections between Harvard and its community to both the institution and economy of slavery. Among the Committee’s findings associated with the Arboretum is a major benefactor—Benjamin Bussey—who made his fortune trading goods produced by enslaved people, the institution’s historical connections to the Atkins Institution in Cuba, and the close ties of some instructors at the Bussey Institution to the eugenics movement.

We synthesized and shared the Arboretum-specific parts of the report, and we’re continuing to interrogate how this knowledge changes the story of the Arboretum. 

Colonialism in our Collections

The fields of botany, taxonomy, and horticulture have a long entanglement with systems of coloniality and oppression. At the Arboretum, we’re examining how these entrenched issues may have played out in our work. We’re working with experts to reconsider how we frame plant collecting, which plant names we use, and how to better share our story.