For over 7,000 years, the land on which the Arnold Arboretum now sits has been inhabited and used by diverse societies and cultures of Indigenous Peoples, including most recently the Massachusett Tribe.
After the Last Ice Age
Glaciers over a half a mile thick covered the Boston region during the last ice age. They scoured the land leaving rocky outcrops of Roxbury Conglomerate such as we find on Hemlock Hill. They also deposited drumlins across the region. Today we call two of these drumlins Bussey and Peters Hills of the Arnold Arboretum. Glacial scouring also created kettle holes, including a local one in Jamaica Plain over a mile and a half in circumference that today is called Jamaica Pond.
At the end of the last glacial period, 11,000 years before the present (BP), the land itself rose when freed from the immense weight of the ice sheet. For a time, the shoreline extended well past the Boston Harbor Islands, but water from melting glaciers gradually raised the sea level. The shore retreated westwards. By 6,000 BP, the bed of the Charles River filled with water, but the Harbor Islands remained landlocked. Boreal forests of pine and spruce, gave way to deciduous hardwood forests as temperatures warmed.
In the uplands to the southwest, in what would become the Arnold Arboretum, the earliest artifacts left by the First Peoples date to about 7,500 BP, the Middle Archaic period of Indigenous occupation.
Archaic and Woodlands Periods
At the Arboretum, we dig a lot of holes. Occasionally we discover items other than soil and tree roots. Stone artifacts found in the course of our day-to-day work on the grounds and in formal archaeological digs show that during the Archaic and Woodlands periods (7,500-400 BP) Indigenous Peoples visited here occasionally and might have had seasonal camps. They probably came to hunt deer and other mammals in these uplands during the cooler months, and waterfowl and other aquatic life in the marshy areas such as the North Meadow during seasonal migrations.
We do not know what these ancient hunters called themselves. Nor do we know whether they were the same people over the intervening years, or multiple waves of culturally different people coming into the area. The variations we see in projectile point styles could suggest increasing social complexity, varied cultural traditions, diverse geographic origins of their users, or a combination of all these factors.
These early visitors trod very lightly on the landscape and left few traces. The Archives of the Arnold Arboretum stewards a small collection of projectile points and other stone tools discovered over the years on the grounds by our staff members. The majority of the lithic, or stone, points and tools in the collection, date to the Late Archaic period, 5,000-3,000 BP, with a smaller number of artifacts from the Middle Archaic and Early and Middle Woodlands periods. An archaeological dig on the grounds in the 1990s discovered evidence of several hearths, areas of burned soil indicating camp or cooking fires. They probably date to the Early or Middle Woodland periods, 3,000-1,500 years ago.
With the coming of the Woodland period seasonal habitation by Indigenous People appears to have moved away from the Arboretum landscape. We know this because fewer stone projectile points from this more recent period have been found on the grounds. Archaeology in the Boston region shows that Indigenous Peoples moved from the uplands, such as where the Arboretum is today, down to the waterside of the Charles and Neponset Rivers where they established semi-sedentary settlements.
First contact between Europeans and Indigenous Peoples in the region may have occurred as early as the 15th century when European fisherman (primarily Basque and French) set up seasonal fishing stations in Newfoundland and Labrador. By 1600, the well established fisheries promoted trading south to the Massachusetts Bay area.
Increased contact with Europeans unfortunately brought introduced disease. In coastal New England, a devastating plague (a recent reanalysis suggests possibly leptospirosis complicated by Weil’s syndrome) ravaged the Indigenous population from 1616-1619, wiping out entire villages. The Massachusett People in the Boston basin were particularly hard hit. The epidemic killed as much as 90% of the Indigenous population from the Massachusett and other tribes, depopulating large areas of coastal New England in what would become Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies. Later in 1633, a deadly smallpox epidemic killed more of the Massachusett, including Chickatawbut, the sachem who ruled the area south of the Blue Hills.
The lack of contemporary archaeological artifacts from the early contact period, suggests that the Massachusett People were not visiting this landscape very often, and that there were no permanent settlements here.
In 1934, Arboretum botanist-collector Ernest Jesse Palmer wrote an article in the Bulletin of Popular Information about the Indigenous stone tools he had found on the grounds up to that point.
Nearly four decades later, Dr. Dena Ferran Dincauze updated our knowledge of the Arboretum’s collection of Indigenous artifacts in light of more recent scholarship in an Arnoldia article.
Read the guide to our Archaeology Collection here.