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The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord

Author(s):Donahue, Brian
Reviewer(s):Rothenberg, Winifred Barr

Published by EH.NET (December 2005)

Brian Donahue, The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. xx + 311 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 0-300-09751-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Winifred Barr Rothenberg, Department of Economics, Tufts University.

One bleak day in early spring I saw my neighbor, desperately ill at the time, standing barefoot in his small vegetable garden — not a garden yet, but the soil had been turned over and he was pressing his bare feet deep into the cold, damp clods. “I draw strength from the earth,” he said. One cannot read Brian Donahue’s splendid book without believing that he too — a forester, a shepherd, and a farmer for many years before becoming an academic — draws upon a deeply personal (dare I say spiritual?) bond with the earth and all that grows therein.

Donahue, Associate Professor of Environmental History at Brandeis University, begins his book by inviting us to walk with him around this lovely town, across the fields, over its uplands, through the woods, and down to its two sluggish rivers. As we walk he peels off the layers of time. The first to be removed is Concord Present, then Thoreau’s Concord, then Colonial Concord, then Musketaquid — the Indians’ Concord — until he is down at last to the paleo-geological past that he reads in the floodplains, glacial outwash, glacial till, meltwater ponds, and spongy meadows left behind by the retreating ice. By the end of his book one has learned to accept his ecological determinism: the explanation of much of Concord’s — perhaps of New England’s — history is vouchsafed to the few who, like Donahue, can read this palimpsest.

As we make our way up out of the Ice Age and into the historical past, The Great Meadow becomes a paean to a vanished State of Nature. There is lyric poetry in the prose — “the forest soaked into the look, the feel, and even the flavor of this world — into its shoe leather, cider barrels, huckleberry puddings, and the plain color of its everyday clothes” — but it is not sentimental. The evidentiary base is rock-solid, built upon a meticulous reading of soil analyses, probates, tax valuations, town histories, account books, architectural drawings, biographies, genealogies, GIS three-dimensional mappings, and, above all, land deeds which have been exploited here to the fullest. The careful use of deeds has allowed him to follow the inheriting, buying, selling, partitioning, bequeathing, leasing, improving, and abandoning of the lands of seven of the founding families over a period of close to two hundred years. It is a work of high scholarship. It is not, however, as will be discussed below, a history of colonial Concord. Nor does it claim to be.

The colonists who settled upon this iconic place have fascinated generations of historians. In many respects, colonial Concord and communities like it have been the prism through which early American history has been understood. Puritan discipline, enthusiastic revivals, town government, material culture, paper money, provincial taxation, local exchange, long-distance trade, living standards, credit, debt, Revolution, Shays’ Rebellion, early manufacturing in general and clock-making in particular — these things had all been played out on Concord’s stage, but in Donahue’s book they have only a walk-on role, if any role at all. In terms of the useful categories of Annales historiography, this is histoire structurelle, what Braudel called ‘the stagnant layer of history.’ Events — save for the First and Second Divisions of the common – are barely perceptible here.

And that is as it should be: The Great Meadow tells its story through changes in the land, giving a new meaning to ‘history from the bottom up,’ in which the ‘bottom’ is not the crowd of working poor but the forests, grasses, and plants which Donahue knows by name (and Latin name); the marshes, ponds, streams, and rivers of which he knows the rhythms of ebb and flow; the rocks and ungenerous soil of pulverized granite which broke as many hearts as plowshares. Above all, Concord’s agriculture was ‘bottom’d’ on its meadows until well into the nineteenth century.

Between 1786 and 1801, county tax rates on meadow rose 32 percent to become the most highly taxed land use, while the tax rate on tillage acres fell 14 percent. When I first stumbled upon these numbers in my own research I interpreted the relative downgrading of tillage in tax valuations as evidence of the retreat of grain agriculture in Massachusetts. But Donahue tells us that the switch from grains to hay, from tillage to meadow did not signal a retreat. Meadow was the bedrock of soil fertility in Concord. Because crop rotation was not practiced in Concord, nor were nitrogen-fixing clover and turnips used to restore the fertility of the fragile soil, it depended upon manure which in turn depended upon the quality of meadow hay that maintained it. Additional nutrients leaking from higher up in the system were carried by the waterways that ran through and alongside spongy lowland meadows, including effluent from barnyards and runoff drained from the ditches that had been laid out to run downhill between strips in the common-fields. In this profoundly circular process, cattle, horses, and sheep, as producers of manure, were stabled early against the winters, requiring two to three times more hay than English livestock. The entire ecology of Concord’s agriculture was oriented, to a much greater extent than in England, around the preservation of meadows.

The early winter cold forced another adaptation that seriously undermined the commons idea. ‘Common of shack’ — the practice of letting the cattle and sheep onto harvested fields to forage on the rowen and the gleanings and at the same time to manure the soil — had been central to the regulation and control of open fields in England, for it imposed the requirement that all cottagers with strips in the arable must plant and harvest the same crop at the same time so that all cattle could enter upon the planting fields on the same day. But in New England the early arrival of cold weather forced the cattle indoors and put an end to the practice.

Winter was only one in a series of challenges that precipitated the Second Division of the undivided common in 1653, only seventeen years after first settlement. The cut-off of Puritan immigration in 1642 had interrupted the inflow of labor, capital, and specie, and threatened the Bay Colony’s West Indian trade; the winter of 1641/2 was the bitterest in New England’s history; the appearance of wheat rust — a mold or fungus — put an end to wheat cultivation in eastern Massachusetts; and population doubling every fifty years pressed upon the Malthusian frontier.

Concord dealt with these exigencies by choosing decisively to “turn away” from the common system. Donahue puts it this way:

“As the second generation came of age, the proprietors of Concord (like those of many other New England towns at about the same time) … decided to distribute nearly all of their common land to themselves and their heirs in private lots…. By dividing their commons among themselves the proprietors assured that this valuable resource would not be diluted as newcomers arrived in town and placed in their own hands the means to arrange inheritances for their progeny” (p. 101).

In so doing, says Donahue, the proprietors were “driven by a desire for equity in the way land was distributed” (p. 107).

By judging ‘equitable’ the manner in which the commons was divided among proprietors to the exclusion of newcomers, Donahue joins other colonial historians who stand accused by John Frederic Martin, of having “neglected the contentious, competitive, and unfair qualities of town life,” among which was the emergence of a social hierarchy each rung of which — inhabitant, sojourner, resident, commoner, voter, church member, freeholder, householder, townsman, shareholder, taxpayer, tenant — carried a different mix of rights and responsibilities. The sharpest distinctions were to be found in the commonage rights of proprietors and everyone else. “The group being maintained was shareholders, not town-dwellers; the purpose was to control rights, not residency.”[1]

In all fairness to Donahue, Concord was not one of the 63 entrepreneurial/commercial towns in Martin’s study sample. But if Concord was very different Martin would say of it what Stephen Innes said of Dedham: “When viewed in the larger historical setting, it was not Springfield’s commercialism but rather Dedham’s [read Concord’s] corporatism that appears anomalous.”[2]

By the mid-eighteenth century, the consequences of the choices made by Concord’s proprietors were becoming clear. Whereas the yeomanry in England had brought about revolutionary increases in agricultural productivity growth by the late seventeenth/early eighteenth century,[3] the yeomanry in Concord bumped up against what Donahue calls “interlocking ecological limits” (p. 218). “There was little slack left from which to … sustain economic growth of any kind” (p. 196).

What were those limits? Not crop land, surely, for by 1771, one-third of Concord’s land lay still in forest. But — and here Donahue’s intimate knowledge and unique perspective is revelatory — there was no point cutting forests to expand plowlands if there wasn’t enough dung to build soil or enough labor to spread it. It required “about two tons of hay for every acre tilled in order to support enough livestock to manure the corn properly” (p. 210), and twenty acres of meadow for every grazing animal, while the size of meadows and the quality of meadow grass was constrained by the regulated flow of water, which in turn required labor to ditch, drain, dike, and dam the streams. Where would the labor come from? Of the seven founding families his study has followed, only one son remained in Concord by the fifth generation.

In his Epilogue, Donahue ventures into the nineteenth century when Concord confronted the environmental depredations of what he calls ‘agricultural capitalism.’ Tax valuations had begun in 1801 to count a new category of land use called ‘unimproved.’ What is this? asks Donahue. Surely, one assumes, it is virgin land not yet broken to the plow, is it not? No, says Donahue, it is land too much broken, dis-improved, indeed exhausted by specialization and intensive farming for the market. Economic growth has been bought at the expense of ecological disarray. Here he mourns, and we, too moved to argue, mourn with him.


1. John Frederick Martin, Profits in the Wilderness: Entrepreneurship and the Founding of New England Towns in the Seventeenth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Caroline Press, 1991) p. 228.

2. Stephen Innes, Labor in a New Land: Economy and Society in Seventeenth Century Springfield (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), p. 182.

3. Robert C. Allen, Enclosure and the Yeoman: The Agricultural Development of the South Midlands (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).

Winifred Barr Rothenberg is Associate Professor in the Department of Economics of Tufts University, Medford, MA. She is the author of From Market-Places to a Market Economy: The Transformation of Rural Massachusetts, 1750-1850 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

Subject(s):Historical Geography
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):18th Century