Originally published in the Historic Nantucket, Vol 14, no. 4 (April 1967), p. 15-22
Was Nantucket Ever Forested?
BY BASSETT JONES
This is a paper read by Mr. Bassett Jones at the 41st Annual Meeting of the Nantucket Historical Association, July 31, 1935, and printed in the "Proceedings" of that date. It seems pertinent to reprint Mr. Jones' paper here, because a distinguished New York botanist has recently reopened the question with an affirmative answer. Bassett Jones, an electrical engineer, spent many summers on Nantucket with a house in Polpis, later moving to Wauwinet. Interested in the natural phenomena of the Island, he spent much time with his brother — also a scientist and for a while a teacher in the Nantucket schools — researching his hobby. Bassett Jones' careful and erudite paper follows in full.
THERE is a fond superstition that this Island was once forested with trees of such size that building lumber was cut here, even that vessels were built of Nantucket grown timbers. It is even said that these heavy oak beams that carry the wide span of this old North Church were cut on this Island.
However, for a forest of large trees to exist, certain conditions of soil and climate must also exist. In order that such trees as were used to fashion the beams in this building and the timbers of Nantucket-built vessels can grow, certain forest conditions must hold. The forest must be very old, its leaf mold must be deep and rich. The soil must be such as to provide adequate i root anchorage for such tall and large trees.
But the soil map of this island shows but a small bit of good loam in Polpis, not very deep, and another narrow strip leading from the town south, or a little west of south between Miacomet and Hummock Ponds. This same narrow region of good but shallow soil is mentioned in Letters of an American Farmer, first published in 1782. Where, then, has all the forest bearing soil gone? A speculation exists that once the island was deforested, the soil was removed by erosion. But, one may ask, where did it go? Certainly the soil could not have been all washed into the sea. Much of it must have accumulated in valleys without outlet of which the island "as many. But investigation shows that the soil is not there.
There are low places on this island where what we call the "hidden forests" grow. But these are old peat bottoms, based on ancient fresh water marshes and do not consist of the sort of soil that might have been washed off surrounding hills after the assumed denudation of the ancient forests in which such "sticks" as mentioned above must have grown.
The soil of such forests is not here, nor are there any traces of it. So, I am forced to conclude that the probabilities are much in favor of such soil never having existed. If the soil did not exist, neither did the forest exist. . The only argument I have ever heard in favor of the speculative pristine Nantucket forest of such very large trees, from which such very "'sticks" could be cut, is the discovery of "stumps" of old trees in the peat bogs. But, to my knowledge, with a single reported example I shall mention hereafter, no stump has yet been found belonging to any such large trees. None that I have seen, or dug myself, were more than 10 inches or, at the outside, 12 inches in diameter. Most of these stumps are much smaller. Furthermore, I can show you living wild trees on this island with "stumps" larger than this — but these same living trees have boles or "trunks" but a few feet tall at the most, and the whole tree is not over 20 to 25 feet tall. Certainly no such lumber was ever cut from such trees.
But more. There are but a few kinds of wood that will stand immersion in sour peat for two centuries or more, and we know that earlier than 1782, when Crevecoeur visited this island and wrote so entertainingly of his stay here, the island was without trees. These "stumps" — at least all I have examined or dug up myself — are cedar, both the red cedar and white cedar, or cypress.
Now I can show you cedar trees or, properly, the Juniperus virginiana, living on the island today with so-called "stumps" as large in diameter as any dug up in the peat bogs. But this, too, is a matter of excavation, for the "stumps" of these living trees are buried in windblown sand and the embryo "cedar" peat of the leaves, in which same peat, fully developed, the old stumps are found.
But these old stumps are in a "cedar" peat often overlaid with about 30 inches of fresh water plant peat, the older peat having been submerged and the cedars killed, quite as one can see them killed today on Coatue where water finds its way into the swales between the ridges.
The next time you are along the Quaise beach note the old fresh water peat exposed by wave erosion along this shore, with the ancient white cedar or cypress stumps yet standing in it even below low water mark. At one time, possibly some thousands of years ago, these were fresh water cedar bogs above high tide level, or like some of the Coatue swales, below high tide level, but cut off from the sea by sand dunes, or by more elevated land now long gone. At any rate, there are the stumps, bedded in fresh water cedar peat, and now below low water mark.
Such old cedar stumps are also found under the present salt water peat constituting the present salt marshes. In general these stumps, a number of which have been unearthed by workmen of the Mosquito Control, are better than 24 inches below the present marsh surface, and rest in a fairly thin layer of fresh water peat decidedly cedrus in character, which, in turn, rests on what obviously were shallow bay bottoms of sand and gravel in which clam, quahog and oyster shells are found in situ.
Evidently, and comparatively recently, (a few thousand years ago) these bottoms must have been at or above high tide level, or otherwise completely shut off from the sea, in order that such essentially fresh water drinking plants as the cedars (juniper and cypress) could have grown upon them. This discovery has led my brother, Mr. William F. Jones, to an entirely new theory of salt marsh evolution along the New England coast, which theory has received some attention. I might remark here that similar conditions exist on Cape Cod, and that such cedar stumps have been dredged out of peat now on the bottom of Cape Cod Bay.
It is worth while noting that the white cedar or cypress (Chamaecyparis) stumps are of trees that no longer grow on this island, and, possibly, are o an extinct species similar to those found under the peat of a bog near Quamquisset on the Cape. I have not yet been able to obtain a positive identification of the species found on Nantucket. A trunk of this tree with many branch stubs, the trunk about 10 inches in diameter and about 12 feet long has been dug out of a marsh close to the harbor beach in Quaise. This log bears marks that look as if they might have been made with stone hatchets. My brother has accumulated evidence to show that Indians lived on this island before Coatue was formed, and while the site of the marsh at Folger's Creek was a shallow bay, open to the Sound, quite as was Capaum Pond when the white settlers first came here. Pocomo marsh covers many such stumps and logs as the workers of the Mosquito Control have found.
So much for the "stumps" and the speculations based on them. These cedars lived and grew here not less than 2000 years ago. Certainly they had been long buried under the peat before 1671.
We know, then, the stumps are cedar, and that certainly large oak beams and timbers were not cut from cedar trees the bole diameter of which is not generally over 10 to 12 inches — not that the diameter matters in the least.
A few weeks ago, after our President had asked me to tell you this, I mentioned to a friend that I was about it. He said that he recalled a paper on the subject read some years ago before some botanical society. So a search was instigated but so far without success. My friend has the paper tucked away in some forgotten corner.
So I wrote Dr. Marshall A. Howe of the New York Botanical Garden. Lacking the presence of the learned bibliographer Dr. John Hendley, Dr. Howe did the best he could for me. He sent me this:
"From Proceedings of The American Association for the Advancement of Science for the Forty-third Meeting held at Brooklyn, New York, August 1894 (43: 294. March 1895.)
Abstract by Dr. Marshall A. Howe of 'Evidence as to the Former Existence of Large Trees on Nantucket Island' By Burt G. Wilder, Ithaca, N.Y.
In his report on the Geology of Nantucket (Bulletin of the United States Geological Survey, No. 53, 1889, Fig. 9), Prof. N. S. Shaler represents a section of a submerged swamp on the north shore of Nantucket with tree-stumps, one of which he says is 10 inches (25 cm.) in diameter. On p. 52 he writes: "I am inclined to believe that when this island was first settled the greater part of its surface, at least that portion of the area north of the southern plains, was covered with a forest growth which afforded some architectural timber." But he does not mention having personally observed any large tree remains in the interior of the island, and refers to the tradition that the former oaks and pines were "sufficiently large to afford ship timber as well as material for edifices" as "unsupported by any trustworthy record." Hence some positive evidence is desirable.
"Several years ago, I was told by Mr. Harry Dunham that in cutting peat at Polpis he often encountered fragments of large trees. On the 15th of August, in company with Professors Harrison Alien, M.D., of the University of Pennsylvania, and W. K. Hatt, of Purdue University, Indiana, I visited an old peat bog in Polpis, at Hughes' Neck, west of the main road, not far from what is reputed to be the oldest house on the island. The Proprietor, Mr. Charles Swain, kindly led us to a stump standing undisturbed in a dense thicket on top of a bog where the soft peat is still a meter thick. The crown of this stump measures in diameter about 50 cm. (20 in.), and is thus twice the size of that mentioned by Professor Shaler. Photographs were taken of it and of a neighboring bog, more recently worked and covered with water, where are visible more than twenty uprooted stumps of various sizes."
But, again, I can show you trees now living on this island with boles 20 inches in diameter, of oak and beech, but certainly not suited for architectural timber.
By Hughes' Neck I presume Wilder meant Swain's Neck or "Nashayte." There are oaks on that neck now - a number of trunks, once shoots, now 6 to 8 inches in diameter, growing in a cluster from a single root that may once have fed a tree so large as 20 inches in diameter at the bole, but, probably, like our existing oaks, short, gnarled and wind pruned — not "architectural timber". I know one black oak now growing on the island having a bole 19 inches in diameter and 8 inches tall, the branches extending flat on the ground or partly buried. Another, that I take to be an Elliott's Oak (Quercus Pagodae folia), has a bole approximately 9 feet in circumference at the ground, but only one foot 4 inches tall at the fork of the branches. This tree is 106 years old (1935).
You will note that Wilder wrote of a stump 20 inches in diameter lying on the marsh. Since obviously the tree to which this stump belonged did not grow on the marsh, the stump must have been dug somewhere else — probably in the old peat hole now on the neck — and thrown out on the marsh. But I ask you to note that, quite as many of the cedars now living on Coatue spread their roots in a flat layer near the surface so as to keep out of the fresh water standing not very deep down, these roots coalesce into a massive piece of wood from which the tree bole rises, which, again, is frequently a coalescence of sprawling branches; so much so that it is difficult to say that any bole or trunk exists. Were the bole completely rotted off by weather, the remaining root clump might easily give the impression of having belonged to a much larger tree. As I have seen such wood masses on Coatue, and also in the exposed peat along the Quaise shore, I question whether the same sort of stump was not reported by Wilder and that actually this was the remains of a cedar stump having a bole possibly not more than 12 inches in diameter. The photograph taken by Wilder might settle this point, but I have not been able to trace it.
By count of annual growth rings I estimate that the largest cedars now living on Coatue approximate the age of more than a century (1934-1935). I have counted many branch rings up to 80.
However, determinations of the age of many of the larger deciduous trees growing on this island show that few, if any of them, are of any great age. The oldest tree of this class so far measured is a Pin Oak (Q. palustris) 159 years old, with a bole 18 inches in diameter and 5 feet 6'/2 inches tall to the fork of the branches. Neither this tree, nor the Elliott's Oak mentioned above, have ever been cut. I know of no White Oaks (Q. alba), of which the island affords many examples, that have not been cut, save young frees not over 40 to 50 years old, as of 1935. In nearly every case the shoots growing from the older stumps of the cut trees, also are of about this same age. This indicates that about half a century ago much cutting of such trees went on. Particularly Coskata seems to have been stripped of white oaks at about 1890.
The amount of cutting for firewood during the earlier days when, excepting for peat, wood constituted the only available fuel, must have been considerable. That there never was sufficient for this purpose is evidenced by the few known historical records of trips away from the island for wood.
Also, I have found in the relics of old wood fences of this island posts I of white oak, red oak (Q. rubra) and black oak (Q. velutina), some of them / determinate as cut from small trees also about 50 years old or younger. In ! one case I have been able to find that the fence was erected at a time corresponding to the date of cutting trees on the property as shown by the ' age of the shoots growing from the old stumps. This leads me to suggest I that whatever wood was cut from Nantucket trees found such minor uses as fence posts and fire wood and did not constitute "architectural timber". Certainly the few older uncut trees found would not provide such timber, so it I seems rational to presume that no trees which grew on this island ever were ' of that character.
With the three exceptions noted none of the trees on this island so far studied, cut or uncut, as the normal life of such trees go, are of any great age.*
( *All ages of living trees given herein are as of 1935. Ages were determined by the use of a Swedish increment borer. Where the boring I taken reached to the center of growth, the age was determined by direct ! count of annual increments. Where the center of growth was not reached, the age was calculated from the circumference of the bole measured on the level of the boring, 14 to 18 inches above ground, and the mean number of I annual increments per inch shown by the boring, probably with an error ( not exceeding plus or minus 10%. In certain cases, where the annual increments were very variable the bole radius was divided into zones and the age corresponding to each zone separately calculated.)
There seems to be a general clustering of the age statistics so far found about 45 years, with an upper quartile of about 60 years. That is to say, only about one quarter of the hardwood specimens so far sampled, irrespective of species, exceed 60 years of age. The largest beech (Fagus americana) in the "hidden forest" is but 50 years old. This tree has a bole 24 inches in diameter, but is less than four feet tall to the crotch of the heavy branches. As I previously mentioned, but one specimen sampled shows an age of 159 years — so far as age is concerned this tree seems to be in a class by itself. Another exceptional case is a black oak 114 years old. This tree, the pin oak above mentioned, and the Elliott's oak are all in Quaise.
After considerable investigation, Mrs. E. W. Littlefield, Supervisor Forest Investigations, New York State, and I, jointly, have reached the conclusion that the life of the Black Japanese Pines (Pinus Thunbergi) brought to this island in 1895 by my father, will not exceed 60 years. So you see there seems to be a general short life among the trees growing here, the climatic reasons for which are not far to seek.
In the first place, short of the Black Japanese Pines, the trees only grow in protected, damp locations and in a dense wind developed thicket. The air is moist and frequently loaded with salt from the sea. Rot sets in rapidly once the branches die, or are broken, and soon eats into the heart of the tree. Borings taken in some apparently healthy and very young trees show traces of rot in the core of the bole. Observation will show that the rot of broken or dead branches often extends deep into the wood. Even when close pruned, and possibly due to irritation by salt, the bark has difficulty in closing the wound, and, except in the pines, rarely does so without help.
In short, the trees of this island appear to die of rot before they attain any great age. Furthermore, wherever such trees grow, standing water (the water table) is near the surface: as the use of a spade will show, some times only a couple of feet down. The soil (humus) is shallow, so that growing in thickets, as the trees do, there is little room for root expansion. The trees become root cramped while comparatively young. The food supply becomes insufficient, the tree weakens, and rot easily sets in. There is also the possibility that the mildews, or mycellium fungi, that exist on the island are inimical to prolonged tree growth. The character of such fungi have an intimate relation with tree life. But this is a matter I have not studied on this island.
One other matter, as to climate: the winds. In one of her poems, Elizabeth Hollister Frost wrote "Nantucket trees all lean southwest." This being correct, you will note that the Nantucket trees have the peculiar habit of leaning against the prevailing winds. This condition puzzled me for some time, and it was not until after the great storm of August, 1927, that I found the reason for it, since confirmed by the observed results of other storms, both winter and summer. Nantucket trees grow, they do not lean, southwest, and for the very simple reason that the violent wind pruning of our severe northeast winter gales and summer hurricanes, make nought any attempt of the tree, if at all exposed, to grow northeast.
I have seen a single storm tear the northeast side and, what is more important, the top, to tatters. These winds, if over force 8, or of a velocity exceeding 47 mile's per hour, pick up salt water and carry it inland. At 60 miles an hour (and 80 is not exceptional down here in a violent storm) quantities of salt spray are carried across the island blasting every leaf exposed to it. If such a storm occurs in the early summer, the tender new wood is withered by the salty blast. Indeed, were the storms frequent I aim disposed to think that the flora of Nantucket would be very different than it is at present. Few things could manage to keep a foot-hold.
As it is, only a selected company of peculiarly adapted hardy plants can survive unless protected. So we find our "hidden forests" of which there is quite a number, strictly limited as to tallness of the plants and trees by the protection they get from low hills to the northeast. Where, as on Coskata at present, this protection has been removed by shore erosion since 1896, the trees are suffering from wind pruning and are severely stunted. Here, also, on Coskata, covered with a low, dense thicket of white, black and red oaks with a unique fertile cross between the black and red (reported by Bicknell), as I mentioned before, there is evidence of extensive cutting about 50 years ago. But where single trunks exist they are not large and the tree is not over 15 feet tall.
Another matter that deserves attention is this. The hard (long leaf yellow) pine, and wide white pine floor boards used in the old barns and houses certainly did not come from trees that grew on this island — nor did the spruce or fir studdings. None of these trees can attain any size, or even live long in this climate of salt gales. The long leaf yellow pine is strictly southern in its habitat. True, spruce and white pine grow along the coast of Maine. But that is another story. There is deep rich loam in Maine — not largely glacial till. Furthermore, the coast of Maine borders a submerged mediterranean — the Gulf of Maine — far north of the Gulf Stream storm track. Northers and northeasters are off-shore winds, and do not come off that meteorologically chaotic band where cold northern waters and Gulf Stream waters mix. Look over the meteorological maps of this coast and you will see what I mean.
I have tried to grow spruce on this island and can do so only under careful protection. White pine, even when carefully protected, have a bedraggled appearance and wind-burn badly.
There is a white fir (Abies Concolor) on this island planted about 35 years ago — for that is its age. The white fir is reputed an easy tree to grow. Nevertheless this one yet huddles on the south side of an old dune. The top of the tree is a cluster of dead leaders — each the relic of a pair of hurricane-free years. The whole tree, dead leaders included, is 3 feet 10'/2 inches tall. It should be at least 50 feet to the main leader tip.
Even the Austrian Pine (Pinus nigra), reputed to be a hardy tree for coastal planting, has a hard time to get started here and is never really happy. The Black Japanese Pine — alone of all our hundreds of experiments — given no longer succession of such severe winters as the past two (1934 and 1935), is the only tree that thoroughly enjoys a salty gale, and goes through the most violent northeaster without turning a needle. The reason is that this tree is indigenous to the eastern shore and coastal islands of Japan, where the climatic conditions — if not the soil — are precisely the same as ours here. The late Ernest Henry Wilson once told me that he had seen this tree growing on the Japanese coast where six feet of the bole was under water at high tide.
The above, being the evidence so far collected, how do you suppose that a forest of large trees yielding "architectural timber" ever got started here in the first place — trees yielding 10 in. by 12 in. oak beams and framing, 20 inches wide white pine flooring, wide fir and spruce spreaders, sills, headers and joists? To me, the speculation does not make sense when compared with known facts.
So I here register a doubt that any trees could ever have attained to the dignity of "architectural timber" on this island.
Now a few very fragmentary historical notes and I am through with what our President told me was to be a ten-minute discourse.
Documentary evidence exists that the "oldest house" built in 1686 for Jethro Coffin and Mary, his wife, was of lumber sawed at the mill of Peter Coffin in New Hampshire and brought here by vessel.
Mary Starbuck's account book with the Indians, from 1683 to 1768, contains an entry, dated 1730: "Going a trip for wood with Paul to the Vineyard."
Starbuck's "History of Nantucket" quotes Zaccheus Macy to the effect that during a severe winter, in the period of the American Revolution, brush wood was hauled by sledge over the ice from Coskata for use as firewood. Certainly had there been any stock of any kind of timber on the island the inhabitants would hardly have gone to this trouble to keep themselves from freezing.
Also, Crevecoeur in "The Letters From An American Farmer," under date of 1782, wrote of the original settlers as finding "the island so universally barren" that they took to fishing rather than farming. He also writes of the town of Sherborn as consisting of "about 530 houses that were framed on the main." Again, he writes of the island as "deprived of mater-ia's for building" and of the original settlers as "not being possessed of a single tree in the whole of their dominions."
Reading what Crevecoeur has to say, I am disposed to wonder whether the island has not even more trees upon it now than it had in 1671.
The way in which this myth got started can be well illustrated from Captain Obed Macy's book of notes for a possible second edition of his "History of Nantucket.'' When discussing the use of peat on Nantucket he wrote in 1843 "that during the Revolution the people of this island were so hard put for fuel that in May 1778 the Proprietors of the Common Land opened Tauwpansheo Swamp, 'so called,' to the public for the digging of peat." Then he goes on to say:
"The strata of peat found in them (the swamps) is from one foot to six or more in depth .... A remarkable circumstance may be mentioned before we leave the subject. In many of the swamps the Peat is from 6 to 8 feet in depth, a hard bottom of sand is below the peat on which is found many large stumps and roots of trees and some parts of them are burnt to charcoal, so that it is beyond a doubt that fire consumed the trees. Which leads many to conclude that when the island was first settled by the English & being covered with woods, there was not clear land sufficient for the wants of the people to cultivate, . . . etc. So they burned it off."
He concludes: "I think from the foregoing circumstances we may infer that the Island was covered with Woods, and that they were set on fire as above mentioned. My ancestors have often told me that from the best information they could obtain the Island originally was covered with Woods."
However, neither Obed Macy, nor any one else of his day, knew aught about the formation of peat. If the stumps and roots mentioned by Macy lay under six to eight feet of peat, the trees were either killed by fire or by drowning, or by both, at least 4000 years ago. Certainly they died a very long time in the past.
The rate of peat formation is very slow. Peat forms during a long drawn out period of submergence, or of slowly rising water. The mass of dead rush and reed roots, stems and leaves from which peat is formed must have had time to so accumulate that, as the water rises, literally the living plants have time to climb on top of the compacted remains of previous plants. Otherwise, the peat cannot form. Even now the exact minimum rate of peat formation is not known. However, it is probable that a layer of peat suitable for fuel but two feet thick took at least a 1000 years to form; probably longer. As to this, see the discussion of peat formation, not only in Nantucket but elsewhere, in "The New England-Arcadian Shore Line," D. W. Johnson, and the "Relation of Plants to Tide Levels," D. S. Johnson and H. H. York, Publication No. 206, Carnegie Institution. 1915.
So it is safe to say that the trees of the stumps and roots mentioned by Obed Macy as under six to eight feet of peat were never seen alive by white people; probably, not even by Indians. These trees were growing here, and ceased to grow here, even long before Leif Ericsson came along this coast; probably before the archaic Hellenes settled in the Attic Peninsular. At that time the coastal conditions here were very different than they were even in 1671.
Fire in brush, even in forests, is frequently started by lightning. Above I have discussed the kind of trees to which these stumps belong.