The First Settlers

A Natural and Cultural History of the Wakefield Area before the Arrival of the Europeans
                        by Jim Bradley

(from “Wakefield: 350 Years by the Lake” published by Wakefield 350 in 1994)

Image: photograph of an “Indian Cave” from the 1894 History of Wakefield, Reading & North Reading.

The Town of Wakefield lies ten miles north of Boston at the northern edge of the Middlesex Fells.  Nearly eight square miles in size, most of hte town is within the watershed of the Saugus River which has its origins in Lake Quannapowitt.  Quannapowitt is one of the two natural lakes in the town; the other, Crystal Lake, is also a tributary of the Saugus.

Glacial processes are responsible for most of the town’s physical appearance.  In addition to the lakes, these include the rounded hilss and exposed ledge that characterize the southern portion of town, as well as the vast marshes and bogs that extend north into the adjacent communities of Reading and Lynnfield.

Over the past ten thousand years, the physical environment of northeast Massachusetts has changed dramatically.  Sea level, for example, hasrisen by more than 40 meters (120 feet).  The climate has shifted from near-arctic to modern conditions iwth great fluctuations in both temperature an precipitation along the way.  Not surprisingly, as the environment has changed, so have the plants and animals that inhabited it.  Many of these biotic communities were substantially different from those familiar to us today.

Native American people have lived in the Wakefield area for at least the last ten thousand years.  Like the flora and fauna, the native cultural patterns have also varied considerably over time.  The earliest inhabitants were small, highly mobile bands of hunters who followed the migrating herds of caribou.  During this period, Wakefield’s environment looked very different.  A combination of tundra and boreal forest, the landscape probably resembled that of northern Quebec or Labrador.  Paleo-Indian people used a distinctive style of spear for hunting.  While no examples of these fluted points are currently known from Wakefield, several have been recovered from the nearby Bull Brook site in Ipswich.   Radiocarbon dating has indicated that these tools are as much as 11,500 years old.

By 8,000 years ago, the climate had grown more moderate, although it was stil not as warm as today’s.  This was a period of rapid and dramatic environmental change.  A warmer climate encouaged new species into the region.  For example, while pine forests continued to dominate the landscape, oak and other hardwood trees began to occur more freuqnelty.  With a more mixed forest came deer and other game species.

There were other reasons that made the Wakefield area an attractive place for native people to live.  What we now know as marsh lands at the head of the Saugus and Ipswich Rivers were probably large, shallow lakes 8,000 years ago.  Lake Quannapowitt, in other words, is the remnant of a larger lake system.  These lakes served as important spawning grounds for fish such as salmon and shad.  Seasonal fish runs were an important resource and wold have drawn native people to the area.

An additional factor that made the Wakefield area attractive to native people was the presence of fine grained volcanic rock, ideal for tool-making and easily quarried in the nearby Middlesex Fells.  As example is shown in Figure 1.  This bifurcated base implement may hae been used as a hafted knife rather than a projectile point.  It was made and used between 8,000 adn 8,500 years ago.

By 3,000 years ago, environmental conditions had, again, changed.  The climate was warmer than today’s, an there are indications that it may have been drier as well.  Pollen records idnicate a diverse deciduous forest thatcontained oak, hickory, and other nut-bearing species.  It also appears that much of the earlier shallow lake environment had filled in as open water was slowly replaced by red maple swamp and peat bog.  While this may not seem like an attractive setting to us, it was for native people.  Ecological diversity meant that a wide range of plant and animal resouces were available not just for foot, but for all the necessities of life — shelter, clothing, and implements.

There are indications that native people had a more settled, less nomadic style of life during this period.  The resources in the wakefield area certainly could havea supported a year-round population.  However, it is also possible that groups of people continued to move on a seasonal basis, living closer to the coast in hot weather, then moving back to more protected interior locations when the weather was cooler.  With its combination of rocky uplands for shelter and lakes fow ater and ice fishing, Wakefield would have been an ideal place for such cold weather sites.

Like earlier groups, native people 3,000 years ago had their own distinctive tools.  These inclued long, thin projectile points that were probably used to tip javelins or thrusting spears.  A sample of these points, again made from locally available material, is shown in Figure 2.  Also illustrated are two fragments of a stone bowl, one rim section an one with a lug-shaped handle.  Made from soapstone, a relatively soft and workable material, these stone vessels were usd for food preparation and are a characteristic artifact of this time period.

By 1,000 years ago, Wakefield’s environment was substantially the same as that of today.  The native inhabitants were Algonquin speakers and probably part of the loosely affiliated tribal group known as Pawtucket.  Like their predecessors, these people knew their environment very well and were skilled at finding all the resouces they needed.  They hunted deer and other large animals, and fished for many different species on a year-round basis.  While they continued to gather wild food plants, these people also grew crops of their own, especially corn, beans and squash.  There are indications that the land around the foot of Quannapowitt was a traditional native planting field.  In addition to stone and bone tools (See Figure 3), these people also made ceramic pots for both food preparation adn storage.  They also made both stone and ceramic pipes for the ceremonial smoking of tobacco.

It is important not to underestimate the significance of Native American people and their knowledge on the success of European colonial settlement, espeically during its early years.  It was native trails that guided one across the landscape and that became the basis for the network of colonial roads.  It was native crops, corn and beans in particular, that kept the colonists from starving when their own grains proved difficult to grow.  In a new and often strange environment, it was native ways that allowed European settlement to survive and eventually flourish.

Much of our knowledge about Wakefield’s prehistory has come from amateurs, people who collected not only artifacts from the past, but who kept careful records about what they found.  A good example was Dr. Earnest E. Tyzzer, a Wakefield resident who was an avid amateur archaeologist.  During the 1930’s and 1940’s, Tyzzer collected systematically throughout the Wakefield area.  His collection and notes, now housed at the R. S. Peabody Museum, have provided the basis for much of this review.  Tyzzer’s work was especially important because many of the sites he found have since been destroyed.  Without his efforts, our understanding and appreciation of the town’s past wold be much poorer.

While development has destroyed many sites, more remain to be discovered.  If you are fortunate enough to find an artifact, make a note on where you found it, and keep this information with the artifact.  More information on the town’s prehistory is available or wish to have artifacts identified, contact the R. S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology.

James W. Bradley was the Director of the R. S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology, located at Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts.

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