John Sinton © November 2014
“Rivers aren’t constrained by human desires and stories; they sing the beauty of their own randomness and drift.” — Jeremy Denk
The Importance of the Meadows
Of all the lands available to the English – forest, scattered woodland, arable field, and wet meadow – meadow was the most highly prized because it raised the most valuable commodity, namely cattle and sheep.[i] A fair sight, indeed, must have been the Manhan Meadows hard by the early dwellings and near the banks of the Mill River.
Imagine Nonotuck to the eyes of William Pynchon, founder of Springfield in 1640, and the most important merchant in the Middle Connecticut Valley since his arrival in 1636. He most probably visited Nonotuck during the 15 years he lived in the Valley, and what he saw here, as at Springfield, were wet meadows.
Pynchon was born in 1590 in Springfield, Essex, England, northeast of London in a region noted for its meadowland. As the British geographer H.C. Darby explains: “Meadowland had always formed an important element in the economy of the countryside, and an acre of meadow was usually much more valuable than an acre of arable [tillable land]. That riverside meadows received much benefit from the overflowing of their streams was generally recognized, but in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries an innovation in the management of meadows greatly increased the benefits of such inundation. This was the artificial flooding of meadows at appropriate times by irrigation channels so as to stimulate the growth of grass. The resulting crop of hay supported a large number of sheep, and these in turn provided substantial amounts of manure.”[ii] An English historian noted that “Essex had their share of marshes along the banks of rivers, producing fine meadows for cattle fattening. Essex had corn-growing [grain-growing] common fields on the western edge of the county…a pastoral region of enclosures for stock rearing in the middle of the county, and rich marshlands for fattening cattle and sheep and for dairying along the Thames-side.”[iii]
Pynchon and his countryman knew what they were looking for, and they surely found it in Nonotuck. William Pynchon, by the way, is an intriguing figure himself. He was one of the original settlers of Roxbury, now part of Boston, in 1630, but purchased land in Springfield shortly thereafter in 1636, and created an extraordinarily productive commercial network in the Valley. He got himself in terrible trouble with a book he wrote in 1650, entitled The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption, a critique of the brand of Congregationalism practiced in Boston. His was America’s first banned book. It was burned on Boston Common, and Pynchon returned to England in 1652, remaining there until his death in 1662, having transferred all his MA property to his son John. His daughter Mary married Elizur Holyoke, after whom the city of Holyoke is named.
The English were not only moving into a region subject to flooding, but had the ill luck of immigrating at the coldest period of what has been called the “Little Ice Age,” when temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere dropped quite dramatically, reaching their lowest point in the second half of the 17th century. This was not a true ice age, but temperatures were significantly lower than in the Middle Ages and began rising again only in the 19th century. So it was cold, and there were floods.
There are few mentions of flooding on the Mill River in early town records, but we have evidence of a great spring flood in Connecticut in 1638 and again in 1642. In 1667 a flood carried off one of Northampton’s early grist mills near the old South Street Bridge, and a Proclamation for a Fast Day was declared in Massachusetts after a 1680 flood. Such days of public fasting and prayer were often proclaimed by royal governors to repent for calamities, such as plagues, floods, crop failures and other disasters.
The historian Trumbull noted that a great flood occurred in February 1691, “the highest experienced in this section of the valley previous to 1801. Medad Pomeroy’s account of it represents the rain as falling for five days almost continuously, during which time the ‘sun was not seen,’ and ‘the water rose to such a height as was scarce known in the country before.’ Much damage was done throughout this entire region. In “Northampton several horses were drowned and two corn mills and one saw mill much damnified.” [iv]
The First Diversion
We now have our baseline information on the bed of the Mill River and the first few years of Northampton’s evolution. Keep this in mind because the new settlers were about to begin their several attempts to engineer the river to their own liking. Also remember the immutable purpose of the river has always been to transport and deposit water and sediment, come high water or low. A seasonally roving people, such as the Nonotuck, lived with that understanding – when the river carries a lot of water and material, get out of the way, and when it runs quietly, then settle by its banks. The ephemeral nature of Native American settlements fit quite well into the natural patterns of the river. It was only when the new settlers created more permanent structures that trouble began, and we will tell the story of how, year after year, mills, houses, and barns were destroyed by flood and personal property suddenly and violently disappeared.
After laying out the town, the proprietors quickly discovered that the Mill River inconveniently overflowed its banks almost annually into what was then called the Great Swamp at the lower end of Pleasant Street, leading into the Manhan meadows, the town’s prized grazing and mowing lands. As was its habit, Mill River claimed land adjacent to its channel where it could deposit the sediments and other materials it carried during periods of high flow. The lands closest to the town center were the lower parts of Maple and Fruit streets, which were adjacent to the Manhan Meadows.
As we have seen, a major reason for settling in Northampton was the presence of valuable meadowland, and the English were long accustomed to working with similar landscapes. But New England was not England, and the damnably fickle weather did not allow for easy management of the meadows. Whereas in England, the temperate, rather equable, damp climate accommodated the easy grazing of livestock, New England springs, with their annual freshets, became impossible to manage. The term “freshet” seems a placid phrase for an annual river flood, but it is often fierce in the Connecticut Valley, and, as we shall see, freshets confounded the best attempts to control the water and sediments that the Mill River transported from the Hilltowns down into the meadows.
Having chosen what they thought the most amenable site for Northampton, the settlers quickly found they could not manage the annual Mill River floods, which disrupted their spring schedule of grazing and mowing. Year after year, they tried to prevent the Mill from occupying its flood plain. Thus, in 1699, forty-five years after settlement, the town of Northampton voted to “stop the mouths of the gutters that carry the water out of the Mill river into the great swamp [Manhan Meadows].” They chose Joseph Hawley, John Clark, and Thomas Shelden to oversee the work of building dikes, employing “all persons [who] shall work 8 hours in a day and those which come with teams shall work six hours.”[v] Apparently the job was well done, but did no good. The river broke down the dikes and flooded the meadows as before. The townspeople had taken extraordinary time and trouble to build a dike along the southern edge of Fort Hill, where the Mill ran, but to no avail. The river’s purpose, to carry its water and sediment, clearly conflicted with the settlers’ need to prevent the sediment from flowing into the Meadows during planting, mowing, and stock-raising season.
The settlers, relying on methods well known in England, decided to divert the river. In 1710, proprietors who owned meadowlands, which included a majority of the town’s families, appealed to the town for funds to dig a new channel for the Mill directly into the Connecticut River. The record shows that the town took “into consideration a motion made concerning turning Mill river through the common field, in which motion was set forth the great inconvenience and damage done both to the publick and private by reason of the river’s overflowing and so wronging men’s land. The town rejected the motion…”but voted liberty for those that had their land damnified to turn the river through the common field…provided the proprietors of the damnified land will be at the whole charge of it.” So it was, that over the next 10 years, the landowners themselves paid to re-direct the Mill River away from the base of Fort Hill and down into the Connecticut River directly into the Connecticut River just upstream of what is now the Oxbow. (Proprietors’ map of 1794) There it remained for the next 220 years.
We are left wondering why the settlers built houses in the first place on Fruit and Maple (Conz) Streets, which flooded almost every spring. Indeed, it was only in the late 1880s that the marshlands at the foot of Fruit and Maple streets were finally drained.[vi] We wish we had a good answer, but it is hard to put oneself inside the heads of 17th-century colonists. Surely the southerly orientation of the settlers plays into this, for they were linked first and foremost to their relatives and co-religionists to the south. North of the neighboring town of Hatfield and west into the Berkshires was Native American territory, and east was Hadley, a purely agricultural community, assuredly with strong connections to Northampton, but without commercial appeal. So to them, the natural space for expansion was along South Street near the town center and as close as possible to the best meadowland. Still, it seems to us in hindsight, a strange decision, given their early experience with Mill River floods.
While there are only sparse descriptions of 17th-century floods, it becomes clear in the 18th and 19th centuries, that Northampton residents, especially in the Fruit and Conz neighborhood, were frequently uprooted when their houses and barns went underwater. Northampton’s people assuredly had a greater willingness to acknowledge, accept, or perhaps, better understand their outlook through their flood narratives. For the moment, however, we will need to look more closely at the new relationship between Mill River and its permanent inhabitants.
[i] Good information on 17th-century livestock can be found on the web at the website of the Plymouth Colony (The Plymouth Archaeological Rediscovery Project): http://plymoutharch.tripod.com/id133.htmlhttp://plymoutharch.tripod.com/id133.html
[ii] Darby, H.C., ed. 1976. A New Historical Geography of England after 1600. Cambridge: Univ. of Cambridge. Article by Darby “The Age of the Improver: 1600-1800.
[iii] The Agrarian History of England and Wales. 1967. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. p. 49
[iv] Trumbull, vol. 1, 452; Judd, I, 455 and Misc. 9, 288.
[v] The following description was taken from Trumbull, James R., “Topographical Changes” Hampshire Gazette 3/22/1881 and a reprise of the article in the Daily Hampshire Gazette 6/3/1904.
[vi] Hampshire Gazette 9/20/1887