Part 7A 1780-1850: Introduction

John Sinton © January 2015

Rivers aren’t constrained by human desires and stories; they sing the beauty of their own randomness and drift.”  — Jeremy Denk

This next historical period marked a turbulent time for the Mill River, complete with rapid industrial and population growth, dam building from Florence to Williamsburg, and floods powerful enough to change the course of the great river, itself. We begin at the end of the American Revolution, which coincided with the Industrial Revolution. The impacts were enormous:

  • In the 1760s, after the end of the French and Indian Wars with the signing in 1763 of Treaty of Paris, northern New England was opened up for settlement, allowing the young people of the Pioneer Valley access to landed property upriver.
  • Markets in Europe were open to American agricultural products, although in 1780 the Pioneer Valley had lost its most important early export when wheat succumbed to rust, blast, and Hessian fly.[i] By the 1760s, however, a new potash industry was well underway, an activity that has gone largely unrecorded and quite forgotten.[ii]
  • The new potash industry, however, introduced the first major forest clearcutting in the watershed because it was a slash and burn operation, after which the ashes (potash) were either processed on site or exported to make lye for soap, for textile bleaching, and the production of glass. While it seemed like a godsend to local farmers, who realized five times the value of their investment in land plus open land for gardens, pastures, and crops, it led to severe soil erosion and stream runoff, so that rivers, swollen with mud, silt, and rocks, flooded more frequently. Clearcutting only increased in the 19th century with greater demand for fuel and construction wood as well as for gasified coal and crossties for the new mid-century railroads. Furthermore, those areas cleared for potash were used in later decades for crops and sheep grazing, especially during the Merino craze from 1812-1840.[iii]
  • Flood frequency increased significantly at mid-century. Sylvester Judd provided a telling note on one of the causes, although the causal relationship between deforestation and flooding probably escaped him. “The millyards,” he wrote in 1847, “are full… The large trees are all disappearing. Much of the timber is used here, and much is sold to other places.[iv]
  • British sanctions against finished goods were lifted after the Revolution, so that real manufacturing could begin.       This, along with technological and transportation innovation, marked a major shift in Mill River industries from the Upper Mills in Northampton upstream to Florence, Leeds, and Williamsburg.
  • 1780 marks the first time when the annual rate of industrial growth doubled in England, and the United States was not far behind. Agricultural, transportation, and industrial technology advanced so rapidly, that the period was called the Industrial Revolution.[v]
  • Population more than doubled in Northampton from 1,790 in 1776 to 3,750 in 1840 and in Williamsburg from 534 in 1776 to 1,309 in 1840. This meant that there were non-land-holding laborers available for industrial work.
  • During the 1820s, the economic importance of Northampton, once the Connecticut River Valley’s preeminent town, receded, and, by 1850, Northampton had become simply one spoke of the technological and economic wheel, whose hub was Springfield. In 1790, Northampton’s population density was twice that of Springfield’s; in 1820 Northampton was still more densely populated, but by 1840, Springfield had almost twice the density of Northampton.[vi]
  • 18th century social class structure broke down as the Valley became more religiously, culturally, and ethnically diverse, more dependent on industrial goods, and more democratic in its governance. A strong abolitionist movement was centered in Florence, with its utopian socialist community, the Northampton Association for Education and Industry, which ran factories on the Mill River. New local leaders and political parties successfully challenged the old guard as Northampton shifted away from its agricultural origins.[vii]


[i] Clark, Christopher. 1990. The Roots of Rural Capitalism: Western Massachusetts, 1780-1860. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. p. 41

[ii] An excellent recent analysis of changing agricultural practices and landscapes can be found in: Donahue, Brian. 1907. “Another Look from Sanderson’s Farm: A Perspective on New England Environmental History and Conservation,” Environmental History, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Jan. 2007), pp. 9-34.

[iii] Black, Ralmon J. 2008. Colonial Asheries: Williamsburgh’s First Industry. Williamsburg, MA: Williamsburgh Historical Society. After depleting the hardwood forest in western Massachusetts, potash production then wrought havoc in Vermont, New York and into Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan. Finally, 1860 agronomists discovered that potassium carbonate is an essential plant nutrient, and global demands could be satisfied by the evaporate mines in Salzkriesland, Germany.

[iv] Judd, Northampton vol. 4, 4/23/1847 Judd continued, “The greater part of the timer is White Pine; a good deal of chestnut and yellow pine. The chestnut is for shingles, much of it. …I noticed several white pine logs 3 feet in diameter, and about 3½ feet [as well]… This large log had between 150 and 160 concentric rings.”

[v] Darby, p. 53 The Industrial Revolution began in the last quarter of the 18th century.   Darby points out that improvements in spinning and weaving, for example, which began with John Kay’s 1733 flying shuttle, were not sufficiently refined until Edmund Cartwright’s powered weaving loom in 1785 and not in general use until after 1800.

[vi] Numbers come from the US Census, and my estimates of population density take into account the creation of new towns from the lands of both Springfield and Northampton.

[vii] Laurie, Bruce. 2015. Rebels in Paradise: Sketches of Northampton Abolitionists. Amherst, MA, University of Massachusetts Press.

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