Stone Wall Complexes
Native stone wall complexes of stone walls are found
scattered throughout the Northeast. These
generally incorporate other styles of Native stonework, including
chambers, wells, cairns, foundations and standing stones.
Agricultural wall complexes of post-contact vintage also are
in the same region, sometimes incorporating similar stone
constructions. Complicating the problem in differentiating
between the two, Colonial farmers frequently recycled and
adapted Native stonewall complexes for their own purposes.
In attempting to diagnose whether you are dealing with a Native
or an agricultural wall complex (or perhaps both) it is useful
to understand the distinguishing characteristics of each:
Agricultural wall complexes are
normally configured in a checkerboard pattern of squares and/or
rectangles. These field enclosures served to either
confine livestock or to keep them out of producing fields.
Parallel walls normally line the path the animals were herded
along when traveling from the fields back to the barn.
Fields which were used for crops are enclosed in walls built
from the stones picked out of the fields. If fist-sized
stones are not present, this may indicate either livestock
enclosures or Native walls.
Those interested in a more thorough examination of this subject
would do well to read Christopher Lenny's Sightseeking:
Clues to the Landscape History of New England; 2003.
This is the best treatment to date of the continuing effort to
understand the Northeastern stone record. He has condensed
much of the existing research on wall networks in New England.
As Lenney notes:
. . . a farm [is] a vast open-air industrial site, one that
processed crops and livestock, and that left its ground plan
traced in fields and stone walls. Stone-walled fields,
much as clay pots, can be creatively analyzed in terms of their
materials, contents, form and function. While this scheme
might seem overelaborate, its virtue is that it compels
thoughtful scrutiny of an artifact too often taken for granted.
As a general rule, the earliest agricultural wall complexes
range in size from 1-acre on up to around 10-acre fields, with
small fields reducing the distance stones had to be carried to
place into the surrounding walls. The smallest fields
(usually 18th Century) are generally the oldest and
are found closest to town centers where the first settlers
farmed. During the middle of
the second half of the 19th Century, small fields
fell from fashion as a realization that it was more efficient to
plow much larger fields gained acceptance. During the
second half of the 20th Century, as mechanized
equipment became widely available, many farmers dismantled the
walls enclosing small fields. With the advent of barbed
wire in the late 19th Century, few walls were constructed after around 1900. Lenney
describes typical features of farm wall networks:
A common early nineteenth-century farm
layout . . . consisted of a house and barn, with a walled
cowlane that led from the rear of the barn between walled
tillage fields to the back pastures. . . . Those fields
closest to the house and barn one expects to be smaller, more
carefully planned and improved, with more walls and gates, and
specialized in purpose. Typical of these were kitchen
garden, orchard, cowyard, paddock or livestock pen, barnyard,
tillage field and pasture. Colonial orchards were
stone-walled to protect the apple (or peach) trees from browsing
livestock and often planted on rocky ground unsuitable for
crops. Mapped examples in Concord, Lincoln and
[MA] in many places resemble a labyrinth of livestock chutes
Many offshoots of field walls that on the
ground appear to run nowhere and enclose nothing when viewed in
conjunction with farm lanes, can be seen as baffles to funnel
stock into the adjacent field. . . . Some walls resemble
guard rails to keep cattle from gulleys or swamps. The
present network lacks gates, barways and all wooden elements
(surely considerable, as half of Massachusetts fences in 1871
were of wood), further complicating interpretation.
Tillage and pasture fields are
distinguished by "double" versus "single" walls. Double
walls consisted of two parallel stone faces infilled with the
annual crops of plowed, picked or frost-heaved stones.
Wider walls may indicate intense cultivation; smaller stones
suggest root crops or potatoes. . . . Single-walled
pastures were likely remoter, rockier or hillier, and might
comprise ten or twenty acres rectangularly laid out on compass
lines or lengthwise upslope. . . . Boundary walls without
original agricultural justification might become embedded in the
field-wall pattern. Boundary walls are typically straight
and continuous, . . . field walls skirt wet ground and do not
extend beyond the borders of the field. Until the
mid-nineteenth century, town roads were often fenced with stone
walls except through woods and swamps.
In much of New England, wall-building
flourished in the golden age of sheep-raising, which unlike
cattle-raising, "required small fenced fields, so that the sheep
may have frequent changes of pasture. With general
stock-raising, the fields may be few and large." The dairy
farms which succeeded the sheep farms, while heirs to miles of
stone walls, also benefited greatly from barbed wire introduced
in the 1870s.
wall complexes . . .