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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 found 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 Dighton [MA] in many places resemble a labyrinth of livestock chutes and compartments. 

    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.

 

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