Thursday, August 18, 2011

New England Cross & Rail Fence

The natives are very exact and punctual in the bounds of their lands, belonging to this or that prince or people, even to a river, brook, &c.” - Roger Williams, in his Key (CHAP. XVI. Of the Earth and the Fruits thereof).
       Williams defended Indian Land Rights in a further exchange with Puritan leaders by saying, “they hunted all the Countrey over, and for the expedition of their hunting voyages they burnt up all the underwoods in the Countrey, once or twice a year, and therefore as Noble men in England possessed great Parks, and the King, great Forrests in England onely for their game, and no man might lawfully invade their Propriety: So might the Natives challenge the like Propriety of the Countrey here.”
The Puritans replied: “We did not conceive that it is a just Title to so vast a Continent, to make no other improvement of millions of Acres in it, but onely to burne it up for pastime,” as if survival was a kind of recreation.
If Williams did see stone rows as the “bounds” of hunting grounds, or the resource zones of all the “fruits” he lists in his “Key,” as the firebreaks used by Indians as they safely and selectively burned their cultural landscape, he never wrote it down. At about the same time Fence Laws suddenly sprung up – as did those early wooden fences, so easily and quickly built, in fashion said to have possibly originated with Native American Snake Fences, their hunting fences and in one case around their cornfields, as Claude C. Coffin wrote in a 1947 CT Archeological Society Bulletin article about wooden and stone fish weirs along the Housatonic River.
Page 30 of "Our Vanishing Landscape"
A chicken/egg situation: what really came first, the stones or the wood?

What could have been easier that to add the rails over Indian fire breaks and claim the “voyd places of the Countrey by the Law of Nature, (for Vacuum Domicilium cedit occupanti:),” and claim the land for your very own? The same goes for some "linear' stone "walls," that were turned into "proper" fences by adding the "cross and rails" pictured above in an illustration by Eric Sloane in Our Vanishing Landscape (page 30 - 1955)...

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