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History of the Land

History of the Land, by Jeannie Bartlett, District Manager Franklin County NRCD

The land governed by the District today was built and carved over the course of millennia. Mountains much taller than the Greens we see today were thrust up by colliding continents and are now slowly eroding. The most severe erosion over the landscape was caused by the ice sheets, which covered all of Vermont and down to Cape Cod with ice over a mile thick.

As the southern edge of the last ice sheet melted, a lake formed in its wake, much larger than today’s Lake Champlain. Lake Vermont, as it is called, was at times more than seven hundred feet deeper than Lake Champlain. Sediments that settled on the bottom of Lake Vermont created the rich agricultural soils that farmers in the Franklin District enjoy today, as well as sand and gravel deposits. About 12,500 years ago, the ice sheet finally retreated from what is now Franklin County and from the northern edge of Lake Vermont. The ice had acted as a dam holding in the lake, and without it the water suddenly drained into the St. Lawrence Seaway. Ocean water also came rushing back in through the St. Lawrence, creating the Sea of Champlain. This sea existed for 2,500 years and covered all of the more low-lying, plains-like areas in the western portion of the Franklin District. The Champlain Sea was home to a wide diversity of marine life; in fact a full whale skeleton was found in Charlotte in 1848.

As the ice melted, plants, animals, and people moved in behind it. Lichens and grasses were the first plants to colonize behind the glaciers, forming an alpine tundra. Insects, rodents, and large mammals such as wooly mammoths moved in to graze the tundra. Humans followed from the ice-free regions to the south and west. Academics refer to these first people to the region as the Paleoindians. They hunted with spears in the grasslands and in the Champlain Sea, and they moved frequently to follow available food sources. Their population was sparse: around 25 people per 100 square miles, which would put their population in the Franklin District at 175 people.

Even such a sparse human population, however, was likely capable of causing a mass extinction. Around 10,000 years ago the mammoths and about forty other species of large mammals went extinct in North America. One possible explanation is that is that the mammals died because of the change in climate after the last glaciation. The other explanation is that early humans hunted them to extinction.

Because the climate had now warmed further, forests began to replace the tundra. Black spruce and paper birch began to dot the landscape, gradually replaced by a tighter forest of red spruce and balsam fir. Then even these were pushed to only the higher elevations while hemlock, white pine, and deciduous trees took over the lowlands.

As continents are ever shifting, ours was slowly rebounding from the weight of the ice sheets, expanding up in elevation. The land base gradually tipped all the contents of the Sea of Champlain into the St. Lawrence, draining all of its saltwater. The basin was now fed by a number of rivers originating from the south, east, and west, among them Franklin County’s own Lamoille and Missisquoi Rivers. 10,000 years ago Lake Champlain, its drainage basin, and truly all of New England finally had the general topography that we recognize today.

The transitions from grassland to forest and from the Sea of Champlain into the freshwater Lake Champlain had massive impacts on the people living here. The population grew substantially as forests produced butternuts, chestnuts, berries, elk and other game, and the lake provided abundant fish. People gathered in larger settlements on the shores of Lake Champlain, and migrated seasonally to hunting grounds in the forests and mountains. The largest settlements in the Champlain Valley were at the mouths of Otter Creek and the Winooski, Lamoille and Missisquoi Rivers.

The natural resources of the northern Lake Champlain basin provided well for the people living there, who eventually became known as the Abenaki. Whereas native peoples in southern New England managed forests intensively, burning the understory to create better foraging and hunting, residents in the Lake Champlain basin altered the forests little. People farther south and in the Connecticut River Valley also developed agriculture earlier, around 900 years ago, and their larger populations relied on it heavily. Even after Lake Champlain’s people began using agriculture, which they didn’t until 1600, they continued to rely primarily on hunting and gathering. There are a couple of possible explanations for why Lake Champlain’s people affected less change on their landscape than their neighbors to the east and south. One is that the long distance between lakeshore settlements and upland hunting grounds forced them to remain more mobile; they were never in the same place long enough in a season to tend crops. Another explanation is that hunting and gathering provided the resources they needed because they had more land area per person compared to people in the Connecticut River or farther south. They may have chosen not to use agriculture because it is more work.

The Abenaki first encountered Europeans in the form of the French, arriving from the north. The primary interaction at first was to set up trade: French wanted furs the Abenaki were so adept at trapping and preparing, and the Abenaki realized they wanted copper and glass vessels, muskets, and gunpowder from the French. This trade relationship dramatically changed the way Abenaki related to the landscape and each other. Rather than harvesting all they could eat and use from the land, but nothing more, the Abenaki now had a near infinite demand for furs. Access to hunting and trapping grounds became more competitive, and beavers were trapped to local extinction. As Klyza and Trombulak write, “The Vermont landscape became a set of natural resources for a population much larger than those 150,000 people in the state…Beaver populations were now subject to the whims of fashion in Europe” (50). This was the very first in an ongoing string of developments connecting Franklin County’s natural resources to global markets beyond the control of local land-users.

The information for this essay is derived mostly from the excellent book, The Story of Vermont, by Christopher McGrory Klyza and Stephen C. Trombulak. Check back for future posts about the next chapters in our local story.

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