History of the Settlement of Woodward Forest

Welcome to the Gratitude Walk sponsored by the Norton Land Preservation Society. The LPS is a non-profit organization which has preserved over 1100 acres in Norton and maintains trails on several of its wooded properties. Today’s walk in Woodward Forest is on a trail loop named for Frances Shirley who was a founding member of LPS and long-time professor at Wheaton College. We hope you’ll come back often and explore other trails in Woodward Forest. For maps, use the Maps link or visit our Home Page and select Maps.

Woodward Forest was named for Josiah Woodward (pronounced Wood’ard) and his descendants, who settled in this area in the 18th and 19th centuries and owned much of the land extending from present-day Mike’s Pizza on route 140, as far as the Taunton border. The first Josiah Woodward (that we know of) was born in 1711, the year Norton was incorporated as a town. Josiah III lived in the house located at the corner of present-day Taunton Avenue (Route 140) and Old Taunton Avenue. Descendants, many of them also named Josiah, all lived on Woodward family land, which they farmed for generations to follow. An old map shows that there were 6 Woodward houses on Old Taunton Avenue by 1895. This information comes from Marshall Martin, a founding member of LPS and Norton native.

Another old family was the Willis family. The Woodwards and the Willises intermarried, and you can find them in the cemetery along Old Taunton Avenue. Our walk is on land that was first the Calvin Willis Farm, but eventually went to the Woodwards. This was also the time of the Industrial Revolution. Josiah Woodward III sold a piece of farmland to brothers from Taunton, the Crocker Brothers, who built a copper-iron smelter and rolling mill. They made sheets of copper used to plate ship bottoms. In the 19
th century, disks cut from the copper sheets were sent to the U.S. mint where they were stamped and made into pennies. The copper mill once occupied another LPS property, The L.A. Foster Wildlife Refuge, located on both sides of Taunton Avenue.

In the 1920s, the land on our walk went to Willis and Martha Peabody who had it forested and built a sawmill. We’ll come to a small field that was once much larger where their sawmill was located. You’ll notice that the path is wider in this area. It was once a cart road for hauling lumber, and this practice was continued by the next owner of the land into the 1960s.

Deeper in the woods we’ll come to a vernal pool. Vernal pools are ephemeral bodies of water. They have no inlet and dry up completely when the water table is very low. Vernal pools serve as seasonal breeding grounds for many invertebrate and amphibian species like frogs, toads, and salamanders. They are important natural habitats and vital to maintaining biodiversity.

Other trails in Woodard Forest reveal fascinating remnants from its past, and we hope you’ll take the opportunity to find them. Look for old stone walls that served as fences defining fields. You’ll also find twisted metal fences (a precursor of barbed wire). You’ll walk along the Wading River where Native Americans once fished. And you’ll discover an abundance of ferns, mosses, mushrooms, and bird species that you can hear even if you can’t always see them! Join us for future woods walks and see how the forest changes through the seasons!

What was Norton like when the Pilgrims celebrated Thanksgiving in Plymouth?

Short answer: A swampy forest, and
Longer answer: A swampy forest with a fascinating history!

By the time the Pilgrims were feasting in Plymouth in 1621, what is now Norton had been occupied for more than 12,000 years by ancestors of tribes belonging to the Wampanoag Nation. They fished in Winnecunnet Pond and camped and hunted along its banks. Rivers flowing into the pond and surrounding swamplands took them by canoe northward to Lake Massapoag (in present-day Sharon) and southward to the Taunton River and on to Mount Hope Bay, the mouth of the Taunton River on the Massachusetts and Rhode Island border.  At the time, New England's woods and waters teemed with life such as white-tailed deer, Atlantic cod, passenger pigeons, and lobster.

Two of Norton’s main rivers — the Wading River and the Rumford River — converge in Norton to create the Three Mile River. These rivers flowed through wetlands where a dense forest of cedar trees once provided shelter for humans and animals. Not until decades after the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth did the township of Taunton “buy” the territory that is now Norton from the Native Americans, who probably thought they were only agreeing to share it with the settlers. To the contrary, European colonists from Taunton believed the North Purchase of 1668 entitled them to occupy and develop the forested land with its vital waterways to create pastures and farms, and to cut trees for fuel and construction materials. Originally called “North Taunton,” The Town of Norton was officially established in 1710 and incorporated in 1711.

Woodward Forest, now owned by LPS, the Rumford and Wading Rivers join at a site called “Lockety Neck”. This site was an early battleground in the war known as “King Phillip’s War, which took place between settlers and Wampanoag inhabitants in 1675-1676, some 50 years after the “First Thanksgiving”. One of Norton’s oldest houses abuts Woodward Forest and dates from the time of King Phillip’s War. Behind the fireplace is a tiny secret room where occupants could hide from attackers and escape either up through the chimney or down into the earthen cellar.
Ironically, the Wampanoag elected chief (or sachem), Metacomet, known as King Phillip, was the son of the Wampanoag chief, Massasoit. It was Massasoit who showed up with 90 of his men and contributed five deer to the festival that the Pilgrims were holding in Plymouth. Perhaps wild turkey was also eaten at this feast; however, though wild cranberries (sasumuneash)  would have grown across southeastern Massachusetts and were harvested by the Wampanoag, the cranberry sauce many enjoy today would not have existed as the Pilgrims would not have had sugar to sweeten the berries.
Another LPS property, King Phillip’s Cave, is one place where Metacomet is said to have camped. The cave is made of gigantic glacial rocks leaning on top of each other to create a natural shelter. It is located near Winnecunnet Pond. King Phillip’s War was led by Metacomet in a failed attempt to stop English colonists from encroaching on Wampanoag lands. At the time of the 1621 Plymouth celebration, however, land that would become Norton remained much as it had been cultivated and lived on by the Wampanoag.

Native American Land Use in Southern New England Prior to the Arrival of the First Colonists.

After the retreat of the glacier 12,000 years ago, the climate of New England slowly warmed resulting in the subsequent arrival from the south of plants, animals, and then humans who lived off the land. There were a few tribes that called what is now Massachusetts, home. These included the Pocumtuc, the Nipmuck, the Massachusetts, the Nauset, and the Wampanoags. The town of Norton was Wampanoag territory. Native Americans in southern New England used and changed the land, taking advantage of the abundance it offered. They planted vegetables, hunted, fished, and gathered food.

They were a mobile society that took advantage of the seasonality of our temperate forests. The natives lived in extended-family units, or villages. They kept few possessions, so that mobility was not difficult. In the spring and summer, farming a piece of cleared land, they would grow corn, beans, squash, and tobacco. Often the summer villages would be close to the coast where shellfish, lobster and fish were abundant. Women and children tended to the gardens, while the men fished. When the nutrients of the land had been depleted, usually after about a decade, they would move to another area and let their previous fields go fallow. These abandoned fields were great successional habitats for berries such as strawberry, raspberry, and blueberry to grow.

The natives of this area also practiced controlled burns. Burning the understory allowed easy travel through the woods. It also selected for certain trees that were fire resistant, such as oaks, hickories, and chestnuts. These nut trees provided food for both the natives and animals that they hunted such as turkey, bear, and deer. In the fall and winter, the villages would get together in larger groups in more forested, protected inland valleys. The men would hunt, and the women would prepare the game, smoking the meat. Every part of an animal was used, the fur, bones, meat, and sinew. The women stayed in the village, cooking, making clothes and caring for the children while the men hunted.

By using species of plants and animals when they were most seasonally abundant, native communities did not overuse any given species. Their mobility resulted in a patchwork of ecological habitats, the coast with fish and shellfish, salt marshes with migratory birds, lowland thickets with deer and beaver, upland agricultural fields, and forests. The controlled burns and the mobility of the natives resulted in a diverse, mosaic landscape with an abundance of wildlife to support these villages. Because the native people did not practice animal husbandry or farming on a permanent plot of land, early colonists viewed them as not ‘owning’ the land. To own land, European thinking assumed that you had to ‘improve it’ by establishing permanent settlements, houses, and farms. The native tribes viewed themselves as using the land, but land ownership was not a concept that they understood. The first ‘agreements’ selling land to colonists was most likely a misunderstanding between two very different cultures, with natives thinking that they were agreeing to let colonists use the land along with them. Colonists thought that they now owned the land to use as they thought best, to the exclusion of the native groups. These cultural misunderstandings eventually lead to conflicts, including King Phillip’s War.