Free food! The first Billingsgate settlers joined the other English farmers who found the salt marshes up and down the North Atlantic coast as a certain source of fodder for their livestock. Harvesting salt hay was not new – it had been practiced in Europe and in the British Isles for a long time. As discussed in my previous post, many of the earliest land grants in South Wellfleet were “meadow grants” for the salt marshes around Blackfish Creek, Lieutenant Island and Loagy Bay, and other marshy areas around the bay.
There were no cattle on the Mayflower brought by the English farmers who settled Plymouth in 1620. The first to arrive were three heifers and a bull on the ship Charity in 1624. Plymouth Colony records show a very careful division of cattle, and also groupings of colonists there who were to share the services of the bull. Eastham’s early records show bull (often spelled “boole”) groups also.
When the Plymouth settlers came to Nauset (later Eastham) in 1646, the earliest town records note the individual earmarks given to cattle and horses. Initially, the settlers’ homes were around the Town Cove, and all the open fields were shared. As time went on, fields became individually owned and fenced, and meadow grants were allotted to individuals. The earliest records of land division in South Wellfleet are for these meadow grants, as discussed in my previous blog post.
Salt hay is the marsh grass, spartina patens, the low, delicate grass that makes beautiful cowlicks on the marsh. The other common marsh grass is spartina alterniflora, the upright cordgrass that creates the thatch left on the beaches today. It was used to thatch roofs, and perhaps as insulation around houses in the winter time.
The salt hay was cut by hand, raked into long rows called windrows and then into larger bundles called haycocks. The settlers probably used cedar from the South Wellfleet cedar swamp that we can stroll through today to build what they called staddles. These were platforms on the marsh that the hay was stacked on, built high enough to avoid the tide flooding the structure and floating the hay away.
All of this information is assumed, since I have not found records that confirm that the South Wellfleet men were handling their hay in this manner. Nevertheless, it is the method other colonists used, as historians have well documented. We do know that the Cedar Swamp near the current Marconi site supplied the right kind of wood for the salt works of the early 19th century, wood that could stand-up to salt water without deteriorating.
Once stacked, the hay might have been weighted down. It was cut in summer when the
neap tides created the least amount of water coming into the marshes. Cutting hay took more than one person, so the settlers helped each other. It was hard work, not helped by sinking to one’s knees in the mud from time to time, or being bitten by mosquitos and green head flies. Later in the year, after the marshes were frozen, the farmers returned to their staddles to collect the hay and store it in their barn for the winter.
Another method for harvesting was to pile the hay in a flat-bottom boat known as a “hay scow” and float it back to dry land and into one’s barn. The
National Park has a “hay barge” from the 1850s on display at the Salt Pond Visitor Center.
Haying has often been depicted by artists — and even more humble salt-hay making written about by James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) in his poem “Charles River Marshes”:
In Summer ‘tis a blithesome sight to see,
As, step by step, with measured swing, they pass,
The wide-ranked mowers wading to the knee,
Their sharp scythes panting through the thick-set grass.
Later, after some experimentation, the farmers discovered how to grow some of the grasses they had in England, and the cattle had this more nutritious source. However, the English grasses never replaced salt hay completely. Salt hay remained a local commodity well into the 19th century. I’ve read deeds for land around Lieutenant’s Island that transfer meadow land to a new owner, but keep the rights to access other portions, so haying could be done. In the 19th century, some harvesting may have been done with a tool called a drag, raked by a horse wearing special shoes to prevent it from sinking.
Milk from the cows fed salt hay was salty. One writer about this harvesting process told of a young man returning to his farm after being away, asking his father to feed the cows a good mix of salt hay before he returned so he could enjoy a taste of home he’d missed.
James Deetz, Patricia Scott Deetz, The Times of Their Live: Love, Life and Death in Plymouth Colony, New York: Anchor Books 2000.
Jeremy Dupertus Bangs, editor, The Town Records of Eastham During the Time of Plymouth Colony 1620- 1692, (Publication of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum,2012)
Teal, John and Mildred Life and Death of the Salt Marsh, New York: Audubon/Ballentine Books, 1969