Author

Erik Reardon

Date of Award

8-2012

Level of Access

Campus-Only Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department

History

Advisor

Richard Judd

Second Committee Member

Liam Riordan

Third Committee Member

Ngo-Vinh Long

Abstract

This project sought to explore the environmental implications of the economic transformation, associated with the Industrial Revolution, in rural Massachusetts during the first half of the nineteenth century. Before the arrival of industrial manufacturing, the Massachusetts countryside operated within a rural economy, with agriculture providing a strong foundation. However, hunting, foraging, and especially fishing, represented essential activities in achieving a comfortable household independence. The Merrimack River, as revealed in the historical record, offered a seemingly inexhaustible supply of migratory fish, arriving every spring soon after the season’s crops had been planted. As the storm clouds of the Industrial Revolution gathered, the farmer-fishermen of the Merrimack River faced the very real possibility that salmon, shad, and alewife populations may be reduced to such a condition as to no longer provide the enormous benefit previous generations had come to rely upon. Far from accepting the demise of their livelihoods, farmer-fishermen found an ally in the Massachusetts General Court, which responded to petitions against destructive fishing practices associated with commercial enterprises, with legislation crafted to emphasize the value of local knowledge of riparian environments. Farmer-Fishermen actively opposed the efforts of commercial fishermen to monopolize a disproportionate share of the catch, but this concern proved to be secondary to the threat posed by wealthy American industrialists. Industrialization of the Merrimack represented a significant threat to this important resource, with multiple efforts to harness the power of the Merrimack’s largest waterfalls met with tremendous opposition from rural Massachusetts communities. Farmers and local mill operators combined to offer a strong defense of New England’s rural economy but could not sustain the level of success achieved in the early nineteenth century, as New England’s countryside experienced dramatic socio-economic changes at the expense of the Merrimack River fishery and a traditional way of life.

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