Approaching Concord’s wildness from the south or west is best done paddling on the rivers. The Algonquin indigenous people called this ancient river system Musketaquid. It is a land defined by its sandy esker ridges, left from the melting of the last ice age, and its plentiful waters. My house is a half mile from egg rock, on a street that ends at the Assabet river. I often paddle my kayak as a form of transcendental meditation there. Once I’m on the river, with only bird sounds to distract me, my heart rate slows, and I paddle gently with the current.
As we circumnavigate rocky shoals and fallen limbs, the edge of Barrett’s Mill Farm, the final destination of the British troops on April 19, 1775 appears on the river’s northern shore. I am already drifting between Concord’s two revolutions, the eighteenth century civic fight for freedom and the nineteenth century transcendentalist reimagining of the role of reason and our senses in spirituality. This tranquil final mile of the Assabet River is mentioned often in Thoreau’s journals, as if he was paddling off into paradise, free of mundane toil and strife.
Nathaniel Hawthorne loved this section of the Assabet River. He wrote, “A more lovely stream than this, for a mile above its junction with the Concord, has never flowed on earth, — nowhere, indeed, except to the interior regions of a poet’s imagination.” This is why this area is still home, or at least a pilgrim’s destination, for many transcendentalists today. On the far side of Barrett’s Mill Farm the Spencer brook empties into the Assabet from Anglers’ Pond providing a widening of the river to create a swimming hole. As a twenty first century transcendentalist this is my primary spiritual playground and meditation practice.
Coming up on the southwestern shore we pass what had been the site of the leaning hemlocks, a favorite nineteenth century walking and picnicking site along the river, much celebrated in the writings of the transcendentalist authors. Hawthorne wistfully wrote: “At one spot there is a lofty bank, on the slope of which grow some hemlocks, declining across the stream with outstretched arms, as if resolute to take the plunge. In other places the banks are almost on a level with the water; so that the quiet congregation of trees set their feet in the flood and are fringed with foliage down to the surface.” This is a transcendentalist deeply experiencing life beyond his mere senses.
The river turns east again through marshland and swamp, past the farm of the fur trapper Simon Willard, as Nashawtuc Hill rises above us. Nashawtuc, which in Algonquin means hill between rivers, is a glacial drumlin rising 250 feet above the Sudbury and Assabet rivers at their confluence to form the Concord. Many indigenous people lived summers along the Atlantic coast, where they began interacting with European fishermen and explorers early in the sixteenth century, and they would travel back up the Merrimack and Concord rivers to spend the rest of the year within easy walking distance of Nashawtuc Hill.
Members of indigenous tribes in this area in the fifteenth century numbered in the tens of thousands. However, after European contact, a plague broke out among the indigenous people, decimating their numbers, and over the following years outbreaks of small-pox continued to kill off even those who had survived the earlier plagues or death in various outbreaks of war with white settlers. By the 1630’s European warfare, plagues and diseases had reduced their numbers over ninety percent to just a few hundreds of indigenous people.
William Wood was an English explorer, adventurer, and propagandist, who in 1632 published a pamphlet in London encouraging white Anglo-Saxon Protestant emigration to this new land of Massachusetts, and he included a map showing the confluence of these three rivers which he, like the indigenous people, called the Musketaquid watershed.
He described empty meadows and fields for the taking standing ready to be easily cultivated. Simon Willard was an English beaver fur trapper who in the 1630’s was living here among the indigenous people. In 1635 he co-led with Rev. Peter Bulkeley a group of English colonists to become founders of Concord. While the other colonists initially settled on the east side of the Sudbury and Concord rivers, he chose to make his home on the west side of Nashawtuc Hill, near the 17th century primary village site of the few remaining indigenous peoples.
Many Concordians befriended the indigenous people. But by the end of the 17th century the last fifty-eight survivors were rounded up by colonial soldiers, imprisoned in Boston Harbor, and those who did not die were sold into slavery. This is perhaps Concord’s original sin. We often tell the story differently, but White Anglo-Saxon colonists coming to this land led to the indigenous peoples’ deaths and destruction.