This is a new file opened August 4, 2014, for the winter 2014-2015 issue article of Kaatskill Life.
NOT GOING NUTS IN THE WEST BRANCH DELAWARE VALLEY by Michael Kudish
In the summer 2012 issue of Kaatskill Life (pages 52 through 63), I wrote an essay entitled “Going Nuts from Growing Nuts in the East Branch Delaware Valley”. In it, I proposed that Native American peoples might have planted nut orchards and created the southern nut tree (oaks-hickories-American chestnut) groves that we see remnants of today. Determining the origin of these groves was so difficult for a forest historian that he/she could “go nuts” from attempting to solve it, hence the essay title.
Not so with the West Branch Delaware Valley. It differs markedly from the East Branch. Groves of southern nut trees and their associates are far less common in the West Branch and there are fewer species.
A number of areas open and semi-open to the public has made mapping the distribution of southern nut trees easier along the West Branch. Examples are preserves, field stations, and educational centers such as The Nature Conservancy’s West Branch Preserve, State University of New York (SUNY) at Delhi’s Biological Field Station, Lennox Forest, Camp Shankitunk, and the new Natural History Preserve in Stamford (see Erwin Karl’s Fall 2010 Kaatskill Life, pages 2, and 36-42 about this new preserve). Also are the rail-trails: the Catskill Scenic Rail-Trail from above Stamford to Bloomville, and the New York, Ontario & Western (O&W) Delhi Branch rail-trail downstream from Hawley’s. Thirdly are the lesser-used roads through remnant forests between fields and pastures, e.g. Front Federal Hill Road and Falls Mills Road.
To date, I have not found any hickories, chestnut oak, and sweet fern in the West Branch valley as I have in the East Branch. I have not yet found American chestnut either, although a reliable source does report groves of sprouts from Bear Spring Mountain near Walton, some near Delancey, and some farthest upstream near Delhi.
White oak is present in the West Branch Preserve below Hawley’s, and I have found some leaves on the ground along the old O&W railroad grade between Peake’s Brook and Delhi. Also below Hawley’s I spotted one clump of mountain laurel. Black birch, not a southern nut tree but a common associate of them, has migrated up the valley as far as Camp Shankitunk and Lennox Forest, but not quite as far as the SUNY Delhi field station along the Little Delaware River.
Northern red oak, the most widespread southern nut tree in the Catskills, is present all the way to the headwaters near Stamford. It occurs on the new Natural History Preserve between Churchill and Utsayantha Mountains. Chestnut oak (not to be confused with American chestnut) has been reported by another reliable source to occur in as many as six groves along the north side of the Cannonsville Reservoir below Walton, but I have not yet had the chance to find, study, and map them.
Sycamore is a southern species absent in the interior high-elevation portions of the Catskills. It is not a nut tree. However, it deserves mention here because it has migrated up the West Branch flood plain only as far as the Little Delaware River.
The forest historian’s interpretation
How does the forest historian interpret the distributions of these species? The great bulk of the Catskills forest is northern hardwoods (mainly sugar maple and beech) and hemlock. In order for the southern nut trees to colonize areas originally dominated by northern hardwoods and hemlock, the latter forest must be removed first by any of several methods including burning. The reason is that sugar maple, beech and hemlock are more shade-tolerant and can outcompete the oaks, hickories, and chestnut. If the nut trees were brought in from the south - from what is now New Jersey and Pennsylvania – by Native American peoples, and then planted and propagated both deliberately and accidentally by repeated burning, such activity in the West Branch Valley was minimal. Minimal burning also suggests that crop cultivation on the West Branch flood plain for maize, beans, and squash may also have been less intense and widespread than in the East Branch. Those fires set to the agricultural fields and flood plain forests must have frequently gone out of control and swept locally up the adjacent hillsides – especially the drier and warmer south- and southwest-facing slopes - keeping them semi-open and conducive to southern nut tree regeneration. The best I can do at present to date these fires - from publications by archeologists, anthropologists, and historians - is that they began perhaps roughly 1500 years ago and ended in the latter half of the eighteenth century.
In further reading through my modest library of books and papers on Native Americans, I find only one reference so far of dated Native American activity in the West Branch – at Hamden. It dates to 3500 years before the present, most likely well before the advent of agriculture and burning. I’m sure that there were many more sites of Native American activity, but nothing like the sheer number of settlements, villages, campgrounds, and orchards reported in the East Branch. Many Kaatskill Life readers I am sure will locate additional dated sites of Native American activity in the West Branch and will report them to this writer.
Maintaining open fields, fencerows, and roadsides by European settler-farmers has permitted the southern nut trees to reproduce and persist to the present. Had there not been European agriculture, there would hardly be a trace of these trees after two-and-one-half centuries. Beech, sugar maple, and hemlock would have returned. Only certain ground cover species might give us clues to the former existence of southern nut trees, but this is a story for another Kaatskill Life article.
More about the East Branch
Comparing the West and East Branches of the Delaware has provoked, since “Going Nuts ---“ was written in 2012, my imagination into what the East Branch had been like: a bustling travel and trade corridor with numerous sites of intense Native American activity.
Linking specific nut tree groves with specific settlements
Since early 2014, I have been able to link specific southern nut tree groves in the East Branch Delaware Valley (see map on page 57 of summer 2012 Kaatskill Life - especially the purple dots) with burns in and out of control from specific sites of intense Native American activity. A report of such links is now being prepared for the fall 2014 issue of the CFA News (Catskill Forest Association). I now see another travel and trade corridor connecting the Ashokan Basin with the East Branch Delaware Valley via Esopus and Birch Creeks, over the low divide at what is now Highmount, and down the Bushkill to Arkville. The presence of oaks, hickories, chestnuts, and black birch in this corridor suggests also a Native American presence, later used as a travel route by European settlers as the Ulster & Delaware Turnpike, then the Ulster & Delaware Railroad, and presently State Highway 28.
Next underway is a project to link specific southern nut tree groves in the lower Esopus Valley with in- and out-of-control burns from specific Native American sites of intense activity in the Ashokan Basin. Because archeologists and anthropologists usually work from Native American artifacts (tools, pottery, weapons, etc.), and because this forest historian works from the forest itself, the ideas presented in this essay might appear out of the mainstream and controversial to many readers. But we learn from each other.