Early History Of Acton and the Arboretum Land

(The following information was prepared by Belle Choate and is part of the Acton Arboretum's Master Plan.)

Radiocarbon dating at Bull Brook in Ipswich has allowed archaeologists to establish the existence of paleo-indians (pioneers) in Massachusetts to around 11,000 years ago. These pioneers came into the region as the glaciers were receding. These nomadic hunters followed the caribou into a barren landscape left by the receding glacier.

Settlement Time Line
From the site in Ipswich and others throughout the region comes the following time line of the settlement of New England and its related vegetation and climate. Archaeologists can establish plant life of the region through the pollen samples taken from bogs. This enables them to generate maps of the vegetation and the climate at any given time.






9000 BC


Nomadic hunters

Glaciers retreating

Tundra like vegetation

6500 BC

Early Archaic



Scrubby trees in valleys

3000 BC

Late Archaic

Semi-nomadic villages


Similar to current

800 BC to 1000 AD





Pre-contact Native Americans

The Musketaquid area (Concord) was first settled about 8,000 years ago. Early fishing village sites from the middle and late archaic period have been found near Egg Rock in Concord. (Pioneer hunters passed through here 10,000 years ago leaving behind spear and arrow points.) The later farming villages of the Musketaquid were centered around these ancient sites.

The Native Americans of the Acton area were mostly from the Nashoba tribe which was part of the Massachusetts confederation of the Algonkians. The Nipmucks ranged from Worcester County into Northern Middlesex County. As individual tribes were weakened by fighting amongst themselves, new alliances were formed. This makes it difficult to establish the exact tribal origins of those early Indians.

The Landscape

What Remains Of These Early Times In The Landscape
The reports of explorers such as Verrazano about encounters with what most likely would have been the tribes of the Algonkian Confederations, provide a glimpse as to the landscape of the New England countryside.

Artifacts from earlier Indian activities found in Acton were most likely from seasonal hunting and fishing villages which were located around Nagog Pond and in South Acton as opposed to major villages such as those at Concord or Littleton. The Praying Indian township of Nashoba lay entirely outside present day Acton. It was located around an earlier tribal fort, which was between Fort Pond and Nagog Pond in Littleton.

Present day Route 2A follows to a large degree what was an early Indian path, as was the route of Lawsbrook Road to School Street to Central Street and onto Summer Street into Boxborough. These paths would have connected the sites of known villages. Since the Arboretum was neither on a major watercourse nor near a water body, it would have most likely been general hunting or gathering grounds. There is no evidence that any of the major Indian paths passed close to or through the area.

According to early sources, Indians continued to return to their seasonal hunting grounds around Acton, especially sites off Main Street near Nagog Brook, well into the 18th century. There are reports of Indians living in the Acton area up to the early 1800s.

The Algonkian community had what the English colonists termed a primitive way of life with their seasonal moves for hunting and fishing, and their style of agriculture. Their pattern of land use affected the landscape found by the first European settlers to this area. In reality, the Algonkian way of moving from place to place with the seasons allowed a less intense use of the land through intercropping agricultural fields, an ecologically sound existence, one that made use of the land in relation to its capacity.

There is much speculation as to the significance of the various stone mounds and structures found in the Acton landscape. Two sites within the Arboretum are part of this speculation. One is described as a massive rock perched at one end, on a west slope. The other is a naturally occurring piece of quartz in the ledge outcrop near Wood Lane. Also, within Acton, is the so-called "Potato Cave", a recently restored stone chamber constructed into the side of hill along Nashoba Brook. It raises more questions about early Indian activities in the Acton area. Some even feel that the descendants of these early Indians still visit the sacred sites of their ancestors.

The stone walls that cross the Arboretum are a source of controversy. While most believe these date to the colonial farmers others consider that they are much older and may be part of elaborate ritualistic sites. A site in Carlisle consisting largely of various stone mounds and structures was recently investigated by the Massachusetts Historical Commission. They found reason to believe it was of Native American origin.

European History of Acton
The original European settlements of Massachusetts Bay Colony were located along the coastline of New England. As the population expanded, there was a need for more pastureland to support it. A series of land grants were made by the General Court of Massachusetts Bay to various groups called proprietors, as well as grants to individuals. Groton, Lancaster, Stow and Concord were some of the earliest grants around 1650.

Nearly all present day Acton's 12,990 acres are comprised of these early land grants. The three largest grants were:

  • Major Simon Willard's Grant of 2000 acres (Iron Work Farm)
  • The New Grants of 1655 and 1665, 5000 acres and 3000 acres (Concord Village)
The area of the Arboretum lies on the border of the Iron Work Farm and the New Grants or Concord Village. Deed research into the early owners of the parcels indicates that the uppermost boundary of the Iron Work Farm cut across the Arboretum from east to west. The northeast corner of Iron Work Farm was described as being at "a Great Rock with small rocks piled on it." The line then ran in a southerly direction through a Spruce Swamp across a small brook. The bog may have indeed been a spruce swamp in the late 1600s. The Great Rock may well have been the rock outcrop near Wood Lane.  

The large areas of meadows provided good grazing, which was the predominant land use of the 1600s. Concord first sought to annex the land in 1655 for additional grazing lands for their sheep and cattle. The Grants of the General Court gave the people of Concord full title to these lands. However, because the native Indians claimed some rights to the area covered by the grants, an agreement was made with them in the fall of 1660. Two deeds to the land were obtained from the Indians in 1684. According to John Winthrop, for the Indians to be entitled to rights they had to have improved the land. The clear indication being that the Indians in this area had farmed or improved the land thus earning for themselves true rights under English Law.

The earliest European settler in Acton was John Law, Concord's shepherd, who built his home in 1656 on School Street near Lawsbrook Road. Law was joined in 1661 by John Shepherd who was granted land by Concord to build his house near Hosmer Street. In 1668, Capt. Thomas Wheeler built a house near the intersection of present- day Concord Road and Alcott Street, under a lease from the town of Concord to herd its cattle.

In 1658, the Iron Works was established in what is now West Concord. The Iron works were similar to those started at Saugus. From the mid 1600s to the early 1700s, bog iron deposits were mined in this area. The Iron Work Farm was worked as a plantation to support those who worked at the Iron Works. The deposits petered out very quickly so the industry was short-lived in this area.

In order to fuel the Iron Works, general permission was granted to cut wood throughout the area. Pine trees were the wood of choice to produce the charcoal that fueled the forges. Part of the area around or at the Arboretum is described in early deeds and grants as pine woods and was probably cut over to provide fuel for the forge on Nashoba Brook in East Acton.

By 1730, there were at least two-dozen settlers scattered across the town, two of them residing at or near the Arboretum. The Proprietors of Concord Village or the New Grants proceeded to divide their lands:

  • First Division Lots were 100 acres each, along with smaller so-called qualification lots containing good meadow land.
  • Second Division Lots were 25 acres each.
  • Third Division Lots were smaller 10 acre lots.
The records of the proprietors' clerk, which have only recently become available for research, give a picture of the Acton landscape from around 1730 until 1780.

The Arboretum parcels were apparently not Division Lots, but land sold out of Iron Work Farm in 1700 or granted to proprietors abutting where they were already living. Two early settlers of Concord Village residing in the area of the Arboretum were John Barker, Jr. and John Cragin, both originally listed as blacksmiths. The site of Barker's home was near the Conant School. Forest Road and the last section of Minot Avenue were known as the "way to Mr. Barker's." In 1728, the proprietors granted him land on both sides of Nashoba Brook near Concord Road to build a new forge. His earlier forge near Parker and River Streets was no longer viable because its water power was reduced by the mills on High Street.

Part of John Cragin's lands were at the end of present-day Minuteman Road and included a dwelling house. Cragin also owned the upper section of the Arboretum, where the herb garden is located within the foundation of a second house. That house was eventually moved in 1774 to become the north ell of Faulkner House in South Acton. In addition, Cragin had other meadow land and orchards on the opposite side of Route 2, between Piper Road and Hosmer Street.

In 1735, Acton was incorporated as a town. A meeting house was built in the center of town with roads from the outlying farms leading to it. The roads around the Arboretum in existence at the time of incorporation were: Taylor to Coughlin, to Main; and Minot Avenue from Forest Road to Taylor. Main Street and the upper stretch of Taylor Road were not roads until the early 1800s.

Wood Lane, which borders the easterly side of the Arboretum, was constructed in 1817 by Samuel Jones. It was known as the Jones Turnpike. The stone walls that lined the old road are visible at the end of Wood Lane into the Arboretum.

Early Industry
Early Acton industry included the various mill rights on Fort Pond Brook in South Acton as early as 1701, the forge on Nashoba Brook below Ice House Pond in 1728, and at least four mills along Nashoba Brook as early as 1738. Portions of these mills are still visible, a number of them are located on the town's Conservation land. It is likely that Barker may have dug bog iron from the area of the Arboretum for his forge located near Bursaw's (98 Great Road) on Route 2A. The operation of forges required a steady supply of wood. Many of Acton's numerous 'wood lots' were cut to fuel the forges.

Acton was primarily an agricultural community in its early days, the Arboretum lands being part of that agricultural base largely planted to orchards. Saw mills and grist mills harnessed the water power of Acton's two main brooks. They were necessary adjuncts to any agricultural community. The manufacture of barrels to store food stuffs became the first light industry and it continued to the early 1900s, as young birch trees became materials for Florida citrus crates. The woolen industry centered around the Faulkner Mills, one of the first large-scale manufacturers of woolen cloth in this country.

In 1835, the powder mills were started on the Acton, Concord, Maynard (then Sudbury) line and continued to operate into the 1940s. The Powder Mill dam on Old High Street has been repaired and is again generating electricity. 1843 brought the railroad to Acton. Only with the arrival of the railroad did West Acton, hitherto known as the West part of town, become a village. In 1848, the pencil factories on Nashoba Brook opened, continuing in use until 1888.

The 1870s brought several other industries to Acton: the Merriam Piano Stool Factory on Fort Pond Brook in South Acton; Hall Brothers pail and churn factory, and the Knowlton Cigar factory both located in West Acton. Hall Brothers cut the trees from local woodlots for their products, which were shipped across the country. The small woodlots that had been cut 100 years before to provide fuel for the Iron Works were being cut again to supply Hall Brothers.

Quarrying was done in Acton throughout the 1800s but did not become a major industry until the 1880s. The Harris quarry, one of several in North Acton, was noted for its "slickensides" granite. This was formed by faults in the ledge that rubbed together, heating and forming a polished look. The final product looked similar to light green and beige marble. The Davis Monument in the center was cut from a quarry just a mile away on Newtown Road. Earlier times saw small-scale quarrying being done by the farmers to cut fence posts and foundation stones. Many examples of this can be found scattered through the woods including two located near trails at the Arboretum.

At the turn of the century, Acton was still an agricultural community, divided into five geographical areas with a total population of 2,120. Apples were Acton's main agricultural export, being shipped not only to Boston but through Boston to Europe. Many were from the Tuttle orchards on the Arboretum property. Before modern refrigeration, space in the cellar of the Town Hall was auctioned off for storage. There was also an apple storage at the corner of Taylor and Minot Avenue next to the Arboretum. Into the 1950s, as many as 20 freight cars of apples were shipped to Boston daily from Acton.

The 1950s marked the shift from apples to houses. There were 3500 people in Acton in 1950 and by 1974, there were 17,000. Although apples were still a major crop into the 1960s, the orchards and open fields gradually turned into subdivisions. The orchards of the Arboretum were some of the last to go out of production

** Further information on the history of Acton can be found in the History of the Town of Acton by Harold R. Phalen, 1954 and in A Brief History of Acton, Acton Historical Society, 1974. Acton's Historical Properties Inventory, updated in 1989, is a source of information on some of the older structures in town. The early Concord Village proprietorsí records and many other papers and photographs of Acton are available for research in the collection of the Acton Historical Society