The Great Marsh is sited on the ancestral lands of the Pawtucket and closely related Pennacook, who were present in the area as early as 12,000 years ago, after the glaciers receded but long before the barrier island (Plum Island) stabilized in its current location and its back-barrier marshes formed. The Pawtucket migrated seasonally from their main village in the forested uplands to villages along the marshes and estuaries, including Agawam “other side of the marsh”. The area provided abundant resources of fish and shellfish, fowl and game.
These villages became permanent settlements after the arrival of Europeans (1605), who also found abundant food in local waters and across the landscape. Colonists took advantage of the salt marsh hay for livestock fodder and bedding, but the work wasn’t easy and hay had to be stored high above the threat of flood in staddles. Specialized bog shoes for horses had to be engineered to keep this farming going if the hay wasn’t being moved in a flat-bottom gundalow boat. Today, only a couple of farmers harvest salt marsh hay, and horses have been replaced with tractors.
Clamming of the famous “Ipswich clam” is one of the oldest economic enterprises of the Great Marsh and remains a vital part of the local economy. However, more frequent closures of clam beds due to contamination, and the invasion of green crabs that prey on the clams have made this challenging occupation even more difficult, and put the health of this valuable resource and local cultural icon in question.
The beauty and worth of the area has been recognized throughout its history, and led to the name “The Great Marsh” coined by Ruth Alexander in 1913. It includes over 20,000 acres of wetlands, spanning seven communities across the North Shore of Massachusetts, and a rich culture and history.
A great starting point for delving into that history may be found at Historic Ipswich (https://historicipswich.org/), which includes links to extensive writings by Mary Ellen Lepionka on the Pawtucket (https://historicipswich.org/2019/10/07/who-were-the-agawam-indians-really/)
In March of 2001, the Eight Towns and the Great Marsh Committee in cooperation with organizations such as Mass Audubon and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as local citizens and students, produced a short video below about the Great Marsh.