Fishing in the Farmington River. (Mark Mirko / Hartford Courant)

Fishing in the Farmington River. (Mark Mirko / Hartford Courant) (April 17, 2013)

The widely held assumption that Connecticut was complete wilderness when the first European settlers arrived in the early 17th Century is belied by what archaeologists have found along the state's rivers.

"It was not wilderness," said Nicholas Bellantoni, a professor of archaeology at the University of Connecticut and the designated state archaeologist. To be sure, Connecticut essentially was a vast forest in 1600, but along major rivers, especially the Connecticut River, there were numerous little pockets of cleared land where Native Americans grew corn, beans and squash.

Where Hartford's Park River meets the Connecticut, there was a settlement; where the Hockanum River in East Hartford meets the Connecticut, there was a settlement. Crops also were grown in the fertile flatlands along other major rivers like the Farmington and the Housatonic.

"Those were desirable areas," Bellantoni said. When the first European settlers arrived, they went right for those fertile, flat and already cleared patches of land. "We settled in places that Native Americans had already settled."

If what would become Connecticut was not totally wild, it nonetheless was pristine early in the 17th Century. Other than the occasional sound of handmade tools, the rivers were peaceful places without the noise of cars, trucks, industry and powerboats.

Even today, Connecticut's waterways are a significant and usually appealing aspect of the state's landscape, but, with rare exceptions, they are radically different from what they were four centuries ago.

Since the 17th century, hundreds of brooks, streams and rivers have been dammed, sometimes wiping out entire strains of migratory fish like salmon and shad, and fundamentally altering the ecology of long stretches of river.

The Park River used to flow past the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch. (Courtesy of Richard L. Mahoney)

Connecticut's waterways were heavily abused by industrial and sewage pollution. Many have been degraded by invasive plant or animal species. Native fish populations often have been greatly reduced as exotic species were introduced, usually intentionally. Parts of some rivers, like the Park River in Hartford, were deemed so polluted or flood-prone that they were entombed in culverts, covered over and paved.

Given all the things that have happened to rivers in Connecticut, "There can't be a pristine river, theoretically speaking," said Robert M. Thorson, a professor of geology at the University of Connecticut and an authority on the history of the state's landscapes, including rivers.

But in the early 17th century, the rivers were healthy, and for Native Americans, they were enormously significant. "Native Americans had two means of travel; they walked and they canoed. Rivers were important highways for them," Bellantoni said.

Not only were they transportation corridors, they were obviously a source of water and food, especially in the spring when huge runs of shad and salmon returned from the sea to spawn.

European settlers also used the rivers for water, food and transportation. But, over time, especially as the population in Connecticut grew substantially, rivers became increasingly troubled.

Especially during the late 18th century and continuing until the mid-19th century, Connecticut was deforested, a landscape almost entirely agrarian, with huge impacts for the streams and rivers. With little tree cover, water temperatures in streams rose, stressing species such as the native brook trout, a colorful fish that needs cold, clean water to survive.

An example is Susquetonscut Brook in Lebanon, intensively studied by UConn's Thorson. Analyzing soils throughout the brook's watershed, Thorson and colleagues determined that any impact on the brook and its surrounding wetlands by Native Americans was so slight it could not be detected. But they found that during the Colonial period, extensive deforestation as land was cleared for farming significantly changed the brook and the wetlands.

With the land cleared and animals grazing in pastures, stormwater poured off sloping hillsides far more rapidly than before settlement, carrying enormous amounts of sediment with it, which then choked the brook and some of the wetlands.

"In some cases it created wetlands, in some cases it filled wetlands," Thorson said.

Like much of the rest of the cleared land in Connecticut, the watershed of Susquetonscut Brook is now reforested, but the brook itself was so altered by deforestation that the long-ago changes can still be measured by the researchers as they analyze soils.

The Industrial Age

Meanwhile, in the 17th century, colonists dammed smaller streams to power grist mills and saw mills. By the late 18th century, dams began to appear on larger rivers, even the Connecticut in Massachusetts, where a dam built in 1798 at Turners Falls is blamed for wiping out runs of Atlantic salmon because it prevented the fish as they returned from the sea from reaching their spawning brooks upriver.