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Witness Tree Records for the Early Colonial Period (1623-1700) of Eastern Virginia.


Witness trees are an invaluable source of quantitative data on presettlement conditions where much or all original forests have been cleared. Witness trees (or bearing trees) recorded in early land surveyor's notes can be used to reconstruct presettlement forest composition, which can serve as a basis for making comparisons with present-day forests (Lutz, 1930; Bourdo, 1956; Abrams and Ruffner, 1995). Witness trees provide a representation of forest composition and structure and can also reveal historic disturbance patterns and the nature and extent of Native American influences (Black and Abrams, 2001; Dyer, 2001; Foster et al., 2004). The type of witness tree data considered here is metes and bounds data, in which trees and other identifying features were used to mark the boundaries and corners of property. Therefore, the term "witness tree" as it is used here may refer to bearing trees, boundary line trees, or property corner trees. Other sources of information about presettlement forest composition and structure come from early settler accounts, and General Land Office (GLO) data, collected after 1785 by the Public Land Survey System (White and Mladenoff, 1994; Schulte and Mladenoff, 2001). Studies using this information have served as one of the best available descriptors of the composition, dominance, and structure of the original forest in the eastern U.S. (Nowacki and Abrams, 2008; 2015).

The early land surveys were not a statistical sampling of forest composition and are neither random nor impartial (Bourdo, 1956; Black and Abrams, 2001). Surveyors may have tended to choose only overstory individuals or the largest individuals, or trees of only one species. Bias in which trees were chosen may also have existed based on vigor of trees, abundance, bark characteristics, economic value, or any personal preference (Russell, 1981; Grimm, 1984). They also may have improperly identified trees (Lutz, 1930; Loeb, 1987). Determining if these types of bias existed can be difficult, although one can evaluate the relative number of species recorded in the surveys and whether the species of trees recorded often reach the canopy or had high economic value. Indeed, the recording of sassafras (Sassafras albidum), dogwood (Camus spp), and myrtle (Myrica spp) in the witness tree surveys here suggest this type of bias may not have been significant. Another bias that was sometimes present is in variation in witness tree densities (number of trees recorded per unit area) with topography, in colonial era (pre-1785) metes and bounds type surveys (Black and Abrams, 2001). This bias occurred because of the difficulty of moving over certain types of terrain, or the tendency of early land surveys to be in more desirable landscapes, such as richer river valleys versus side slopes or ridge tops.

The purpose of this study is to report on newly compiled witness tree records to increase our knowledge of the early Colonial forests of eastern Virginia and to compare these forests with others in the region. There is often great difficulty of locating and compiling witness tree data from many individual metes and bounds surveys relative to that for GLO data, which has resulted in a lack of studies conducted using this information (Orwig and Abrams, 1984; Nowacki and Abrams, 2008; 2015). This analysis helps us understand the local environment at the time of European settlement and allows us to make comparisons with modern forest to assess vegetation change.


The two locations where this research was conducted are military installations in eastern Virginia, both along major rivers. Marine Corp Base Quantico, (38.5199[degrees]N, 77.3152[degrees]W) located in Stafford, Fauquier, and Prince William Counties in Virginia, along the Potomac River (Fig. 1). This is an area of rolling topography, sloping downward towards the Chesapeake Bay area and Atlantic Ocean. Major freshwater rivers of this region include the Potomac to the east and the Rappahannock to the south. Annual rainfall averages 108 cm per year, with 50.3 cm of snowfall (NOAA National Climatic Data Center). The climate is temperate, averaging 13C. The soils are loamy sand in texture, with loam dominating further from the Potomac River floodplain area. Near waterways and on the eastern side of the installation, soils are sandier and well-drained. Vegetation communities are dominated by upland hardwoods, with high importance of tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), white oak (Q. alba), hickory species, and ash (Fraxinus) species in areas of more moist fertile soils. Common vegetation associations in the area include oak-hickory on drier ridgelines, beech-maple on cool and moist north-facing slopes, and mixed mesophytic associations in riparian areas (Johnson and Abrams, 2017).

The second area of interest is at Cheatham Annex Naval Supply Center, (37[degrees]17'2"N 76[degrees]35'25"W), along the York River. It is owned by the Naval Weapons Station at Yorktown and lies completely within York County, Virginia (Fig. 1). The Annex is in the Tidewater region of coastal Virginia and is bounded by the York River on the east, Queens Creek to the north, and Kings Creek to the south. This area has a humid temperate climate with mild winters and warm summers and receives an average of 114 cm of precipitation per year, with an average temperature of 15.5C (NOAA National Climatic Data Center). The area has sandy, highly weathered soils (higher levels of phosphorous than glaciated soils), and the topography is rolling, sloping down towards the Chesapeake Bay lowlands. The Annex itself is relatively flat (slopes average less than 5%), with low bluffs along waterways, lower marshy and swampy areas along wide inlets from the York River, and rocky beaches along larger rivers such as the York.


Witness tree analysis for the areas of Quantico and Cheatham Annex was conducted using online land deed and patent records available on the Virginia Historical Society website (http://www. Land patents issued in Virginia were for some of the earliest lands surveyed in the New World. Land Office Patents indicated the titles of the sovereign or protector under whom it was issued, the consideration for which it was issued, the name of the patentee, the size of the tract, the county of location, a description of the land, any reservations for die crown, and the dale the patent was signed. This area was settled very early in American history, when compared with areas lying further from the coast (Beverley, 1855). Land patents from court proceedings records are available beginning in the year 1623. Virginia Land Office information has been digitized from county records and been made available online in an index of all the scanned patents and grants. For this analysis all lands surveyed from the beginning of record (~1650 in the counties considered here) to the year 1700 were used for witness tree extraction, covering each entire county of interest. By 1700 many records indicate lands already surveyed were simply changing hands. To avoid double-counting trees, records indicating land changing hands were not used, and 1700 was used as the cut-off year because land changing hands was increasingly encountered in the deed and patent record. To extract witness tree information from a land survey grant or patent, the section of the patent that provides the description of the land to be sold was scoured for reference to property corner markers, which were often trees. Any mention of a tree for which the taxa was given was tallied. Reference to species at the genus level was recorded separately from references that included both the genus and species (or taxa); both types of references were used in witness tree compilations for this study, but taxa were not lumped to the genus level.

Land deed records for this analysis of witness tree data at Quantico and Cheatham Annex were compiled between the years of 1650-1700. By 1700 most of the land in this area had been cleared more than once, farmed, possibly changed hands, and the composition of the forest had generally been altered (Beverley, 1855; Stewart Ware, The College of William & Mary, pers. comm.). The first county formed in Quantico was Northumberland, in the year 1648. Westmoreland County was formed from it in 1653, and Stafford County was carved out of Westmoreland in 1664. As Stafford was the only county of the three that Quantico currently lies in that was formed before 1700, and Prince William and Fauquier were formed out of it in 1731 and 1759 respectively, only Northumberland, Westmoreland, and Stafford County Land Office Patents were scoured for witness tree data. Another source of witness tree information for this area are the Northern Neck Grants. The Northern Neck is the northernmost of three peninsulas (traditionally called "necks" in Virginia) on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. This peninsula is bounded by the Potomac River on the north and the Rappahannock River on the south. Northern Neck Grants stem from a purchase of land made separately by the British crown in the year 1649 (and land grants were made from it starting in 1661), and includes land grants for Northumberland, Westmoreland, and Stafford Counties (as well as others). Northern Neck records for these counties were searched prior to the year 1700 as well. Patent and grant records for Northumberland County that were searched for witness trees number 264; records for Westmoreland County number 224, and records for Stafford County total 246. The Cheatham Annex lies completely within York County, which was officially formed in 1634. Therefore, to gather records for the area of Cheatham Annex, only York County land patents and grants were searched. Records from 1650 to 1700 were searched for boundary line and corner tree taxa references, as records prior to 1650 often did not include very much detailed survey information. Records for York County that were searched for witness trees total 232.


Witness trees recorded in land patents and grants prior to the year 1700 in Quantico totaled 754 trees (Table 1). Oak taxa made up most of die trees recorded, comprising 67 percent of the total. Hickory taxa were the next most recorded witness tree at about f 5 percent. A total of 22 tree taxa were recorded, including some of small stature (e.g., dogwood), suggesting the bias towards oak and hickory was not that strong. Indeed, the composition and dominance of the study forests in eastern VA were like that reported for Colonial forests in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain of northern Virginia (Orwig and Abrams, 1994). Later successional, disturbance-sensitive species, such as maple (Acer spp.) and beech (Fagus grandifolia), make up a very low percentage of the total (1.3% of total), while fire-adapted oaks and hickories and early successional species such as poplar (tulip poplar) and black walnut were more frequent. This may indicate the landscape was experiencing a significant amount of disturbance (e.g., fire, clearing) in the pre European settlement period (Abrams, 1992; Abrams and Nowacki, 2008). The clear majority of the land patents describe parcels of land that are tied to waterways and extend back into the woods. This may suggest a bias towards more low-lying riparian or mesic area, and potentially underscores the conclusion that disturbance, particularly fire, had a strong influence on presettlement species composition in this area. Mesic riparian zones would have likely been dominated by fire-sensitive species in an environment lacking frequent disturbances, such as understory fire. Moreover, early European settlers probably used previously cleared land and cleared new areas in much the same way as Native Americans might have (Day, 1953; Johnson and Abrams, 2017). Some of the earliest grants and deeds were from prior to 1650, and while the majority were not useful for extraction of witness tree information, they do indicate that Europeans were active in the region, managing and clearing land. However, other information that can be gleaned from these land patents and grants indicates significant presence of Native Americans in the area (Fig. 1 illustrates prehistoric cultural site densities), with references to such features as "Indian fields", "Indian Paths", and "Indian Townes". These features are referenced very frequently; however, information as to the occupants and farming of these landscape features are lacking.

In the 232 total land deed records from York County (Cheatham Annex), 112 include reference to trees or stumps as boundary or corner markers. The variety of taxa recorded (n = 24) indicates surveyor bias was most likely low when choosing property corner candidate trees. There are 285 oaks recorded out of 502 trees total, making up 56.8% of the total composition, including white oak, northern red oak (Q. rubra), black oak, water oak (Q. nigra), and Spanish oak (Q. falcata) (Table 2). There are four species with over 10% of the total composition each (red oak > white oak > hickory > pine). All these species are early to mid-successional and require a certain level of disturbance to perpetuate in a mature forest. Although soils, climate, hydrology, and natural fire ignition certainly played a part in prehistoric species composition, Native American people most likely provided more frequent and intense disturbances in the form of understory burning, clearing for agriculture and village construction, and promotion of important dietary species (such as oak and hickory) with early silvicultural techniques and mast collection (Abrams and Nowacki, 2008; Munoz et al., 2010; Johnson and Abrams, 2017).

Nearly all late successional trees, except for blackgum (Nyssa), are sensitive to fire and are typically killed by repeated burning (Abrams, 1992). The range of beech (Fagus), blackgum, and red maple (Acer rubrum), includes nearly the entire eastern forest. Their scarcity at the study locations, which include many mesic sites along the major rivers systems, is suggestive of the profound impacts of Native American land-use management in suppressing their density. A study the Colonial forests on the Piedmont and Coastal Plain of northern Virginia reported these forests were dominated by white oak (Q. alba) and northern red oak (Q. rubra), totaling 75%, followed by hickory at 7% (Orwig and Abrams, 1994). Therefore, they are reasonably similar in composition and dominance to our study locations. These authors also reported a sizeable increase in late successional fire sensitive species, such as dogwood (Camus), gum, and poplar, coupled with a loss of oak, from the Colonial to modern periods, mostly because of forest protection (Orwig and Abrams, 1994). Nevertheless, oak and hickory still dominated the modern forests in that study, which is consistent with most central hardwood forests. In an old-growth mixed-oak forest on the Piedmont of northern Virginia, 20th century increases in red maple (A. rubrum) and beech were quite pronounced; these taxa comprised 22% relative importance of present-day forest (Abrams and Copenheaver, 1999). Indeed, most northern mixed-oak forests have exhibited large changes in composition from the Colonial to modern periods mainly because of the large increase in maples (Nowacki and Abrams, 2008; 2015).

Native American populations in the eastern United States were active land managers and their impact on the composition and structure of the original forest was likely quite profound (Day, 1953; Patterson and Sassaman, 1988; Black et al, 2006; Tulowiecki and Larsen, 2015). They drew upon the forest for a great variety of products, modified environmental conditions, dispersed plant species to new areas, and created evolutionary changes in flora through artificial human selection (Smith, 2006; Abrams and Nowacki, 2008; Johnson and Abrams, 2017). Forest management including the transplanting of valuable species, frequent burning for many reasons, clearing and fuelwood cutting near areas of habitation, and agricultural activity by Native Americans may have facilitated the establishment of early successional tree species including important dietary mast and fruit trees (Williams, 2002; Black et al, 2006; Abrams and Nowacki, 2008). Fruit and nut-bearing tree species may have been cultivated or favored by Native Americans, increasing their importance in present-day forests (Abrams and Nowacki, 2008). In addition Native Americans used fire to improve browse for game, to encourage growth of berries, mast, and possibly pine species and to clear underbrush to maintain agricultural fields or facilitate hunting (Delcourt and Delcourt, 1998; Abrams, 1992; Williams, 2002; Abrams and Nowacki, 2008).

This research provides a better understanding of the compositional and tree taxa dominance in the original forests of eastern Virginia where there is a dearth of such studies, ft suggests Native American land use practices were profound, and those legacies exist in the present-day landscape. It highlights the usefulness of witness tree information to characterize the Colonial forests which can then be used by others to compare with modern forest surveys to assess forest change and the drivers of that change (e.g., fire suppression, disturbance, or climate change). Understanding the original forests and the potential legacy of Native American land-use can aid cultural resources and land managers to establish appropriate baseline data to aid in the interpretation of vegetation and human interactions with our environment.

Acknowledgments.--Funding for this study was funded by Department of Defense Army Legacy Program (grant number 10-416).

Literature Cited

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--and G.J. Nowacki. 2008. Native Americans as active and passive promoters of mast and fruit trees in the eastern USA. The Holocene, 18:1123-1137.

--and C. M. Ruffner. 1995. Physiographic analysis of witness-tree distribution (1765-1798) and present forest cover through north central Pennsylvania. Can, J. Forest Res.. 25:659-668.

Beverley, R. 1855. The History of Virginia: In Four Parts. J. W. Randolph, Richmond, Virginia. Black, B. A. and M. D. Abrams. 2001. Influences of Native Americans and surveyor biases on metes and bounds witness-tree distribution. Ecology, 82:2574-2586.

--, C. M. Ruffner, and M.D. Abrams. 2006. Native American influences on the forest composition of the Allegheny Plateau, northwest Pennsylvania. Can. J. Forest Res., 36:1266-1275.

Bourdo, E. A., Jr. 1956. A review of the General Land Office Survey and of its use in quantitative studies of former forests. Ecology, 37:754-768.

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Foster, H. T., Ill, 15. Black, and M.D. Abrams. 2004. A witness tree analysis of the effects of Native American Indians on the pre-European settlement forests in east-central Alabama. Human Ecol., 32:27-47.

Grimm, E. C. 1984. Fire and other factors controlling the Big Woods vegetation of Minnesota in the mid nineteenth century. Ecol. Monogr., 54:291-311.

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--and--. 2015. Is climate an important driver of post European vegetation change in the eastern U.S.? Glob. Change Biol., 21:314-334 doi 10. 1111/gcb.12663.

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MARC D. ABRAMS (1), 307 Forest Resources Bldg. Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, Pennsylvania State University, University Park 16802 and SARAH E. JOHNSON, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Rachel Carson State Office Building, PO Box 8767, 400 Market Street, Harrisburg 17105. Submitted 10 April 2018; Accepted 11 September 2018

(1) Corresponding author:

Caption: Fig. 1.--Map of the witness tree study areas at Marine Corp Base Quantico and Cheatham Annex Naval Supply Center, Virginia. Locations of Late Woodland and Mississippian Time Period The location of Native American sites that have been positively identified by Cultural Resources staff are included
Table 1.--Witness tree species/genera, counts and percentages in
the early Colonial Period (1650- 1700) for the area of Marine Corps
Base Quantico, VA

Species common   Latin name                Count   Percent

White oak        Quercus alba               223     29.6
Red oak          Q. rubra                   178     23.6
Hickory          Carya                      112     14.9
Oak              Quercus                    61       8.1
Poplar           Liriodendron               30       4.0
Pine             Pi nus                     28       3.7
Gum              Nyssa                      27       3.6
Black oak        Q. velutina                23       3.1
Spanish oak      Q. falcata                 13       1.7
Locust           Robinia                    11       1.5
Walnut           Juglans nigra               8       1.1
Chestnut         Castanea                    8       1.1
Chestnut oak     Q. montana                  8       1.1
Beech            Fagus                       6       0.8
Persimmon        Diospyros virginiana        6       0.8
Maple            Acer                        4       0.5
Dogwood          Camus florida               2       0.3
Ash              Fraxinus                    1       0.1
Cedar            Juniperus                   1       0.1
Live oak         Q. virginiana               1       0.1
Mulberry         Morns                       1       0.1
Red gum          Liquidamber styraciflua     1       0.1
White pine       Pinus strobus               1       0.1
Total                                       754     100.0

Table 2.--Witness tree species/genera, counts, and percentages in
the early Colonial Period (1650- 1700) for Cheatham Annex in lhe
Tidewater Area of Virginia, York County

Species common   Latin name                Count   Percent

Red oak          Quercus rubra              109     21.7
White oak        Q. alba                    102     20.3
Hickory          Carya                      64      12.7
Pine             Pinus                      51      10.2
Oak              Quercus                    46       9.2
Poplar           Liriodendron               24       4.8
Gum              Nissa                      24       4.8
Spanish oak      Q. falcata                 22       4.4
Maple            Acer                       11       2.2
Red gum          Liquidamber styraciflua     7       1.4
Ash              Fraxinus                    7       1.4
Dogwood          Com us florida              5       1.0
Chestnut         Castanea                    5       1.0
Water oak        Q. nigra                    4       0.8
Persimmon        Diospyros virginiana        3       0.6
Mulberry         Morns                       3       0.6
Beech            Fagus                       3       0.6
Sassafras        Sassafras albidum           2       0.4
Cherry           Prunus                      2       0.4
Cedar            Juniperus                   2       0.4
Walnut           Juglans nigra               2       0.4
Black oak        Q. velutina                 2       0.4
Myrtle           Mfrica                      1       0.2
Elm              Ulmus                       1       0.2
Total                                       502     100.0
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Title Annotation:Notes and Discussion Piece
Author:Abrams, Marc D.
Publication:The American Midland Naturalist
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1U5VA
Date:Jan 1, 2019
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