THIS OLD TOWN: Herring swam up Mansfield’s rivers

By Harry Chase
Wicked Local Mansfield
Posted May 24, 2013 @ 12:58 PM

Mansfield —

It's hard to believe that uncounted numbers of herring once swam from the Atlantic into Narragansett Bay and Taunton River and thence up Mansfield's Wading, Rumford and Canoe rivers to spawn.

Each spring, where the salt tide met the outpouring of fresh river water, herring gathered in vast schools. By some unfathomable intuition they knew in which river they were born, and up that stream they made their way.

The early colonists learned that the herring run, as they called it, usually reached Taunton the first week in April. From there for miles upstream, men with nets crowded at favorite spots to capture their fish dinners.

The myriads of herring that eluded the nets continued their journey. The female, when she came to a warm, shallow pond, laid up to 100,000 eggs and the male fertilized them. Less than 1 percent of the eggs survived.

To learn who first profited from the herring harvest we have to go back 9,000 years, to when the Indians arrived. These early people were hunter-gatherers, nomads who erected temporary camps wherever they found food.

They trapped herring in weirs made of willow sticks driven in the shallow streambeds. Near Rumford River in Mansfield's South End, 20th century archeologists found a flat rock ledge where the Indians sun-dried their catch for food.

The Quahannock Wampanoag, who came several thousand years later, settled in villages and grew corn, beans, pumpkins and squash. Every spring their men and women gathered along the streams and caught herring by the basketful.

Sometimes the Indians ate herring mixed with tastier fish, but most of the catch they carried to their corn fields and used for fertilizer. Their word "munwharwhateag" could mean either "small fish" or "manure."

We learned in school how the Indian Squanto taught the Pilgrims to lay two or three herring in the ground and cover them with soil in which they planted corn kernels.

Later settlers kept their dogs tied for three or four weeks until the fish rotted, otherwise the canines would dig the corn hills up.

When white men built Taunton's first water-powered gristmill in 1650 the town fathers ordered them to construct a gently sloping wooden fish ladder so the herring could bypass the dam and swim upstream as they'd done for thousands of years.

People were amazed to see the plucky foot-long fish fight their way up the ladder against the strong force of the river water.

In 1711, after Norton (which included future Mansfield) split from Taunton, the town chose wardens to enforce the ladder law.

When Mansfield in turn divided from Norton in 1770, voters appointed David Grover and Josiah Pining fish wardens for one-year terms. They were followed by Lieut. Job Hodges and Reuben Titus, and then Ephraim and Jonathan White.

Fishermen would gather in great numbers at our herring runs. House-to-house peddlers knocked on doors hoping to sell strings of herring they carried on long sticks.

The first local obstacle to the passage of fish dated from 1695 when John Wilkinson, to obtain waterpower for his gristmill, dammed Rumford River at Willow Street.

In 1740 Col. Isaac White built a sawmill on the Rumford near South Main Street. His dam was the first on that stream north of Taunton.

The earliest dam on East Mansfield's Canoe River was erected for the Leonard iron works before 1728. Wading River in West Mansfield got its first dams in 1815.

I've seen no record that fish ladders were provided at these obstructions, which probably spelled the end of Mansfield's herring run.

Even today, people gather at well-known spots in Middleboro and Lakeville, where every spring two-thirds of a million herring come up Nemasket River.

But so many dams were built between Taunton and Mansfield that after about 1800 herring no longer swam upstream to spawn in this old town.

Lifelong Mansfield resident Harry B. Chase Jr. served on the town's first conservation commission and is a founding and charter member of the Natural Resources Trust of Mansfield. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at 508 967-3510.

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