Salt Marshes Part 2: Cultural
In Part 1, we looked at the important ecological roles of PEI’s salt marshes. Today, we explore their considerable cultural and historical values.
Salt marshes were prized by our early settlers not only for the abundance of fin-fish, shellfish, waterfowl and other edible wildlife, but also for ‘marsh hay’. The trio of cordgrasses that dominates our salt marshes - Rough Cordgrass (Spartina pectinata, Photo 1), Saltmeadow Cordgrass (Spartina patens, Photo 2) and Smooth Cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora, Photo 3) - provided essential, immediate pasture and hay for livestock while the onerous task of clearing the Island’s forests began
Initially, settlers took to the marshes during neap tides of July or August. The grasses were hand cut by scythe and allowed to dry in the sun. At some sites, the hay was raked and forked to higher land where it could be hauled home by oxen or horses. At others, it was placed onto raised platforms (called ‘staddles’) built in the marsh to keep the hay above water during the highest tides. Once the soft marsh mud had frozen, it was easier to get to the piles by wagon or sleigh.
Access to marshland was essential to survival, so much so that even settlers not immediately adjacent to a salt marsh were allotted areas to harvest. The early Acadians established a system of dikes and channels (called ‘aboiteaux’) to hold back the tides, make the marshland more accessible and expand the arable area.
You can still find remnants of these dikes in some PEI marshes, and their legacy lives on it at least one place name. At Tryon, on the Island’s south shore, the English replaced the aboiteaux with flood gates in a bridge spanning the river on what is now Route 10. Although that original bridge is long gone, the crossing here is still known as Bito Bridge (Photo 4), a corruption of the original French term.
Marsh hay was as important to the English post-1758 as it had been to the French since 1720. By 1805, more than twice as much hay was being taken off the marshes as was cultivated and cut from the uplands. Those without access to this coastal resource were less able to over-winter livestock, sometimes killing animals rather than having them starve. Those with access were not only able to maintain their herds in good condition, but also to meet their rental payments and earn some extra income through hay sales.
Harvest of marsh hay declined by the mid-1800s, likely due to a combination of greater availability of upland hay and the adoption of horse-drawn implements that were harder to use on soft marshland. Even so, some farmers swore by the superiority of marsh hay and annual harvest continued well into the 1930s in some areas.
PEI’s early settlement was tightly linked to our salt marshes, making these areas historically important as well as ecologically significant. In Part 3, we'll look at some of this habitat’s edible plants and their cool adaptations!