Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Twelve Men in Open Boats

Twelve men climbed into open boats and made their way from the familiar harbor to the unexplored regions west of Newbury and Ipswich. The river on that late summer day sparkled with sunlight and was littered with fallen leaves as they quietly explored new territory. Every bend revealed dense wilderness occasionally interrupted by grassy meadows. They rowed for sixteen miles before nearing the place that the Indians called Pentucket.

Nathaniel Ward, the esteemed Puritan Minister from Ipswich had petitioned the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for a settlement along the Merrimack River in order to secure a residence and ministry for his son John Ward. The men chosen to pioneer this expedition were pilgrims, independent men who had come to New England to establish a home and community where they could plough the land and practice religious freedom. After finding the settlements at Newbury and Ipswich fully inhabited, Pentucket promised a chance for prosperity at a new plantation where land could be cleared, fields tilled and God’s abundant bounty sustained.

The intrepid explorers were by name: William White, John Robinson, Abraham Tyler, Samuel Gile, Christopher Hussey, Daniel Ladd, James Davis, John Williams, Joseph Merrie, Henry Palmer, Richard Littlehale and Job Clement.

At the Crooked River

As they labored against swirling currents and the late afternoon tide an area containing a broad plain was visible on the northern shore, excellent grounds for planting, cultivating or grazing. The valley surrounding the river looked fertile and beyond the next bend a fresh stream emptied into the river. Here the historic landing was made. It was an ideal spot of open land near the edge of the river surrounded by tall and stately oaks and pine trees. To the west the river could be viewed almost as far as the eye could see before sweeping broadly in a southwesterly direction. Northward a thick forest guarded the stream up a gradual incline to higher ground. Across the river to the south more forest filled the land with wildlife and birds peculiar to New England. Here at this place on a knoll, the first shelter was built of logs and rough hewn-timber.

The waterway served as a boundary between regional Indian tribes and was called Monomack from the words “mona” an island, and “auke” a place, meaning the island place. Other lore calls it “merruh” and ”auke” meaning place of strong currents. Still others claimed the name was derived from the large presence of sturgeon in the river. Whichever is accurate the Pennacook Tribe occupied these lands for generations and a local village had once resided near the mouth of the Little River tributary. Pestilence had taken its toll and driven any permanent indigenous tribes from the area to the point where no wigwams remained. None-the-less Indians still hunted and fished here and laid claim to the place they called Pentucket, which in the native language meant “at the crooked river.”

The Sachem, Passaconnaway ruled over a confederacy of tribes throughout the region including Agawam, Wamesit, Nashua, Souhegan, Amoskeag, Pennacook, and Winnipesaukee. Legend claimed he possessed magical powers. According to folklore, he could turn dried up leaves to green and make living snakes out of dead snakeskins. One story claimed he visited Plymouth Colony and attempted to use his magic skills to force the English away. Whether fact or fiction there were no major conflicts with the colonists and Passaconnaway took no part in King Phillip’s War.

Wonalancet was a young Pennacook brave and he fished along the banks of the great river and hunted in the nearby meadows. He had traveled the path from Massapaug (Great Pond) to Pentucket many times and considered this tribal land. He must have watched the English encroachment with apprehension and bewilderment. As a nation their numbers had been depleted over the years by small pox and other causes. His father Chief Passaconnaway had chosen peace over war and decreed that they should not to disturb the white settlers. It was a time of uneasy change for the young Pennacook.

The Wilderness Colony

The winter of 1641 was severe yet the settlement’s numbers continued to climb. Later that year the pioneers of the plantation renamed it Haverhill after the ancestral home of their newly arrived minister John Ward.

John Ward was the son of the Reverend Nathaniel Ward who was pastor at the church in Ipswich. He was born in Haverhill, Suffolk County, England in 1606 and educated at Cambridge University. He came to this country in 1639 and preached first at Agamenticus (York, Maine) before moving to the newly established settlement at Pentucket. He was a virtuous man, educated not only in religious training but also in matters of reason and science. He possessed a strong memory. He was a good speaker yet shy in outward disposition toward his parishioners. A man of some physical endurance, he could easily hike thirty miles when such a test of stamina challenged him.

Although he was offered the hand of the daughters of well-to-do Englishmen and even a wealthy parsonage at home, he married Alice Edmunds, a beautiful bride from a commonplace background by whom he had two children, Elizabeth and Mary. They were beloved partners for forty years, choosing to live in this wilderness colony and devoting their daily lives to God and the spiritual and moral needs of their fellow settlers.

By June the town was fairly settled and at least as many as six houses were now standing. The General Court appointed selectmen to establish the boundaries of Salisbury and Haverhill. Dense forest occupied most of Haverhill except where lightning had struck or where Indians had purposely set them ablaze in order to create openings so that deer and wild game could be more easily hunted. Grassy meadows existed to the west of the tributary called the Little River and were highly valued by the settlers, since they provided hay for their livestock. But as yet there were no public roads or surveyed maps of public lands. It was still a wilderness.

More than two years passed before title to the land was finally purchased from the Indians. This was unusual and was probably because so few of them resided in or near the settlement. The deal was finally struck with native Indians Passaquo and Saggahew who as purported owners of the land, and with the consent of Passaconnaway, sold it for three pounds and ten shillings. At that time, the boundaries of the area purchased were 12 miles north of the Merrimack River. The original deed included the towns now known as Salem, Hampstead, Atkinson and Plaistow in New Hampshire, along with Methuen, Bradford and Haverhill in Massachusetts.

1643 was a memorable year for several reasons. On one Sunday in March an earthquake shook the area causing little damage but startling townspeople. Then in July a sudden storm struck that lasted for an hour knocking down trees in its path from Lynne to Hampton. So violent was the tempest that it lifted up the meetinghouse at Newbury as people worshiped indoors. It was also a year of crop failures as corn was scarce and clams, mussels and dried-fish became the staple of the day. Faced with these challenges Haverhill continued to grow as a village. During the year the General Court passed a law requiring a record to be kept of births, deaths and marriages in each town. In Haverhill, Richard Littlehale was chosen Clerk of the Writs and Town Recorder and the first town meeting of which proceedings are recorded was held November 6, 1643. Rules were now being established for landowners and public tax rates were being set. By 1645 it was incorporated as the twenty-third town in the Colony.

Planting Grounds

The Plantation at Haverhill was a beautiful landscape of rolling hills and sweeping meadows stretching from the west where Long Hill rose above the Little River, eastward to Great Pond and the riverbanks at Holts Rocks. It occupied an abundance of rich fertile if rocky soil, which was ideal for single family farms. Land ownership was prized and a man’s worth in relation to the amount of property he possessed determined the number of acres that was awarded to him. Under this arrangement house lots were granted in the village and meadowlands were assigned in the same exact proportion elsewhere. In many cases a meadow lot was several miles from the house of its owner as was the case with townsman Daniel Ladd.

Ladd had his house in the village while his planting grounds were in two separate locations. One was in the plain about two miles east of the village near today’s Riverside neighborhood while the second was up river just about as far to the west of the village near the present section of River Street that is now home to several car dealerships. His meadowlands were in seven separate lots in as many different directions. East meadow was in the easterly part of town, three miles from his home, while Spicket meadow was at least eight miles in the opposite direction. Pond meadow was two miles northeast; Hawke’s meadow some three miles west; Primrose swamp two miles northwest; and Mistake meadow somewhere in the westerly part of town.

The first homes were simple, cottage-like shelters about 16 feet long and 14 feet wide. Their walls were made of rough-hewn notched timber. The roofs were sloped to shed the snow. Some were thatched with long, tough grass, in the old English style. At first, chimneys were made of logs covered with clay, but fireproof brick chimneys were soon constructed. Later clapboards were used to cover the walls and roofs were shingled. Heavy wooden shutters were used instead of glass windowpanes.

One of the early objectives of the town was the building of a meetinghouse. Religion played an important role in Puritan life but religious meetings here were held mostly in private homes or outdoors under the canopy of an oak tree. In 1648 a house of worship was finally constructed that had no gallery and no cupola but occupied a prominent spot next to the burial ground and facing the river.

Soon the General Court ordered the town to establish a ferry for the convenience of passengers. The river was an obstacle to places south and the authorities wanted a passage to Andover and points beyond. The crossing was established at a place called Old Ferry Way. About that time a highway was laid out along the banks of the river that is now Water Street. No grants of land were permitted from the south side of the street to the river nor were improvements permitted in the plain between the village and the ferry, a deliberate action by the selectmen to keep the riverbanks unobstructed.