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The Bay path.

[Read before the Medford Historical Society by Mr. Wilson Fiske.]

SO good a historian as Lord Macaulay declared that of all human inventions, the alphabet and the printing press excepted, those inventions which abridge distance (that is, which promote inter-communication) had done most for mankind. Which is equivalent to saying that man rises above the savage only when and only so far as he establishes communication and effects co-operation with his fellows. And Macaulay knew not the telegraph, the telephone, the wireless, the airplane, the automobile, the bicycle—hardly the locomotive. How must we be civilized now? Now I propose to speak of the road and a road; and the road is the very sign and symbol of inter-communication.

This must have been recognized a very long time ago. If we would seek the best word on roads and road-making (which is not the last word, but perhaps more nearly the first) we must look back more than five and twenty centuries to the utterances of the prophet of Israel, whose exhortation and instructions—and promise—fit here so aptly that I venture to make a very direct and practical, nor by any means wholly materialistic, application of them. Isaiah wrote:

Prepare ye in the wilderness the way of the Lord,
Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill shall be made low
And the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain;
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it.

How many billions have been spent—railways, highways, even waterways—to follow out that rule, than [p. 26] which there is no better! And the glory of the Lord is revealed thereby. Does not all flesh profit? Have we not by thousands, millions, looked down into Niagara's gorge from the rail and the highroad? Have we not scaled Mt. Washington to view the Presidential range, and conquered Pike's Peak to measure the Rockies? Have we not crossed the country and seen revealed the wealth of harvests, the majesty of continental ranges, the beauties of stream and lake and forest? When truly all roads led to Rome (and Roman roads were built after the same rule) was not Rome the glory and the mistress of the world? And her roads contributed much thereto.

Still earlier, when the earliest civilizations flourished in the valleys of the Nile and the Euphrates, a military and commercial road led from Babylon to Memphis. And along that road sprang up Nineveh, Damascus, Palmyra, Antioch, Tyre. Even on our own continent the ancient rule was made plain. For among the values which Spain here destroyed were magnificent Mexican roads, and at least two roads, each more than fifteen hundred miles long, extending the whole length of the empire of the Incas—the one along the coastal plain, where agriculture flourished as in Egypt, and for the same reason; the other among or along the Andean foothills. By the way, these roads were for foot passage only, for the Peruvians had no beasts of burden.

But the way of the Lord has been prepared in the wilderness many times along far less finished paths than these. Perhaps we have all been in St. Louis and have stood by the Court house (we all go to the Court house to gaze upon the erewhile Slave Mart at its southern front) and we must have read the inscription which recites that there began the Sante Fe trail, and we moralized upon what that led to. And if we went further out in the state, to St. Joseph, we found there the beginning of the trail of the pony express riders, and remember their services to the world.

Howbeit I have set myself to speak of an older path, [p. 27] shorter, nearer home, and just as truly a maker of history —the road which linked the Bay colonies with the settlements on the Connecticut. It was commonly called at its eastern end the Connecticut path, at its western terminal the Bay path. My own acquaintance with it touched more nearly its western third, and I like to think of it as the Bay path. At first only an Indian trail, or probably a series of trails, worn deep in places by the single file processions, but never broad; it afterwards widened to a woods' road when the white colonists moved over it their families, their possessions and even their cattle, becoming a cart track when the traffic grew to the dignity of wheeled vehicles. Some parts of the ancient trail now are covered by the highways over which we drive without a thought of their story; some parts may be located only by diligent search of colonial records; some few parts may still be traced by cart ruts worn in granite floors across ridges and pastures and hills now scorned of the road-builder. For the aboriginal trail maker, while he avoided inconvenient swamps and thickets, was little troubled with worldly goods whose transportation contra-indicated the handicap of grades; and sometimes the elevations had their own advantages in his view.

We shall remember that very early in its life the Bay colony had vital interests in the valley of the ‘Long river.’ On May 6, 1635 (I quote from the Mass. Col. Records)—

‘Att the Gen'all Court, holden at Newtowne, There is liberty granted to the inhabitants of Waterton to remove themselves to any place they shall thinke meete to make choice of Prided they continue still under this government.’ And on the same date, ‘The inhabitants of Roxbury have liberty granted them to remove themselves to any place they shall think meete, not to prejudice another plantation provided they continue still under this government.’ Manifestly our forbears had no stomach for secession. And on June 3, 1635, there [p. 28] was ‘Leave granted to the inhabitants of Dorchester for their removal.’

These licenses were not long left unused. On the same May 6th William Pynchon of Roxbury presented himself at the General Court with his accounts as treasurer, which being audited, he was discharged from his responsibility. He went immediately to Agawam (Springfield) and preempted that location for the Roxbury party. He is said to have visited the valley in 1634. The Dorchester Association had pioneers in Windsor in the latter part of June, 1635, led overland by Roger Ludlow.

Sixteen thirty-six was a year of great activity in the westward trek. Pynchon's Roxbury party began the journey about April 26th, the Blessing of the Bay sailing from Boston with their goods about the same time. At least twelve families went in this party, and on May 14th the men of the party signed a declaration and agreement for a town government. I have not read this document, but apparently we had here another Mayflower compact. They obtained a deed of their lands from the Indians on July 15, 1636.

On May 31, 1636, according to Winthrop's history, ‘The Rev. Thomas Hooker, pastor of the Church of Newtowne, and most of his congregation, went to Connecticut. His wife was carried in a horse litter; and they drove one hundred and sixty cattle, and fed of their milk by the way.’ This party went, as we all remember, to Hartford, which, however, had been settled in part from New Amsterdam in 1633.

The Bay path left the Roxbury-Dedham road at the north end of Jamaica pond, whence it led nearly westward into Newtowne, and crossed the Charles just above Newton Upper Falls. Thence bearing more southwestwardly to Wellesley, it crossed north of lake Waban over the present college campus, and so through Natick and Framingham, south of Cochituate lake and over the Beaver dam, which both the highway and the B. & A. tracks now cross, into Ashland; crossing Cold Spring [p. 29] brook well above (south of) its junction with Sudbury river, at the point where the Rev. John Eliot selected, on the ‘old Connecticut path,’ as he called it, a location for the establishment of his seventh ‘village of praying Indians.’

Still bearing southwestward, to Hopkinton, the track there swung round the north end of Whitehall pond and through southern Westboro into Grafton, crossing the Nipnet (Blackstone) river at a ford now within the village of Millbury. Dropping still more sharply southward, the path descended Federal hill into Oxford, and thence ran westward into Charlton, and by a rather circuitous way over Fisk hill into Sturbridge. There it led through what has been called Tantaskwee pass, exactly where the Worcester-Southbridge-Springfield trolley line passes to Fiskdale.

Between Fiskdale and Brimfield (being still in Sturbridge) it touches the southern edge of the thousand acre tract which John Eliot had from the Indians in 1655. In Brimfield the path passed Quabaug Old Fort, of which I shall speak again. Thence westward into Monson, the path strikes just south of the Chicopee river at the town line, and follows the river to Palmer, the summit of the path reaching an altitude of eleven hundred feet in crossing the divide between the Quinnebaug and the Quabaug, or Chicopee, watersheds. West from Palmer the way led around the north end of Wilbraham mountains to North Wilbraham village, whence it passed southwestward into Springfield, opening from the brow of the hill on which now stands the Arsenal.

Springfield was a junction of many Indian trails. From the Arsenal one trail led down to the river, through what is now Forest park, to a point opposite the lower mouth of the Agawam or Westfield river, where the highway now crosses, and at which point was an Indian stronghold or fort. At that time (before the Agawam cut through its upper mouth, a century ago) an extensive shoal stretched out from the west shore and the river [p. 30] was fordable at low water. After crossing the river the trail westward became the Mohawk trail. And still further west, crossing the Hudson, it was the Iroquois trail.

Southward from the crossing of the Connecticut another trail on the east side led round the shoulder of Longmeadow hill through ‘Longmeadow gate,’ crossed the river at Windsor, and so to Hartford. This was sometimes called the Longmeadow path.

In many of the towns along the way the first settlers located their meeting-houses and town centers on the Bay path. This was clearly so in Grafton, Oxford, Charlton, Sturbridge and Brimfield. And perhaps I may speak of the settlement of Sturbridge as possibly more or less typical.

J. G. Holland says:

It was wonderful what a powerful interest was attached to the Bay path. It was the channel through which laws were communicated, through which flowed news from distant friends, and through which came long, loving letters and messages. It was the vaulted passage along which echoed the voices that called from across the ocean, and through which, like low-toned thunder, rolled the din of the great world. That rough thread of soil, chopped by the blades of a hundred streams, was a bond that radiated at each terminus into a thousand fibers of love and interest, and hope and memory.

It was the one way left open through which the sweet tide of sympathy might flow. Every rod had been prayed over, by friends on the journey and friends at home. If every traveler had raised his Ebenezer, as the morning dawned upon his trust-sleep, the monuments would have risen and stood like milestones.

But it was also associated with fears, and the imagination often clothed it with terrors of which experience and observation had furnished only sparsely scattered hints. The boy, as he heard the stories of the path, went slowly to bed, and dreamed of lithe wildcats, squatted stealthily on overhanging limbs, or the long leap through the air upon the doomed horseman, and the terrible death in the woods. Or, in the midnight camp, he heard through the low forest arches the long-drawn howl of the hungry wolf.

Or, sleeping in his tent or by his fire, he was awakened by the crackling sticks, and lying breathless, heard a lonely bear, as [p. 31] he snuffed and grunted about his ears. Or, riding along blithely, and thinking of no danger, a band of straying Pequots arose, with swift arrows, to avenge the massacre of their kindred.

The Bay path was charmed ground—a precious passage—and during the spring, the summer, the early autumn, hardly a settler at Agawam went out of doors, or changed his position in the fields, or looked up from his labor, or rested on his oars upon the bosom of the river, without turning his eyes to the point at which that path opened from the brow of the wooded hill upon the east, where now the bell of the huge arsenal tells hourly of the coming of a stranger along the path of time.

And when some worn and weary man came in sight upon his half-starved horse, or two or three pedestrians, bending beneath their packs and swinging their sturdy staves, were seen approaching, the village was astir from one end to the other.

Whoever the comer might be, he was welcomed with a cordiality and universality that was not as much an evidence of hospitality, perhaps, as of the wish to hear of the welfare of those who were loved, or to feel the kiss of one more wave from the great ocean of the world. And when one of the settlers started forth upon the journey to the Bay, with his burden of letters and messages and his numberless commissions for petty purchases, the event wa one well known to every individual, and the adventurer received the benefit of public prayers for the prosperity of his passage and the safety of his return.

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