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Thomas Brigham the Puritan—an original settler

By William E. Brigham
Thomas Brigham the Puritan, the common ancestor of the Brigham family in this country, was an original, if not the original, settler of what now is Somerville. I may say frankly at the outset that I have made no study of the contemporaries of Thomas, nor have I ascertained the location of the original town lines of Watertown, Cambridge, and Charlestown; but for the purposes of this sketch the familiar designations are sufficient. In so far as they deal with the essential facts of the life of our interesting subject and his descendants, the statements which follow are founded upon trustworthy evidence; and where there is doubt I have indicated it.

For example, good old Rev. Abner Morse, the first genealogist of the Brigham family, would have it that Thomas came of noble blood, in direct descent from the lords of Allerdale, whose reputation for ‘courtesy, honor, truth, and justice’ filled all Cumberland; and the worthy clergyman works into his pages the sage suggestion to posterity that ‘it is scandalous to degenerate.’

Later researches prove nothing more definite of the English origin of Thomas the Puritan than a strong inference that he hailed from Yorkshire. There are four Brigham places in Great Britain, as follows:—

First—Town of Brigham, Driffield, in Dickering Wapentake, East Riding, Yorkshire; and it is germane to, say that a large percentage of the people of this neighborhood are known by the surname of Brigham.

Second—There is a Brigham parish in Allerdale Ward, above Derwent, Cumberlandshire. To this locality tradition assigns the vague (because ancient) references to the manor of [50] Brigham and the lords of Allerdale. Wordsworth penned a graceful sonnet to the ‘Nun's Well’ of this place.

Third—From the Acts of Parliament of Scotland we learn how that assembly convened at Brigham, near Berwick-on-Tweed, on two occasions during the period when it was peripatetic, namely, in 1188 and 1289. You will also recall that a ‘treaty of Brigham’ was signed here.

Fourth—Brigham, Norfolk county, Eng., which is mentioned in the Calendar Close Rolls, time of King Edward II.

The Domesday Book mentions also four other Brigham towns, under various spellings, but they are of no important interest in the present connection.

Burke describes eight different armorial bearings by Brighams, of which four are of Yorkshire families, and a fifth of Yorkshire descent. The most persistent Brigham line occurs in connection with the annals of Yorkshire; but late researches incline to the belief that there were no less than four distinct Brigham lines, from one of which sprang Thomas. The belief that this was of Yorkshire is strengthened by the fact that Sir Richard Saltonstall, his friend and neighbor in Cambridge, and upon whose suggestion he may have come from England, was of a Yorkshire family.

Without detaining you too long with details of more remote interest, I may say that the name Brigham has been spelled in no less than eighteen different ways. It is Anglo-Saxon, and comes from two words meaning bridge and house. It originally signified a village of freemen situated by a bridge. The name is authentically traced back to the period of Henry I., who was born in 1068; and it is said by English Brighams now living that it was borne with honor in Palestine in the time of the Crusades.

I fear, however, that we are getting farther away rather than nearer to Thomas Brigham the Puritan. The first and only authentic mention of him found in England is in Camden Hotten's book, entitled ‘Lists of Emigrants from England to America, 1600-1700,’ compiled from London Admiralty reports.

From this we learn that ‘18 April, 1635, Tho. Briggham’ embarked from England on the ship ‘Suzan & Ellin, Edward [51] Payne, Master,’ for New England. In the same year Paige, in his admirable history of Cambridge, reports the arrival at Watertown, the fourth settlement in Massachusetts Bay colony, of our Thomas and thirty-six other males. Of these, some seventeen appear to have come by the ‘Suzan and Ellin.’ Surely we of the name of Brigham may trace our ancestry back to the foundation stones of the old commonwealth.

Thomas was then thirty-two years of age, and he appears quickly to have attained to respect and prominence. He was made a ‘freeman’ in 1637, when his name first appears on the records of Watertown. He then became the proprietor of a fourteen-acre lot, of seven-eighths of the size and adjoining that of Sir Richard Saltonstall. This land was ‘bought of John Dogget & bounded W. by the homestall of Sir Richard Saltohstall, S. by Charles River, & E. by Cambridge former line,’ being on that strip which was taken from Watertown in 1754 and annexed to Cambridge.

He settled hard by, and built his house in Cambridge, on a lot of three and one-half acres which had been assigned him by the townsmen in 1638. The exact location of our Puritan's homestead cannot be stated. Paige places it at the easterly corner of Brattle and Ash streets. Morse quotes the boundaries of the lot, which would be unintelligible to this audience, but says it was about two-thirds of a mile west of the site of Harvard University—which institution was established, by the way, a year after Thomas the Puritan arrived in Cambridge; while our own family historian, W. I. T. Brigham, is sure only that a part of Thomas Brigham's house lot was in the east boundary line of the original limits of Watertown, or about at the line of the present Sparks street. It is certain that the lot was bounded on the south by the northern bend of Charles river, which comes at the foot of Sparks street.

At this point was the first high bank above the site of Fort Washington, and it offered the first facility on the north side for a wharf. Here, according to trustworthy tradition, a wharf was built early, and no doubt a storehouse to accommodate the inhabitants of Watertown and Cambridge, which had no wharf [52] until 1650. Morse kindly infers that Thomas Brigham built these, and that he was a commission merchant. Windmill Hill, he says, must have been upon his Watertown lot and near the wharf. Had he not, asks Morse, also built a mill thereon prior to 1638, when the townsmen assigned the land adjacent to him on the southeast, and reserved a highway on the town line to this hill, which would also have secured access to the wharf?

The south side of his original fourteen-acre lot is at present a poor Irish settlement; but the north runs through to Brattle street, along which it extends many hundred feet, right in the heart of Cambridge upper-tendom. The Washington school, descendant of the ‘Faire Grammar Schoole,’ the first school in Cambridge, is on this land.

With Saltonstall, Dudley, Nicholas Danforth, and other chief men for his neighbors and associates, Thomas Brigham lived on his comfortable homestead until 1648. Having been admitted to the freeman's oath, he, in 1639, was chosen a member of the board of townsmen, who exercised supreme authority in municipal matters, and had the distribution of the public lands. He served as townsman or selectman in 1640, 1642, and 1647, and as constable in 1639 and 1642. Such honors as these at that period cannot be lightly esteemed now.

He was the proprietor of many animals, and in 1647, when the town contained ninety houses, 135 ratable citizens, and had been settled seventeen years, he owned nearly one-third of all the swine. Morse argued, also, from this honorable, but unpoetic, fact that he must have possessed a mill, from the toll of which he could easily feed so large a number.

The proud possession of these hogs is not also without its sad feature for the descendants of Thomas the Puritan; for while it gave him the distinction of wealth, and therefore power, it also got him into, trouble. He was repeatedly fined for failing to observe the law relative to the keeping of hogs. However, as if in consideration of the feelings of his descendants, it is recorded that the selectmen, in their order for collecting fines of ‘brother Brigham,’ as they called him, voluntarily abated one-third of the amount. [53]

From another curious record now extant it is learned, also, that the good Thomas was not without other than official sympathy; for it is soberly related in the chronicles that upon one occasion, when an officer visited the homestead to impound some of the porcine offenders, or upon other similar duty, the worthy Mercy, spouse of Goodman Thomas, made such a hostile demonstration that he was fain to escape with no bones broken.

We have been a long time reaching the Somerville line, but we are almost here. The townsmen of Cambridge divided the common lands to settlers according to their estates. By this rule Thomas Brigham drew more than quadruple the amount of most others. In the last and principal division he, out of 115 assignees, received 180 acres, the thirteenth largest share, while others received only a few acres. He received grants in Brighton, Shawshine (Billerica), West Cambridge, and Charlestown, amounting to hundreds of acres. His first grant in Charlestown was of one acre made in 1645.

In 1648 there was laid out to him seventy-two acres ‘on the rocks’ upon Charlestown line; and later in the same year he bought of William Hamlet ten acres in Fresh Pond Meadow, on the northwest side of the great swamp. Of these he took immediate possession, and built upon the former. By the help of Peter B. Brigham, Esq., who died in 1872, ‘The Rocks’ have been found and the place of our old settler's last habitation identified. To quote Morse, who wrote in 1859, the site is now in Somerville, ‘about one-third of a mile south of Tufts College, and 100 rods east of Cambridge Poorhouse, on the southwest side of an uplift of clay slate about seventy feet in height, overlooking Fresh Pond one and one-half miles at the south.’

A few rods southwest of this, continues Morse, there is another uplift of the same formation and of about the same size and altitude, but the rock does not, as in the former, crop out, yet it was doubtless one of ‘The Rocks’ which constituted a well-known landmark; for Thomas Danforth, as if connected with Thomas Brigham, immediately after the above assignment, purchased of Nicholas Wyeth forty-eight acres ‘upon the Rocks [54] near Alewive meadow, having Thos. Brigham on the north.’ This lot must have included the site of the poorhouse, and probably the S. W. rock, and by its boundaries it contributes to the identification of Brigham's location, which had been ascertained from other evidence.

I have perambulated the territory described here by Mr. Morse, yet without my assurance I think you would readily conceive that the second homestead of the Brigham family in this country is none other than our own Clarendon Hill, and that ‘The Rocks,’ so celebrated in our family history, are now serving the humble purpose of the city stone quarry. The house, I take it, was only a few yards, or rods, south of the present crown of the quarry, and commanded a view straight across the meadow to Fresh Pond. As the pious Morse says:—

‘Here lived Thomas Brigham, contented with his portion of good things, which the millionaire is not. Here he read his Bible and communed with his Redeemer. Here he interceded for his race, completed his victory, and left for his coronation. Hallowed be the place; hallowed his memory! Here let his children assemble to praise and pray, know and be known; and build up a friendship strong and enduring as “The rocks.” ’

Thomas Brigham died in the Somerville homestead, if I may so call it, December 18, 1653, aged fifty years. His estate became involved, perhaps through business reverses—it is suggested because the erection of a grist mill on Charles river ruined his windmill—yet it was more than respectable for the time. After the final settlement, there remained his lot on Charles river, valued at £ 40; upland and meadow in the hither end of Watertown, valued at £ 60; ten acres in Rockie Meadow, valued at £ 15; and a house lot of four acres, with house and barn, estimated at £ 70. He left a spacious house, containing hall, parlor, kitchen and two chambers, all completely furnished and stored with provisions.

His personal property included many articles of luxury, and his wardrobe was that of a gentleman. He had two bound ‘servants, five horses, fourteen sheep, and ten cattle,’ and his inventory footed up £ 449 4s. 9d., or about $8,000 in our present currency, [55] relative prices considered. Morse reckons that at six per cent. the fortune of Thomas Brigham the Puritan would amount to more than a billion of dollars now. This is a crowning example of the old genealogist's concern for posterity.

The wife was appointed sole executrix of the will. She was assisted by the distinguished William Brattle, of Boston, and Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth accepted appointment as trustee, and left the trust to his own executor at his death.

The final resting place of our common ancestor is not known. Morse thinks it must have been Medford, but there is much stronger reason for believing it to be in Cambridge, probably in what is known as the ‘old cemetery.’ Time has buried a fact of priceless interest to the descendants of Thomas the Puritan, and the spot may never be marked.

It were unfair to close this record without a word of the partner of the joys and sorrows of our Thomas. In 1637 he married Mercy Hurd, a comely woman somewhat his junior, of whom tradition has brought down a high character. It is declared that she and her sister were so tantalized in England for their non-conformity that they resolved on seeking their freedom and fortunes in New England, whither they arrived unattended by husbands or lovers. Were romantic adventure their quest, they came to, the right place, for they were snapped up like Monday bargains; and, as the sage Morse observes, if the number of worthy husbands whom a lady married is the measure of her worth, our maternal ancestor was a most worthy and attractive woman, for she married no less than three.

These were Thomas Brigham, who died in 1653, by whom she had five children; Edmund Rice, of Marlboro, by whom she had two daughters; and William Hunt, of Marlboro, who died in 1667. Mercy Hurd-Brigham-Rice-Hunt died December 23. 1693, after a third widowhood of twenty-six years.

During this period she saw two bloody Indian wars. During the first Marlboro was burned, and she, with one of her sons, is believed to have fled to their former home on ‘The Rocks’ in Somerville, while her other sons went in pursuit of the enemy.

The children of Thomas and Mercy Hurd-Brigham were [56] Mary, Thomas, John, Hannah, and Samuel. All were identified with the early history of Marlboro, whence their mother had removed upon the death of Thomas the Puritan. The men became very prominent in town life, and Samuel, it is said, founded the tanning and shoe industry. The present writer, although coming immediately from a branch resident in Vermont, is a direct descendant of Thomas, the first son.

This, at greater length than I had intended, is something of the story of Thomas Brigham the Puritan. Cradle and grave alike unknown, of his life there is yet left a record of honor, probity, and rugged accomplishment in which his descendants may well take honest pride.

In justice to Mr. Brigham, it is no more than right that the following letter should be printed:—

Boston, September 25, 1904.
My dear Mr. Foss: I have at hand yours of the 24th inst., with proof of my article on Thomas Brigham the Puritan.

I am afraid there is some misunderstanding in this matter, for the evening I read the paper I made the express request that it be not printed. Mr. Charles D. Elliot is inclined to think the original Brigham place was in Arlington rather than in Somerville, and some of his facts and arguments so impressed me that I decided at once to give no more publicity to the matter until I could investigate further. Mr. Elliot kindly offered to take up the matter with me at my convenience, but I was out of town from May to September, and since have been immersed in another (and this time victorious) political campaign. I can give the matter no thought until after election.

My error, if there is one, is due to my confidence in the alleged researches made by the late Peter B. Brigham, as reported by Morse (page 4, ‘Brigham,’ by Rev. Abner Morse, A. M., press of H. W. Dutton & Son, Boston, 1859). The identification here is explicit, but the description of the old site is that of Morse, I should judge.

‘The Rocks’ was the name of the old Brigham place, and Mr. Elliot points out two important facts: one, that there is no mention of Thomas Brigham in the early Charlestown records, which were well kept; and that ‘The Rocks’ was the name of ‘a well-known ancient landmark,’ as Morse styles it, in Arlington, not in Somerville.

Brigham's identification was wholly with Arlington (or Cambridge), except in the matter of this site; and even before Mr. Elliot spoke it always had puzzled me why Thomas should have trekked off to Clarendon Hill, while his affiliations were all with the banks of the Charles river in Cambridge. [57]

My own pride of authorship never was very great, anyway, and in this instance I am only too glad to sacrifice it in the interest of historical accuracy.

If it would save you embarrassment, I suppose you might print the sketch with this letter as a footnote, but even that is a little awkward, at least, for me. I am, however, always an extremely busy man, and if the publication of this paper and correspondence would bring me any volunteer aid in clearing up a matter which is of some local interest, and of especial interest to the Brigham Family Association, which is now preparing a new ‘Brigham Book,’ I would welcome it.

Sincerely yours,

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