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The Stinted Common

by Charles D. Elliot.
The early settlers of Charlestown built their homes not far from the present City square, and then lotted out the remainder of the peninsula into corn fields and planting lots.

Farming and stock raising were among their chief employments, and as the peninsula was too small for tillage and pasturage both, they ‘agreed and concluded’ that their cattle should be pastured outside the neck upon the main land, and they chose for grazing grounds lands which are now a large part of the city of Somerville. This territory belonged to the town. It is variously spoken of in the old records as ‘the main,’ the ‘Cow commones,’ ‘the Stinted Pasture,’ ‘the Stinted Common,’ and ‘the land without the neck,’ meaning the land beyond the neck. This tract embraced what is now East Somerville, Prospect, Central, and Spring hills, the southerly slope of Winter hill, and a considerable portion of West Somerville, its boundaries not being very clearly defined at that time.

The dividing of this common ground among the citizens, or stinting of the pasture, as they termed it, received attention as early as 1635—a committee being then appointed to consider the matter. At a town meeting held February 6, 1636 (27th 1637 n. s.) four of the inhabitants, viz., ‘William Brackenbury, Ezekial Richeson, Thomas Ewar, and Ralph Sprague,’ were chosen to assist the selectmen in ‘Stinting the common and considering of the great Lotts according to portion.’ They were to meet monthly for that purpose. In making their apportionment of rights in the common pasturage, the committee at this time (1627) decided ‘to value a person at three cows,’ and in their records of later years, the size of a common or stint of land for one cow was one and one-half acres, so that it would seem from these records that each settler was entitled in this division [8] to rights in four and one-half acres of grazing land, although this afterwards may have been changed.

In 1638 the rights of the different owners in the Stinted pasture were registered in the town's book of possessions, and again in 1648 and in 1653-4. At a meeting of the selectmen on the thirteenth day of February, 1657, n. s., all the proprietary rights of the several inhabitants of Charlestown in this Stinted pasture, with the concurrence of all the proprietors themselves, were confirmed and by their general consent were ‘Recorded and Ratified to stand Legal and vallid to their use forever.’

There were recorded and confirmed at this time, the titles of ownership to 166 1/2 commons, or presumably about 250 acres of land to forty-three different persons. Each title was recorded in the town records somewhat as follows, viz.:—

Confirmed and Entred for Thomas Lynde, senior—nineteen commons.

I say to him and his heires—

John Greene, Recorder.

This John Greene was ruling elder of the Charlestown church, and town clerk for many years.

In 1681 action was again taken by the inhabitants of Charlestown regarding the division of the Stinted common. Between 1636, when the first apportionment was made among the people of the town, and 1681, there were numerous transfers of titles to rights in the common, from one owner to another, but in none of these transfers, nor in the records of 1638, and later years, or in the confirmation of titles in 1657, is there any description of lots by bounds, or any reference to rangeways or streets, or any plan mentioned covering the territory laid out and allotted. It is probable that some survey and plan of this section was made, as the people of that day were methodical in their public matters, and would hardly have attempted the granting of innumerable titles in a tract of several hundred acres of land, without some plat or plan to guide them. [9]

Why it was deemed necessary in 1681 to again revive the question of titles in the Stinted Pasture I do not know. The question may have arisen before, and evidently did then, whether or not these titles were permanent; there seems to have been nothing in the record of the division of 1636, or in any other record previous to 1681, to show whether their tenure was forever or temporary, but I think the persons receiving the grants believed that they were for all time. In every sale previous to 1681, the deed simply gives the number of cow commons, but does not locate them, yet, in most of the transfers between owners, these commons are deeded to the grantees and their heirs forever, and I think all were supposed to be thus conveyed.

The idea of dividing or stinting common lands and pastures was not new; the custom dates back in England, Sweden, and probably other countries, to the earliest times. Among the early bequests mentioned in the reports of the Charities Commissioners of England is one to the poor of the town of Marston, Oxfordshire, where it has been the custom from time immemorial to grant to a certain number of the poor of this town a cow common, or right of pasturage for one cow each, on waste land. In England this right of cow commons arose, and became a law of the land probably in feudal times, when the lords of the manor granted lands to tenants or retainers for services performed or expected; and as these tenants could not plough or improve their lands without cattle, it became a necessity, and later a law, that the tenant should have cow commons or rights of pasturage for his cattle in the waste lands of the manor; other rights were granted tenants, such as the right to fish, to cut peat, etc., but these rights of commonage evidently did not carry with them any fee in the land. A knowledge of the fact that in England this tenure was limited may have caused a doubt in the minds of the Charlestownians as to whether their fee in these cow commons was absolute or limited, or whether, indeed, they had any fee at all, or only rights of pasturage, under the previous divisions. [10] This, together with the repeated attempts of the Royal government to revoke their charter, the fact that, when so revoked, all common lands would revert to the crown, the vagueness of former allotments, and disputes concerning land claims may each or all have been the cause which led to a reapportionment in 1681, the records of which begin as follows, viz.:—

Charles Town, 1680: ffebruary: 14th.’ [Feb. 24, 1681 n. s.]

Att a meeting of the proprietors of the Stinted Common, as to a laying out a part of it, Then was put to Vote these ffollowing proposalls, & all of them past In the affirmative:—

1.—That there should be one Acre & a halfe layd out to a Common.

2.—Where they would have this Land layd out, it was Voted & past for the neerr or hither part of the Comon.

3.—Whether this Land should be for ever or for years, It past for a good Inheritance in ffee Simple.

4.—That a Comitte may be Chosen for the heareing & proveing & confirmjng of the Titles of Clajmers to the respective Commons.

5.—The Committee were then Chosen by Vote, & are, viz.—

Mr. Joseph LyndeCapt. Ricd SpragueCapt Lar Hammond
James Russell Esqr.Lieut Jno Cutter

6.—That Sergt Ricd Lowden, Josiah Wood, Snr, and Tho: White be Impowrd to gether Up the Rent due to ye proprietors, wch monv is to be delivered to sd Comitte for defraying of Charges that arise by Surveying, Laying out & Clearing of, &c.

7.—That the Common be measured by the Care of ye Committee so that ye numbr of Acres thereon may be known.

8.—That it be left wth ye Comitte wch are Empowered to raise mony proportionable from Each Common to defray ye Charge that may arise on the aforesd worke of the Comon.

9.—That the highwayes betwixt ye ranges be Twenty-four ffoott wide.


The committee appointed by this meeting reported on December 15 (25th n. s.), 1681, as follows:

First, that wee have wth much paines & Care, examined ye Sundry Claims that have been made by any persons unto A propriety in the Sd Comon, or Stinted pasture; And doe find the respective proprieties, or number of Commons mentioned in A Lis herewth presented; to be the clear & Honest rights of the persons respectively named in the Sd List. All wch doe Amount unto the Numbr of Three hundred Thirty one Commons.

Secondly, that the proportions of commons of right belonging to each prson as in the Aforesd List are Expressed, Shall be Confirmed by the proprietors, may be Recorded in the Town book, to Stand as their proper Estate to them And their heirs for Ever, the Charge of recording to be paid by the proprietors: This wee propose as necessary for the future Settlement of the right of each proprietor; for the prevention of all after disputes relating there Unto.

Thirdly, Wee conceive it necessary that one Acre & A halfe of Land to A Common (According to the Vote of the proprietor), be Laid out at the hither end of the Comon, Excluding all necessary Highwayes, both publicke and private.

Fourthly, Wee propose that the piece of Land lying next the Towne, viz.: from Jno. Mousalls gate, Upon A Line Over to the lower Corner of Thomas Crasswells Land, all yt Land within that line Unto the Neck of Land, be Left in Common for publick military Exercises, &c.

Fifthly, It will be necessary yt the laying out of the proportions of Land to Each Commoner, or proprietor, be referred Unto A Committe of meet prsons to be chosen together with the Artist, who are to Regulate the Same, According to their best discretions, in the most Equitable manner; the proprietors Voted the first committee to manage this 5th Article.

Sixthly, ye Lotts be made by the sd Committe & Numbered according to the Number of the proprietor, who, upon [12] timely notice given, shall meet & draw their Lotts, and according as the Number of their Lotts shal be, So Shall their proportions of Land be Laid out neer or further off, the Line to begin at Jno Mousalls.

Seventhly, That the Remainder of the Common wch lies Undivided bee cleered of brush & Superfluous Trees; yt it may be rendered fit for pasturage, & ytt it be referred, to the Comitte to contrive the most Expedient wayes to Effect it.

The land herein reserved for military exercises is now that part of Charlestown adjoining Somerville between Main street and Cambridge street, which are our Broadway and Washington street. This land, some twenty acres in extent, remained a common until 1793, when the town sold it to the Hon. Thomas Russell, and from him it descended to Richard Sullivan. The present Sullivan square is all that there is remaining open and public of this military common. On January 2, 1681 (January 12, 1682, n. s.) the committee again reported, giving a list of persons to whom the 331 commons mentioned in their previous report had been allowed; this list is too long for this paper, but the territory laid cut, and which it covered, seems to be that part of our city which lies east of Central street, between Washington street, Bow street, and Somerville avenue on the south, and Broadway on the north, or East Somerville and Prospect and Central hills. It is doubtful, however, if all the land up to Central street was actually divided at this time, for although the proprietors met to draw their lots in accordance with the allotment, some of them, by agreement with the committee, had other lands granted in lieu of their rights in the Stinted pasture, so that when in 1684-5 the remainder of the common was allotted, some lands east of Central street seem to have been included.

The division of the remainder of the common was made in March, 1685, and has the following record:—

Charles Towne, 1685. A record of the Lands Laid out in Charles Towne bounds on this Side Menotamies River (being [13] called the Stinted Pasture) Unto the proprietors thereof (According Unto A Vote of thiers past, when Conveened together March Tenth, 1684-5), which was Effected and performed by their Committee (Chosen and Confirmed by the Said proprietors March 27th, 1685), who haveing finished the said worke, The Selectmen of Said Towne being satisfied therewith, Ordered it, yt each mans proprietie in the Said Land According to the platt of Ensigne David ffiske the Surveyor (According to Law) be recorded in the Towns booke of records, to be their propper Right, and Estate.

This record shows that a plan was made of this last division; I think no such plan has ever been discovered, yet a description of each lot is recorded, and the whole record is much more definite than in any of the previous allotments.

This last division extended as far as Alewife brook; it covered 650 acres of land. These two divisions, or ‘Dividents,’ as they were called, included all the territory between Washington street, Bow street, Somerville avenue, and Elm street on the south, to Broadway on the north, and from the present Charlestown line to the present Nathan Tufts Park, which it included, and the land on both sides of Broadway, from Powder House square to Alewife brook.

It is perhaps doubtful whether or not all the lots in these two divisions could be identified and located at the present day, but the greater part of them have been; one, for instance, which was the lot set off to the Church of Charlestown, was on Cross street, and remained in its possession for a century or more. Another was the Wheeler lot of twelve acres, on which are now the city hall, public library, high school buildings, Winter Hill station, etc.; and another the Rowe lot, on which the old Tufts house, headquarters of the Historical Society, stands; undoubtedly, with time and patience a fairly correct map of these old property divisions could be made. In these two divisions of 1681 and 1685 the common land was laid out in ranges, running nearly north and south, and of forty rods' width, with rangeways or [14] streets between them, eighty rods, or one-quarter of a mile apart, the ranges being sub-divided into lots. The rangeways, though spoken of in the record of 1681 as being twenty-four feet in width, are later recorded, with one exception, as being two rods wide, and so remained until after Somerville became a separate town. The rangeways east of the Powder House were known by numbers from one to eight, and corresponded with the following present streets. viz.:—

The first rangeway was Franklin street; the second Cross and Shawmut streets, which was laid out three rods wide, being the exception heretofore noticed; it was called ‘Three Pole Lane,’ and was known by this name within the memory of the writer. The third rangeway was Walnut street; the fourth, School street; the fifth, Central; sixth, Lowell, portions of which are extinct: seventh, Cedar; and eighth, Willow avenue.

There were three more rangeways west of Powder House square, which were numbered from one to three, all running northerly from Broadway over College hill.

Rangeway No. 1 came into Broadway about opposite Simpson avenue, but it is now extinct. Rangeway No. 2 is now Curtis street, and No. 2 is North street.

The Stinted pasture did not include any land north of Broadway which lay to the eastward of Powder House square; the larger part of this land was the ‘Ten Hills Farm,’ granted to Governor Winthrop in 1630. Nor did it seem to include any territory south of Washington street and Somerville avenue.

The boundaries of the Governor Winthrop estate were well defined but the locations of lands which were granted south of the Stinted pasture, and which extended to the Cambridge line, are very obscure in the earlier records. Thus has been sketched the laying out and beginning of that section of our city which we may very appropriately name the Highlands of Somerville, covering nearly eleven hundred acres of land, the larger part of which is now our most thickly settled territory.

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