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Cambridge Common.

Ex-Mayor Charles H. Saunders.
One of the most interesting spots in our historic city is the public Common in Ward One, situated on Massachusetts Avenue, with Harvard College on one side and Radcliffe College on the other. This tract of about ten acres was set apart by the Proprietors of Common Lands for public uses from the earliest settlement of the town. The title, however, was not formally transferred to the town until November 20, 1769, when at a meeting of the proprietors it was voted, ‘That all the common lands belonging to the Proprietors, fronting the College, commonly called the Town Commons, be and the same are hereby granted to the town of Cambridge to be used as a training field, to lie undivided and to remain for that use forever, provided, nevertheless, that if the said town should dispose of, grant or appropriate the same or any part thereof at any time hereafter, to or for any other use than that aforementioned, then and in such case the whole of the premises hereby granted to said town shall revert to the Proprietors granting the same, and the present grant shall thereupon be deemed null and void.’

As early as 1636, the annual elections of the colony for the choice of Governor, Deputy-Governor, and Assistants were held under a large oak-tree which stood on the easterly side of the Common, opposite Holmes Place. One of the most remarkable of these elections took place May 17, 1637, the contest being between Governor Harry Vane and Ex-Governor John Winthrop. The day was clear and warm, when, at one o'clock in the afternoon, the freemen of the colony gathered in groups about this tree. Most of the noted men of the colony, including the magistrates and clergy, were among the large number present. Governor Vane, in English fashion, beneath the open sky, announced the purpose of the meeting to be the annual [48] election. Great excitement prevailed, and in the midst of the tumult, Rev. John Wilson, minister of the First Church in Boston, climbed the trunk of the wide-spreading oak, and, clinging to one of its branches, began vehemently to address the meeting, exhorting the freemen to look well to their charter and consider carefully the work of the day, which was the choosing of their magistrates. Governor Vane's party objecting to an immediate election, Winthrop, as deputy-governor, declared that the majority should decide, and put the question himself. A majority was clearly in favor of proceeding at once to an election. Governor Vane now gave way and allowed the election to proceed. It resulted in the complete defeat of Vane's party, and the youthful governor, disappointed and crestfallen, shortly after sailed for England, never to return. Vane was the youngest person ever elected governor of Massachusetts, having been but twenty-four years old at the time. On his return to England, he joined the party opposed to King Charles, and, soon after the Restoration, was tried for high treason and beheaded. It is expected that an oak will be planted this year by the Park Commissioners on the site of the original tree, thus adding one more instructive reminder of the early days of the colony.

In 1740, Rev. George Whitefield visited Cambridge, and, having been refused the use of the meeting-house, preached several times under a large elm-tree at the northwesterly corner of the Common, to audiences estimated at thousands, and ever after the elm was known as the ‘Whitefield tree.’ It remained standing until 1855, when it was removed by the city.

This Common was famous also as the place selected by the yeomanry of Middlesex on which to assemble on every occasion of public emergency. On Thursday, September 1, 1774, Governor Gage sent four companies of troops in thirteen boats up the Mystic River, and seized two hundred and fifty half-barrels of powder, being the whole stock belonging to the colony, in the old powder-house, still standing, at Medford, and removed it to Castle William, now Fort Independence, in Boston Harbor. A detachment also went to Old Cambridge and carried off two fieldpieces. These proceedings caused great indignation, and on the following day more than two thousand men of Middlesex assembled here to consult in regard to this insult to the people. From the Common they marched to the [49] court-house in Harvard Square, and compelled three councilors, Oliver, Danforth, and Lee, and the high sheriff of the county, to resign their offices.

On June 16, 1775, orders were given for one thousand men to parade at six o'clock in the evening on the Common, with packs and blankets, and provisions for twenty-four hours, together with all the intrenching tools in the Cambridge camp. That night, Colonel William Prescott, clad in a simple uniform, with a blue coat and three-cornered hat, took command. The men were drawn up in line and marched to the small common on Holmes Place. At a signal, amid profound silence, President Langdon of Harvard College, standing upon the steps of the Holmes mansion, the headquarters of the Committee of Public Safety, offered an earnest prayer for the success of the patriots. He closed as follows: ‘Go with them, O our Father, keep them as in the hollow of Thy hand, cover them with Thy protecting care, and bring them back to us victorious.’ At nine o'clock, without uniforms, and with no arms except fowling-pieces without bayonets, and with only a limited supply of powder and bullets, they marched in silence down the road to Charlestown for Bunker Hill. Two sergeants carrying dark lanterns were a few paces in front, and the intrenching tools in carts brought up the rear. Few of the men were aware of the object of the expedition until they halted at Charlestown Neck. Here Major Brooks and General Putnam joined them, and the main body, together with a fatigue party of two hundred Connecticut troops, marched over to Bunker Hill, and about midnight began their work.

This Common contained also the famous elm under which Washington took command of the Continental Army. On his arrival at Cambridge in 1775, he found upwards of nine thousand militia encamped here in tents, and occupying also the college buildings and Christ Church. On the morning of July 3, under escort of his staff and the officers of the army, Washington marched from what is now the old President's House in Harvard Square, then occupied as his headquarters, to the elm on the Common. The army was drawn up in line under command of General Artemas Ward, who read Washington's commission to the assembled multitude, and made proclamation of the same to the army. Washington then advanced a few paces, made a brief address, drew his sword, and assumed the command, [50] which he held until the treaty of peace was signed, and the independence of the United States acknowledged by England.

In October, 1789, Washington, then President of the United States, made his last tour through New England. At Weston, October 23, he was met by a company of horse from Cambridge, and escorted to this Common. On arrival, he was saluted with salvos of artillery under charge of General Brooks, who met him at the head of about one thousand militia. Soon after, he left the Common, and proceeded to Harvard Hall, to meet the officers of the college, who had assembled to receive him.

One hundred years ago, the college Commencement was the great holiday of the State, and large numbers from the surrounding towns began to congregate here on the first day of the week. The Common was completely covered with tents, and every variety of show and exhibition, which continued for the entire week. This outside display greatly overshadowed the exercises of the college.

After much contention, authority was obtained from the General Court, June 5, 1830, to inclose and beautify these grounds. The work was completed at private expense in 1832. This Common, so finely located in the centre of a large and growing population, is justly the pride of the city. Its value for recreation and the health and comfort of our citizens can hardly be overestimated.

Upon the urgent appeal of the mayor of the city in 1868 and 1869, in both of his inaugurals, the city council decided to erect a monument upon the Common in honor of the soldiers and sailors of Cambridge, who gave up their lives in the War of the Rebellion. The corner-stone of the memorial was laid June 17, 1869, with appropriate ceremonies, the mayor making the principal address, after which the bells were rung and national airs played by the band and chimed upon the bells in Christ Church. The exercises were closed by the firing of a national salute. A roll of honor with the names engrossed on parchment, of all the men sent by Cambridge to the war, was deposited with other documents in the copper box in the corner-stone. The monument was finished the following spring, and dedicated July 13, 1870. The exercises included an address by the mayor and an oration by Rev. Alexander McKenzie. [51]

On May 1, 1876, a centennial tree, raised from the seed of the Washington Elm by Mr. John Owen, was presented to the city, and planted on the westerly side of the Common with suitable exercises. Several thousand persons were present, together with the city government, and among the features of the occasion were an address by the mayor and an original hymn sung by the children of the public schools.

In 1882, a fine bronze statue of John Bridge, in Puritan costume, one of the most prominent of the early settlers of the town, selectman from 1635 to 1652, and representative for several terms in the General Court, and deacon of the First Church, was presented to the city by his descendant, Samuel J. Bridge, and erected in the northeasterly corner of the Common. It was dedicated November 28, after an interesting address by Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson and remarks by the mayor, President Eliot, and General Charles Devens.

Each Memorial Day finds a large concourse assembled around the soldiers' monument with the members of the various posts of the Grand Army, to listen to eulogy and song, while the early flowers of spring are liberally strewed about it. As the throng passes from this interesting spot, the question is often asked: ‘What is the history of these cannon that are grouped around the monument?’ These three huge war-dogs came into the possession of the city by a vote of the legislature, passed March 31, 1875, as follows: ‘Resolved, That there be granted and transferred to the city of Cambridge the three old British cannon and their carriages now in the State Arsenal yard in said city, provided said city shall furnish a suitable platform for them in the Cambridge Common, the first camp ground of the Revolution, and keep said cannon thereon in good condition forever.’ These cannon were about to be transferred to the state grounds at Framingham, but the passage of this vote gave them a permanent place on the Common. Two of them are British guns, and have the broad arrow-mark of England. The other, probably taken at Quebec in 1745, is of French manufacture. All bear evidence of great age. They belong to those captured by Ethan Allen at Crown Point in 1775, which were ordered to be transported to Cambridge to be used in the siege of Boston.

General Knox was a great favorite of Washington, and to him was given the execution of the order to remove one hundred [52] of the heavy cannon, captured by Allen, from Crown Point to Cambridge. The cannon and mortars were loaded on forty-two strong sleds, and dragged slowly along by eighty yoke of oxen. The route was from Lake George to Kinderhook in New York, and thence by way of Great Barrington to Springfield, where fresh oxen were provided. The roads were bad, and the train could not proceed without snow. Fortunately, the roads soon became passable, and the strange procession wound its tedious way through the hills of western Massachusetts down to the sea. The cannon were too cumbersome for field use, but were especially adapted for siege-guns, which Washington stood greatly in need of for the seven miles of redoubts around Boston. After the British evacuated Boston, the cannon were left mounted in the forts overlooking the city, and these are the remnants of those Revolutionary relics. The French piece probably came into possession of the British at the conquest of Canada, and was transferred to Crown Point for its defense at the beginning of the Revolution.

We have thus in these cannon three valuable relics which, under Washington, were used for our defense, and they remind us forcibly of the remote past under the colonial government. Although unfitted for use in war, they have at last, by the courtesy of the State, found an appropriate resting-place, and are destined to keep peaceful vigil through the dim future over the first camp ground of the Revolution,—the spot where Washington and his generals organized that gallant army which, after years of struggle and vicissitude, won for the nation a glorious victory.

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