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Chapter 3: civil History.

  • First Constable appointed.
  • -- Deputies to the first General Court. -- monthly meeting. -- no houses to be erected without permission, nor outside of the town. -- all houses to be covered with slate or boards, not with thatch, and to “range even.” -- trees not to be cut down and left in the highways. -- cartway. -- Windmill-hill. -- timber not to be sold out of the town. -- first Constable elected. -- surveyor of highways. -- lots not improved to revert to the town. -- first Townsmen or Selectmen. -- Surveyors of lands.
    The New Town seems never to have been incorporated by specific act. It was originally set apart by the government for public use; and it was from the beginning recognized as a distinct town. As early as June 14, 1631, the Court provided for the making of a canal or “passage from Charles River to the New Town,” and, in ordering a tax of thirty pounds, Feb. 3, 1631-2, to defray the expense of a “pallysadoe about the New Town,” assessed one tenth part thereof on that town, as related in Chapter II. There is no recorded evidence, however, of any municipal transactions by the New Town until March 29, 1632, when the Town Book of Records was opened; since which time a continuous record has been preserved. The first transaction recorded was the “agreement by the inhabitants of the New Town, about paling in the neck of land.” Six weeks later, the Court appointed a constable for the New Town, and selected two of its inhabitants, with a like number from other towns, “to confer with the Court about raising of a public stock.” 1 The first named record, March 29, 1632, has been fully quoted in the preceding chapter. The next in order, Dec. 24, 1632, provided for regular meetings of the inhabitants for the transaction of business. The record is mutilated somewhat, and the words supposed to have been worn off are here inserted in brackets:—

    An agreement made by a general consent, for a monthly meeting.

    Imprimis, That every person undersubscribed shall [meet] every first Monday in every month, within [the] meeting house, in the afternoon, within half [an hour] after the ringing of the bell;2 and that every [one] that makes not his personal appearance [18] there [and] continues there, without leave from the [ ] until the meeting be ended, shall forfeit [for each] default XII. pence: and if it be not paid [before the next] meeting, then to double it, and so until [it be paid].

    Although a general subscription seems to have been contemplated, only two signatures are appended, namely, Thomas Dudley and John Haynes; and Mr. Haynes must have subscribed his name several months after the order was adopted, as he did not arrive until Sept. 3, 1633. At the first meeting holden in pursuance of this “agreement,” several municipal arrangements were made, to secure the beauty and safety of the town, to wit:—

    Jan. 7, 1632-3.

    It is ordered, that no person whatever [shall set] up any house in the bounds of this town [without] leave from the major part.

    Further, it is agreed, by a joint consent, [that the] town shall not be enlarged until all [the vacant] places be filled with houses.3

    Further, it is agreed, that all the houses [within] the bounds of the town shall be covered [with] slate or board, and not with thatch.4

    Further, it is ordered, that all [the houses shall] range even, and stand just six [feet on each man's] own ground from the street.


    Next follows the division of the common pales, apparently at the same meeting.

    The prohibition against erecting houses outside of “the town” may have been merely a precaution against danger from enemies; yet it is not unlikely to have been occasioned, in part at least, by the continued desire to make this the seat of government, and the most desirable place of residence in the colony. The regularity required in the position of the houses indicates a disposition to make the town symmetrical as well as compact. This orderly arrangement, which had doubtless been observed from the beginning, is referred to by Wood, in his “New England's Prospect,” written in this year (1633), as one of the characteristic features of the new town: “This place was first intended for a city; but, upon more serious considerations, it was thought not so fit, being too far from the sea, being the greatest inconvenience it hath. This is one of the neatest and best compacted towns in New England, having many fair structures, with many handsome contrived streets. The inhabitants, most of them, are very rich, and well stored with cattle of all sorts, having many hundred acres of land paled in with general fence, which is about a mile and a half long, which secures all their weaker cattle from the wild beasts.” 5

    After this meeting on the seventh of January, no other is recorded until Aug. 5, 1633; from which date there is a consecutive record of the “monthly meetings.” A selection from the orders adopted at these meetings may serve to illustrate the primitive condition of the town.

    Aug. 5, 1633. Sundry lots were granted for “cow-yards.”

    Sept. 2, 1633. “It is ordered, that whosoever hath any tree lying across a highway, and doth not remove it within seven days, or whosoever shall hereafter fall any tree and let it lie cross a highway one day, shall forfeit the tree.”

    Dec. 2, 1633. “It is ordered, that no person whatever shall fell any tree near the town, within the path which goeth from Watertowne to Charlestowne, upon the forfeiture of five shillings for every tree so felled.” [20]

    “Agreed with Mr. Symon Bradstreet, to make a sufficient cartway along by his pales, and keep it in repair seven years; and he is to have ten shillings for the same.”

    March 2, 1633-4. “Granted John Benjamin all the ground between John Masters his ground and Antho. Couldbyes, provided that the windmill-hill shall be preserved for the town's use, and a cartway of two rods wide unto the same.” 6

    April 7, 1634. “Granted John Pratt two acres by the old burying place, without the common pales.” 7

    Aug. 4, 1634. “It is ordered, that whosoever shall fall [any] tree for boards, clapboards, or frames of houses, [and] sell them out of the town, shall forfeit for every [tree] so sold twenty shillings.”

    Nov. 3, 1634. “James Olmsted is chosen Constable for the year following, and till a new be chosen in his room, and presently sworn.8

    John White is chosen Surveyor, to see the highways and streets kept clean, and in repair for the year following.”

    “It is ordered, that every inhabitant in the town shall keep the street clear from wood and all other things against his own ground; and whosoever shall have anything lie in the street above one day after the next meeting-day, shall forfeit five shillings for every such default.”

    Jan. 5, 1634-5. “It is ordered, that whosoever hath any lot granted by the town, and shall not improve the same, then it is to return to the town; or, if he shall improve the same, he shall first offer it to the town; if they refuse to give him what charges he hath been at, then to have liberty to sell it to whom he can.”

    Next follows an agreement, accompanied by several orders. whereby the system of municipal government was radically [21] changed. Hitherto, all the legal voters had met, from month to month, to manage their public affairs. Power was now delegated to a few individuals, at first styled “Townsmen,” and afterwards “Selectmen,” to transact “the whole business of the town,” until the next November, when a new election might be had.9

    Feb. 3, 1634-5.

    At a general meeting of the whole town, it was agreed upon by a joint consent, that seven men should be chosen to do the whole business of the town, and so to continue until the first Monday in November next, and until new be chosen in their room: so there was then elected and chosen John Haynes, Esq., Mr. Symon Bradstreet, John Taylcott, William Westwood, John White, William Wadsworth; James Olmsted, Constable.

    It is further ordered, by a joint consent, [that] whatsoever these Townsmen, thus chosen, shall do, in the compass of their time, shall stand in as full force as if the whole town did the same, either for making of new orders, or altering of old ones.

    Further, it is ordered, that whatsoever person they shall send for, to help in any business, and he shall refuse to come, they shall have power to lay a fine upon him, and to gather [it].

    Further, it is ordered, that they shall have one to attend upon them, to employ about any business, at a public charge.

    Further, it is ordered, that they shall meet every first Monday in a month, at [ ] in the afternoon, according to the former [order].

    Another important board of officers was elected, at the same meeting:—

    Also, there was then chosen, to join [with] James Olmsted, Constable, John Benjamin, Daniell Denison, Andrew Warner, William Spencer; which five, according to the order of Court, [shall] survey the town lands, and enter the [same in] a Book appointed for that purpose.10 [22]

    It is further ordered, that these five men [shall] meet every first Monday in the [month] at the Constable's house, in the forenoon, at the ringing of the bell.

    1 Mass. Col. Rec., i. 95, 96, May 9, 1632: “Mr. Edmond Lockwood was chosen constable of New Towne for this yeare next ensueing, and till a newe be chosen.” On the same day, “It was ordered that there should be two of every plantacon appointed to conferre with the Court about raiseing of a publique stocke;” — “Mr. Lockwood and Mr. Spencer for Newe Towne.”

    2 It is observable that the hour of meeting was thus early announced by “the ringing of the bell.” Johnson represents that, in 1636, a drum was used, because the town “had as yet no bell to call men to meeting.” —Coll. Mass. Hist. Soc., XIV. 18. It seems unlikely that “Mr. Hooker's company” transported their bell, across the wilderness, to Connecticut, and the story perhaps was inaccurately reported to Johnson. The day of meeting was changed to the second Monday in the month, Oct. 1, 1639, because “it was ordered” by the General Court, “to prevent the hindrance of the military company upon the first Monday in the month, that no other meetings should be appointed upon that day.”

    3 “The town,” technically so-called, was embraced in the district bounded northerly by Harvard Street and Square, westerly by Brattle Square and Eliot Street, southerly by Eliot and South streets, and easterly by Holyoke Street, which was then very crooked.

    4 This was a reaffirmation of an agreement made by the original projectors of the town, nearly two years earlier. In his letter to the Countess of Lincoln, dated March 28, 1631, Dudley speaks of recent disasters by fire, and adds: “For the prevention whereof in our new town, intended this summer to be builded, we have ordered that no man there shall build his chimney with wood, nor cover his house with thatch.” As an additional prevention, the townsmen ordered, Oct. 3, 1636, “That no child, under the age of ten years, shall carry any fire from one house to another, nor any other person unless it be covered, upon the forfeiture of XII. pence a time for every such fault: the one half to the person that sees it, the other to the Constable.” In these days of lucifer matches, such an order may seem unnecessary; but even within the last fifty years, it was not unusual to send from house to house for fire.

    5 Boston edition, p. 45. The prosperity of the inhabitants seems not to have been overstated. Of the general tax imposed by the Court, Oct. 1, 1633, Boston, Roxbury, Charlestown, Watertown, and New Town were assessed alike,—forty-eight pounds; Dorchester was the only town in the colony which was required to pay a larger sum,—eighty pounds. In March, 1636, the share of New Town, in a tax of three hundred pounds, was forty-two pounds, when no other town was assessed more than thirty-seven pounds ten shillings.

    6 Windmill-hill was at the south end of Ash Street, near the former site of the Cambridge Gas Works. A windmill was there erected for the grinding of corn, as no mill moved by water-power was nearer than Watertown. This mill was removed to Boston in August, 1632, because “it would not grind but with a westerly wind.” —Savage's Winthrop, i. 87. The hill was afterwards enclosed by Richard Eccles, who owned the adjoining lands, and it so remained until 1684, when the town asserted its rights; and a tract measuring ten rods on the river, six rods and seven feet across the west end, ten rods and four feet on the north line, and seven and a half rods across the cast end, was acknowledged by Eccles to be public property, together with a highway to it, two rods wide, through his land; and his acknowledgment was entered on the Proprietors' Records.

    7 See chapter XV.

    8 Edmund Lockwood had been appointed Constable by the Court, May 9, 1632, and John Benjamin, May 29,1 633; but James Olmstead was the first person elected by the inhabitants to fill that office, which was then of great honor and importance.

    9 Perhaps the term of service was thus limited in anticipation of the proposed removal of many inhabitants.

    10 Mass. Col. Rec., i. 116. April 1, 1634. “It was further ordered, that the constable and four or more of the chief inhabitants of every town (to be chosen by all the freemen there, at some meeting there), with the advice of some one or more of the next assistants, shall make a surveying of the houses, backside, cornfields, mowing ground, and other lands, improved, or enclosed, or granted by special order of the Court, of every free inhabitant there, and shall enter the same in a book (fairly written in words at length and not in figures), with the several bounds and quantities by the nearest estimation, and shall deliver a transcript thereof into the Court within six months now next ensuing; and the same, so entered and recorded, shall be a sufficient assurance to every such free inhabitant, his and their heirs and assigns, of such estate of inheritance, or as they shall have in any such houses, lands, or frank-tenements.”

    The book thus prepared, called “The Regestere Booke of the Lands and Houses in the New Towne,” and, more familiarly, the “Proprietors' Records,” is still preserved in the office of the City Clerk. The record was not finally closed until Feb. 19, 1829.

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