BY JOSIAH A. STEARNS. [*1]
The section of country marked by the present limits of Bedford was very early settled. Some of its ancient estates are still occupied by descendants of their original owners.
More than one family have dwelt upon the same house-lot for two centuries, and the old mill, the original timbers of which remain, still grinds corn and prepares lumber, as it did before the war with King Philip.
A portion of this territory was known as Winthrop’s Farms, and the remainder as Shawshine. The famous Shawshine trading-house was within its limits. [*2] If not when granted a part of Concord, Winthrop’s Farms soon after became so;
and the Shawshine country had its name changed to Billerica.
An incident in locating the “Farms” has given to Bedford a monument of the past which it is hoped may be reverentially preserved through all coming time. The story is told by Governor Winthrop himself in a paragraph of his journal. The event occurred in 1638.
“The governor and deputy went to Concord to view some land for farms, and, going down the river about four miles, they made choice of a place for one thousand acres for each of them. They offered each other the first choice, but because the deputy’s was first granted, and himself had store of land already, the governor yielded him the choice. So, at the place where the deputy’s land was to begin, there were two great stones, which
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they called the Two Brothers, in remembrance that they were brothers by their children’s marriage, and did so brotherly agree, and for that a little creek near those stones was to part their lands. [*3] At the court in the fourth month after, two hundred acres were added to the governor’s part.”
Previous to the year 1729 the southern half of Bedford belonged to Concord, and the northern half belonged to Billerica.
The line between these two towns ran a little south of the present Main Street of Bedford village. No discontent of the people with their neighbors occasioned the separation. It was sought for simply to enlarge their religious privileges.
Roads were poor, conveniences for travel few, and from many of these settlers the meeting-houses were five or six miles away. Yet the Sabbath service was so sacred and essential to a New-Englander of that day, that even mothers would travel all the long distance on foot, with their babes in their arms, to hear the word of truth. For one or two winters they tried the experiment of hiring preacher to officiate in their own neighborhood; but at length they sought to be incorporated as a separate town.
A petition dated May 1, 1728, was signed by the following persons, all from Concord: Joseph French, Joseph Dean, John Fassett, Samuel Merriam, Stephen Davis, Daniel Cheever, Thomas Woolley, Joseph Bacon, Benjamin Colburn, Nathaniel Merriam, Zachariah Stearns, Andrew Wadkins, Jonathan French, David Taylor, Daniel Davis, Richard Wheeler, and James Wheeler. To this petition Concord granted her consent at once; but Billerica released her townsmen with much reluctance.
The General Court now took the matter in hand. On the 29th of July, 1728, the subject was referred to an existing committee for investigation. Billerica had, through the agency of Jonathan Danforth, June 5, 1685, extinguished by purchase of the Wameseck Indians [*4] “all manner of Indian rights and claims to that parcel of land granted by the General Court to the town of Billerica.” This was called the “Wameseck Purchase,” and the committee referred to had been raised to view it. [*5]
The committee reported as follows:
“After a full hearing of the pleas and allegations of all parties concerned therein, and mature consideration thereon, the committee are humbly of the opinion that the lands petitioned for, as well by the Billerica petitioners as those of Concord, and by a vote of
the town of Concord, set off to and joined with the petitioners of Billerica in making a distinct township, are well accommodated for that purpose. That therefore the said lands with the inhabitants thereof be set off and erected into a separate and distinct township.”
By the act of incorporation of the Town of Bedford, passed on the 23d of September, 1729, the inhabitants were directed within three years to erect and finish a suitable house for public worship, and to procure and settle a minister, making due provision for his comfortable and honorable support; they were also directed to provide a school in which to instruct their youth in writing and reading. In conformity with a vote of the General Court, approved September 26, 1729, Jonathan Bacon was directed to assemble the inhabitants, to give effect to the act of incorporation; and in pursuance thereof the town met October 6, 1729, when the following officers were chosen: Samuel Fitch, Nathaniel Merriam, Jonathan Bacon, Nathaniel Page, Daniel Davis, selectmen; Samuel Fitch, town clerk; John Fassett, town treasurer.
On the 13th of October a second town-meeting was held, and the “Town exepted of the Meeting house as the former commety had a greed with Joseph Fitch for four hundred and sixty pounds.” Probably the house, when thus accepted, contained no pews and was quite unfinished; but a committee was chosen, consisting of Mr. Nathaniel Merriam, Lieutenant Job Lane, Mr. John Fassett, and Cornet Nathaniel Page, “to see the meeting-house parfected and finished.” Forty pounds were raised to “maintain preaching amongst us,” and fifty pounds were raised to “defray the charges that shall be or may arise in the town.”
One more institution was essential to a well-organized town, and on the 23d of October, 1729, “the selectmen met and laid out a burying-place; and it was on the land that Mr. Israel Putnam gave to the town; [*6] and it is bounded by the highway that goes from the meeting-house to Woburn.” The ground thus laid out proved unsatisfactory, and January 12, 1729-30, the selectmen thought it convenient to alter the burying-place, and laid it a little further northward. [*7]
At a town-meeting February 11, 1729-30, Mr. Nicholas Bowes was chosen to be the minister. The town agreed to give him £200 for a settlement, and to let him have sixteen acres of land at £8 per acre.
At the March meeting it was
“Voted, That the
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selectmen join with the committee to stake out so much of the town’s land as is convenient for the use of the town about the meeting-house, and for a training place.”
Mr. Bowes was ordained July 15, 1730, when the church was organized. Rev. John Hancock, of Lexington, was moderator. Rev. Mr. Appleton, of Cambridge, made the introductory prayer.
Another prime object of attention during the first twenty-four years of Bedford’s history was the roads. Hearing the reports of committees, laying out new highways, widening paths into comfortable roads, changing the position of roads, receiving petitions in regard to them, greatly engrossed the attention of every town-meeting.
One condition of the incorporating act was that the town should establish a school. In 1732 the matter was agitated, and sums of money annually voted to maintain a school until 1742, when the town purchased the house of Mr. Benjamin Kidder, near the meeting-house, for the use of the school.
In 1752 the town decided to purchase its first bell, and voted to build a house for it.
September 25, 1754, the town concurred with the church in the dismission of Rev. Mr. Bowes. He seems to have remained in town during the coming winter, and I find him credited £9 6s. 8d. for keeping school five months.
On the 17th of November, 1755, the town concurred with the church in the choice of the Rev. Nathaniel Sherman for their minister. His ordination was appointed on the 21st day of January, 1756. The church records say February 18, 1756; but these are not reliable, as they are only copies of Mr. Sherman’s minutes after his dismission. It is not known who officiated on the occasion.
On the 1st of March, 1759, Mr. Sherman was married to Miss Lydia Merriam, a daughter of one of his deacons.
Mr. Sherman’s ministry of twelve years constituted a period principally of routine and quietness in town affairs. The making, changing, and repairing of roads had principally subsided. The schools continued to be objects of care, but the middle of the town was now possessed of a school-house.
Though the spirit of liberty had been steadily growing among the New England people, it had manifested itself, as yet, principally in resistance to governmental oppression. Slavery still existed in all parts of Massachusetts, and there were a
goodly number of slaves even in Bedford. Equal personal liberty for all men was an idea only by a very few even contemplated. Even if a man was willing to free his slave he could only do so by giving bonds that his freedman should not become a public charge. One case of this sort I quote from the Bedford town records: —
“March ye 23d, 1761. — Col. John Lane gave a bond to Deacon Stephen Davis, town treasurer, to save and indemnify the town of Bedford from any charge that may arise by reason of his negro man being set free.”
That the town took a lively interest in the military enterprises of this and previous periods of her history is evident, but it is much to be regretted that no authentic list of her soldiers, previous to the Revolution, can now be obtained.
“Their wounds had become putrid and offensive, and they themselves nearly exhausted by hunger. Eleazer Davis, after being out fourteen days, came into Berwick. He was wounded in the abdomen, and the ball lodged in his body. He also had his right hand shot off. A tradition says that, arriving at a pond with Lieutenant Farwell, Davis pulled off one of his moccasins, cut it in strings, on which he fastened a hook, caught some fish, fried, and ate them. They refreshed him, but were injurious to Farwell, who died soon after. Josiah Jones, another of the four, was wounded with a ball which lodged in his body. After being out fourteen days, in hourly expectation of perishing, he arrived at Saco, emaciated and almost dead from the loss of blood, the putrefaction of his wounds, and the want of food. He subsisted on the spontaneous vegetables of the forest; and cranberries, which he had eaten, came out of the wounds he had received in his body. This is said to have been the case with Davis. He recovered, but became a cripple.” [*8]
In 1755 the Rev. Mr. Bowes, Bedford’s first minister, became chaplain of a regiment in the expedition to Fort Edward, and, without doubt, some of his parishioners joined him. In 1761 the town voted to abate the whole of the rates of those that went from this town in the country’s service the summer past. [*9] In 1763 it voted to abate the rate of Josiah Davis, his son Paul lately deceased, and Joseph Wilson, their town
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and highway rates, and all the other soldiers their highway rates.
The daughter of Hugh Maxwell says of her father, in a little work commemorative of his life:
“Colonel Maxwell served five campaigns in the old French wars, was among those captured by the Indians under Montcalm at Fort Edward, and barely escaped with his life. Before the close of the war he had attained the rank of ensign.” [*10]
In the mean time Mr. Sherman had received a call to another place. He asked a dismission of the church, and it was granted.
On the 4th of February, 1771, the town concurred with the church in the choice of Mr. Joseph Penniman of Braintree as minister, and agreed to give him £133 6s. 8d. as a settlement, and £66 13s. 4d. annually as a salary.
The town voted that the ordination of the Rev. Mr. Penniman be on the 22 of May, and that it should be religiously observed agreeable to the solemnity of the occasion, and that they were “determined, as much as in them lay, to prevent all Levity, Prophainness, Music, Dancing, and frolicking, and other disorders on sd Day.”
- Josiah A. Stearns’ “Bedford” (1880)
in Drake’s History of Middlesex County: Vol I (pp 241-244)
- Historic properties and neighborhoods (2015)
- Brown’s History of the town of Bedford (1891)
- Hazen’s History of Billerica (1883)
- “Josiah A. Stearns”: b. 1812 – d. 1883 (BHB) II: pp 37-38
- The location of the “Shawsheen House” trading post is disputed. (HPN) p 400
- These boulders lie on the eastern bank of the Concord River, due west of Chestnut Lane, which stems from (the fittingly-named) Dudley Road.
- “the Wameseck Indians” (i.e., “the Wamesit tribe”): a Pennacook people
- “the Wameseck Purchase” (i.e., “the Wamesit Purchase”): an area “nearly coextensive with the present bounds of Lowell south of the Merrimack” (HHB) p 217
- “Mr. Israel Putnam”: one of Bedford’s first deacons: d. 1760 (BHB) p 89
NB: Deacon Israel Putnam should not be confused with Colonel Israel Putnam.
However, Brown explains that the two men were indeed related. (BHB) II: p 28
- “the burying-place”: (now) the Old Burying Ground: 7 Springs Road
- cf. Shattuck’s History of the town of Concord (1835) p 68
- “rates”: taxes
- This quotation is, in fact, from a synopsis of the work.
cf. “The Christian patriot” (1848) [ poor scan ]
in The New England HG register: Vol II (pp 223-224)
The work itself was published fifteen years earlier.
cf. The Christian patriot (1833)