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History Of Cambridge from its Settlement in 1631 To 1776

Sketch of the History Of Cambridge from its Settlement in 1631 To 1776.

By David Greene Haskins, Jr.

May 29, 1655, with the consent of Cambridge, the great Shawshin grant became the township of Billerica. August 27, 1679, Cambridge Village, as it was called, was organized as a separate town which later received the name of Newton. The next loss of territory was March 20, 1713, when the Cambridge Farms were set off and organized as Lexington. Little Cambridge and Menotomy (Brighton and Arlington) remained a part of the town until early in the present century.

The year of Mr. Hooker’s departure, a theological controversy, originated by Mrs. Anne Hutchinson of Boston, began to create great agitation in the Colony. Mrs. Hutchinson’s views were advocated by the Governor, Sir Henry Vane, by John Cotton, and by nearly the whole Boston church. The opposite party was headed by John Wilson, pastor of the church, and Winthrop. Party feeling ran high, and at a session of the Court, held at Boston, March, 1637, it was voted, in spite of the Governor, who refused to put the question, that the next General Court, which was to elect officers for the year, should be held in Newtown. The Court met. May 17th, in the open air on the Newtown Common amid great excitement. Mrs. Hutchinson’s adherents, we learn from an unfriendly pen,* were violent in their speeches, and the two parties well-nigh came to blows. In the midst of the tumult Wilson climbed a tree, and thence addressed the people with marked success. The elections were held. Mrs. Hutchinson’s party were entirely defeated, and Winthrop was elected governor. August 30th, a synod, summoned by the ministers with the magistrates’ consent for the settlement of the controversy, met in Mr. Shepard’s church at Newtown. It included all the ministers, the messengers of the various churches, and the magistrates, and was presided over by Hooker and Bulkeley. This assembly sat twenty-four days, during which the tact and exertions of Governor Winthrop were generally successful in maintaining harmony and good feeling, although some were ” so obstreperous that the magistrates were constrained tp interpose with their authority,” which resulted in the withdrawal of some of the Boston people. The synod finally agreed in condemning almost unanimously eighty-two opinions, ” some blasphemous, others erroneous, and all unsafe; ” and also decided some other points of importance. The General Court, at its next session, November, 1637, also held at Newtown, summoned Mrs. Hutchinson into its presence, and after a long examination banished her almost unanimously. It also banished, disfranchised, or disarmed, many of her adherents, and removed the powder and ammunition from Boston, the stronghold of her party, to Newtown and Roxbury.

During these exciting times, the first steps were taken toward the establishment of a college, and Newtown was selected for its site. Here, “at the end of a spacious plain more like a bowling-green than a wilderness,” ‘ was built the first college in British America, which, in 1639, took the name of its first benefactor, John Harvard. In May, 1638, the Court gave its sanction to a change of name already made by popular usage, and Newtown became Cambridge, in honor of the great University where its own ministers, Hooker, Stone, and Shepard, and many other leading men in the Colonies, had received their education.

About the beginning of the year 1639, under the auspices of the magistrates and elders, a printing-press, the first in the country north of Mexico, was established at Cambridge. For some time it was under the superintendence of the President, and its profits formed a part of the revenues of the college. It was early employed in printing the Bay Psalm Book, and, later, Eliot’s Indian Bible.

In 1643, there was a meeting in the college, of all the ministers of the Colony, numbering about fifty, for the purpose of opposing certain incipient tendencies toward Presbyterianism. These distinguished men, during their stay, were boarded at commons for the modest sum of sixpence a meal. Again, in 1645, July ist, the ministers held a general meeting here for the purpose of revising certain theological works prepared by Hooker and others, and designed to be printed in England.

September i, 1646, at the instance of the General Court, a memorable synod, called together from all the united colonies to establish a system of church government and discipline, met in Cambridge. After three short sessions, at very long intervals, it finally adjourned, in the summer of 1648, having unanimously adopted the Confession of Faith of the Westminster Assembly, and having framed a ” Platform of Church Discipline,” which, with little variation, formed the fundamental rule of the Congregational churches for more than a century. An interesting feature of this synod was a sermon preached by John Eliot to the Indians, in their native language, in presence of the whole assembly and the legislature, June 9, 1647. On the 28th of the previous October, at the Indian settlement of Nonantum, then within the limits of Cambridge, on the south side of the river, he had begun with good success his efforts to civilize and Christianize the natives. The remains of the stone walls and ditches with which his early converts surrounded their town, previous to their removal, in 165 1, to Natick, were long visible. A few of the Indian youth were educated, and an Indian college was built at Cambridge, but was afterwards devoted to other purposes.

Meanwhile, urged by pecuniary embarrassments, Mr. Shepard’s company had been twice on the verge of following the example of their predecessors. In 1640 and 1641, they seriously meditated an emigration to Mattabesett, on the Connecticut, the modern Middletown, and a second scheme of migration, perhaps within the Plymouth limits, induced the General Court, March, 1644, to make them a grant of land on condition of their remaining.

Cambridge seems at this time to have had some commerce with foreign parts, and several of her ships are mentioned by early writers, notably one carrying fourteen guns, which, on a voyage to the Canaries, about the close of the year 1644, fought nearly all day at close quarters, and finally beat off an Irish man-of-war of superior force.

About the year 1650, a woman is said to have suffered death here for the crime of witchcraft, one of the earliest victims to that dreadful popular delusion.* Ten years later, in 1660, Elizabeth Horton, a Quaker, went through the streets proclaiming that the Lord was coining with fire and sword to plead with the people. An amusing instance of the paternal system of government adopted by the Puritans is afforded by the action of the selectmen of Cambridge, February 14, 1676, appointing four persons “to have inspection into families that there be no bye drinking or any misdemeanor whereby sin is committed, and persons from their houses unseasonably.” 2

July 27, 1660, immediately on their arrival in America, Colonels Goffe and Whalley, the regicide judges, took up their abode in Cambridge, where they received a cordial welcome, and remained till February 26th, when they fled to Connecticut. Alarmed by the distant mutterings of the devastating storm of Indian war, which, in 1675, burst on the Colony, the Cambridge militia began the erection of a .stockade, for the defense of the town; but Philip’s death prevented its completion.

Through the earlier part of the eighteenth century, the history of Cambridge presents little worthy of note. The General Court was several times held here, usually to escape the small-pox prevailing in Boston; once, in 1729, in consequence of a dispute with Governor Burnett. On one of these occasions, in 1764, Harvard Hall, where they sat, was consumed by fire, on the night of January 24th, with the philosophical apparatus and the valuable library of the college, including all but one of the books bequeathed by John Harvard.

In 1740, George Whitefield preached here more than once, addressing himself in the most direct and unsparing manner to the students and tutors. In 1749, a female slave was burned at the usual place of execution in Cambridge, for the crime of poisoning her master.*

June 16, 1769, the General Court was adjourned to Cambridge by Governor Bernard, in consequence of the unwillingness of the members to transact business in Boston while the town was held and the very state-house menaced by English troops. The next year, Lieutenant-Governor Hutchinson, in accordance with instructions from England, summoned the General Court to meet at Cambridge, March 15th. .A long struggle ensued between the legislature and the executive. The former offered repeated and vigorous but ineffectual remonstrance against the removal of the Court from Boston, and in September, 1770, observed a day of solemn prayer and humiliation, at which the two Cambridge ministers were requested to perform the religious exercises. It was not until June 13, 1772, that the Governor consented that the Court should be adjourned to Boston.

In the year 1761, at the instance of several wealthy gentlemen, an Episcopal church was established in Cambridge, under the charge of the Rev. East Apthorp. He was received in no friendly spirit by the Congregational ministers, and in a few years sought a more agreeable field of labor in England. The breaking out of the war drove his successor, the Rev. Winwood Sergeant, and his congregation of wealthy loyalists, from the town, and the church was closed. In the agitations preceding the Revolution, Cambridge, in spite of these same numerous and influential loyalists, ardently espoused the popular cause. The people .” discovered a glorious spirit, like men determined to be free.” In 1765, October 14th, they adopted patriotic resolutions against the Stamp Act. In 1770, they tolled their bells on the burial day of the Boston rioters killed by the troops. November 26, 1773, they passed energetic resolutions against the tax on tea, expressing their willingness to join with Boston and other towns, on the shortest notice, to deliver themselves and their posterity from slavery.

September i, 1774, a military detachment sent by General Gage, seized and carried off a quantity of powder from Charlestown, and two small fieldpieces from Cambridge. The news spreading rapidly, roused the neighboring country, and the following day, an excited multitude from the surrounding towns poured into Cambridge, and took possession of the Common. They compelled Judges Danforth and Lee, two of the mandamus councilors recently appointed in violation of the charter, to announce from the court-house steps their resignation of their seats at the council-board, and they exacted pledges of fidelity to the charter from the High Sheriff and County Clerk. At the request of Lieutenant-Governor Oliver, who hastened to Boston to assure General Gage of the respectable and orderly character of the assemblage, no troops were sent out against them, otherwise the Revolution might have had an earlier beginning. In the afternoon, re-enforced by fresh arrivals, they surrounded Oliver’s house, three to four thousand strong, a quarter part in arms, and, by violent threats, compelled him to sign a paper resigning his seat as president of the council. After which they peaceably withdrew.

October 17th, the first Provincial Congress, presided over by John Hancock, met by adjournment from Concord, in the First Church, where it continued to hold its sessions till its dissolution, December loth. Here, too, the Committee of Safety held, apparently, its first meeting, November 2d, as well as many meetings the following year.

The annals of Cambridge for 1775, are a part of our national history, and can here be only briefly referred to. February ist, the second Provincial Congress met in the church, but on the i6th adjourned to Concord. Cambridge bore its part in the fighting, and the losses of the memorable 19th April, and its selectmen made an ineffectual effort to check the advance of Lord Percy’s re-enforcements, by taking up the planks of the Brighton bridge. After the battle, the town became one of the chief rendezvous for the rapidly-gathering patriot forces, and the deserted halls of the college, and houses of the loyalists, and even Christ Church itself, were occupied for military purposes. Here was probably the spot where, early in May, were erected the first of the American fortifications. Here General Artemas Ward, commander-in-chief of the Massachusetts troops, fixed his headquarters. Here General Washington assumed command of the American army, and here the head-quarters and center of the army remained during the siege. In the midst of such unwonted scenes of military activity, the eventful year 1776 dawned on the hitherto peaceful town.


  1. Wood’s New Eiilattd’s Prospect p. 43. ‘
  2. Holmes’s History of Cajnbridffe p. 9, note.
  3. Winthrop’s History of New England, vol. i. p. 304-
  4. Holmes’s History 0/ Cambridge, p. 10, note.
  5. Winthrop’s History of New England, vol. i. p. 73.
  6. Town Records.
  7. IVottder-lVorking Providence, p. 61.
  8. Hudson’s History of LexiJigton, pp. 34 and 35, and note.
  9. Records.
  10. 1 Winthrop’s History of New England vol. i. p. 220.
  11. Hutchinson’s History 0/ Massachusetts vol. i. p. 62, note.
  12. Hubbard’s History 0/ Ne-w England p. 302.
  13. Winthrop’s History 0/ New Eng;landj vol. i. p. 238.
  14. Wonder-Working Providence-. 164.
  15. Records Massachusetts Bay Colony \ol. i. p. 180.
  16. Albro’s Life of Shepa-rd, pp. 242-245,
  17. Hudson’s History of Lexington p. 37. Records Massachusetts Bay Colony vol. ii. p. 62.
  18. Winthrop’s History of Iew England vol. ii. p. 219.
  19. Hutchinson’s History of Massachusetts vol. ii. p. 22.
  20. Hutchinson’s History of Massachusetts vol. i. p. 187.
  21. Town Records.
  22. Records of Massachusetts Bay Colony vol. vi. p. 8g.
  23. Drake’s Historic Fields and Mansions of Middlesex p. 170.
  24. Town Records.
  25. American Arckives, 4th series, vol. i. pp. 762-769.

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