Newe Towne Is Born

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Lexington began as a part of the town of Cambridge, so before we focus our attention on Lexington’s share of the map, it makes sense to look at the geographic history of “Newe Towne,” as Cambridge was called at first. It began in 1630—the year that John Winthrop’s little fleet, four shiploads of Puritan settlers, first sailed into the mouth of the Charles River. A few early birds had been in the neighborhood for a year or so, and had already settled in villages near the river mouth at Charles Town (prudently named after the monarch whose good will they nervously hoped to keep), and a few miles upstream at Watertown, a place where the river was shallow and gentle rapids made for good fishing.

But people felt that Charles Town didn’t have enough good water to support a major settlement, and Watertown was too far from the harbor, so the colony’s leaders decided to find a new location for their capital. They looked for a place they could fortify against a possible Indian attack. No such threat was visible at the moment, but the colony was brand new, and they thought it prudent to be prepared, just in case.

They chose a piece of level ground in the area where Harvard Square is now, and named it Newe Towne. It was to be protected against attack by a stockade, or “pallysadoe,” curving around it on the landward side but open to the river. The leading lights of the colony agreed to build houses there… and some did, but before Newe Towne was up and running, the spoon-shaped peninsula of Boston had become a more popular choice. In the end, most of Massachusetts Bay's movers and shakers built there.

So it was that Boston instead of Newe Towne became the colony's center of political and religious activity. For defense Boston was provided with a fort, built on a hill at Fort Point, not far from the present site of South Station. (The name of the nearby channel commemorates the point, but there hasn’t been a hill in that vicinity for quite some time.)

Puritan settlers, bailing out of England in large numbers, kept arriving throughout the 1630s, and they spread rapidly over the Massachusetts landscape, laying out towns and villages designed to support a population of farmers. A town needed arable land to attract settlers, and land was generally granted—by the town if within a town’s limits, or by the colony if not—to anyone who undertook to live on it and farm it, provided that they kept that promise. Grants were usually not final for a year or more, and were forfeit if not settled by that deadline.

But not all grantees were required to occupy their land personally: some wealthy men received large grants in several locations, given with the expectation that they would hire people to farm them. When agricultural activity sprang up in a region previously empty of English settlers, it encouraged enterprising families of lesser means to move in and either buy plots from the original grantees or ask the town or colony for nearby land that was still ungranted. The makers of those first large grants were probably more concerned with seeding the ground for settlement than merely doing favors for rich people.

Newe Towne had begun life on a modest parcel of ground, with boundaries not greatly different from those of present-day Cambridge. The town outlined on this map took a couple of decades to grow to that impressive and unmanageable size. Its initial plan doesn’t seem to have involved much thought for agriculture. The town was sited on north bank of the Charles, in a space squeezed between Watertown and Charlestown—both settlements previously laid out. (The part of Charlestown that bordered Newe Towne is now Somerville.) Newe Towne may have included some of the downriver land where Cambridgeport and East Cambridge are now, but a good deal of it was tidal marsh at that time.