Growth Spurts

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Squeezed as it was between its neighbors, Newe Towne couldn’t expand to the east, the northeast, or the west. The only way open, on the same side of the river, was northwest.

Expansion came mainly in three growth spurts. After the details of the boundary with Charlestown were worked out in 1632–33, the town pleaded with the General Court to grant it more land so that it could attract and keep inhabitants. There was some reason for this anxiety: a fairly large number of residents, led by the town’s minister, Thomas Hooker, were planning to pull up stakes and go settle in Connecticut. Their chief complaint was that the town lacked sufficient farmland to support them adequately. (Mr. Hooker, an able and charismatic minister, had also fallen into disagreement with the colony’s leaders on some matters of civil and ecclesiastical governance, and this also played a part in their restlessness.)

Though the boundary between Newe Towne and Watertown wasn’t fully settled until 1635, the General Court was aware even a year earlier that Newe Towne’s land problem was real, and they responded in 1634 by granting it a sizable chunk of land on the opposite, south bank of the Charles—a chunk that contained what are now Allston, Brighton, Newton, and Brookline. (The last of these villages was included in the grant only on condition that Newe Towne persuade Mr. Hooker and his followers to stay on. When that effort failed in 1636, the town had to relinquish Brookline, but it kept all the rest.) And that was the first growth spurt.

On its own side of the Charles, Newe Towne was lobbying to push its boundary to the northwest. Early in 1636, the General Court declared that “Newe Towne bounds shall run eight myles into the country, from their meeteing house.” This grant—the second growth spurt—added to the town most of what is now Arlington and more than half of Lexington—the eight-mile boundary line was a short way west of Lexington’s present center. That was the second growth spurt.

Newe Towne’s northwest extension was comparatively narrow, tucked between Watertown to the southwest and Woburn to the northeast. Those boundary lines diverged, so the territory added to Newe Towne grew broader as it approached the western limit. But that territory included some rocky hills that were not much good for farming. The people of the town (which after changing its name in 1638 was coming to be known as Cambridge), still felt hemmed in.

In 1641–42, they persuaded the General Court to grant them “all the land lying upon Saweshin [i.e., Shawsheen] Ryver, and between that and Concord Ryver, and between that and Merrimack Ryver, not formerly granted by this Court … so long as they erect a village there within five years….” They had trouble meeting this deadline, which had to be extended and was ultimately canceled. The final grant was made without conditions in early 1644. It included not only the territory along the Shawsheen, but also what lay between Cambridge and Concord. This, the third and greatest growth spurt of them all, more than doubled the territory that was nominally within Cambridge. However, some of the land added in the grant had already been given to various owners by the General Court.

There wasn’t space to print the river names legibly on the map, but you can see the Concord River defining the western (left) side of the granted territory and running into the Merrimac at the upper left. The Shawsheen runs parallel to line that defines the eastern side of the grant, and runs off the top of the map a little to the right of center. (It reaches the Merrimac at what is now Lawrence.)

Settlers began moving into the Shawsheen land, but the town also gave a good deal of it to owners who continued living in Cambridge—well-to-do folk who could hire laborers to work their distant farms.