Thriving and Dividing

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Though Newe Towne had missed out on becoming the colony’s capital city, it found a new purpose when the General Court, in 1636, declared the intention to build “a schoale or Colledge” for the purpose of educating the “able ministry” on which the Puritan commonwealth depended. Many ministers were coming over from England, but the legislators understood that they couldn’t count on immigration to satisfy this need forever. Newe Towne wasn’t chosen as the college’s location until 1637, and it took more time to get it started. The first president, Henry Dunster, was appointed in 1640, and the first class of nine was graduated in 1642.

Newe Towne, conscious of the honor that had been conferred on it, had voted in 1638 to rename itself after Cambridge, the English university town in which Puritanism had found its intellectual home. In 1639, the infant college was named after John Harvard, Charlestown’s young minister, who had died of tuberculosis and left all his books and half of his estate to the college. Looking at these various milestones, one can see that Harvard University had several years from which to choose the date of its founding, but no one familiar with academic folkways will be surprised that the university has always claimed 1636, the earliest date possible.

Regardless of the honor, however, Cambridge—which everyone was soon calling it—didn’t see the little college as a significant economic asset. As we’ve seen the town was still petitioning the General Court for more land in the early 1640s, until the Shawsheen grant of 1644 greatly expanded its area.

For nine years after the Shawsheen grant, Cambridge occupied a sizeable portion of the map, an irregular but narrow string of villages, which stretched both northwest and southwest from the point where it had been founded: the original town surrounding what’s now Harvard Square. This was the narrowest part of the string; the widest parts were at the two ends.

This was an arrangement bound to break up in time. Chief among the centrifugal forces that came into play was the issue of religion. The town had only one church, and the farthest outlying settlers couldn’t get there on Sunday. For the large majority of colonists who were Puritans, church attendance was a strong desire as well as a duty—communal worship was fundamental to their religious practice.

In the present-day United States, a remote congregation can build itself a church, engage a minister, and take it from there, but no such thing was possible in the 17th-century colony of Massachusetts Bay. Church and state were not separate in any way that a 21st-century American would recognize. Each town was required to build a meetinghouse and to call and settle (that is, formally agree to support) a minister whose ability and orthodoxy were certified by the colony’s clerical community. Each town had to furnish the funds necessary to support its meetinghouse and its minister, and each household in the town (church members or not) had to pay its full share. No group of villagers could take it on themselves to change the arrangement: to set up a separate parish they needed permission from the town they were part of and also from the General Court. Should the town refuse permission, as often happened, the villagers could petition the General Court to issue the necessary order over the town’s objections. Since towns were prone to deny permission almost reflexively, petitions of this kind had a reasonable chance of success.

As we’ve seen, it was some time before enough people were settled in the Shawsheen grant to organize a village, but as soon as that came about, the village petitioned to be made a separate town. Considering how far they were from the town meetinghouse, Cambridge accepted the necessity of a separation; the town negotiated to protect the interests of its residents who held land there, but didn’t oppose the petition, and in 1655 most of the Shawsheen grant became the town of Billerica with little or no controversy.

But some of the land Cambridge had been granted in 1644 didn't become part of Billerica. It lay between the old eight-mile line and what was at this time the eastern boundary of Concord. To separate Cambridge from Billerica in 1655, a lazy zigzag line was drawn from Concord's northeast corner to the southwest corner of Woburn (today the southwest corner of Burlington). The residue of the Shawsheen grant remaining on the Cambridge side of this line (a northwestern boundary virtually identical to that of modern Lexington) was enough to increase the size of the town’s Farms district by more than a third.