Final Cuts

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Subtracting the remote territory of Billerica made Cambridge’s shape on the map a little less bizarre, but geographically and even politically it was still far from being a single town. Its southwestern extremity, called Cambridge Village, was the next part to grow restless. Not only was that village a long way from the Cambridge meetinghouse in Harvard Square, but it was on the opposite side of the Charles, which until 1662 was unbridged and could be crossed only by ferry. The inhabitants of Cambridge Village first petitioned for their own meetinghouse and minister in 1654, and seven years later, in 1661 (although the Great Bridge across the Charles was under construction, or soon would be), the General Court gave them permission to establish their own parish and stop paying to support the Cambridge ministry. They still had to pay other fees and taxes to the town.

A few years later (1672–73) the Cambridge Villagers were granted the rights of a precinct: although still Cambridge taxpayers, they were entitled to elect their own constable and selectmen. But it seems that they neglected to exercise these elective rights until 1679. It may be that their petition (which no longer exists in the archives, so we can’t check this) had asked for full separation, and they balked at accepting anything less.

Whether or not the Villagers had petitioned for full separation in 1672, there’s no question that they did so in 1678, because that petition is still in the General Court archives. They asked to be completely separated from Cambridge and its taxes and to be recognized as a fully independent township. Their petition includes the request that the General Court give this new township a name.

Cambridge reacted by throwing a fit. The selectmen sent the General Court a long and indignant answer to the petition, refuting the petitioners’ statements one by one, and characterizing the petitioners themselves as ungrateful, untruthful, greedy, and opportunistic to the point of larceny.

According to Lucius R. Paige’s History of Cambridge, Massachusetts (1877), on which this account is based, the Court’s response has not been preserved. Apparently it fell short of what the Villagers had hoped for, and in the next year, 1679, they decided to exercise the privileges they’d been granted six years earlier: for the first time, they elected a constable and selectmen. Paige’s suggestion, as mentioned above, is that they may have begun at this point to give up on achieving full independence and decided to make the best of the semi-independent status they’d been granted.

It was only three years later, in 1682, that the first signs of a similar desire for independence appeared in Cambridge Farms (the future Lexington), which was now located, since the excision of the Shawsheen lands, at the opposite end of the string from Cambridge Village. The dispute between the parent town and the Village was still unsettled, and the bitterness of that dispute probably affected the town’s reaction to the Farmers’ petition for a parish of their own. (Although negative, however, it emanated a piteous rather than a furious tone.)

Cambridge Village did eventually gain independence from Cambridge. That happened in 1688—and the grant was made not by the General Court, but by the council of Sir Edmund Andros, the governor whom King James II had sent to impose royal authority on the wayward Puritans of Massachusetts. Andros had dismissed the elected General Court (and indeed the whole notion of elections) and governed with the sole assistance of his own royally appointed council. Although the Andros government had a short life—from December, 1686 to April, 1689—and was very unpopular, the colonists seem not to have considered the order making Cambridge Village a town to be an act of tyranny.

After England’s Glorious Revolution deposed King James, and Andros was sent home, the General Court went back into business for a short time, waiting for the new king, William III, to issue a charter that would replace the one King Charles II had revoked shortly before his death. Cambridge Village (now called New Cambridge) for the first time elected and sent a representative to the General Court, something that only an independent town could do. No one complained—the act of Andros’ council was apparently accepted as valid, even though in other contexts the colony was inclined to dispute the legitimacy of that regime.

A last piece of unfinished business was completed in 1691: dissatisfied with the derivative (and unofficial) name New Cambridge, the former Cambridge Village renewed its old request to the General Court to give it a name. The Court complied, and presented the town with the long-disused name of New Town (note the more modern spelling). As time went on, this name was transformed, first in speech and eventually in writing, to Newton.

The details of Lexington’s beginnings—the main subject of this website—are described on other pages, so I won’t reprise them here.

After losing Newton and Lexington, Cambridge was still a good bit larger than it is today, and it was still too long and narrow to hold together. Other pieces fell away as the years passed. Menotomy became a parish and precinct in 1732, and an independent town going by the name of West Cambridge in 1807. 60 years later, to honor the Union’s Civil War dead, West Cambridge renamed itself Arlington after the new national cemetery where so many of them were buried.

Cambridge had also held onto some territory on the southern side of the Charles. Like Menotomy, "Little Cambridge" became a parish and precinct early in the 18th century, and gained its independence in the same year, 1807, becoming the town of Brighton (which included the village of Allston). That town opted to become part of Boston in 1873.

Cambridge has lived within its present borders since 1807.