The First Farmers

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The General Court’s declaration in 1636 made it clear that Newe Towne could grant or sell the land on the near side of the eight-mile line, and, early in 1637, the first grant was recorded. It was quite a generous grant, in what’s now the center of town (though at that time it was close to the edge, since the eight-mile line runs just a little west of there). However, it came with conditions:
Graunted unto mr Richard Harlakingden six hundred Acres of uplande & Meadow at the place called vynebrooke in the midway betweene Newtowne and Concorde upon condition he sendeth over his man or ordereth that some other may buyld upon it & Improve it for him the next Sumer after this next ensuing & now this Spring certaine Intelligence he will soe doe & upon condition likewise that he cometh himself the next Sumer after being the third from this time & if he shall fayle in all or anie one of theis 3 conditions then this Graunt to be voyd.
As the grant’s language makes clear, Richard Harlakenden—the name is spelled variously, but this is the most common version—was living in England, not Massachusetts, and the conditional grant may have been an enticement to emigrate. Who was he, and what made Newe Towne so anxious to have him among its citizens?

In 1636 Newe Towne’s minister Thomas Hooker, with many of the congregation he had brought with him to the town, pulled up stakes and set off to found a new settlement in Connecticut. During the previous year, as Hooker and his flock were getting ready to go, another minister, Thomas Shepard (who also had a following) had arrived from England. He and his flock were delighted to find so many houses for sale in Newe Towne.

On its part, the town was delighted at the prospect of filling its vacated pulpit so quickly, especially after hearing Mr. Shepard preach, for he soon became one of the colony’s most admired and beloved ministers. Though his was not the leading intellect among Massachusetts Bay’s impressive corps of clerics, many considered him the most moving and inspiring preacher. Samuel Eliot Morison mentions that Alexander Whyte, an eminent Scottish minister who died in 1921, was fond of quoting Shepard’s sermons, and wrote a short biography of the Puritan preacher—a degree of religious staying power that none of his Massachusetts Bay contemporaries could match.

Shepard had been effectively driven out of England by the furious persecution of Archbishop Laud, who prevented him from holding any clerical appointment, even of the most tenuous kind, in an English church or town. Two of Shepard’s Cambridge University friends—gentry though not nobility—had employed him as a lecturer in Earl’s Colne, the village where their family had its estate. But this appointment too was taken from him, and for two years, unable to secure a living of any kind, Shepard had survived as their guest.

These friends were Richard and Roger Harlakenden. Roger was one of the group that accompanied Shepard on his voyage to America, and—being wealthy and educated, and no doubt possessing all the self-confidence that goes with those qualities—he immediately became an important citizen of Newe Towne. Only a month after he arrived in October, 1635, the first town meeting he attended elected him one of the nine men charged with handling town business. (Newe Towne apparently didn’t adopt the term selectman until later.)

So it seems likely that Roger Harlakenden (probably with Thomas Shepard’s eager concurrence) was behind the grant to his brother Richard. But Richard, the heir to the family estate, was apparently too busy, or perhaps insufficiently interested, and in 1638, two years after the grant was made, the town declared it forfeit. Newe Towne (which changed its name to Cambridge in the same year) transferred the grant to Roger, who in exchange gave back to the town some property on the south side of the Charles that it had previously granted him.

Roger Harlakenden might have become a leading citizen of the future Lexington, but he never lived on the property. Late in the same year that he received it, he caught smallpox and died. His young widow soon remarried, becoming the wife of a gentleman named Herbert Pelham. They lived in Rumney Marsh (Chelsea today), but in 1642, they hired a man named Benjamin Muzzey to move out to the Vine Brook grant and clear the land. According to S. Lawrence Whipple (Lexington Through the Years, 2012), Muzzey was the future town’s first permanent settler: after building himself a house, “he soon dammed up the brook, built a saw mill, and reared a family, the last of whom lived in Lexington through the 1970s.”

Like the Shawsheen grant a few years later, the Farms, as the area between Menotomy and the eight-mile line came to be called, had a good number of absentee owners who lived in Cambridge. Obviously, it was possible to live on the proceeds of a farm without actually dwelling there—that was nothing new. But the colony was full of people who had had little or no wealth to bring with them from England, and so had a longer ladder to climb if they wanted to reach a position in the New World that might provide some security and comfort. They needed to acquire, through grant or purchase, land that they could live on and farm. Settlers of this kind began to arrive and put down roots in Cambridge Farms. By the end of the 1600s, the Pelhams’ big 600-acre holding had been divided and sold, in three parcels of about 200 acres each. Benjamin Muzzey was one of the buyers.

It's appropriate to call the early settlers of Cambridge Farms the Farmers, but we need to understand that originally quite a few were “gentleman farmers” who owned agricultural property but didn’t personally live on or work it.