A Bigger Footprint

The Lexington map is too large to display on the page with this discussion, but you can click the map icon at the right to bring in the map whenever you want to see it, and jump back to this page after you've had a look. The icon stays in place as you scroll down, so the map is accessible from anywhere on the page.

The Shawsheen Grant, 1644

Back in the early 1630s, when the General Court made its first big grant to Newe Towne (of land on the south side of the Charles), the town had been in a state of near-panic. Thomas Hooker and his followers were threatening to leave, complaining that Newe Towne had too little farmland to support them. The rest of the inhabitants were afraid that the town might go under unless it got more land to attract settlers. Hooker and his flock did leave, but even though the town suffered a net loss in population and had to give back Brookline, it still had enough inhabitants to keep going, and it now owned a much greater quantity of desirable land. Still, it was natural enough that Newe Towne also wanted to expand on its own side of the river where that was possible—it seemed to be the town’s manifest destiny to fill in at least some of the wide-open space between the Woburn and Watertown lines. The General Court’s 1636 decision to draw the eight-mile line (as described in the chapter “The Farms Emerge”) was made in response to this desire.

It’s harder to understand why, after these two substantial enlargements, Cambridge (the town’s name from 1638 on) should have kept on insisting that it still didn’t have enough land. As Charles Hudson (History of the Town of Lexington, 1868) said, “… that the small settlement … was not particularly pressed for room will appear from the fact that the township at that time included what is now Newton, Brighton, a part of Brookline, Arlington, one half of Lexington, and a portion of Belmont—a territory sufficiently large, one would suppose, to contain and support a few hundred inhabitants.” But this was apparently not enough to satisfy the town, whose continued lobbying of the legislature led in time to the huge Shawsheen grant. It was made in 1641 on condition that Cambridge establish a village in that territory within three years, but was renewed without any such condition (and with expanded boundaries) in 1644, when it became clear that getting a village together would take much longer.

I think the most reasonable way to understand the town's seemingly insatiable appetite for land is to see that appetite as mainly a response to the wishes of the town’s wealthy investors, who had less interest in fending off starvation than in increasing their net worth. This was just as true in Cambridge Farms as it was in the Shawsheen country—in fact, Hudson was talking about the Farms when he said, after listing some of the first landowners there:
It is probable that most of them, instead of removing to their lands, continued their residence in Cambridge proper, or in some of the settlements near Boston. Most of these gentlemen were among the early and prominent settlers of Cambridge, and were largely engaged in land speculations, not only in Cambridge Farms, but elsewhere. Such men would not be very likely to remove from comfortable homes in Cambridge to a new settlement, where they would be subject to many privations and hardships.
Regardless of whether it was necessary, the town obviously succeeded in making its case with the General Court, which issued the order granting it the Shawsheen territory, at first conditionally in 1641, and at last unconditionally in 1644. That territory, which contained the Shawsheen River and its valley, but a good deal more as well, was wild and remote, and it was slow to attract settlers.

Billerica’s Separation, 1655

By 1654, a decade after the final unconditional grant, there were enough settlers in the Shawsheen territory to organize as a village and build a meetinghouse. Cambridge’s leaders were apparently able to see how absurd it was to maintain that Cambridge and Shawsheen belonged in the same town and parish, and they put up no resistance, apart from negotiating to protect the rights of Cambridge inhabitants who owned land out there. The process went quickly, and in the spring of 1655, the new town of Billerica was created. It contained all the territory north of a new boundary line that completed the division by connecting the northeast corner of Concord with the southwest corner of Woburn (as those towns were laid out at the time—neither corner is in the same town today). For some reason, the surveyors chose not to draw a simple, straight line from point A to point B; instead, they connected the corners with a line of three segments, forming a shallow zigzag. Perhaps they drew it that way to avoid crossing property lines and leaving this or that farm partly in one town and partly in another. Or perhaps Cambridge and Billerica were trying to achieve a fairer division of good and bad land along the line. Whatever the cause, the “lazy Z” that the surveyors drew in 1655 is still part of the town line between Lexington and Bedford.

Despite the separation of Billerica, Cambridge didn’t lose every acre it had been granted in 1644. One clause in the General Court’s grant order had major consequences for today’s map of Lexington. It granted to Cambridge all the land between Cambridge and Concord, except what had already been granted to others, provided that everyone who lived there belong to (and contribute to) the Cambridge church.

This clause added to Cambridge all the land between its eight-mile line (which ran very close to the center of modern Lexington) and the southeastern boundary of Concord (which, in 1644, ran where Lexington’s northwestern boundary, on the far side of I-95, runs now). But the Concord line in that direction ended some distance southwest of the Cambridge-Woburn line, leaving the gap through which Cambridge, after the Shawsheen grant, had extended as far west as the Concord River and as far north as the Merrimac, reaching that river at the point where the city of Lowell is now.

In 1655, that gap was closed with the new “lazy Z” boundary between Billerica and Cambridge. But the Shawsheen Grant had also awarded Cambridge a good deal of land that lay south and east of the Billerica boundary, and all of that land still belonged to Cambridge. The only part of the town it touched was the Farms, so the ultimate effect of the Shawsheen Grant—after Billerica had come and gone—was to increase the size of Cambridge Farms by more than a third. Lexington today is a much larger town than it would have been otherwise.

The wildness and remoteness of the Shawsheen territory wasn't the only reason that it had taken some time to build up a village there. The flood of Puritan immigrants from England, constant during the 1630s, shrank to a comparative trickle after that. The political turmoil that finally became the English Civil War gave Puritans in England hope that they might see an end to the persecution they’d been suffering, and not as many were motivated to give up their homes and take a chance in the wilds of Massachusetts or Connecticut. (New England would not see immigration reach such levels again until Irish Catholics—also fleeing trouble in their homeland—began to arrive in the 19th century.)

The Farms were nearer to Cambridge than the Shawsheen country, but the shrinkage of immigration had an effect there as well. It took a few more decades for Cambridge Farms to accumulate enough inhabitants to start thinking about building their own meetinghouse instead of making a five- or ten-mile round trip every Sunday. As the Farmers’ petition of 1682 tells us, their neighborhood in that year contained “about thirty Famalyes, in which are contained at Least one Hundred & Eighty Soules.”

Setting the Farms Off from Cambridge, 1682–1691

The next action that affected the map of our town was the creation of a boundary between the Farms and the rest of Cambridge, which was much more reluctant to let go of the Farms than it had been relinquish Billerica. That story is told in detail in the main section of the website, “Documented Beginnings,” so I won’t reprise it here. However, the straight line that the General Court’s survey committee drew in 1684, but which didn’t become official until the Court granted the Farms village and parish status in 1691, is still on active duty. It separates Lexington from (going northeast to southeast) a tiny bit of Winchester and then all of Arlington and Belmont. It hasn’t been moved or altered in more than three and a quarter centuries, though now there are three towns instead of one on the far side of it.

Later Changes

Of Lexington’s boundary changes since 1691, the most obvious is the incorporation of what was once the town’s southwest corner (together with larger parts of Concord and Weston) into the town of Lincoln, incorporated in 1754. Josiah Parker, one of Lexington’s town assessors at the time, calculated that his town lost nearly one eleventh of its territory in that transfer.

The only other way in which the modern map deviates from the boundary shown on my Cambridge Farms/Lexington map is on the Woburn side, where a series of irregularities interrupt the regularity of the "Woburn Line" between Lexington and the modern town of Woburn (plus a little bit on each side). The most conspicuous irregularity is a squarish piece that protrudes like a little tab northward from Lexington, right at the boundary between modern Burlington and Woburn. This adjustment was made in 1800, a year or two after the town of Burlington was created. The land was a large farm belonging to the Locke family, whose members owned a good many lots on both sides of the Cambridge-Woburn boundary. Some chose to consider themselves residents of one town, some of the other. It appears that the owners of this particular farm hadn’t minded belonging to Woburn, but Lexington felt more like home to them than Burlington, and they managed to get their property transferred to Lexington. What looks from the Lexington side like a tab pointing northwards looks from Burlington like a chunk cut out of the town's southwestern corner—and that’s what it is.

Southeast of the former Locke farm, the line jigs and jogs rather than following a straight course, and remains consistently north of the "Woburn line" that (as I believe) the Lexington-Burlington town line preserves. What seems most likely to me is that some farms had been laid out on the Lexington side without sure knowledge of where the town boundary lay, and since they didn't conflict with the interests of anyone on the Woburn side, these deviations were informally agreed to by the two towns. (This might have happened on those occasions when, in compliance with Massachusetts law, selectmen from both towns inspected the boundaries together.) It's possible that the nice straight line on the map that the General Court’s survey committee submitted with their report in 1684 had already been modified in this way. But the general layout of the boundary, from Cambridge to the southwest corner of Burlington, is clear, and that ideal line is what my map shows, even though parts of it may have been slightly different on the ground.
This is the end of the commentary on the Lexington map. The next few pages deal with the conflicting theories on how and why Lexington got its name. To look at this discussion now, click the Forward sign below. (If you want to look at it later, go to “But Why ‘Lexington’?” on the Site Map, or on the navigation bar at the top of any page, under “Lexington on the Map” .)