Cambridge Farmers’ Petition, 1682

Cambridge Farmers' Petition, 1682
The petition in which the future town of Lexington first emerges into the light of history is addressed to the General Court—the legislature (and also the highest court of appeal) of the colony of Massachusetts Bay. It asked the Court’s permission for the Farmers, as the inhabitants of that part of Cambridge were generally called, to establish a parish of their own. They pointed out that everyone in the Farms lived at least five miles from the Cambridge meetinghouse, and for some the distance was as great as nine or ten miles. Bad roads and weather often made it impossible to attend services. The petitioners felt keenly their separation from “the public means of grace,” and were afraid that their children might grow up without religion. They declared their readiness to build a meeting house, and had already pledged contributions to support a minister. But, although they had taken their case before the town meeting, they had “as yet obtained no relief or encouragement from the Town of Cambridge in this affair.” So they were, in effect, going over the town’s head by appealing to the General Court.

There was nothing unusual about such a procedure. The colony was built on an ideal model in which every citizen lived in a town and every town had a meetinghouse. The governor and legislature had the authority to decide not only what land should belong to each town, but also when and where meetinghouses could be built. They took responsibility for the integrity of both institutions: town and church.

In the colony’s first decade, the settlers who poured in from England spread rapidly throughout eastern Massachusetts, where the Indian presence had been reduced and weakened by epidemics before the colonists arrived. (The diseases that killed so many natives were introduced by English and other European fishermen who frequented the New England coast for some years before any permanent settlements were made there.) The new settlers’ towns were widely scattered, and—since the New England colonial model made no allowance for unincorporated territory, all the land between settlements was part of one town or another.

Intense immigration subsided after 1640, but in that healthy climate—healthy at least for whites—infant mortality was comparatively low, and families were large. So the English population went on increasing. Further expansion outward presented problems—French to the north, Mohawks to the west, Dutch or other English colonies to the south and southwest—so, as the 17th century went on, newer settlements tended to fill in the spaces between older ones.

It often happened that the inhabitants of these newer settlements found themselves at an inconvenient distance from the churches they were supposed to attend. And they strongly desired to attend—most were loyal Puritans. (At first they called their church simply “the Church of Christ”—later in the 1600s it came to be called Congregational, based on its system of governance.) Services and sermons were part of the bedrock on which these English settlers’ faith was built.

The proposal to create a second parish in a town often met with opposition from the original settlers, worried about losing too many of the tithe-payers who helped them support their meetinghouse and minister. Those who formed or joined a new parish would be paying their tithes elsewhere and depositing their shillings and pence on an alien collection plate. So it was far from uncommon for a town meeting to deny the request of outlying residents to set up a new parish. As many examples proved, establishing a second parish was very likely to lead, sooner or later, to splitting one town into two—a prospect that gave many thrifty town fathers the heebie-jeebies. Appeals to the General Court like the petition from Cambridge Farms were frequent, therefore, and had a reasonable chance of success.

The Farmers’ petition of 1682 was signed by eight men who identified themselves, in the text, as heads of families. They didn’t write their own names at the bottom; that was done by the same person who wrote out the whole petition in a fair and legible hand—perhaps a professional scrivener who earned a living by writing or copying legal documents. After the list of names appears the note: “In the behalf of the rest of the families.”

An interesting feature of the petition is two brief passages written smaller than the rest, indicating that they were added after the petition was complete. Both seem designed as defenses against what might be dismissive responses from the General Court. In the heading, the petitioners identify themselves as "Inhabitants within the bounds of the Town of Cambridge"—the italicized words were probably inserted to make it clear that the petitioners, while technically belonging to the town, shouldn't be confused with those who lived in the main part of it. And the sentence added at the end of the first paragraph establishes that the petitioners, having already been turned down by Cambridge, shouldn't be fobbed off with instructions to take their problem to the local authorities.

The scrivener left a generous margin to the left of the text, and at the bottom of the page, where the list of signers was indented to the right, this margin became a large empty block. The General Court made full use of all this blank space to record its responses. Both houses, the Magistrates (elected from among the colony's leaders) and the Deputies (representing the towns) had to respond, because at this time in the colony's history the two houses had to agree before any action could be taken. Both Magistrates and Deputies found room to respond once in 1682 and twice in 1683.