Cambridge Town Records, 1712–1713

Our only record of the way Cambridge reacted to the Farmers’ petition of 1682 is its counterpetition of 1683 pleading that the General Court deny their request—a document that’s either deeply emotional or highly rhetorical, or more likely perhaps a combination of the two. The meeting or meetings that led up to it may have been devoted to sober deliberation, shrewd tactical planning, or panicky predictions of doom—no record survives to tell us, and we can only guess.
Record of 1712–13  town meetings, first page
In 1712, however, when the people of Cambridge’s North Precinct (the new name for the Farms, though most people went on using the old one) petitioned the town to let them cut the remaining ties and become an independent town, Cambridge reacted in a calm, rational, and thoroughly adult manner, as reflected in the records of two successive town meetings, December 1, 1712 and January 12, 1713. (The book containing these records is still in the custody of Cambridge City Clerk’s office, which generously allowed me to examine and photograph them.)

The reports are concise—between them, they take up most of one page and a few lines of the next—but they are informative, and a great improvement on the utter silence of three decades earlier. (In the pictures, the parts of both pages dealing with other matters have been “browned out.”)

The population of both towns and the economy of the Province of Massachusetts— which replaced the colony of Massachusetts Bay in the charter of 1692—had grown, and people seem to have been feeling more confident about the future. That probably made the prospect of separation, which was hardly unique in Massachusetts at the time, look more like a normal political development than an omen of disaster. In spite of nearly constant wars with France and strictures imposed on commerce by England’s Navigation Acts, the former colony was in a thriving condition. The French and their Indian allies never came near the province’s eastern counties, and as for the Navigation Acts, New England merchants mostly ignored them and the Royal Navy took relatively little interest in enforcement. It might have been hard to distinguish between commerce and smuggling during that time, but everyone was doing it.

In this more sanguine economic climate, relations between the new parish and the old were also improved by a few interactions that modern diplomats might describe as confidence-building measures. The Farmers demonstrated that they’d meant what they said in 1682 about wanting to remain part of the town. Unlike the former Cambridge Village (by now rechristened New Town, or Newton), the Farmers didn’t try to wrest ownership of the ungranted property within their borders away from Cambridge. When they wanted a piece of that property for their minister’s support, they met with the town’s agents, agreed on a reasonable price, and paid it without complaint. Although the church in Cambridge was without a minister at the time of Benjamin Estabrook’s ordination, it sent one of its lay elders to represent it—and in 1699 the town, presented with a new bell for its meetinghouse, voted to donate the old one to the church at the Farms. None of these events was extraordinary, but they helped everyone get used to the changes that the old General Court had put in place when it granted the Farms’ petition—almost with its last breath—in 1691.
Record of 1712–13  town meetings, second page
Lucius Paige’s History of Cambridge includes a chapter telling the story of Lexington’s separation, in gradual stages, from its parent town. The scarcity of records keeps him from going into detail about the events from 1682 to 1691, but when the story comes to the Farms’ petition to become an independent and self-sufficient town, he quotes extensively from the town meeting records we're looking at here.

The meetings were attended by “the inhabitants belonging to the meeting house in the body of the town of Cambridge,” a necessary distinction, since the Farmers—Cambridge citizens in good standing though they were—were seeking permission to “be dismissed from the town and be a township by themselves,” and it was appropriate for those who lived in the rest of the town to come together, separately from the Farmers, and consider how to reply. The word dismissed has no negative connotation in this context: its sense (as any schoolchild can appreciate) is ‘set free’ rather than ‘tossed out.’

Neither of the Cambridge meetings produced opposition—in the first, the citizens soberly defined the conditions they should make to ensure a fair division of financial responsibilities, and then appointed a committee to meet and negotiate these issues with representatives of the precinct.

In the second meeting, they received their committee’s report on the negotiations. The Farmers had accepted two conditions most important to the town: they would continue to pay a proportionate share of the upkeep on the Great Bridge across the Charles—which was of major benefit to those Farmers who took hay and other produce to market in Boston—and they would pay (and, indeed, had already paid) the £25 they were asked for as their share of what Cambridge still owed on its recently constructed town house.

The only point still undecided was whether the precinct would undertake the support of “some of our Poor” (as the record of the first meeting has it). The record of the second meeting identified three specific poor people, presumably the only ones the town meeting had in mind when instructing the committee to negotiate their status. Lacking more information, it’s hard to know whether these three were selected because they already lived in the Farms, or because they constituted an appropriate fraction of Cambridge's poverty-stricken residents (which in that case would have been a fairly small number).

At the time of the second meeting, the future support of “Robert Webber, Richard, a Negro, and his wife” had not yet been determined, but rather than hold further meetings about it, the townspeople voted to leave the whole matter to the committee’s discretion. If the Farmers proved unwilling to take on the burden of support (which couldn't have been very heavy), the town’s agents could decide what to do or not do—they were “fully empowered in behalf of the Town either to insist upon the said article, or to consent to their [that is, to the Farmers’] being dismissed from the town upon the articles aforementioned, which they have complied with.”

The town records after this date say nothing about the Farmers’ response or the committee’s decision, so we don’t know which community ended up caring for the three poor people. The town meeting’s willingness to let the decision go either way may indicate that the three lived in “Cambridge proper” rather than the Farms, and that the town was merely hoping to divide one more expense between themselves and the Farmers.

Whatever their reasoning, and however this particular issue was finally decided, subsequent events make it clear that, as of the January 12 meeting, the path to independence for the Northern Precinct, alias Cambridge Farms, had been cleared of obstacles.