by Gordon Harris
A remnant of our Colonial roots in Massachusetts is the word “commonwealth, the Puritan principle that work and the proceeds thereof should be shared by the people, which dictated Puritan self-government for the sixty-three years of its existence.
When the first colonists arrived in Ipswich in 1633, the land, lakes and rivers were being used by the Indigenous people to provide for the tribal family. Villages were established where they could collectively use the land and rivers to hunt, farm and fish. They were unfamiliar with the concept of land ownership when John Winthrop purchased all of Agawam for a sum of £20.
Founded as a trading company, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was self-governing, treating its charter as if it were the constitution of an independent state. The Massachusetts Bay Company was set up as a joint stock venture. Any man who contributed £50 to the venture was promised 200 acres of land. By 1642 the town of Ipswich and the general court handed out 9000 acres of land leaving 3000 acres in the common pastures and 7000 acres ungranted. In the commons, the early Massachusetts towns adopted English institutions of land management that often predated their own experiences in the mother country, reproducing medieval systems whose roots dated back several centuries. Freeholders were granted, sold and willed their shares of the common, while newcomers to the towns were increasingly barred. Disagreements over usage and division of the common lands consumed the business of the towns, which responded with increasingly stringent measures to establish rules and enforce conformity.
Colonists from different regions of England did not have a universally accepted concept of land ownership. Two major systems of pastoral land management existed in England in the 17th Century. Settlers from central and northern England were still accustomed to manoral control over hundreds of acres for use by tenants who lived in the nucleated village. This is an illustration of a manoral sytem of open fields where serfs farmed slender lots.
The brief Puritan experiment in Massachusetts reproduced the names of English towns, and a hybrid model of medieval land tenure, granting huge farms to the favored and elite immigrants, while allocating small house lots to ordinary people with tillage and animal husbandry privileges in the large fields beyond the Common Fence that surrounded the settlements. Individually owned land was treated as capital, as it is today, but common land was shared and used, not owned. Cattle and other animals of a given community grazed on portions of the arable land that were not currently bearing crops. The privileges of cutting wood in the commons, harvesting hay, and damming the rivers was strictly controlled by the towns.
Outsiders: In the first year of its settlement, the Freemen of Ipswich established “for our own peace and comfort” the exclusive right to determine the privileges of citizenship in the new community, and gave formal notice that “no stranger coming among us” could reside, even temporarily, without their permission. The towns were further able to weed out undesirables by denying them commonage. Inhabitants who had a share in the common pastures sought to limit further distributions of rights to the commons. In 1659 the General Court ruled that no house erected after that year would have any right to common lands without the express consent of the towns, and authorized the towns to demolish and remove the dwellings of unapproved persons.
Before the arrival of the Puritans, William Jeffrey held rights to use a coastal drumlin in Ipswich which today bears his name as a fishing stage. The General Court ordered and paid him to leave, and in 1639 the town of Ipswich set aside all of Jeffreys Neck as a common pasture. In the 1650s, the towns of Ipswich and Newbury intentionally developed their sheep industries, with mandated workforces of shepherds and wool spinners. By 1662, there were four hundred sheep on Great Neck, which came to be called “ye Ram Pasture.” The common fields on the south side of Ipswich became so burdened with sheep that a hundred were transferred to the north side of town to graze with the cattle. In 1702 the common lands were divided into large sheep pastures. Keeping cattle and sheep on the Necks and the hills surrounding the town continued into the early 20th Century.
South of the Ipswich River was today’s South Green where cattle were herded in the mornings, and the Heartbreak Hill common pasture. The rich soil on the south side of town produced a scattering of large elite family farms in Candlewood and Chebacco. Appleton Farms remains the oldest continuously operating farm in America. Unapproved enclosure of fields there became a frequent issue of contention, and in 1649 the Town ordered the “restraint of inner fences.”
These gentlemen farmers, the Symonds, Denisons, Hubbards, Whipples, Fellows and Appletons, practiced individual agricultural ownership and management, and by the 1650s were no longer participating in communally managed herds. The Ipswich Pony Express youth soccer fields were once part of the Ipswich South Common.
Topsfield, which was formed from parts of Salem and Ipswich, was initially granted in large parcels as reimbursements to wealthy supporters of the colony. In 1643 the Court ordered & granted that Misters Endecott, Bradstreet, Symonds, Whittingham and Paine, & such others of Ipswich or Salem shall have liberty to settle a village. The wealthy proprietors divided their lands and induced individuals, many of whom had settled first in Ipswich, to purchase parcels, recovering far more than their initial investments. A list of 31 commoners was recorded in 1661, and over the next 60 years in three separate divisions, the common land was divided among themselves or their descendants by inheritance. Several proprietors acquired large farms by receiving abutting shares three times.
At about the same time, the Town of Ipswich expanded the grazing fields to the hills along Topsfield Rd. On March 15, 1651, it was complained to the Ipswich selectmen “that the inhabitants of Topsfield do with their cattle feed on our cow common to the great prejudice of the Town herd.” They replied that if any of their cattle were found “feeding upon the cow commons of Ipswich, they shall be acknowledged to be trespassers, and the owners of them bound to make satisfaction.”
When the settlers arrived, many of the hills had already been cleared by the Indians, and the felling of trees was of great concern from the start. In 1639 it was decreed, “No man shall fell any timber without leave from the Constable, under penalty.” A special license from the Selectmen was required before any white oak could be felled on any house lot or in the commons. The felling of timber on Jeffrey’s Neck, Castle Neck and Hog Island was prohibited in 1650.
In Ipswich, Every man who built and owned a house became forthwith a Commoner and had rights in the Common land. Tillage lots of about six acres of commonage were assigned to each householder, and a fence separated them from the “Great Cow Common.”
Fences: Residents who owned privileges in the common were to maintain the fence in proportion to their allotments. The town of Ipswich voted in 1637 that “a general fence shall be made” that extended from the west end of the town to the Egypt River, from the east end of the town in the way to Jeffries Neck, and on the south side of town from Heartbreak Hill to County Rd. Every morning great herds of cattle were driven out to forage in the woods. Men known for sobriety and carefulness were chosen for the important role of fence viewers. Only grazing was allowed outside the common fence until the privilege of planting crops on Great Neck was granted in return for planting hay, a successful experiment that resulted in tillage privileges were being granted throughout the commons.
Newbury: In 1635, the Rev. Thomas Parker led a group of about 100 pioneers from Wiltshire and Hampshire in southern England to found the town of Newbury. During the summer of 1635, house lots, planting lots, marsh lots. meadow lots were granted and laid out. A quarter of the freemen of Ipswich decided to move and join their settlement. A house lot of four acres, with the right of pasturage, was assigned to the poorest settlers. Fifty acres were allotted to any persons who paid for their own transportation to New England. Two hundred acres were granted to every family that contributed fifty pounds to the common stock. The tiny settlement on the Parker River was surrounded on three sides by 3800 acres of salt marsh, and in 1645, the entire town relocated north to the Merrimack River to take advantage of more arable land. They maintained an open field at their earlier location, known historically as the Old Town Pasture where cattle grazed.
The Newbury Upper Commons included most of the land now in West Newbury, extending from the Artichoke north to the Merrimack River and were used primarily for milking cows and other livestock in active use.
The Lower Commons was in today’s Newbury, south to the Rowley line, excluding over 2000 acres granted to Richard Dummer, Henry Sewall and others at Newbury Falls, now called Byfield Parish. The two commons together comprised about 8000 acres. In 1641 the Newbury freeholders voted to divide the common lands closest to the village into three equally divided separate pasture areas, the cow common, the ox common and the heifer common, and the cattle were divided accordingly. For eight months of the year, the herd grazed during the day and was brought to the village common at night by the herdsman.
The freeholders of Newbury ordered “that fences shall be made and always kept so sufficient as to keep out all manner of swyne and other cattle great or small.” An order in 1653 required freeholders to maintain the fences in good order,” made of pales well nailed, or of five rails well fitted, or of stone 3 ½ feet high minimal, or a ditch 3-4 ft. deep with two rails, on penalty of a fine.” During the winter, the fence rails were knocked down, and horses and cattle were allowed to run at large in the commons and on Plum Island, where ditches were dug to drain the marsh for the ease of cattle.
Rowley: In 1638 parts of Newbury and Ipswich were granted to Rev. Ezekiel Rogers, who led a group of immigrants from York in northwestern England to establish the town of Rowley. Settlers in Rowley came from Yorkshire in northern England, where they were still familiar with an open field system. The farmers along upper High St. in Ipswich shared a close geographical and social relationship with Rowley, and tended to stay with communally managed agriculture.
Salt marshes: The settlers in Ipswich and Newbury, and to a lesser extent Rowley, came from coastal areas of England and familiar with small cordgrass, traditionally known as Spartina maritima , which is the only salt marsh cordgrass native to England. It took years to cultivate English hay, but the salt hay was there for the taking. Over the years, a hybrid of American Spartina alterniflorus with the native cordgrass in the UK has become dominant, while the delicate Spartina pattens that is eaten by cattle has become highly invasive in the Mediterranean and the American west coast.
Marsh hay would be harvested and shipped to the larger communities, including Boston where it was unloaded at Haymarket Square. A load of salt hay and thatch could be sold for a considerable sum, and the privilege of harvesting it was sold or auctioned annually by the towns. For over 200 years, the seasonal harvest of salt hay on Plum Island was a communal ritual, cutting, stacking and transporting the hay.
Stints: All land owners were entitled by grant, purchase or inheritance to own shares in the common and undivided lands, and operated the affairs of the Commons as an independent body of freeholders. Not all commoners were freemen, those who had taken the freeman’s oath and were allowed to vote in the town’s affairs. 563 stints in each pasture were divided among the freeholders in proportion to the number of shares owned by each. Stints, often called cattlegates, were used in medieval open field systems to balance the number of stock animals with the capacity of the land and prevent overgrazing. Richard Dummer, despite owning a farm, received 62 stints, while the two of the poorest men received only one. In 1642, the freeholders of Newbury decreed that the number of stints they had allocated the previous year “shall perpetually belong to the several persons to whom they are allotted and to no other persons whatsoever, except he get them by purchase or some other legal way.
In 1643 it was ordered, “that all the commons which belong to the town of Rowley, shall extend five miles from the town every way, where the town has property, which shall not be laid out to any particular person. It was agreed that every 1 1/2 acre house lot would have 1 1/2 gates in the common pastures, rising exponentially so that a 6 acre house lot would have 45 gates. Use of the term gates instead of stints is another indication of how the settlers of Rowley had different open field traditions. Records from the Probate and Quarterly Courts indicate that the commoners of Rowley had their own gates, instead of a common gate that was used in other towns. The town had authority to order any man to work in the common, and refusal to do so would result in a fine for every hour that he fail to appear. Conversely, Ipswich adopted a principle of one house lot receiving one commonage, and in 1641 the freemen of the town voted that the Selectmen should no longer “meddle with further stinting of the common.”
Restrictions on the number of freeholders were decreed in several towns, but became problematic to enforce as the population grew. In 1660, individual lot grants were given in the Newbury and Ipswich Commons under the condition that the recipients would clear the land, fence it, and plant at least 4 bushels of English hay per acre. At the end of six years the land would revert to being a common field.
In 1683 the whole of the Newbury lower commons was divided into five “sheep walks.” Historian Joshua Coffin estimated a total of over 5000 sheep grazed the pastures. At this time much of the land above the Artichoke River was still common, unfenced and unimproved, although large quantities of lumber were being taken.
The commoners became increasingly alarmed that their hereditary advantage was disappearing. At a meeting of the freemen and freeholders of Newbury in 1684, it was voted that 6000 acres of the upper common would be lotted out, with only 1000 acres of that going to non-freeholders, and that “this shall not be a precedent to the future in the ordering or dividing of any other part of the common.” The total number of freeholders was determined, based on the 1642 vote of 91 freeholders “and no one else.” The non-freeholders objected that they paid the same taxes as freeholders and should have the same rights. In 1686 the allocation was altered, with half going to freeholders, the other half going to other freemen who were up to date on their taxes. Those who paid more in taxes received larger shares, with the locations of the allocations determined by drawing names out of a bag.
In January 1701, the freeholders of Newbury voted to divide the majority of the lower common, comprising 1,800 acres, while reserving pasturage for the town’s ministers and free school as well as for the benefit of the town’s poor. The wood remaining on the common land was measured and divided among the freeholders and inhabitants in 1701 and again in 1708.
The marshes on Plum Island were retained by the commoners. Ditches were dug to drain the marsh for cattle, and later to mark individual lot boundaries. Finally, at a meeting of the proprietors of the Newbury Common lands held in 1827, the standing committee was instructed to sell at public auction “all the lands belonging to the said Proprietors in the town of Newbury, and conveyed for the sum of six hundred dollars to Moses Pettingell, of Newbury, “that part of Plum Island lying & situate in said town of Newbury, containing twelve hundred acres, more or less.” Pettingell made a tidy profit from the sale of Plum Island’s timber and sand, and the size of his holdings grew unexpectedly when the Merrimack River channel shifted to the north in the mid-19th Century. In 1920 the Plum Island Beach Company purchased the Newbury section of Plum Island from the Pettingell family, constructed Northern Blvd, and divided the land into lots for sale to the public.
In 1673-4, almost a decade after Ipswich and Newbury began dividing out their commons, it was agreed by the town of Rowley that two thirds of their town commons should be divided out to the proprietors in proportion to the number of gates they owned. Unimproved remnants of the common fields persisted into the 18th Century. In the 1794 Plan of the Town of Rowley, the publisher notes that “there are large tracts of barren and unimprovable land whose owners determine that they are not worth fencing. Some of these lands are marked in yellow”
In 1660, the Ipswich Selectmen petitioned the General Court that the town had become burdened by the multiplying of dwelling houses. The Court ordered that no house henceforth erected shall have any right to the common lands and applied it to all towns, which responded by drawing up two lists, one of the number of original commoners, and a second of whom among them still had rights to the common. Those who had moved to their farms would no longer have commonage. A pressing issue was that wealthy farmers who already had commonage were passing their farms to their sons and retiring to their town houses, a threat to the one man one commanage rule. Did commonage belong to the individual or could it be transferred along with sales of property?
Each town developed its own standards for allocations and divisions. In Salisbury, the lot that one received was based on what he was worth. The settlers of Gloucester replicated their customs from western England, where fishing was the primary industry and enclosure was well advanced. In Haverhill, John Ward and his followers doled out 20 acre house lots to themselves, leaving common land mostly along its periphery, and by 1659 its open-field structure had disappeared. Andover retained its open-field system longer than other towns other towns that had been established by the people from the East and South of England.
Cattle: The records of the Quarterly Courts are replete with violations of the common regarding cattle:
In 1645, Thomas Tuck charged that “Richard Moore made a well upon the common for his own use the last summer, being very dry and water scarce upon the neck. Tuck hired a cow, which came to drink at the well, and the water being very low the cow broke her neck.”
In the case of William Sargent v. Smuel Bushwell in 1653, for a “cow that was killed by a beast belonging to defendant. Agreed that the plaintiff have half the price of the living cow..and that the hide of the dead cow as appraised by tow men be dived between them”
In 1655, John Devorex sued Samuel Yew, “For killing his cow by the falling of a tree in the commons.”
In 1662, in the case of Samuell Plumer vs. Charles Brown for tresspass and taking up a heifer of his from Newbury Neck, John Hopington deposed that two years ago last Michaelmas, Charls Brown lost a black heifer, and at the same time there was a beast killed at a place called “the straits as we go to the rye field.” He heard Browne’s wife say that she feared it was their heifer. Thomas Hale jr. deposed that the heifer came of a black cow which he sold to brother Lambert and that she was a very poor calf. He put her in the Rowley dry herd and she had the same ear mark as his other cattle. Andrew Heddan testified that after the heifer was put into the dry herd, he told the wife of Charles Brown that he saw her in Rowley common field upon John Harris’s ground, and that midsummer this heifer left the dry herd, came to the town and went with the cow herd, keeping constantly about Charles Brown’s yard.
In Ipswich Quarterly court, July 22, 1664, Daniel Black filed a compaint against his wife Faith, for keeping company with Judith Trumbell and John How, and sometimes being in bed with John How, and that he was a poor man and had nothing to live by but his labor and one cow, and for the want of the miking of her lost the profit because of his wife’s carelessness, by which he was provoked several times, and often to threaten her. John How testified that he heard Daniel Black “wish to god to damn his soul if he did not beat his wife’s brains out.”
Managing disputes about the herds was a burden to the selectmen. On May 7, 1659, the selectmen of Rowley ordered, “considering the great oppression of the cow commons by horses, mares, yearling colts and dry cattle that are not driven into the dry herd commons; that all inhabitants having more than one horse or mare shall drive their yearling colts and dry cattle into the dry herd commons within three days after the publication hereof upon penalty of 5s. The selectmen of Newbury ordered, May 14, 1663, “that all the dry cattle, except working oxen and yearlings, shall be driven up out of the cow commons.”
Resentment in the common: From the earliest times there was resentment in Ipswich that some commoners weren’t fulfilling their obligations. Furthermore, it was complained that cattle from Newbury were tramping down the salt hay and it “would be the ruin and utter destruction of the whole island.” The division of the commons in Ipswich began in 1664, when the town voted that Plum Island, Hog Island and Castle Neck be divided among the 203 inhabitants who had right of commonage. Eight acre lots of valuable saltmarsh were provided to the 28 wealthiest men, while the poorer men received four, primarily in the upland lots. Adjustments were made for those who had been overlooked or “fell short of their due proportion” and for many years the town continued to issue corrections.
The Committee reported in April, 1665, that there were 800 acres of marsh and upland on Plum Island, “beside beaches and gall’d hills.” Thatch banks and clam flats remained the property of the town, and were let each year to the highest bidder, only commoners having the right to bid. Hogs, horses, and cattle were kept on the island during the winter, ruining the marsh grass, and in 1739 the General court banned the practice. Today’s protected salt marshes and clam flats, with strict control of shellfish permits, are vestiges of preservation measures taken in the 17th and 18th Centuries.
Mason’s Claim: In 1622, eight years before establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Capt. John Mason had obtained title to all the land from Salem to Newburyport as a principal partner in a stock company known as the Plymouth Council for New England. In 1681, his grandson John T. Mason presented a letter from the King to the General Court, which ordered “all said tenants” to appear in the Ipswich court. If his birthright claim was confirmed, every land title would be worthless and Mason would have been able to impose a medieval manor and tenant land system. Eventually his case failed, after causing extreme anguish among the populace.
Then in 1686, Governor Andros imposed a 2.5 shilling quit-rent per annum on all 100-acre lots not occupied, or occupied with defective titles. Since all of the existing land titles in Massachusetts had been granted under the vacated colonial charter, Andros essentially declared them to be void, and required landowners to recertify their ownership by paying fees to the Dominion as a quit-rent. To strengthen their title, the Selectmen of Newbury, in consideration of £10 purchased the entire town of Newbury from Samuel English, the surviving heir of Masconomet, constituting about 10,000 acres. The threat ended when news reached Boston of the overthrow of King James II, and Andros was arrested by a mob that descended on the city.
Ipswich Commons Divided into Eighths. Resolving continuous disputes regarding cattle and sheep was burdensome for the Ipswich Selectmen, and as the 17th Century ended, men began boldly asserting sovereignty over their allotments. The scarcity of new productive land to expand the commons system convinced the towns’ leaders as well as the proprietors that the common fields should be distributed permanently. In 1709, a list of old and new commoners was agreed on and the remaining 5850 acres of common land, about 9 square miles of common lands, were divided into eight parts with two-fifths going to descendants of the original settlers and three-fifths to more recent commoners. Three further divisions occurred, the last being in 1720, including 900 acres in Chebacco, which is now the Town of Essex. The land could now be rented or sold. Price controls were attempted but several men became rich investing in commonage.
After the Revolutionary War, the State of Massachusetts enacted various measures regarding commons, setting rules for meetings, fencing, taxing, and trespassing, in an attempt to stabilize the Commons system. Finally, in 1788, the majority of the Ipswich commoners voted to resign all their interests in the remaining common lands toward the payment of the heavy town debt incurred during the Revolution, a grant estimated to be worth about £600.
In the spring of 2000, the Ipswich Town meeting authorized a $10 million Open Space Bond for the protection of land for open space, water supply protection, and recreation, preserving the land from development. The town’s investment adds to Willowdale State Forest, Plum Island, Appleton Farms and Crane Beach, which are preserved by the State, and environmental organizations.
The Common Pasture, located in Newbury, Newburyport and West Newbury, is a remnant dating back to 1635. The entirety of the present day Common extends from north of Hale Street in Newburyport, crosses Hale St. through the City to Turkey Hill Road in West Newbury, then follows Scotland Road in Newbury and abuts to the Little River Nature Trails on the eastern branch of the Little River. The City of Newburyport, the Town of Newbury, the Trust for Public Land, Essex County Greenbelt Association and the Parker River Clean Water Association have worked together to protect key portions of the Common Pasture through land acquisition and agricultural preservation restrictions.
In 2006, the City of Newburyport and The Trust for Public Land (TPL) announced the acquisition and permanent protection of the 102-acre North Pasture property on Hale Street in Newburyport. The North Pasture today comprises about 240 acres, extending to the Little River. A trail system winds through the Cooper North Pasture. The South Pasture area is zoned agricultural/residential and contains the largest concentration of farms remaining in Newburyport. Scotland Road delineates the southern boundary of the South Pasture. The land along the south side of Hale Street from Route 95 east to the Little River comprises the norther portion of the South Pasture. The Turkey Hill area includes land west of Route 95 that was historically part of the lower common in Newburyport and West Newbury.
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