Contention in the Commons: the Puritan open field land system in 17th Century Essex County

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.

Image courtesy University of Massachusetts

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.

Image from Medieval Times, Google Classroom

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 settlers of Ipswich and Newbury came from more southerly parts of England where open fields were disappearing and a closed field system had become dominant, in which formerly open fields were fenced and deeded to individual owners. This is an illustration of open fields in Suffolk County England, of which Ipswich UK is a part, in 1300. Image courtesy of the British Agriculture History Society
This second illustration shows that the open field system in the vicinity of Ipswich, Suffolk County had largely disappeared in Suffolk by 1550.

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.

Boston Common: The Bonner 1722 map of Boston shows that the Common was still mostly open, providing a place to pasture livestock. As early as 1646 the land had become overgrazed, and the town of Boston was forced to place restrictions on the animals pastured there. Ipswich, Rowley and Newbury with their extensive meadows and marsh land were selling tons of salt hay and “hundreds of beef quarters” to the merchants in Boston. Image from Digital Commonwealth


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.

Part of the Ipswich Open Space program, the Great Neck Conservation Area property is adjacent to Clark Pond, and is a remnant of the common field where cattle were kept in the summer.

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.

North of the gate at what was then the end of High St. was the great north common field. This photo of trolley tracks following High St. in Ipswich was taken in the early 1900s.
Illustration from Candlewood by Thomas Franklin Waters
Image from the Master Plan for the Pony Express playing fields in Ipswich MA

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.

Early land grants in Topsfield MA

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.

View of Mt. Pleasant from Town Hill in Ipswich. Photo by Edward Darling c. 1900

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.”

Town Hill looking out at Castle Neck in Ipswich, Cyanotype by Arthur Wesley Dow, ca 1900

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.

Ipswich parishes and land use in the 17th & 18th Century

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.”

Cyanotype by Arthur Wesley Dow, ca 1900

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.

The Lower Green in Newbury MA Old Town

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.

Sheep and were watered sheep in the new location in Newbury at a kettle hole they named Frog Pond, now in Newburyport. Photo courtesy of the Historical Marker database

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.

Cyanotype by Arthur Wesley Dow, ca 1900

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 was created from parts of Newbury and Ipswich in 1638.

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.

In 1649, The General Court decreed, “Upon the petition of Newbury, this court gives and grants Plum Island to Ipswich, Rowley & Newbury, with Ipswich to have two parts, Newbury two parts and Rowley to have one fifth part.”
Nelson’s Island in Rowley. The salt marshes at Plum Island and in the Parker River estuaries produced abundant quantities of two types of hay, used for cordage and feeding livestock.
Native distribution of small cordgrass in the UK before hybridization with Spartina alterniflora from New England

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.

Stacking hay on staddles

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.

Painting by Fitz Henry Lane. Flat bottom boats known as gundalows unloaded salt marsh hay at the town landing and Nelson’s Island in Rowley, and at Green’s Point in Ipswich. According to historian Joshua Coffin, Plum Island produced 2800 tons of salt hay in 1840
Stinted fields, closes & common pastures. William R. Shepherd, Historical Atlas, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1923

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.

House lots granted to the early settlers of Rowley MA, where only a handful of large farms were granted. Every person in town was entitled to receive two acres for every 20 shillings he had paid in the “last country tax.” Image from WikiTree
1830 Philander Anderson map of Rowley, courtesy of Digital Commonwealth

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.”

These two large stones on the side of Central Street in Rowley just before Townsend Brook are said to have been placed in 1639 at the entrance of Common Land of the First Settlers of the town. The brook is so named because it was the “town’s end.” This point was designated as the northernmost boundary in the early settlement of the town, and settlers were ordered not to build beyond this point. Within a few years the radius of the commons was extended to five miles. Photo from the MACRIS site for Rowley
English hay. Cyanotype by Arthur Wesley Dow, ca 1900

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.

Rocks Island Bridge in the 19th Century. Image courtesy of the Museum of Old Newbury via Digital Commonwealth

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.

A cow grazing on the hillside above the Merrimack River at what is now Maudslay State Park. Image courtesy of the Museum of Old Newbury via Digital Commonwealth

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.

The old Sawyer farm, which later became the Moseley estate and is now Maudslay State Park in Newburyport

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.

Between I703 and I705 the remaining common lands bordering the Merrimack River were divided into 224 lots and were distributed or sold by the proprietors. The allocation of private lots with frontage on the river for private use resulted in rapid expansion of the shipbuilding and fishing industries, the establishment of an additional ferry, and the construction of new waterfront streets.
Wet Meadows. Image courtesy Essex County Greenbelt

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.

Plan of Rowley surveyed by Joseph Chapin, dated December, 1794. Photo courtesy Digital Commonwealth, with enhanced colors indicating “large tracts of unfenced “barren and unimprovable land.”

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”

The more tillable and fertile land in the south part of Ipswich gave rise to multiple farms. Image from “Candlewood, an Ancient Neighborhood” by Thomas Franklin Waters

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?

Today’s North Andover was the center of the original town of Andover, MA. The common fields were in the south part of town, which is now the town of Andover. The Trustees of Reservations’ Ward Reservation is on land that was part of the common fields.

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.

Late 19th Century photo by George Dexter of grazing fields on the coastal drumlins in Ipswich

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.

Late 19th Century photo of hay on saddles by George Dexter

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.

Tercentenary Commission Marker on North Main St. in Ipswich. The revolt against Governor Andros was about taxes and land.

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.

The Plan of Ipswich by Barnabas Dodge, dated 1794-5 includes Chebacco Parish. Image courtesy Digital Commonwealth

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 Ipswich, Great Neck continued to be held as common land by a group of men who organized as “The Proprietors of Jeffries Neck Pasture.” The 1832 Philander Andersen map of Ipswich shows a “Neck gate” for cattle. View the entire map at Digital Commonwealth.
Bush Hill between Topsfield Rd. and Pineswamp Rd. was still used as a defacto common as late as 1900. Today’s lot lines were created when the open fields were divided. Circa 1900 photo by Edward Darling
Cows on today’s Jeffreys Neck Rd. in Ipswich. Great Neck was used as commercial pasture land until the early 20th Century, when Mr. Alexander B. Clark bought up all the lots. Photo by George Dexter, early 1900s
Husbandmen became independent farmers on the outside of the town’s center. The agricultural commons ceased to exist, but today’s South Green in Ipswich was where cattle were once corralled and later became the Town’s training ground. Circa 1915 photo, courtesy Ipswich Museum

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.

This excerpt from the 1830 map of the original Town of Newbury showed a Common Pasture near where Newbury, Newburyport and West Newbury meet between Turkey Hill and the Little River, although it may have become private land.
Image courtesy City of Newburyport

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.

Satellite view of the Newbury/West Newbury/Newburyport common pastures.

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.

Essex County Greenbelt sign at the South Common pasture on Scotland Rd. in Newbury

Further reading:

Joseph Gould house, 129 Washington St., Topsfield MA (ca. 1710 / ca. 1725)

Joseph Gould house, Topsfield MA

The Capt. Joseph Gould house is an enigma; a substantial early 18th Century house constructed in at least two stages, and the only First Period house in our area believed to have been constructed two rooms deep (aka bays or piles) deep. The 1710 Gould Barn that once sat on this property was dismantled and reconstructed at the foot of Howlett St.

The three bay east side of the house is the oldest, and the house achieved its present appearance when the left side, also of three bays was added c. 1725. Typical of the period, spacing of the windows is irregular, although most are vertically aligned. The chimney on the right original side is more substantial, and the fireplace below it in the downstairs room is the largest in the house. The roof is of substantial principal rafter and common purlin construction on the two sides of the house. In addition to the depth of the house, another transitional feature is the eaves, which appear to have originally featured a plaster cove.

Inside the house, framing is doubled at the junction of the earlier and later sections, and is exposed in several rooms in both sides of the house. Transverse summer beams (instead of longitudinal) are on both sides, measuring 11 1/4″ in general, featuring flat chamfers with “lambs tongue” taper stops. Summer beams in the upstairs of the west side are unchamfered. Story posts in the rear section are elaborately molded, similar to several houses in Salem. Simpler gunstock posts are found in other rooms. Downstairs in the entrance and rear room west (later) part of the house, posts and beams have narrower flat chamfers and simple triangular taper stops. Measurements for the joist spacing is about 25″ on center. A reused chamfered summer beam can be seen in the cellar.

Conflicting studies

  • The MACRIS listing and nomination papers for the Joseph Gould house state that the oldest section was always two rooms deep and dates to before the 18th Century.
  • The “Old House Whisper” John Cole and Eleanor Bailey studied the house, and wrote that the earliest part was a one over one room “half house” structure built for Joseph Gould about 1712 at the time of his marriage to Priscilla Perkins. Cole observed a reused summer beam in the basement, and believes the house was expanded to the west and in the rear around 1751 at the marriage of Joseph Gould 2 to Elizabeth Emerson. He does not, however, reconcile the preponderance of First Period (pre-1725) architecture throughout the house with mid-18th Century.
  • Abbott Lowell Cummings is known to have visited the house but his notes and observations have not been discovered.
  • Kari Ann Federer did a comprehensive study of the house in 1989 which is copied in part below.

Capt. Joseph Gould house
Rear, Capt. Joseph Gould house. The left side in this photo is believed to be the older half.

The Joseph Gould House and barn

Kari Ann Federer, Boston University, December 18, 1989 (excerpt)


This is a study of two late first period buildings in Topsfield, Massachusetts, the Joseph Gould House and the barn which stood on the property, until it was dismantled in 1983. Both house and barn were constructed in two phases, the second doubling the original in size and following its plan and form quite closely.

The resulting six bay dwelling was essentially two end chimney houses built back to back, with chimneys up against each other, creating something like a central chimney house. The barn totaling nine bays, consisted of two classic five bay barns side by side with one bay overlapping.

This double house and a double barn existed by the mid-1700s and were occupied, at that time, by two different, though probably related families. Traditionally, the older half of the house was said to date prior to 1700 and the second half shortly thereafter. The popular tale was that the later section was added to make the house into a duplex for father and son. However, research into deeds and probate records has suggested that both of these traditions are inaccurate.

This study is an attempt to shed light on the history of the Joseph Gould farm by examining the original framing and construction of the house and the barn, as well as the overall layout of the farmyard and the changing uses of these spaces.


The eastern half of the Joseph Gould house was the first portion to be constructed. It was initially an end chimney house, two and a half stories high, one room wide and two deep, with the chimney at the west end of the dwelling. The house measured twenty seven and a half feet wide and twenty eight and a half feet deep. The rear rooms were about two thirds as deep as the front ones.

The Gould house is now covered in clapboards, attached with wire nails, which must all be replacements. However, the original house would also have been sheathed in unpainted clapboards. The roof cornice overhangs about a foot along the front of the house and diagonal boarding is said to cover a plaster cove.

The nine over six sash windows now on the Gould house are later eighteenth century replacements. The current configuration of this eastern section of the house is not original, as the chimney has been moved to the east and a room created in what had been the chimney bay. Evidence of this alteration includes Federal mantels on the fireplaces of the southeast rooms upstairs and down, well as the fact the transverse summer beams were off center in these rooms lying closer to the chimney wall than would be expected.

Due to this alteration in the chimney bay of the Joseph Gould house, no evidence of the original entry door, staircase, or fireplaces can be seen. It might be assumed that the configuration of the chimney bay was fairly typical of the late first period. In New England houses of the First Period, the staircase and entry were usually combined, with the stairs rising up across the front of the chimney.

The staircase from the first to second floors of the Gould house may have been a straight run composed partially of winders. The open balustrade, with turned balusters and molded hand railing would have housed within a closed string.

Under the stairs would have been molded vertical sheathing and perhaps a door to the cellar stairs. However, a trapdoor to the root cellar currently exists in the northeast corner room of the house and there is no reason to believe this is not its original location.

In this first half of the Joseph Gould House, the frame would have been entirely exposed, though some members are now boxed. All summer beams are transverse and these timbers are continuous from the front to the back of the house, proving that both stories were always two rooms deep. Joist spacing in this part of the house, is twenty five inches on center; a measurement consistent with the late first period date of the house. Where visible, all summer beams and girts have flat chamfers with lambs tongue stops except for those of the chimney girt in the rear room, which have triangular stops.

As in many other houses with transverse summer beams, the most highly embellished parts of the frame are the story and chimney posts. These have elaborately molded heads with a deep quarter round and two fillets. It seems to be only the rear posts that are fancy, however. Most of the front framing members are now boxed, but the front chimney post can be seen, and this is much simpler with only a very wide flat chamfer on its sides. The rear corner posts are similar to this one, as are all visible posts on the second floor.

In the attic, one can see that both halves of the Joseph Gould house are constructed with a principal rafter, common purlin roof system. Each half of the house consists of four pairs of rafters, bridled at the ridge, creating two three bay sections. On each slope of the roof are five purlins trenched over rafters, with the ridge purlin resting in a notch cut into the upper rafter. Massive long collar beams tie together the rafters in the older (eastern) half of the house. These ties, along with the rafters, are finished with narrow flat chamfers.

The rafters are doubled at the transition point between the two sections of the house. When the second half was added, another complete house frame was built up against the old one. Visible in the ridge between these two frames, are original clapboards from the exterior west gable end of the earlier house. The roofing system of the second half of Joseph Gould house is very similar to that of the first. The frames line up exactly, though the later section has slightly heavier purlins and no collar beams, but struts rising up from tie beam to rafter instead.

In plan, the second half of the Gould house copied the original. However, the west half is about six feet narrower, being only twenty one feet wide. The basic configuration of this half of the house has not been altered. The five foot wide western chimney bay is in its original location, though the chimney stack is now smaller than it would have been.

The stairs from the first to the second floor and also up to the attic, are still in their initial location in front of the chimney. The staircase is typical of the late First Period, with turned balusters, but a plain newel post. Molded paneling under stairs makes it clear that there were never cellar stairs there. A trap door to the root cellar also exists under this half of the house. The staircase was probably a double run with landing, originally. The current unusual configuration was most likely created when the chimney was rebuilt and narrowed. An empty space was left behind the chimney and it was logical to use this as an easier way to reach the rear chamber.

The summer beams are also transverse in this second half of the Joseph Gould house. Much of the frame is now boxed, but it is visible in the rear rooms, upstairs and down, and in the front entry. Typical of the less decorative embellishments of the end of the First Period, very narrow chamfers with taper stops can be seen in rear rooms. The rear story post has a fancy molded head, similar to those in the older half of the house. However, all other posts in the rear room are simple with only very narrow flat chamfers on their sides. In the west front entry hall, the front chimney and corner post can be seen and these are very plain with almost no chamfers at all. Upstairs, the rear posts are undecorated and here the summer beam is the only chamfered member.

Sometime later in the 18th century, the frames in the west front rooms of the Joseph Gould house were boxed and the first floor room was embellished with a corner cupboard. Some of the feather edged panels on the fireplace wall of this room may date from the construction of the house, as this became very popular in the early 18th century. The raised paneling in the west front chamber may also be original. This type of decoration came into use by about 1725 and like other new fashions, was often tried upstairs in the chambers first.

Typical of the First Period, the Joseph Gould house was built facing due south, while the barn backed up to the north west wind.This created a sheltered farm yard in front of house and barn and later outbuildings added between the two protected it even more.First Period barns were often located in front of the house, closer to the road, in order to show off the family’s stock and store of supplies. As the location of man-made structures helped to bring coherence into a chaotic world, the forty five degree angle between the ridgepoles of the Gould house and barn enforced the disjunction between the artificial rational world of man and the irrational dirty world of livestock.


The area which is now the town of Topsfield, Massachusetts was originally part of the seventeenth century plantations of Ipswich and Salem. During the 1630s and 1640s, large grants of Topsfield land were given to Ipswich Residents. The land where the Joseph Gould house stands was part of the Captain Patrick Grant, which like many of these large land holdings, was soon divided and sold. In 1644, three hundred acres of it were purchased by Zaccheus Gould (1589-1668), who had arrived from England in 1639 and decided to settle in the newly developing community of Topsfield. Twenty years later, in 1664, it is estimated that Zaccheus Gould owned some 3000 acres, 580 in Topsfield and the rest in neighboring Boxford. At this tine, Zaccheus sold his entire estate and house in Topsfield to his only son John Gould (1635-1710), who had come with him from England as a young child. John Gould lived in his father’s house, past which Washington Street was laid out late in the 1660s. He and his wife Sara (Baker), who were married in 1660, raised eight children, one of whom was Joseph, born in 1677.


Although Joseph Gould is traditionally said to have built his original house prior to 1700, there is no recorded deed giving him land until March of 1709. At this time, John Gould, who was nearing the end of his life, divided his estate among his surviving sons. Joseph was given sundry parcels of upland, meadow, and woodland in Topsfield and Boxford. This deed was not specific about the boundaries or acreage of the property, but it should be noted that it did not mention any buildings on the land, nor does it indicate that Joseph Gould owned any of the abutting land previously.

In 1709, Joseph Gould would have been 32 years old, but still unmarried. It seems quite likely that the first half of his house was not constructed prior to this time. This conclusion is supported by a map of Topsfield printed in 1950 for the town Tercentenary, which labels the house “Abbott 1709” (Abbott being the owner at the time). This date also coincides with that which First Period barn expert Robert Blair St. George has assigned to the earlier half of the Gould barn.

In the process of establishing his own farm, Joseph Gould probably built the first halves of his house and his barn in 1709 to 1710. A few years later, in 1712/13, Joseph married 23 year old Priscilla Perkins. The two immediately began a family, Priscilla giving birth to their first child in 1714. The Goulds had eleven children, but only six survived past early childhood. The only surviving boy being Joseph Gould (2).

The second half of the Joseph Gould house was traditionally thought to have been added to the west of the existing house, built between 1700 and 1720. Perhaps the later end of this range is correct. No documentary evidence could be found for the construction date of this portion of the house. According to the probate inventory of Joseph Gould (1) it was certainly in existence by 1753. The features of this western end of the house are typical of the late First Period and thus it is unlikely that it could have been added any later than the 1720s. The second half of the barn was also standing by 1753 and Robert St. George felt it must date from between 1720 and 1750.

The traditional story tells that the second half of the Joseph Gould house was built to make a duplex for father and son. However, as Joseph (2), the only surviving Gould son, was not even born until 1725, it seems impossible that it could have been constructed specifically for his use. None of the Gould girls were grown and married by the 1720s either.

On the other hand, there are no deeds indicating that Joseph Gould sold off a portion of the house, or even any land near his house. It has been suggested that the addition of the western half of the Gould house was simply an unusual way of enlarging the original dwelling. Building two complete frames up against each other makes the house appear to have been constructed as a duplex, but this was not necessarily the case. Perhaps Joseph Gould made the addition to his home during the 1720s in order to house his growing family. He may have had in mind that one of his children would occupy half of the house, later when the family had grown, and thus built the house so it could easily accommodate this purpose.

The farm was indeed being used as a two family home in 1753, when Joseph Gould’s inventory included only the easterly end of the dwelling house and half of the barn. The inventory does not make clear who owned the other halves of the buildings and there is no evidence that Joseph Gould (1) ever sold them to anyone else. Therefore, it does seem probable that Joseph Gould (2), who was married in 1751 at age 24, was the occupant of the western half of the house and barn by the time of his father’s death. This could have been the origin of the story about the father and son duplex. Joseph (2) was willed the remainder of his father’s real estate and by the 1760s was being taxed for the entire farm.

–Kari Ann Federer


Joseph Gould house, Topsfield MA
Joseph Gould house, Topsfield MA
Stair railings and sheathed wall in the Capt. Joseph Gould house
Main stair rail, turned posts and vertical sheathing in the Capt. Joseph Gould house
fireplace, Capt. Joseph Gould house
Living room fireplace Capt. Joseph Gould house
Post and beam in the in the Capt. Joseph Gould house
Post and beam in the in the Capt. Joseph Gould house
Kitchen rear wall, ornamental post in the Capt. Joseph Gould house
Kitchen rear wall, several ornamental posts in the Capt. Joseph Gould house are very similar to posts in the 1675-1693 Stanley-Lake house in Topsfield, the “1675” Jonathan Corwin house in Salem, and the 1679 Balch house in Beverly.
Gunstock post in Captain Joseph Gould house
Gunstock post, beam and girt in the Capt. Joseph Gould house
Capt. Joseph Gould house
Summer beam, rear kitchen in the Capt. Joseph Gould house
Joseph Gould house
Rafters and purlins in the Joseph Gould house.
Window in the Joseph Gould house in Topsfield
Front window in the Joseph Gould house. Angled jambs and casings are similar to those found in the c1730 Richard Nichols house on Franklin St. in Reading.

Capt. John Gould (1635-1709)

John Gould inherited part of the 3000 acres of land owned by his father Zaccheus Gould (1589-1668), whose home is believed to have been nearby on Washington St., and was already an important citizen of the town of Topsfield. During the Revolution of 1686 for which Ipswich claims fame, Capt. John Gould was imprisoned for opposing Gov. Andros. He served as selectman, and gave a depositoin agains Sarah Wilds, his neighbor, who was hung as a witch during the Salem hysteria. Capt. John Gould and his wife Sarah (Baker) Gold conveyed their farmlands to their five sons.

Capt. Joseph Gould (1677-1753)

Joseph, who married Priscilla Perkins, received the homestead. Like his father, he served as selectman, and was elected to the General Court for seven terms. In his will, dated March 1753, Capt. Gould gave his household goods to his wife, and one third of the use of the estate, as was customary at the time, with “the liberty of the Great Room in my Dwelling House and the improvement of half the cellar und Said Room.”

Major Joseph Gould (1726-1803)

At the time of Joseph Sr.’s death, Joseph Jr. was living in the westerly wing with his wife Elizabeth Emerson Gould, and assumed ownership of the farm. Joseph Gould Jr. is said to have played an important role in the Battle of Concord and was made a major in Col. John Cogswell’s Regiment. At his death, the house was inherited by Joseph 3, who married Ruth Porter of Danvers. In 1867, the house passed out of the Gould family.

Joseph Gould house Topsfield about 1900
The Joseph Gould house and the Gould barn, about 1900.