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History lives on North of Boston

September 24, 2020

Written by Bethany Dorau, Historic New England

In my role as Regional Site Administrator for Historic New England I spend more time in the seventeenth century than most. My office sits in a renovated carriage barn at the Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm, first farmed by European settlers in 1635, and featuring a stone and brick manor house built in 1690. The 1678 Coffin House and the 1670 Swett-Ilsley House are just down the road, the keys to their front doors jangling on my lanyard. I love the weight of time that is palpable in these houses. I love the smell of wood smoke and wool that still greets you on a hot day when the door is first opened, even in a house that has not been lived in for a century. These houses are, for me, a reminder of an extraordinary time in the history of our country, and of the world, a link to a time when men and women, determined to better their lot in life, took extraordinary risks and often paid dearly for it.

Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm

Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm manor house built in 1690, Newbury MA. Photo by Sara Willman.

Captain Offin Boardman by Christian Gullager, about 1787 (Worcester Art Museum)

Offin Boardman, Revolutionary War privateer, purchased Spencer-Pierce-Little Farm in 1797. Painting of Captain Offin Boardman by Christian Gullager, about 1787 (Worcester Art Museum)

People in costume in front of historic home

James and Bethany Dorau in historic costume for Tales & Ales at the 1670 Swett-Ilsley House in Newbury. Photo by Sara Willman.

school kids visiting the Coffin House in Newbury

Students visit the 1678 Coffin House in Newbury MA. Photo by Sara Willman.

European settlement in Essex County predates Boston by years. The short-lived Dorchester Company settlement in present-day Gloucester was founded in 1623, and Salem in 1626. By the time Essex County was established in 1643, eight substantial towns were already flourishing,  Salem, Lynn, Wenham, Ipswich, Rowley, Newbury, Gloucester, and Andover, joined in 1660 by Haverhill and Salisbury, who had been part of the short-lived Norfolk County.  These towns split into separate parishes and eventually separate towns, as the second and third generations of settlers bought and sold and divided the land, often with a cursory nod to the native people who had hunted, fished, and farmed for centuries previously.

The age of the settlements of Essex County alone would be enough reason for many of us to find the area compelling, but there are two reasons to pay attention to this history here. First, for a variety of reasons, among them economic instability over the last two centuries, and good old-fashioned New England thrift, there are a remarkable number of houses still standing from the first century of European settlement, the most in the country, in fact. Ipswich boasts the most survivors at 59. These houses, with their center chimney bays, their steep roof pitches, and their street-facing facades, have seen three and four centuries of life, and all have stories to tell. Fuzzy up your eyes and walk down High Street in Ipswich, or High Road in Newbury, and these houses will transport you to a time without paved roads, or power lines, or street lights, when mountain lions and wolves still screamed and howled in the night and angels and devils seemed present in every moment.

Perhaps less obvious than their houses, these settlers also left behind their words, captured with unique clarity in an unlikely record of everyday life – the Essex County Quarterly Court. The Quarterly Court, established in 1636, alternated between Ipswich and Salem, and heard cases, except for murder, divorce, and heresy, from every corner of the county, and from almost every resident. People went to complain about nosy neighbors, misbehaving teenagers, to swear out wills and custody arrangements, get permits to build mills and sell beer, and everything in between. Women, children, and servants, generally silent in the official record, are well represented here, and their statements captured not only verbatim, but at times phonetically, their accents or inflections recorded for posterity.

Visit a seventeenth century house, get to know its early residents, and then find out what their neighbors thought of them. This court recorded teenage indiscretions, bar fights, marital squabbles, swears and oaths and jokes and toasts. It is from here that we know that William Snelling of Newbury wished “a pox on my foes”, enough to get him hauled to court. Reuben Guppi of Salem stole and ax and a hen and ran away with them in his trousers. Elizabeth Lambert of Lynn was brewing beer on Sunday, and argued that she had just a little left to do, and didn’t see why she shouldn’t finish up. Reading these records is a rich and rewarding experience.

Decades ago, the slogan for Massachusetts tourism was “the spirit of Massachusetts is the spirit of America.” I would argue that the spirit of North of Boston, with its town meetings, its devotion to the equality of all its church members, its squabbling neighbors, and its thoughtful, brave, and often naughty residents is also the spirit of America. Go visit one of the many historic houses when they are safely open, and get to know the residents of North of Boston from three centuries ago in their kitchens, bedrooms, and attics. You’ll be amazed how present, how relevant they still are.


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