At age 21, Roger Clapp left his family in Devonshire, England, to lead a spiritual life three thousand miles away. He boarded the John and Mary on March 20, 1630 and embarked on a ten-week, sermon-filled voyage to New England in the company of many “godly people.” When the ship arrived at Nantasket two months later, Roger and “some able men, well armed” set out to explore a meandering river to the north. They travelled upstream until the waterway narrowed and grew shallow with marsh muck, and then laboriously unloaded the boat on the river’s steep, northern bank. Night fell quickly. As the river’s surface turned glassy and black, word spread that three hundred Indians were encamped nearby. The news put the men on high alert. Roger stood sentinel that night, clutching his musket, perhaps willing himself to believe that the rustling of reed grass was caused by nothing more than a damp breeze. Only in the morning were his fears were put to rest when the Natives approached, traded bass for biscuits, and “were very friendly.” Today, a stone marker commemorates this episode on a Watertown bicycle path just two riverbends from the Speedway.
Roger Clapp’s brief encampment was one of the first recorded European outposts in a large area that eventually became known as Cambridge. Previously, the English had established several settlements along the coast from Plymouth to Salem, but not until autumn of 1630, when newly appointed Massachusetts Bay governor John Winthrop dropped anchor at the Shawmut Peninsula, did colonists move inland. Winthrop’s flock founded several villages along the Charles, including Watertown and the colony’s first capital: a small, geographically protected hill on the river’s north bank named Newtowne. The seat of government moved to Boston in 1634, but two years later, Newtowne was selected as the site of a school to prepare young men for the ministry. Once Harvard College was founded, Newtowne – renamed Cambridge – became the municipal center unifying communities on both sides of the river.
One of these communities was Nonantum, the first “Praying Indian” village in Massachusetts. In 1646, the Reverend John Eliot of Roxbury set his heart on converting Native tribes to Christianity. Initial success came in October, when he delivered sermons in Algonquian to a small group of Massachuseuck living on the present-day Brighton-Newton border. Their leader, Waban, may have regarded conversion as a means of securing land and a strategic alliance from the English, or he may have truly accepted the gospel; whatever the case, he agreed to move with his followers to the newly established “praying town” Nonantum. (The name Nonantum means “I rejoice” in Algonquian; according to Eliot, “the English did rejoice” when the Natives converted.) The village was short-lived. Colonial suspicion of the Massachuseuck and desire for land caused the praying town to relocate to Natick in 1651. Today, all that remains of Nonantum is the name.
The Christianization of local tribes nonetheless had a lasting impact on the area by encouraging colonists to settle on the Charles River’s southern bank. Originally part of Watertown, these salt meadows and hills had been transferred to Cambridge in 1634 to be used for grazing. Some colonists, such as Watertown minister George Philip, received land grants as early as 1630. However, Cambridge church elder Richard Champney became the first to live south of the Charles when he was allotted 149 acres near present-day Union Square in 1647. Nathaniel Sparhawk soon followed his example; already a wealthy landowner with five houses and five hundred acres to his name, he amassed additional property from present-day Brighton Center to the river. Upon his death, his sons erected houses on today’s Cambridge Street and Western Avenue, becoming the first of a long line of Sparhawks to reside in the area. The third of Brighton’s earliest settlers was Richard Dana, whose estate encompassed the entirety of present-day Market Street and extended along Faneuil Street to Oak Square. Together, the Champneys, Sparhawks, and Danas set in motion the transformation of fen and forest into an agricultural village: Little Cambridge.
English settlement of Little Cambridge initiated a development boom. The Great Country Road (now Washington Street) was constructed in 1657 to connect Boston, Muddy River (Brookline), and Cambridge. During the same decade, present Faneuil Street was laid along a portion of Old Indian Lane (which included Nonantum Street and likely led to the former praying town). Market Street was also built in the 1650s, though its earliest recorded name, Meeting House Lane, dates to the eighteenth century. And in 1662, the ferry connecting Harvard Square with Roxbury Highway (part of the Upper Boston Post Road, now North Harvard Street) was replaced with the Great Bridge. Despite this development, Little Cambridge remained religiously and politically dependent on its namesake. The village was a century without a meetinghouse; residents had to travel across the river to Harvard Square for Sunday worship and civic gatherings. Thus for much of its early history, Brighton was a sleepy hamlet, a suburb of Boston and Cambridge through which people frequently passed, but had little reason to stay. The community grew gradually during the seventeenth century. All the while, Puritans poured into Massachusetts Bay colony, which stabilized and pushed further inland.
In popular memory, the modern history of Massachusetts began in 1620 with a group of English religious zealots. These men, women, and children are said to have ventured into an unknown region of the New World, a wilderness home to Native Americans who previously had never seen a European face. Massachusetts Bay, the story goes, was discovered, explored, and exploited by English dissidents. But popular memory often plays tricks. The Pilgrims encountered a region that was neither unmapped nor unaware of the wider world. Rather, it had played a role in the imperial Atlantic power struggle for decades.
The coastal plains and rolling hills that would become so important in United States history were and remain home to many Algonquian-speaking tribes. Massachuseuck territory, named for the sacred Great Blue Hill (Massachusett, “Big Hill Place”), stretched across present-day Greater Boston. To the west lay Nippenet (“Freshwater Pond Place”), land of the Nipmuck. Their neighbors included the Wampanoag along the Cape; the Pocumtuck, Nonatuck, Woronock, and Agawam along the Connecticut River; the Muheconeok in the Berkshires; and the Penacook and Squagheag to the north. Dozens of long-distance trails connected villages throughout New England, facilitating trade, inflaming rivalries, and strengthening allegiances. Not only people and goods, but information traveled along these routes. When oddly clad strangers appeared offshore, the news would have spread like brushfire.
Five hundred years after Vikings first reached Newfoundland, Europeans became a regular presence in northern American waters. Basque, Portuguese, English, and French fishermen plied their trade off the coast of Canada, and there is evidence that they came into contact with Mi’kmak or Abenaki tribes in Maine as early as 1519. By the end of the century, a steady stream of European fisherman hunted whales and cod around Massachusetts Bay. They probably ventured ashore for fresh water and, perhaps, to trade with Native inhabitants.
Official European exploration of New England began with an Italian working for France. In 1524, Giovanni da Verrazzano sailed west aboard La Dauphine in search of the fabled Northwest Passage. Upon reaching the lands of Siouan-speaking tribes (North Carolina), he kidnapped a boy to bring back to France and then turned north, hugging the coastline. He ventured into the areas of Mahican and Nahigansett (New York and Rhode Island), sailed past treacherous sandbanks and a “high promontory” that he named Pallavisino (Cape Cod), and proceeded to Wabanakhik ("Dawn Land," northern Maine), before ending his expedition in Beothuk territory (Newfoundland). Like many Renaissance voyagers, Verrazzano portrayed North America as a resource-rich idyll; present-day Rhode Island was “suitable for every kind of cultivation – grain, wine, or oil,” while Cape Cod “showed signs of minerals.” Notably, he described Natives’ varying attitudes towards the Europeans. Most, including the Narragansett, were “generous” and “gracious;” some were fearful; and the Abenaki were downright hostile: they insisted on trading “where the breakers were most violent,” attacked sailors who came ashore, and mooned Verrazzano’s crew upon its departure. Such behavior suggests that Maine tribes had a painful encounter with European fishermen even before La Dauphine arrived. Their neighbors to the south would soon have similar experiences.
Exploration increased in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, spurred by stories of a northern El Dorado. Maps of the New World increasingly identified present-day Maine and southeastern Canada as the mythical Norumbega, a region of vast wealth that captured Europeans’ imaginations. In a possibly fictive and certainly fanciful travel account published in 1589, the sailor David Ingram claimed to have journeyed overland from Florida to Cape Breton and to have visited Bega, a city replete with “rubies six inches long,” pearls, and gold. The rumors lured Samuel de Champlain across the Atlantic in 1605. Though he discovered neither Norumbega nor the Northwest Passage, he did produce one of the earliest maps of Boston Harbor and an account of the people living there: “We saw in this place a great many little houses, which are situated in the fields where they sow their Indian corn. Furthermore in this bay there is a very broad river which we named the River Du Gas.” To the Massachuseuck, this river was the Quinobequin. To the Puritans, it would become the Charles.
Europeans continued to frequent Massachusetts Bay in the years leading up to the founding of Plymouth Colony. Henry Hudson, John Smith, and Thomas Dermer all made the voyage, with disastrous consequences for Native peoples. In 1614, Smith’s associate Thomas Hunt kidnapped twenty-four members of the Patuxet tribe, including the renowned Tisquantum (Squanto), to sell as slaves in England. Hunt’s action upended the delicate trade relationship between the tribes and the English, initiating a period of open hostility. Indeed, local inhabitants might have stymied later colonization attempts if not for an invisible enemy that ravaged New England populations prior to 1620.
With the boatloads of Old World fishermen and explorers came an influx of Old World pathogens. Intermittent epidemics may have begun as early as the sixteenth century. Scholars debate which diseases swept through New England before the Pilgrims arrived; leptospirosis seems most plausible. One thing is clear, however: between 1616 and 1619, a plague decimated Native tribes. In 1619, Tisquantum returned home to find his entire village dead. Scholars estimate that disease claimed the lives of 75-90% of eastern Massachusetts peoples over the course of the seventeenth century. The survivors were hard-pressed to repulse the thousands of colonists who poured into the region – and with whom the recorded history of Brighton and Worcester begins.
When English colonists arrived on the shores of Massachusetts four hundred years ago, they beheld an unfamiliar territory almost devoid of features that might have reminded them of home. There were no carriage paths or cattle pastures, no rooting hogs or crowing roosters, no church steeples or tolling bells. Steep drumlins loomed above the coast, beyond which forests and marshland stretched westward. Mountain lions skulked behind boulders. Wolves howled at night. To settlers accustomed to a treeless countryside subdued beneath the plow, New England was a “vacant wilderness…a place not inhabited but by the barbarous nations.” Little did they understand the way of life that those nations had created over the past three thousand years.
Massachusetts during the Woodland Period (3,000-400 BP) was not a pristine wilderness, but an increasingly manipulated landscape home to tens of thousands of Native Americans. As post-glacial sea levels stabilized, Woodland peoples adopted new patterns of habitation and movement that spurred agricultural, technological, and cultural development. Many gravitated toward coastal areas and established long-term seasonal settlements, where they began to plant crops. Initially, they selectively bred weedy vegetation including sunflower, goosefoot, and sumpweed, and boiled the seeds in porridges. By 1000 CE, Central American cultivars – maize, squash, and beans – had arrived in New England and were becoming increasingly important in local diets. Woodland peoples’ migratory lifestyles enabled them to diversify their food sources. Archeological evidence, such as shell middens (ancient trash heaps) on Spectacle Island, suggests that Native Americans settled in large villages during the spring and fall, where they planted and harvested crops, fished, clammed, and hunted, and held political meetings (indeed, in 1614, explorer and colonist John Smith recorded that Native peoples grew maize on the Harbor Islands). During the summer and winter, many villages disbanded. Residents moved to smaller settlements in the region to better exploit food sources while crops ripened or the ground lay frozen.
Agriculture transformed the Massachusetts landscape. Though the area remained heavily forested at the time of European contact, patches of cleared ground reflected repeated seasonal use. Native Americans believed that they owned the use of land, rather than the land itself; instead of adopting permanent farming sites, they tilled soil until it was no longer fertile (about eight to ten years) and then relocated. Women cleared new land by setting fires at the base of trees to kill them, and, once the dead wood fell, by burning it away. This method, along with the practice of burning fires all night during both the winter and summer, meant that localized deforestation was common. Thousands of acres near Boston were treeless by 1630; elsewhere, the whitened trunks of girdled trees surveyed cornstalks intertwined with bean and squash vines. Far from a “vacant wilderness,” Massachusetts was an intensively used homeland.
Fire enabled local tribes not only to grow crops and stay warm, but also to hunt, gather, and travel. English colonists were astounded that Woodland peoples set large ground fires in the forests during the spring and fall, and were equally impressed with the effects. The woods near Native villages tended to be clear of tangled undergrowth. The widely spaced trees, grass, and pioneering berry bushes created a park-like setting that attracted game, facilitated hunting, and limited the risk of future fires burning out of control. The relative openness of Woodland Period forests also eased long-distance travel. Overland routes developed over thousands of years, crisscrossing tribal territories. Among the most famous was the Old Connecticut Path: it began near present-day Cambridge, following the Quinobequin ("meandering," later Charles) River through Massachusett territory before curving southwest into Nipmuck land. From there, it passed south of present-day Worcester and continued on to the area along the Connecticut River that would eventually become Hartford. (Parts of the route remain heavily traveled today – the Old Connecticut Path is now known as MA Route 9 and MA Route 126.) Europeans arriving in New England did not have to build everything from scratch. They entered a region that already had the equivalent of an international highway system, which they used to expand their settlements.
At the dawn of the seventeenth century, modern Native tribes were well-established in Massachusetts. They occupied defined homelands and engineered the environment to facilitate a migratory lifestyle that maximized the yield of local resources. They were also increasingly aware of the world beyond the Atlantic – a world that appeared on the horizon as billowing ship sails, dropped anchor and fishing lines in Massachusetts Bay, and, until 1620, never stayed for long.
When Boston Harbor was dry land, mastodons roamed. Tusked and shaggy, they foraged along a coastal plain that ended as sedimentary sludge eleven miles east of present-day Long Wharf. They wound their trunks around spruce branches and tugged sharply to dislodge a repast of sweet needles, unaware that their vast boreal habitat would soon be supplanted by sun-loving hardwoods. Occasionally, the beasts glanced up at a nearby drumlin. One could never be too careful of the growing bands of humans who so often lurked behind boulders, lying in ambush with fire and spears.
Such was Massachusetts ten thousand years ago, a land of warming climate and rising seas, home to megafauna on the brink of extinction. For the past million years, Earth had experienced dramatic climatic changes. Temperatures fluctuated, plunging the planet into ice ages interspersed with warmer periods. The most recent Ice Age – through which we are living today – began twenty-five thousand years Before Present (BP). Long winters and cool summers created a snowpack that eventually compacted into an ice sheet stretching from the Arctic to present-day New Jersey. At its maximum extent, the ice contained 5% of the planet’s water, lowering ocean levels by hundreds of feet. As the glaciers expanded and moved, they accumulated silt, pebbles, and boulders. These sediments were deposited when the glaciers began to melt around 18,000 BP, leaving a stony landscape of glacial features familiar to Bostonians today: moraines (Cape Cod), drumlins (the Harbor Islands, Bunker and Beacon Hills), and kettle ponds (Walden Pond), among others. By 14,000 BP, the ice sheet had completely receded from Massachusetts. What remained was a treeless, frigid tundra whose coastline would gradually disappear beneath waves of glacial meltwater.
As vegetation returned to the region, animals and ancient humans arrived as well. Paleo-Indians and their Archaic Period descendants (8,000-3,000 BP) settled along the coastline and rivers, where they enjoyed abundant fish, shellfish, and game. Over time, they transitioned from living in small bands to inhabiting villages. Archaic peoples led a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, migrating seasonally between hills and lowlands, forests and estuaries to secure food and supplies. They built canoes and fish weirs from wood, carved harpoons and awls from bone, and chiseled arrow and spear points, knives, pestles, and gaming pieces from stone. They wove baskets and decorated animal hide clothing with beads. Archaic peoples were deeply familiar with the Boston-area landscape and waterways. Such knowledge enabled Boston-area inhabitants to survive and thrive.
Archaeologists have identified many Archaic settlements throughout Boston. The Harbor Islands, popular fishing and clam digging sites, are littered with artifacts, from net weights to jewelry. In 1913 and the 1940s, subway construction workers unearthed four thousand-year-old fish weirs along Boylston Street, a former wetland. Later, in 1982, archaeologists discovered hearths, earthen pits, and various artifacts associated with hunting, stone tool production, and food preparation near the Charlestown Navy Yard – relics of three temporary occupation sites spanning the years between 5000 and 1,200 BP. This period witnessed the transformation of local Native civilization. Plants became a dietary staple to such an extent that villages began to develop agricultural practices. Emerging long-distance trade routes supplied people with goods from as far away as the Hudson River and, perhaps, the Great Lakes. Women used glacial deposits of clay to create ceramics, refining their artistry in ways that enable today’s archaeologists to date excavation sites by analyzing the pottery they contain. These dramatic developments in Northeast American civilization marked the transition from the Archaic to Early Woodland Periods. They gave rise to modern Native tribes and set the stage for the cultural and economic conditions that Europeans encountered when they first set foot in Massachusetts four hundred years ago.
Imagine a world where South America is at the South Pole, Siberia, along the Tropic of Capricorn, and Greenland, at the Equator. In this world, Florida is a frigid strip of coast connecting South America and Africa. Canada bakes beneath a bright equatorial sun. The rest of North America is a scuba-diver's paradise – assuming scuba-divers numbered among the primitive, single-cell organisms that existed 550 million years ago.
Welcome to the Late Precambrian, an era of dramatic geological change and the beginning of New England’s story. At this point, the earth was 3.5 billion years old. It had already experienced multiple episodes of continental drift, volcanism, and glaciation. The Grenville Mountain chain, formed during an earlier period of tectonic collision, had eroded. All that remained was a small layer of bedrock and a large amount of sediment that would eventually become western Massachusetts. Three major continents contained most of the planet’s land mass: Laurentia, Baltica, and the supercontinent Gondwana, whose coastline roiled with volcanic activity. The earthquakes and lava flows were symptoms of tectonic subduction (when one tectonic plate dives beneath another) and rifting (when two plates diverge). Over time, these subterranean stirrings formed the Avalon mountain range and Boston Rift Basin off the coast of present-day South America. We now call this region New England.
As Earth entered the Cambrian Period, Avalon broke away from Gondwana. Sediments filled the rift basin and compressed into the Cambridge Argillite and Roxbury Conglomerate (puddingstone) rock formations underlying Greater Boston today. Between 430 and 390 million years ago, Avalon collided with Laurentia, forming the Northern Appalachians. This period of tectonic uplift coincided with rising oxygen levels and an explosion of multicellular life. Complex organisms spread across the globe as New England rose from the depths of the ocean.
Over the succeeding eons, the planet’s crust continued to transform. The continents collided again 250 million years ago to form Pangaea, lifting the Appalachians to Himalayan heights, and then separated fifty million years later. This period of rifting created today’s continents and instigated more lava flows. We can still see evidence of this geological turbulence in the igneous and metamorphic rocks of Worcester County.
Volcanic activity subsided as the continents drifted to their present locations. Massachusetts was thereafter shaped by deposition, weathering, and erosion. Temperatures rose, fell, and rose again, causing frequent glaciations that carved the Northeastern bedrock. Meanwhile, life evolved. The region was alternately submerged in shallow seas teeming with crustaceans and fish, and raised high and dry, a coastal forest where dinosaurs roamed. By the time Homo sapiens arrived in New England twelve thousand years ago, the region was a frozen tundra. The latest Ice Age scarred the landscape with eskers, dimpled it with kettle ponds, and pimpled it with erratics – a rugged topography that determined where humans settled, and upon which they would eventually unleash their transformative might.