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.