When the bloodiest war in American history broke out, Brighton was a rural village. Known as Little Cambridge, it was home to several prominent Cambridge families who had relocated south of the Charles River. Livestock grazed on the meadows and saltmarshes within sight of their owners’ saltbox-style houses. Three roads connected the village to surrounding communities, skirting several areas of high ground – among them Nonantum Hill and a dry region called “the Pines,” situated just west of the Speedway’s present location. Before development eroded the hillsides and drained the wetlands, these areas were fixtures of the Little Cambridge skyline. And both were settings for one of the most tragic events of King Philip’s War.
In June 1675, decades of simmering tensions and violence between white settlers and Native tribes erupted into a full-scale indigenous uprising against the colonies’ encroachment, led by the Wampanoag grand sachem Metacomet (known to the English as King Philip). Over the next fifteen months, brutal conflict raged throughout New England, pitting the Wampanoag, Massachusett, Nipmuc, and Naragansett against the English and their Mahican, Pequot, and Praying Indian allies. The war wrought untold devastation on English and Native communities. By the time Metacomet was felled in August 1676, sixty-seven European settlements had been destroyed or damaged, and the frontier nearly abandoned; five percent of New England’s colonial population had been slain; and as much as forty percent of the region’s Native people – already weakened by disease and previous wars – had been killed, starved to death, or sold into slavery. The bitter colonial victory crippled local tribes’ power. Never again would they launch a major war against the settlers who poured into the New England frontier.
Praying Indians were particularly hard-hit by King Philip’s War. They were viewed with suspicion and vulnerable to attacks from both sides of the conflict. Many chose to serve alongside colonial militias against Metacomet, but their loyalty brought them little reward. Fearing treachery, in the summer of 1675 the Massachusetts General Court disbanded the Praying Indian companies and confined all Christianized Natives to their villages. They were forbidden from traveling more than one mile from the town centers, engaging in commerce with the colonists, and entering Boston without an escort. Ironically, many Praying Indians defected to Metacomet’s allies and the French to escape the harsh treatment.
Then in late October, the Court ordered all Christian Natives to be interned on Deer and Long Islands in Boston Harbor. Soon after, Captain Thomas Prentice of Newton and his troops entered Natick, the largest praying town, and announced to its residents that they had two hours to prepare for departure. The militia marched five hundred men, women, and children thirteen miles from Natick to a launching point on the Charles River. According to a nineteenth-century tract, the site was at “the Pines” of Little Cambridge; the Natick Nipmuc, however, recall that it was in Watertown. There they met an elderly John Eliot – the man who had originally established Natick and its predecessor praying town Nonantum. Having argued unsuccessfully against the Natives’ internment, he prayed with them before they boarded a fleet of boats to the Harbor Islands. They journeyed down the Charles River past the Dana and Sparhawk estates, the rutted road that later became Market Street, and the saltmarshes where the Speedway and Charles River Reservation are today. They floated beneath the wooden Great Bridge (now the Anderson Memorial Bridge) and around the Shawmut Peninsula, its few trees an autumnal blaze. Before them stretched the harbor, spiked with ship masts; in the distance, the islands where they would endure a hard winter alongside Christianized Indians from other towns. Forbidden from cutting down trees or killing the sheep that grazed on the islands, and with only shellfish for sustenance, hundreds of Natives died.
Little Cambridge had not seen the last of the Natick Praying Indians, however. Following an especially bloody winter, the colonies decided to reconstitute the Christianized Indian militia companies. They forced men from Deer and Long Island to fight, leaving behind approximately four hundred women, children, and elders. These survivors soon left the islands as well. Several sympathetic colonists, including Eliot’s partner Daniel Gookin, persuaded the Massachusetts General Court to resettle small groups of Praying Indians in towns across the colony. Seventy-five were brought to Nonantum Hill in Little Cambridge. Several families lived near the Sparhawk and Champney homes, where the men were employed to chop wood and build stone walls, and the women as spinners. Only a few of the original Praying Town communities recovered.
Today, little remains in Brighton of King Philip’s War. The Pines was paved over and served as the site of the Brighton abattoir in the nineteenth century. Nonantum Street coils around the base of Nonantum Hill, now crowded with modern houses, and connects to Faneuil Street – tracing the ghost of Old Indian Lane. Sparhawk and Champney Streets commemorate the families who employed a few survivors of Deer and Long Islands, but give no indication of where the Praying Indians lived. But what the physical landscape hides, people strive to reveal. Since 2010, the Natick Nipmuc have held a Sacred Run and Sacred Paddle between South Natick and Deer Island to commemorate their ancestors’ forced removal. They board traditional canoes called mishoons and paddle past the Speedway down the Charles River. In so doing they help to tell the full history of Brighton’s early years.
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.