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.