The Settlement at Dorchester

Thomas Gunn and his family:
Thomas Gunn b. ca 1605 Devon, England; d. 1681 Westfield, Massachusetts
Wife of Thomas (her name is unknown) b. ca 1605, England; d. 1678 Westfield, Massachusetts
Children:
Elizabeth b. ca 1638, d. 1640 Windsor, Massachusetts
Deborah b. 1641 Windsor, Connecticut; d. 1695 Windsor, Connecticut
Mehitable b. 1644 Windsor, Connecticut; d. 1720 Northampden, Massachusetts
John b. 1647 Windsor, Connecticut; d. 1726 Westfield, Massachusetts
Elizabeth, b. 1649; d. 1655 Windsor, Connecticut

Related Surnames in this generation:
Ensign
Shelden
Thrall
Williams

Note: We don’t really know what the name of Thomas’s wife was. They had two daughters named Elizabeth who died in infancy, and we guess that perhaps their mother’s name was also Elizabeth. Some earlier researchers have thought she was Elizabeth Brown, but evidence does not support that conclusion.

The Settlement at Dorchester
The conditions at Mattapan were not good. There were some 140 men, women and children without shelter, huddled along the marshy shore of Massachusetts Bay with their bundles and bags, tools and cookpots. They were travel-weary and exhausted, and they were in a desolate wilderness with only the sound of waves and sea birds. Fortunately, a little way from the shore there was a rocky hill and some meadows where the cows could graze. Here they put up their tents and made a camp. On that first Sunday Reverend Warham summoned them to a service of thanksgiving in the open air.

About two weeks later Governor Winthrop’s fleet arrived, landing many passengers at Charlestown. Winthrop preferred a neck of land called Blackstone’s Neck (now Boston) for his settlement. Before they could build there they lived in tents and wigwams at Charlestown where, during the first winter, many died. Fortunately, the Indians were friendly, exchanging corn and other food for clothing and knives. Mussels and clams were gathered and fish were to be had.

During that first summer the settlers at Mattapan remained in a desperate condition in the primitive environment of the camp, bitten by mosquitoes and wary of the Indians who watched them from a distance and the wolves that harried their cattle. Many became sick with scurvy and typhus. As a result of poor planning, they were short of supplies. It was too late to plant corn; they had no boats large enough to take out to sea for fishing, and they were too inexperienced to be successful hunters. They were facing a harsh winter with meager stocks of salted meat and hard-tack (rock-hard biscuits) left over from the voyage. With barely enough food for their own families, Dorchester’s Freemen turned loose their indentured servants to fend for themselves. Though the friendly Indians gave them corn, they did not know how to properly prepare it for consumption. Mostly, they lived on a diet of shellfish, ground-nuts, acorns, and spring water.1 Resigning themselves to their situation, they decided to name the place after the home town of the man who had inspired the voyage, Mr. John White. So Mattapan became Dorchester.

Shelter was their most urgent need, but Dorchester, like Boston, lacked trees, so there was no abundant supply of timber to build proper homes. Instead, the settlers turned their canvas tents into Indian-style wigwams or they excavated into the hillside to make dugouts with sod roofs and a hole in the center to let out the smoke; they built “lean-tos” and rough wooden cabins with thatched roofs. Only a very few, the grandees among them, had the resources to build “great houses.” Dorchester was a makeshift and untidy place in that first year, and many were miserable and disillusioned. The brutal reality contrasted greatly with the expectations created by the exaggerated rhetoric of the enthusiasts and promoters of the Boston Bay project.

During the fall the weather was fair, with light frosts at night. But on Christmas Eve a driving snowstorm developed and the cold was so fierce that fingers were frost-bitten. The people stayed close to their fires and let the cattle fend for themselves. In January one house burnt down, and others would suffer the same fate when their wooden chimneys caught fire. Food became scarce. Fortunately, the Indians helped with their strange maize corn. The settlers survived mostly on fish, though they also combed the frozen shore for clams and mussels. Then on February 5th a ship appeared. It was the Lion, which Governor Winthrop had sent off 6 months earlier to England to fetch supplies. The provisions were distributed and a day of thanksgiving was ordered. A week or so later the cold became less severe and winter began to recede. The little colony at Dorchester had survived. Once they had become accustomed to this New England climate they declared it to be healthier, if anything, to the milder climate of Dorset and Devonshire. “After the first winter,” reports Roger Clapp, “we were very healthy.”

Now time was on their side and they learned quickly to benefit from the natural riches around them. There were fish in the Bay and the rivers; huge flocks of birds of all sorts; there were lobsters, crabs and eels, mussels and clams; there were wild berries, grapes and herbs; and they soon learned from the Indians how to plant their strange corn. They cut timber, removed underbrush, and planted gardens. They replaced the wigwams and dugouts with wooden huts and houses so that little by little the settlement began to look like a village.

The Massachusetts Bay Company, acting as agent to the English Crown, had granted land to the planters in accordance with their investment. Each investment in the company of £50 was to carry a right to 200 acres and a half-acre house plot; an investor who emigrated and paid his own passage was entitled to an extra fifty acres for every member of his family; an emigrant, not an investor but paying his own passage, was entitled to fifty acres only, although at the company’s discretion he could be allotted extra land “according to his charge and quality” (his family responsibilities and his social status). For each indentured servant transported, his master could claim another fifty acres.

Each family was occupied with building a house and clearing an acre or two around it for an allotment. They staked out their plots close together as they had done in the West Country villages they came from. This was not only their tradition, but it also served as protection in a hostile environment and gave them all easy access to the meeting house that would be the center of their civic and religious life. Friends tended to stay close together, settling as neighbors and helping each other as the need arose. They cleared the wilderness communally, as open fields, though one was all they were able to manage that first year. But in the next few years they would clear three more. As time passed, Dorchester began to look like an English village.

The Company allocated land according to its policy: first to its own investors, with allocations of 100 to 150 acres. These were the “grandees” of the community and other privileged groups, such as the ministers, and their holdings were greater that that of the ordinary settlers. They all received a home lot and a great lot for farming. The basic house plot was initially about a half acre, which later became a “home lot” of about four acres, enough for a house and smallholdings while still keeping the village together. This lot varied according to a man’s standing and the size of his family. Afterward came the “great lot” of about 16 acres for cultivation, but that could sometimes vary from 8 to 20 acres. Finally, there was a separate allotment of meadow land for fodder crops and grazing. Afterward, swapping lots for convenience and outright purchases became common.

The settlers experimented with new crops: pumpkins, squashes and the Indian corn planted in hillocks with runner beans trained up the stalks, as the Indians had taught them. They also planted the cabbages, turnips, carrots, parsnips and herbs they had brought from England. And, of course, they planted the fruit trees they had brought, especially apples (for the cider, sweet and hard, that they were so fond of). They built outbuildings for cows, oxen and, occasionally, a horse, and pens for their sheep. They kept chickens, geese, pigs, and goats. The latter two were self-sufficient, hardy, and fierce enough to safely range far afield and proliferate rapidly.

The cattle, sheep, goats and pigs were brought together daily into communal herds with their own herdsmen. Cattle were few in number in the early years, and were precious, and they, and especially sheep, needed protection from wolves. They would be taken out to pasture about sunrise and be returned for collection to their home lots at sunset.

Much of the work, building, planting and harvesting was communal. Fortunately, in the beginning the settlers had a relatively gentle introduction to cultivating the land since they took over old Indian fields, which they burnt over and cleared. Of course later, as they expanded their fields, they needed to remove many trees and rocks with the help of their oxen. Everything was communally determined: when to hoe, plant, harvest, and open a field to pasture, though each settler cultivated his own strip in the great fields, unenclosed except for external fences to protect them from roaming cattle. Others made their living at sea, fishing and trading along the coast.

Making a living was not easy, though a few families had indentured servants or slaves to help them. But within a few short years life settled into a routine not very different from what the people were accustomed to in England. There were benefits: the land and the sea, with their great bounty, were at the disposal of the settlers. They had seafood of all sorts (cod, lobster, oysters and clams), and they had nuts and berries, maple syrup, wildfowl, rabbits, deer, and other products of this new land, as well as the products of the plants and animals they brought from England. Their two- or three-room cottages provided them with adequate homes, though it must have been very cramped for space given the typically large family.

There were hazards, too. The Dorchester group seems to have been a particularly hardy lot, only Edward Rossiter died in that first, difficult year. But Henry Way, whose son had been lost overboard on the voyage to New England, was murdered by Indians on a trading trip to Narragansett Bay in the winter of 1632, and John Tilly was killed by Indians on the Connecticut River in 1636 while on a trading voyage in search of beaver. 2

Major building in that first full year centered around construction of the Meeting House, situated on the plain at the north end of the village, and of the fort on Rocky Hill. Both served a defensive purpose. The Meeting House was surrounded by a palisade, with guns mounted on the roof, and it served as an arsenal for military stores (muskets, pistols, cannon balls, powder and shot) and a refuge during Indian alerts. A sentry guarded it each night and in the evening people carried in their silver and other valuables. Every Sabbath and on lecture days during the week, everyone was expected to gather at the meeting house to worship and listen to the Scriptures. All of the home sites clustered around the meeting house, mostly as a protective measure against possible attack.

Even before the settlers arrived, the Massachusetts Company had drawn up plans to fortify the hill at Mattapan that rose 150 feet above Dorchester Bay. It commanded a strategic view of the harbor, of Boston, and of the lands to the south and west. Since many of these earliest settlers were traders and had at first designed Dorchester as a place for trade, they were concerned by the prospect of French raiders swooping down from the north to steal their stockpiled goods. They were also concerned with possible conflict with the Natives. They were therefore ready and willing to engage in military training, and in 1633 to build a fort atop Rock Hill (now called Savin Hill) where they placed several cannon.

The patterns of this earliest settlement are preserved still in Dorchester’s road system. Pleasant Street linked the original settlement area of Allen’s Plain (where the Old Blake House built in 1648 still stands) to the fortifications atop Rock (now Savin) Hill. Adams Street (then called the Lower road) connected the meeting house on Meeting House Hill to Israel Stoughton’s grist mill on the Neponset River at Lower Mills. The Upper road, later named Washington Street because George Washington regularly used it during the fortification of Dorchester Heights, connected the “Rocksberry” settlement to the South Shore. The earliest of Dorchester’s roads is Norfolk Street, which follows a pre-settlement Indian trail.3

The danger was real, and these Puritans were as ready to strap on a sword as to study the Bible, for there was danger not only from Indians but from European rivals, the Dutch and the French, and from pirates and freebooters. That’s why these settlers always had among them professional soldiers, in Dorchester’s case Captain John Mason, who arrived in 1632, and a town militia, the traditional English trainband made up of citizen soldiers who were required to muster under amateur officers but were trained by professionals hired for that purpose. These trainbands were organized by county into regiments, consisting of six companies, and led by a captain, a lieutenant, an ensign, two sergeants and three corporals. Each company was formed of three squadrons, and these of files from adjacent villages and hamlets. One of the county units was usually a regiment of horse, with members recruited from the gentry and superior yeomanry. By the second year, Dorchester had its own company of trainbands consisting of all able-bodied men between the ages of sixteen and sixty. Captain Mason was its professional mustermaster and officers were elected from among the freemen. There were compulsory training days on one Friday of every month, and anyone who was absent was required to pay a heavy fine. This must not have been too onerous a distraction for many of the men; it was an opportunity to socialize, and even though training always began with a prayer, there was rum or hard cider available to make the event more palatable.

Each soldier carried a matchlock musket with a four-foot barrel and a forked rest, a bandoleer of cartridges and powder horn, and wore a cotton-padded corselet as protection against arrows. The drill was traditional. Musketeers carried their length of slow-burning match in their hand, kept a few bullets in their mouth and a priming iron in case the bullet did not fit the barrel. They fired by ranks, wheeling off to reload. They must have been a bizarre sight to their Indian neighbors.

These people were staunch evangelicals, true “puritans”, whose overriding purpose was to establish a Christian community in this wilderness, purified of empty ritual and corruption, a church and community modeled on the New Testament. Governance was strictly male-dominated, but otherwise quite democratic by the standards of the day. The colony was a theocracy with the powers of government centered in the Church and in the members of the congregation. The ministers and elders of the community made the decisions, which then, if controversial, had to be ratified by the freemen. This was done in the meeting house, following the lectures or sermons. To become a freeman, one had to be an adult male in good standing in the community, and a member of the church. In October of 1633 this governing practice was formalized. It was agreed that twelve men would be selected to conduct the day-to-day business for one month (coinciding with the monthly meeting of the Massachusetts General Court) and that the principle of majority vote would prevail. These “selectmen” thereafter took over the administration of town affairs. This is the origin of the famous New England town meetings.

Though there were only about thirty families and a score of bachelors in the original group of Dorchester settlers, many more arrived soon after. In the first five years an average of twenty ships a year arrived from England, each carrying up to 200 passengers. By 1635 the population of Massachusetts Bay had swelled to some 8000 and the number of people granted lands in Dorchester had risen to more than 130. This large increase in population created pressure, on the availability of food and of land. The increase in cattle needing pasture was even greater. The town consequently resolved not to grant any more home lots with rights to the use of common land.

Fortunately, Thomas already held land there by 1634, for in February 1635 there is a record of another man’s grant being made “next unto Thomas Gunn in the late burial place,” that is, at the site of the original burying ground in Dorchester, near the first meeting house. 4 Still, for Thomas, who in 1635 was a young man and probably still unmarried, the opportunities must have looked restricted. Some of his friends must have felt the same way. So, when the opportunity presented itself to move on to a promising new location on the Connecticut River, they were among the first to take it.

This new location was about 100 miles to the west, a fertile plain some seventy miles up the Connecticut River. The Dutch had set up a trading post a few miles downstream, and their hostile presence would be a problem, as they claimed possession of all the land west of the Connecticut River. But the local Indians were eager for the Englishmen to settle there and, in fact, had sent a deputation to Governor Winthrop in 1631 to encourage such a settlement as a buffer to and defense against their Pequot enemies. There was resistance to the idea from the Massachusetts Bay establishment and from the clergy, however, but finally permission was granted in 1635.

Of the 170 or so male inhabitants of Dorchester in 1635, fifty-six sold out and joined the migration to the Connecticut River. It’s extraordinary that more than half of these people, 26 of those who can be identified, had been passengers on the Mary and John. These must have been the well-establish core of the group. The move took two seasons.

Continue to “The Founding of Windsor“.

  1. Dorchester Reporter, Nov 22, 2000, “Oh, The Hunger That Many Suffered” by Peter F. Stevens.
  2. Thistlethwaite 88
  3. Bill Walczak, “Dorchester History” at http://www.dotnews.com/history.html.
  4. History of the Thrall family, pp 9-11. One source said Thomas held land in Dorchester before 10 Jan 1634. Early Probate Records of Dorchester, MA.

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