Who Were the Real Founders of Boston?


Hon Nathan Matthews Raises Question Whether They Were Not Samuel Maverick and His Associates, Rather Than John Winthrop and His Followers—Reasons for Changing Date on City Seal of Boston and Rewriting Early History of Massachusetts.

In the course of his very interesting talk at the recent annual banquet of the society of Colonial Wars in Massachusetts Hon Nathan Matthews raised the question whether Samuel Maverick and his associates and the Episcopalian Gorges, rather than the Puritan John Winthrop and his followers, should not be entitled to the distinction of having been the real founders of Boston. Mr. Matthews also suggested that the date on the city seal might properly be changed and that the early history of Massachusetts be rewritten. His remarks were as follows:

The period of history to which the activities of this society are dedicated was an age of action rather than of words, and the trouble we have in understanding the course of events under the colony and the province is due to the absence of contemporary explanation.

The function of the society of Colonial Wars and similar organizations, is, I take it, to perpetuate the memory of the events of colonial history by ascertaining, collating and publishing the facts before it is too late, so that some day someone may be able to write the real history of New England. It has seemed to me that I might contribute to your entertainment this evening, as also to suggest a line of inquiry to the active workers in your society, by raising a question as to who were the real founders of Boston.

The universally accepted opinion is that Massachusetts was settled by from 20,000 to 30,000 Englishmen who came over here between 1630 and 1640, under the auspices of the governor and company of the Massachusetts bay and a charter given by Charles I to certain Puritan merchants, and the city seal states that the city was founded in 1630. The history of Massachusetts, as commonly written, begins in 1630.

I desire to raise the question whether this view of the case is correct, and whether it does full justice to the men who were here before the Puritans came under Endicott and Winthrop. The suggestion is not wholly new; Mr Charles Francis Adams and others have called attention to the presence of various Englishmen in peaceful occupation of the harbor prior to 1630; but recent litigation has brought to light many new facts, some of which I thought you might be interested to hear about this evening.

In legal theory all the soil within the present limits of Massachusetts was vested in the crown by right of discovery and occupation. The institution of private property in land did not exist among the Indians, and the courts did not recognize titles derived from them, at least when in conflict with others derived from the colony and crown.

This being so, the history of our land titles begins with the grant by James I in 1620 of New England to the council of Plymouth, or the council for New England, as it was also called. No permanent settlements were made directly by this body, but very soon after the grant an attempt was made to parcel out the land in severalty among the members of the company. One of these grants, covering the land where the Pilgrims had settled at New Plymouth, was bought in by Gov Bradford and transferred by him to Plymouth colony.

Some of the other grants gave rise to subsequent litigation; but the only one with which we are concerned in this part of Massachusetts is the grant from the council of Plymouth to Robert Gorges, the son of Sir Ferdinando Gorges, in 1623. Robert Gorges died, and his patent descended to his brother John as heir-at-law. John Gorges appears to have made various attempts to found a plantation; but the details of these efforts are missing, and about all that we know is that he made grants and leases to Sir William Brereton, afterward a general in the parliamentary army, and to other person. The Gorges patent included practically all the territory then known as "the Massachusetts bay"—that is, Boston harbor and the land immediately surrounding it.

About the year 1624 or 1625 various persons appear to have settled on the mainland or on the islands in the harbor. Rev William Blaxton established himself on what is now called the city proper. Davis Thompson occupied Thompsons island. A man named Noddle appears to have had enough to do with what is now East Boston to have given his name to that island. There were also one or two settlers in what is now Charlestown, and at other places in the bay.

The most important of these early settlers was Samuel Maverick, who was at Winnisimmet, now Chelsea, as early as 1625. No information has survived indicating directly how or why these people came here; but from the fact that both Thompson and Maverick were interested in other grants obtained from the Gorges on the coast of Maine, from the fact that the whole territory was within the Robert Gorges patent and from the fact that both he and his lessee Brereton laid claim to the land included within this grant it would seem a fair presumption that all these settlements were made under the Gorges patent and in the interest either of John Gorges or his grantees.

The most important of these people was Samuel Maverick, a typical merchant, trader and adventurer of the period. He arrived here about the year 1624, established himself at Winnisimmet, where he built a fort, manned it with four guns and successfully defended himself against the Indians until the arrival of the Puritans in 1630.

In 1628 the council for New England issued a patent which included what is substantially the present territory of Massachusetts north of Plymouth county, to various gentlemen interested in the colonization of New England, and this patent was confirmed by the crown in the colony charter of March 4, 1629, to the governor and company of the Massachusetts bay. It was under this charter that Endicott and his party settled at Salem in 1629 and Winthrop and his associates the following year at Boston.

The Massachusetts patent included all the land covered by the Gorges patent, and this fact gave rise to controversies between the company on the one side and Gorges and his grantees, including Brereton, on the other side. Brereton was himself a stockholder in the company as well as a claimant under the earlier patent.

Winthrop and his followers on their arrival in 1630 found the earlier settlers whom I have already mentioned, including Maverick, who by reason of his fort and ships was of great assistance to the infant colony.

Winthrop's instructions from the company in London, were to make whatever terms could reasonably be made with the persons then living in the bay—the "old settlers," as they were called—and did so in most cases.

Maverick's right to Winnisimmet in particular was recognized and he was given additional grants of land from time to time, including Noddle's island, now East Boston. He became a freeman in 1632 and continued his occupation as a trader and merchant for many years. He was engaged upon the fortifications at Castle island in 1646, and either he or his son became a member of the artillery company in 1658. In the meantime, however, he had fallen out with the controlling element by reason of religious differences, and at the Restoration, having previously sold his lands, was appointed one of the royal commissioners and soon afterward left the colony for good.

His settlement at Winnisimmet is not only interesting as being the first fortified place within the limits of Massachusetts, but as being the only portion of the commonwealth where the present land titles can be traced back of the company of the Massachusetts bay.

The title to every other parcel of land within the limits of the state can be traced back—either to a direct grant from the court of assistants or the general court, or to the towns which themselves were established by the colony and to which lands were granted for the purpose of distribution among their inhabitants. The title to a large part of what is now the city of Chelsea, however, cannot be traced either to a grant by the colony or to a grant by any town, itself claiming under the colony.

The records of the general court and the court of assistants are quite complete for the period in question and contain no grant of Winnisimmet to Maverick or anybody else; and no town was established at this place until 1637, two years after Maverick had sold the premises to Richard Bellingham, afterward governor. All the present titles to land in this part of Chelsea are derived from Gov Bellingham and through him from Samuel Maverick, and cannot be traced to the colony itself. This is the only case of the sort, and it presents an interesting instance of the survival to the present day of titles dependent in fact, if not in theory, upon a grant, now lost, under a patent antecedent to the charter issued to the governor and company of the Massachusetts bay.

Samuel Maverick was here, and he and his family had established themselves as permanent settlers six years before the Puritans arrived. He lived here, first at Winnisimmet and then at Noddle's island for 25 or 30 years, leaving only after the colony had become populous and successful. He left but few records of his life and story, and most of these had been lost sight of for 250 years, only to be brought to light in the preparation of a 20th century lawsuit.

Now, if by the founder of a community we mean the man who first establishes a permanent settlement, if by the first settlement of a place we mean the first persistent, permanent occupation of the soil, why are not Samuel Maverick and his associates rather than John Winthrop and his followers entitled to the distinction of having been the founders of Boston? And why should not the initial credit of this undertaking be awarded to the Episcopalian Gorges rather than to the Puritan nobles and merchants who were instrumental in securing the colony charter? Should not the date on the city seal be changed and the early history of Massachusetts be rewritten?

I pass these suggestions over for further investigation by your society, in memoriam majorum.

Hon. Nathan Matthews, The Boston Globe, March 22, 1908, p. 41

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