"Mattapoisett in the Making"
Chapter One: Land and Trade
By Charles Mendell
They came by foot, ox cart and horseback over the Indian trails, those first settlers. The year was 1680 when Samuel Hammond with his bride and quick tempered younger brother John, Moss Barlow, and William Dexter and his four sons traveled from Sandwich to stake their homesteads in the "Plantation of Mattapoisett."
Samuel and John pushed through the forests, forded the Mattapoisett River, and down to the further of the two necks to the west of the harbor, where hard against the bounds of ancient Dartmouth, they built their home. Here a knoll-like island secluded a little cove which soon sheltered a crude wooden landing pushed out into the water. Moses Barlow had drawn his twenty acres for a house lot to the east of the river, and some half mile from the head of the harbor in the vicinity of the old Indian burial mound, he cleared his homestead. The Dexters went down Pine Island way, to the east of the harbor, where a little brook flows into its salt marsh and seas curl over marcelled clamflats.
It was land for farms they wanted first, and Mattapoisett -- the summer resting place of the Indians was tempting and sweet to behold. The cleared cornfields of the Indians stretched along the shores and back to the forests, deserted "grassie plains" that lay fallow and ripe. On the long necks, smooth reaches of brown salt marsh waved tons of hay between the blue water and the line of woods. Up along the Mattapoisett River, lush bottom land promised sweet fresh hay. As for woodland, the forest stretched away without end. And of all this, each proprietor, for a start, got a share -- twenty acres for a homestead and forty acres of bottom land, timber and salt marsh.
This was a place at a time when people lived directly from the land, this was a place to cut a clearing and build a cabin, to bring a wife to and raise sons to help with the chores. This was a place where twenty-five years of honest work would bring a big square, low-ceilinged house, an even bigger barn, a smoke house, a corn house -- in short, where a man could make himself a farm that would provide him everything he needed. His cleared fields would yield him corn and rye, vegetables and fruit. His pastures and crops would feed cattle and sheep, hog and fowl. His woodlots would give him lumber for his buildings and furniture and wagons, and would fill his sheds with swelling stacks of winter firewood.
Other white men on Cape Cod, the "narrow land" soon followed the Hammonds, Barlows and Dexters over the Indian trails. This tract of land known as the "Lands of Sippican" and particularly the section called the "Plantation of Mattyposet" had been left to the Indians for over 50 years. To the north the Plymouth Colony had been in existence since 1620. The Bay Colony (Boston) was settled in the 1630s as were the colonies to the west around Newport and Hartford. The Dartmouth area just west of "Mattapoyst" was obtained from the Wampanoags in 1652. It was not until the end of the King Phillip's War in 1679 did this area become available. The "bloodie war" had started when Phillip, the younger son of Chief Massasoit, replaced his father as head of the Narragansett nation and vowed to kill every English man, woman and child. The fighting raged for five long years over an area stretching roughly from the Connecticut River to Plymouth. There were atrocities on both sides. Thousands were killed and entire settlements and villages burned until Philip and his braves were finally subdued by the colonists.
With the conclusion of the war a company of 32 members was organized to buy the lands. The 32 members -- "substantial men that are prudent p'sons and of considerable estates" -- paid their money, met at Sandwich and drew lots for the land. In the following years old records tell of sawmills and grist mills built on the Mattapoisett and Sippican Rivers, of iron mills and forges on the big ponds of Rochester, of timberland and salt marsh surveyed and divided and sold, of a little meeting house for Sunday worship near Minister's Rock at Little Neck in Sippican, and of all the doings of groups of self-sufficing people in the wilderness, forming themselves into a community.
In 1686, the scattered homesteads in the forested lands of Sippican were incorporated as "Rochester-towns-in-New England." Early records tell of town officials elected -- strange old titles: "Hogreaves," "Tything men," and "Cullers of Staves"; of "ways" laid out -- cart paths through the wilderness and new fields; of bounties paid for wolves, foxes, and wildcats, and of keeping a fearful, watchful eye over the remaining Indians.
Many of the settlers were sons and daughters of Englishmen from Kent, and legend has it that the abundant juicy oysters in the coves and harbors tasted so much like those of old Rochester back home in England that they were responsible for the town's name. But whether or not the glum but tasty oysters named the town, certain it is that the men who ate them, like their forefathers on the Kentish shores, soon turned to the sea as an ally of the soil to help them make a living.
For to the early purchasers, Mattapoisett meant more than cattle and fields of grain. The second and third generation of Massachusetts colonists were face to face with a new opportunity, and seized by a new greed. Never before had the ordinary Englishman had the freedom to buy a tract of land rich in valuable timber products which he could sell where and how he pleased.
Seventy square miles of virgin forest stretching endlessly back from the shore, shading little rivers and brooks where sawmills could be built. Great swamps heavy with red cedar silently waiting to become posts and shingles. Oaks, centuries old, for house frames and shiptimber, white pine for planks and boards, pitch pine for turpentine and tar, spreading maple and white birches for charcoal, walnut -- black walnut -- for furniture and coffins, trees for barrel staves, fence rails, cordwood, fenceposts.
And best of all, little inlets and harbors lapping their quiet waves up into the very timber itself, ideal anchorage for landings to be built, and trading sloops tied up. These commodities of the wilderness meant wealth. For a time the merchants of Newport, Nantucket and Boston would pay, and pay well. King Phillip's War was over, the colonial foothills were expanding and in a far away England, the tide of commerce was rising, calling from His Majesty's Providence across the stormy Atlantic ever increasing cargoes of the wealth of timber land. So, beside wrestling a living from a farm, a man could make money by trade.
Trade -- that was it. That coastwise trade which thrived for the next two hundred years in thousands of little vessels was the mainstay of every hamlet and town, village and city, along the entire reach of the Atlantic Coast. It turned farmers into shipbuilders, farmers into sailors, farmers into captains and captains into merchants. It took youngsters of thirteen and roughened them into sailors for the ships of the deep ocean. It built schools and churches, turned log cabins into farmhouses and farmhouses into dignified homes along shaded village streets.
Trade -- this was the second tempting prospect that brought the first settlers to the necks and pine islands of Mattapoisett in the "Lands of Sippican." For Samuel Hammond and Moses Barlow and William Dexter were not penniless pioneers merely seeking new farms. Had they not been approved by the Plymouth Court as "substantial men that are prudent p'sons and of considerable estates." These men had their heads full of reckonings about the possibilities and profits of timber and tar. And being men of "considerable estates," they had the wherewithal to buy or build little vessels to carry their timber products down the coast to Newport, and across the Bay, through Quick's Hole to the Vineyard and Nantucket.
It was not embarking on any new and untried venture. Hard pressed by their English creditors and forced by the stark struggle for life to get more than the bare necessities wrested from the soil, the Massachusetts colonists from the time of the Pilgrims had sailed up and down the coast in tiny awkward boats, trading with the settlements at Rhode Island and Connecticut, and with the Dutch of New Amsterdam, now better known as New York. Their pinnaces and shallops carried furs, timber and barrel staves to ship to England, sugar, cloth, cotton, and tobacco from the Dutch and Southern colonists, and lumber shoes, and all kinds of rough iron tools bartered for at neighboring settlements. For sixty years this homespun commerce had been slowly growing, and now the Lands of Sippican, with all their raw material, were thrown open for settlements and, as it were, for business.
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The above was written by Charles Mendell, and edited for The Wanderer by his son, Seth Mendell. Charles was curator of the Mattapoisett Museum from 1958 until his death in 1975, and Seth is currently President of the Mattapoisett Historical Society. This is the first in a series to be published throughout the year in commemoration of Mattapoisett's sesquicentennial.