There is probably no one better suited and able to discuss the history of Mattapoisett than Seth Mendell, a local historian who has deep family roots in the community. Consider also that Mendell’s father Charles was an early member of the Old Dartmouth Historical Society, AKA the Whaling Museum, and a founding member of the Mattapoisett Historical Society Museum. Mendell himself spent 33 years teaching history and has researched early New England history for many decades; it’s easy to say he has earned the right to be called Mattapoisett’s historian.
But more than that, Mendell is a storyteller. His ability to keep his audience transfixed as he explains historical details – material that might run dry in other hands but flows easily and engagingly from one century to the next when shared by Mendell.
On July 23 at the Mattapoisett Museum, Mendell gave his first of seven lectures that will detail the founding of the Tri-Town area with a heavy emphasis on Mattapoisett through the 1950’s. On this night he laid the cornerstones from which each successive lecture will be built. And you will be entertained while being educated by a master.
As the story unfolds, we find Mattapoisett, Wareham, and Marion part of Rochester. They were known as the Lands of the Sippican. The area would be settled primarily by British people, Puritans, and those seeking freedom to worship. As Mendell explained, these people were not impoverished; they were people with means and an ambition to create a better life.
When the opportunity to purchase land from the Bay Colony, the center of commerce, and after the Wampanoags had been vanquished, three families saw investment potential. Those families were the Hammonds, Barlows, and Dexters. They created the Planation of Mattapoisett. The Hammonds settled west of the Mattapoisett River, the Barlows around what is today Park Street, and the four Dexter brothers to the east in the Pine Island and Crescent Beach area.
Mendell talked about the industrious nature of early people, saying, “They got right to work clearing lands, building homes …” and everything else to sustain themselves. Around town today one will find the ruins of mills where the water still flows and where giant water wheels once turned, cutting and grinding tools for the making of wooden planks and corn grinding. You’ll also find streets named after the early settlers.
But the population grew and people wanted their center of government and worship closer to home. Rochester was large, encompassing Wareham, Marion, and Mattapoisett, but the church was situated at what is today Plumb Corner in Rochester. By 1739, Wareham had split off, followed by Marion in 1852 and Mattapoisett in 1857.
Mendell spoke of the wars Britain engaged in with the French who attempted time and again to push through from Canada where they had a firm toehold. Red Coats were dispatched to the colonies, but the locals were also conscripted, and the resulting events caused disruption for those engaged in peaceful and prosperous commercial pursuits.
Another problem facing the commerce of the early merchants were pirates. These rascals plagued the colonialists and were also responsible for disrupting the economics of the area. The British government captured the pirates and hung them, but the colonialists had suffered.
“To add insult to injury, the French took their privateers and raided their ships,” Mendell said.
Time marched on and by 1737 there were 52 families in the village of Mattapoisett. They nestled in little enclaves with names like Tinkhamtown, Hammondtown, Randalltown, Wolf Island, Brandt Island, Cannonville, and Aucoot.
By 1752, the first professional shipbuilders arrived.
“That was the beginning of Mattapoisett becoming a shipbuilding town,” Mendell said, ending his story there almost like a cliff hanger, saying, “Next week we’ll pick up from there,” hinting that more trouble lay ahead for our Mattapoisett settlers come the Revolutionary War.
A full schedule to Mattapoisett Museum events, including Mendell’s lectures and walking tours, can be found at www.mattapoisettmuseum.org.
By Marilou Newell