The Waterside

Before colonial settlement, the valley region along the banks of the lower Merrimack River was the domain of the Pennacook ~ a group (nee federation) of native Amerindians of the Algonquian-speaking nation living throughout the Merrimack Valley, southern New Hampshire and Maine. Passing the winters in the eastern woodlands, the seasonal migration of the Pennacook brought them to the mouth of the river Merrimack for fishing and trading. As cited at this link without, at one point in time there may have been as many as 12,000 Pennacook living in 30 different regional villages ~ however just prior to Pilgrim's landing at Plymouth in 1620, several devastating epidemics reduced their number to about 2,500. The following decade, a major smallpox epidemic which began along the Merrimack River in the year 1631 then spread throughout New England from 1633 through 1635 would nearly obliterate the indigenous people's population entirely.

The bounds laid out and incorporated as the town of Newbury were originally part of the grant made to Captain John Mason on March 9, 1621/2 and again assigned to him February 3, 1634/5 ~ a grant which included nearly all the territory within the present limits of Essex County. In the interim however, another patent had been granted in 1629 to a company of six men, including John Endicott of Salem. This 1629 patent, known as the Massachusetts Bay Charter, secured all the territory between the Merrimack and Charles Rivers to the company. The limits included a distance of "three British miles" to the north and south of these rivers, respectively ~ a patent which infringed upon Mason's grant ~ and which included the lands once occupied by the Pennacook Federation.

In June of 1630, John Winthrop arrived in the New World with the 1629 Massachusetts Bay Charter in hand ~ and soon replaced Endicott who was serving as de facto governor. A system of self-government was established for the proprietary colony, as decreed under the terms of the Charter. The first court of Assistants (also known as "the Great and General Court") was established and its first meeting was held in Charlestown on August 23, 1630.

A meeting held September 7th soon ordered that all property rights be permitted only by the governor and assistants ~ thus voiding the legitimacy of any prior settlements in the territory, including those by Mason's settlers. This began a system of deeded property rights controlled by the Colony's authorities. Still at issue however, was the exact boundary of the Colony's territory --- which commenced a legal dispute that was litigated for two generations into the 1690's, leaving Mason's heirs and assignees very little compensation in the end.

Of immediate and paramount concern to the new Governor and the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was the settlement of the northern regions of the Massachusetts Bay Charter's patent. This land possession would secure property rights during the jurisdiction suit Mason and party were prosecuting to repeal the Colony's claim. The first grant in this region is inscribed in Volume I, page 108 of the Massachusetts Colony Records that on September 3, 1633 "there is liberty granted to Mr. John Winthrop, Junr. & his assignes, to sett upp a trucking howse upp Merrimack Ryver."

It is thought that this trucking/trading house was located near the Native American camping ground and fishing station along the southerly bank of the Merrimack River near the easterly end of a small island called Deer Island --- identified as "Pentucket" on the map entitled "The South part of New-England, as it is Planted this yeare, 1634" (link within) and published in the first edition of William Wood's New England's Prospect.[1] With the exception of a extant locus identified in subsequent deeds as "Watts Cellar"[2] --- at that point in time there would be no other proprietorship (official or unoffical) near by the River Merrimack, a region that Wood so highly praised in his journal:

"... In a word, it (Agawamme, soonafter renamed Ipswich) is the best place but one, which is Merrimacke, lying 8 miles beyond it, where is a river 20 leagues navigable: all along the river side is fresh Marshes, in some places 3 miles broad. In this river is Sturgeon, Sammon, and Basse, and divers other kinds of fish. To conclude, the Countrie hath not that which this place cannot yeeld. So that these two places may containe twice as many people as are yet in New England, there being as yet scarce any inhabitants in these two spacious places. Three miles beyond the river Merrimacke is the outside of our Patent for the Massachusetts Bay. These be all the townes that were begun, when I came for England, which was the 15 of August 1633."

Thus to further secure land rights in the outlying regions of the patent, most of the passengers aboard the Ship Mary and John that arrived Boston in May 1633 had been persuaded to settle what is now Newbury. In early 1635[3] --- traveling from the town of Ipswich by water and landing on the shores of what is now called the Parker River --- the first settlers constructed primitive houses near Lower Green. During the summer months of that year, they were joined by freeholders arriving in two vessels that had landed in Boston during the month of June.

At a meeting held January 10, 1643/4, the proprietors of that First Parish (thereafter called Olde Towne) voted to remove some inhabitants of that tiny Parker River settlement into the outlying reaches of Newbury, which included "the Waterside" along the Merrimack River. This petition was granted by the General Court on June 11, 1644 and Newe Towne was established. Early in the old style calendar year 1644/5, land would be partitioned and assigned to freeholders in exchange for their land grants in the Parker River settlement. This timeline is generally accepted as the founding of the Waterside.

Settlement expanded and the west end of town petitioned for a separate meeting house and in 1694/5 a separate Second Parish was established. The Byfield parish was eventually set off in 1710. On September 17, 1722, the First Parish of Newbury eventually gave consent for the formation of the Waterside Third Parish. After much consternation about its situation ~ a (parish) meetinghouse was built in what is now Market Square, with its doors facing the river at the Middle Shipyard cum Market Landing (link within) and dedicated on June 25, 1725. Later that year the bounds and limits for the parish were fixed by a report to the General Court dated December 8, 1725 ~ officially accepted and enacted on November 3, 1728.

Newbury's Third Parish was often called "ye Waterside Parish" and its inhabitants were known as "the Waterside people." In the year 1763, the Waterside people formally petitioned the General Court for separation from Newbury. The petition granted, the act was passed on January 28, 1764 and officially approved by the provincial governor on February 4, 1764 (link within) ~ thereby establishing the town of Newburyport with its bounds formerly the Waterside Third Parish of Newbury.

On February 8, 1999 ~ to mark the 235th Anniversary of the first town meeting of Newburyport ~ a full transcript of the Waterside Memorialists' petition to the General Court was distributed during an historical presentation made on the floor of Council chambers by Ward 3 City Councilor Karen Kelley. That reflection of the past anticipated the future, observing that in the year 2001 Newburyport would mark a 150th year milestone as a city form of government.

As is well known, in the year 1851 the town of Newburyport expanded its limits to include Belleville and Joppa flats and was then incorporated as the City of Newburyport under the 1851 City Charter. The presentation further remarked that Section 20 of that 1851 City Charter offered an opportunity to revive the "annual town meeting" as an expedient to better franchise the Waterside people of today.

On the council chambers' wall hangs the City of Newburyport's city arms and seal, established under Ordinance No. 14 --- which was passed on Inauguration Day, June 24, 1851. On that seal is found a scroll inscribed with the Latin, "terra marique." The translation, land and sea, the Waterside --- is a reference in deference of Newburyport's "terminus a quo" ~ its point of origin, in both its ambit and ambitions.

In 2001, when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was in the process of restructuring federal districts based upon the 2000 census information, Newburyport along with other communities began redefining its ward boundaries. Then City Clerk John Moak (now Mayor) had promoted the idea that each ward should have a physical connection to the Merrimack River. Entities at the State, thus the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, thought that was acceptable.

Presently, with this updated map, each of Newburyport's six wards retains proprietorship of the Waterside ... and Newburyport's constituents remain the Waterside people who together as a body politic --- generation to generation --- retain a certain knowledge and regain a Motion of Comity as they themselves make history. And keep the Plan in Motion.

[Facts and dates corroborated by History of Newbury Massachusetts 1635 - 1902, John J. Currier, 1902 and documentation cited in footnotes below.]


[1] William Wood's work was first published in London in 1634; Reprints of "New England's Prospect" were published in 1865 with more recent publications still available. The passage above is found in Chapter XI, page 49 and is excerpted in Currier's "History of Newbury." (Link within to view book cover.)

[2] When the Torrens recording system of deeds was implemented in 1640, Watt's Cellar (often term Watts his sellar) was frequently cited as a point of reference when describing the Waterside properties in that site's vicinity. Facts surrounding this landmark, including its exact location, remain elusive. Newburyport tradition holds that Watt's Cellar was a place for the storage of dried fish, possibly used by the natives then traders. It is said to be named for a Walter Bagnall ~ known to the indigenous people as "Great Walt" or "Great Watt."[4]

With State Street's earliest reference as "the way to Watts sellar," historians once assumed the cellar was situated at the foot of that street. Thus, during the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' tercentennial celebration in 1930, the site was monumented with a marker (view image) placed on what was then the firehouse (previously the Market House erected on a portion of the Middle Shipyard in 1824). However, many authorities now believe that Watts Cellar was actually located closer to what was once Ferry Wharf, one of the "historic wayes to the Waterside" --- a fact confirmed by wording in a 1677 grant of the parcel of land adjacent to the Captain White's wharf, deeded him in 1655.

The exact location is not the only fact in dispute: There has been much speculation about the origins of this landmark. One strong hypothesis is that Watts Cellar had been used as a trucking post to store fish and/or furs before this area was colonized. Its structure is thought to resemble the first shelters built in New England, which were merely cellars with wooden planks used for both floor and wall lining as well as the ceiling/roof. Some speculation is made that traders may have made use of a pit abandoned by Native Americans. Another legend asserts the chamber was constructed by ancients who were said to have settled at Mystery Hill and other areas of New Hampshire more than 5000 years ago.

[3] On May 6, 1635, the General Court passed an order by which "Wessacucon is allowed by the Court to be a plantacon ... hereafter to be called Neweberry. Further, it is ordered, that it shall b e in the power of the Court to take order that the said plantacon shall receave a sufficient company of people to make a competent towne." [Page 146 of Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay (1853).] Apparently, the original settlers of Newbury never obtained from the Legislature any grant of title to the land in Newbury other than what this language implies.

As was common during this period, the early settlers of Newbury soon organized a body of proprietors who held title to and managed the common lands of the town. Extant records of the Newbury proprietors provide a list of ninety-one individuals stating, "It is declared and ordered hereby ... according to the former intentions of the towne that the persons only above mentioned are acknowledged to be freeholders by the town and to have a proportionable right in all waste lands, commons and rivers undisposed of and such as by from, or under them or their heyers (heirs) have bought, granted or purchases from them or any of them theyr right and title there unto and none else." [Akagi, The Town Proprietors of the New England Colonies, pages 129, note 31; Coffin, Sketch of the History of Newbury, Newburyport and West Newbury (1845), page 292.]

[4] A trapper once indentured to Thomas Morton of Wollaston[5] ~ Walter Bagnall was killed, purportedly by natives, on Richmond Island off Cape Elizabeth in Maine on October 3, 1631 ~ as is recorded by John Winthrop's Journal (1908 Edition, Volume I, page 69):

"... 1631, October 22. The governor (Winthrop meaning himself) received a letter from Capt Wiggin of Pascataquack (today’s Portsmouth, New Hampshire), informing him of a murder committed the third of this month at Richman’s Isle (today’s Richmond Island, off Cape Elizabeth, Maine), by an Indian sagamore, called Squidrayset, and his company, upon one Walter Bagnall, called Great Watt, and one John P---, who kept with him. They, having killed them, burnt the house over them, and carried away their guns and what else they liked ... This Bagnall ... was a wicked fellow, and had much wronged the Indians (by his dishonest dealings in fur-trading)."

And further from another entry in John Withrop’s Journal (1908 Edition, Volume I, page 98):

"... 1633. About the beginning of this month of January the pinnaces (sailing vessels sent out from Pascataquack, today's Portsmouth, New Hampshire), which went after the pirates (renegade Englishmen, though totally unrelated to the Indian-Bagnall murders), returned, the cold being so great as they could not pursue them (said pirates); but, in their return, they hanged up (lynched) at Richman’s Isle an Indian, one Black Will, one of those who had there murdered Walter Bagnall."

It is said that modern scholars assume that the "Black Will" who was lynched at Richmond Island, Maine was one and the same person as Black William (cum Poquanum) who was sakamo of Nahant, Massachusetts, known to have "sold" Nahant to Thomas Dexter in 1630 "for a suit of clothes & a jews’-harp" (see link without). Other genealogical research asserts that Black Will was innocent ~ and that the murders of Walter Bagnall and the other trader actually had been committed by other Indians ~ likely Squidrayset, the Casco Bay Sagamore and other Abenakis. And that Black Will may have been merely visiting the new trading house on the Island, rebuilt after the first truck house was destroyed by fire after the murders (link without).

[5] A decade prior to the Great Migration (as John Winthrop's 1630 fleet to the Massachusetts Bay Colony is known), "Plimouth" was settled as the first plantation on the bay of Massachusetts. Weymouth was settled thereafter. In June of 1624, Captain Wollaston founded what was to be the "third plantation in the bay," called Passonagessit or "Mount Wollaston," which is today's Quincy, Massachusetts. Accompanying Wollaston were Thomas Morton[6] and thirty indentured servants, one of these likely Walter Bagnall.

[6] Thomas Morton was an English lawyer, poet and free-thinker who had a vision of an egalitarian society, and one far more ecologically sensitive than his Pilgrim and Puritan neighbors' biblicist views of their new dominion. However, given the "indecent incident" made famous by Nathaniel Hawthorne's short-story, "The May-Pole of Merry Mount" (link without) ~ Thomas Morton is forever cast as the pagan infidel (link without). Comparing William Bradford's critical history of the May 1627 event to Morton's own account in "Revels in New Canaan" (link without) ~ the merry meet seemed to be but "harmless mirth."
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