June 24, 1675: King Phillip’s War begins

Mass Moments reminds us that today is the 335th anniversary of the deadliest war (in terms of percentage of population killed) ever fought on the North American continent. The town of Groton, just west of here, was the frontier of English inland expansion and the conflict reached into the town of Chelmsford. Besides being a fascinating and little-remembered war fought within New England, the consequences of King Phillip’s War had a profound impact on the founding of Lowell many years later.

In 1655, families from Woburn and Concord petitioned the legislature to create a town at the confluence of the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. This site was attractive because the native inhabitants had already cleared much of it of trees and were using it for farm land. The Native Americans had a powerful ally in the Reverend John Elliot, who also petitioned the legislature to charter a town for the Native Americans along the banks of the Concord and Merrimack. On May 29, 1655, the legislature did just that, creating Wamesit for the Native Americans and Chelmsford (a few miles up-river and not yet cleared of trees) to the English petitioners.

Both groups lived in harmony until King Phillip’s War. That costly conflict transformed the attitude of the colonial legislature towards the Native Americans from one of paternalism to one set on extinction. All Native Americans who weren’t killed or did not flee to Canada were imprisoned and then sold into slavery. Soon after the war’s end, residents of Chelmsford began using the Wamesit land (which is today’s downtown Lowell) for grazing animals and planting crops. This pattern of usage continued until 1725 when Samuel Pierce, one of the few people living in the Wamesit area, was elected to represent Chelmsford in the Legislature. When he showed up in Boston, however, his colleagues refused to seat him on the grounds that he did not live within the district he represented. To remedy this problem (and the fact that the people living in Wamesit refused to pay taxes to Chelmsford), the Legislature annexed to Chelmsford the Wamesit area, renaming it East Chelmsford.

By the 1725 annexation and thereafter, the towns surrounding Wamesit became mature and the former Native American Town remained a sparsely settled. When the Boston industrialists who would build Lowell arrived at this stretch of the Merrimack, on the south bank they found the equivalent of a strategically placed vacant lot which they were able to acquire cheaply and easily. Back in 1655, had the legislature awarded the English petitioners the Wamesit grant, by 1823 that land would have been fully developed and unable for purchase by the creators of Lowell’s great textile mills.