Lowell200: The Arrival of the Europeans

The Arrival of the Europeans

The Virginia Company established a settlement in Jamestown in 1607. That same year, a related company created another settlement at the mouth of the Kennebuck River in today’s Maine. Called Sachadehoc, this place was abandoned a year later after a fruitless and deadly winter. According to historian Bernard Bailyn, the English investors had miscalculated: they believed that once a coastal settlement was established, Native Americans would flock to it to trade furs for English goods. The Native Americans were reticent to venture into the English trading post and the English were unequipped and unprepared to travel inland to initiate trade.

Despite the failure of the Sachadehoc settlement, English fishermen continuously came to the New England coast to fish and often went ashore though not permanently. Despite the transiency of their visits, the Europeans had enough contact with the Native Americans to expose them to European diseases to which they had no immunity. The results were devastating to the Native Americans and many died of novel illnesses. With the Native American population considerably reduced, areas they had cleared for farming were abandoned or had the number of inhabitants greatly diminished. This worked to the benefit of the next wave of English to arrive. These were not transient traders or fishermen, but religious refugees intent on creating a new society.

The Pilgrims who landed in Plymouth in 1620 and the Puritans who arrived in Boston and Salem in 1630 came for religious freedom, but the English merchants who financed their journeys and settlements were more interested in making a financial return on their investments. Almost immediately, the colonists established trading relationships with the Native Americans, exchanging English goods for beaver pelts and other furs that were highly valued in Europe. Because New England had no domestic manufacturing, the colonists had to import from England large quantities of life’s essentials, particularly cloth and iron goods. Furs were the only things the colonists had or could get that had sufficient value to offset the price of these imports.

When the supply of furs near the coast became exhausted, English traders ventured inland for new trading opportunities. In 1635, Simon Willard led a group of families to establish the first inland settlement in New England in what would become Concord, Massachusetts. The many streams and marshes in that vicinity supported a large population of furry animals and the rivers that bisected the region gave it strategic importance for trade further inland.

By the early 1640s, Willard was venturing up the Concord River to the Merrimack and the Native American settlements of Wamesit and Pawtucket. A Christian minister named John Eliot sometimes accompanied him.

John Eliot was born in England but came to Boston in 1631 at age 26. He settled in nearby Roxbury and became the longtime pastor of a church there. At the same time, Eliot became deeply interested in preaching about Christianity to Native Americans. He learned the Algonquin language and travelled around eastern Massachusetts, establishing relationships with Native Americans in villages that would become the Massachusetts communities of Littleton, Grafton, Marlborough, Hopkinton, Candon, Mendon and Lowell.

In 1647, Rev. Eliot accompanied Simon Willard to Pawtucket Falls and returned each spring as the Native Americans from around the region gathered at the falls for peak fishing season and to renew acquaintances with each other. According to English accounts, Eliot “converted” many of the Native Americans in Wamesit to Christianity and is said to have built the first church in the region, a chapel made of logs on the site now occupied by the Eliot Church which is named for this missionary preacher.

While John Eliot was interested in the Native American’s souls, his companion Simon Willard was interested in the furs they had to trade. According to Bernard Bailyn, the fur trade in southern New England was plentiful in the 1640s but began to decline in the 1650s. This, plus the relentless arrival of new settlers from England pushed the colonists further inland. In 1653, a group of families from Woburn and Concord ventured up the Concord River to form a settlement at Wamesit.

Procedurally, anyone could petition the General Court for permission to establish a “plantation” (the term then used for a settlement). If the petition was granted, it usually came with some conditions such as a certain number of families had to establish homes within the settlement and that a church be constructed within a certain amount of time. The land was granted to all in common, but the inhabitants could decide on their own how to subdivide and privatize the acreage. Usually, some amount was retained under common ownership, often for the grazing of farm animals. The remaining land was then allocated proportionally to all the residents although new towns would offer larger parcels as incentives to those who would build and operate sawmills, grist mills, or other necessary services for the community.

The strategic location of Wamesit at the confluence of the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was attractive to these would-be settlers, but the main attraction was the agricultural fields already cleared of trees by the resident Native Americans. However, when the English interlopers filed their township petition with the General Court, Rev. Eliot filed a competing petition on behalf of the Native Americans of Wamesit.

The General Court endorsed Eliot’s petition and issued a proclamation creating the town of Wamesit for the benefit of the Native Americans already residing there.

At the same time, the General Court granted the petition of the Concord and Woburn families except their town was sited further to the west of and separate from Wamesit. The English chose the name Chelmsford for their new town.