Lowell200: Chelmsford and Shaweshin

Chelmsford and Shaweshin

While the boundaries set by the General Court for the new towns of Wamesit and Chelmsford were clear to those living then and there, the exact whereabouts of those lines faded over time. Indeed, Rev. Wilkes Allen in his History of Chelmsford (1820) wrote, the boundary between the two towns was “unclear.” From our vantage point two hundred years later, we can be no more precise.

As best as we can tell, the boundary between Wamesit and Chelmsford ran along today’s Stevens Street from the Merrimack River to River Meadow Brook near Cross Point, then along River Meadow Brook (which parallels the Lowell Connector) to the Concord River. The easterly boundary of Wamesit was the Concord River and the northerly boundary was the Merrimack River.

The initial grant to Chelmsford included no frontage on the Merrimack River, an oversight that was remedied a few years later when the Legislature annexed additional land including today’s North Chelmsford to the town.

Even though a substantial part of the Native American village of Wamesit was east of the Concord River (i.e., on the Belvidere side of the Concord), the General Court did not include that land in the Court’s official Wamesit grant. Instead, that portion of the Native American village was incorporated into Billerica which received its town grant at the same time.

The land to the east of the Concord River had long been of interest to the General Court. The Rev. Henry A Hazin in his History of Billerica, (published in 1883) covers the multifaceted story of the settlement of the town which was originally called “Shaweshin.” Here’s a synopsis:

On March 3, 1636, the General Court instructed John Winthrop and others to “viewe Shaweshin” and decide whether it was a fitting place for a “plantation”, but no formal report was made. On November 2, 1637, the General Court granted Winthrop (who was then the governor) and Thomas Dudley, approximately 1,000 acres each. These parcels were on the east side of the Concord River in what would become Billerica.

Winthrop died in 1649 and the following year the General Court granted his surviving spouse and children 3,000 additional acres in gratitude for their spouse/father’s service to the Commonwealth. Mrs. Winthrop selected a large parcel adjacent to the 1,000 acres earlier granted to her late husband. This parcel covered much of what became Andover, Tewksbury (which was originally part of Billerica), and the Belvidere neighborhood of Lowell. It also included the east-of-the-Concord portion of Wamesit which was already inhabited by Native Americans. While the Winthrops were deemed the “owners” of that Wamesit land in a legal sense, they did nothing to interfere with the use of the land by the resident Native Americans.

This layered ownership of the land east of the Concord River was not limited to the Winthrops and the Native Americans. At some point, the General Court granted some of this same land to residents of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

By 1640, people living in Cambridge were unhappy with the perceived lack of opportunities available to them in that place. Some moved to Connecticut, thrived, and invited others to follow. Because Harvard College had just opened as a place to train ministers, the General Court had a substantial interest in keeping Cambridge as a functioning community. As an enticement not to go to Connecticut, the General Court offered the inhabitants of Cambridge ownership of a big portion of Shaweshin provided they settle a certain number of people there within five years. The people in Cambridge found the land unattractive and rejected the offer. The General Court came back and gave Cambridge the land with no conditions attached.

At about the time Chelmsford was being settled, Cambridge made a push to have someone settle Shaweshin but no one wanted to go there, work hard clearing the land, and not get any benefits of their work because the land was still going to be owned by the town of Cambridge or by the church in that town.

Finally, almost out of desperation, Cambridge split up Shaweshin into about 110 grants of between 10 and 450 acres and gave the parcels outright to people to settle on them. Surviving town (of Billerica) records indicate that people from Cambridge had settled in Shaweshin by 1653.

On May 30, 1655, the General Court formally recognized the community of Shawshin. In that same grant, the Court authorized the town to be known as Billericay which was probably the town in England that some of the settlers came from. (It was common to drop the “Y” from the end of words which is how it ended up as Billerica). This grant also included the land west of the Concord River that continues to be part of Billerica today. By 1660 there were 40 families living in the town.