icon for Home page
icon for Kid's Home page
icon for Digital Collection
icon for Activities
icon for Turns Exhibit
icon for In the Classroom
icon for Chronologies
icon for My Collection

In the Classroom > Course Overview > Unit Overview > Lesson 5

Lesson 5
Dedham Grant (Pecumtuck)

It all begins with John Eliot, born in England in 1604. Living in Dedham, Massachusetts, he began his life work in 1645, that of converting the Indians of Massachusetts to Christianity. To effect this he promoted the "praying towns," villages built for the Christianized Indians, eventually occupying nearly 4000 acres and constituting what Dedham people saw as encroachment on their necessary expansion lands.

In response to the pleas of the people of Dedham, on May 27, 1663, the General Court of Massachusetts:

Judgeth it meet to grant Dedham 8000 acres Of land in any convenient place, or places not Exceeding two, where it can bee found free from former Grants.

After several explorations in the land to the west of Dedham, after a year, in the late fall of 1664, the explorers "heard of a tract of good Land... about 12 or 14 miles from Hadley" and on May 22 of the next year, 1665, they sent four townsmen to investigate. They were told the name of the place was "Pecumptick."

As they declared ownership to the place, Dedham people were not ignorant that "other people" had lived on their newly claimed lands and recognized that the Indians might well "clayme a Title" to the lands.

To their credit, the men of Dedham, by legitimate means, bought land due to them for a Capt. John Pynchon, son of William (recently returned to England), over the next 3 years, executed at least 4 deeds (three are known still to exist). A 5th deed was supposedly drawn in 1672. All use Indian place names as frames of reference and are, therefore difficult to interpret. George Sheldon writes that Dedham paid 136 pounds, 10 shillings, and Richard Melvoin says 96 pounds, 10 shillings, with a smaller sum paid later. The 5 deeds were all signed by different Indians -- 8 total are mentioned. One named "Chauk" claimed he was Pocumtuck's sachem. In fact, according to Melvoin, Pynchon and the Dedham men may have bought the lands from any Indians who would sell it.

legitimate grievance -- that of land taken unfairly by Eliot for the "praying Indian villages." They had:

1. received compensation from the General Court
2. followed Massachusetts law in finding & securing the land
3. surveyed it properly
4. sought & received the colony's blessing for their efforts
5. negotiated with the Indians for rights to the land
6. signed carefully drawn deeds with both English and Indian witnesses
7. made their actions public.

And yet:

1. the Dedham men claimed Indian lands before any meeting with the Indians
2. they did not consider - or at least acknowledge -- any possible differences with the Indians in concepts of land ownership or the authority of those Indians to sell land
3. Dedhamites imposed their laws, standards, beliefs on the surviving Natives.

In the layout of the new town and in the system of governance they adopted, they followed common regular practices -- but there were also some departures from those regular practices. Many of the Dedham men speculated with the lands and did not come to the Connecticut River Valley to settle.

The birth of the new town was, therefore, a product of the efforts of two very different groups:

1. the Dedham Proprietors -- a formal, careful, legalistic body, as they drew up their town plan.
2. the actual residents -- largely from the Connecticut River Valley, a rougher, more "loosely-woven"group of adventurers.

In Dedham, the Proprietors were the legal owners, regulators, and distributors of all the town's undistributed land, as opposed to the mere "inhabitants." By 1656, many new settlers were moving into Dedham and it became clear that the original inhabitants were giving up more and more land and the rights to future lands, to all the new townsmen. It was therefore decided that all 79 residents (men) who held lands as of 1656 would be made Proprietors. It was also decided that new settlers could purchase already divided and privately held land, but would not be able to gain proprietary rights unless given permission by the Proprietors. These Dedham Proprietors did not parcel out the shares equally -- that was too democratic -- instead they worked out a convoluted system for the distribution of shares based on current wealth.

First they established that the total number of shares in the town would approximate the total number of acres in the town's cow commons -- 532 acres.

Second they divided the total value of the estates of all the Proprietors by 532 to establish the amount of estate a man must have to own one proprietary share. They arrived at a figure of 18 pounds... so a man could have one share for every 18 pounds worth of estate -- real and personal -- that he owned. They called these shares "cow commons" and these shares carried with them equivalent grazing rights on the actual cow commons in Dedham. (1 cow commons = 5 sheep commons)

After 3 years of ironing out the system, it was approved in February 1659. 10 years later, these rights would prove the basis for the rights to the new lands at Pocumtuck. And, these new lands were starting to cost the Proprietors money. They had financed a number of trips by townsmen, first to discover the land and then to survey it. 1665, a tax of 2 shillings for each cow commons owned was levied to support "the mayntenance of an orthodox ministry" at Pocumtuck. 1667, a tax of 4 shillings per cow commons to pay John Pynchon for his services, and probably to reimburse him for the land purchase.

Strong traditions led the Dedham Proprietors to follow procedures established from the first settlements at Massachusetts Bay in 1630 where the Proprietors had divided up town land by choosing lots randomly so as to make distribution as fair as possible. This does not mean, of course, that each man received the same amount of land -- as, all men are not equal in age, in status, in wealth, in family size. But, if they did not receive equal shares, they could have equal chances of getting the best land and locations. To this end, the Proprietors divided the town's land into different types:

Plow lands

And divided these portions into lots for each Proprietor. In May 1670 the Proprietors met at Lieut Fisher's house in Dedham and voted to send an artiste (surveyor) to Pocumtuck to determine the different divisions...the houselots, the first and second divisions (quality) plow land, meadows, woodlots, and to lay out the first set of lots.

Then, together they figured where to place the meeting house, the high wayes, etc.

No one was allowed more than 20 cow commons in one place, for fairness, and all plowland was to run easterly and westerly, to give equal sun and equal access to the river. The Proprietors then drew lots for the first division of farmlands.

Meanwhile, the Artiste laid out the houselots. The determination of these would require another drawing by the Proprietors.

On May 16, 1671, Joshua Fisher, the surveyor, presented his report -- 43 houselots laid out on both sides of a 6 rod wide common street running north to south on a mile long elevated "banke or ridge of land."

The Proprietors first determined the location of each Proprietor's houselot based on random drawing and then worked out each lot's size based on the number of cow commons each Proprietor held.

The placement of the houses, facing each other on the mile long street, away from the frontier behind them suggested both a Puritan watchfulness and a healthy respect for the danger of the wilderness. The houses were grouped together on the raised plateau, front doors facing each other, with the farmlands, woodlands, and fields stretching out from the center.

The next step would seem to be for the Dedhamites to move to their newly-created town--but they did not. Many of them promptly sold their rights to people from the Connecticut River Valley. Why?

And, by 1673, Pocumtuck was virtually free of any Dedham control, was declared a "towneship" by the General Court and the land holdings increased from the original 8000 acres to a tract "7 miles square."

The town, like many others south of them in the river valley, followed the "common field system" (not to be confused with the cow commons system!) -- explained thusly:

Townsmen owned their land individually -- the farmland or plowland was laid out in long strips, but the actual farming was a group enterprise. Both labor and equipment were shared -- lack of enough adequate tools and danger of straying too far from the street were undoubtedly two of the reasons. The town regulated grazing seasons, planting time, when the fences or bars would be raised or lowered.

By 1675, they were producing wheat, malt, hops, peas, barley, rye, hay, corn. There were cattle, some pigs, and many men owned a horse.

Often when 17th century New Englanders founded a town, they drew up a covenant to address civil and ecclesiastical matters. This did not happen here.

top of page

button for Side by Side Viewingbutton for Glossarybutton for Printing Helpbutton for How to Read Old Documents


Home | Online Collection | Things To Do | Turns Exhibit | Classroom | Chronologies | My Collection
About This Site | Site Index | Site Search | Feedback