Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Very Brief History of Cambridge: 1630-1700

       In the spirit of a fresh start after leaving old England, and in keeping with their governor John Winthrop's vision of a "city on a hill" that would be a role model to the world, the Puritans gave the simple name "Newtowne" to the settlement that they chose to be their capital in 1630. In 1638, two years after the Great and General Court of the colony founded the college at Newtowne, the settlement was renamed Cambridge after the English university town. The college, in turn, was renamed after John Harvard, who graduated from Cambridge University in England, and settled in Charlestown, MA. When he died in 1638, Harvard left the college 500 pounds, his library of 400 volumes, and his name. While it never became the capital of Massachusetts, Cambridge did become the intellectual center of the Massachusetts Bay colony.
      While it was a fresh start for the Puritans, they were not the first inhabitants of the area. The Massachusett people lived throughout what is now the Massachusetts Bay region. Their population was rapidly reduced by foreign diseases when Europeans began settling here. Because they did not use written language until European settlement began, the recorded history of this area begins in the 1600's, rather than when they arrived. The original Cambridge, as settled by the English, covered most of present-day Arlington, Bedford, Brighton, Lexington, and Newton, and pieces of Belmont and Winchester.1
        The Puritans came to the New World because they believed that the Church of England was corrupted and that religion had to be purified to be more true to original Christian teachings. They established Salem in 1630, and several other towns, including Charlestown, Watertown, Boston, and Cambridge. The Massachusetts Bay Company, officially a trading company, had a royal charter from England to settle Massachusetts. It was originally run by stockholders, but eventually expanded to include anyone in church communion. Early Cambridge was very nearly theocratic; the church and state were closely intertwined. The first meeting house, both a house of worship and a place for community business, was built in 1632. All church members could vote, and they created a religious society where interdependence was highly valued and the good of the community was supposed to come before the good of the individual.2 However, this did not mean that the Puritans were egalitarian. Church officials assigned seats in the meeting house based on family status, age, and property. Men and women sat separately. Sunday worship services included prayer, unaccompanied singing, and a reading and expounding of Scripture. Sermons were expected to last one hour, but it was not unheard of for a minister to take longer.3 Despite a religion that emphasized work above material success, clergymen often had more household luxuries than their neighbors.4
In the seventeenth century, Cambridge often lagged behind Boston, and even smaller neighbors such as Watertown. The first settlers farmed the land and raised animals, and as such, each family had a house in the village, planting fields outside, and a share in the common grazing land. As a general rule, the wealthier a family was, the closer their land would be to the center of town.5 With sandier, rockier soil and more salt marshes than most of the nearby towns, Cambridge sometimes struggled in agriculture. Boston had a stronger economic base because of its access to the sea, and so to increase its trading opportunities, Cambridge had to become connected with Boston. The first landing for a ferry to go back and forth over the Charles was built in 1635.6 Even better, the Great Bridge between Cambridge and Boston was completed in 1662. In the later part of the century, Cambridge began to gain a foothold in tanning and other small industries.7
Cambridge once had a near-monopoly on the spread of ideas in the New World. From 1638, Harvard had been home to the only printing press in the colonies, brought from England by Henry Dunster, president of the school. However, in 1674, a printing press arrived in Boston, which was quite a blow to Cambridge.8 Still, Harvard remained the only college in Massachusetts until after the Revolution, and the only college in the colonies until 1693 with the founding of the College of William and Mary in Virginia. Harvard was also many locals' best bet for a steady income – they catered to the more affluent student population by selling school supplies and clothes, repairing shoes, serving food and drink, and acting as hired help at the school itself. Those who worked for the college, cleaning the halls and making the beds, were often given “country pay” – that is, they were paid in goods such as grain rather than in cash.9
In 1686, King James II of England took the colony of Massachusetts under direct rule: it was no longer to be governed by an independent charter. The governor was now appointed by the king, rather than chosen by local civil and religious bodies. This set the stage for the following century, when the colony began to move away from its separatist roots. The towns that had been founded with the “city on a hill” idea, including Cambridge and Boston, would see an influx of immigration by wealthy Anglicans who held much more English attitudes than the original settlers. The changes that took place because Massachusetts was now governed directly by England eventually led Cambridge, with the rest of Massachusetts and the other colonies, toward revolution.
1 Seaburg, Alan. Cambridge on the Charles. (Cambridge: Anne Miniver Press, 2001), 13.
2 Seaburg 17.
3 McKenzie, Alexander. “Some Thynges of Ye Olden Tyme.” Merrill, Estelle, ed. Cambridge Sketches by Cambridge Authors. Cambridge Young Women’s Christian Association. (Boston: The Pinkham Press, 1896), 5.
4 Thomson, Roger. Cambridge Cameos: Stories of Life in Seventeenth-Century New England. (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2005), 37.
5 Thomspon 20
6Martin, Mary L. and E. Ashley Rooney. Cambridge, Massachusetts Past and Present. (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2008), 6.
While Cambridge and Boston have many well-known bridges today, the Great Bridge is no longer standing.
7Thompson 35.
8Rooney 7.
9Thomson 57.


  1. I would be curious if in your research for this you found anything about the trial of Anne Hutchinson. I've heard that the reason Harvard was founded was to train future generations of theologians to counter the rise of another Anne Hutchinson, but this could be apocryphal or an exaggeration.

    For those who may not know, Anne Hutchinson was a preacher in 1630s Boston who ended up getting expelled from the colony, basically because she was smarter and more eloquent than her male colleagues. She was tried in Cambridge by the First Parish Church and found to be "a woman not fit for our society" and forced into exile.

  2. Thanks for bringing up the subject of Anne Hutchinson, Marcus. Her presence as a preacher and her trial are an important part of the religious and intellectual history of the area. Harvard was indeed founded so that the colony would have a plentiful supply of locally-trained theologians. I haven't come across any information about whether the founders of Harvard had the Hutchinson incident in mind specifically, but I'll look into it. If I find out, I'll be sure to post about it!