A BRIEF HISTORY OF COLONIAL NEW ENGLAND
A Brief History with some Comments on Colonial Architecture
I The “Howling Wilderness”
When the first English settlers reached New England there was nothing here except what has been described as a “howling wilderness”. No inns, no roads, no houses, no shelter – just woods and fields, rocks and sandy beaches and wolves! They came from a land with crowded cities, inns at intervals along post roads, elegant manor houses and castles and the comfortable thatched-roof dwellings of the sturdy copyholder.
Add to these difficulties, the Pilgrims arrived in December!
Obviously, the first order of business was to provide shelter however jury-rigged and primitive. These huts or wigwams were replaced with more substantial structures as soon as possible. Some of the more fortunate at Massachusetts Bay had what John Winthrop calls “houses” the first winter (when he tells us that some with thatched roofs burned down), but many had only tents or “wigwams”. All of these are, of course, long gone. Even the most tradition-bound Puritan would have delighted that these structures of pure utility were no more to be seen.
What followed reflected what came before in the homeland. Carpenters and builders familiar with the way things were done in their part of England –East Anglia (mainly the counties of Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk), Yorkshire in the northeast, Dorset, Somerset, and Devon in the southwest, and of course, the Midlands, built in New England what they knew in Old England. The differing styles and practices have been well described and illustrated in Abbott Lowell Cummings’ “The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay”, to which this writer contributed a number of photographs, learned a little about seventeenth century building practices, and got into some very interesting and dusty places.
Two basic facts should be understood at the outset:
First, these early houses were not put together with hammer and nails. Heavy wooden posts and beams were cut and shaped by saw, axe and adze (a cutting tool used for shaping wood). These were carefully fitted on the ground and marked with Roman numerals so that when the house frame was raised into vertical position you could tell where each structural element belonged. What held these together was a carved or hewn projection called a tenon which fitted into its mate, a slot, called a mortise and was secured with a wooden peg called a trenail (“tree nail”).
Second, early New England houses were not log cabins. The log cabin was Scandinavian, not English in origin. With the exception of some Garrison Houses which were built for protection against Indian attack and needed heavy, thick exterior walls, English colonists built wood frame houses, usually with wood clapboard exteriors because wood was plentiful in New England. Clapboards are thin horizontal boards tapered vertically (thicker at the bottom) which are overlapped and nailed to the house frame.
Thanks to a New England tradition of staying put and passing the old house to the next generation there are a remarkable number of mostly domestic buildings from not the earliest (1620-1640), but the next decades still here for us to study and enjoy.
II The Beginnings of New England
The Popham Colony or Fort St. George
The first permanent settlement in New England was the Plymouth Colony in what is now Massachusetts. There was a short-lived plantation at the mouth of the Kennebec River in Maine called the Popham Colony after its promoter, Sir John Popham, also called Fort St. George. The settlers arrived in 1607, built the fort and many interior buildings, but then abandoned all in 1608, after the death of the president, George Popham, and the death of the brother of Raleigh Gilbert, the second in command. Gilbert was his brother’s heir and had to return to England to manage the estate. Thus deprived of backbone, the other settlers declined the hardship of another down-east winter and returned to England with Raleigh Gilbert. An interesting aside is the fact that Raleigh Gilbert was half-nephew of Sir Walter Raleigh, noted for his colonizing efforts farther south in the late sixteenth century.
The Plymouth Colony
The Plymouth Colony began with the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620 with just 102 passengers, only half of whom survived the first winter. The story is well known and annually remembered in the United States by our celebration of Thanksgiving. The first thanksgiving occurred in 1621 after a harvest of produce grown with the aid of local members of the Wampanoag Tribe – particularly Squanto, and the visiting Samoset (who was from down-east – near Pemaquid, Maine), and plentiful game from the fall hunt. It is interesting to note that the first ship out from England to Plymouth that year, the Fortune, returned to England with the Plymouth Colony’s first manufactured exports: Clapboards!
The Old Planters
Three years later the Dorchester Company of Adventurers planted a small colony at Gloucester on Cape Ann. This was to be primarily a station for fishermen, but one had to till the soil as well, and rocky Cape Ann had little to give from the land. In 1626, a small contingent of twenty or so moved from Cape Ann to Naumkeag, later Salem. These folk, known as the “Old Planters”, had been there but a short time when an advance group of the Massachusetts Bay Colony arrived in Salem in 1628, under John Endecott as governor. Endecott was not the sort of man you would want to invite to dinner or join over a tankard of ale. The best way to deal with such an arrogant, aggressive man in authority is to stay as far away as possible, but the Old Planters did not have this option. Endecott kicked the Old Planters out of their houses and sent them across the Danvers River where they founded the town of Beverly.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Great Migration
The next step in the colonization of New England, the “Great Migration” of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, began in earnest in 1630, when John Winthrop in the Arbella brought a fleet of eleven ships and about one thousand new colonists. After beginning a settlement in Charlestown, on the north side of the Charles River, they were informed by the Reverend William Blackstone (or Blaxton) who enjoyed his own company as a sole proprietor on the Shawmut Peninsula (on the south side of the Charles River), that better water was to be found in his back yard. Winthrop and company took down the house frames already begun and, in the fall of 1630, decamped to the Shawmut Peninsula where they began a new town which they called “Boston”, after Boston in Lincolnshire, England.
The two colonies in what is now Massachusetts, The Plymouth Colony (often called the “Old Colony”) and the Massachusetts Bay Colony remained separate entities until 1691, when, under a new royal charter, Plymouth and Maine were combined as part of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. Both of these colonies were anchored on the Atlantic Coast of New England.
Members of the Plymouth Colony moved south and west, away from the sea coast in the 1630s (they also moved north and east, purchasing land from the Indians and setting up a trading post at what is now Augusta, Maine). In 1633 they established a trading post on the Connecticut River at what is now Windsor, Connecticut, after a little trouble with the Dutch at Hartford, who were equally interested in the fur trade with the Indians.
Connecticut Beginnings: Three Massachusetts Towns Head West
The Connecticut Colony had two beginnings. John Oldham had explored the Connecticut River Valley in late 1633 and brought word of its rich meadows and hardwood forests to Boston. In 1634, Newtown (later Cambridge) residents were dissatisfied with the quality and quantity of land available to them within their town. They petitioned the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for permission to leave. The petition was denied. Dorchester and Watertown Massachusetts suffered similar land poverty. In the fall of 1634, John Oldham led a small party of settlers from Watertown to Pyquag on the Connecticut River (Later called Watertown and then Wethersfield). They wintered there and established Wethersfield’s claim to be the first Connecticut town. More Watertowners followed in 1635, having permission to leave provided they settle in a place under the Bay Colony government (which they didn’t). Dorchester then received similar permission. Roger Ludlow led a group from Dorchester who ignored the Plymouth Colony’s prior occupation of Windsor and simply planted themselves there. The fall of 1635 saw a group of about sixty leave Newtown and travel overland to the Connecticut Valley. Some of them began temporary shelters at Suckiaug (later Hartford). The winter was early and cold. Some returned to Boston and others found shelter on a vessel frozen in the lower Connecticut River at the site of the fort just built for the Warwick Patentees (see below).
Thomas Hooker, who had attained stature and popularity as a Puritan religious leader in Essex County, England, was the minister at Newtown. His views about church membership and colony government differed from the strict elitism of Massachusetts. In May, 1636, he left for the Connecticut Valley with about one hundred of his flock. They traveled overland, driving their cattle before them, headed south when they reached the river, and settled with their townsmen who had gone out the preceding fall, at Suckiaug – renamed Hartford.
Meanwhile, down-river at the mouth of the Connecticut, John Winthrop, Jr., had a fort built to protect the interest of the Warwick Patentees, Lord Saye and Sele (one lord), Lord Brooke (another lord), and others. The place was appropriately named Saybrook. Warwick had received his interest from the Council for New England. This patent’s boundaries were pretty vague. It was not clear whether the three up-river towns were within its compass.
The Pequot War
Early on the new colony faced a threat from the ferocious Pequot Indians who attacked settlements, took captives and brutally tortured them before execution.
In early 1637 Wethersfield was attacked. The Connecticut General Court mustered a force of ninety men under Captain John Mason which was reinforced by a party of Mohegan Indians. The Connecticut men sailed east past the Pequot forts at Groton and Mystic, landed and attacked from the east, which the Indians did not expect. Both forts were destroyed (Mystic burned) but many Pequots escaped to fight another day. Early in the summer the escapees were tracked down far to the west in Fairfield where a great swamp fight ensued. This time the Connecticut men were aided by Massachusetts militia. Again the Indians were beaten. To their regret, many sought refuge with the Mohawks who returned the head (unattached) of Sassacus, the Pequot chief, to the English settlers.
The New Haven Colony
In 1637, another group under Theophilus Eaton and John Davenport arrived at Boston and decided that things were not strict enough! They also wanted to lead their own colony rather than live under the government established in Boston. In 1638, Eaton, Davenport and their followers migrated to Long Island Sound at Quinnipiac, renamed New Haven, forming a second colony (appropriately called The New Haven Colony). As in Massachusetts, there were then two separate colonies in what is now Connecticut.
Northern New England – New Hampshire and Maine
Moving to the north, parts of Maine and New Hampshire between the Merrimack River on the south and the Kennebec River on the north (or east) were granted in 1622 to John Mason and Sir Ferdinando Gorges by the New England Council which had been established by royal charter in 1620. In 1629, Gorges and Mason split their holdings – Gorges taking the northeast or land between the Piscataqua River (the present seacoast boundary between New Hampshire and Maine) and the Kennebec River, farther east, while Mason held the southwest area between the Merrimack and Piscataqua. In 1639, Gorges had his interest confirmed by a royal patent.
In 1623 David Thomson received a grant of land near the mouth of the Piscataqua where he settled briefly at Odiorne Point called Pannaway, in what is now Rye, New Hampshire, adjoining Little Harbor which is now in Portsmouth. Thomson had no lasting impact on the beginnings of New Hampshire. In 1626 he moved to an island in Boston Harbor which still bears his name.
Edward Hilton, a London fish merchant, received a grant of land about seven miles up-river from the mouth of the Piscataqua. This grant, from the New England Council, included Dover Point also called Hilton’s Point, where a settlement was begun sometime between 1623 and 1628. This was the first New Hampshire town – Dover.
Mason, Gorges and some associated London merchants formed the Laconia Company in 1629, to exploit the fur trade. They sent out settlers under the leadership of Walter Neal who, in 1631, began Strawbery Banke (later Portsmouth), named for abundant strawberries on a hill alongside the Piscataqua River.
Two other New Hampshire towns were established by settlers from Massachusetts: Exeter in 1638 by the Reverend John Wheelwright, brother-in-law of Anne Hutchinson (see below) and sharing her unorthodox (to the Massachusetts elders) religious views about how salvation was to be obtained. He, too, was asked to leave Massachusetts. Some of his followers went with him to Exeter.
Hampton, first called Winnacunnet and settled from Massachusetts in 1636, was just over the border from Massachusetts on the coast. It became a tidy little town in an area of abundant salt marshes to provide feed for livestock. There were now four New Hampshire towns: Dover, Exeter, Hampton and Strawbery Banke (this is the olde spelling of the town name).
Maine’s early years were replete with patents, grants, conflicting claims and then changes in government. There were settlements on the Pemaquid peninsula as early as 1625. Nearby Monhegan Island, a popular fishing station, did not become a home to colonists. Working eastward from the Piscataqua River we find settlements at Piscataqua (later Kittery), Agamenticus (later York), Wells (founded by the itinerant John Wheelwright), Saco, Black Point and Blue Point (later Scarborough), Spurwink and Casco (later Falmouth). These were twice taken under the jurisdiction of Massachusetts pursuant to an imaginary expansion of its charter boundaries described below.
Providence and Rhode Island
Another clergyman with religious ideas unacceptable to the Massachusetts theocrats was Roger Williams who advocated a clean separation from the Church of England, while the Massachusetts Puritans insisted that they were just purifying that church by cleansing it of all “Papist” relics such as vestments, altars and The Book of Common Prayer. He preached in the Plymouth Colony for a while, then returned to Salem, Massachusetts. He was tried and banished – the authorities were going to send him back to England, but John Winthrop alerted Williams who left in the dead of winter to stay with Massasoit and the Wampanoags. The next spring (1636), he obtained a grant of land at the head of Narragansett Bay from the Narragansett Indians. He called his new home Providence, and it is so named today. Roger Williams regularly enjoyed good relations with the Indians. He learned their language and dealt fairly with them.
Controversy continued in the Puritan “New Jerusalem”. Some “new” arrivals were not entirely happy with the Massachusetts Puritan doctrine that salvation could only be achieved through conversion to a godly life through the Congregational Church.
Anne Hutchinson, one of these, was a follower of Reverend John Cotton who, while he preached a sermon as the Winthrop fleet was about to depart for Massachusetts, did not emigrate with them. In 1633, in England, he was called before Archbishop William Laud’s Court of High Commission because of his Puritan beliefs. Master Cotton decided it was time for him to depart. He arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the fall of 1633 on the same ship that brought Thomas Hooker. Cotton was followed by Anne Hutchinson and her husband, William, in 1634. Anne was a remarkable woman. Not only did she embroil herself in the most schismatic controversy to confront the new colony, but she gave birth to fifteen children (Nothing schismatic about her marriage!)! She held Monday sessions at her home in Boston where she and other women analyzed and criticized the preceding Sunday’s sermons. She advocated a Covenant of Grace whereby any individual could find salvation through faith without the aid of a church or congregation. This was heresy to the Massachusetts establishment, but she had support from the one-term governor, Sir Henry Vane, the only English nobleman then in the colony. Vane was voted out of office – replaced by Winthrop, and Anne was put on trial. She defended herself ably, but made the mistake of claiming that God had spoken to her personally. So, she was convicted and banished.
It is interesting to note that in the first decade of the Massachusetts Bay Colony there were seven “drop-outs”: three by banishment (Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson and her brother-in-law, John Wheelwright) three by choice (Watertown, Newtown and Dorchester émigrés to found Connecticut), and Eaton and Davenport and their followers who founded the New Haven Colony. Quite a record for a “Godly” new establishment!
Anne Hutchinson had quite a few followers, among whom was William Coddington. They all departed in a southerly direction where Roger Williams arranged purchase of Aquidneck Island between Narragansett Bay and the Sakonnet River from the Narragansett Indians. The settlement they made was called Pocasset – later Portsmouth. Aquidneck Island was named “Rhode Island”.
Coddington and nine others left Pocasset for the southwest end of Aquidneck Island where there was an excellent deep water harbor. Here they founded Newport in 1639.
As the Plymouth Colony claimed jurisdiction over Aquidneck Island (later Rhode Island) and Massachusetts claimed land south of Providence called Patuxet, but none of the Providence and Rhode Island towns had a pedigree from the home government in London, Roger Williams thought it a good idea to get a charter or patent in writing. He took ship to England and succeeded in getting a patent in 1644 from the Parliamentary government (the English Civil War was raging, and the king was not available) which included the Rhode Island towns of Portsmouth and Newport.
William Coddington didn’t like Williams’ patent (in fact, Coddington was an ornery fellow who didn’t like much that he didn’t own or control). He went to London in the late 1640s where he obtained a patent over Aquidneck and Conanicut (now Jamestown) Islands making him governor for life.
Meanwhile, another testy participant in this confusing, yet amusing game of musical patents, Samuel Gorton, persuaded the Earl of Warwick to grant him a patent for land on the west shore of Narragansett Bay. The Indians, from whom Gorton had purchased, called it Shawomet. Gorton naturally renamed it Warwick.
The next step in the game involved John Clarke, Cambridge (England) educated and an early follower of the Baptist faith, who should be better remembered with Roger Williams as a founding father of what is today The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. He left for England with Roger Williams. Clarke and Williams succeeded in having Coddington’s patent annulled in 1652. Williams returned to Providence, but Clarke stayed in England during Cromwell’s reign as Lord Protector and after the restoration of the monarchy (see below).
Changes in Old England
In 1642, Civil War broke out in England between King Charles I and Parliament. After four years of fighting, the Parliamentarians won and the king was imprisoned. Charles I nonetheless kept scheming with the Scots and others to regain his authority. He was eventually put on trial for treason, convicted and executed in 1649. For a few years England was called a “Commonwealth”. Then Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector. Most of the foregoing was good news to many New England colonists who had emigrated to escape enforced Anglican religious practice at home. Some returned to England. For example, Edward Winslow of the Plymouth Colony became a trusted adviser to Oliver Cromwell, and was involved in the English capture of Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655.
Massachusetts Stretches its Northern Boundary
The Massachusetts Bay Colony Charter of 1629 set the colony’s northern boundary three miles north of the Merrimack River which, it was assumed, ran from west to east. In fact, the Merrimack, looking up-river, turns sharply north about thirty-nine miles west of its mouth at Newbury (now Newburyport), or west of the present city of Lowell (see map below). This led to some unscrupulous boundary-stretching by the Massachusetts Bay authorities who decided that “three miles north” meant north of the source of the river at Lake Winnipesaukee. Such an interpretation restricted New Hampshire to its sea coast, the Merrimack River minus three miles on the south and west, the lake on the north and Maine on the east; pretty much just the southeast corner of present day New Hampshire. To be generous (to themselves) Massachusetts ran the line east from the northernmost point to the sea which meant that Massachusetts was also claiming (under its own 1629 charter) southwest Maine, from Kittery to Casco Bay. (Ultimately, Massachusetts’ New Hampshire boundary was confined to a line three miles north of the Merrimack from the mouth of the river until that river’s channel changes direction (again looking up-river) to the north, at which point the Massachusetts-New Hampshire boundary runs pretty much due west, but this wasn’t settled until 1741 when New Hampshire got its own royal governor entirely independent of Massachusetts.)
The Bay Colony absorbs New Hampshire and Maine
In the early 1640s, Massachusetts extended its jurisdiction to take in the four New Hampshire towns. This was not done by force or against great opposition, as many in these towns welcomed the stronger government provided by their southern, more populous neighbor. The four New Hampshire towns of Dover, Exeter, Hampton and Portsmouth, plus Salisbury and Haverhill in eastern Massachusetts (Amesbury was added later) were lumped together as Norfolk County, Massachusetts. When New Hampshire became a royal colony in 1679, those three Massachusetts towns were attached to Essex County, Massachusetts, and Old Norfolk County ceased to exist.
In the early 1650s, Massachusetts sent commissioners into the Maine settlements working from the Piscataqua eastward, picking off the nearer and then the farther settlements until all from Kittery to Casco or Falmouth submitted to its rule. Some consolidation of the various settlements described above took place so that Massachusetts’ jurisdiction now covered six towns: Kittery, York, Wells, Saco, Scarborough and Falmouth.
The English Restoration and the New England Colonies
After Oliver Cromwell’s death in 1658, his son Richard (nicknamed “Tumbledown Dick”) was unable to maintain the Protectorate. Disorder and even chaos ensued as the social fabric unraveled, and in 1660, Charles I’s eldest son was invited to take the throne as Charles II. Thus, the English Monarchy was restored.
The Restoration caused the New England colonies to examine their legal status. Connecticut, which lived under no royal authority, sent John Winthrop, Jr. to England where he secured a charter in 1662, the boundaries of which included the New Haven Colony. Many in that small colony did not like the idea of being swallowed by their larger neighbor, but after the English took New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1664, and Charles II granted New York as a proprietorship to his brother James, a Roman Catholic, and set the eastern boundary of the colony at the Connecticut River, being part of a larger Connecticut Colony no longer seemed to be such a bad idea!
Recall that Rhode Island’s John Clarke stayed in England after the Coddington patent was annulled. This enabled him to defend against Connecticut’s attempt to set its eastern boundary at Narragansett Bay. Clarke did not have contacts in the new royal government as did Winthrop, but his patient persistence produced a new (1663) royal charter in the name of “The Governor and Company of the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in New England in America.” In his correspondence with the royal authorities Clarke had pointed out that the residents of the colony “have it much in their hearts (if they may be permitted) to hold forth a lively experiment, that a flourishing civil state may stand, yea, and best be maintained … with a full liberty in religious concernments…” The “lively experiment” under the charter endured until 1843!
The Regicides in New England
Charles I had been condemned to death in 1649 by a warrant signed by fifty-nine of the judges who sat at his trial. These 59 were known as “Regicides” and many were not granted amnesty at the time of the restoration. Indeed, they were hunted down and some executed by the quaint English practice of hanging, drawing and quartering (this jolly ceremony started with a dragging to the place of execution, then a brief hanging – just enough to keep you alive for the next act which was disembowelment. Then, and only then, your head was chopped off, arms and legs were similarly detached, and if you were important, your head was displayed on a pike in some prominent place).
Well, three of the Regicides decided to leave England and thereby avoid the vengeance of the restored Crown. They were Edward Whalley, a cousin of Oliver Cromwell and a Lieutenant General in the Commonwealth Army, his son-in-law William Goffe, a Major General, and John Dixwell, a Colonel. Whalley and Goffe sailed to Boston in the summer of 1660. When instructions came from England to apprehend the fleeing Regicides, they decided to move from the place where they had been seen and welcomed. They next went to New Haven where some efforts were made to find them, for a while found shelter in a cave, and eventually spent the remainder of their lives in the western Massachusetts town of Hadley, on the Connecticut River. An apocryphal tale, too good to be true, involves an attack upon Hadley during King Philip’s War (see below) when an aged, white-haired, white-bearded man whom no one knew, rallied the townspeople and led a successful defense against the Indian attack. He then disappeared, not to be seen again. This is the story of “The Angel of Hadley” said to have been William Goffe – a great yarn, but unfortunately just that!
Dixwell also went to New Haven and there led a surprisingly normal life in a home he inherited from an elderly widow whom he married just months before she died. He remarried at a late age and raised a family. His son became a noted silversmith in eighteenth century Boston and a descendant of one of his daughters (Fanny Dixell) was the wife of Oliver Wendell Holmes (the younger) the US Supreme Court Justice.
First Attempts at Royal Control: The 1664 Commission
The new royal government sent four commissioners to New England in 1664. Colonel Richard Nichols was chief, joined by Robert Carr, George Cartwright and Samuel Maverick. Maverick had earlier settled in the Boston area before the arrival of the Winthrop fleet, but soon objected to the authoritarian practices of the new colony and returned to England. Nichols did not spend much time in New England, but immediately sailed south with four warships and took New Amsterdam (renamed New York) from the Dutch without firing a shot. The other three commissioners met with civil treatment in Plymouth, Rhode Island and Connecticut, but were continually obstructed, harassed and treated with disrespect in Massachusetts. In Maine, the commissioners met with temporary success, setting up a royal government of eleven justices of the peace in spite of Massachusetts orders forbidding colonists to attend the courts and assemblies called by the commissioners. This settlement might have lasted, but a series of catastrophes in England: the London plague of 1665, the London great fire of 1666 and war with the Dutch, turned the royal government’s attention inward. In 1668, Massachusetts returned to Maine in force, the royal settlement collapsed, and Maine came again under Massachusetts rule.
Massachusetts Boundary Claims Dismissed, but Maine Purchased
The 1670s saw renewed interest in corralling the arrogant independence of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Edward Randolph was sent to report on violations of the Navigation Acts and other misdeeds of the Puritan commonwealth. The royal Privy Council and the Committee for Trade and Plantations received these reports. Massachusetts agents were required to testify before these bodies and were not allowed to plead limitations on testimony because of their instructions from home. Two chief justices considered the expanded Massachusetts boundary claims and found them “imaginary”, thus denying Massachusetts’ right to New Hampshire and Maine under the 1629 Massachusetts Bay Colony Charter. However, the crafty Puritans maintained control of Maine by purchasing the Gorges interest through a straw man named Usher who then conveyed his interest to Massachusetts.
III Colonial Wars in New England
The great majority of seventeenth century buildings existing today are in what was the Massachusetts Bay Colony. I have but two from the Plymouth Colony, two from Connecticut, five from Rhode Island, and only one from north of the present Massachusetts border. This imbalance is partly because Massachusetts Bay had, by far, the largest population and therefore more houses and public buildings. However, the imbalance was also the product of almost persistent warfare on the frontier at the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth century. New Hampshire and Maine were part of the frontier in the 1690s and the first two decades of the eighteenth century. The French in New France (now Quebec) obtained considerable influence over the Abenaki Indians of northeastern New England largely through the missionary work of French clergy. When war between England and France was declared in Europe, the Indians were encouraged to attack the outlying English settlements. The first of these frontier wars was King William’s War (1689-97) during which many settlements were attacked by French and Indian war parties and burned to the ground. Cocheco or Dover New Hampshire was savagely attacked in June, 1689, when many garrison houses were burned and the aged Richard Waldron tortured and killed. Salmon Falls, (now Rollinsford, New Hampshire) and Falmouth (now partly Portland), Maine were attacked in 1690. York, Maine, was totally destroyed in a winter attack in 1692. Oyster River (Durham) New Hampshire was attacked in the summer of 1694. By the end of King William’s War, the eastern Maine towns had ceased to exist; only Kittery, York and Wells remained.
There were more French and Indian attacks along the Maine frontier during Queen Anne’s war (1703-1713), including an attack on Wells in 1703. In the 1720s, there was a brief outbreak of fighting not related to a European conflict known as “Dummer’s War” (for William Dummer, acting governor of Massachusetts). These conflicts had a devastating effect not only on the built environment, but in discouraging settlement and development.
Southern New England, too, suffered from Indian warfare unconnected with a European conflict. In 1675, Metacomet (called King Philip), the younger son of Massasoit, the Wampanoag Chief who had aided the Pilgrims, led a coalition of Indian tribes against settlers, towns and farms in southeastern Massachusetts, Plymouth and Rhode Island. The conflict spread to western parts of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Connecticut with considerable fighting in the Connecticut River Valley. Fighting died down after King Philip was shot and killed in late 1676, but an Indian war in Maine with the Abenakis continued until 1678.
The later conflicts toward the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century came at a time when population had increased, towns expanded and more buildings were available as targets for destruction. Had there been better relations between the English settlers and the Indians with less provocation from the French, we might have some fine seventeenth century houses in New Hampshire and Maine which we could enjoy today. As it is, we have only the Richard Jackson House (1664) in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The McIntire Garrison House, about five miles west of the center of York, previously thought to be seventeenth century, has been more accurately dated to the first decade of the eighteenth century. The Woodman Institute in Dover, New Hampshire has a seventeenth century garrison house under a protective structure where is has stood since 1916.
New England Fights Back
The first two wars between the New England colonies and the French and their Indian allies – King William’s War (1689-97) and Queen Anne’s War (1703-13) have been mentioned above. The third such war, part of the European conflict known as The War of Austrian Succession and called King George’s War in the colonies, began in 1744 with the French destruction of the New England fishing station at Canso (or Canseau for the French) at the narrow body of water separating Nova Scotia from Cape Breton Island. The attack was launched from the Fortress of Louisbourg at the outer end of that island (called Ile Royale by the French). The French also attacked the town of Annapolis Royal on the Bay of Fundy (on the inner coast of Nova Scotia), but reinforcements sent by Massachusetts Governor William Shirley thwarted the French plans.
Louisbourg had also stung British and colonial commerce as the fort was a haven for French privateers (pirates blessed with government authority to raid the enemy in time of war) who prayed on fishing and commercial vessels. There were many prisoners taken by these sea wolves who were held in the fortress. Provisions there were low, so the French authorities were obliged to release prisoners whom they could not feed. Many of these men returned to their New England homes well able to describe the physical facilities and condition of the French troops at Louisbourg. One of these men was ship’s Captain Peter Harrison, later to be a distinguished amateur architect, who supplied Massachusetts Governor Shirley with a map of Louisbourg and surroundings which Harrison had drawn.
History does not clearly tell us who first came up with the idea of an attack upon Louisbourg, but to many engaged in sea-going commerce such an idea had strong appeal. Shirley pushed hard to get the Massachusetts Bay Province General Court to authorize and fund such a plan. The Massachusetts governor also wrote colonial authorities as far south as Pennsylvania for aid with the proposed attack.
The plan barely squeaked through the General Court, but Connecticut, New Hampshire and the Maine district of Massachusetts contributed substantially to outfitting and manning the expedition which sailed from Boston Harbor in March, 1745 under the command of William Pepperell of Kittery Point, Maine. Two essential elements of a successful siege of a maritime fortress were lacking: naval support and siege cannon of large caliber. The former was supplied by Commodore Peter Warren’s squadron from the West Indies, and the latter by the French themselves who abandoned a substantial armed outpost (bastion) of Louisbourg with an ample supply of heavy siege guns.
Warren’s squadron captured French men of war trying to supply the garrison, French morale was very low and the fort surrendered in June, 1745. This victory was quite a feather in the cap of the New England militia, but the fort was returned to the French at the end of the war and had to be re-conquered by English generals Amherst and Wolfe in 1758.
The last French and Indian war, actually called and known by most Americans as The French and Indian war (or the Seven Years’ War), ended shortly after Quebec fell in 1759 with the deaths of French General Montcalm, and English General James Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham west of Quebec City. This victory and the subsequent fall of Montreal made Canada English, but only temporarily ended the destruction of towns and farms built in early New England. During the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), Falmouth, Maine (now, partly, Portland) was set afire by the British in 1775, as was New London, Connecticut in 1781 by British forces under the command of Benedict Arnold, the Traitor, who was a native son of Connecticut. The Joshua Hempsted House (See web page “17th Century New England; Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire”), fortunately escaped the traitor’s torch.
IV The Development of “Georgian” Architecture
After the first quarter of the eighteenth century, the New England colonies collectively had some history under the belt and were settled-in a bit. There were now royal governors and lesser officials from the home country, and British
fashions came in close contact with building styles in the colonies. The medieval or post-medieval tradition (see, for example, web page “17th Century New England; Massachusetts”) brought over with the early colonists faded into the more “up-to-date” classically ornamented Renaissance-influenced decorative features. Even simple houses took on a little pomp by adding a pair of pilasters, an entablature and a pediment over the front door.
The new, classical style evolved over the eighteenth century, becoming more ornate and sophisticated as the century progressed. Eighteenth century New England colonial architectural styles are collectively and loosely referred to as “Georgian” after the English kings George I (1714-1727), II (1727-1760), and III (1760-1820). There are examples of public buildings such as the Old State House in Boston, Massachusetts, and Colony House in Newport, Rhode Island; churches and meeting houses such as the First Church of Christ in Wethersfield, Connecticut, another of the same name in Farmington, Connecticut, Old North Church, Old South Meeting House and King’s Chapel in Boston, to mention a few, but most prolific is the domestic architecture from the four New England states which were colonies (Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire). Maine, while originally an independent proprietorship under the Gorges patent, came under the jurisdiction of Massachusetts in the 1650s as described above, and was later incorporated in the Province of Massachusetts Bay under the 1691 charter, somewhat like the tail incorporating the elephant as Maine is almost four times the size of Massachusetts (when both are sized using modern boundaries). Vermont was not a colony, nor one of the original thirteen states (Vermont was the first state admitted under the new constitution in 1791), but was, in colonial times, contested by New Hampshire and New York. Many grants of townships west of the Connecticut River (the westerly boundary of New Hampshire) were made by New Hampshire Governor Benning Wentworth (governor from 1741 to 1766). These were known as “The New Hampshire Grants”, and one of them, Bennington, Vermont, bears his name today.
Portsmouth, New Hampshire, has some fine examples of elegant Georgian styling: Earliest, the MacPheadris-Warner House (1716); also the Wentworth-Gardner House (1760) and the Moffatt-Ladd House (1763). (These houses may be seen on web page “18th Century New Hampshire”) Portsmouth is richly endowed with Georgian architecture – perhaps not as ornate as the three just mentioned, but plentiful enough to give early parts of the city a real colonial flavor.
Out of the cities we find a quieter application of Georgian features, such as are seen at the Parson Barnard House in North Andover, Massachusetts ( See “18th Century Massachusetts”), the Jonathan Trumbull House, in Lebanon, Connecticut (“18th Century Connecticut and Rhode Island”), and the Old Parsonage in Newington, New Hampshire (“18th Century New Hampshire”). But the Sayward-Wheeler House in York Harbor, Maine, for elegance, belies its rural location (“18th Century Maine and Vermont”).
A few typical Georgian features will provide an introduction to that style of architecture:
The front door is no longer just a simple rectangle of vertical planks held together by horizontal or diagonal supports called battens, but is more often surrounded by a package of purely decorative features – the pilaster (like the face of a column) frames the sides with the top bearing one of the classical forms, Corinthian, Ionic or Doric. Then comes an entablature which is a series of horizontal sections of different height sometimes flat, sometimes rounded, very much like what sits atop the columns of a Greek or Roman temple. The top section is the cornice, and it will often be decorated on the under-side by wood blocks called modillions. On top of this is usually found a pediment which sounds like it should be at the foot, but is on the top. Pediments are angular, like an inverted “V” or segmental – rounded like a segment or part of a circle. Inside the pediment, look out for more modillions.
New forms of roof made their appearance. Typical of the seventeenth century was the gable – a steep-pitched roof terminating in a ridge running along the top from end to end. The gambrel roof, having two slopes, the upper being modified or flatter thus cutting down on the height of the peak, became popular in eighteenth century New England. The John Paul Jones house in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (“18th Century New Hampshire” page 2). has a gambrel roof as does the Joseph Webb House in Wethersfield, Connecticut (“18th Century Connecticut and Rhode Island” page 2) and the White Horse Tavern in Newport, Rhode Island, (“18th Century Connecticut and Rhode Island” page 3).
The more pretentious houses often sported the hipped roof with slopes on all four sides, usually liberally punctuated with elaborate dormers. See the Wentworth-Gardner House and its neighbor, the Tobias Lear house in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (“18th Century New Hampshire” and same, page 2), and Hamilton House in South Berwick, Maine (“18th Century Maine and Vermont”).
The center chimney continued to be popular, but more elaborate homes will be found to have end chimneys or chimneys on all four corners.
The hung-sash window with wooden muntins or frames for the glass panes, common to this day, replaced the vertically hung casement window.
If you were building a very fancy house, say around 1755, you might be tempted to add quoins: wood blocks at the corner of the façade, or to have the façade “rusticated” to look like masonry or stone using panels of wood having beveled or
recessed joints. The most dramatic example of this treatment is the west façade of the Royall House in Medford, Massachusetts (“18th Century Massachusetts” page 5). The Wentworth-Gardner House in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (just cited above), which is replete with Georgian decorative features, displays quoins and a rusticated façade, while the sides revert to the ubiquitous wood clapboard. The Vernon House in Newport, Rhode Island has a rusticated wood exterior (“18th Century Connecticut and Rhode Island” page 3).
Most building was done by builders or housewrights using builders’ guides such as James Gibbs Book of Architecture (1728) and Batty Langley’s many publications such as The City and Country Builder’s and Workman’s Treasury of Designs (1740) which told how to correctly reproduce just about any feature you might want in or on your house. Such work was done without the aid of formal architects although there were some “de facto” self-trained architects such as Richard Munday in Newport Rhode Island who was responsible for Trinity Church and Colony House in that city.
The most renowned of these self-trained architects was Peter Harrison – again from Newport (but originally from Eastern Yorkshire, England), who designed the Redwood Library, the Touro Synagogue and the Brick Market in Newport, and King’s Chapel, Boston, Christ Church, Cambridge, and probably Shirley Place, Roxbury, in Massachusetts. Tragically, Peter Harrison left Newport for New Haven, Connecticut, where he became royal collector of customs just before the outbreak of the American Revolution; very bad timing, indeed. He died in April, 1775, but apparently death did not end the quest for vengeance of the “patriot” mob which sacked his home that fall, destroying his books and architectural records.
Emergence of the Federal Style
In the very late eighteenth century architectural features were refined. Decorative elements in particular were presented with delicacy and a lighter touch. No words can describe the style better than perhaps its finest example and arguably the most beautiful building in the new United States of America – The Massachusetts State House, designed by Boston architect Charles Bulfinch, begun in 1795. You will find quite a few images of this architectural treasure in the web page “18th Century Massachusetts” page 2.
This essay is about the history and architecture of colonial New England, but as architectural styles did not change with the calendar, so they did not cease to be “colonial” or “Georgian” with the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the end of
the Revolutionary War in 1783, or the first administration under the new constitution in 1789. There are thus examples of “colonial” styles dating from close to the end of the eighteenth century such as Hamilton House in South Berwick, Maine, Rocky Hill Meeting House, Amesbury, Massachusetts, Rockingham Meeting House, Rockingham, Vermont and the Phelps-Hatheway House in Suffield, Connecticut. “Colonial” buildings dating from the early nineteenth century include the Old First Church, Bennington, Vermont, and the First Church Roxbury (Boston), Massachusetts. Sometimes buildings in the federal style are lumped together with Georgian buildings as “colonial”.
A Note About Content: The above discussion of colonial architecture and this web site are not intended to be a comprehensive presentation of historic buildings of colonial New England. Such a work would require many web pages. Criteria for inclusion here have been three-fold: historic and architectural significance, the photogenic quality of the site, and usually (with a few exceptions), public access to the site. The writer hopes that readers will use this work as a platform for launching their own exploration of Historic Colonial New England. He also hopes that his friends in the architectural community will smile graciously upon the attempts of a layman to define sometimes arcane architectural terms in simple “everyday” words.
Copyright WW Owens 2014