History

The Commons

From Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Volume I, Chapter 6, by Thomas Franklin Waters. (Featured image: cattle on Bush Hill, photo by Edward Darling, c 1900. You can see a steeple and a smokestack in the distance)

Common Lands and Commonage

Ownership of a house and land within the town bounds carried with it the right of pasturage in the wide domain beyond the Common Fence. This right was definitely recognized, and could be bought or sold. But the Privilege of cutting wood in the dense forests, which were included in these commons, was retained by the town.

Singularly enough the town claimed proprietorship even in the trees standing on the house lots granted to individuals, and graciously granted permission in 1634 to the grantees, to have such trees on “paying a valuable consideration for the falling of them.” In 1635, the Town ordered that “No man shall sell, lend, give or convey, or cause to be conveyed or sent out of the Town, any timber sawn or unsawn, riven or unriven upon pain of forfeiting their sum or price.” The “consent of the Town” was necessary before any timber or clapboards could be carried beyond her bounds.

The enactment of 1639 was even more stringent: “No man shall fell any timber upon the Common to make sale of, neither shall any man fell any tree for fuel without leave from the Constable under penalty of (a fine) for such tree felled for timber or firewood, and if any man shall fell timber for their own use, and remove it not from off the Commons or cleave it or saw it not within one year after the felling of it, it shall be lawful for any man to make use of the same.”

According to the vote of 1643, a special license from the Town or Seven Men (selectmen) was necessary before a white oak could be felled, and Mr. Gardiner was to give a written certificate that such license was fit. The felling of timber on Jeffrey’s Neck, Castle Neck, Hog Island, etc., was prohibited in 1650, but some clearings had been accomplished, as provision was made in 1654 for Jeffries Neck and other common lands to be “broken up and planted for English.”

Special privilege was granted the inhabitants of the Town in 1652, to fell for firewood in the swamp between Timber Hill and Bush Hill, “provided no man may take above 2 rods in breadth, and to fell all and clear as they go across the Swamp.” By the order of 1665, oaks or walnuts might not be cut without permission, but the maltsters, Capt. Appleton, Cornet Whipple and Thomas Lampson were granted liberty to fell some walnuts for their kilns in 1667, and permit was given the tanners in 1671 “to fell for their supply for Bark for there tanning, being as good Husbands for the Town as they can.”

Neither did the right of commonage involve any privilege of cultivating any portion of the commons. In 1659, twelve citizens petitioned for the privilege of planting two acres apiece in Jeffries Neck, and they agreed to sow four bushels of hay seed per acre with the last crop. Their petition was allowed and seven others were granted like privilege “if the land holds out.”

This use of the common land sprang into instant favor. The next year, fifteen men agreed to cultivate two acres apiece on Jeffries Neck for four years, and with the fifth crop plant four bushels of hayseed, and leave it to the use of the Town for common feed as before. Twenty-four men agreed to clear, and then cultivate Bush Hill and Turkey Hill for six years, on the same terms, with the added proviso, that they “shall keep up the fence one year after to let the grass get ahead.” Redroot Hill in the Hamlet was granted to eight for six years, Scott’s Hill to nine, a parcel of land at Cowkeepers Rock to six, land between Hatfield’s and Wilderness Hill to Giddings and John Andrews.

By the time the first of these tillage rights had expired, the idea of permanent individual ownership had gained general acceptance. So, in 1664, the town voted that Plum Island, Hogg Island and Castle Neck be divided to such as have the right to commonage according to law, according to the proportion of four, six and eight. Those who did not pay more than a certain amount in personal & property tax in a single country rate were to form the first division. All that did not exceed a higher amount were to form the second. Magistrates, Elders, Mr.John Rogers, and Mr. Thomas Andrews” (the schoolmaster), were to constitute the highest.

The Committee to which the task was assigned, reported in April, 1665, that there were 203 inhabitants who had right of commonage, that 28 were entitled to a double share, 70 were entitled to a share and a half, 105 were entitled to a single share, 220 single shares in all. They reported as well that there were 800 acres of marsh and upland “beside beaches and gall’d hills,” and that each single share would contain three acres. These shares were laid out, first a double share, next two one and a half shares, then three single shares beginning at the end of Plum Island towards Rowley, then on Castle Neck, including “the Pines” and Wigwam Hill. The commoners then took their shares by lot, and Cornet Whipple, Robert Lord, John Leighton and Thomas Lovel went with them to show where their land was. A full list of the shareholders was recorded, and this large section of the public domain was withdrawn from commonage forever. Large tracts of common land remained however, and the right of commonage was granted to five men in 1668 and to Thomas Giddings in 1674 by vote.

Fishermen were allowed to cut wood from the commons for house building and fuel, and each boat’s crew had leave to feed one cow on the Common (1670). Yet further privilege was granted them in 1696, when Mr. John Appleton, Mr. Andrew Diamond, and Mr. Francis Wainwright’, were “appointed and empowered a Committee to lay out the several lots that shall be desired by persons to carry on the fishing design at Jeffery’s Neck, for flakeroom and erecting stage or stages, the said lotts to run up and down the hill fronting to ye River on ye Southside.” Traces of these lots are visible in the rows of stones, on the slope of Great Neck near Little Neck. Less favor had been shown other use of common lands in 1682, when the question, “whether any commoner or inhabitant may take up and inclose land upon the common or highways, as he or they’ shall see good, for Tobacco yards and other uses,” was decided in the negative.

Finally, in the beginning of the next century, 1709, it was voted, that all the common lands be divided into “eight parts,” except what is hereafter to accommodate ancient and new commoners. These votes, we have mentioned, were all votes of the town in regularly warned town meetings. Provision was made for the carrying out of the several votes by the select men, the town constable and other public officials. It might appear that the town in its corporate capacity had supreme control.

Nevertheless, from the very beginning, the commoners, or those who had the right of commonage, met in commoners’ meeting, had their own records, and legislated with reference to all the duties and privileges of commoners. In fact, it has been affirmed by a careful student, that, in the town of Manchester, land grants made by the town were really made by the commoners acting in their capacity of commoners. In our own town, the line of distinction seems to have been drawn more definitely, yet the commoners claimed and exercised very important rights. As early as 1644, the Town Records allude to a gift by the commoners: “a plot of the Cow Common on the north side of the river containing by estimation 3244 acres, was presented unto the freemen of the town. The freemen doth give and grant unto the Inhabitants of the Town with themselves, their heirs and successors forever [viz. all such as have right to commonage] all the aforesaid Common to be improved as aforesaid.”

In 1702 they divided the common lands into large sheep pastures. These “stinted sheep walks” having been defined for each flock, the commoners voted that there should be nine flocks:

  1. “y Ram Pasture flock”
  2. “y Bush Hill”
  3. “Turners Hill”
  4. “Turkey Hill”
  5. “Bull Brook”
  6.  “ye Town flock, alias Windmill Hill flock.
  7.  “Red Root Hill or Brags & kinsman’s flock.”
  8.  “ye Farmers flock next Wenham called Whipple’s flock, alias Jobs Hill flock.”
  9.  the Chebacco flock.

It was further ordered: “Every Sheppard shall keep his flock in the limits prescribed to the particular flock he takes charge and care of, & not suffer them to straggle into other Flocks limits, on penalty of paying as a fine of two shillings and six for each time he is convicted of such his neglect: ” Each shepherd was to have a cottage near his flock, and a fold in which he was to put them at sunset, “and put them out at sun half an hour high in y’ morning day by day.” Mr. Samuel Appleton & others were to have “a flock in the Thick Woods and Pigeon Hill.”

In 1707, a division of wood, timber, etc., at Chebacco ponds, Knight’s farm, etc., was made into four parts. In 1709, the final division of the common lands was made by a Committee of the Commoners and a Committee of the Town. The town voted on January 11, 1709, “That woodland at Chebacco Ponds, that thatch banks and land above Baker’s Pond, and Samuel Perley’s, Jeffrey’s Neck and Paine’s Hill, be divided into three fifths and two fifths shares.” Voted, “That any commoner who has one or more rights and has built one or more new houses in the place of old ones, shall have only the right for a new house, which belonged to the old one.”

The list of old and new commoners, and old and new Jeffries Neck commoners was agreed on, and then into common lands were divided into eight parts:

  1.  “Convenient for Chebacco, about Chebacco pond” about 873 acres.
  2.  “Convenient for the inhabitants of the Hamlet,” about 470 acres.
  3.  “From Chebacco Pond running northwesterly, taking all the Common lands between the two lines to Cowkeepers Rock, and all that piece of Common up to the highway by Tanner Norton’s, and by the fence to the Gate by Appleton’s Mill,” about 1181 acres.
  4. “Thick Woods and Pigeon Hill.”
  5. “Beginning at Kimball’s corner. . . Warner’s or Day’s gate…” about 946 acres.
  6. “From Goodhue’s corner to Day’s corner, by the River, etc.,” about 578 acres (5 and 6 including Bush Hill and Turner’s Hill).
  7. “Turkey Hill and land about Egypt river,” 954 acres.
  8. “Toward Rowley line,” 850 acres.

The Committee proceeded to assign the commoners to their proper eighths, and each man’s right was decided as accurately as possible. Some title to Castle Neck still remained in the possession of the commoners, as appears from the vote of 21 Mar. 1726, instructing the Treasurer to execute a deed of sale or conveyance of their whole right and title in the “wood that now is, or that shall hereafter be standing, lying, or growing on any part of Castle Neck so-called beyond Wigwam Hill,” to Symonds Epes, Esq., for ten pounds sterling. The commoners relinquished their “right att Rocky Hill unto James Fuller, Ebenezer Fuller and Jabez Treadwell, they paying the sum of sixty pounds old Tenor, for ye Common use” Aug., 1745.

Unappropriated thatch banks were let each year to the highest bidder, only commoners having the right to bid. Rights and privileges in the “Gravel Pit and Clay pits” were reserved by the commoners for their use and profit. The beaches belonged to the commoners, and in 1757 they voted that “Capt. Jonathan Fellows of Cape Ann, have the liberty of all the sands lying in the Town of Ipswich for the space of one year for the sum of 2£ 13s. 4d.”

Their authority reached also to the fiats and the clams that dwelt therein, and in 1763 the vexed question of the control of the shell fishery led to the first regulation of which I am aware. The commoners voted, on July 4th, “That the Committee take care of all ye flats & clams therein, belonging to ye proprietors of ye Common lands in Ipswich & that no person or persons be allowed to dig any more clams than for their own use, & to be expended in ye Town, & that all owners of fishing vessels and Boats shall apply to one of sd. Committee for liberty to dig clams for their vessels use fare by fare, & no owners of vessel or vessels, boat or boats, shall dig more clams than shall be allowed by one or more of sd. Committee on penalty of prosecution; said Committee are to allow one Barrel of clams to each man of every vessel going to the Banks every fare, & so also in proportion to boats fishing in the Bay, and a majority of said Commoners are empowered to prosecute all offenders.”

The income accruing from these sales and leases was expended for various public uses. In 1771, £100 was voted “for the use of building a work house in the Town of Ipswich,” provided the town build within eighteen months. In 1772, £20 was voted to Wm. Dodge and others “to erect suitable land marks for the benefit of vessels outward and inward bound,” and 6s. to Anthony Loney for ringing the bell from Feb. 1771 to Feb. 1772. In 1773, £50 was voted for reading and writing schools, provided the town raise £40.

Finally, in 1788, the majority of the commoners voted, though vigorous opposition was made by the minority, to resign all their interests in lands, etc., to the town toward the payment of the heavy town debt incurred during the Revolution, the grant estimated to be worth about £600. Thus the body of commoners ceased to be but we still are reminded of the old commonage system by the “Common Fields,” so-called, in the neighborhood of the Poor Farm, and our South Common and the open lands in the centre of our town.

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