The following article was written in 1984 by Bernard Wideman for the Ipswich Chronicle 350th Anniversary edition, and is based on the book “In English Ways,” by David Grayson Allen, published in 1981:
by BERNARD WIDEMAN
John Dane was a young man in Essex County, part of the East Anglian region east of London, in 1630 when people in that region began talking about emigrating to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The East Anglian region was an industrial and commercial area, with woolen mills whose produce was shipped all over Europe — much of it through the port of Ipswich, a town in Suffolk County.
Dane himself was part of the industrial and commercial revolution, being a journeyman tailor. Like many in East Anglia, and other parts of England, he was also a Puritan— a purist among the followers of the Church of England (Anglican Church), believing in literal interpretation of the Bible and local control in religious matters, instead of the strong church hierarchy of the Church of England.
Dane would join with other Puritans on Sundays and listen to the noted Puritan pastors of the day expound on the Bible and on the autonomy of local parishes. The parishes. especially in the Puritan-influenced districts of England, had come to replace the feudal manors as the local governing bodies, much to the discomfort of the Church of England hierarchy when church control also became localized.
One of the ministers Dane listened to was John Norton. So influenced was he by the man, that when Norton decided to emigrate to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Dane decided to go along with him. They first went to Roxbury, and then on to Ipswich, which had been colonized in 1633 and incorporated as a town in 1634. Following their son’s emigration, Dane’s parents and brothers also left Essex and emigrated to Ipswich. (Read: The Temptations of John Dane)
Many of the early settlers here had similar tales to tell: They knew someone who was going to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and decided to tag along. In just a few decades of the 1600s, 20,000 people had made their way to the new colony, begun in 1620 when 102 Pilgrims, including a handful of Puritans, landed in Plymouth.
John Winthrop, lord of Groton manor in Suffolk County, was responsible for much of the emigration, leaving with a number of vessels for Salem in 1630. He complained that Suffolk was overpopulated, causing economic hardship, and called for people to go with him to “the new country.” And it was Winthrop who sent his son, John Winthrop Jr., with a dozen men in 1633 to settle Ipswich, known as Agawam to the local Indians.
The East Anglian folk who settled Ipswich did not suffer so much in their original homeland from persecution for their religious beliefs as did the English settlers who came to neighboring Rowley. The people who settled Rowley in 1639 were from Yorkshire — north of London — and were led by the preacher Ezekiel Rogers, who used to preach the Puritan beliefs in the town of Rowley, Yorkshire. In Yorkshire, being a conservative, non-commercial farming district, the Church of England was still strong. as were the old laws of the feudal manor, and Rogers and his followers were in trouble. He was excommunicated from the Anglican Church and emigrated, together with his followers — hardy young farmers, mostly between the ages of 18 and 33.
The East Anglian merchants and industrial workers and commercial farmers who came to Ipswich, on the other hand, were older, and left their homeland as much for economic reasons as religious reasons. The cloth trade, on which the East Anglian economy depended, had been depressed for the better part of two decades, and the poor were filling up the towns. Industrial workers were hard-pressed to find jobs, and merchants saw their business dwindle. The decline in industry and commerce also affected farmers adversely, as demand for their wool and other agricultural products declined.
Thus, the settlers who came to Ipswich included merchants, industrial workers, and farmers — all seeking improvement in their declining economic condition. Along with them, however, as noted, did come serious Puritans seeking a place where they could preach and live the beliefs of their sect.
Aside from John Norton and his followers, there was the famous preacher Nathaniel Ward, the first minister of the First Church in Ipswich. Ward had been rector of the parish of Stondon Massey, Essex, and when he left that town, he led a group of parishioners, including some of the most successful farmers in the area. They, too, settled in Ipswich.
But most of the Ipswich immigrants were middle or lower class people, unlike the relatively well-off farmers of Rowley. However, if the rank and file among the Ipswich settlers were middle or lower class, the seven selectmen who governed the town were anything but.
By 1640, there were over 200 families in Ipswich. Of these original settlers, 170 were still in town in 1660, and inventories by 82 heads of households at that time indicate that 8 percent of the these early settlers owned 50 percent of the wealth of the town —- that is, land, houses, cattle and other possessions. The bottom half of the socio-economic scale — that is the lower 50 percent of the population — owned only 12 percent of the wealth of the town, while the remaining 38 percent of the town’s wealth was owned by the middle class, made up of 42 percent of the population. The male population was divided by rank into “inhabitants,” such as carpenters (there were over a dozen among the early settlers), “commoners,” those who had rights to graze their cattle on the town common, and “freemen,” the upper class.
Selectmen were wealthy
It was only the freemen who were allowed to vote for selectmen. And therefore it is no surprise that the selectmen were all much more wealthy than the average Ipswich settler. The men who ruled the town between 1636 and 1687 mostly served from six to 19 years on the Board of Selectmen. Additionally, 25 percent of the selectmen were related to one another. The selectmen had an average wealth of about 2,000 pounds, three times more than the average person in town. The wealthiest man in town. Robert Paine, was elected town treasurer, among the early settlers. He held the office until he died.
The form of government adopted by the settlers — that is town meeting/ selectmen — was familiar to all, having been the form used in the towns of Suffolk as the manorial system broke down. What was unusual for settlers in Ipswich was not political or religious freedom (since there was not any more of these freedoms in Ipswich than there had been in East Anglia) so much as economic freedom of opportunity. Though the poor and middle classes were effectively kept from political power by the “freemen” controlling the political process (and all residents were taxed to pay for the town church), all settlers were able to take part in economic opportunity. And Ipswich was a thriving center of economic expansion.
In fact, Ipswich was second to Boston in terms of wealth, as reflected in the assessments and levies by the General Court of Massachusetts. This status continued until the mid-18th century. By 1765, however, according to the colonial census, Ipswich had declined to number nine in size among Massachusetts towns.
The early settlers in Ipswich, commercial men that they were, actively promoted trade and commerce. At the first town meeting, in 1634, it was decided to establish a “committee for furthering trade.” It was this group’s task to set up navigation beacons on prominent points of land, set out buoys, and collect sufficient supplies so that ships could replenish their needs in town. Much of Ipswich’s commerce was in cattle, with farmers supplying the Boston area market. By 1750, there were few commercial crops grown in Ipswich, all agricultural commerce being devoted to cattle and sheep.
Captain John Smith, who had explored the New England coast prior to any serious attempts at settlement, wrote favorably of the prospects of agriculture in Agawam in his book, “A Description of New England,” published in 1616. There were, said Smith, “many rising hilles, and on their tops and descents many corne fields and delightful groves.” He also noted the abundance of marsh grass for pasture,’ ‘with many faire high groves of mulberrie trees and gardens; and there is also Okes, Pines, and other woods to make this place an excellent habitation.” So valuable was the land, that a great trade sprang up among the early settlers in real estate. By 1660,104 deeds for land sales had been recorded in Ipswich. The average parcel sold was 23 acres.
In contrast, in neighboring Rowley, there were only about 10 real estate transfers, and they averaged only 6 acres per transfer. The reason for the difference can be found in the different backgrounds of the settlers. The Rowley settlers, Yorkshiremen, from an area where feudal agricultural practices of rectangular strips divided among all commoners still prevailed, carried over the practice to their new town. The system promoted equality, with everyone sharing good and poor land equally and no animals allowed into the fields until after harvest.
Ipswich settlers were used to commercial agricultural practices in East Anglia, where feudal open fields had given way to enclosed fields, with each owner deciding what he would do with his land. The Ipswich selectmen awarded land grants on this same principle, and land owners then traded with their neighbors to further consolidate their holdings. Some land sales were quite extensive, with Richard Saltonstall purchasing 2,200 acres at one tme. The different modes of agriculture practiced in Rowley and Ipswich (that is, common fields designed for crops, as opposed to enclosed fields suitable for crops and cattle and sheep) necessitated different sizes of holdings. Whereas the Rowley sellers got by on an average grant of 23 acres, for a total of 2,200 acres among all settlers, Ipswich authorities granted 14,505 acres, in average holdings of 97 acres per settler. (Of course it must be kept in mind that the original town of Ipswich included what is now the towns of Essex, Hamilton and Topsfield.)
In commercialized Ipswich, unlike agricultural Rowley, land was not the only way to make a living. Industry and commerce were profitable, as easily seen in the case of Thomas Kimball, a landless settler who arrived before 1640. By 1655, Kimball — his occupation was not listed — was able to sell 26 acres from what he had accumulated. In his inventory of 1676, it turned out that he had accumulated 422 acres, valued at 450 pounds.
Aside from farming, there was fishing and commerce, and the allied support industries to support these trades. Shipbuilding and repair, the export of masts, and clapboards for houses, all were major industries in town. Possibly the largest industry of the longest duration was the export of marsh hay, which continued in importance right into the 20th century.
With so much wealth to be made so easily in Ipswich, it is not surprising that by 1660, with quite a few hundred settlers already living here, the town was considered crowded. The selectmen took pains to make sure that no more poor people came to town — because the town supported the poor with welfare — and they also restricted the right to pasture cattle on the town common.
Ironically, the town, which had begun with such promise of great wealth, later, in the late-18th century, fell into economic stagnation, as commerce shifted to the larger ports and as the cattle trade disappeared. The decline in commerce — and in the attendant agriculture and industry that depended on commerce — is graphically illustrated in census figures for the town. In 1790 (the first federal census), Ipswich tallied nearly 5,000 people. This number was not to be surpassed until the 20th century. In fact, by 1820, the population had shrunk by 50 percent, to 2,550. But one must keep in mind that the town itself had shrunk over the years. In 1650, the section of town known as New Meadows broke away and became part of Topsfield. The part of town known as The Hamlet became Hamilton in 1792, and the part of town called Chebacco became Essex in 1819. In 1746 a small part of Ipswich Village was annexed to Rowley, and in 1846 ten acres was added to the town of Boxford.
This economic decline did, however, have one beneficial effect for later Ipswichites: the lack of great wealth in the town after the early colonial period meant that the early 17th century houses were largely left as they were built. In neighboring towns, where 18th economic growth was more rapid, the 17th century houses were torn down to make way for grander, federalist homes. The upshot was that Ipswich is left with more 17th homes than any other town in America.