The Keeping of Cattle on Jeffreys Neck

In 17th Century Ipswich, cows would be put to pasture on the Neck in the spring, and every October they would be rounded up and herded into a pen. Farmers would pick out the cows which were theirs and head them down Jeffreys Neck Road to be collected on the mainland. This custom continued until the early 20th Century.

The town’s laws regarding land use, property rights, labor and sanitation grew from issues surrounding the keeping of livestock. In November, 1634. it was agreed that the town of Ipswich should extend westward unto the Burying Ground and eastward to the town wharf. Any land beyond these limits was held in common for the use of commoners. It was specified that “the Neck extending unto the sea shall remain for common use unto the Town forever.”

The Town voted in 1637 that “a general fence shall be made from the end of the town to Egypt River, with a sufficient fence, and also from the East end of the Town in the way to Jeffreys Neck, to be done at the charge of all those that have land within the said compass, and by them to be maintained.” Only men of the greatest sobriety and carefulness were to be given the responsible duty of viewing and overseeing the common fence.

Gathering salt marsh hay for cattle and to sell at Haymarket Square in Boston

William Fellows kept great herds of cattle on the south side the river from the 20th of April to the 20th of November. He was bound “to drive them out to feed before the sun be half an hour high, and not to bring them home before half an hour before sunset.” He was liable for all danger coming to the cattle, either by leaving them at night or during the day, and was to receive 12 pence for each cow before he took them, a shilling and sixpence fourteen days after midsummer and the rest at the end of the term in corn or money, a total of £15. Laws were established regarding this labor:

  • All herdsmen were ordered “to winde a horn before their going out.” In 1670, the town voted that every cow of the herd should wear a bell and the early morning air was loud with lowing cows, tinkling bells and the blasts from the cowherd’s horn.
  • The owners of cows were bound to provide men to relieve the cowherds every other Sabbath day. Refusal to do the service required was punishable with a fine of three shillings for each instance of neglect.
  • By order of the General Court in 1642, the “prudential ” men of each town were instructed ” to take care of such children as are set to keep cattle, and that boys and girls be not suffered to converse together so as may occasion any wanton, dishonest or immodest behavior.”

The location of this late 1800’s photo by George Dexter was identified by Peter Mulholland: “This is Great Neck about where the entrance is to Clark Beach now. The steep hills of Great Neck pastures were littered with weathered glacial rocks and boulders at the time. The photo shows the tidal flats and the beach before A B Clark blocked it off to make Clark Pond for gunning. A. B. Clark raised geese too (won an award at the Topsfield Fair in the 1880’s and was an avid sportsman). Geese were also kept on the Clark’s farm as live decoys for gunning on pond. A. B. Clark’s house (The Yacht Club) is shown in the distance with the horse and carriage barn behind it. Below the house are boat sheds and other farm buildings near the water. The upper right is grape Island. Plum Island is to its right.”

Stanley Wood provided this image of the same view today. Note the Yacht club on the horizon, same as the A.B. Clark residence in 1800s photo. Download Stanley Wood’s History of Clark Pond

Certain sections of the common lands were set apart for swine, but many of the inhabitants preferred to keep their hogs nearer home, and they were driven out into the commons to graze. This became an issue between neighbors and it was declared that “Such small pigs as are pigged after February shall have liberty to be about the Town until August 16, but if any hurt be done in house lots and gardens, the owner of the fence through which they came shall pay the damage. No hogs shall run in the streets or commons without being yoked and ringed.”

By 1640 there were 400 sheep on the Neck, with a shepherd appointed annually. With only a primitive path off the islands it was ideal for keeping livestock. The abundance of salt marsh hay was available when needed, and a business quickly sprung up shipping the hay to Boston’s Haymarket Square. Liberty was given sheep owners to “fence in about half an acre of ground there for a year to keep their sheep in at nights.”

In 1652 the town ordered “that all dung-hills lying in the streets shall be removed by the 20th of October and from that time no dung hills to be layed in the streets under penalty.” It was also ordered that “one able person out of every family shall work one day in May or June as they shall be ordered, to help clear the commons for the better keeping of sheep, upon a day’s warning. The town approved a law in 1702 that required shepherds to have cottages adjoining the sheep-walks so as to be near their flocks. It was the custom for each shepherd to put his flock in the pen every Friday afternoon, that the owners might take what they ‘needed for family use and for market.

In 1788, the majority of the commoners voted, though vigorous opposition was made by the minority, to resign all their interests in lands to the town toward the payment of the heavy town debt incurred during the Revolution, and to pay the debts of the commoners after which the body of commoners ceased to exist, but Jeffreys Great Neck Pasture was not included in the list of sales.

In 1837, the owners of rights in Great Neck organized The Proprietors of Jeffreys Neck Pasture as a business, and livestock from all parts of Essex County was sent there to graze from May through November. The Corporation built the first road from the mainland to the Neck in 1891.

By 1896 Alexander B. Clark had purchased all but four of the four hundred shares from individual proprietors and at the meeting of the Corporation in 1896 it was voted to sell Great Neck Pasture to him. The Town of Ipswich brought suit in 1903 claiming to have ownership by rights in the common lands which had been initially retained for the Commoners. The Supreme Court agreed with the town’s claim of unissued rights and ruled against Clark. In 1927 the Proprietors of Jeffreys Neck Pasture reactivated briefly in order to resolve the issue. Certain lands including Pavillion Beach were granted to the Town of Ipswich and the remainder was left in the possession of Alexander B. Clark.

Cows heading back into town in the morning on Jeffreys Neck Rd. near the intersection with Island Park Rd., before the road was raised and widened. Remnants of the stone walls on the right were are visible in the fill . The trees on the right are at Hodges Way. Photo by George Dexter, early 20th Century.
The approximate view from Jeffreys Neck Road today, near Island Park. In the background are Great Neck, Little Neck, and Steep Hill.


Further Reading:

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