LETTER: What the Delta Saw: A (slightly) Irreverent and Rambling History of Watertown Square (Parts 1 & 2)

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Photo by Chuck Dickinson “Charles River, Watertown”

By Linda Scott
Watertown Resident

Part 1: A River Runs Through It

I’m not going to lie to you folks. I started out intending to write a brief history of our Delta, and that’s where the trouble began. I got majorly sidetracked. So many different issues that played into this, and so many ways to approach it! But in the end, I decided that it all started with a river, the source of life for all creatures that inhabited what is now called “Watertown.”

In the beginning, this land was inhabited by the Massachusett people, Native Americans. They were settled in Nonantum, in present day Newton and in Pigsgusset, now called Watertown. The Watertown tribe was called the Pequossettes.

I believe, not being a Native American, that I have no right to speak for them and will not attempt to do so out of respect for them and their culture. What I can do is relate some specific passages that are written in our own English Watertown and New England history about our interactions with them and some of their contributions.

To keep this relatively short (for those of you who’ve read things I’ve written before, now would be a good time to laugh), I’ll point you to some websites and videos along the way that will give you a more in-depth look at certain things, if you’re interested.

So, back to the river. Around 1614, Captain John Smith of Jamestown explored and mapped the coast of New England. He called the river the Massachusetts, after the native people. The Native Americans called the river “Quinobequin,” which we think comes from the word “quinnuppe,” which means “it turns.”

When Smith showed his map to then Prince Charles, Charles took a look and changed any names he wanted to English names. Prince Charles, modestly, called this river “The Charles River.” This is one version of the story. The other is that Smith named it after Prince Charles himself, hoping to curry favor.

It is no wonder that the telling of a tale can have two endings with Smith. He was a notorious historic figure who, it is alleged, had problems with the truth.

See https://research.colonialwilliamsburg.org/foundation/journal/smith.cfm for a long and very
unflattering portrait of the man.

Also see: https://www.youtube.com/shorts/lzBVIrNFdY4 for a very short rap synopsis of his life.

So, back to the river again. The Charles River is an 80 mile long meandering river. It starts out in Hopkinton at Echo Lake and twists and winds its way toward Boston, going through 23 cities and towns until it gets to the sea.

When the English first arrived, the Charles River was a tidal river that flowed into an estuary in the Charles River Basin. It was surrounded by hundreds of acres of salt marshes and mudflats.

What the Charles River Basin looked like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CXbkkkUSljE.

Back then, two times a day, salt water from the Atlantic Ocean would come in on tides as high as 9 feet to mix with the fresh water in the Charles River coming from Hopkinton. Then the salt water would recede, leaving marshes and the river still running through them. This process went as far inland as Watertown Square.

As Roger Thompson writes of the Charles River in Divided We Stand, “In the spring it teemed with fish; in the summer, it swarmed with mosquitos. At low tide its intensive mud- and mollusk-banks stood exposed. It was a far cry from the carefully controlled and channeled waterpark of today.”

Next: Part 2: Watertown’s First Settlers, or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Part 2: Watertown’s First Settlers, or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

First, from The Charles, by Arthur Bernon Tourtellot: Not all who came from England were Puritans. Many were adventurers and businessmen. Many people expanded out from Boston because they weren’t happy to replace “the tyranny of the king with the tyranny of the brethren.” Amongst the Puritans were adventurers and businessmen here to make their fortunes.

An account of the first settlers of Watertown can be found in Crossroads on the Charles, by Maud de Leigh Hodges. Basically, there was a race to settle Watertown by several groups. John (mad Jack) Oldham, a trader who had been banished from the Plymouth Colony for being a troublemaker, had bought an old land claim inheritance granted by a former king. The Massachusetts Bay Colony, led by John Winthrop, had a land grant from the current king, King Charles I, for that same land.

This Massachusetts Bay Colony group originally moved to Salem, but because many settlers weren’t happy there and perhaps they got word that John Oldham was making a move on Watertown, which they viewed as their own land, a group of settlers was sent to claim Watertown.

But before the Salem people could get there, a small group of settlers came, perhaps at the connivance of John Oldham, to settle near where the Perkins School is now and get there first. They were called “The Dorchester Men,” because they came from Dorchester, England. Their leader was Roger Clapp (or Clap).

The Dorchester men are the ones pictured on the Watertown seal exchanging food with the Native Americans. Ironically, the group on our seal left soon after arriving, because the much larger group with the more recent claim arrived from Salem.

Photo Courtesy of Watertown Free Public Library

They also were given the incentive to move by John Winthrop, then the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who suggested that they move to another plot of land in what is now called “Dorchester” that would be better for grazing their cattle.

So, in July 1630, Sir Richard Saltonstall, of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, with about 40 men, settled the area by Mt. Auburn Hospital, which was then part of Watertown.

It is speculated by Thompson that the western movement of town activity closer to the falls probably happened around the mid 1630’s.

Ironically, according to Hodges, Saltonstall was not fond of all of the rules that he was obliged to obey in his new home in Watertown. He was fined several times for offenses like whipping people without another person present and not showing up for court.

In a further description of Saltonstall, Tourtellot says in his book, The Charles, “As the Charles had lured John Smith, it captivated the fancy also of Sir Richard Saltonstall, an enlightened man, who was hauled into court as defendant and went there as plaintiff more often than any other man in Massachusetts Bay.”

In March 1631, Sir Richard returned to England after one year in Watertown, leaving behind his sons and a settlement which was first called “the Saltonstall Plantation” and is now called “Watertown.” According to Hodges, Watertown is loosely named after Saltonstall’s grandfather’s village in Yorkshire, England, “Waterton.”

This name is disputed by Convers Francis, a famous Watertown Congregational Church minister in his 1830 book, An Historical Sketch of Watertown. In this book, he puts forward the idea that it was named for the river and the many streams in Town.

There’s a General Court ruling about the Watertown fish weir that states, “The towne of Waterton shall have the previledge and interest in the wayre they have built along the Charles.” If it was originally called Waterton, the question is, when did that change to Watertown?

As for John Oldham, after the rough start, he managed to achieve a certain degree of power (and land) in Watertown. Not too long after that, he met with a tragic end.

Here is a video about the Anglo-Pequot War, where John Oldham was killed in 1636:

The settlers recognized the wealth of resources from the Charles River. In 1632 the General Court under John Winthrop, authorized the construction of a weir on the Charles at the fall line in Watertown, which marked just where the tidal river ended.

Here’s a simple video of someone building a fish weir. (They could be made out of sticks or stones, using the same principles): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vcy9mp0p7o

The Native Americans had a very long history of creating fish weirs of their own, (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boylston_Street_Fishweir for a fascinating story of thousands of Native American weirs going back 1,500 years that were found in the Charles River Basin). The Native Americans asked for permission to fish at the newly erected weir. Watertown’s answer: “Since English settlement along the Charles River, state and local governments have regulated Charles River fishing rights. In 1632, Governor Winthrop granted Watertown inhabitants the right to build a fish weir. The weir was held in private shares until it was purchased by the town in 1671, apparently to prevent its use by local Indigenous populations.” (Town of Watertown Fish Warden’s Records 1780-1826)

On the south side of the Charles, near the weir, was about a 75 acre area called “weirland.” After thousands of fish were caught, according to Hodges, “Here the fish were distributed for fertilizer, laid out to dry, or salted in barrels for shipment to England.”

As Watertown deprived the Native Americans of any opportunity to fish by keeping the fish weir and the mill dam and millrace to themselves, they were cutting off fish to upstream communities. As more people moved into those communities, the louder the complaints got.

In 1738 the towns of Medfield, Natick Needham, Newton, Sherburne and Weston all complained about Watertown’s blocking fish from swimming upstream. By 1798, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts granted Watertown the right to “regulate the taking of fish called shad and alewives” within their town boundaries.

There was a catch to this, however. Watertown was to use the profits from caught fish to maintain the Watertown Bridge. (see Part 4, The Bridges of Watertown Square).

They regulated fishing and hired fish wardens to keep track of who was fishing and how much they caught. But by the 1850’s fishing had ceased to be a profitable endeavor, since pollution in the river was starting to take its toll.

Finishing up, let’s just for a minute, describe what we know today of the value of these fish, the alewives, that swim upstream to spawn. Here’s a video of some Maine alewives heading upriver to spawn. It includes a discussion of the ecological importance of these fish: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5uPC3b_3Sg.

Also, A Watertown News article on the history of the dam in Watertown Square: https://www.watertownmanews.com/2023/07/29/our-history-the-falls-and-dam-at-watertown/

Next: Part 3: Grist for the Mill

9 thoughts on “LETTER: What the Delta Saw: A (slightly) Irreverent and Rambling History of Watertown Square (Parts 1 & 2)

  1. Bravo Linda Scott. What a great bit of writing and with interesting links to follow up on.
    I appreciate your observation that the written history, of people and land, may interpreted differently depending on weather some people can be believed or not.

  2. Linda, I enjoyed reading these two parts of your letter and look forward to the next one. Thank you for your extensive research in order to provide these facts. It is interesting to see how Watertown has ‘evolved’, but in some cases has repeated the errors of its past.

    With many people attempting to control so many different parts of our lives and situations in our society now, these words from Part 2 especially stood out to me:
    “Many people expanded out from Boston because they weren’t happy to replace “the tyranny of the king with the tyranny of the brethren.”

    Could this be why Massachusetts and many of its cities are now losing thousands of residents each year? Me thinks so!

    The Boston Tea Party in 1773 (a mere 250 years ago) arose due to issues of unfair taxes without true representation. Have we learned anything from that history?

    Yet we are now looking at removing the dam in the Charles River to once again allow the fish to swim upstream. Maybe we have learned some things from our past.

    Teaching, keeping and not erasing our history is important.

    • Apparently “tyranny” is when you don’t like something government does. That was not the original definition as mentioned in this article at all.

    • Thanks, Joan. As always, you put a lot of thought into what you write. Your point of view is yours, and you own it. Thanks for adding your voice to this conversation!

  3. Thank you, Yasmina. I’ve read your comments before in Watertown News, and they’re always well thought out and well written!

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