New Salem — Early Settlement

Extracted from "History of the Connecticut Valley in Massachusetts, Volume II," by Louis H. Everts, 1879.

      Dec. 31, 1734, the General Court issued to 60 persons, resident in the town of Salem (now the city of Salem, Essex Co., Mass.), a grant for a township equal to six miles square, and further issued an additional grant of 4000 acres. In August, 1735, the proprietors effected an organization and located the township upon the territory now occupied by the town of New Salem. The tract was laid out in an oblong form, and extended north and south about ten miles. The additional grant above noted was annexed to the northern end of the new town, which thus became about thirteen miles in length. The town was subsequently widened by the addition to the west side of a portion of Shutesbury; in 1820 shortened at the south end by the setting off therefrom of a tract to Prescott; and further shortened in 1837 at the north end, when a tract was taken off and apportioned to Athol and Orange. Each of the tracts thus set off was three miles in length, and the length of the town was reduced to about seven miles, and made of a size and shape more convenient than before, since the distances from the original extremities to the centre entailed no little trouble to the remote residents when called to transact town business.
      Of the incidents attendant upon the early settlement of New Salem there is scarcely any chronicle except as may be gathered from uncertain traditions, which, flowing through a lapse of nearly one hundred and fifty years, become obscure.
      New Salem was founded in 1735, and received its first settler in 1737. Its history at that time and for some years after was somewhat meagre of eventful interest, save in such details as attached themselves to early settlements in general.
      Were the records of the first proprietors of New Salem obtainable, a clear and comprehensive history of the town's early settlement could be gleaned from their pages.
      But the records of the New Salem proprietors, as well as the town records, dating as late as 1855, were destroyed in a fire at New Salem Centre in 1856, and thus the only documentary evidence of how the settlement rose from obscurity, and of the names of those who were closely identified with its earliest history, has been utterly lost.
      Although the proprietors obtained their grant in 1734, and located it in 1735, they secured no settlement until the year 1737. It was no easy matter to induce settlers to locate in a vast wilderness, where no man save the Indian had ever placed his foot, and where, too, the savages still held sway, and were likely to dispute in a fierce manner the entrance of the white man. The proprietors made many unsuccessful attempts to persuade settlers to locate upon the grant, but, as before noted, they waited two years before receiving any encouragement in that direction. They even offered a premium to the one who would make the first settlement, believing that if some stout heart could be led to make the advance, others would not be slow to follow. After a patient waiting until they began to despair, they eventually obtained the pledge of Jeremiah Meacham to make the first settlement, conditioned upon a present of £10 for so doing. Meacham led the way in 1737, and settled upon the farm now occupied by Ezra Hatstat, about one mile north of the centre. He lost no time in entering upon the arduous task of clearing his land, having first hastily erected a rude log cabin, which, in view of the more pressing necessities of preparing the land for cultivation, long awaited more than such bare appointments as sufficed for actual shelter.
      This hardy pioneer was not without serious fears touching probable assaults from Indians, who, although at no time numerous in that region, were nevertheless to be dreaded, and especially so since the prospect of a settlement of the tract was likely to afford them the occasion for making that locality a more favored place for visitation than it had before been.
      Still, Meacham kept steadily to his purpose, always on the alert for approaching danger, and hopeful that other settlers would speedily follow in his train, and render mutual protection against the foe that made the life of the pioneer one of constant watching and peril, as well as careful anxiety.
      In accordance with expectation, Meacham's settlement was quickly followed by others. Amos Foster settled upon the western part of the grant, and Benjamin Stacy, who came in about the same time, upon a place about two and a half miles south of the centre, where D. V. Putnam now lives. Samuel King took up a farm about three miles from the centre, near the present village of Cooleyville, and with him came Samuel Pierce, who settled in the north. Daniel Shaw located two miles south of the centre, and two miles southeast of the latter place a Mr. Cary made a settlement about the same time.
      Amos Putnam, James Cook, and Jeremiah Ballard were like-wise settlers contemporaneous with Meacham; Ballard selecting a home about a quarter of a mile north of the present village of New Salem Centre.
      Thereafter settlers multiplied rapidly, and the proprietors were rejoiced to see how prosperity appeared to attend a venture which, long after its inception, seemed to promise anything but fortune. Here and there the wilderness began to show garden spots, where the toiling forefathers had, by the strength of right arms and the earnestness of heroic purpose, felled the giants of the forests, and caused the green earth to smile with glowing promises of bountiful harvests.
      Still, the fear of Indians and stories of their depredations near at hand caused much painful uneasiness and apprehension that there was trouble in store. To provide against such emergencies, and to afford places of general protection, two forts were built, and, in addition thereto, the meeting-house was so fortified that it could be used as an ark of temporal safety, while the cabins of many, if not all, of the settlers were provided in some way for repelling sudden savage attacks in case there was not time to reach the forts.
      Eternal vigilance was the watchword in the infant settlement; and while the farmer tilled the soil or pursued kindred occupations, he watched continually for unseen danger, and was prepared to meet it manfully. Thus, when the people attended divine worship they went armed, for no man could tell when the foe would appear; and so, amid watching and working, the community grew apace and thrived.
      Fortunately, the precautions taken by the inhabitants against the savages, in resorting to the forts at nightfall, or whenever reports, of trouble filled the air, enabled them to pass through the trying ordeal of early experiences in back-woods life without being seriously endangered or coming to harm. Many of the settlers went from time to time into the government service against the Indians in other parts of the State and did valiant work, in which not a few were called upon to make severe sacrifices, but New Salem itself escaped the horrors of Indian warfare.
      The nearest approach to an Indian depredation occurred one night when nearly all the male inhabitants of the settlement were out on a scouting expedition. Before departing they saw that the women, children, and aged men were securely housed in one of the forts, and that the fort was carefully guarded against attack. It seems, however, that a band of savages were hovering near, in hiding, and upon observing the departure of the men they emerged from their retreat shortly after, and approached the fort, thinking that, as it was guarded only by women, it would fall with them an easy capture. The women were, however, not made of ordinary material, for they were pioneers' wives, who had learned important lessons in the school of self-preservation, and, knowing how desperate emergencies required desperate remedies, knew also full well how to apply the remedies.
      One brave Amazon, who undertook the leadership, so disguised her voice, and issued orders in a loud tone to an imaginary band of men, that the savages, upon their approach to the fort, were mystified, and began to think that they must have been in error in believing the fort defenseless, since the orders they heard and the preparations evidently going forward for defense seemed to betoken the presence in the fort of many stalwart defenders. They were ready, in their cowardly, savage nature, to make war upon weak women; but armed men were foes whom they liked not; and while they were gravely discussing the unforeseen turn in affairs, a few rapid gunshots from the fort in their direction decided them, without further argument, upon precipitate flight. The coolness and bravery exhibited by the women under such trying circumstances won them a bloodless victory, and the recital now serves a useful and interesting purpose in showing, not only what the women of those days had to contend with, but how they rose to the requirements of the hour, and revealed themselves to be worthy companions of the men who took upon themselves pioneer hardships.
      With the departure of the era of Indian troubles, and the resumption in the valley of the Connecticut of the prosperous progress of early settlements, New Salem, in common with other towns, began to feel the encouraging influences of peace, and moved onward in the scale of material advancement, reaping gratifying results at every stride.
      One of the earliest physicians of whom tradition tells was Dr. Joseph Goldthwaite, whose field of practice covered a wide extent of territory, and who was a man of considerable note abroad as well as at home. A Mr. Upham, who was an early settler, was something of a lawyer, but the scope for the exercise of his legal talents was exceedingly limited, and that he drove a very profitable trade is extremely problematical.
      Daniel Shaw, an early settler, to whom reference has already been made, was a man of considerable prominence in the community, and, besides filling numerous places of public trust, served as town clerk for a period of thirty consecutive years, during the whole of which time, it is said, he used but one goose-quill to do his writing.
      Varney Pierce, another early comer, was the first justice of the peace, and dealt also in legal counsel to such of his neighbors as felt the need of a little law to comfort them. For thirty-three years Mr. Pierce occupied various public offices within the gift of the town, lived a long and useful life as an honorable citizen and faithful public officer, and died in 1823 at a ripe old age.
      Chapters might be written upon the early struggles of the New Salem pioneers, and they would be chapters of absorbing interest to those who are to-day linked in memory and sympathy to the history of those times; but limited space in a volume intended to contain a history of the early days of the Connecticut Valley in Massachusetts forbids extended reference in detail to matters which would bear such reference without wearying the reader. Stout hearts and willing hands were the great dependences in those days when the conveniences of refined civilization were few, and when the only path to success lay through the avenues of self-denial and a dogged determination to get along in life by the aid of but such surroundings and comforts as were absolutely necessary, while the discouraging obstacles encountered upon every hand were well calculated to weaken hearts not borne up by a trusting faith and hope that brighter skies were to cheer the future.
      The first innholder in town was James Cook. His tavern was located on the present place of D. V. Putnam, two miles south of the centre. On this place, or farm, James Cook erected the first grist-mill ever built in town. The original mill-stones can now be seen lying in the stream near the spot where the mill was built. Before this mill was built all the grain had to be carried on horseback to North Hadley, on the Connecticut River, a distance of sixteen miles from New Salem, through a trackless wilderness, the course being known by means of trees marked at convenient distances. Their path led them to ford a small stream near where the New Salem Cheese-Factory now stands; and, as a matter of convenience to themselves, they built a stone bridge over this stream and named it "Hadley Bridge," which it bears to this day, though few of the present generation know why the bridge is so called.
      "James Cooke" left two sons, Samuel and Henry. Henry was a somnambulist and lost his life in consequence, at a public-house in Troy, N. Y. He arose in his sleep, went to an outside door, which he opened, and fell from the third story to the sidewalk, where he was found dead next morning. His remains were conveyed to New Salem for interment. Samuel kept for a long period of years a store and public-house near the old homestead. His first wife was the daughter of the Rev. Samuel Kendall, the first ordained minister in New Salem. Samuel Cooke left two sons, Samuel and Robert. Samuel went to Houlton, Me. He was greatly esteemed, and made probate judge by the Governor of Massachusetts (Maine was then a part of Massachusetts). Robert always lived in New Salem, and by his industry and perseverance, combined with large natural talent, accumulated a competency, with which he was always ready to assist those deserving and meritorious. He filled the highest offices in town. His widow and seven children survive him.
      Dr. Cowles, a graduate of Dartmouth College, was one of the early physicians of New Salem. He built a large house in the centre, now occupied by William T. Freeman, and, leaving New Salem, nothing is known of his descendants. Tradition tells the following story of the doctor and village blacksmith. The doctor, being unmarried, as a matter of course looked here and there for a helpmeet, and fell in love with a Miss Paige, a beautiful and accomplished lady, but subsequently became enamored of a Miss Putnam, to whom the blacksmith was paying attention. This is how the doctor cheated the blacksmith. It was announced that there would be a ball at the tavern in the centre. The doctor hit upon this plan. He said to the blacksmith, whose name was Hastings, "Come, let us swap ladies for the evening and see what 'gossips' say." To this the blacksmith consented. So the doctor went to the ball with the blacksmith's lady, and the blacksmith with the doctor's. At the ball the doctor "popped the question" to the blacksmith's lady, was accepted, and soon married her. Hastings followed suit, married Miss Paige, and died in 1810.
      Stephen Filton was one of the earliest shoemakers in New Salem. He favored Shays' rebellion, in 1786. He married Sarah Doland, only fifteen years of age. As a girl she was brought up in the family of Rev. Samuel Kendall. They had a large family of children, whose lives were an honor alike to themselves and the community in which they lived. Two sons are now living, Rev. George D. Filton, of Granville, Mass., the youngest of the family, and Ebenezer, who lives in Enfield, Mass. Stephen Filton's grandchildren, now living, and prominent in the community, are Joseph Filton, of Greenfield, Dr. George Chamberlain, of Brimfield, Mass., Dr. Cyrus N. Chamberlain, of Lawrence, Mass., and Dr. Myron L. Chamberlain, of Boston. These last-named three doctors are brothers, and sons of Dr. Levi Chamberlain, of New Salem. Dr. Cyrus N. Chamberlain was medical director in the Army of the Potomac, and was the first surgeon detailed to take charge of the hospital at Gettysburg, remaining there till the government established home hospitals. He was then instructed by the government to establish Home Hospital, at Worcester, Mass. Stephen Filton, having business abroad during the first winter of his marriage, left his young wife to prepare a "boiled dish;" and as she was solicited to join a coasting-party of young folks, she put everything into the dinner-pot at the same time, and left it over a rousing fire to card for itself, which did not add to the relish of the dinner. Moral: When a man marries a child for a wife, he must expect that she will act like a child; which is right and proper.
      "Governor" Curtis, as he was called, was one of the oldest or earliest carpenters in New Salem. He was framing a building for the Rev. Mr. Foster, the second minister in town, when the latter said to him, "Governor, you seem to be a man of rare genius. Could you make a devil?" "Certainly," said the governor to the minister; "just place your feet on this block, that I may make you cloven-footed; only a minute's work and all the alteration necessary." This anecdote is taken from J. G. Holland's "History of the Four Western Counties of Massachusetts."
      Daniel Ballard, Esq., a direct descendant and great-great grandson of Jeremiah Ballard, one of the earliest settlers of the town, has in his possession the manuscript of several original documents which refer in an interesting way to the early history of New Salem. Copies of these documents are here-with appended in the next section.

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