The First Settlers of Dartmouth
and Where They Located

by Henry B. Worth

Old Dartmouth Historical Sketches, #39, New Bedford, MA, 1914

In colonial times when a new settlement was to be established, explorers were sent in advance to investigate the region, and determine where it would be most advantageous to locate the residential center. They would build some sort of rude structure either a log cabin, a stone house, or a cave dug in the hillside and this would suffice for a habitation until they were able to erect separate dwellings for each family. This common house was also used for the storage of property that required protection. It is now proposed to indicate who were the first settlers in ancient Dartmouth, when they arrived, and the locality which they selected as their first abode.

The grant made by Plymouth colony to the thirty-six original purchasers took place in March, 1652, and no settlement had then been formed. The situation at that date, in reference to the Indians, is important to consider. If a circle be described with the Fairhaven bridge as a center and a radius of about twenty miles in length, it would pass through all the nearest English settlements of that period. Where the Buzzards Bay canal joins one bay with the other was the village of Manomet. Northwest was Namasket, which is now the town of Middleboro; further west was Cohannet now known as Taunton, and still further in line of the circle was Rehoboth and other places on Narragansett Bay. None of these villages were strong enough to render any assistance to the settlers on the Acushnet River. An additional menace was the fact that within this circle was a line of Indian villages that would surround any settlement at Cushena. The shellfish at Sippican and the famous fishing grounds at Apponegansett attracted the Indians to these shores in the summer, while the lakes and forests at the north furnished all they required for winter homes. During the King Philip War, in Dartmouth alone, one hundred and sixty Indians surrendered to the English, and it plainly appeared that the Red Men constituted a desperate element of danger in that region.

Under such circumstances the only safety for the English would be to flee to some stockade near the shore where they could remain until assistance arrived from Plymouth, or they could escape upon the sea. Appreciating these possible contingencies, the pioneers generally selected as the location of the residential center of sea coast towns, a place where there was a good spring, convenient fishing and where the land would provide food and shelter and a place in which they could locate their habitations, which could be defended against attack or which would furnish safety until they could escape to other communities. An ideal location would be a neck connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus in order that the approach could easily be watched. Pucateest Neck in Tiverton, was an early settlement and contained in a high degree, all the necessary requirements. Sconticut Neck had no satisfactory fresh water supply nor land suitable for cultivation and was not selected.

A legend has been printed that in 1652 one Ralph Russell came to Dartmouth and established an iron forge at Russell’s Mills. As it can be demonstrated that this event was an impossibility and that Ralph Russell never appeared in Bristol County, this tradition may be dismissed without discussion. Preparation for a new town was accompanied by activity in land transfers. Consequently, the logical course will be to commence with 1652 and examine the recorded evidence, until a point is reached where there is indication that some settlement was in contemplation or had been formed. By an examination of all ancient documents, it is clear that the inhabitants of Dartmouth before 1700, came from three well defined sources.

1. There were the thirty-six original purchasers, but only three settled in Dartmouth, although the descendants of nine others were later among the inhabitants. None of these came to Buzzards Bay before 1660.

2. A vigorous persecution of Quakers on Cape Cod induced some of the Kirbys, Allens, Giffords and Wings to remove to Dartmouth, but this crusade did not begin until 1657 and the first deed taken by any of these persons was dated 1659.

3. Owing to the crowded condition of the island of Rhode Island, the men of Newport and Portsmouth were compelled to seek homes elsewhere, and finally a great number moved to Dartmouth; but the first recorded indication of this tendency occurred in 1657, and the first deed was taken in 1659.

Consequently there is nothing to show any English occupation before 1659; but during that year a few deeds appear that indicate an approaching activity. Ralph Earle and Daniel Wilcox of Portsmouth, purchased considerable interests in Dartmouth, which was the beginning of that great movement from Rhode Island. But the most significant conveyance was given by the proprietors to John Howard in which they “Do freely and absolutely give and grant ten acres of land adjoining the river, twenty rods wide, bounded on the north by a great rock near the head of the spring.” This seems not to be a sale, but a transfer upon some different consideration, and Howard was not one of the proprietors. It is said that he had been a member of the household of Captain Myles Standish; in 1637 with others freely offered to go against the Pequots; later became an inhabitant of Bridgewater where he was one of the first military officers, surveyor of highways, and a most influential citizen. He was the ancestor of the great Howard family of Bridgewater. At that period a new community in its early career always needed the assistance of some executive individual who was familiar with warfare among the Indians. The value of the services of Captain Myles Standish will never be over-estimated, and no more suitable person could be selected for this important service in Dartmouth than one who had been a pupil of the Puritan captain. Here, then, was a practical preparation for a settlement. It is not possible to state the exact relation of Howard to the new community, but he was not required to move from Bridgewater nor become a permanent resident of Dartmouth: and after 1663 his name is not found in the annals of the latter town. His land remained in possession of his family until transferred by his descendants in 1708.

It also appears that in 1660 the government at Plymouth ordered their agent to collect the taxes of James Shaw and Arthur Hathaway at Cushena. As shown elsewhere, the entire amount to be collected was thirty shillings, and the next year the amount was the same, while in 1662 it was seventy shillings. The tax in 1663 is not recorded, and in 1664 the inhabitants were constituted the town of Dartmouth. An analysis of these figures supports the conclusion that the tax was ten shillings from each man, and was not based on the value of property. If this theory is correct, then there were three residents in 1660 and 1661, and in 1662 the number had increased to seven. As Howard never withdrew from Bridgewater, he was probably not the third man who was assessed in 1660 and 1661. This was probably Samuel Cuthbert who is known to have been a resident during the latter date. The seven residents in 1662 were Shaw, Hathaway, Cuthbert, Spooner, Samuel Jenney, John Russell, Thomas Pope or Ralph Earle. John Cooke was in Plymouth probably as late as May, 1662.

So having determined who were the first settlers and that they probably arrived at Cushena in the spring or summer of 1660, the remaining part of the problem is to determine where they located their preliminary habitation. The hint given in the Howard deed will point the way to the conclusion. By tracing the title of that land it appears to have been situated on the east side of the river opposite to Brooklawn Park. The rock ledge in the southeast corner of the park at the roadside, extends under the river and appears again above the surface along the road leading to Fairhaven, where in several places it has been cut down to the road level.

A short distance south of the brook, and about three hundred feet east of the highway, the ledge abruptly terminates and at its foot, issues a spring as attractive and picturesque as when first discovered by Howard, Shaw and Hathaway two hundred and fifty years ago. Albert B. Drake, the well known civil engineer, states that it is the finest natural spring on the east side of the Acushnet River, and the only one that comes from the solid rock. Starting from a distant basin in the ledge, its waters never freeze and never cease to flow. Under the designation of “Wamsutta Spring,” this water supply is utilized for commercial purposes. The region was diversified with convenient forests and land for cultivation. Where Howard’s Brook joins the river, until recent years was a choice natural oyster bed, and other shellfish were abundant and within easy reach. At its junction with the river, Howard’s Brook bends to the north and forms a neck of about eight acres. On account of the high ground it would be easy from this place to observe the approach of Indians, even when some distance away, and escape by water would be convenient. The locality was far enough up the river to be free from the influence of boisterous storms, and there was ample water of sufficient depth for a ship-yard to be established across the river at Belleville a century later.

The final step is to determine whether this neck was the place selected as the first abode of the settlers. It was set off to Samuel Cuthbert, and in 1661 conveyed by him to John Russell; 1666 Russell to John Cooke, and in 1686 Cooke to his son-in-law, Arthur Hathaway. In his will, dated 1694, Cooke seemed to have assumed that he retained an interest in the neck, and this he gave to his daughter Sarah Hathaway and refers to the land as “Near the burying-place.” By inheritance the neck came into possession of Antipas Hathaway, who in 1752 transferred it to his brother Jethro, using the description:

“Ye olde burying point in Acushnet village bounded by Howard’s brook.”

During the periods when they owned this neck Cuthbert, Russell and Cooke were the leading residents of Dartmouth, but each owned a homestead farm some distance away. The same year that Cooke conveyed the neck to Arthur Hathaway the town of Dartmouth voted to build a town house east of Smith Mills at the head of the Slocum Road.

In an obscure corner of an old record in Plymouth in penmanship that is difficult to read, is the copy of an agreement executed in February, 1663, by John Howard and John Cooke, as follows: “The neck hath a way allowed to it by those appointed to lay out the land and it was approved by the company; now with the consent of the neighbors at Acushena, John Howard and John Cooke are agreed that the way shall begin at a heap of stones and extend to the top of the hill, and the width shall be from the heap of stones to the brook; and as it is at present incapable for a way, without labor, we are to make it capable on equal terms. And there shall be only one foot way into the neck from James Shaw’s stile straight into the neck.”

This agreement is one of the most suggestive documents relating to early Dartmouth. It was among the first official acts of the proprietors; a highway proposed by the committee, approved by the owners, laid out by Howard and Cooke, accepted by the inhabitants, and then built by two men representing the proprietors. No public improvement could be established with more precision, and none has been found until modern times laid out with such legal formality. All this public machinery would not have been set in operation to benefit any private individual. At every step the public directed the proceedings and hence must have been the beneficiary. The inhabitants were to use the way in going to and from the neck, where they engaged in some common concerns. It was the first layout of a public road before 1700. When Russell transferred the neck to Cooke the description included “A way which was allowed by the purchasers and laid out by John Cooke and John Howard.” It remains to determine the conclusion to which these facts logically lead.

The town of Dartmouth comprised over one hundred thousand acres and was assigned by the colonial government to those men who arrived at Plymouth before 1627. As they all had their residences in other parts of the colony, it was not expected that they would remove to this territory. It was merely a dividend in land, which cost them nothing to buy and nothing in taxes to hold. For seven years there was no demand for the land and no transfer was made. Then purchasers appeared and the proprietors were ready to sell. To bring the section into the market it was essential to institute some preliminary survey and establish a convenient center, so they secured the services of John Howard and paid him in land. During the year 1659, the exploring party selected the locality at Howard’s Brook for the new settlement, the place combining the required advantages. Then it became necessary to provide utilities that would be needed. Their own habitation was probably a log or stone house on the neck, or a cave dug in the hillside. The line of travel from New York to Plymouth was by water up Buzzards Bay, across the isthmus at Manomet where the canal is being built, and then by water the remaining part of the journey. Most if not all communication east and west from Dartmouth was presumably by vessels, and hence a landing would be required at Howard’s Neck. Then they provided for a road from the neck to the great Indian path, which extended from Lakeville to Sconticut Neck. The allotment of homesteads was one of their earliest transactions. Beginning at Howard’s Brook and extending north to the head of the river were three farms, assigned respectively to Samuel Cuthbert, William Spooner and Samuel Jenney. From the brook south, were the farms of John Howard, James Shaw where the Laura Keene place was afterwards located; then Arthur Hathaway down to the south line of the town of Acushnet. After a considerable interval, John Cooke’s farm was on the hill where the Coggeshall Street bridge ends in Fairhaven, and John Russell and Ralph Earle settled at South Dartmouth. Sometime later the north end of the neck was devoted to a burial place, but a landing place and a burial ground do not adequately account for the layout of that road. Landings, burial places and private buildings or structures used as garrisons, would not occasion a road built with so much particularity.

The loss of the proprietors’ record for the first sixty years after the colonial grant and the fact that no town records have been preserved previous to 1673 has obliterated most of the early history of this settlement. But if these lost records could be consulted they would probably tell substantially the following narrative. That a town house and meeting house, possibly one building for both, was placed on the neck for the use of the inhabitants, in which to hold its public meetings, civil and religious, and this would adequately explain the object of this formal layout. It has been assumed that the inhabitants held their public meetings in dwelling-houses and while this is possible it is more likely that a different arrangement was made in accordance with the prevailing custom. At that date single apartment dwellings were all that could be obtained, and these would not be convenient either for town meeting or religious congregations. The high respect and veneration felt by the Pilgrims for such institutions would not permit them to neglect erecting at once a building suitable for public gatherings. A common building on the neck, devoted to such purposes, would account for the remarkable interest taken by the townspeople in that short road down the hill to the neck, where they could attend town meeting or hear John Cooke preach. The neck was the town Common or Green adapted to the local situation and was the temporary town center where were grouped all those public utilities that the new community required.

Captain Church in his history of the King Philip War, mentions “The ruins of John Cooke’s house at Cushnet.” There is a tradition that somewhere Cooke had a garrison or stockade, and it has been asserted that this was a block-house which stood south of Woodside Cemetery in Fairhaven. While it is possible that Cooke had some sort of defense on his farm, yet there is a reasonable doubt whether the place referred to by Church was not on Howard’s Neck, which was provided by the inhabitants as a place of refuge during the first period of the settlement. This is also possible, because the title to the neck was owned by Cooke during the King Philip War.

As long as the Indians did not disturb the settlers the homesteads were gradually extended in scattered formation into different sections of Dartmouth, a policy that caused criticism from the authorities at Plymouth and was the basis of all the misfortunes that overtook the inhabitants in the Indian war. Fortunately the Dartmouth settlers kept near the shore, so that while they could not offer any firm defense yet they were able to escape by water, and so far as definitely known only four were killed by the Indians. Until the King Philip War a majority of the inhabitants lived on the east side of the Acushnet River and probably no change was made in the meeting place for public gatherings. During the two years occupied by the war no meetings of the town were held, and the territory of Dartmouth was abandoned. After the death of Philip, the Indians lost their war-like spirit and never recovered from the effects of that struggle. Then the inhabitants slowly returned and rebuilt their habitations and the next meeting of the town was held in June, 1678. From that time the population rapidly increased and soon became widely distributed. The Acushnet River was no longer the western limit; the central and western portions were occupied and ferries were established where bridges could not be built. Soon a demand for a central location of the town house led to a vote of the town to place it “near the mills,” that is, Smith Mills. The inhabitants of Apponegansett and Acoaksett greatly outnumbered those who lived on the east side of the Acushnet and easily accomplished the change which took place in 1686.

In the ordinary progress of events, Howard’s Neck could not always remain the center of the town. The inevitable change had arrived. The public uses to which the neck had been devoted, were transferred to other sections. As a place of refuge, it was no longer required, because the Indians had been forced into a permanent peace. Landings were provided in other sections and the neck was used only by those living in the vicinity. The town meetings were held at the head of the Slocum Road. Those who settled west of Acushnet River formed a great majority of the inhabitants; were largely Quakers and not in harmony with the religious practices of the Pilgrims on the east side of the Acushnet and had their separate meeting house. The latter may have continued to hold religious meetings at the usual place, but it must have been a small struggling body without organization and without settled minister. The only object of interest that remained, was the burial-ground, and to preserve this Cooke made the transfer to his son-in-law, Arthur Hathaway, and here is probably where Cooke was buried. The neck remained in possession of the Hathaway family until 1854, and since 1862 with the farm on both sides of Howard’s Brook, has been owned by Samuel Corey.

The situation at the neck remains with little change as it appeared when selected as a town center two and a half centuries ago. The road built by Howard and Cooke is still open and used by Arthur H. Corey to reach his residence. An old mill is standing on the brook, but years ago was dismantled and is in ruins. Since the deed of 1752, the name of Howard has disappeared from the locality. Manufacturing industries on the river have driven away the shellfish that were so abundant along these shores. At the north end of the neck until plowed over some years ago, were found unmarked stones placed at intervals, the indication of an ancient burial place.

The waters of the great spring still flow unceasingly to the sea, the salient and determining feature that fixed the choice of the English in selecting their first home on the Acushnet. People engaged in New Bedford mills have residences on the east side of the river, and the line of houses from Coggeshall Street before many years, will meet those rapidly extending south from the head of the river. The space between comprises a few farms near Howard’s Brook, whose owners still resist the flattering offers of speculation. Here, with little outward change, may be observed those natural advantages that impressed the English on their first visit to Cushena where they located their first residential center, and here is the last spot to yield to progress and innovation.