Brief History of Newbury Massachusetts

The inhabitants who founded Newbury mirrored their counterparts in most of northern Essex county. They weren’t religious zealots or pilgrims seeking refuge from England’s religious oppression. Rather, they were hardworking, law-abiding, and loyal English tradespeople, representing the dependable middle class that formed the core of English society.

The settlers of Newbury arrived at varied times on multiple ships, from April’s end in 1634 through July 1635. One of the earliest arrivals in 1635 included Minister Thomas Parker and a small group of colonists. Initially, they moved to Agawam (now Ipswich), and later joined fellow countrymen from Wiltshire, England, to establish Newbury.

Before the settlers relocated from Ipswich to Newbury, on May 6, 1635, the House of Deputies passed a resolution. They agreed that Quascacunquen would be established as a plantation, changing its name to Newbury. Interestingly, before his journey to America, Thomas Parker taught in Newbury, Berkshire, England. Thus, Newbury was named before the settlers’ arrival.

The pioneers sailed from Ipswich through Plum Island Sound, then up the Quascacunquen River, later renamed the Parker River. A handful of fishermen had previously occupied the banks of the Merrimack and Parker rivers but hadn’t settled permanently. The new settlers arrived in Newbury around May or June of 1635, with ships carrying cattle and more settlers from England following soon after. Governor Winthrop documented the arrival of two ships carrying Dutch cattle, and the ship “James” from Southampton, with additional settlers, on June 3, 1635.

Consequently, Newbury began as a livestock-rearing enterprise, with settlers arriving to partake in the business and establish their homes. In total, fifteen ships arrived in June, with one each in August, November, and December, bringing more families to the new settlement.

No records exist detailing the number of families that arrived during the first year. Homes were constructed on both sides of the Parker River, with the primary settlement situated around the meeting house on the lower green. The first church in Newbury wasn’t established until June, as some of its founding members didn’t arrive until that month.

When dividing the land, the settlers abided by the scripture rule, “to him that hath shall be given.” One could infer each grantee’s wealth from the number of acres allocated to them. The motivation behind Newbury’s establishment wasn’t to escape religious persecution; rather, it was to exploit unoccupied lands and establish a profitable livestock business.

Upon arrival in Massachusetts, the settlers discovered the state had instituted the Congregational form of religion. Everyone was mandated to support the Congregational Society via taxes and attend services at the meeting house. Reverend Thomas Parker, a member of the livestock-raising company, was also the settlers’ minister.

Those residing on the outskirts faced a long journey to the meeting house. The congregations risked Indian attacks and encounters with wild animals en route to and from worship. The fear of attacks persisted during service times, leading to a requirement for all capable residents to bring weapons to church, with sentinels positioned at the doors.

Despite these hardships and risks, the population continued to grow steadily and improve its economic condition. Needing more space, the settlers relocated to the upper or training green to access tillable land and partake in commercial activities. This shift began in 1642. Each settler was allocated half an acre for a building lot on the lower green, while on the upper green, each received four acres for a house lot. A new pond was also artificially created on the upper green for cattle watering.

The town gradually expanded along the Merrimack River up to the mouth of the Artichoke River. By October 1646, all desirable land in the region was claimed by freeholders. The land beyond was designated as common land indefinitely, encompassing part of Newbury and present-day West Newbury. The threat of Native American attacks had diminished as an epidemic had significantly reduced the local population. The first recorded instance of a Native American residing in Newbury is from January 1644 when a plot was granted to “John Indian.”

Over the years, Newbury experienced some significant, albeit not earth-shattering, events.

In 1639, Edward Rawson established what was likely America’s first powder mill, marking the beginning of domestic gunpowder production. Newbury also experienced a witchcraft trial thirteen years before Salem did. In 1679, Elizabeth Morse faced accusations of witchcraft, receiving a death sentence three times. However, she was reprieved each time and spent her remaining years in her home, currently Market square in Newburyport.

The first American-born silversmith, Jeremiah Dummer of Newbury, apprenticed under John Hull, an Englishman. He practiced his craft in what is now Newburyport. Jeremiah, the father of Governor William Dummer, the founder of Gov. Dummer Academy, was related through marriage to John Coney, who engraved the plates for the first paper money made in America.

In 1686, Pipestave Hill, covered with a dense forest of oak and birch, was part of the division of the upper Commons (West Newbury) among the town’s freeholders. These trees were harvested and used to make staves for wine casks and molasses hogsheads. This industry, the first of its kind in America, thrived for many years, and the location retains its name, Pipestave Hill, to this day.

Newbury discovered limestone in 1697, a significant development given all lime used for construction previously came from oyster and clam shells. Mortar made from this lime hardened over time, becoming nearly as sturdy as granite. This industry thrived until a superior quality of lime was found elsewhere.

Newbury also housed the first toll bridge and shipyard in America, the latter spurring the shipbuilding industry, which would determine Newburyport’s future prosperity.

In West Newbury in 1759, Enoch Noyes started manufacturing horn buttons and various coarse combs, initiating the comb-making industry in Newbury and beyond. This industry remained active and expanded, eventually moving to Newburyport, before closing in 1934.

In 1761, Lt. Gov. William Dummer directed that a schoolhouse be erected on his farm in his will. The school, a one-story building about twenty feet square, commenced sessions in 1763, making it the oldest boarding school in America.

By 1764, Newbury’s commercial center was sectioned off to form Newburyport, leaving Newbury as a rural and fishing community. In 1784, the first incorporated woolen factory in Massachusetts was built at the falls of the Parker River in Newbury.

In 1851, another part of Newbury, known as “Joppa,” was incorporated into what is now the city of Newburyport. The area extends from Bromfield Street along the shoreline to Plumb Island.

Today, Newbury is a serene New England town, rich in history and heritage, a cradle for many aspects of American culture, not least of which is a deep respect for its past.

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