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Freshwater, A Minister, and His Bull


It’s time to start a blog. And since we’re on the verge of a massive change, going from Cambridge Historical Tours to becoming the Boston History Company (stay tuned), I thought I’d start at the beginning of Boston.

To be clear, I’m not starting at the beginning of the beginning. The real beginning is before Pangea, before the dinosaurs, back when everything was a floating nebula of exploded stardust, but let’s not get dramatic here.

I mean when this peninsula was occupied by the local native peoples part time, only in summer, where the water was fresh, moving (which is good because it washed away the bugs and bacteria), and the land was just a jutting peninsula, attached by a very narrow stretch of land (right around where Empire Garden is, or Tufts Medical Center), with coves and chunks carved out. And three tall hills. And lots of freshwater streams, which, as the land warmed, weeping the buried remains of glaciers from the last ice age, trickled downhill, cutting through reedy marshes, until they mingled with the ocean.

And after about 12000 years of living harmoniously with the land, which they called Shawmut, which meant something like “Super fresh, delicious, flowing water,” or “sweet water” or “moving water” (you could drink it, is the point), everything changed with the arrival of the first Europeans. And the very first one to arrive in Boston was legendary. (I say legendary mostly because we don’t have anything he wrote, so most of our info on him is literally legend. But also because he was cool as hell.)

His name was William Blackstone, although he often spelled his name Blaxton. Maybe it was to save ink, like how the Boston Red Stockings were like “Nah, that’s too long, let’s go with Red Sox,” but the name was definitely pronounced Blackstone. There are like 6 rivers, a bunch of hills and valleys, and whatnot, and they’re all named Blackstone, and they’re all named after him.

Anyway, this guy had signed up to get the heck out of England because he was an Anglican minister who sort of hated the guys running the Anglican Church, and figured sailing 3000 miles away from them ought to crimp their ability to tell him what to do. So he rounds up a massive library of books, rumored to have been 186 leather-bound books, but also scrolls in ancient Latin, and manuscripts, and sails for the new world with the son of the Governor of Plymouth in England. (The Governor’s name, by the way, was Sir Ferdinando Gorges. I want to find a portly dog, name him this, and dress him in silly hats.) Robert Gorges had been granted a patch of land 10 miles up and down the New England coast, and 30 miles deep, along with any islands within 3 miles of the shore that hadn’t already been claimed. But like 3 months after they started to build the colony, Robert got a note from his dad saying “Come home, we have some money troubles.” And he did.

William Blackstone stayed, but after a year or so, everyone else began trickling back home, too, and he was all by himself. Since there weren’t many horses around, he somehow managed to acquire a bull, apparently, and he would ride around on the back of it, exploring the area, and saying hello to very surprised natives, who weren’t used to seeing Anglican ministers riding around in the middle of their woods all alone, apparently unarmed, and riding on the back of a gigantic bull.

He apparently taught himself enough of the local Algonuian dialects, that soon he was friendly with these folks. And he asked them “Any chance you know of a sick spot with a sick view where I could sometimes sit with my feet in the water and read a book, and other times sit on a porch on the side of a hill and look out over this beautiful nature you guys got here? But also preferably there’s abundant food and fresh water? I’m not enjoying the spot I’m at anymore, and everyone else left, so I figure it’s time to find my dream spot and build my dream house.”

And the natives were like “Yeah, you’re cool, we’ll tell you.” And they send him to a local chief named Chicatawbut. Chickatawbut had been a super powerful chief until recently when up to ⅘ of his warriors had died of a plague. He was on shaky ground, and not so sure about white folks, but Blackstone was like “Yo, I don’t have much, but I can show you how to grow apples,” And Chickatawbut was probably like “Who the hell is this guy? This is the first white guy in a while who hasn’t tried to either take my land or enslave me, so yeah, go ahead, be free and camp safely up on the Shawmut peninsula, and we won’t bug you if you don’t bug us,”

And so Blackstone picked up and moved. I imagine it was a hilarious thing to watch this guy on the back of a giant bull, dragging his library behind him, followed by cattle and chickens, and the natives must’ve thought he was a hoot. So he builds his cabin, right around the corner of Beacon and Spruce Street today. There’s a plaque if you want to check it out. And for the next 4 years, he’s reading books, eating oysters and apples, spending summers at his own personal beach with occasional visits from his native buddies, or a hello from the odd fisherman or fur trader, and his winters reading by a fire and eating dried fish and roots vegetables. Sounds badass.

But in 1630, at the beginning of summer, a bunch of Puritans decided they hated Salem, and they took the charter they’d gotten from King Charles, and moved to Charlestown in the Boston harbor, where they built a big house to house them all, started fishing the harbor, and started dropping dead from a lack of fresh, flowing water.

One of the guys in this group was a dude named Isaac Johnson. Coincidentally, he was an old school buddy of William Blackstone. Both had gone to Emannuel College in Cambridge, both had become ministers for one of these crazy colonial ventures, and they had plenty in common. Blackstone writes him a note like, “Hey, man! Small world! What’s good?” and Johnson writes back “Dude, we’re dropping dead over here, how have you been here so long?” and Blackston is like “What do you mean, this place is rad! I have these beautiful hills, the beach at my doorstep, and all this crazy freshwater. The stuff you’re drinking is swill! You should totally come over here and you’d do much better at not dying,” and so that’s what happened.

On Sept 7th, the Puritans have a meeting in Charlestown where they decide to go live at Shawmut. Johnson himself, who was the magistrate running the meeting, (and whose wife Arbella was the namesake of the famous ship that brought over all the colony’s leaders), is like “But we should name it something more familiar than Shawmut, like something British, and since I’m from the town of Boston, how about Boston?” And they were all like “How about New Boston, like New York, or New Jersey, or New Hampshire,” and Johnson was like “Nah I’m good on that,” and then died. Seriously. I mean, 23 days later on Sept 30th, but still, it feels abrupt.

Blackstone was pretty cool to the Puritans. He was like “Yeah, plenty of room for everyone! Just let me keep my little corner over here,” and they agreed to let him keep his little 50 acre patch of land in the Western corner of the peninsula.

But then both sides realized how much they didn’t like each other. Blackstone was a weird quiet hermit who didn’t go to church, and, even worse, preached Anglicanism if they asked him to show up (he was an Anglican preacher, in fairness). For his part, he was less than happy with how they would threaten to whip or hang people for what seemed like small infractions. And then there were the pillories where they put folks between two boards and threw rotten fruit and veggies at them. The Bilbo is an interesting device they also used. Go look it up. You’ll never think of the Hobbit in the same way again.

At some point, someone in town starts grumbling “There are 700 acres here, and 1000 of us share 650 acres while this guy has 50. That’s not cool, and it’s gonna get him hurt,” And Blackstone wisely goes “You’re totally right, so I’ll give back 44 acres, but not for free,” and they’re like “yeah that’s fair,” and the town donates upwards of £30 sterling to him so he won’t argue. That was in 1634. And they took his land to be used as Common pasture land, which is why it’s STILL called the Boston Common.

By 1635, Blackstone is getting real nostalgic for the days when he was by himself, and apparently one day he just kind of rides off with his books, and ends up in Rhode Island at a place called Rehoboth. This, by the way, also makes him the first white guy to settle Rhode Island.

Blackstone finds another rad hill, this time by a river (which is now called the Blackstone River), and builds a cottage he calls Study Hill, and spends his days writing about his adventures and good times with the native chiefs, and occasionally waltzing into Providence, at the invitation of Roger Williams, to preach his crazy Anglicanism to more Puritans, and always on the back of a large white bull that he named Jupiter. I FREAKING LOVE THIS GUY.

He was also close buddies with the local Narragansett chief, known as Canonicus, and his heir Miantonomoh, pals with Massasoit, aka Ousamequin, who ran a large group of mostly Wampanoag villages, and what I’m trying to say is that EVERYONE liked this guy, from the local natives to the strictest Puritans. He was just an easy guy to love.

He went galumphing back into Boston in 1659, aged 64, and when he went home to Rehoboth, he went with three step kids and a new wife named Sarah. That’s how he ended up a dad in his 60s. They had a son named John. And apparently somewhere in there got themselves another riding bull, and named it Europa. I LOVE THIS GUY.

He’s reported to have averted attacks from BOTH sides on the other, but as tensions built between Natives and the growing European population, his old friend Massasoit’s heir, and Blackstone’s close friend Metacomet, aka King Philip, got into a big fight with the Puritans. Blackstone would die a few months after the outbreak of King Philips war, aged about 80. A year later, a Native victory occurred very nearby his 200 acres in Rehoboth, and in the war-like orgy of celebration that followed, his barn and house were burned down, taking with it all of his writings, papers, books, scrolls, and manuscripts.

But the guy is a freaking legend. And was nice and generous to everyone. When the Puritans were buying back his land, they were suspicious he was going to fight with them in the English courts over his title to it. But he apparently told them “The only title I wish to keep is that of the first European settler on this land.” That’s a title he’ll never lose.

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