The Settlement of Braintree, MA

The first English settlement in the area that is now Braintree, MA, was by a Captain Wollaston, who in 1625 with a company of thirty or forty colonists, cleared the land and built log-huts on the seaward slopes of the hills in what is now the city of Quincy. The settlement was called Mount Wollaston. Captain Wollaston remained only about a year and then left for Virginia with many of his followers.

After his departure one of his company, Thomas Morton, assumed the leadership of the colony and renamed it Merry Mount. Morton was most definitely not a Puritan and the revelry and "loose morals" of the men at Merry Mount shocked the Pilgrims in nearby Plymouth-they even had the audacity to erect a Maypole and dance and frolic with Indian women. In 1627 the scandalized Pilgrims sent Captain Miles Standish to arrest Morton who was then sent back to England.

The Pilgrims, who had no authority to take this action, claimed that Morton was selling liquor, guns and ammunition to the Indians thus creating a threat to their colony. Morton claimed that the real reason for his expulsion from New England was that he and his men were better at trapping and trading with the Indians and were therefore an economic threat to the settlers at Plymouth.

In 1634 the area was annexed to Boston and a number of land grants were made to residents of Boston, most of whom merely held the land rather than settle there. In 1639 the General Court at Boston gave permission to a Martin Saunders to "keepe a house of intertainement at Mount Woolaston." The next year Saunders was "alowed" to "draw wine" there.

Between 1635 and 1637 grants of land in the area of Mount Wollaston were made to William Coddington who was to later figure prominently in the founding of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, to William Hutchinson whose wife Anne was excommunicated for her liberal religions views and who then moved to Rhode Island, and to Rev. John Wheelwright, Anne Hutchinson's brother-in-law who was in agreement with her religious views.

Among these people and in this liberal religious atmosphere Thomas and Anne Brownell chose to make their first home in America. Whether the choice was made because of their religious beliefs or because good tillable land was available there in 1638, is not known. Both reasons likely figured in their decision to settle at Mount Wollaston.

In 1640 the General Court granted the petition of the inhabitants of Mount Wollaston to be a town separate from Boston and the town was renamed Braintree. Grants of from eight to 500 acres were made to inhabitants of the town, most before 1645. Although settlement was at first slow, by 1645 the town was petitioning the General Court for more land. This was repeated in 1659, 1666, and 1679. In the petition of 1666, it was cited that the idle land remaining in the town was barren and rentals on fertile land high.

Agriculture was the basis of the early life of Braintree. Grazing and the growing of crops were the main occupation of the settlers. The fact that the town minister was paid part of his salary in wood, barley, peas, Indian corn and malt indicates the kind of crops raised there.

Education was a vital concern to the people of Braintree, as it was to the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a whole. The earliest surviving town record established a school fund which was used to pay most of the schoolmaster's salary. There was no free education except in cases of extreme poverty. Parents paid varying fees in money or in kind. These fees also went towards the payment of the schoolmaster's salary.

As in other towns of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the town of Braintree assumed responsibility for the support of the church, thus effectively uniting church and state as in the other Puritan settlements in New England. This would have countered the liberal religious ideas of the early grantees such as Coddington and Hutchinson.

The changing religious climate as well as the lack of new tillable land may be reasons why Thomas and Anne Brownell decided to move to Portsmouth, RI, where there was greater religious freedom and much available land. The fact that Thomas Brownell's name does not appear on any surviving list of Freemen of Braintree indicates that he may not have been a member of the church, a requirement in the Massachusetts Bay Colony for admission as a Freeman.

That they moved to an area first settled by religious dissenters and that was universally scorned by the rest of New England as a place that admitted, according to Cotton Mather, "everything in the world but Roman Catholics and true Christians," would lend credence to the idea that the Brownells held more liberal religious views than did their conservative neighbors in Braintree.

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Copyright 1999 Bill Brownell

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