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Land of the Men of Kent

By C. Wellington Furlong

Last spring I entered the foyer of Oregon’s magnificent state capital. The first of its beautiful historical murals to catch my eye depicted the majestic Columbia River where a band of Siwash Indians were trading furs with a boat’s crew headed by a dominant dark-clothed figure in knee britches and cocked hat – Captain Robert Gray of Boston.

The majority of the crew behind him were descendants of the Men of Kent; their great-grandsires had settled in Scituate, Massachusetts, within a scant five years after that other band of adventurers, the Pilgrims, had landed at Plymouth, and where Gray’s great-grandfather had settled in 1643. The square-rigged merchantman riding at anchor in the background of the picture was the ship Columbia through whose voyage the Columbia River was discovered, and after which that great river was christened.

Men from New England, particularly Massachusetts, followed by sea and the Old Emigrant Road to Oregon, and founded many a namesake town – Pendleton, Medford, Newport, Melrose, Ashland, the great port of Portland, and Salem, its capital. To the older Indians of this entire Northwest region, “Boston man” was their synonym for “white man.”

During his short stay, Gray traded with the Indians, bartering in one instance two hundred otter skins for a chisel. The Columbia returned to Boston, her home port, the first vessel to circumnavigate the globe under the American flag.

After witnessing the laying of the cornerstone of the McNary Dam, which will harness 210,000 kilowatts of power from the Columbia River and irrigate an extensive area of Oregon’s arid soil, I found myself in Scituate, where the ship Columbia of 220 tons, 175 years ago had slid off the ways of Briggs Yard on the North River and set out on its trip around the globe.

Much of our country’s history not only remains to be written, but to be discovered. Hidden historical gems will continue to be dug up by the seeker after historical fact and romance. Through the coastal area lying between Boston and Plymouth, which later became Plymouth County and where Chief Massassoit and his people roamed, flowed numerous streams, one of which these Indians called Satuit, meaning Cold Brook. This brook, wending its way into salt-marsh lands, finally merged into the tidal waters of a sweet little harbor opening eastward to the sea. The name of the brook was spelled by the first settlers “Seteat,” “Sytiate” or “Sityate” until about 1640 was the present spelling “Scituate” established.

Circling the inner bight of this harbor was a mat of lush marshlands, framed by a jungle of primeval forests. It was flanked on its north by a point of sand dunes covered by ancient, wind-blown cedars. South it was guarded by the first of four cliffs sloping inland to broad marshlands through which flows what is known as the North River.

Sailing up from Plymouth, shortly after it was settled, came the Men of Kent. They discovered this harbor and realized its future possibilities of farming and trade. The first plantations of Satuit were laid out by the Men of Kent before 1623 on Third Cliff and here the whining creek of their first windmills merged with the soft soughing of the breezes which turned their great sails.

Who were there Men of Kent? They were a band of “merchant adventurers” from England’s garden spot, County Kent. Led by one Timothy Hatherly, founder of Scituate, they formed a group known as “The Conihasset Proprietors” and built a road from Third Cliff around the marshes to the Harbor which still bears the name they gave it – Kent Street. Along it in 1633 they laid out “Six houses lots of four acres extending eight rods along the street and eighty rods up into the woods,” and on July 1 of that year Scituate was established as a town. Like their Pilgrim neighbors, they pushed back the forests, built their thatch-roofed log houses and established their first log meeting house and cemetery on the little hill above their homes. Thus the nucleus of Scituate township was born. Its confines extended as far inland as the town of Abington, included parts of Pembroke, Hanover and Cohasset, all of Norwell and two miles south beyond the North River into what is now Marshfield. This latter stretch is still spoken of as “Two Mile.” This little family of townships still share with Scituate in marked degrees, her charm and history and must historically be included in the mother town.

The kindly succor of Massassoit and his people saved the lives of the Pilgrim adventurers of Plymouth through their first winter, but it was chiefly the verdant marshlands with their gift of salt water hay that made possible the early establishments of the farms upon which the Men of Kent depended for their security, No other part of our country was more difficult to clear for planting than the dense New England jungle with its horse briers, elderberry, sumac and other dense undergrowth throughout which nature densely strewed her granite rocks and stones. To clear the undergrowth, fell the trees and clear land of rocks and stumps would have been an Augean task, and without horses and oxen would have been almost impossible. But meantime, horses, oxen and cows had to be fed, and it was there marshlands that in the interim produced this feed.

So the hay of the marshlands of Scituate harbor and its North River was its fundamental economic factor. Next to farming came fishing and in time, shipbuilding, all three of which are still practiced in a comparatively infinitesimal degree. Woods have again grown up on much of her colonial farmlands as remnants of fallen-down walls through the woodlands attest. Her fishing industry is reduced to a few trawlers and a summer pastime and the famous shipyards which once lined the North River have long gone. Yet at one time Scituate was more important than Plymouth or Boston and produced one of the most unique country townships in America.

Fortunately, the great through highways of traffic have by-passed Scituate and the smudge of inordinate industry has left unstained its natural beauty and charm, a charm which, in summer, swells the normal population of 11,000 to 22,000. There is no more beautiful marine scene than that of her fleet of yachts dotting the blue harbor in glistening spots of white against Cedar Point with its historic Scituate Light. Old Colonial farmhouses in fields framed by lichen-covered stonewalls stud its undulating countryside. Its rock-bound coast, bulwarked by granite ledges or fringed by stretches of shingled strand, rises to steep cliffs or drops gracefully down to sands beaches.

On the slopes of Third Cliff, overlooking the marshes of the North River, Nathaniel Tilden, one of the Men of Kent, established the first farmstead in 1626. Others also settled behind their cliffs, cleared their farms and established trade, not only with Plymouth and Boston but with England. Among these merchant adventurers was the widow Ann Vinal, after whom Ann Vinal Road is named. It is recorded that Ann was the best business man of them all for she brought over woolen yarns and notions to sell to the women, for she knew they were the spenders of money.

For 325 years, this August, in their first cemetery, edging Meeting House Lane, their gray-slated headstones have stood, memorials to the Men of Kent and their “virtuous consorts.” “Here lies Humphrey Turner who was born in Kent, England in 1594 and died in Scituate 1673 aged 79.” Its most ancient stone is in memory of John Vinal who died August 21, 1628, but who was born in 1566; this time dates these Men of Kent with Elizabethan England. (ed. note:Colonel Furlong’s research has been complemented over the years by others who believe his claim regarding the Vinal family maybe in error.)

Many a gray shingled or white-clapboarded homestead of these settlers and their descendants still dot Scituate’s countryside, and represent the three indigenous types of New England’s Colonial architecture – the gabled-roofed cottage farmhouse, the two-storied Colonial and the more majestic Georgian.

The surname of almost every Man of Kent is still to be found on the voting list of the town, which with its historical signs and country ways form a biographical compendium of these settlers. Throughout the years Scituate’s native sons have influenced the thought, tolerance, literature, trace and geographical expansion of our nation in a marked yet unappreciative degree. Her rocky, though fertile soil gave birth to poets, journalist, artist, actors, musicians, explorers, sculptors, ministers, doctors, authors, statesmen, ‘49ers and even a cowboy or two. As farmers, fishermen or mossers, the Scituates are hard to out-point.

Harvard University is indebted to Scituate for its first and second presidents, Henry Dunster and Charles Chauncey, and Yale for one of its outstanding presidents, Thomas Clapp; all three were Unitarian ministers. Scituate was a tolerant haven in the early days for the Quakers and Negro, and on the bridge over the North River an historical sign marks the site of a ferry established in 1637 by “William Vassal an early exponent of religious liberty.” In 1690, Mordecai Lincoln moved from Hingham to the house in Scituate still standing on the road that bears his name. Mordecai was the great-great-great-grandfather of Abraham Lincoln.

This countryside later drew to it a Scituate schoolmaster, Charles A. Dana, later the founder of the New York Sun, the writers Gillette Burgess and Will Irwin, and the architect, Ralph Adams Cram. Scituate also produced Henry Turner Bailey, America’s great art educator; Edgar P. Newcomb, architect and composer; Coverly Newcomb, inventor and scientist; Edward Wesley Cushman, philosopher, the Thoreau of the South Shore.

Within a month after I stood in front of that mural of Gray’s landing on the banks of the Columbia River, I found myself nearly three thousand miles away in a home on the North River known as “The Shipyard.” It was indeed the shipyard. A few steps from the house lie small gable-roofed buildings where once carpenters fashioned the parts and smiths forged the bolts which went into the building of the ship Columbia. Another few steps to the river shore brought me to a historical marker which informed one that here at Hobart’s Landing was built the ship Columbia by James Briggs.

From Scituate’s shore, out of her little harbor and this North River, the Men of Kent and their descendants went down to the sea in ships. Some of them worked their farms part of the year and fished during the rest of it. Next to farming, Scituate’s fishing fleets were its greatest investment, and industry which reached its height during the Civil War.

Scituate’s shoreline extends from the North River to the Glades where the home of that great helmsman Charles Francis Adams, former Secretary of the Navy, overlooks Cohasset Harbor and seaward to Minot’s Light. The massive ledges of Bar Rock and Collamore’s frame a view of this 114 foot Eddystone of America, lying a mile and a half offshore amongst the sunken ledges which bespeak the dangerous character of this coast. From Egypt Beach, one may watch the heave and breath of summer’s blue sea, white-fringe Cowan’s Ledge, or listen to its soft splash against the black dye-streaked, orange granite of the Glades. But during winter’s northeast gales, great combers bury Cowan’s Ledge in a smother of foam; in a maelstrom of seething fury they gnaw away the cliffs, spew up sea worn stones, hurling them landward and building the beach.

The sea has taken its toll along Scituate’s shores, on which the flotsam and jetsam of many strange cargoes have been cast. Behind Egypt Beach lied Sheep Pond and the farm, Shore Acres, once the home of that pioneer soldier, General James Cudworth, famous in King Philip’s Indian Wars. In 1795, Deacon Ward Litchfield bought this farm and rebuilt the farmhouse on its old site. It is still occupied by two of his descendants, Henry and Emma Litchfield. When I was a boy it was the nearest farmhouse to Egypt Beach. In it, during many a gale, a bright oil lamp was kept burning in the back kitchen window, a warning to vessels to stand off shore. Aided by this family, mariners were carried up to it from wrecks or staggered in. In this old homestead the sea once gave up its dead – washed up on Egypt Beach. Their names and that of their ship were never known and they now lie in a common grave in “The Sailor’s Lot.” You can easily find it at the Center, in the cemetery behind the Congregational Church.

One of the most stirring phases of Scituate’s history is that of the sea. It is said there have been more wrecks on and off this land of the Men of Kent than along any similar section of our entire coast, even Cape Hatteras. A careful glance at an authenticated list from 1807 when a Scituate-built ship, the Cordelia, on returning from China and within the very sight of her birthplace piled up on a ledge – to 1919 when the bark Professor Koch with her two million dollar cargo of wool and hides from South Africa came ashore at Scituate Harbor, gives us a record of 95 wrecks. But only the sea, could it speak, could reveal how many unrecorded gallant ships marked “Missing” at Lloyds foundered in fog, darkness and storm and now in the ocean depths off Scituate’s shores.

Little wonder that these Men of Kent who braved the broad Atlantic in such little caravels as the Fortune and Arbella through their progeny turned out a whole line of famous sailing ship captains – the Pratts, the Kendricks, the Wades, the Merritts and others. One of the ablest skippers of his time to sail out of Massachusetts Bay was Captain Benjamin Merritt, descendants of Nehemiah Merritt, a Man of Kent.

Scituate men not only sailed their ships, but built them on the marshland of the Harbor and the North River. “Prior to 1800 the North River was known the world over” because of its ship-building industry. In those early days, magnificent primeval forests, including white oak and vine covered the low sailing hills which fringed this broad river valley. This timber, coupled with the fine depth of water at all tides, made possible the establishment of the most famous shipbuilding industry of its day.

For eight miles inland, from its river south to the village of Hanover, the sounds of hammer, saw and anvil echoed across the marshes from more than 20 shipyards on its banks. Between 1640 and 1871 a period of 331 years, over 1025 vessels slid down their ways, the last being the schooner Helen M. Foster. The most noted of these shipyards, the Briggs Yard, established in 1678, built ships for 167 years. Even before the American Revolution a large number of North River vessels were built for Great Britain. These skilled shipwrights, like Ichabod Cook who did the joiner’s work in the captain’s cabin of Old Ironsides, and whose house I once owned, were in great demand. Today, as one meanders up this river and pauses at their shipyard sites, one may absorb memories of the sweet “River of Thousand Ships,” some of which, at their mastheads, carried 13 starred American flags from the first time to Great Britain, Canada, the Black Sea and China.

The Columbia was not only the most famous North River vessel but undoubtedly the most famous merchantman ever launched in our country. Manned mostly by Scituate men she was first captained by John Kendricks of Scituate in command of the expedition, compromising the Columbia and the sloop Lady Washington which left Boston for China September 1787.

On the west coast the command of the Columbia was transferred to Captain Robert Gray, then in command of the Lady Washington. His great-grandfather had settled in Plymouth, later moving to Tiverton, Rhode Island, where in 1775 Robert Garay was born. During Gray’s sojourn on the west coast, while anchored in Clayequot Sound one winter, he kept his men busy by building another vessel, the Adventurer, the second vessel to be launched on the northwest coast.

Kendrick made history in Hawaii where he was accidentally killed, while Gray, after two years and ten months, returned home by way of China and the Cape of Good Hope. On August 10, 1790, the Columbia dropped anchor in Boston Harbor with a salute of 13 guns, having sailed 42,000 miles and showed Boston and the new nation a new source of wealth.

After reading Captain Gray’s report regarding the discovery of the Columbia River, Thomas Jefferson was convinced that this was the legendary “River of the West” whose headwaters were close to those of the Missouri. This statesman saw the possibility of developing an inland water route from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean. He recommended an intensified study of this route through the then unexplored West, and he encouraged the famous expedition of Lewis and Clark.

Although Scituate is rich in the lore and history surrounding her patriots and pioneers, her Colonial houses and farmstands, the Greenbush section today is almost a natural shrine for the area about its triangular park of green is hallowed ground. Nearby in 1637 Isaac Stedman built his house, dammed the stream and created the “wide-spreading pond and the mill that stood by it.” Here, too is “the bridge and the rock where the cataract fell,” as described by the Scituate poet Samuel Woodworth.

A stone’s throw from the mill is the site of the Stockbridge Mansion which served as a garrison house in King Philip’s War for the preservation of the mill which was successfully defended. The mill, built in 1640, now owned by the Scituate Historical Society, is the oldest mill in the United States which still grinds, once a year, just to say so.

Up the Old Oaken Bucket Road, apiece, an historical sig tells is that “This is the homestead and well made famous by Samuel Woodworth in his poem ‘The Old Oaken Bucket,’ homestead erected by John Northey about 1675. Poet born in Scituate January 39, 1785.:

Here to is the “orchard, the meadow,” ad behind the pond the “deep-tangled wildwood, and every loved spot that my infancy knew.” Only a part of “the cot of my father,” an ell of the present house now owned by Woodworth Murray of the poet’s family still stands. The old well, which inspired the poem with its curving sweep and a replica of the old oaken bucket is seen from the road. The bail of the original bucket may be still seen in the old General Cudworuth House, now the Museum of the Scituate Historical Society. Also on exhibition here is Lafayette’s coach, Chief Justice Cushing’s one hoss shay and other fascinating relics. It was up this road then called Pond Street that little Samuel Woodworth trudged is bare footed dusty way to quench his thirst from the old oaken bucket which hung in the well.

Years later one sweltering day in 1817, Woodworth who had become an editor, composer and poet and had moved to New York walked to where he then lived on Duane Street. As he drank the tepid town pump water his thoughts winged their way back to the old homestead.

“What would I give for a drink from the old well in Scituate,” he remarked to his wife Lydia. “Put that in a poem,” she replied.

So he wrote the “Old Oaken Bucket,” a poem second only to “Home Sweet Home in the heart of the nation.

Scituate is only 25 miles from Boston, where the first shots of the revolution were fired by boys with snowballs for interference by British redcoats with their coasting. But in our War of 1812-14, two teenage girls scared away the British ship La Hogue. This episode revolved around the old Scituate lighthouse. Here lived Simeon Bates and his family, comprising his wife, his son and two daughters, Rebecca and Abigail. These girls through practice in the long winter evenings had become proficient with simple tunes, on the fife and drums used by their menfolks in the town militia.

As a small boy I spent summer holidays at Scituate Harbor with my great-aunt Charlotte Merritt. On occasion, dared by my comrades, I climbed what was left of the broken down old circular stairway of the known restored Scituate lighthouse. Next door to the Merritts lived Becky Bates, then a very old woman, who, in boyish wonderment I often watched her pull her corn cob pipe and listen to her story. During this war the British four gun HMS Bulwark in 1814 sent boats into the harbor and burned the shipping because the selectmen of the town, descendants of the Men of Kent, obstinately refused their demand for supplies. Not long after, Becky told me, another British warship, the HMS La Hogue appeared, dropped anchor a mile or so offshore and her barges loaded with marines pulled toward the harbor with obvious intention of burning the town. Becky, then about 16 was alone in the lighthouse with her younger sister Abigail. Becky quickly seized her brother’s fife and her younger sister Abigail the drum. Sneaking out of their lighthouse home they followed behind the cedar covered sand hills of the point, beating a lively tattoo to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.” The marines, who had believed the town undefended, hearing the rhythmic strains wafted toward the ship’s boat, thought the town garrison was marching out, returned to the ship and the La Hogue sailed away. This annal of our nation’s history, justly finds its place along those of Betsy Ross and Barbara Frietchie. Today this old lighthouse and the point is reserved as a national monument to this American Army of Two.