Several decades ago, my father was planting bulbs in our backyard flower garden. An old stone wall borders the garden and our yard, as well as all the neighbors’ yards on my street. Digging into the soil, my father found more than the usual collection of rocks and earthworms – he disinterred a pair of nineteenth-century lady’s boots.
Over the years, our garden has churned up other relics of past inhabitants, such as horseshoes, and even Native American tools and arrowheads. A Federal-style mansion across the street was built in 1806 by Phinehas Lawrence, whose ancestors date back to about 1650 in our neighborhood. Upon investigation, I found that my backyard stone wall marks a lot line (lot #5 in the third squadron) laid out in 1636 by European settlers. In fact, old stone walls marking these lot lines crisscross through the woods of Waltham, a city that was once part of Watertown, Massachusetts.
I began to appreciate more that we are only the latest in a long history of inhabitants, a history which dates back 10,000 years to the retreat of the last glacier. In researching the history of lot #5, I found that the land was first allotted to Nathaniel Bowman in 1636. Nathaniel probably did not live there, and in 1650 he sold the lot to Thomas Tarball, who stayed until 1663, when he moved to Groton and sold the lot to Thomas Hastings. The 1663 deed mentioned a house on the long narrow lot of 30 acres. (Remnants of earlier houses are encompassed in the 1806 Phinehas Lawrence mansion.)
Thomas Hastings probably intended it for his son, John, who lived there until his death in 1718. Using Henry Bond’s Genealogies of the Families and Descendants of the Early Settlers of Watertown, Massachusetts, …,[i] Edmund Sanderson’s Waltham as a Precinct of Watertown and as a Town, 1630-1884,[ii] Robert Charles Anderson’s The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England, 1620-1633,[iii] and Middlesex County deeds and probates, I have researched each lot of land in North Waltham back to the 1636 land divisions.
Now as I walk through the fields and woods, I think of the many people who once called these lands their own, and I seek to preserve the vestiges of their lives in our twenty-first century environment. My thoughts echo Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1847 poem:
Each of these landlords walked amidst his farm/Saying, ‘T’is mine, my children’s and my name’s.’/Where are these men? Asleep beneath their grounds:/And strangers, fond as they, their furrows plough.[iv]
[i] Henry Bond, Genealogies of the Families and Descendants of the Early Settlers of Watertown, Massachusetts, including Waltham and Weston: to which is Appended the Early History of the Town (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1860).
[ii] Edmund L. Sanderson, Waltham as a Precinct of Watertown and as a Town, 1630-1884 (Waltham: Waltham Historical Society, 1936).
[iii] Robert Charles Anderson, The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England, 1620-1633 (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1995)
[iv] Excerpt from “Hamatreya,” in Ralph Waldo Emerson, Poems (Boston: James Munroe and Company, 1847).