Settlement & Early History
The settlement of what was to become Massachusetts began with the coming of the Pilgrims to Plymouth in 1620, and with the foundation of that colony. From this small beginning there was steady progress in colonization along the coast, later inland. The date of the settlement of Boston may be set at 1630, although smaller efforts are noted even before this date, as at Charlestown, Winthrop, Salem and various other points. Naturally the seacoast attracted those pioneers, communication by sea with the mother country still being of paramount importance. Moreover the sea fisheries held the highest value to those hardy settlers as sources of food.
As time went on, however, advances into the interior were bound to come. Agriculture, the cultivation of the soil, had always been an important factor in the lives of our English ancestors, and the appeal along this line was still strong and must be met. Progress into the interior of the new country was slow, partly, of course, because of the crude methods of transportation, even more because of the ever-present danger of attacks by Indians, who resented this incursion into their territory. As time went on this Indian menace was most effectually overcome although at the cost of much blood and suffering. Then the tide of immigration into the interior set most strongly, gaining a momentum which did not end until the inland country was dotted with small hamlets, some destined to remain small, others destined, equally, to become cities of considerable size.
As one travels into the interior of the state from the seacoast, it is interesting to note a few of these earlier settlements. Concord, in Middlesex County, was the first to be occupied inland, dating from 1635. Sudbury, on the way to what was to become Worcester, also in Middlesex County, was settled in 1639. Like so many of those inland villages it suffered terribly in King Philip's War, in April, 1676, Captain Wadsworth and his little band, being entirely destroyed in the famous Sudbury fight. Still further on the Worcester road comes Marlborough, also in Middlesex County, dating from 1666. Shrewsbury is of more recent date, 1717 marking its beginning. It is in Worcester County and was founded by settlers from Marlborough. And in Worcester County there were several towns antedating Worcester in settlement, for many years surpassing it in population, in importance, and seemingly destined to outstrip far in course of time this insignificant plantation by the great pond, Quinsigamond, which was ultimately to become the county seat and surpass them all.
What were these several towns? Four may be mentioned. They were Lancaster, incorporated in 1653; Brookfield dating from 1660; Mendon, dating from 1667; and Oxford, from 1683. Oxford, to be sure, was not settled until nine years after the first and unsuccessful attempt at what was to be Worcester, in 1674, but it attained permanence a third of a century before the final colonization of Worcester in 1713.
The first attempt to plant a colony near the great pond, Quinsigamond, was, as noted above, 1674. Many factors lured the settlers, the great lake itself, the smiling country with promise of fertile fields, the many streams meandering through forest and plain, evidence of good irrigation to say nothing of possible water power. This attempt was destined to come to naught, the most potent reason for this failure lying in the threat of King Philip's War, which did break out with full violence the following year.
Curiously, even at that early date, the title to the grant of land that was to be taken up by these first settlers, in 1674, was somewhat clouded. A young man from Sudbury, Ephraim Curtis, had, some time previously, purchased a tract of land near the great lake from the heirs of a certain Ensign Noyes, who seems to have gained title to this property. Curtis had built himself a dwelling on this tract, had improved the land, and had occupied his possession, for some time before the coming of the settlers in 1674. His property is described in the old records as "on the Connecticut Road, to the west of the head of Lake Quinsigamond." Curtis had led a hermit's life during those early years, but he was a resolute man and later distinguished himself in the wars with the Indians and in many other ways as a man of daring and unusual ability. The matter of the title was ultimately cleared up, and the settlers who came in 1674 had no more difficulty in regard to their right to occupy. Other factors were too powerful, however, and the effort failed.
A second attempt was made to settle the same grant, in 1684, but this attempt also failed, the Indian menace still being strong. Nevertheless two facts in connection with this second attempt are of more than passing interest. The name applied to the first attempted settlement was Quinsigamond Plantation, but with the second attempt, for some reason or other, the name Worcester was given, or was adopted by the pioneers themselves, and this name has clung ever since. Worcester was, of course, the last battle fought and won by Cromwell and his Parliamentarians, and we may well believe that the tradition of this battle was still strong among those hardy Englishmen whose fathers and grandfathers, who, possibly, themselves, had taken part in this final struggle, fought as recently as September, 1651. Moreover, with this second attempt came the beginning, in a most humble way, of that industrial growth and development which has marked Worcester through the years of its existence. Captain John Wing, a hardy mariner, was given permission by the authorities of the settlement, to erect a saw and grist mill on the small stream that flowed through the area marked out for settlement, not far from the present Lincoln Square. In early times the brook bore the name Bimeleck, but later generations have known it as Mill Brook, an insignificant watercourse in comparison with the larger rivers of New England but a mighty factor in the industrial growth of Worcester in course of time. The dual nature of the mill erected by Captain Wing was necessary in those early days, the erection of the rude structures and the grinding of the crops establishing need.
Although the second attempt to colonize what was to be Worcester was a failure, the organization that fostered this attempt seems to have been continued even after all possibility of success had vanished. We do not know exactly when the settlers left, but we do know that one brave, although reckless, settler, who had improved a farm on Sagatabscot, now Union Hill, refused to leave in spite of increasing menace from the Indians. This was Digory Serjent. Queen Anne's War was now raging, and the outlying settlements were a constant prey to the wandering savages. Serjent had built his house and farm buildings, had improved a fair piece of land in the wilderness, and refused to leave. He was repeatedly warned, and finally, in the early winter of 1702-3, a file of soldiers under Captain Howe, was sent from Marlborough, to remove him and his family by force if necessary. Pitching their camp a few miles from Serjent's habitation, the following morning they reached the farm and found the door of the house broken down and Serjent dead on the floor, in his own blood. Wife and children and disappeared.
Months later the story of the attack and murder was revealed by one of the party of marauding Indians. It seems that this group of marauders had made the attack a few hours before the arrival of the soldiers. Serjent had bravely defended himself but had had no chance against the assailants, and fell at once. Wife and children had been carried off to Canada. On the way, passing over the Tatnuck hills, the wife, not in good health, was unable to keep up with the others. A savage stepping up behind her, cleft her skull with his tomahawk, and the body of the poor woman was left lying there. The children went to Canada with their captors. Two of these children became enamored with this wild life and remained in Canada. The others returned to Massachusetts, one daughter marrying a man named Daniel Shattuck, and, with her husband, occupying the farm developed by her father.
With the third and successful attempt at settlement, the name of Jonas Rice is indissolubly connected. He had taken part in the second attempt in 1684. He returned in October, 1713, built on Sagatabscot Hill, occupying some of the lane that he had previously cultivated. He remained with his family quite alone in the forest until other settlers came in the spring of 1715. Mr. Rice was a leader in many civic undertakings, was repeatedly elected to local and provincial offices, and proved himself a worthy pioneer in this unpretentious settlement which was to become our present prosperous city. Moreover he was the father of the first male child to be born in Worcester, Adonijah Rice, born November 7, 1714. From these ancestors have come many of the name of Rice, an honored name, in this part of the country as well as far more widely.
As has been noted, the third effort at settlement was successful and the Worcester of today really dates from 1713, when the small band of hardy pioneers established their homes at the north end of modern Worcester, along Mill Brook, also following the line of the rude path that led to Boston and the seacoast settlements, a path that, to the west, led to the outposts along the Connecticut River.