Dorchester: 1630-1870

It often happens that an event at the Dorchester Historical Society (DHS) is an informative experience. And it often happens that a DHS event is an enjoyable experience. Today’s presentation by Earl Taylor and John Goff was both.

The title promised a broad sweep of history: “Dorchester from the Period of Settlement to Annexation.” Needless to say, covering 240 years of activity (1630–1870) in a 95-minute talk is not really possible; Taylor and Goff coped with this daunting task by stressing themes rather than giving a comprehensive survey. Rather than spend 24 seconds on each year of history — a technique that I hope no one would seriously attempt — they split both the entire period of years and the time for the talk in half, and then dealt with each half thematically. The result was notably successful.

Goff, a preservation architect and executive director of Historic Salem, gave the first half of the presentation, which dealt with the first half of Dorchester’s pre-annexation history and unsurprisingly focused on architecture. We learned about the log cabin myth and the virgin territory myth: the false ideas that early British settlers in Dorchester lived in log cabins, and the idea that Dorchester was empty until the Brits arrived. Goff showed us the housing of the American Indians (or Native Americans, for those who are mistakenly politically correct) and the timber-framed, post-and-beam houses of the settlers. We learned about wattle and daub (no, I hadn’t known those words either) and its use in the DHS’s Blake House, which now looks tiny but was considered a mansion when it was built. Goff’s portion of the talk completed with a slide show of the progression of architectural styles in 17th- and 18th-century Dorchester.

Then, at the request of an audience member, we had a 5-minute break, which of course lasted 15 minutes and of course it was difficult to get everyone back into their seats. I always have mixed feelings about giving breaks in the middle of long sessions for exactly this reason.

Taylor then took us up to 1870 with a carefully chosen set of themes other than architecture. First came church history, starting with the Puritans, who came here for their freedom to worship (but, as is well known, not others’ freedom to worship). For a long time the history of religion in Dorchester was intimately tied in with the histories of government and education, and education formed Taylor’s second theme. Our own Mather School claims the title of being the first public school in America to be supported by taxes. Of particular interest to the audience were slides showing reproductions of the “Oath of a Free-Man,” and the Bay Psalm Book. The former is notable because swearing this Christian oath was originally a requirement for being a voter; from the latter we read a very awkward rhymed translation of the 23rd psalm. Each of these claims to be the first work printed in North America. After a survey of Dorchester schools we returned to the early days and learned about the wreck of the Elizabeth and Mary in Canada, and were then treated to a whirlwind survey of Dorchester industry and commerce, including a variety of industries that we no longer have, such as chocolate, paper, pewter, and silver-plating.

Categories: Dorchester/Boston