by Russell Harris
The General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony established Groton as a town in 1655, but it was not until 1662 that Groton was settled and began to prosper. The seven- year delay was caused by a real estate scam perpetrated by some of the original proprietors of the town. These original grantees or proprietors used their extra ordinary powers in bad faith, giving themselves huge tracts of land instead of fairly distributing land to new settlers to encourage building up the township.
The original grantees or proprietors of the town were Dean Winthrop, Dolor Davis, William Martin, John Tinker (the original setler of the land), Richard Smith, Robert Blood, John Lakin, and Amos Richenson. Among their duties were:
1. Find new settlers to permanently move to Groton.
2. Fairly distribute land to the new settlers.
3. Employ "a godly Minister."
4. Build a large enough settlement within two years that the inhabitants could elect their own Board of Selectmen, and
5. Pay taxes to the state.
But after four years in 1659, none of these goals had been accomplished, nor was there any meaningful progress made toward establishing a town here. In fact, Groton was described as ‘unpeopled,’ with fewer than five settled families.
John Tinker, one of the original appointed selectmen and grantees, on seeing the conspiracy unfold, filed a complaint with the court calling out his fellow grantees for their self-dealing and failure to establish a town. John Tinker thus became one of our country’s first whistle blowers.
After implicating his fellow grantees, the court sent a committee of "meet men" to examine Tinker’s claims. In 1661, after completing the arduous investigative trip to Groton, the committee found that John Tinker’s claims were true.
The court ruled against most of the grantees, writing, “We do not find, that their interest in such land as they claim is legal and just, nor yet consistent with the Court's ends in their grant of the said plantation.” The court stripped the original grantees of their land-granting powers, but let any grantees willing to settle in Groton with a reduced portion of land and without other powers.
In his History of Groton, Caleb Butler wrote,
"It is impossible at this time to know precisely . . . what were the 'entanglements' which so obstructed and hindered the planting of Groton; but from the tenor of John Tinker's petition and the committee's report thereon, the plain inference is, that the Proprietors had included more lands in their lots than they were justly entitled to, or had proceeded unfairly and illegally in setting them out, and had not admitted others to come in upon equitable terms, by which conduct, they had forfeited their rights in the grant. The names of Richard Smith and others mentioned in the report do not appear in an enviable light. John Tinker alone seems to be the champion of justice and equity.”
The most illustrious of the original grantees was Dean Winthrop whose father was John Winthrop, a leading figure in
the founding of Massachusetts Bay Colony, the man who wrote, “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us." Winthrop's reference to the "city upon a hill" has become an enduring symbol in American political discourse. Many American politicians have cited him in their writings or speeches, going back to revolutionary times.
Apparently Dean Winthrop named our town Groton after the Winthrop family estate in Groton, Suffolk, England. Our town’s ties to John Winthrop through his son give our town an invaluable New England heritage. But, the good name of the father did not prevent the son from trading away the family name for a quick buck. In his history, Caleb Butler suggests that along with Dean Winthrop, Dolor Davis, Richard Smith and Amos Richenson probably never even set foot in the town.
“Of the grantees here and heretofore mentioned, the names only of William Martin, Richard Blood, and Robert Blood appear in any of the town records as inhabitants; whence it is inferred, that the others named never come to reside here. Dean Winthrop was son of John Winthrop, first Governor of Massachusetts, and lived in Boston. John Tinker lived in Lancaster, and was town clerk there. Dolor Davis was of Cambridge, and died at Barnstable. Of Richard Smith and Amos Richenson nothing is known. Farmer names a Richard Smith of Sudbury, and Amos Richardson, a tailor in Boston, who were probably the persons above named.”
The court looked more kindly on the original grantees who decided to settle in Groton, William Martin, Richard Blood, and Robert Blood. They were allowed to stay and retain a limited portion of land “each of them only ten acres of meadow, twenty acres for the houselot, ten acres of intervale, and ten acres of other upland, and that the same be set out by a committee, so as may not unequally prejudice, such as are, or may be their neighbors.”
“After the acceptance of the report of the Committee appointed and sent by the General Court to investigate the affairs of Groton in the year 1661, the settlement appears to have proceeded prosperously. Town records are in existence dated June 23, 1662. This is probably the first record ever made of any proceedings of the town. Votes passed at this date, and Dec. 24th of the same year, in relation to building a meeting-house, and a house for the minister. Selectmen and other town officers were chosen and other town business was transacted. What the number of inhabitants was at this time is not known, but by their being able to settle a minister and build a meeting-house, it may be inferred, that the number was considerable.”
Butler’s history of Groton is a work of insight into the early-American character. It is extraordinary that a dusty, seldom-read history of a small town could be written with such subtlety, insight and gentle irony. Butler is no moralist, preaching or mocking from on high. Rather, he portrays Groton’s early English colonists with the same weaknesses, strengths, foibles and temptations demonstrated by people living here today. In his history the early settlers are relatable and accessible, not figures of mythical powers and probity. Butler’s is the most honest and understandable depiction of the early-American character we have ever read, while also being the least known.
Caleb Butler was a polymath, besides being a scholar, and head master of Lawrence Academy. Through a careful study of early colonial court records Butler discovered the unsavory truth about Dean Winthrop’s involvement with our town, but he also discovered the bravery and willingness of John Tinker to challenge the status quo and powerful men in the name of justice and fairness.