More About Border Disputes

In the seventeenth century, when boundaries between Essex County towns were still poorly defined, longstanding disagreements about property ownership were sometimes the underlying cause for witchcraft accusations between neighbors. Nowhere was it truer than in Topsfield. Bitter land disputes between residents of Topsfield and Salem Village likely impacted the tragic deaths of Mary Easty, Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Wildes, and Elizabeth How, and the imprisonment of Sarah Cloyce.


Animosity went on for generations. As historian George Francis Dow said in his 1940 History of Topsfield, Massachusetts, “We all know how easily children absorb the feelings of their elders and usually to an exaggerated extent. To them, the people hated by their fathers are capable of the most terrible crimes…”


Sometimes disagreements arose between early settlers regarding the property boundaries of farms within a town. Usually, though, the disputes were over town borders.


Although there were few serious quarrels with Topsfield’s neighboring towns of Wenham and Ipswich, there were boundary disputes between Topsfield and its neighbor to the northwest, Rowley Village (Boxford today). According to George Francis Dow, early settler Zaccheus Gould’s property straddled both towns. Eventually his farm was officially considered to be in Topsfield, where he paid taxes, even though only 580 acres of the 3,000 he owned by 1664 were actually in Topsfield. Dow states that disagreements between Topsfield and Rowley Village/Boxford lasted for more than 300 years, finally being settled by an act of legislature around 1935.


The worst trouble, though, was between Topsfield and Salem Village, and it had its roots in a clerical error made by Increase Norwell, recording secretary of the General Court, many years earlier. Dow explains in great detail the genesis of the issue. “The controversy over the ownership and the bounds between the two towns was long and bitter,” he says. In short, the government granted the same land to both Topsfield and Salem Village. [Note: Dow spells the secretary’s name Norwell, but thanks to a reader, we’ve learned that it is actually Nowell, at least according to Wikipedia, and on several genealogy sites. -JC]


Dow describes the early Topsfield (New Meadows) settlement as built largely north of the Ipswich River. The area to the south of the river was initially undeveloped “common land”– the western side was part of John Endecott’s early grant, while the eastern side was part of Simon Bradstreet’s. (Both of these men were colonial governors of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Each had received a grant of 500 acres.) There were laws against cutting and carrying wood – a priceless commodity – from common land. In the seventeenth century, the right to cut timber, for building and firewood, was crucial.


In 1639, the General Court decreed that six miles (as measured from the meeting house) north toward the Ipswich River belonged to Salem Village, but then said in 1643 that Ipswich should have also been included in the 1639 order. The omission of Ipswich in the earlier decree was a mistake: it should have also stated that six miles south from the Ipswich River belonged to Ipswich.


After 1639, Salem Village’s John Putnam and his sons occupied more than one thousand acres of land north to the Ipswich River. In 1650, the General Court created the town of Topsfield, which included land south of the Ipswich River. In the 1650s, John’s sons Thomas and Nathaniel occupied land that was in dispute – Thomas’s son Edward also came into possession of some of it. The woods closest to Salem Village were in contention.


In 1659, representatives from both towns agreed on boundaries. Representatives for Salem included Thomas and Nathaniel Putnam from the second generation of Putnams. “These town bounds agreed upon in 1659 and accordingly entered on the town records of both Salem and Topsfield, were the identical bounds reported year after year by later committees representing the towns, and the Salem Village men who established them, – they and their sons – were the men who shortly attempted to violate the agreement,” says Dow.


The first serious trouble arose in 1668, when “common lands” south of the Ipswich River in Topsfield started to be granted to Topsfield men. It was then the Putnams claimed it was their land and harked back to the erroneous 1639 agreement. More disagreements ended up in court from 1680-1683, when several lawsuits ended with the General Court ruling in favor of Topsfield. It’s important to note the names of committee members defending Topsfield during this time – How, Easty, Wildes, Towne – all of whom would see family members accused by the opposing Putnam family during the witch trials a decade later.


In the 1680s, members of the extended Towne family sued Captain John Putnam (of the second generation) and sons, after they witnessed the Putnams felling timber on Topsfield land belonging to a Towne family member. Historian Marilynne Roach describes the encounter in Six Women of Salem: The Untold Story of the Accused and Their Accusers in the Salem Witch Trials. “The Putnam clan and their workmen faced off rival Topsfield men in distant woodlots, threatening each other with their axes in a decidedly un-Christian manner.” The General Court once again ruled in Topsfield’s favor. After England’s revocation of the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter in 1684, legal disputes were left in limbo, allowing them to fester. A new charter did not arrive in New England until May of 1692, but the witchcraft hysteria had already been underway for two and a half months by that time.


Thus, the number of accused and jailed was escalating, among them, the three living daughters of William and Joanna Towne – Rebecca Nurse, Mary Easty, and Sarah Cloyce – and Topsfield’s Sarah Wildes and Elizabeth How. All were accused of witchcraft by, among others, third generation Putnam family members Thomas Putnam Jr., his wife Ann Putnam, and their daughter, 12-year-old Ann Putnam Jr.


Note: Photos of the Topsfield woods near the Danvers border were taken in the Essex County Greenbelt property of Donibristle Reservation, 44 acres of wooded hillside that was once part of James Duncan Phillips’ 100-acre “gentleman’s farm,” land which he purchased in 1911. Historian Phillips was a Vice President at Houghton Mifflin, a contributor to the Essex Institute’s Historical Collections, and the author of one of our favorite books, Salem in the Seventeenth Century.


Border between Topsfield and Danvers. Parking for Donibristle Reservation is near the intersection of Hill Street and Rowley Bridge Road.