More About Welcome to Billerica

In 1655, Shawshin was re-named Billerica, after Billericay, a town in Essex County, England where many settlers had originated. The original Billerica Plantation included all or part of present-day towns Bedford (separated in 1729), Wilmington (1730), Tewksbury (1734), and Carlisle (1780). Defining features of Billerica are the two rivers, the Shawsheen and the Concord, which flow northward to the Merrimack River.


Reverend Samuel Whiting arrived in 1658, the first meeting house was built in 1660, and Whiting was ordained in 1663. A second meeting house was built in 1694, a third in 1738, and a fourth meeting house/First Parish Church in 1797 (renovated and rotated 90 degrees in 1844!).  A fire in 1967 destroyed most of the building and today the Universalist Unitarian First Parish Church of Billerica meets in the building reconstructed in 1970.


Among the early settlers were Ralph Hill (1653), stepfather of Roger Toothaker; John Rogers (1659), whose son John Rogers Jr. would be caught up in the Salem witch trials 30 years later; and Jonathan Danforth, brother of Thomas Danforth, Massachusetts Deputy Governor during the witch trials. Arriving in 1660 and settling on land given to him by his stepfather was Roger Toothaker, who married Mary Allen five years later, and thirteen or fourteen years after that, Thomas Carrier, who married Mary’s sister Martha Allen in 1674.


Billerica was a western wilderness in the seventeenth century, infested with wolves and susceptible to native attack. A 20-shilling bounty was paid to both English and Indigenous people for each wolf kill. Interestingly, the colonists and the local Pawtucket tribe, led by Sachem Passaconoway, had a fairly peaceful coexistence. Billerica’s local historian Kathy Meagher shared this from a 1660 speech Passaconoway made to his people, warning them to “take heed how they quarreled with their English neighbors, for though they might do them some damage, yet it would prove the means of their own destruction.” Two years later, he moved north near Manchester, NH, with his place taken by his son, Wannalancet. According to historian Henry Allen Hazen, “The Pawtucket tribe occupied the vicinity of the mouth of the Concord River, on both sides of it, as their headquarters. From this place they went forth; to this they returned; here they planted their corn … ancient Billerica [had] a large Indian population, though the town never probably exercised civil jurisdiction over them.”


During King Philip’s War (1675-76), historian John Farmer says, “The settlements in the northerly part of this town on the Concord River were, from their situation, peculiarly exposed, and were deserted by the inhabitants, who were ordered to be entertained ‘in the body of the town.’” Twelve garrisons were built for safety but, thankfully, no incidents were reported.


During King William’s war fifteen years later, area tragedies multiplied. It was distant native tribes from the north, allied with the French-Canadians, who led raids on Billerica. Hazen says, “The peace secured by Billerica and other towns from Indian assault was precarious and maintained only by constant vigilance … In 1689, Dover suffered a deadly assault … European policy was perhaps the occasion of this outbreak, for the Revolution in England gave the French, who ruled Canada, a pretense for instigating this attack.” Dunstable to the northwest suffered two attacks in 1691. In 1692, the year of the Salem witch trials, Reverend Whiting’s brother John, minister in Lancaster, MA was killed in an Indian raid there. Two weeks later, a native raid of Billerica killed Ann Shed and two of her children, and Ann Dutton and two of her children. The worst raid of all was in August of 1695, details of which can be found in the Roger and Mary Toothaker section.


Among the town’s luminaries, Billerica boasts three fascinating Revolutionary War-era figures. William Manning (1747-1814), the author of The Key of Liberty, is described by the John Harvard Library: “A farmer, foot soldier, and political philosopher, Manning was a powerful democratic voice of the common American in a turbulent age.” Asa Pollard (1735-1775) was the first soldier killed at The Battle of Bunker Hill, decapitated by a cannonball shot from a ship. Thomas Ditson (1741-1828) went to Boston in 1775 to buy a firelock, intending to join the Massachusetts Minutemen. Purchasing from a British soldier, he was tarred and feathered and paraded through town on a cart, punishment for his effort to take up arms against the King. The incident earned Ditson a verse in Yankee Doodle (“Yankee Doodle came to town, For to buy a firelock, We will tar and feather him, And so we will John Hancock”), a tune that originally mocked the colonial American soldiers. “Yankee Doodle” was eventually co-opted by the American “patriots.” Billerica celebrates “Yankee Doodle Weekend” every September to this day.


Billerica is also known for the 27-mile long Middlesex Canal, which flowed through Billerica between 1795 and 1852. This barge canal connected the Merrimack River with the port of Boston and was used to transport goods from Lowell to that city.


Today, Billerica has a population of approximately 42,000, and is home to a number of corporate offices and headquarters, among them Merck Millipore, Cabot Corporation, and Pan Am Railways. About a decade ago, in 2014, Billerica was named one of the country’s top fifty towns for sports and recreation and the “Sportstown for the Bay State” in Sports Illustrated’s 50th anniversary issue.


Special thanks to Kathy Meagher, local historian at the Billerica Public Library, for her invaluable help with this section of the tour, particularly regarding the Salem witch trials and the locals’ relations with the native Pawtucket people.