The Roots of Marlborough in Troubled Sudbury

The best analysis of the men who came to Marlborough and the best analysis of the dynamics that caused them to come, is contained in the Pulitzer Prize winning book ‘Puritan Village’ by Sumner Chilton Powell. The book begins by looking at Sudbury and ends with the move of the ‘rebels’ to create Marlborough. The prominent issues were land distribution and land usage. The main characters were John Ruddock, William Ward, John How Sr. and Edmund Rice.

Puritan Village by Sumner Chilton Powell

There were two competing land strategies in New England, imported from the English farming traditions. One involved ‘open’ farming wherein land was farmed together and each man, even those who owned no land, had to contribute time to the farming operations. The other was ‘close’ farming wherein the individual farmer could decide for himself what crops to grow and how to conduct his operations.

The problem of land distribution developed when the second generation men came of age. If their father did not have sufficient land to give to all of his children, they certainly would have descended into poverty. Since most of the early Puritans had large families, this was the norm rather than the exception.

The land usage problem emerged when the number of cattle threatened the available grazing land within the town. Since those who owned large tracts of land would have preference for the number of animals they could graze, the small landowner would have serious limitations on the number of cattle he could own.

Beginning in 1651, a packed Sudbury town meeting decided to grant some newly available meadowland to ‘each man’ equally. The elders at the time were determined to maintain the tradition of granting land to each according to his status and wealth. The political divide expanded to include such issues as a new meeting house and the prerogatives of the minister. More often than not, the issues were determined and pursued by John Ruddock and William Ward who were able to pack the Town Meeting with young men who were likely to benefit from the changes that were being promoted.

In January 1656, the selectmen called a town meeting to decide the question of how many cattle would be allowed on the common lands. John How Sr., in opposition, said, “If you oppresse the poore they will cry out; and if you persecute us in one city, we must fly to another.” Before the end of the year, How had moved to Marlborough, and the flight had begun. How’s home became an Inn where others would come to stay while building their farmhouses. The family business culminated in the eventual building of the Wayside Inn a half century later.

The Tipping Point

In March 1656, the progressives in Sudbury, led by John Ruddock and William Ward, were able to gain control of the Board of Selectmen. They made two decisions that were to rock the town. First, they reversed a previous cattle ‘sizing’ decision. This would have tied the number of cattle allowed to graze on common land to the size of your estate. Next, they esta­blished an egalitarian principle to the granting of new land. Whereas it was formerly the case that new land was granted in proportion to your present holdings, now everyone would receive an equal grant.

The minister of the town, Reverend Edmund Brown, immediately appealed to the Massachusetts General Court.  The court found in favor of Brown and the conservatives, reversing both decisions.  

In a subsequent town meeting, John Ruddock had declared to Rev Brown, “Setting aside your office, I regard you no more than another man.” In Puritan New England this was an insult.  Brown appealed to a Council of Ministers from surrounding towns.  These ministers were generally older clergy, born and educated in England and graduates of Cambridge University.  They were united in the belief that the Puritan ideology was threatened in America by the desire for land.

The clergy came down hard on Ruddock.  They summarized ten specific accusations against him, quoting his words in Town Meeting, and concluding violations of the Ten Comman­dments.  The accusations had no power to convict Ruddock, but it was a public repudiation of his progressive agenda.

Home Lots of Ruddock, Ward and How in Colonial Marlborough

Many in the town, which was generally opposed to any outside interference, stopped attending church services, concluding that the minister had sacrificed his position of ‘shepherd’ for purely personal financial interests.  But the progressives saw the writing on the wall.  Their only option now was to seek another strategy, one that would take them away from the interference of ministers and the General Court.  That strategy took shape quickly – they would move to the west.

Locations of Home Lots of Ruddock, Ward and How in Marlborough

Within months they petitioned the General Court thusly. “God hath been pleased to increase our children, which are grown to man’s estate; and wee, many of us, grown into years, so that wee should be glad to see them settled before the Lord take us away from hence, as also God having given us some considerable quantity of cattle, so that wee are so straightened that we cannot so comfortably subsist as could be desired; and some of us having taken pains to view the country; wee have found a place which lyeth westward about eight miles from Sudbury, which wee conceive might be comfortable for our subsistence.”

Edmund Rice, then the representative from Sudbury on the General Court, was among the petitioners. As the largest landowner in Sudbury, he had the most to gain from the conservative measures, but his many sons, who owned no land, had the most to lose.  Joining with the petitioners would provide for his family in ways that would be impossible if he stayed in Sudbury.  He was also the perfect person for the progressives.  He was well respected on the General Court and could easily sway their decision.

Headstone of Edmund Rice in Wayland, Erected by his Descendants

Within two weeks the petition was granted.  The Court could see that the situation in Sudbury was unlikely to be quickly resolved and the issues could easily grow into a cancer that might affect other towns.  And so, the way was paved for settlement of the place that would become Marlborough.

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One thought on “The Roots of Marlborough in Troubled Sudbury

  1. The history of Marlborough is far more complex than I imagined. The role of clergy, Court, and law lets me understand the the bigger picture of our cities beginnings.

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