A Land Dispute Splits the Town

Note:  This story is presented in three parts.  The length of the controversy was sixteen years.

It was not uncommon for there to be land controversies in colonial New England. Surveying methods were rough, Indian land ownership was always an issue, written documents were sometimes missing, and even when present, often had math or geography errors. Establishing land ownership in New England extended deep into the eighteenth century and beyond. But the Marlborough controversy was somewhat straightforward, and, to sweeten the drama, involved the two most powerful families in colonial Marlborough, the Rices and the Wards. The problem lasted for almost two decades, poisoned relationships, created problems for the minister, and even outlasted the almost complete abandonment of Marlborough during King Philip’s War.

One of the complicating factors for the citizens of Marlborough was the restoration of King Charles II in 1660. During the preceding decade under Cromwell, the Mass Bay Colony had experienced unparalleled independence. The restoration of royal rule meant a long period of readjustment by colonial authorities whose very Charter was at risk. During the 1660s and beyond, the General Court was inundated with various issues emanating from England and had little time or interest in the seemingly never ending strife in Marlborough.

At the outset, a serious problem for the Sudbury settlers was the lack of land opportunities for the second generation Puritan families. Edmund Rice and William Ward had large families and their sons and married daughters had need of land for their families. The problem was greatest for Rice since he was older and more of his children had come of age. In addition, his second wife was Mercy Brigham, widow of the patriarch Thomas Brigham, so his stepchildren would need land as well. For Ward, the problem was imminent; most of his children would come of age within a few years.

Sons or step-sons of Edmund Rice in Marlborough included Edward, Samuel, Joseph, Benjamin and Thomas Rice, and Thomas and John Brigham. There is also evidence that John Maynard had married Mary Rice Axtell, eldest daughter of Edmund Rice. All owned land at one time or another in Marlborough. Sons and sons-in-law of Ward who owned land included Richard, Samuel, and Obadiah Ward and John How Jr, Jonathan Johnson, Abraham Williams, Abraham Howe, and John Woods Jr. In addition to the primary families, all of the other landowners had a very close affiliation with one or both of the families. The original proprietor list included only thirty-eight names. To make matters worse, Thomas Rice had married Mary King, daughter of Thomas King, another powerful man and long time selectman in Marlborough.

Thomas Rice, Abraham Howe and Samuel Ward were at the center of the controversy. According to the Rice, Ward and Howe Genealogies, Thomas Rice would have been about thirty-five in 1660, Samuel Ward about nineteen and Abraham Howe between thirty-five and forty. Although the exact details of the problem cannot be told with absolute certainty, records provide a good overview.

In December of 1659, Thomas Rice is singled out as having been granted land north of John Ruddock and west of Christopher Bannister. He must have been a late addition since his grant is deserving of a separate entry. The land would have been somewhere between present day Pleasant Street and Mechanic St, perhaps near the Maplewood Cemetery.

The next entry of note is on January 24, 1662, where Samuel Ward is granted his brother Richard’s land. Richard married Mary Moores of Sudbury in 1661 and it is doubtful that he ever lived in Marlborough. Richard drowned in the Sudbury River in 1666. The location of the land is a bit of a puzzle since Richard’s land is thought to have been in the exact same area as the land granted to Thomas Rice. This land never appears to be in dispute, however. Three days later, on January 27th, in order to settle some controversy, Samuel Ward and Abraham Howe were given shares of meadowland.

Later that year, one in a long series of threats is made to force proprietors to pay taxes. This is particularly exact and may have included Thomas Rice. The first generation Puritans had a great deal of land in Sudbury, but the second generation men had little or none. Those with land could sell some to pay taxes in the new town. Where would those who were land poor find the money to pay taxes? A contributing problem was that his father Edmund was only a few months from death (in May, 1663) and may not have been able to intervene. In any case, it does appear that this Town Order forced Thomas Rice to give up his land.

Peter Rice House, Elm St.

This is reflected the following year where an entry on December 25, 1663 shows that “Thomas Rice, who gave up the land formerly granted him, is granted thirty-five acres.” The location of the land was “north of the pond” and undoubtedly included the land on which the Peter Rice house (home of the Marlborough Historical Society) now sits. Peter was one of Thomas Rice’s thirteen children and inherited half of the property. The disputed meadow land was probably at the bottom of the hill near to the intersection of Bigelow Street and Donald Lynch Boulevard, and just a relatively short distance from Thomas Rice’s house lot.

Next: The Town Divides

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