How Haverhill Was Really Founded

Monument to Rev. John Ward and Colonel Nathaniel Saltonstall at Pentucket Cemetery, Haverhill.

Part one of a series, “A Town Named Haverhill”

Editor’s Note: Families can be complicated. The true story of the founding of Haverhill, Mass., is a testament to this fact with the founding minister’s father and brother-in-law being shown to be real estate schemers and his brother being a burglar expelled from Harvard. Much of the story of Haverhill’s founding has been steeped in fanciful folklore, but David Goudsward reveals the truth is much more colorful.

The key date in the founding of Haverhill is 1639, a year before the first 12 settlers arrived at the banks of the Merrimack River near today’s Mill Street. The year 1639 is when John Ward arrived in Ipswich, joining his father, the Rev. Nathaniel Ward.

John Ward Memorial tablet (Haverhill’s John’s grandfather) on the chancel north wall of St Mary the Virgin Haverhill Church in Haverhill, England.

John Ward Memorial tablet (Haverhill’s John’s grandfather) on the chancel north wall of St Mary the Virgin Haverhill Church in Haverhill, England.

Nathaniel Ward (1578-1652) was born in Haverhill, England. The son of John Ward, a Puritan minister in Haverhill, he forsook the family trade (both his brothers were ministers). He became a barrister and traveled across Europe. In Heidelberg, Germany, he was convinced to join the ministry. Returning to England, he quickly became one of the foremost Puritan ministers in the region. This made him an easy target for the Anglican Church’s leader Anglican Archbishop William Laud. Laud was already antagonizing the Puritans by making the church more ceremonial, to the point of being accused of reintroducing Catholicism. Ward, after repeated reprimands and narrowly escaping excommunication, was dismissed from his church. He boarded as ship the next year, arriving in 1634 and serving as the pastor of Ipswich’s First Congregational Church 1635-1638, before stepping down for health reasons.

Nathaniel’s legal background would prove useful. He began to compile and write a “Body of Liberties” as a legal code for Massachusetts, a combination of Old Testament law melded with English common statutes. The 1641 version was rejected, but it clearly established Massachusetts as a Puritan-controlled theocracy. It would not be until 1648 that a broadened version of Ward’s work became its first complete legal code. Ironically, the process took so long that when Nathaniel’s other son, James, was caught robbing houses in Cambridge in 1644, there was still no statute against burglary. James was however kicked out of Harvard after being whipped by the college president, and ordered to pay double the value of the stolen items as restitution.

John Ward’s arrival in 1639 was out of necessity. It was becoming increasingly dangerous to Puritans in England. Archbishop Laud and King Charles I were attempting to standardize the Anglican Book of Prayers across Great Britain. Instead of conformity, the plan triggered riots in Scotland, and now Charles was amassing troops at the Scottish border to quash the rebellion. Ward’s father and grandfather had both been high-profile leaders in the nonconformist movement, and John was aware of the difficulties his uncles were experiencing. With the entire country teetering on the brink of civil war, it was a good time to head to New England.

John Ward was born in 1606. Sources cite Haverhill, England, as his likely birthplace although he could also have been born in Ipswich, England. He was educated at Cambridge University (like his father and grandfather), receiving an A.B. in 1626 and an A.M. in 1630. His arrival in Ipswich found him in the middle of a glut of ministers. The Wards were not the only ones fleeing religious persecution. Even Nathaniel’s influence could not locate a position for John. Of course, Nathaniel’s insistence that John needed to stay close to his father also minimized opportunities.

Founding of the Haverhill Colony…Absent the Minister

The year 1639 is also when Giles Firman married Nathaniel Ward’s daughter Susan in Ipswich. It is Firman who makes the earliest reference to the settlement of Haverhill.

The reference is contained in an odd letter to Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop from Firman, dated Dec. 26, 1639. According to Firman, his father-in-law wanted to keep the family together now that John had arrived, but it did not appear possible as Ipswich already had a minister. The letter continued the Wards and Firmans wished to start a new settlement, either at Pentucket by the Merrimack or Cochichawich by the Shawsheen (Andover), to give the family a location where John Ward could serve as the minister. He then requested the governor not act upon the request until they actually had the opportunity to visit the locations. He then also asked that the request be kept a secret. This last part is understandable – Firman was a physician and had been granted 120 acres of land from Ipswich under the condition he remained in town for at least three years. The letter admits to the governor that medicine was not paying well, and he wished to pursue the more lucrative career as a minister. Should the governor send Firman to Pentucket, it would negate the agreement with Ipswich without besmirching Firman’s word (and would allow him to sell the property instead of forfeiting it).

Whether Firman’s letter was a catalyst may never be known, but at the session of the General Court, held at Boston May 18, 1640, another petition was received. This one was from Nathaniel Ward and Newbury men for permission to begin a new plantation on the Merrimack. Permission was granted, providing the settlement was established by October. It would not be a problem. As hinted at in Firmin’s letter, Nathaniel Ward already had plans in place. In short order, a group headed up the Merrimack consisting of eight Newbury men: James Davis, Samuel Gile, Christopher Hussey, Richard Littlehale, Henry Palmer, John Robinson, William White, John Williams and, from Ipswich, Job Clements, Daniel Ladd, Joseph Merrie and Abraham Tyler.

You’ll note that there are no Wards or Firmans among the initial settlers. Firman had apparently decided to stay in Ipswich, studying theology and counting down the days until his obligation to the town was fulfilled. Nathaniel’s delicate health was not conducive to taming the wilderness, and John, ostensibly the reason for the settlement in the first place, had accepted a preaching position in the settlement that would become York, Maine.

Once it was apparent the Pentucket colony had survived its first winter, Nathaniel sent for John. Ward arrived in the autumn of 1641 after the harvest was complete and began introducing himself to his new flock.

Town Name Actually Honors Prominent Landowner

In 1643, the General Court disbanded the Pentucket charter and issued a new one under the name Haverhill, essentially the colonial equivalent of a legal name change. In spite of claims the name change was to honor the settlement’s new minister’s birthplace, it was actually named in honor of Nathaniel Ward, also born in Haverhill, England. The proof of this is that at the same time, Nathaniel was granted 600 acres in a town he rarely, if ever, actually visited.

If the Haverhill colony was indeed an effort to keep the family together, the plan was an abysmal failure. Having completed his obligations as the Ipswich physician, Giles Firman sold off the property in 1644 and sailed to England to pursue his religious studies. His ship was wrecked off Spain but he did eventually become a minister in England after a leisurely tour of Spain. Nathaniel Ward, James and Firman’s family would return to England in 1647. The First English Civil War (1642–1646) had ended and being an ardent Puritan like Ward was now significantly less likely to get you killed. Nathaniel would pen a nasty little satirical book, A Simple Cobbler of Agawam, lambasting his New World pet peeves like religious tolerance, women’s fashions, and the very existence of Catholics and the Irish.

John Ward was apparently done with adventures. He had spent four days lost in the wilderness in Maine while traveling to be the new preacher at York, and sea voyages were arduous and often dangerous. The fact his father was now 3,000 miles away may have been a consideration as well. Ward remained in Haverhill until his death in 1693. In spite of a biographical sketch by Cotton Mather that bordered on hagiographic in Magnalia, Ward was seemingly content to be a low-profile, small town minister. But he would never escape his father’s shadow – after all, the town was named Haverhill.

3 thoughts on “How Haverhill Was Really Founded

  1. Our family historian says another founding father of Haverhill was John Ayres. Somewhere around 1635. His infant son Steven was with him there. My Aunt Francis Kimball (sp?) many generations back gathered our Ayres family history in Haverhill Mass. for my grandmother Lizzie Ayres. in early 1900’s.