Marshfield History

Marshfield, Massachusetts is situated on Massachusetts Bay. Much of its landscape seen today was formed by the Great Ice Age. The glacier receded leaving behind natural debris which formed drumlins and moraines and hills. As the ice melted the sea rose, reshaping the shoreline and eventually creating the salt marshes.

Early inhabitants, the Native American Wampanoag Federation of the great Algonquin Family, called Marshfield, Missaucatuket. From 1000 to 1614 Marshfield was visited by the early explorers: Norsemen, Gosnold, de Champlain and John Smith, who named it Oxford. Other names given by the first colonial settlers were Green’s Harbor after William Green who set up a fishing post on the river which bears his name and Rexhame, Latin for “King’s Home”. In 1632 Mayflower Pilgrim Edward Winslow, “Founder of Marshfield”, received a grant of land he called “Careswell”, which he farmed until 1636 when he moved his family from Plymouth After establishing a church, Marshfield was incorporated as a town on March 2, l640. Edward Winslow’s grandson, Isaac, built a manor house c.1699, which stands today and is operated by the Historic Winslow House Association as a house museum open to the public and as an educational and functions facility.

Indian Trails and waterways were the early modes of transportation for the colonists. In 1636 the Plymouth Colony Court ordered a canal to be “cut at Green’s Harbor for a boat passage 18 foot wide and 6 foot deep”. This connected Duxbury Bay with the Green Harbor River creating an inland waterway from Plymouth to the North River offering travelers protection from Atlantic storms. The first court ordered road was laid out by the Plymouth Colony Court on May 10, 1637. It followed an Indian path from Plymouth to Green Harbor for walking, and now called Pilgrim Trail. Today much of the Marshfield section of the path is extant, is marked for walking, and now called Pilgrim Trail. In 1639, Doggetts’ Ferry made travel across the North River possible for a toll. In 1800 a bridge was built over the North River at Union Street; it was a toll bridge until 1850. From 1871 to 1939 the railroad ran through Marshfield. At one time there were 22 passenger trains and 3 freight trains a day. The last train ran in 1939. Old trails and cart paths have become the present roads that bear names of people events and places connected to our past: among them are Webster St., Careswell St., Ferry St., Moraine St., Ashurton Ave., and many others.

Marshfield’s first church gathered in 1632 is the First Congregational Church. In 1641 a meetinghouse was erected in what is now Winslow Cemetery; in 1657 there was a structure built near the present church; in 1838 the present church was built and Daniel Webster worshipped there. In the early days the town and church were one. Town meeting was held in the meetinghouse and only male church members could vote. Today all church denominations are well represented and are reaching out to satisfy the spiritual needs of the community.

Political affairs have always held an important place in Marshfield. In December, 1773, in sympathy with the Boston Tea Party, local Patriots took tea from John Bourne’s store and burned it on Tea Rock Hill. In 1775 the Loyalists asked for and received the protection of 100 British Regulars known as the King’s Own 4th Regiment of Foote who were quartered for four months at the home of the Tory Nathanial Ray Thomas, which would one day become the Daniel Webster Estate. On June 19, 1776 Marshfield issued its own Declaration of Independence two weeks before the national Declaration in Philadelphia. Marshfield still enjoys the purist form of democracy: the open New England Town Meeting.

Daniel Webster, statesman, orator, senator, Secretary of State to 3 presidents, came here in 1828 to fish and hunt. He bought his home on Webster St. from John Thomas in 1832 and established an 1800 acre working farm. Among the famous visitors at Webster’s home was British Foreign Minister, Alexander Baring, Lord Ashburton, with whom Webster negotiated the Treaty of Washington (Now called the Webster-Ashburton Treaty) which established the boundary between Maine and Canada in 1843. Webster died here in 1852 and is buried in Winslow Cemetery. His Law Office, a National Historic Landmark, is located at the Winslow House, which Webster also bought to preserve in 1843. Webster’s Estate is now preserved and being restored by the Town of Marshfield. It has been visited by the great and near great including U.S. Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Woodrow Wilson. In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur came here to celebrate the centennial of Webster’s birth. The estate has been the site of town celebrations, including our Tercentenary in 1940, 350th Celebration in 1990 and its listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993.

The Training Green, (1662 or 1663), was originally used to impound stray cattle and as a place for the militia to “exercise arms”. Daniel Webster organized cattle shows there and following his lead, the first agricultural fair was held in 1862 by the South Marshfield Farmers’ Club. Over time this group developed into the Marshfield Agricultural and Horticultural Society which organized the Marshfield Fair, one of the oldest agricultural fairs in the country. The Training Green is still the heart of the community where Summer Concerts on The Green are held as is the Congregational Church Fair and the Christmas Festival of Lights. The Training Green is under the care and custody of the Marshfield Historical Commission through which people may apply to hold other public events.

The earliest industries in Marshfield were farming, fishing and salt marsh haying. The sea, in the blood of her sons, drew Marshfield men to it and the shipbuilding industry had a profound effect on the town. From 1645-1871 over 1,000 ships were built on the North River. Supporting industries developed to serve the yards: saw mills, cotton mills, grist mills, tanneries and ship chandleries. There were fulling mills, iron furnaces, factory boarding houses, company stores and even an organ factory. In 1893, under Capt. Benjamin Banter, the Life Saving Service opened its station at Brant Rock. Later this became a Lifeboat Station of the United States Coast Guard.

Other Marshfield people were employed as domestics, tanners, merchants, boot makers, clerks, teachers, ministers, and physicians. Few farms remain as the land has been developed with housing. But the shelter of Green Harbor at Brant Rock is sought by yachtsmen and fisherman. This harbor boasts the third largest commercial landings of lobster in Massachusetts and is also a major harbor for tuna catches.

Marshfield has been a place of milestones: The quartering of British troops in 1775, Dr. Isaac Winslow’s use of smallpox vaccine in 1778, Jesse Reed’s invention of the nail-making machine in 1807. His house, the first in America built with machine made nails in 1839, still stands on Main Street. Joseph Spang ran Fieldston-on-the-Atlantic where he hosted the big bands of the 1920s and 1930s, and invented the cube steak machine. The first attempt to cross the Atlantic in a hot air balloon in 1977 was made by the “Double Eagle” which rose from the sand pit on Forest St. but only made it to Iceland. The crew tried a year later (from Maine) and made it to France claiming the information gleaned from the Marshfield flight made it possible. On Christmas Eve, 1906, Reginald Aubrey Fessenden made the first transatlantic voice radio broadcast from Blackman’s Point, Brant Rock. The true Father of Voice Radio he went on to invent amplifiers for musical instruments, the beeper and sonar.

Education has always been a high priority in Marshfield. The first public school was established through public subscription by Edward Winslow in 1645. By 1789 there were four school districts. The one-room schoolhouses that served the local scholars still exist as recycled buildings. The Winslow Schoolhouse is owned by the Marshfield Historical Society and is its headquarters. It functions as a museum and as an “old time school days” experience for local school groups. Today there are five elementary schools, a middle school and a high school.

In 1817 there were 473 families in Marshfield. Today the population is approximately 25,000, about 10,000 families. Rapid growth of the town has required great changes in infrastructure. As we became a bedroom community, new services were required. A major sewer project is in progress and the face of Marshfield Center is undergoing great changes as a “downtown” shopping and business center. It is an exciting time to see a revitalization of what once was a “center” with three stores and a railroad station.

Marshfield is a diverse community with diminishing open space. Its access to the Atlantic Ocean has always been its greatest asset. The dunes, marshes, and sandy beaches, hills, knolls woodlands and meadows, historical and archaeological assets are the spectacular places in Edward Winslow found so captivating. The Town is committed to protecting these places in a delicate balance of keeping Marshfield a place where so many have come to live, work and play; but also keeping intact its character and unique history that tells its 363 year old story.

written by Regina Porter and distributed by The Marshfield Historical Commission, 2003