The Story of Dogtown
When the Commons Settlement was surveyed by Joshua Batchelder in 1741, the census recorded 20 percent of Gloucester's population residing there and owning ten percent of the town's property. The Batchelder survey was necessary to justify a new church parish for the Commons settlement, During the 1730s people had migrated to the Commons from the Greens (on the present site of the Gloucester rotary). But it was difficult for the Commons settlers to travel to the Greens parish meeting house, so, in 1738, they petitioned the General Court of Massachusetts to establish Gloucester's fifth parish. The Commons' petition was granted, based on Batchelder's census and survey, in 1751.
The Commons Settlement was then at the height of its prosperity. Located at the very center of Cape Ann, the hamlet was on the primary route to Rockport, Pigeon Cove, Lanesville and Annisquam. Sixty of the most prominent families in Gloucester lived along Commons Road and it was considered to be the best part of town.
The Commons Settlement flourished for barely a century then declined as other industries displaced Dogtown's mills and agriculture. Soon after Batchelder's survey, key families started to move out. But during the heyday of the Commons, several inhabitants earned fame for either their enterprise or their roles in the American Revolution.
Three individuals were notable shepherds. James Witham, born in 1693, was a shepherd who earned a living estimated at $300 a year, tending both cattle and sheep in the Commons area. His house was located on Dogtown Road, east of Dogtown Square between Stephen Robinson (#21) and Granny Day (#20). Abram Wharf (#24 Wharf Rd.) was said to own most of the sheep in town in 1800; and the sizable flock of Colonel William Pearce (#23 Dogtown Rd.) attracted the attention of British raiders during the War of 1812.
The rugged terrain was not ideal even for sheep herding, however. For example, shepherds feared the rock formation known as Lamb's Ledge, a part of the terminal moraine. Sheep grazed up to the edge of this giant rock formation and then either got stuck or fell off the ledge. It was not a safe place. Another dangerous site in the Commons was the bog adjacent to Dogtown Square known as ‘Granny Day's Swamp' where many a careless creature wandered in and couldn't get out.
Another successful farmer was Joseph Stevens. Born in 1763, he had a large enclosed yard and a barn in his Commons home. Stevens even had a sheep pen, so his sheep would not wander far afield. He owned a great deal of land. as well as cattle and horses. Although he was a wealthy man, by contemporary accounts, he and especially his sister Molly, were considered unpleasant neighbors. The cellar hole marked #14 Dogtown Road was assigned to Hannah Stevens. This may be the site of Joseph Stevens' original homestead.
Captain Samuel Riggs was a prosperous land-owner. It is said he could walk from Riverdale to Rockport on his own land. The first Riggs house was constructed by Thomas Riggs in 1661. Thomas was both schoolmaster and town clerk in the mid-1600's. The Riggs house, located on the outskirts of Dogtown is the oldest house on Cape Ann. Samuel's descendant, Joseph Riggs, lived at #22 Dogtown Road.The first Gloucester blacksmith, Joseph Allen, was enticed to settle in the Commons area in 1674. In the course of two marriages he raised seventeen children, many of whom made the Commons Settlement their home. The homestead of Benjamin Allen is #39 Commons Road.
Johnny Morgan Stanwood, (1774-1852) was a cobbler who lived in the Commons and worked out of his shop or "boo," which was a small addition to his house (#26 Commons Road). The "boo" provided separate space for the occupation of cobbling. Stanwood's "boo," which was made of slabs of wood and turf leaning against a boulder, was still extant when the Civil War commenced.
Nathaniel Day (#1 Back Road) brought some seventeen children into the world, including three sets of twins. His wife, Mary Davis, was proud to call the Commons Settlement home. One of their sons, Isaac, was a gunner who fought on the USS Constitution.
The Revolutionary War arrived as the Commons Settlement entered its twilight years. Several inhabitants played a part in that conflict.
Isaac Dade was an Englishman impressed into the British Navy. While on a British ship bound for Virginia, he managed to escape and married a colonial girl, Fanny Brundle. (Fanny's father's plantation was adjacent to that of General George Washington's mother.) Dade soon located in Gloucester where at the commencement of the Revolution, he enlisted in the Continental Army. He fought in three battles and was critically wounded by a saber cut to the neck at the Battle of Yorktown. He survived to witness Cornwallis' surrender to Washington.
With his seafaring and soldiering days behind him, Isaac Dade settled in his adopted home of Gloucester, specifically in the Commons (#18 Dogtown Road). Here he opened a fish store. Unfortunately the local women preferred to barter directly with the fishermen who sold their fish dockside in the harbor. In any case, Dade somehow scraped a living. His wife, Fanny, lived in the Commons Settlement until she died.
Another Commons citizen was martyred in the famous Falcon incident during the war. Peter Lurvey (#25 Commons Road) was a Commons farmer. His daughter would marry Johnny Stanwood, the cobbler. In August of 1775 Lurvey was huckle berrying when he received word that the British frigate Falcon was in Gloucester Harbor. The rumor was that Captain Lindsey, a British combatant at Bunker Hill two months before, was planning to raid the Commons and capture sheep for food.
Lurvey grabbed his gun, and, enlisting other men en route, dashed to the harbor. In the subsequent skirmish, shells from the Falcon landed on the Gloucester streets and one cannon ball landed in the First Parish Church. The Gloucester militia then managed to trick the Falcon into chasing what appeared to be a cargo-laden ship. The craft was deceptively low in the water due to a worthless payload of sand. After luring the Falcon into range, the Gloucester troops fired on her, exacting some casualties. Before being driven out to sea, however, the Falcon's shells killed a deacon's hog and two Gloucestermen: Benjamin Rowe and Peter Lurvey.
Lurvey was the first resident of the Commons to die at war. His widow, a sister of Abram Wharf, lived to be 104, and spent her waning years in Dogtown.
Commons sheep were tempting prizes of war. During the War of 1812, British battle ships again' invaded Annisquam Harbor seeking sheep, this time from the plentiful herd of William Pearce. That skirmish, in June 1814, resulted in no loss of life, except for the sheep.
Sometime following the Revolution, the Commons Settlement became known as "Dogtown." The new name, reflecting the neighborhood's descent, is believed to be derived from the circumstance that the poor people who lived there, especially widows, kept dogs as company, or perhaps as protection. Hence, "Dogtown."
The decline was swift. By 1814 there were only six of the original80 houses still standing in Dogtown. In 1830 the last resident departed, and in 1845 the last house was torn down.
There were many reasons for Dogtown' 5 demise. The timber industry died out as the land had been deforested. Better farming land became available in adjacent counties. Other industries, notably fishing, shipping and quarrying, drew population to other parts of the Cape. The Mill in Riverdale and the maritime activity of Lanesville and Pigeon Cove drew people away from Dogtown.
The conclusion of the Revolutionary War and the conquest of the Barbary Pirates opened the port of Gloucester to profitable trade. As commerce replaced subsistence fanning as a way of life, the harbor became the preferred neighborhood.
Significantly, new roads were constructed along the perimeter of the Cape, bypassing the old Commons Settlement. The bridge at Riverdale and the Goose Cove Dam created new patterns of traffic that further isolated the hamlet.
The homes in the Commons were now rented to rowdy ship crews, to widows of soldiers in the Revolution and to others who could not afford to live around the Harbor. The inhabitants often survived on berries - barberries and blueberries to preserve, and bayberries for candles. Dwellers on the barren common used peat for fuel It is said that Dogtown was home to some 60 widows of Revolutionary War soldiers. They lived in abject poverty, their roofs and walls falling down about them.
Dogtown became an aberration, an embarrassment, a ghetto in the midst of a town whose focus changed.
In Dogtown's twilight years the hamlet attracted some colorful and eccentric inhabitants.
Thomasine (Tammy) Younger was born in 1753 and died in 1829. She was known as the" queen of the witches" in Dogtown. She lived with her aunt, Luce George on the outskirts of Dogtown in the Fox Hill Homestead, on the hill which is now Cherry Street.
Travelers going to Dogtown or beyond, into Pigeon Cove or Rockport, had to pass Tammy's house. She could open her door/ window with a string and watch the passersby. She acted like a toll-keeper;. harassing drivers to give her a piece of the action. As oxen were struggling to carry a load of corn or wood up Fox Hill Tammy would scream out abuse until the driver would toss her some of his goods. Beware anyone who ignored her invective; her spirit would get you if you did not heed her demands!
It is known that Tammy churned butter and sold it to harbor residents. She was a snuff user, and years after her death, a snuff box was found in her cellar.
A short, plump woman, Tammy had two long teeth that interfered with her dining on the corn and fish she" earned". She implored the local cobbler, Johnny Stanwood to extract them with his nippers. However, the amateur dentist pulled the teeth only part way out, enough to worsen her plight - and delight the village folk she had tormented.
When Tammy died in 1829, a cabinet maker named Hodgkins, who built her coffin, thought that Tammy's spirit was already in the coffin before the funeral was even underway. The Hodgkins family felt that an evil spirit was with them, and they refused to sleep with the coffin in the shop. Her burial was remembered with awe: there was doubt she ever died!
Luce George was also reputed to be a witch. She frequented the wharves and extorted fresh fish from the fishermen by threatening them with evil spells. She boasted that when she worked with Tammy they could bewitch oxen on the hillsides.
The most educated man in Dogtown was Abram Wharf (#24 Wharf Road), a relative of a Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice. His family, according to the 1790 census of Gloucester residents' consisted of himself, four "free white males under 16 years, and 2 free white females" - presumably his wife, daughter, and four sons. He was a noted shepherd and farmer.
Wharf lived in the Commons area all his life, over 70 years, and occupied two houses consecutively near Wharf Road. He survived to see Dogtown slide into poverty. Perhaps it was his discouragement at this decline that led him, in the winter of 1814, to put a razor to his neck and crawl under a boulder to die.
Dorcas Foster (#17 Dogtown Road) was brought to Dogtown during the Revolution when her father was killed at war. She married three times. Her third husband, Captain Joseph Smith, fought valiantly against the British in the War of 1812.
Easter Carter (#15 Dogtown Road) was born in England and arrived in Gloucester with her brother in 1741. Easter (sometimes listed as Esther) was a spinster, who earned a poor but selfless living by nursing those who lived near her. Her house had no cellar - only a potato pit, but it was the only two-story house in Dogtown. It is remembered for its pegged clapboards which made it quite an impressive structure. She lived off the land with her cattle, sheep and a team of oxen. Boiled cabbage was her best known offering, for Easter Carter was quoted "} eats no trash."
Easter was still alive in 1833 in Gloucester after the last resident left Dogtown. Her home became a popular picnic site long after she was no longer around to offer a meal to passersby.
The second story of Easter's house was inhabited by "Old Ruth" a freed mulatto slave with a hearty, compassionate manner, but large protruding teeth. Ruth dressed in male attire and would sometimes go under the name of John Woodman. She was known in the area to be a very hard worker, capable of doing heavy work. It was said she could earn a decent wage building stonewalls.
Becky (Granny) Rich (#2 Back Road) gained a reputation telling fortunes from coffee grounds. Her fortunes were always cheerful and optimistic, if not always reliable. She was known for concocting witch-like brews from native berries. Becky was reputed to boil cabbage dinners for the local youth and lead a merry' life for all she came in contact with. Her son, Jack Bishop Smith, was one of two Dogtown residents known to have committed suicide.
Becky's daughter Rachel Smith (#6 Back Road) was best known for her' dire drink' prepared by brewing foxberry leaves, spruce tops and herbs to create a ‘spring medicine'. Rachel was a good cook whose specialty was boiled cabbage dinners with johnny cake. When their house became too dilapidated for habitation, Becky and Rachel moved in to Easter Carter's home which soon developed a reputation as a ‘road house' promoting dancing and other frivolity for the youth of the area.
Annie Carter, born 1776, was married to Easter's brother William. The location of her house is uncertain. Tiny "Granny Carter" was known as one of the most friendly and cheerful women in town. After she passed away, husband William moved out of Dogtown.
Jane "Granny" Day (#20 Dogtown Road) was a school teacher, who worked out of the single-room school-house at Dogtown Square. Roger Babson guessed that she lived at #20 Dogtown Road, but archeologist Irving Sucholeiki makes a case for #21 Dogtown Road where, in 1991, he unearthed pipe stems, iron nails and pottery shards during his examination of the site. In either case, her house almost certainly abutted the sheep-swallowing swamp. Granny Day considered herself quite a competent school teacher, though the competition was somewhat slim. She lived to the age of 94 and died in 1814.
The cellar hole, corner-marked by boulder #20, is all that remains of the single-room school-house of widow Jane Day.
Judy Rhines (born in 1771) developed a reputation as a witch. Besides telling fortunes, she also picked berries and cleaned houses for a living. The barberries she picked would be used for preserves; the bayberries could be sold or used for candles. The local village boys looked down on Judy as a woman without property. They taunted her and once stole some of her geese. Judy had been known to work the streets, along with Molly Jacobs (born 1763) and Liz Tucker. These three unfortunates comprised Dogtown's red-light district. It is known that Judy Rhines was still living in Gloucester in 1833. Her Dogtown home was on Commons Road, now beneath the Goose Cove Reservoir.
In the house once owned by Peter Lurvey (#25 Wharf Road), resided three poverty-stricken ladies. Molly Jacobs, Sarah Phipps Jacobs and Mrs. Stanley fought starvation with their companion Sammy Stanley, Mrs. Stanley's grandson. Sam was brought up as a woman, and was dressed accordingly. His three aged and poverty-struck cohabitors were eventually taken to the poorhouse when the Town Constable deemed their abode unsanitary. Sammy Stanley became a local 'washerwoman' and later developed a promising career as a stockholder in a cotton mill. He was also known as Sam Maskey.
Black Neil, also known as Cornelius Finson, was another freed slave who lived in Dogtown. Neil was a clerk for the fisheries, as well as a hog slaughterer. He lived first with Molly Jacobs, . in the cellar where he thought money was buried - perhaps by the pirate Captain Kidd. Later he moved in with Judy Rhines. When the roof collapsed, Neil moved his quarters to the cellar.
Black Neil lived in the cellar-hole for some time. It was in the winter of 1830 that the Town Constable found Black Neil with his feet literally freezing, and he was taken to the poorhouse. He died a week later. He was the last resident of Dogtown.
In 1845 the last standing house (#11 Dogtown Road) in Dogtown was torn down. It belonged to Philip Priestly, a fisherman who, according to Charles Mann, climbed a tree in Dogtown to view the festivities attending the 1840 election of William Henry Harrison. The wells were pushed in because grazing cows had been known to fall into the wells, which didn't help the wells, or the cows for that matter, according to Ted Tarr, a former Rockport Selectman who conducts tours of Dogtown.
Bereft of inhabitants, Dogtown became a footnote in Gloucester history, seldom mentioned in official records. A map published in 1831 by Major John Mason does identify the neighborhood as "Dogtown," but John Babson's 1860 History of
Gloucester barely mentions Dogtown.
Dogtown did lure visitors; Whale's Jaw and the Great Moraine drew picnickers, and the blueberry bushes of Dogtown attracted the enterprising. Five hundred bushels of bayberries were harvested in Dogtown in 1858. Also, cattle continued to graze amid the ruins.
Henry David Thoreau visited the vanished village in September 1858. He recorded the following about his walking tour, which concluded with a moonlight glimpse of Dogtown.
We kept along the road to Rockport, some two miles or more, to a 'thundering big ledge' by the road as a man called it; then turned off toward the south shore, at a house with two very large and old pear trees before it. Part of the house was built by a Witham, one of the first settlers, and the place or neighborhood used to be called ‘the Farms'... The narrow road - where we followed it - wound around big boulders.We had already seen a sort of bare rocky ridge, a bare boulder covered back of the Cape, running northeasterly from Gloucester toward Rockport and for some three miles quite bare, the eastern extremity of the Cape being wooded. That would be a good place to walk.
At Annisquam we found ourselves in the midst of boulders scattered over bare hills and fields, such as we had seen on the ridge northerly in the morning, i.e., they abound chiefly in the central and northwesterly part of the Cape. This was the most peculiar scenery of the Cape. We struck inland southerly, just before sundown, and boiled our tea with bayberry bushes by a swamp on the hills, in the midst of these great boulders, about half-way to Gloucester; having carried our water a quarter of a mile, from a swamp, spilling a part in threading swamps and getting over rough places. Two oxen feeding in the swamp came up to reconnoitre our fire. We could see no house, but hills strewn with boulders, as though they had rained down, on every side, we sitting under a shelving one. When the moon rose, what had appeared like immense boulders half a mile off in the horizon now looked by contrast no larger than nutshells or burlnut against the moon's disk, and she was the biggest boulder of all.
Dogtown is also mentioned briefly in a book entitled In and Around Cape Ann (1885) as "the section where many of Gloucester's most prominent citizens used to live; in those early days (1740), it was the best section of the town."
James Merry was 60 years old in 1892, a 250-pound six foot seven inch fisherman who wanted to be a matador. He raised a bull from a calf and practiced his carrida skills near the former home of Easter Carter (#15 Dogtown Road). The bull was too smart for him. A nearby boulder tells the story. "First Attacked/ Jas. Merry died September 18, 1892."
In 1896 Charles Mann published his booklet In the Heart of Cape Ann: The Story of Dogtown from which we have already
learned that" amidst quarry and berry, Dogtown offers much to' many..." Mann is a valuable source for information about Dogtown's residents.
The Cape Ann Historical Society houses the archives of the Cape Ann Scientific and Literary Association which sponsored a 1901 expedition of sorts through Dogtown. The elderly Eben Day was the guide on this trek, but the maps drawn by his Association companions show that the route confused them. (One map omits Wharf Road, for example.) Day, who may have been related to Granny Day, showed that there was a natural grindstone in Dogtown Square.
Dogtown also fired the imagination of Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), a Babson contemporary who first visited Dogtown in 1920. A Maine native and participant in the avant garde movement of the early 1900s, Hartley devoted the spring and summer of 1931 to capturing Dogtown in a series of poems and striking oil paintings.
Hartley's Dogtown paintings have earned places in art museums and college galleries across the nation. His poems include a major work entitled "Soliloquy in Dogtown." It is said that Hartley recovered his artistic direction during his Dogtown interval