Needham History Center & Museum

Without which we canNot be hapy: the Dedham Farmers’ Petition

Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum


The opening of the Dedham Farmers Petition, seeking the separation of the Dedham North Parish from Dedham, to be an independent town.

In Council
In the Affaire of the Inhabitants of Dedham living on the North ide of Charles River, by their Petition humbly Praying to be made a Township, by reason of their great Distance from the place of the Publick Worship of God in Dedham, and The Petitioners and the Agents appointed by Dedham having been fully heard before this Court. Ordered that the Prayer of the Petition be Granted, And that the Lands within the Township of Dedham Lying on the North side of the Charles River, circumscribed and bounded with the Charles River, Watertown Line and Natick Line, Excepting only the Island commonly called the Great Island, be made a distinct and Separate Town by the name of Needham. And that all the present Inhabitants upon the said Tract of Land, with such others as shall hereafter Inhabit and Dwell there, have use exercise and Enjoy the immunities powers and priviledges by Law Granted to the Inhabitants of other Towns Provided they do procure Settle and honorably support a Learned Orthodox Minister of good conversation to reside with them.

In the House of Representatives,
November 6, 1711 – Read, & Concurred
[signed] John Burrill, Speaker

Every year on November 6, we note the anniversary of the Dedham Farmers Petition, the legislation that separated Needham from Dedham in 1711 and established it as a separate town.

Separation from Dedham was not the first choice of the families living north of the Charles River. In 1708 these farmers requested that Dedham let them establish their own parish – their own church and minister – within their area of Dedham. The request was made, and refused, at least three times in 1708 and 1709. It was repeated in March 1710, and then again in May 1710. This refusal prompted the petitioners to address a higher authority and direct their request instead to the General Court. This time, clearly frustrated, they sought a full separation, rather than the convenience of their own parish.

The document identified in the MA State Archives as “The Dedham Farmers Petition to be a Township” was filed with the General Court in May 1710. The overall reason for such a move was that the residents of the northern part of the Parish (that was us) were having increasing difficulty in attending weekly church services because of the great distance to Dedham, and that to be deprived of the consolations of religion was detrimental to their souls: “there is Already settled [in this area] upwards of forty & five famylies, many of which by reason of their Remote Living from ye place of ye publique Worship of God in our Own Town, Some 6.7.8.&10. Miles. Which Renders it Utterly Impossible for us with our familyes, Duly to Attend On ye publique worship of God there… And To Starve our own Souls, & ye Souls of our poor Children that he hath given us ye Charge of – “ Concluding ominously that “this Honerd Court, And your honers Will Judge what May be Expected of A people That Cannot Injoy, Either the Means of Education Manners, Nor Grace…”

After the emotional religious plea, the petitioners also listed three more pragmatic reasons that this separation was a good idea:

One, that there were already 45 families in town. This hearkens back to some of Massachusetts’ oldest laws governing public education. The law specified the requirements of an incorporated town to be a church, a public school, and the means to support a minster. For larger towns, a schoolhouse was required for every fifty families. The petitioners were pointing out that they were (a) asking for their own minister, and (b) with 45 families, they were going to require their own school very soon anyway, so they were already most of the way toward township.

Two, the church a long distance away. Although we can make the trip by car in about 15 minutes, travel to the First Parish in Dedham (still on High Street) on foot or by oxcart, could take two to three hours or more, each way. Moreover, because of the chronic winter flooding of the Charles, they were not even able to get to Dedham for several months of the year, and were therefore excluded from church, school, and Town Meeting – that is, from every single privilege of town citizenship.

And Three, trying to first resolve this matter with Dedham only made the situation worse, and that as a result they have met with “Storms in Opposition from their Owne Towne” and “Afterward Mett with Such hard Measures from their Town as have been hard to Bare…” Not only did was Town Meeting not willing to negotiate a solution, but the subsequent bad feeling only made matters worse. The Farmers ultimately decided on separation because “we Desire peace & Quiet Ness in ye Injoym’t of ye favours petetioned for, Without which we canNot be hapy.”

The Petition was read in the General Court in June 1710, and a notice was served on the Selectmen of Dedham to submit a prompt reply. Dedham requested an extension until the May session in 1711; this was granted, but Dedham was also advised that they should go about finding a minister to preach in the northern part of town in the meantime.

The Barachaiah Mason map of Needham (1771) showing the original boundaries of Needham, including land that is now Wellesley and parts of Natick. The original map is preserved in the MA State Archives.

Dedham reported to the Court on 28 May 1711 that they were in favor of the incorporation of the northern farms into a new town, but that the boundary should run from what is now the bridge on Kendrick Street, southwestward to the Charles just beyond Chestnut Street – roughly one-eighth of the land requested. The Farmers countered in June that this boundary was in violation of property agreements that dated back into the 1600s; plus, Dedham never paid for the interim minister, so they had to raise the money to pay him themselves. The Court ruled in favor of the Petitioners, setting the boundary as originally requested – bounded by the Charles River for most of its circumference, and by Newton Upper Falls (the “Watertown Line” in those days, as Newton was still part of Watertown), and the “Natick line”(south of Dover Road), with the exception of the Great Island (the river loop where Great Plain Avenue crosses into Dedham), which remained part of Dedham. Royal Governor Joseph Dudley consented, and granted the new town the name of Needham, after a town in Suffolk, England.

A look at the oldest map of Needham (by Barachaiah Mason, 1771) shows that the original boundaries were much different than today, and the town was much larger. The extension to the west, known as the “Needham Leg” (now South Natick) went back and forth between Natick and Needham, finally becoming a part of Natick permanently after the Revolutionary War. The western half of the map separated in 1881 to become the town of Wellesley. The final split with Wellesley was over economic and social issues, but the antagonisms dated back to the 1720s – ironically, over difficulties in traveling to the meeting house.