My family heritage is about fifty percent White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) New Englanders with most of the rest being descended from Swedish immigrants who moved to Worcester in the late nineteenth century to work in the precision tool industry.
I am descended from the pilgrim John Alden, who helped to pacify and destroy the indigenous people of Cape Cod. But I am also descended from the Marlboro farmer Abner Goodale who fought with the rebels at Concord’s Old North Bridge on April 19, 1775. And also, the WASP loyalist Peter Collicutt, who defending king and country fled to Canada during the American revolution. It is important we know the histories and heritage of our place in this world.
In the late 1620’s the Musketaquid river valley, where Concord would be founded, were open and idyllic pastures and farmlands previously cultivated by a tribe of the Massachusetts indigenous people. It was twenty miles through the deep dark forest to the nearest settled WASP town, but there were remnants of the indigenous people living in this area and the occasional English hunter or beaver fur trapper.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony was established in 1630 under a grant from the king as a Puritan theocracy. The intention of Concord’s first settlers were to create a WASP heaven on earth, free from the religious and ethnic diversity and disputes of old England, free of the corruptions of non-Puritan religious beliefs.
When in September 1635, the General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony sold the fur trapper Simon Willard, and a group of Puritan land investors, a six-square-mile parcel of indigenous land to form Concord at Musketaquid, they founded the First Parish Church in Concord to ensure orthodoxy among the WASP settlers. In town meetings they divided up the land grant according to each family’s needs, paying careful attention to each having adequate land for housing, farming, haying, and woodlots. This was a reformed model democracy in which only WASP male landowners were taxed or allowed to vote.
Of the six square miles the founders of Concord laid out for the village, less than two square miles at the center were given over to houses, shops, the common, and village activities. Initially only WASP’s could be buried in the burying grounds. Houses and shops ran along Main street. The colonists dammed the Mill Brook at the site of an indigenous people’s fish weir to create a millpond with enough water pressure to mill wheat and corn. This central village was surrounded by fields, which the farmers drained and ditched to grow all the food the town consumed in a year. Enormous quantities of marsh grass were grown for livestock and domestic needs. This was a tidy little Puritan English village in the midst of the dark and wild wilderness.
Concord didn’t stay that way for long. Times were changing. Within a generation, educated men living the life of the mind needed reliable farm hands to work their farms, and wealthy farmers without sufficient sons to work needed to hire men on a daily or permanent basis. So small numbers of black slaves became part of Concord’s economy as early as the late seventeenth century. Then during the eighteenth century growing numbers of non-WASP Europeans immigrated first to the growing industrial center of Boston, and eventually making their ways to the mills, factories, and farms of greater Concord.
By the nineteenth century freed African American slaves were living alongside Irish immigrants in the town’s non-settled wastelands in Estabrook Woods, Great Meadows, and around Walden Pond. A large and growing colony of working class Irish Catholics settled Concord Junction, what would become West Concord, and became a reliable source of cheap labor for the factories, farms, and domestic labor needs of those living in Concord village. Ralph and Lidian Emerson kept an Irish cook and housekeeper.
Loretta and I were among the earliest mixed-race couples settling in Concord in the 1980’s. The demarcation between the WASP’s of Concord village and the Irish Catholics of West Concord, were still quite apparent, though the lines were beginning to blur. Especially after the development of Conantum, bringing a much more ethically and racially diverse highly educated group to Concord, the town’s demographics began to shift.
According to the 2010 US census, while Concord is still 87% white, that includes 24% of English descent, 21% Irish, 11% Italian, 9% German, 5% French, 4% Scottish, and 26% mixed descent. Plus 4% Asian, 4% Black, 4% Hispanic, and 1% indigenous or other descent. And 11% of Concord residents are now foreign born. While wealth and power in Concord is still disproportionately held in the hands of the old WASP families, we are gradually becoming a model American town.
Rev. Dr. Jim Sherblom is a transcendentalist author, Concord guide, and longtime resident in Concord. He is the author of SPIRITUAL AUDACITY: Six Disciplines of Human Flourishing.