Original map of Muddy River and Brookline

The Hamlet Of Muddy River

First chapter from Bolton, C. K. (1897) Brookline: The History of a Favored Town. Brookline, Mass.: C.A.W. Spencer.

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November 13, 1705, the date which marks the incorporation of Brookline as a town, stands midway between that time when the Puritans, seekers for religious freedom, first settled the land, and the days which opened the struggle for political independence. From the western shore of the peninsula called “Boston,” that is, from the Common, water stretched for two miles to the westward. Beyond this expanse of water which was hemmed in on the south by the Roxbury shore there arose four wooded hills — at the right, what are now Corey Hill and Babcock Hill, at the left, Aspinwall Hill and Fisher Hill. Between these there were valleys sloping down to the marshes which bordered Muddy River. This beautiful wooded country was to the Boston emigrant what Oklahoma has recently been to the western pioneer. It was a land to be had for the asking.

In 1635 the Boston authorities granted to Rev. John Cotton, “our teacher,” an allotment sufficient for a farm. It lay about the present Cypress street; or more definitely, it contained land west of the parkway bounded southerly by the Boston & Albany circuit, and northerly by Brook street and Harvard avenue. The western boundary was at least as distant as Gardner road.

Another of the early proprietors was Robert Hull, whose son John, the famous mint-master of Boston, inherited his estate. From John the property passed to his more famous son-in-law, Chief Justice Sewall. This land centered about Beacon street east of Harvard street.

In looking over the old records, it seems as if every resident of Boston, who was not possessed of abnormal modesty, asked for an allotment in what was then called “the hamlet of Muddy River.” Nearly one hundred persons quickly received their portion of land, varying in extent according to the numbers which constituted their families. The grants were made more rapidly than the surveyors could lay them out. Notices like this on the records are not infrequent : —

Our brother Peter Oliver hath granted unto him sixty acres of land at Muddy River, if it be there to be had, of the which there is granted some marsh, if there be any there, always provided that those grants before granted are first served.

But as was natural, many had to wait for their property to be surveyed. Thomas Scottow was granted land for three heads in February, 1637/8, and in December, 1639, we find him petitioning for land for five heads, his family having increased meantime to that number. Other records show that the town officials of Boston often granted more than they meant to, but found it inconvenient to reduce the amount.

Among the early names in these records, probably the only ones still to be found represented in this neighborhood are Davis, Griggs, Winchester, and White.

A cart bridge was ordered March 4, 1634/5, to be paid for by Boston, Roxbury, Dorchester, Watertown and Cambridge. Brookline was thus a pivotal point. All the traffic going toward the west passed out through Newbury street and Orange street (together a part of the present Washington street, Boston), over Boston Neck (Washington street near Dover street), through Roxbury street, which was then called ” the Cambridge road,” past the First Church where the apostle Eliot preached, to the present Roxbury Crossing, thence along the highway now called Tremont street and Huntington avenue, up through what is now the village, and out Walnut street and Heath street (then together forming the old Sherburne road).

The old Sherburne road lay along the southern slope of Fisher Hill. The depression between the northeastern slope and Aspinwall Hill formed the bed of the Village Brook, beside which now run the tracks of the Boston & Albany circuit. Between Aspinwall Hill and Corey Hill the early settlers laid out the road to Brighton and Watertown, the present Washington street ; and between Corey Hill and Babcock Hill they made a road to Cambridge. An early statement in the records that the road to Cambridge, which perhaps represented the modern Harvard street, was to be blazoned through the trees, gives in one word a vivid picture of the woodland that covered the town. These roads had a common starting point which became ” the village.” Here was built the Punch Bowl Tavern, from which Brookline came to be known as the “Punch Bowl Village.” The tavern stood on the eastern corner of Pearl and Washington streets. To the original building additions were made from time to time, as traffic through the town increased. During the revolutionary period and earlier a well managed tavern gave the town in which it stood a more than local reputation, and the traveler’s diary usually recorded the name of the inn at which he tarried. The Punch Bowl was famous in western and northern New England until the nineteenth century. Beneath its overhanging second story a seat invited loiterers. Elm trees and a pump were before the door. But most conspicuous was the tavern sign, upon which were depicted a punch bowl and ladle, shaded by the cooling leaves of a fruitful lemon tree. What proportion of the refreshing draughts came from the juice of the lemon only the departed travelers could tell. The old building was taken down about 1830.

In these early days an Indian fort stood on what is now the eastern corner of Beacon and Powell Streets ; it covered one-eighth of an acre, was surrounded by a ditch about three feet deep, and by a parapet nearly three feet high.

Mrs. Lee, in her “Naomi,” writes thus of Brookline in 1660:

The town of Roxbury possessed beautiful farms, but beyond that. Brookline, then called Muddy River, deserved not the appellation of the pleasure-garden of Norfolk, although its wild beauties far surpassed those which the hand of man has given it as a dowry. It was principally used for grazing cattle, for which its meadows and sheltered nooks of rich pasturage were particularly adapted. At this time there were a few houses at what was afterwards known as the Punch-Bowl Village, and a road from thence to Cambridge.

Many of the citizens of Boston to whom were made grants of land, did not come to Brookline to live. John Josselyn writes in 1675:

Two miles from the town, in a place called Muddy River, the inhabitants have farms, to which belong rich, arable grounds and meadows, where they keep their cattle in summer, and bring them to Boston in the winter.

From this custom, perhaps, came the name “Boston Commons,” occasionally applied to Muddy River.

In 1686 the inhabitants of Muddy River petitioned to be allowed to manage their own affairs, and to be exempt from rates to the town of Boston. This was granted, with the provision that they erect a school-house within one year, and provide an able reading and writing master.

The people were either unable to pay the rates, the wealthier Boston land owners never having had a residence in the town, or they were beginning to show that independence which has characterized the town ever since, for we soon find them petitioning for greater liberties. These attempts annoyed the Boston authorities, who voted in 1700 that the people of Muddy River should pay their rates for the future. In 1705, however, circumstances seem to have favored another appeal. Whether this was due or not to the fact that the town clerk, Samuel Sewall, was not only the son of Chief Justice Sewall, a member of the council at that time, but also the son-in-law of the governor, Joseph Dudley, it cannot with certainty be said ; but the adoption of the name “Brookline” for the territory formerly known as Muddy River, at least implies a compliment to the chief justice.

On Monday, June 20, 1687, Judge Sewall writes in his famous diary: “Went to Muddy River with Mr. Gore and Eliot to take a Plot of Brooklin.” [sic] And on Wednesday, June 22,

Went to Muddy River. Mr. Gore finishes compassing the land with his plain table; I do it chiefly that I may know my own, it lies in so many nooks and corners.

Judge Sewall’s farm, called “Brookline,” was on the eastern side of what is now Naples road, and had for its boundary Smelt Brook. Part of this farm was inherited by a descendant, the wife of E. K. Wolcott, and the Hales map of 1820 has the words “Woolcott Farm” close by the line of the brook. Smelt Brook starts at the foot of Corey Hill, near the present Winchester street, crosses Harvard street, follows in a general way the direction of Naples road, crosses Commonwealth avenue and enters the Charles. As Chief Justice Sewall was a man of influence at the time, and as his farm was called “Brookline,” it very likely seemed to the inhabitants of Muddy River, that the suggestion of “Brookline” for a name for the town was a compliment both to the chief justice and to the governor, which would further their desire for civic independence.

Craig Haller

Craig has been a resident of Brookline since 1987. His background includes, but is not limited to, pedagogy, engineering, special education advocacy, chaplain, and other boring things. Often dreams of a desert island with just him, his daughter, and a non-English speaking barista.