Gerry’s Landing And Its Neighborhood

By Mrs. S. M. Gozzaldi

Originally read on June 15th, 1918. This article can be found in the Proceedings of the Cambridge Historical Society Volume 13, from the year 1918.

When we visit a city or country that is new to us, we try to find out what is of interest in the place, what famous people have lived there and what important events have happened there. I venture to think that Gerry’s Landing, under the old name revived, is not well known to all of you, and so will try to bring to mind those who formerly lived here, whose homes are no more and who themselves have long vanished from these scenes.

Many of us can remember when our present surroundings looked very differently from these well-kept lawns and gardens, and when these two stately houses, where we are guests, were not thought of. All this bluff was rough pasture land. At its foot the Charles River pursued its winding way among marshes; it was tide water and at flood overflowed its banks, making a wide lake as far as Brighton. The eastern part of the bluff was called Simon’s Hill; it has now been leveled, and on any summer’s day the boys might have been seen there taking their first lessons in swimming.

All this part of Cambridge west of Sparks Street belonged to Watertown until the new boundary was made in 1754. Watertown was settled before Cambridge, and this especial tract of land where we are was set off to Sir Richard Saltonstall, who was one of the few among our earliest settlers who had the right to bear a title.

Sir Richard Saltonstall was Justice of Peace for the West Riding of Yorkshire, and Lord of the Manor of Ledsham, near Leeds. He was not one of the six who purchased Massachusetts Bay from the Plymouth Colony but soon became associated with them and is named in the charter granted by Charles I, March 4, 1629. He was chosen one of the Five Undertakers who were to go to America in October. On arriving at Salem he came here at once with Rev. John Phillips, and planted the church in Watertown. He was the first subscriber to the Church Covenant. This first settlement was just a little west of this place.

Sir Richard brought with him his two daughters and three sons; his wife had died in England. They sailed on the Arbella March 22 from Southampton, and after many adventures arrived in New England on June 22, 1630. On July 28 he and Mr. Phillips were already in Watertown planting the church. A glimpse of the etiquette of the period is vouchsafed us when we learn that he and his family ate on shipboard at the same table with the Lady Arbella Johnson, sister of the Earl of Lincoln, her husband, Governors Winthrop and Dudley and their young people.

Sir Richard Saltonstall only remained in this country one year, and never took up the land granted him in Cambridge, now called Winthrop Square. He returned with his two daughters and one of his younger sons. He remained a proprietor at Watertown until about 1642 when his two sons, who then lived here, had become of age. In 1635 he sent over a barque of forty tons with twenty servants. He was always interested in anything pertaining to the prosperity of the colony and from his position in England was able to be of great service to it. He was made ambassador to Holland, and while he was there his portrait was painted by Rembrandt. I think a copy is owned by Harvard. A narrow path leading down to the river near here has always been called “Sir Richard’s Way.”​ 1

The eldest son, Richard, was made a Freeman of Watertown May 21, 1631, he being then twenty-one years of age. He had left his studies at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in order to accompany his father to this country. He returned to England and is said to have studied law there. He married and came with his wife in 1635 to Ipswich. He was the ancestor of the large and well-known Saltonstall family. His son, Nathaniel, graduated from Harvard in 1659, married the daughter of Rev. John Ward, was judge and colonel and held many important offices at Haverhill where he settled. Sibley says this is the only family that sent eight generations of the name to Harvard.

Another son of Sir Richard, Henry, was probably the largest proprietor of Watertown. When he graduated at Harvard in 1642, he owned a farm here of three hundred acres and eighty acres of meadow land. He returned to England and went to Holland, took the degree of M.D. at Padua in 1649, and at Oxford in 1652. His older brother, Samuel, retained possession of his lands here until his death in 1696. Robert, another brother, lived here until his death, unmarried, in 1650. After the death of the last Saltonstall at the end of the seventeenth century, the land seems to have belonged to a number of small holders. Later part of it came into the hands of one of the new aristocracy, the rich West Indians whom we call Tories.

In 1746, after the death of his wife, Colonel John Vassall sold his house on Brattle Street to his younger brother, Henry Vassall, who was about to marry Penelope Royal of Medford, and bought fifty acres of land on this bluff. It is described in the deed as bounded north by the road to Watertown, south by Charles River, east by the marshes of Henry Vassall, and on the west by Cornelius Waldo and Stephen Coolidge. What the house he built here was like, we have no means of knowing, for neither stick nor stone of it has remained as far as I can tell. Here he came with his three small children, John, who built the Craigie House, and Elizabeth who married Thomas Oliver, who built Elmwood. To them he brought, as a stepmother, a young girl of eighteen, Lucy, daughter of Jonathan Baron, of Chelmsford. Her baby was born November 15,1747, and twelve days later Colonel John Vassall died, leaving the house, grounds, the handsome furniture, pictures, library, etc., to his nineteen-year-old wife, who had to have a guardian, and a thousand pounds to his yet unchristened daughter.

The one summer that Mistress Lucy Vassall spent here as a bride there graduated at Harvard two brothers of good family, from Newport, Rhode Island, Benjamin and William Ellery. We can easily imagine that they were frequent guests in this house overlooking the river, and had many sociable parties here with the Henry Vassalls and other connections and friends. Two years after the death of Colonel John Vassall his widow married Benjamin, the elder brother, who six months earlier had been made the guardian of Baby Lucy, when he is described is “late of Newport, now of Cambridge.” Their married life was short; they had no child and three years later Mrs. Ellery died. William, the younger of the two brothers, became a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and was the husband of Ann Remington, ancestor of the Richard H. Dana family.

The Coolidge farm lies to the south of where we are, on the bank of the river. The first owner, John Coolidge, came from Cambridge, England in 1630; he was selectman of Watertown many times between 1636 and 1677, and was in great request for signing wills, taking inventories, and settling estates. He died in 1691 and his son inherited the farm; he married the only daughter of Roger Wellington. His descendants have occupied this holding until the present day, marrying into many noted families of Cambridge and Watertown; one married Samuel Locke, president of Harvard; another, Professor Edward Wigglesworth, whose daughter married Professor Stephen Sewall; and others married into the Apthorp and Bulfinch families. They have been through these centuries deacons, schoolmasters, workers at many trades, and husbandmen, Godfearing and respected in their generations, fighters in colonial and subsequent wars, good citizens.

At the easterly corner of Mount Auburn Street and Coolidge Avenue stood the house of Colonel Samuel Thatcher of Revolutionary fame. The land was granted to his great-grandfather in 1642, Deacon Samuel Thatcher, a person of importance, often chosen selectman, and representative at the General Court between 1665 and 1669. Colonel Thatcher was also Representative in the important years 1775-76-79, and from 1784 till 1786. He was a Minute Man, lieutenant-colonel of the Cambridge men at Lexington and Concord, and when Colonel Gardner was fatally wounded at Bunker Hill the command of the regiment devolved on him. He was selectman of Cambridge 1773-76, 1780-86, and on the committee to instruct the representatives in 1772; this was the declaration of independence of this town, a document worth your reading if you want to know how the people felt at that tune. He was also one of the committee to instruct the representatives in 1783 as to what should be done with the Tories who wished to return and have their forfeited lands again — another patriotic document of which we have no reason to be ashamed. In 1793 Colonel Thatcher sold his land to Elbridge Gerry, who had bought “Elmwood” in 1787.

Elbridge Gerry is the only Vice-President of the United States whom Cambridge can claim. He was the son of Thomas Gerry, a merchant of Marblehead. He graduated at Harvard in 1762, and ten years later represented that town in the Provincial legislature. He married the daughter of Charles Thompson, of Philadelphia, an accomplished and beautiful lady, who had been educated in Europe. He was a member of the First and Second Continental Congresses, and of the Provincial Congress at Watertown in 1775. It was he, who with Azor Orne was at a meeting of the Committee of Safety and Supplies at the Black Horse Tavern on the road to Lexington, who warned Hancock and Adams, who were sleeping at the Clarke House, that the British were coming, and so saved their lives. Gerry was elected governor of Massachusetts by the famous “Gerrymander.” He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and was sent by President Adams to France as commissioner during the French Revolution. While he was Vice-President of the United States he died on the way to the Capitol, was buried in the Congressional Burying Ground, and by special act of Congress a monument was erected over his grave bearing this inscription “Every man though he have but one day to live should devote that day to the good of his country.”

John Gerry Orne was the son of a niece of Elbridge Gerry, daughter of his brother John. He bought a strip of land on the edge of the river of his great-uncle in 1807 and built there a solid storehouse; his plan was to bring goods there by water and sell to the neighbors. It was not a successful venture and two years later he sold the land and material back to Elbridge Gerry, reserving the right to remove the storehouse and shed. John Gerry Orne married Ann, the daughter of Moses Stone, direct descendant in the fourth generation of Simon Stone, whose grant of land in 1635 comprised twelve acres now included in the southerly part of Mount Auburn Cemetery, which was called Stone’s Woods, and also running along the river bank, where Simon’s Hill was named for him, and embracing a part of the Cambridge Cemetery. An old pear tree standing on a knoll by the river marks the site of his farmhouse, which was burned in 1844.

On a corner of the Stone farm, now the corner of Mount Auburn Cemetery, stood a little white house, where in the nineteenth century Mrs. Howard lived with her three daughters and two sons. She was the widow of Samuel Howard, of North Square, Boston, who, as an “Indian,” took part in the famous Boston Tea Party. Her eldest daughter married Judge Samuel Phillips Prescott Fay. It was a runaway match, not that there was any reason why it should be but simply because it was more romantic. Judge Fay hired a man to stand in front of the banns, which were then put up at the entrance of the meeting house, so that Mrs. Howard should not see them. Judge Fay lived in this neighborhood, but the exact location of his house I have not been able to fix. Another daughter of Mrs. Howard was Caroline, who married Rev. Samuel Oilman, of Charleston, S. C., author of “Fair Harvard,” and a writer herself when women authors were not so plenty as now. She wrote “The Southern Matron.” The third daughter was the wife of Abijah White, of Watertown, and mother of the first Mrs. James Russell Lowell, Mrs. Estes Howe, Mrs. Montgomery Parker, Mrs. Devens and Mrs. Charles Wyllis Elliott. It was the Misses Howard who gave the name of Sweet Auburn to Stone’s Woods, afterwards changed to Mount Auburn when bought for a cemetery.

The storehouse and shed on the river bank were moved up to the top of the high ground, a strip of land was bought from the owner of the Coolidge farm to add to that bought of Mr. Gerry, and a comfortable dwelling house made of it, in which the Orne family lived. John Gerry Orne died in 1838. His daughter, Caroline F. Orne, the poetess, was born here September 5,1818; she published two books, Songs of American Freedom and Sweet Auburn. She often spoke of the wild beauty of this part of Cambridge in her day, of the charming old farm house of her grandfather, Moses Stone, and told how she and Miss Maria Fay used to roam up and down the banks of the river dreaming of their futures. She outlived Miss Fay, dying in 1905. In 1826, Mrs. Orne sold the house to Loring Austin. Later Forsyth Wilson, the poet, lived in it. In 1867 it was bought by the trustees of the Episcopal Theological School, and the first Dean, Rev. John S. Stone, lived here for two years with his family. It was then exchanged for the house on the corner of Phillips Place and Mason Street owned by Mr. John Lord Hayes, and ever since then has been occupied by the Hayes family.

We have traced the history of Gerry’s Landing through the three centuries, have noted the early settlers, Saltonstall, Coolidge, Stone, Thatcher, of the seventeenth century; Vassall, the rich West Indian gentleman, Colonel Thatcher, the Revolutionary hero, Vice-President Gerry of the eighteenth century; and spoken of Judge Fay, the Howards and Ornes of the nineteenth century. In this twentieth century, Gerry’s Landing has come into its own in the stately houses erected by our hosts, Mr. Edward W. Forbes and Mr. Kenneth G. T. Webster.

I will close with a quotation from Miss Orne’s poem Sweet Auburn, describing this place a hundred years ago. We cannot imagine the young people of today enjoying the festivities so lovingly depicted:

Oft on Moss Hill I’ve spread the mimic feast,
With gay companion for my merry guest.
Their smooth broad leaves the oak trees would afford
For polished plates to grace our festal board;
But gayer feasts Sweet Auburn thou hast seen
Upon thy velvet moss of emerald green,
When gallant youths and gentle lovely maids
Held joyous festival beneath thy shades.
The daughters of the city, gentle, fair,
In light and graceful beauty wandered there;
And gay of heart and of most gladsome mien
Extolled with high delight the sylvan scene;
There too more favored maidens who each day
Saw the bright earth in loveliest array,
The soft and rosy hue of whose fair cheek
Seemed of sweet health and happiness to speak;
And Harvard’s sons, forgetting scholiast’s lore,
Conned a more pleasant lesson gaily o’er;
Wearing fresh garlands of the young leaves green,
Lightly they gathered round their youthful queen;
Or where the Maypole, twined with wreath and crown
Seemed from its lofty honors to look down
And nod approval with a smiling glance,
They wove with flying feet the airy dance.
Here where the moon shed down her brightest beams,
Paling to silver all thy rippling streams,
Oft would the lover’s lute, in pensive strain,
To his cold mistress sighingly complain.
And here in youthful beauty and in grace,
Fairest and loveliest in form and face,
The Queen of Fays oft struck the light guitar
While joyous echoes bore the notes afar​.

1 Apparently the same as the “Bank Lane” of provincial days. Within living memory the strip of gravel at the waterside was known as “Sir Richard’s Beach.” —Ed.

This article can be found in the Proceedings of the Cambridge Historical Society Volume 13, from the year 1918.