The Creation of Danvers
Richard B. Trask

Click to Enlarge All Illustrations

The following account of the effort to establish Danvers in 1752 is excerpted from a book in progress by Richard B. Trask relating to Danvers, Essex County and the Lexington Alarm of April 19, 1775.


Europeans first settled the present territory of Danvers, Massachusetts in the 1630s chiefly in that part of Danvers now known as Danvers Highlands. By 1672 this area, known then as Salem Village, was established as a separate parish of the town of Salem with the inhabitants allowed to build their own meeting house and hire a minister. The area to the south of Salem Village, now the city of Peabody, was also territory belonging to Salem and known in the 17th century as Brooksby. In 1711 this area also received parish status from the Salem mother town and was called the Middle Precinct. Though both Salem Village and the Middle Precinct had independent churches, they politically remained a part of Salem. Early on, even before receiving parish status, both areas had desired to be set off from Salem, believing their population and economy was strong and separated enough to function as independent communities. Yet the establishment of a township for Salem Village and the Salem Middle Precinct continued to be elusive.

It had taken Herculean efforts for Salem Village and the Middle Precinct to be allowed separate churches and parish status from the mother town of Salem. Yet during the same late 17th and early 18th century time period, many new, completely independent communities were being created in other parts of Massachusetts without much controversy. The most typical manner of establishing a new township was when an outlying district within a town grew large enough in population and its inhabitants found the distance to the place of public worship or town meetings too far to conveniently attend. They would request to be set off from the mother town and provide themselves with local government and a preacher of the gospel.

By 1730 the area comprising the Town of Salem had shrunk from a large territory of the early 17th century to include only the old town proper and the two larger rural precincts with their independent churches. The village parish and the middle parish separately paid for all costs associated with keeping their churches and ministers, while also being taxed for the municipal expenses of Salem town. The two parishes had also received the right to keep local schools under their own supervision. Though schooling was theoretically universally available, attendance was not compulsory. Parents were expected to pay directly for this schooling, unless unable to do so, and in those cases the parish was to assist. During much of the 18th century, schools within the two precincts functioned erratically, often with a grammar school being set up in alternating sections of each parish for terms lasting twelve or fewer weeks.

Annual town meetings were held each March in Salem town, during which elections were held for the various town officers, including selectmen and treasurer, down through the over a dozen lesser offices established to regulate the town. Annual elections for representatives to the General Court took place at town meetings throughout the province each May. Though both outlying parishes often had residents represented as selectmen and other officers, the fact that all town business and town meetings were conducted in Salem proper, meant that only a small number of parish men took the time and trouble to travel to Salem for these meetings and elections. Salem town had the largest population and its residents were invariably a majority at town meeting who decided upon political and community matters. A later 1754 census of Salem town indicated a population of 3,462 people, with 1629 males, 1710 females and 123 blacks. At about the same time the combined population of what were the two original outlying parishes was estimated at 1,400, with the Middle Precinct having a larger population than the Salem Village Parish to its north.

So too, the outlying parish inhabitants were primarily yeoman farmers with an agrarian outlook on life, while the inhabitants of the significantly smaller but densely settled Salem town were primarily tradesmen, craftsmen and merchants. The Salemites’ outlook tended to be more cosmopolitan. Self-interest was often a point of conflict between these two populations. If Salem had taken a more flexible position of sharing power with its parish neighbors, the persistent quest for independence might have been less forceful.

Believing a united front would give them more clout, both outlying parishes had jointly petitioned in 1733 and again in 1740 to be set off from Salem as an independent town. These attempts, however, were successfully knocked down by Salem. Mustering up for a major united effort at the beginning of the next decade, both parishes respectively held parish meetings. On May 9, 1751, the Middle Precinct “put to Vot whither the Inhabitants of ye Middle Parish to Come of from ye Town of Salem….” The vote carried in the affirmative, as did a similar vote in Salem Village. On July 2, 1751, Samuel Flint, Cornelius Tarbell and James Prince representing the village and Daniel Epes, Jr., Malachi Felton and John Procter of the middle precinct were appointed as a joint committee to prepare a petition to Salem requesting “… Comeing of from ye sd. Town of Salem, as a seperate Town by themselves….”

By September the committee of the two parishes reported back to their respective parish meetings with an agreement of understanding concerning their manner of seeking independence. Inherently understanding that their two large parishes could reasonably be made into two independent townships with enough separate population and land to justify such a creation, the two outlying Salem parishes nonetheless realized that such a dual request would likely fail. Instead, the two parishes agreed to an awkward sharing of power, explaining “That ye Town Meetings shall be one year in one parish, and ye Next year in ye other Parish Successively. That ye Major part of ye Selectmen & Assessors shall be Chosen one year in one parish, & Ye Next year in ye other parish Successively….” The awkward plan was approved by the vote of both parishes, as independence was the goal.

The committee of the two parishes drew up a petition dated October 5, 1751, and addressed to the inhabitants of Salem indicating the votes of their recent parish meetings desiring to become a separate township. The petitioners further “…pray that you would sett us off from you…so far as lyes in yr Power” and asked for Salem‘s assistance in having the separation approved in “ye Great & General Court.” The petition was signed by the six parish representatives. On the same page just below the petition fourteen parish men, including five of the committee members, signed a formal request calling for a town meeting to consider the petition.

The October 5, 1751 petition to Salem.

Prior to the town meeting the parish representatives were told to ‘labour” with the people of Salem to set a positive tone and pick up enough votes to allow for the separation. It can likely be assumed that as many of the parish men as possible attended town meeting. Their cause was successful in that the Salem vote declared, “…that the Prayer of said Petition be so far granted as that with the leave of the Great & General Assembly, the Inhabitants and Estates of said Parishes be set off as a separate Township agreeable to the present boundaries of said Parishes….” Salem also insisted upon a proviso that if the two parishes did become a separate township, that it would not request a share in the annual Salem income.

The petition was submitted to the Massachusetts House of Representatives and shepherded through the legislative process ActToDivideSalemby Salem representatives Captain John Leach and Daniel Gardner, with Daniel Epes, Jr., acting as agent for the parishes. On January 7, 1752, the petition was considered by the assembly and with Salem willing to consent to it, it was ordered that the petition be granted with the Salem representatives allowed to write up the bill for action. On the afternoon of January 8 the bill titled, “An Act for Dividing the Town of Salem, and Erecting a New Township There” was read for the first time by the clerk of the House, with the second reading scheduled for 10 a.m. the next morning. On January 9 the bill was read for the third time, passed by House vote and ordered to be engrossed. It was also “sent up for concurrence” by the Council, which served as the upper branch of the General Court.

On January 14 the clerk of the House recorded in its journal “An engross’d Bill Intitled An Act for the dividing the Town of Salem, and the erecting a new Township there by the Name of [blank] Read and Resolved, That the Bill pass to be enacted.”

On January 15 the bill passed in the Council. Yet there was an inherent problem with the Salem township bill itself which members of the legislature must have realized, but chose to ignore. It took little time, however, for the problem to be noted by the executive branch. On January 17 Josiah Willard, Secretary of the Province, came to the House chamber and was allowed entrance by Speaker of the House Thomas Hubbard. The speaker asked the secretary if the engrossed township bill had been laid before “His Honour the Lieut. Governor” for signing. Willard responded that the lieutenant governor had declined giving his consent to the act. Though the record of the journal does not include the reasoning for this refusal, few politically attuned men would have been surprised by this action, which had a tradition going back for almost a decade.

Lieutenant Governor Spencer Phips, nephew of Sir William Phips, the governor during the Witch Times of 1692, was serving as acting governor of Massachusetts in 1752 and was the executive representative of the King. Back in 1743 King George II had instructed his appointed Massachusetts governor, William Shirley, not to assent to the creation of any new town without His Majesty’s specific approbation. The number of representatives to the Great & General Court had been rising since 1692, when the present Massachusetts charter had been granted. Too many local representatives made for a cumbersome and uncontrollable lower house of the legislature, whose independent-thinking members often brought trouble to the governor and annoyance to the King. With a few notable exceptions, such as the creation of the town of Lincoln in Middlesex County in 1754, new townships with provincial representatives were not being allowed.

There was, however, a manner in which to establish an almost entirely independent entity through the creation of a “District” rather than a “Town.” A Massachusetts district had the status and all the privileges of a town, except that it was expressly denied the right to send a representative to the General Court. Thus, though a district could do as it pleased locally, its voice on provincial matters would be gagged. This denial of the access to power might ring of diminished authority, though the reality was a bit different. Many small communities actually chose not to send a representative to the legislature due to the local expense incurred in doing so. During the 1751/52 session five out of the eighteen Essex County communities did not send a representative to the House, including Middleton and Wenham. Larger towns were allowed to send two representatives to the House, though even some of these communities decided that one representative would suffice.

The same afternoon that Secretary Willard gave the news that the governor would not allow a new township to be created, the House ordered that the two Salem representatives had liberty to bring in an adjusted bill that would call for the creation of a district rather than a township. It was believed that the acting governor would have no reason to be opposed to the creation of a new district.

Back in 1751 during the Salem town meeting deliberations, language had been stipulated in the town’s vote allowing independence of the two outlying precincts only upon condition that they became a full township. If this was a hidden maneuver to possibly wreck the independence movement, it did not work. The Salem and parish representatives guiding the revised bill through the legislature included two additional sections. Section Three of the bill stated that this act fulfilled the Salem vote for separation “…as if the said inhabitants had been by this act erected into a separate and distinct township.” Section Two added that the new district had full power and liberty to join with Salem in the choosing of representatives to the General Assembly. Though this power-sharing would be awkward and put the onus upon the district to attend and vote at the Salem meeting, it would give them some power to chose an appropriate representative, while sharing the cost of such representation with Salem.

The preamble language of what would become Chapter 14 of the 3rd Session of the Acts of the Province of Massachusetts for 1752 explained the need for a new independent district citing the difficulties which arose concerning the distance between the parishes and the town for transacting public business. It also recorded the fact that Salem was chiefly composed of merchants, traders and mechanics, while the two other parishes were comprised chiefly of husbandmen, an economic reality which had previously brought rise to many disputes and difficulties relating to public taxation.

On January 25 the engrossed bill for the creation of the new district was read and enacted in the House of Representatives. This action was followed on January 28 by passage of the bill in the Council and its being published on January 31, 1752.

PetitionIt was during this period of provincial approval that the new territorial entity was given its legal status and an official name. The new district would be composed of the two parishes possessing the same boundary as when they were parishes of Salem. Salem Village would now be known as the First or North Parish, while the old Middle Precinct would now be referred to as the Second or South Parish. The district’s new name, filled in by handwriting on the published act, read “Danvers,” with acting governor Phips signing the bill on January 28, 1752, thereby bringing the new district into existence.

This name “Danvers” was a strange and foreign word to the inhabitants of the two parishes. It had no local roots and was neither an English nor a Native American name familiar to inhabitants of Essex County. The origin of this name has spawned local speculation for generations, and its root was probably as unknown to the inhabitants of the newly created district then, as it is to Danversites today. Yet it was independence that the parishes desired and almost any name would suffice.


English half-penny featuring George II, issued in 1752.

The most logical speculation regarding the origin of the name “Danvers” is supported by tradition and some facts that ring true to human nature. Naming of new districts and towns was the traditional prerogative of the sitting chief executive, guided by whatever local concerns or traditions or provincial politics might come into play. The old name “Salem Village” was too close to the name of the mother town and would cause confusion. The villagers would also be pleased to be rid of this title of “Salem Village,” which name was well known and had been published far and wide as the place associated with the horrifying witch times of 1692, only 60 years earlier. Likewise the name “Middle Precinct” was not a distinctive name and the Town of “Middleton” had already been created in the neighborhood only a generation earlier.

It would appear that Lieutenant Governor Spencer Phips or one of the 28 influential Counselors who voted on the establishment of this new district, suggested the name “Danvers” as a means of honoring an old and influential, though somewhat obscure English patron family. Such memorialization of an influential, politically connected name given to a newly created district or town by an 18th century power broker was more typical than not. During the 17th century most Massachusetts communities and areas were given names reflecting geographical locations in old England familiar to the new settlers, or retained some form of original aboriginal names. By the 18th century communities were more likely named after influential persons.

There are several examples of obvious honor naming of new districts around the time of the creation of Danvers. Granville, Massachusetts, which had become a district in 1751, was named after John Carteret, Second Earl Granville, a title he had been given in 1744. Granville was President of the Council in England and presided over the Privy Council. In 1753 the District of Spencer was created, the name derived from Lieutenant Governor Phips’s Christian name. Also in 1753 both the District of Pepperell and the District of Shirley were created. William Shirley served as Massachusetts governor from 1741 to 1749 and again from 1753 to 1756; while New England war hero, Sir William Pepperell, was a member of the Massachusetts Council from 1746 to 1759. Another honor name was given to a district in 1759 when Amherst was established, the name in honor of General Jeffrey Amherst, commander of British forces in North American during the French & Indian War.

In one final, though later, example of honor-naming, on June 17, 1774, the town of Hutchinson, Massachusetts, was created only days following former governor and staunch Tory Thomas Hutchinson setting sail for England. The townspeople intensely disliked this name association and two years later, following the outbreak of the American Revolution, the citizens took the opportunity to petition and receive a change of name from Hutchinson to Barre´ in honor of Isaac Barre´, a member of parliament who early on had championed the American cause.

Later 19th century local historians speculated that the name Danvers was chosen to memorialize a particular English family. In 16th century England Sir Charles Danvers was an influential nobleman who was accused of treason, along with the Earl of Essex, against Queen Elizabeth and was beheaded in 1601. Danvers’s only daughter, Dorothy, had married Sir Peter Osborne. A grandson resulting from this union of the Osborne and Danvers families was Sir Danvers Osborne. Born in 1715, Osborne married the daughter of the Earl of Halifax, Lady Mary Montague, in 1740. In July 1753, Sir Danvers Osborne was appointed royal governor of New York and upon arriving in the colony to take charge on October 10, in an apparent recurring state of melancholy, he killed himself by hanging only two days later.

At least one noted local antiquarian of the 19th century speculated that the name suggestion for the new district of Danvers came from Captain John Osborne of Boston, who served on the Massachusetts Council from 1733 to 1763. Aware of the family ties of his own Osborne family with that of the Danvers family in England, Osborne possibly suggested the name for the new combined Salem Village and Middle Precinct districts as a tribute to the Danvers family and an indirect honor to himself.

The General Court had to perform one final act to take care of the establishment of the new district. On January 29 before the new district’s name was known, a resolution passed the House allowing Daniel Epes, Esq., upon the application in writing of five or more inhabitants of the district, to issue a warrant to give notice for the holding of the first district meeting. Such a provision had not been included in the original act itself.

Daniel Epes, Jr., had been a prime mover in calling for the establishment of what now became the District of Danvers, Massachusetts. Epes was son and grandson of two other Daniels, the grandfather having been the famed 17th century Salem schoolmaster. Daniel, Jr., (today we would refer to him as III, though in 18th century usage, the second oldest living person in a family having the same Christian name as his father or near relative was typically referred to as “Jr.”) was the son of Colonel Daniel who died in 1764. Living in what was now Danvers, Daniel, Jr. had previously married the daughter of Rev. Benjamin Prescott and remained one of the most influential citizens of the new district, until his own death in 1773.

The warrant notice in the south parish dated February 18th spoke of the “Middle Parish In Salem ALIOUS Danvars [sic].” The name of the new district soon was fully recognized locally, spelled correctly and used exclusively. At the first meeting of the men of the new District of Danvers, which took place at the north parish meetinghouse on March 4, 1752, Colonel Epes, a justice of the peace, was chosen moderator. He presided over the selecting of the first Danvers district officers. Son Daniel, Jr., was quickly elected district clerk and also one of the seven new selectmen, a position that was also given the added responsibilities of serving as district assessors and overseers of the poor.

First meeting at Danvers on March 4, 1752.

First meeting at Danvers on March 4, 1752.

For reasons now unclear, the Town of Salem did not choose representatives in May 1752 for the provincial House of Representatives. On May 29, 1752, at the opening of the new General Court the House voted to fine towns delinquent in sending representatives. The list included under towns so fined the words “Salem and Danvers” with their fine of £60 being the largest issued. In 1753 Salem sent Henry Gibbs as its sole representative to the legislature.

By 1754 the District of Danvers seems to have put its political house in order by taking up its right to jointly choose representation along with its Salem neighbor. The district apparently offered up a candidate of its own. Daniel Epes, Jr.’s, status and family background put him in a good position for representative candidacy and he was jointly chosen by the Danvers and Salem voters, along with Henry Gibbs, as the two representatives elected to serve in the House of Representatives. Epes was elected to serve additional terms from 1754 to 1757.

Though the District of Danvers did not have legal status to send its own representative to the General Assembly, by Salem opting to send two representatives and the voters present choosing one from Danvers, representation was real in all but legal niceties. Yet Danvers officials knew that given the mother town’s larger population, the sharing of two representatives was only as permanent as the next election and Salem’s satisfaction with this form of power sharing.

Less than three years after Danvers was established, the district’s inhabitants voted on February 3, 1755, instructing “Daniel Epes, Junr. Esq, our representative,” that it was the mind of the district to “be erected into a separate Township.” He was told to petition the General Assembly “to get the same efected.” Again the locals chose to ignore the royal prohibition against creating new townships.

It was not until late spring of 1757, that Epes was successful in shepherding such legislation through the General Assembly. At the time Massachusetts was without both a governor and a lieutenant governor. The newly appointed governor, Thomas Pownell, who had previously served a secretary to the tragic Sir Danvers Osborne, had not yet arrived. Though the Massachusetts Council had urged the lower House of Representatives to act only upon items of public business of absolute necessity until the arrival of the new governor, the House nonetheless brought up for action the Danvers township bill. It was voted upon and passed on June 9 and published on June 16, 1757. In the language of Chapter 1 of the Acts of 1757, “the said district be, and hereby is erected into a township.” The reasoning behind this major change of status was stated in the act’s preamble. The process of jointly choosing a representative by Danvers and Salem, “has been found burthensome and inconvenient.” This time no governor was on hand to effectively veto this action.

Having passed in the House without difficulty, as the House knew that adding to its number increased its power base, the Danvers township act had also been given a favorable vote by the smaller and more conservative Massachusetts Council on the same day. There was one bump in the process, however. Councilor Thomas Hutchinson, later Massachusetts governor and staunch protector of British parliamentary power, strenuously dissented from the majority, writing on June 10, “I desire the liberty of entering my dissent,” which was recorded into the official council records.

Among Hutchinson’s stated objections were that adding another representative would “have a tendency to retard the proceedings of the General Court,” and this action assisted in giving the House an undue proportion when joint votes of both houses were determined by ballot. He further protested that such an important vote as establishing a new township “should be deferred until there be a Governor or Lieutenant Governor in the chair.” Hutchinson’s first argument spoke to the previous royal instruction to Massachusetts of not creating new townships that could elect representatives. Though the Council had concurred with the House in its capacity as the second branch of the legislature, according to Hutchinson it had no other recourse in its action as representatives of the governor, but to uphold the royal instructions, “or else their actions will be inconsistent and absurd.” Hutchinson later wrote that, “The house had always disliked the instruction [by George II to disallow new townships], as it prevented the increase of the number of members, which increased the importance of the house.” Hutchinson’s logic and objections found no active support. As far as the Province of Massachusetts was concerned, Danvers was now a full township.

Back in the mother country, the Board of Trade to the Lords of the Committee of the Privy Council was responsible for British colonial oversight. Among other duties, this board was required to review all American colonial legislation to assure that it conformed to English law and policy. On July 31, 1759, the Board of Trade examined a lengthy backlog of colonial legislation. They discovered that Chapter 1 of the 1757 Acts of the Province of Massachusetts had established the Town of Danvers and had been passed “in contradiction” to previous instructions relative to allowing an increase of the number of Massachusetts representatives. Wanting to squelch such action, the Board sent up to the Privy Council the recommendation that the creation of the Town of Danvers “… should receive His Majesty’ disapprobation.”

King George II was in attendance at Kensington Palace on August 10, 1759, when the Privy Council met in chambers to receive the recommendations of the Commissioners for Trade and Plantations, including the Danvers township issue. Among other actions taken, it was recommended that the Danvers township act be repealed. The minutes of this meeting state, “His Majesty taking the same into consideration was pleased with the advice of His Privy Council to declare His disallowance of the said Laws and pursuant to His Majesty’s pleasure thereupon expressed the said Laws are hereby repealed declared void and of none effect.” Clerk of the Privy Council William Sharpe added in the minutes of the King’s meeting that the Governor of the Province of Massachusetts and all others whom it may concern were to take notice of this decree and “govern themselves accordingly.”

King George II thus declared that the Town of Danvers was not a town! In 1893 Danvers Town Meeting created an official town seal. Included on the seal picturing a Danvers town meeting in operation were the words “The King Unwilling,” a mantra meant to forever recall the town’s fierce independent streak over the objection of even the King of England himself. Yet, the lofty, royal decree of repeal, though promulgated to be obeyed by the colonial authorities, appears never to have made the return trip across the Atlantic to Massachusetts and the cautionary declaration on the decree was simply words on paper. Though the new Danversites were technically neither citizens of a township, nor had the right to send their own representative to the Massachusetts General Court, the Danvers farmers were oblivious to the declarations of their King and his advisors. And it was several generations before locals ever knew about the actions of this their ancestors’ former king. Yet Danvers had struggled mightily for over one hundred years for full power and rights to pursue their own course and make their own decisions.

Journals of the Massachusetts House of Representatives note that Daniel Epes continued as representative for Danvers into March 1758, followed during the next term by Cornelius Tarbell, another important name in the independence movement in Danvers. The roster for Massachusetts representatives for May 1759 includes Epes again as Danvers’s delegate, though in the meantime he had accepted a colonial patronage position as the collector of excise for Essex County. As a result of this provincial commission, Epes was disqualified by his legislative peers to serve as a representative, and the town was informed that, “if they see cause,” they could choose another representative.

An examination of the leather bound blank book kept by the Danvers town clerk for the recording of town meetings and tax lists records in May 1760 the first of the recorded formalized annual Danvers elections for a representative to the General Court. Male inhabitants of Danvers “that have an Estate of freehold in land within this Province or Territory of forty shillings pr annum at the least or other Estate to the value of forty pounds sterling,” were allowed to elect and depute its representative. In 1760 Mr. Thomas Porter of the north parish was chosen to be Danvers representative, and was reelected in May 1761 by a unanimous vote of 42 inhabitants. In 1762 the town considered if they would send two representatives to the General Court, as was their and other larger towns’ prerogative. Representation in provincial affairs was regarded as an important necessity and even a sacred duty. Over-representation, however, at the expense of hardworking, frugal Danvers taxpayers, was considered an unnecessary luxury. Town Meeting decided to send only one representative and Mr. Porter was reelected to his third term with 94 votes cast.

Danvers Town Meeting would continue to send representatives to the Massachusetts General Court and would speak out against the abrogation of civil liberties during the 1760s and 70s. It would elect Dr. Samuel Holten as its representative to the General Court from 1768 through 1775. In a momentous June 1776 Danvers Town Meeting, the citizens of Danvers would declare their firm support for American independence by voting, “That if the Hon’ble Congress for the safety of the United Colonies, Declare them Independent of the Kingdom of Great Britain, we the Inhabitants of this town, so solemnly engage with our Lives and Fortunes to support them in the measure.” Following the thirteen colonies declaring their independence in July 1776 from Great Britain, Samuel Holten would go on to serve his state and country as member and President of the Continental Congress and as a Representative to our early Federal Congress.

Online beginning August 2013

Print Friendly, PDF & Email