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Groton’s Founding Father: The Life and Legacy of Capt. James Parker

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Part 2

Capt. James Parker, a native of England, sailed in the 1630s to the Puritan colony at Massachusetts Bay. He became one of the principal figures during the formative years of the town of Groton, which this year celebrates its 350th birthday. Part 1 of this series included a brief synopsis of Parker’s life.

Sailing in protest

James Parker was born in 1617 in Marlborough, Wiltshire County, England, into a country bitterly divided over the proper way to worship God. Although Protestant for nearly a century since Henry VIII had led his country away from the Catholic Church for perhaps less than pure reasons, there was still considerable debate over whether the Anglican Church should continue to use Catholic-like vestments and ceremonies.

Many, following the writings of John Calvin, supported a more austere form of worship. Some, especially those in Scotland, moved toward a system based on presbyteries, or clergy-based administration. Others espoused a more congregational model where the members of each church made their own decisions.

This last group was further subdivided. One faction, like those who became known as Pilgrims, openly sought to sever relations with the Anglican establishment. Another group hoped to “purify” worship within the state-run church. Persecution of these so-called “puritans” led to formation of the self-governing Massachusetts Bay Colony between 1628 and 1630, and a mass migration of more than 12,000 people seeking religious refuge between 1630 and 1640.

One other possibility apparently not considered by A.G. Parker is that John could have been the father of the other four. This would explain why birth records from the early Colonial days show no children born to John; they all would have been born in England. At least one Parker family genealogist shows that the parents of the brothers were named John and Ann.

It is also likely that the Parker brothers emigrated as a family unit with their parents rather than independently making decisions to make the perilous crossing. Unfortunately, there are no ship records showing the exact date or family makeup of the Parkers’ voyage to the new world.

First mention of this Parker family in official Colonial records comes in the year 1640, when the section known previously as Charlestown Village was in the formation stages of becoming a new town called Woburn. Town commissioners held their first meeting on Dec. 18 of that year to draft “Town Orders.” Among the 32 who “subscribed to these Orders” was 23-year-old “James Parker,” according to Samuel Sewall’s 1868 “History of Woburn.”

Sewall also records that Parker became a “freeman,” or voting member of the community, in 1644, and his brother Abraham was made a freeman the following year. Both were among the first taxpayers in America when they paid a levy to the young town in 1645. The Woburn historian notes James was wed on May 23, 1643, to Elizabeth Long, and their first six children were born in that town between 1645 and 1652, including Joseph in 1651 and James Jr. in 1652.

Moving westward; map of three towns

From here, the story shifts further to the north and west. Most of the territory inland from the coastal communities was clear of Indians, who had been decimated by European diseases several decades earlier. Among the closest tribes to the early Puritan settlements were the Wamesits near the junction of the Concord and Merrimack rivers and the Nashobas located south of Forge Pond in present-day Littleton. Attempts throughout the 17th century at a peaceful coexistence between the two societies were generally more sincere on the part of the American Indians.

Along the northwest border of Woburn another new community was taking shape. According to the 1816 “Historical Memoir of Billerica” by John Farmer, the first settlement of Billerica, then known as Shawshin, was made in 1653.

“Immediately after the acceptance of these proposals,” wrote Farmer, “the inhabitants of Shawshin requested the General Court ‘to confirm and record the same.’ Their request was granted, and on the 29th day of May, 1655, the town appears to have been incorporated.”

Two additional towns were also incorporated in 1655. One was Chelmsford, located across the Concord River. The other was a large tract of land lying farther west near the Indian frontier, situated on both sides of the Nashua River. Known originally as Petapawag Plantation, it was renamed by head petitioner Deane Winthrop, son of the late illustrious Gov. John Winthrop, for the family’s English hometown of Groton.

Farmer also pays tribute to John Parker, who served Billerica as “clerk of the writs” in 1657 and as one of the town’s first selectmen from 1660 until his death in 1667.

One other note of interest from Farmer’s history regards a river crossing that allowed easier passage to lands to the west. “The first bridge over Concord River, on the Boston road, was erected at, or near the fordway, some time previous to 1658,” wrote Farmer. “For many years after, it was supported by Groton, Chelmsford and this town.” This crossing, known as the Billerica Bridge, lasted until 1699, when it was destroyed by a flood and rebuilt “higher up the river.”

While the Puritan settlers were busy establishing the town of Billerica, efforts were simultaneously under way to prepare the settlement of Chelmsford. On May 19, 1653, as recorded in the Rev. Wilson Waters’ 1917 “History of Chelmsford,” 29 freemen petitioned Gov. John Endicott and the colonial assembly to grant “a tracke of land: which bordereth Upon the River Merimake: nere to paatooket, which we doe find: a Very Comfortable place to acomidate A company of gods people Upon.”

Four Parkers — John, James, Joseph and Jacob — signed the petition, which was approved. Another Parker, although not one of the signers, has the distinction as Chelmsford’s first inhabitant.

“Abraham Parker, the first settler, had his homestead on the south side of the Billerica road,” wrote Waters. He adds in a different part of the book that Abraham’s wife, Rose Whitlock Parker, “was the first woman to ‘Bake and Brew’ in Chelmsford.”

Settlers were present in the area “before the grant was made in 1653,” according to Waters. “They were here, doubtless, in 1652, as the first birth is recorded early in 1653, viz: ‘Joseph Parker, the son of Joseph and Marget his wife 30 daye of March, 1653.’” Jacob and Sarah Parker’s child, also named Sarah, was born soon thereafter.

James Parker removed to Chelmsford after only a short residence in Billerica. His son Josiah was born in 1654 or 1655 in Chelmsford, followed by Samuel in 1656, Joshua in 1658, Zachariah in 1659 and Eleazer in 1660. Nearing his 40th birthday, James was already a recognized town leader, being elected a “Trusteee to order the affairs of the Town” in 1656, and a selectman in 1658.

While in Chelmsford, James Parker became a large landowner. His homestead, including over 50 acres of land, was in the Robin’s Hill area, located off present-day Route 27 about a mile south of the center of town. He also held title to about 3,000 acres of land north of Chelmsford.

According to Waters, “Edward and William Tyng came to America about 1639. In 1660 James Parker, of Chelmsford, sold Edward three thousand acres in what is now Tyngsboro. Dunstable was named for the English town, the home of his [Edward’s] wife, Mary.” Edward later deeded this land to his son Jonathan Tyng, who was a founder of Dunstable and for whom Tyngsboro is named.

Copyright © 2005 by Rudy VanVeghten. Used by permission.

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