‘Their furrows plough’

Daly_Marie photoSeveral decades ago, my father was planting bulbs in our backyard flower garden. An old stone wall borders the garden and our yard, as well as all the neighbors’ yards on my street. Digging into the soil, my father found more than the usual collection of rocks and earthworms – he disinterred a pair of nineteenth-century lady’s boots.

Over the years, our garden has churned up other relics of past inhabitants, such as horseshoes, and even Native American tools and arrowheads. A Federal-style mansion across the street was built in 1806 by Phinehas Lawrence, whose ancestors date back to about 1650 in our neighborhood. Upon investigation, I found that my backyard stone wall marks a lot line (lot #5 in the third squadron) laid out in 1636 by European settlers. In fact, old stone walls marking these lot lines crisscross through the woods of Waltham, a city that was once part of Watertown, Massachusetts.

I began to appreciate more that we are only the latest in a long history of inhabitants, a history which dates back 10,000 years to the retreat of the last glacier. In researching the history of lot #5, I found that the land was first allotted to Nathaniel Bowman in 1636. Nathaniel probably did not live there, and in 1650 he sold the lot to Thomas Tarball, who stayed until 1663, when he moved to Groton and sold the lot to Thomas Hastings. The 1663 deed mentioned a house on the long narrow lot of 30 acres. (Remnants of earlier houses are encompassed in the 1806 Phinehas Lawrence mansion.)

Thomas Hastings probably intended it for his son, John, who lived there until his death in 1718. Using Henry Bond’s Genealogies of the Families and Descendants of the Early Settlers of Watertown, Massachusetts, …,[i] Edmund Sanderson’s Waltham as a Precinct of Watertown and as a Town, 1630-1884,[ii] Robert Charles Anderson’s The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England, 1620-1633,[iii] and Middlesex County deeds and probates, I have researched each lot of land in North Waltham back to the 1636 land divisions.

Now as I walk through the fields and woods, I think of the many people who once called these lands their own, and I seek to preserve the vestiges of their lives in our twenty-first century environment.  My thoughts echo Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1847 poem:

Each of these landlords walked amidst his farm/Saying, ‘T’is mine, my children’s and my name’s.’/Where are these men? Asleep beneath their grounds:/And strangers, fond as they, their furrows plough.[iv]


[i] Henry Bond, Genealogies of the Families and Descendants of the Early Settlers of Watertown, Massachusetts, including Waltham and Weston: to which is Appended the Early History of the Town (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1860).

[ii] Edmund L. Sanderson, Waltham as a Precinct of Watertown and as a Town, 1630-1884 (Waltham: Waltham Historical Society, 1936).

[iii] Robert Charles Anderson, The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England, 1620-1633 (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1995)

[iv] Excerpt from “Hamatreya,” in Ralph Waldo Emerson, Poems (Boston: James Munroe and Company, 1847).

About Marie Daly

Marie joined the staff of NEHGS in 1987 as Business Manager, then became Chief Financial Officer in 1998, and was named Director of Library Services in 2002. She received a B.S. from Northeastern University and an MPH from Boston University. In her spare time, Marie traces her Irish ancestors. She is the past president and co-founder of TIARA (the Irish Ancestral Research Association) and has been researching, lecturing, and writing about Irish genealogy since 1976. She is particularly interested in old Irish graveyards and has transcribed the tombstone inscriptions in several Irish cemeteries in the Boston area.

11 thoughts on “‘Their furrows plough’

  1. Wow. You sure did a lot of research. I admire you for that. That is a ton of work. I love History like this, so I found it extremely interesting.

  2. Loved this, Marie. Wonderful to realize that old stone walls may mark early property lines. On my land here in the Berkshires there is an old stone foundation near the road. When we researched early records we found that a cobbler lived there in the late 1790s and early 1800s… So I call my house Cobbler’s cottage in his memory.

  3. I have a couple of Phinehas Lawrences in my family tree, as cousins many times removed. I also lived near Waltham, but that was long before I started doing genealogy. I also discovered that I had many Hammond ancestors buried in a cemetery I passed almost daily for over 15 years.

  4. Marie,
    Thank you for your work evidenced in this article. I am particularly grateful because I am a descendant of Thomas Tarball/Tarbell and am encouraged by others who appreciate and respect the history of their surroundings. The land is in good hands!!!

  5. Marie,
    I’m another Thomas Tarbell descendant, and am looking into a group including John Hastings Junr. Your research makes their lives so real. I had run across the Tarbell/Hastings deed recently, so your mention of it was serendipity. Thanks.

  6. Thomas Tarbell is my 7th great grandfather. I’m so glad to learn that his land is “ploughed” to this day. Thank you for sharing your research.

  7. Thomas Tarbell was my husband’s 9 x grandfather. We knew that Thomas had lived in Watertown. Would you please share the address of that home?

  8. If the property you’re writing about is off Trapelo Road, I had ancestors who lived in the Nathaniel Bridge house that used to stand on the old Met State property.

  9. I also did some research a few weeks ago in Waltham, Weston, Watertown & Winchendon. The Boston area is a treasure trove of genealogical information. When I entered each cemetery, I recognized name after name, familiar to me from my tree. It was like going to a family reunion. In Winchendon, I found the graves of my Great Great Grandparents Seth & Nancy Brown and 4 of their children. This was extra special, since Nancy’s father was my patriot in the DAR.

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