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THE ISLANDS OF BOSTON HARBOUR
The islands of our harbour presented a very different appearance in the early days of the Colony. Most of them at some time were owned and inhabited by one or more families as residences. Gradually their woods were cut down and hauled into the nearby towns for firewood, and in the course of time most of them were bought by the City, the State, or the United States Government. Governor’s or Winthrop Island, which was granted to Governor Winthrop in 1632 by the Colonial Legislature, was undoubtedly one of the most attractive of all, chiefly owing to its woods and wonderful orchard of pear, plum and apple trees. It was agreed that the purchaser should here plant a vineyard and an orchard, and that the purchaser or his heirs for twenty-one years should pay to the Government yearly one-fifth of all the fruits and profits; and the name of his new possession was to be called “Governor’s Garden.” Later the terms were changed to “one hogshead of the best wine that grows there,” to be paid after the death of John Winthrop. In 1640 the vineyard failed, and the yearly amount was changed to two bushels of apples, one for the Governor and the other for the General Court, the members of which could be seen going home with their pockets full of the fruit. The island continued in the possession of the family until 1808, when part of it was sold to the Government as a site for Fort Warren. The name of this fort was later transferred to another fort on George’s Island, and the old fort renamed for Governor Winthrop. During the witchcraft delusion “Governor’s Garden” was believed to be an isle of demons. During the War of 1812 the Bostonians were asked to go down there with spades, pickaxes and wheelbarrows to aid in improving the defences of the fort. The Winthrops were celebrated for their hospitality and entertained a great deal at their island home. Among those who made use of these attractive grounds were the members of the Massachusetts Historical Society. The island is to-day owned by the United States, but is under the care of the Boston Park Commissioners.
Another well-defended fortress was on Castle Island, which was the most ancient military post in the United States continuously occupied for defence, the flag of Saint George, the Pine-Tree Flag, the white flag of Massachusetts, and the Stars and Stripes all having been flown over its ramparts. This fortress was erected in 1634 by Governor Winthrop and his councillors, who decided that from this island only could the “First Church” be properly protected. The fort was destroyed by fire in 1673, being built mostly of tree stumps, and the following year the whole Court went on “one of the earliest official junketings in Boston Harbour” to examine it. In 1791, for the first time, a British frigate saluted the American flag flying over the Castle. In 1798 Massachusetts ceded the island to the United States and nine years later it was christened Fort Independence. Some Massachusetts volunteers are buried here, and one of the old epitaphs, now lost, reads: “Here lies the body of John -----, aged 50, a faithful soldier and a desperate good Gardener.” Once when three ships came in from England, a gunner tried to fire a shot across the bows of one of them to bring her to, but the gun was so badly aimed that the shot killed a passenger. An inquiry brought out the report that he “met his death by Providence of God.” During the civil war in England two rival British ships met in the harbour opposite the Castle, which resulted in the ridiculous law being passed “not to permit any more ships to fight in the harbour without license from authority.” After the Boston Massacre the British soldiers were sent to the Castle, which caused to be written the following piece of poetry:—
“Our fleet and our army,
they soon will arrive,
Then to a bleak island you shall not us drive,
In every house you shall have three or four
And if that will not please you, you shall have half a score.”
From here also the guns announced the return of William Pepperell after the capture of Louisburg, and from its fortress the Royal Governors were saluted on their arrival; and to this island Governor Andrew withdrew. Also the fort was used as a prison until Charlestown jail was built. The island is now owned by the United States, but is cared for by the Park Commission.
Another Government island is George’s, or Pemberton, Island, upon which Fort Warren now stands. The fort was built of Quincy and Cape Ann granite, and was supposed to be at one time the key to the harbour. The island was named after Captain George, a prominent citizen of Boston. Within the walls of the fort many Massachusetts recruits were drilled for the Civil War, and many prisoners, including the English emissaries, Mason and Slidell, were here imprisoned. It was the chief point of defence in our harbour until the Spanish War, and has played an important part in our Nation’s history. The first earthworks were erected in 1778 in order to protect Count d’Estaing’s fleet from the British, when the French ships were in the harbour. It may be interesting also to mention that the famous song “John Brown’s Body Lies a-Mouldering in the Grave” was composed and first sung at Fort Warren by the glee club of the Second Battalion Light Infantry in 1861.
[Map of the Islands of Boston harbor]
When Miles Standish explored the harbour in 1621 he anchored off Thompson’s Island, visited Squantum and made a treaty with the Indians. A few years later David Thompson, who came from Plymouth, in Devon, England, landed here and took up his residence. He died several years later and his son leased it. In 1644 Massachusetts, without having the right really to do so, granted the island to Dorchester. The lease was for £20 a year, and the income was to be used to pay the salary of a schoolmaster for the town. It has been asserted that this was the first money ever raised by taxes for such a purpose. The Thompson family returned, claimed the island, and quite properly had it restored to them by the Court. In 1834 the Boston Farm School Association purchased it and annexed it to Boston, at the same time granting to the people of Dorchester the right to dig clams there. Here later on the Farm School was established. A grove of trees was planted in 1840 by the Rev. Theodore Lyman. Just after the Revolution George Minot purchased part of Thompson’s Island with the funds that were given him by the Government for powder that he had smuggled through the British lines to his many friends. The island is owned to-day by the City of Boston.
Long Island was so called because it is the longest island in the harbour. In 1847 a company bought all of it except the east end upon which was the lighthouse, and then built a wharf and a hotel and laid out streets. The speculation ended in failure. The island is chiefly noted as the residence of John Nelson, who is looked upon as a hero by the American people. He was captured by the French in a voyage to the eastward and imprisoned in Quebec. While there he informed Massachusetts that the French were forming plans against the New England Colonies, and for this he was sent to the Bastille. He was finally released, and on his return to Long Island the Nelson family gave him a great feast of welcome, and part of the table-cloth is believed still to be preserved by his descendants. The British pastured cattle here at one time, and a detachment of five hundred Continental soldiers, in sixty-five whale-boats, landed and stole them all, escaping safely to Squantum. Not many years ago a large assemblage of prize-fighters and their “heelers” went over to the island with the intention of conducting a fight, but were prevented from doing so by some police officers who arrived in a police boat at just the right time. The island is owned partly by the Government and partly by the City.
Lovell’s Island, which is six miles or so down the harbour, has witnessed many shipwrecks, chief of which was the French battleship “Magnifique,” which missed stays and ran on the rocks, where she lay for many years. The Boston pilot in charge of her at the time became sexton of the New North Church, and when he went down to the parish one morning he found that some boys had chalked the following on the meeting-house door:—
“Don’t you run this ship
As you did the seventy-four” (74 guns).
Souvenir hunters have dug up many of the timbers of this vessel, but no treasures. Congress gave to France the “America” to compensate her for the loss. The island was named after Captain Lovell of Dorchester, was occupied at one time by Hull, and now is the property of the United States, being used as a buoy station.
Nix’s Mate has always been connected with traditions and to us is the most mysterious of all the islands, owing to the fact that its twelve acres of pasture land have been entirely washed away except for the beacon which was erected by the Boston Marine Society as a warning to mariners. The most popular tradition is that Captain Nix was killed at sea and his mate suffered death here for the murder. The mate protested his innocence and predicted that the whole island would be destroyed to prove his guiltlessness. The first owner of the island was John Gallop. It has a weird history, for with Bird Island it was used as a place for the execution and burial of pirates, and often their bodies, after execution elsewhere, were hung on Nix’s Mate in order to warn other sea-rovers as they entered or left the harbour. The pirate William Fly was the most noted of all the buccaneers executed here; his bones hung and blew back and forth on the gibbet for many months. It is a curious coincidence that Nix’s Mate and Bird Island, upon both of which executions took place. practically no longer exist.
Deer Island was so called because deer often swam over from the mainland when chased by the wolves from Boston Neck. It was granted to Boston in 1634, and its use is too well known to require any description. It was leased at one time to Sir Thomas Temple, who was a descendant of Lady Godiva of Coventry fame, a rather curious relation to history for one of our islands to bear. During King Philip’s War Massachusetts confined many Christian Indians in this bleak spot, and John Eliot often visited and comforted them. It is owned by Boston, the State of Massachusetts, and the United States Government.
Apple Island has furnished excellent pasturage for sheep and cattle. It was owned in 1723 by the Hon. Thomas Hutchinson, father of Governor Hutchinson. It finally came into the possession of a Mr. Marsh, who lived here peacefully with his family. His grave is on the western slope. The City finally purchased it in 1867. Here many old ships have been dismantled and burned, and it is popularly believed that the island is infested with rats that came ashore from the burning vessels.
Breed’s Island, formerly known as Hog Island and owned at one time by Judge Sewall, was bought in 1800 by a wealthy resident of Charlestown, Massachusetts, named John Breed, who tried here to bury his grief for the death of his bride.
Spectacle Island is so called because at low tide it resembles a pair of spectacles. It was bought by Samuel Bill from an Indian Chief, and later it was bought by the Town of Boston. A hospital was built here which later was transferred to Rainsford Island where it still is. The “Sheerness,” which took away Phillips to safety after his duel with Woodbridge, lay off this island when he came on board. It was bought not many years ago by Nathan Ward, and some one wrote, “The island has been put to a new business, which speaks for itself if one happens to the leeward of it,” adding that “it has ceased to be a place of resort.” The first mention of Spectacle Island was in 1634 when “together with Deer Island, Hog Island and Long Island, it was granted to the Town of Boston, for the yearly rent of 4 shillings,” or one shilling apiece.
Edward Raynsford, the first elder of the Old South Church, was the first white resident of Rainsford Island. The city bought it in 1737 for a hospital, and in 1858 the State bought it for a home for paupers. Boston bought it back a few years later, and established on it an almshouse. Until 1852 it was used as a quarantine.
Noddle’s Island, now part of East Boston, was first settled by William Noddle in 1629, before Boston was founded, the first important settler being Samuel Maverick. When the Puritans arrived they allowed him to remain upon payment of a “fat wether, a fat hog or forty shillings.” During the siege of Boston the island became a refuge for twenty young women. One of them was frequently called upon by William Tudor, a General of the American Army, who swam over with his clothes tied in a bundle on his head, dressed, made his call and then returned in the same manner. His energy was rewarded by a successful ending to his love-making. The Battle of Chelsea Creek was fought between Noddle’s Island and Winnisimmet, or Chelsea. It was the second battle of the Revolution in this vicinity and the first one in which American artillery was used. Fort Strong is situated here. Donald McKay built many fine ships here, such as the “Flying Cloud,” “Sovereign of the Seas” and the “Great Republic.” It was “layed to Boston” in 1636. A part of it is now owned by the East Boston Company.
Peddock’s Island is chiefly known to us as the scene of the capture of some French sailors by the English in the early days of the Colonies. It is owned to-day by Governor Andrew’s Estate and controlled by the Town of Hull. Gallop’s Island is owned by the City of Boston and will probably be purchased during the year by the United States Government.
Bumpkin Island, near Hingham, is owned by Harvard College and leased to the Burrage Hospital.
Calf Island is the property of B. P. Cheney.
Great Brewster is owned by the City and is under the jurisdiction of the Town of Hull.
Green Island is owned by Melvin 0. Adams and James Young.
Little Brewster is owned by the United States and is occupied by Boston Light.
Middle Brewster is owned by Melvin 0. Adams, R. S. Whitney and. B. P. Cheney.
Outer Brewster is the property of Benjamin Dean.
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