Thursday, July 09, 2009

Brief History of Alexander Knight

Sue Nelson and I put together from Town records and other historical data a brief accounting of the life and significance of one our earliest settlers to the Ipswich colony:

The story of Alexander Knight’s rise and fall in Ipswich, Massachusetts is truly intriguing and significant in the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s history. Knight, thought to be a prosperous innkeeper from Chelmsford, England, probably immigrated to Boston in the Defence with wife Anne (Hannah) Tuttie, daughter of William Tuttie of London. He was one of Ipswich’s first settlers, residing in Town by February of 1635. Knight received multiple grants of land comprising significant acreage and had his first home close to the meetinghouse on Meeting House Green near many of Ipswich’s most prominent residents.

In 1648, however, Knight experienced a rapid decline in his fortunes. While there is some mystery surrounding the incident, we know that Knight’s infant son Nathaniel burned to death when his clothes caught on fire. The Essex County Quarterly Courts Fined Knight heavily in March of 1654 for “carelessness in not preventing fire after warning.” It is possible that Knight himself was injured in the fire and probable that his house was lost.

By January 1656 Aron Pengry, who had been paid for boarding Knight and his family for an undetermined length of time, asked the Town to end the arrangement. Ipswich Selectmen gave Knight notice to quit Pengry’s house by May 1st(1657). Alexander struggled to find a way to support his family, leasing his land to Thomas Rowell and Robert Collins in February 1656, in exchange for firewood and clay for his chimney. However, this exchange was apparently not sufficient to support the Knight family. At the April Town Meeting of 1657, an intense discussion ensued about how to help Knight. After proposing another boarding situation for the family, the Town, in an extraordinary move, voted that “whereas Alexander Knight…is altogether destitute, his wife alsoe neare her tyme” .

The significance of this record is two-fold. Firstly, it was an unprecedented move for a Town to provide a dwelling house for a pauper.

Secondly, this unique Town Record gives us a glimpse of what the ordinary houses of the first half of the seventeenth century must have been like.

If originally built as planned, the house would have been a modest 16 x 12 single-story building, possibly with only one room and probably with a loft space for storage. Its chimney, based on the contract with Rowell and Collins, was probably of wattle-and-daub and not of brick, since Knight planned on needing two loads of clay a year to re-parge it. Town deeds suggest that the new house was built in Lord Square, rather than on Meetinghouse Green.

With the exception of his new home, Knight’s death records in 1664 indicate a man with few possessions. Most of his estate comprised the land grants made to him when he arrived in Ipswich, flush with youth and opportunity.

Here begins our team’s and the Ipswich Historical Society’s re-creation of the Knight House. Join us as we retrace how ordinary settlers, including Alexander Knight, may have built their homes during the nascent days of one of our nation’s first colonies.

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