The beginning of Beverly as a community dates to 1635 when a 1,000 acre grant on the Bass River Side of Salem was made to five men, later called the “Old Planters.” Those men were Roger Conant, John Balch, John Woodberry, William Trask and Peter Palfrey. All five men had been part of the short-lived fishing station established by the Dorchester Company of England, at Cape Ann (Gloucester) in 1623. When the enterprise failed in 1626 and most of the men returned to England, Conant persuaded some of the most steadfast colonists to stay in the area. They sailed south along the coast to Naumkeag, “…a neck of land lying a little to the westward” – today called Salem – that they believed would be a favorable site for an agricultural colony. Here about 30 people built their homes and began farming.
A new group of settlers from England arrived in September 1628 lead by John Endicott. Endicott had been chosen as the new governor of the tiny colony by the newly formed “New England Company for a Plantation in Massachusetts Bay” which had taken over the Dorchester Company. Religious differences between the old and the new planters caused friction from the start. Endicott and his followers wished to separate from the Church of England and forbade the use of the Book of Common Prayer. Conant and his people wished only to purify the church and resented the new rules, which involved not just religion, but what crops could be grown. Letters went back and forth from London to Salem and eventually, in 1629 a peaceable settlement was achieved and the name of the community changed to Salem, a variant of the Hebrew for peace.
For the next six years the colonists continued in Salem, but perhaps not all was well. In 1635 a grant was requested and made of 1000 acres across the Bass River. The land was divided into farms of 200 acres each and given to William Trask, John Woodberry, Roger Conant, Peter Palfrey and John Balch. The land was divided into upland, meadow or marsh and each of the grantees received an equal amount of property of each type. Peter Palfrey never lived here, selling his grant to William Dodge and Trask sold his share to Thomas Scruggs.
Roger and Sarah Conant, John and Ann Woodberry, and John and Margery Balch moved to the Bass River Side with their children shortly after the grant was confirmed. The Balch house standing today is on the site of the original farm and the Conant house was built nearby, north along what is today Cabot Street. Research indicates that William Woodberry, brother of John, built a house in 1636 in Beverly Cove. There is some indication that John built his house near the present-day intersection of Elliott and Balch streets. The Dodge’s, led by “Farmer” William Dodge, built their farm houses in North Beverly on what is still called Dodge Street.
The challenges of the pioneer life were extreme; farming in a wilderness, disease and early death were common, but the perseverance of the Old Planters and their families was equal to the task. The thriving city of Beverly is their legacy.