WARE'S FOUNDING DOCUMENTS
In colonial Massachusetts, religion was a public institution. Churches and meeting houses were established and maintained with public funds. Each inhabitant was required to affiliate with a place of public worship and contribute to its support. Erecting a church and levying taxes to maintain it and support a clergyman required an act of the provincial legislature, the General Court. Those living outside a parish or other place that had been granted the privilege of building a house of worship were obliged to attend the established church at the place nearest to their abode and pay taxes to that place.
In colonial times, the area that encompassed much of present-day Ware, Palmer, and parts of other towns in the region was known as the Elbow Tract. Settlement of this rough, hilly area of forest and wilderness began in the early 1700s. In 1733, the General Court established a limited form of self-government in the southern portion of the Elbow Tract and authorized the inhabitants there to erect a place of public worship and levy taxes to support a minster. That area, named the Elbow Plantation, or simply the Elbows, later became the town of Palmer.
The inhabitants in the northern portion of the Elbow Tract, however, had no place of worship of their own. They were obliged to travel several miles to attend churches and meeting houses in the Elbows and elsewhere. In 1742, inhabitants of the area between the Ware River and Brookfield on the east and the Swift River on the west, and bounded by Hardwick on the north and the Elbows on the south, petitioned the General Court for authority to establish their own place of public worship. The petition, dated May 26, 1742, was signed by John Read, a lawyer and owner of 10,000 acres known as the Manour of Peace, and thirty-three other freeholders. In the petition, they stated (in their own words and spelling):
They dwell at a great distance from any place of public worship, most of them six or seven miles and therefore cannot injoy that privilege in their present condition: but as their hearts are sincerely desirous of ye public worship of God they persuade themselves they shall be able cheerfully to bear the charge that will attend it. But as some of them belong to the town at the Elbows, some to Brookfield & the rest of them live on farms of ye Province Grants they cannot properly & lawfully proceed to erect & maintain the public worship of God among them without the aid of this [General] Court, & therefore pray this honourable court by a suitable Committee of this Court to inquire into their state & circumstances and make them a separate & distinct Township or Parish …
The General Court appointed committee to inquire into the matter. The committee, finding that the petitioners “Live at a Very Great Distance from any place of publick worship and meet with great Difficulty thereby,” recommended that they “be freed from all Taxes to any other place or Town During the pleasure of the General Court, so that they may be able to provide preaching among themselves.” On December 7, 1742, the General Court accepted the petition and the committee’s report and ordered that the lands in question and their inhabitants “be erected into a Precinct, and that the said Inhabitants have the Powers & Privileges upon which other Precincts do or by law ought to enjoy, and that they be & hereby are obliged to maintain the publick Worship of God among them in the support of a learned orthodox Minister.” The Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, William Shirley, signed his concurrence with the act of the General Court.
The precinct established by the General Court came to be known as Ware River Parish (or, when its governmental or other secular affairs were concerned, Ware River Precinct). It was incorporated as the District of Ware in 1761 and became a town in 1775. The petition and the act of the General Court establishing Ware River Parish are therefore Ware’s founding documents.
The original documents are shown here. They are: (1) the petition of May 6, 1742 (the thirty-two other signatures are on a separate page not shown here), (2) the report of the committee and the acceptance and order of the General Court, with the signed consent of Governor William Shirley. Copies of these original documents have been kindly provided by the Massachusetts Archives.
By Stephen R. Katz, April 2016
Sources: Edward H. Gilbert, Early Grants and Incorporation of the Town of Ware (New-York: printed by Fords, Howard & Hulbert); Arthur Chase, History of Ware, Massachusetts (Cambridge: University Press, 1911); J. H. Temple, History of the Town of Palmer, Massachusetts, Early Known as the Elbow Tract: Including Records of the Plantation, District and Town 1716–1889 (Town of Palmer, 1889).