Built in 1673 by S.P.: The Benjamin Kimball House

From: Littleton History 1654-1720, Including Nashobah Plantation: An Explorative History
by Daniel V. Boudillion
19 May 2018

On May 7, 2018, the town of Littleton voted to purchase and preserve the Benjamin Kimball house at 12 Robinson Road as a possible Community Center, as part of the Master Plan for Littleton Common. This was spearheaded by the Baker House 1673 Preservation Trust.

Note 1: “The Baker house” is how the Benjamin Kimball house was referred to on the warrant of the May 7, 2018 town meeting. However, its correct historical designation is the Benjamin Kimball house, as identified in the registry of the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

With the house comes a bit of a mystery: there is an attic beam carved with the inscription “BUILT IN 1673 BY S P”. At first glance, it would seem to date the house to 1673. Yet history is silent on there being any such building at this location in this era, and the structure itself seems to date from the mid to late 18th century.

Further, it was not until after 1686 that any English homes were constructed in the Littleton Common area where the Benjamin Kimball house is located.

The earliest English settlement was located nearby in Concord Village, a 610 acre wedge of land bought by Ralph Shepard in 1666 from Lieutenant Joseph Wheeler. It was located between the easterly side of Nashobah Plantation and the westerly side of Chelmsford (now Westford). The base of the wedge was roughly Nagog Pond, and the point was about half a mile southeast of Littleton Common.

At the time, the Shepard wedge (which is now part of Littleton) was part of the Concord New Grants, unincorporated land attached to Concord called Concord Village. Ralph Shepard settled his extended family here, including his three sons Isaac, Jacob and Abraham, and sons-in-law Walter Powers and Peter Dill.

The first structure built was Walter Powers’ Garrison house, a block house built in 1666, and located on Powers Road. It was the earliest English structure built in Littleton. Over the next 7 years, the Shepard and Powers clan would build a small village of five homes, none of which are still standing.

There are however 3 early homes in Littleton still to be seen, but they are located further afield and are on Nashobah Plantation land. These are the Whitcomb house on Whitcomb Avenue, dated 1708, and built on land purchased in 1701, the Proctor home built in or around 1700 on Great Road, the land of which was purchased in 1686, and the Whitney house on Newtown Road, reportedly built in 1685, but more likely between 1704 and 1707. (See chapters Mysteries of the Whitcomb House, Tom Dublet & Deer Island, Appendix B: Tom Dublet’s Curse, and Where Are the Indians Buried? Appendix B: Thanksgiving at the Whitney-Hoar House for more on these three early houses.)

But none of these are close to a 1673 construction date, and they all post-date purchase of Nashobah Plantation lands. The only English homes in the area in 1673 were the Shepard-Powers clan in Concord Village.

Were there other early homes in the immediate vicinity of Concord Village, history is surprisingly silent. All the early local historians take great pride in the early Colonialization of the Littleton-Concord area, and Foster, Shattuck, Hudson, Walcott, and Harwood all discuss the Shepard-Powers settlement in Concord Village, but are silent regarding any contemporary dwellings in the area – which if the Benjamin Kimball house were from 1673, would have been a close neighbor, a mere mile and a half away.

These early homes were a source of Colonial pride, and if there was a pre-King Philip’s War English home in Littleton, much ado would have been made of it in the local histories.

Concord Village is described as being a lone village on the edge of the frontier, with nothing westerly between it and the Connecticut River Valley except Indians, and a trading post at Nonacoicus near the Verbeck entrance to Fort Devons.

Yet, if the 1673 date is correct, there was indeed another English home to the west of them, literally just down the street, or more correctly, down the old Indian trail which is now Great Road.

The Benjamin Kimball house is situated in what would have been Nashobah Indian Plantation, very close to what was the Chelmsford line at the time. In 1673, Nashobah Plantation was a thriving Praying Indian community of some 50 inhabitants, and the likelihood of them or John Eliot or Daniel Gookin, commissioners of Indians affairs, allowing an English encroachment on their land is remote.

It wasn’t until June of 1686, following the destruction of King Philip’s War and the disintegration of the Indian community at Nashobah, when Thomas Henchman of Chelmsford and Peter Bulkeley of Concord purchased half the Plantation, that the Littleton Common area became English land. Bulkeley and Henchman quickly made full use of their new purchase, deeding out acreage to men from Concord and Chelmsford, including the Proctor family, who bought meadows on the west side of Beaver Book later that same year.

Indeed, deed work does not show any English title to the Robinson Road area prior to 1686.

But if anything should suggest caution regards the 1673 date, it is that the Benjamin Kimball home is architecturally dated to the mid-18th century. In a March 2018 reassessment of the building, the architectural specialist working for the Massachusetts Historical Commission gave it a provenance of approximately 1750-1780. Previously in 2004, it had been dated to 1825. (See MACRIS website. Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System)

What are we to make of the carved beam and its 1673 date?

It was not uncommon in that era to use wood from older structures in newer ones. We know that beams from the old Powers Garrison house on Powers Road (circa 1666) were sold in 1828, and there is oral history that some of them were incorporated into Kimlock Farm structures on King Street:

Priest says “the old block-house [garrison house] was destroyed about 1828.” This means it was a solid enough structure to have survived one hundred and sixty-two years, though Foster does describe it as being in much decay in 1815. Littleton historian, Margaret Thacher Drury (1882-1982), writes in her Scrapbook that “it was purchased for $10 and converted into firewood.” According to Drury, citing a conversation with Julia Conant in 1909, it was sold “to Abraham Mead and that there was reason for believing that two beams of the same were purchased by Daniel Goldsmith and used in repair or extension of his barn.” This is the Kimlock Farm on Goldsmith Street, according to Carolyn Webster’s Littleton Legends. (Excerpt from the chapter The Garrison House on Powers Road.)

We see precedent in Littleton for a 1666 structure being sold for its timbers, some of which were said to be incorporated in the Kimlock Farm building. There is no reason to suppose this was an isolated event. In fact, it was common practice.

Note 2: In situations where the timbers were beyond salvage, the structure was burned, and the ashes raked for the nails. Wherever possible, the components of the old structures were reused in new ones.

The “S P” initials in the “Built in 1673 by S P” inscription are suggestive. The Powers last name was a prominent one in early Littleton history – Walter Powers built the Garrison house in 1666 – but there were no Powers with a first name beginning with “S” in or around that time.

The only families in the area at that time were the Shepard, Powers, and Dills: Ralph Shepard and his sons, and his sons-in-law Walter Powers and Peter Dill.

This suggests the “S P” may well stand for Shepard-Powers, as in “Built in 1673 by Shepard and Powers.”

Not only this, but a Shepard home was indeed actually built in 1673.

Records show that Abraham Shepard married Judith Philbrook in January of 1673, and settled on what is now Great Road, about a half mile west of Powers Road.

Abraham Shepard married Judith Philbrook of Concord on January 2, 1673, at 30 years of age. Together they had seven children in Concord Village. Abraham passed away on February 22, 1715, having lived just long enough to see Nashobah Plantation become the English town of Nashoba. Abraham’s farm was, according to Harwood, where “the Charles Houghton farm, now Mr. Brown’s” was located. The Charles Houghton house, on the 1875 map, is the large Colonial on the northeast side of Great Road at the back entrance to the Nashoba Ski Area (about a half mile northeast from the intersection with Powers Road).

This location is confirmed by Ralph’s 1681 confirmatory deed to the heirs of Isaac, which places Abraham north of Isaac, Isaac’s house lot being bounded “North by Abraham Shepard.” (Excerpt from the chapter The English of Concord Village.)

Unmarried men and women did not live on their own in Puritan Bay Colony, they lived with their parents. Upon marriage they built a home of their own, with construction typically begun prior to the marriage date.

Abraham and Judith’s house was likely built in 1672-1673, and finished in 1673.

Concord Village was a lone community, 9 miles from civilization. House raising would have been a communal effort between the Shepards and Powers (and Dills, depending on the timeframe).

It is no stretch of the imagination that the Abraham Shepard house, built in 1673 by the Shepard-Powers clan, could have had a beam carved with the inscription “Built in 1673 by S P” upon its completion.

We know that by 1875 the Abraham Shepard house was long gone. When it was demolished, were its timbers sold, like those of the Garrison house before it? Were some of these structural timbers incorporated into the Benjamin Kimball house, much like the Garrison timbers found their way into Kimlock Farm buildings?

It seems likely, given the known facts. And if so, it is an easy task to identify the hand that carved the inscription.

We know that Isaac, Jacob, and Abraham Shepard had no literary skill, they could not even write their own names. They signed with a “mark,” as did Walter Powers. (Based on historical documents, Abraham at least learned to write his name sometime between 1681 and 1704.)

But Ralph Shepard and his wife Thankslord were literate; they could write as well as read.

Ralph Shepard was the only man in Concord Village in 1673 that could write, and if the carving is indeed a testament to the Shepard-Powers clan erecting Abraham’s marriage home, it could only have been Ralph who carved it.

There is no other known source for a beam thus inscribed then the house the Shepard-Powers clan erected for Abraham Shepard in 1673, and Ralph Shepard was the only man for literally miles around who could actually write.

This is a significant find. The 1673 beam is the oldest Colonial artifact in Littleton, and from the oldest Colonial settlement. Further, it is likely inscribed by Ralph Shepard, the progenitor of the Shepard line.

Note 3: The “S P” initials also bring to mind the Proctors, another early Littleton family whose homestead is about 1 mile west of the Kimball house. However, they were from Chelmsford and did not buy their property until the fall 1686, and did not live in the area until they constructed the house in or around 1700. Further, no Proctor with the initials of “SP” can be found in their genealogy in this area at this time.

Note 4: Around 1682, two Groton famers, Peleg Lawrence and Robert Robbins, made the first purchase of Nashobah Plantation land, buying directly from the Indians, which was forbidden, (as a result of which the deed was never recorded).

This purchase was the northern-most section of Nashobah Plantation, a strip of land abutting Forge Pond and Spectacle Pond. Because Lawrence and Robbins were from Groton, and Groton abutted the far side of Forge Pond and Spectacle Pond, Groton quickly re-laid its town lines to include this purchase as part of their town. In doing so, they made an extraordinary bold land grab, laying out their bounds all the way east of Beaver Brook “having taken into their bounds as we judge near half the Indian plantation” according to surveyors Wheeler and Flynt.

This was rectified in 1682 after complaint by the Nashoba Praying Indians, whose land they had grabbed, and the bounds readjusted correctly by Court order. (See chapter Whitcomb, Powers, Bulkeley & Henchman for more on the Groton land-grab.)

There is an important point to be gleaned from this. First, the Benjamin Kimball house is located on what was Nashobah Plantation land. We see that the Nashobah Praying Indians were not hesitant to address squatting and land grabs in Court. If this house was at this location in 1673, it would have been brought to the attention of the Court. From this we can conclude there was no such structure there in 1673.

We should also note that the closest Groton men of that general era, Peleg Lawrence and Robert Robbins, do not have initials that match “S P”.

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