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Cohasset's First Town History

David Wadsworth

From David Wadsworth, "Narrative History of Cohasset Now Available," Cohasset Mariner, November 14, 1986 Reprinted by permission of the author.

During the nineteenth century several South Shore communities produced definitive history books of their towns. The early years of the century saw publication of Dean's history of Scituate and the compilation of an early Hingham history by Solomon Lincoln. In the latter 1800s the monumental four volume set covering the entire history and genealogy of Hingham was compiled by George Lincoln, and a town history and genealogy of Hanover was written by historian Jedediah Dwelley.

In 1894 the move to compile and write a town history spread to Cohasset, where at Town Meeting on March 5 it was voted to establish a Committee on Town History. The committee's first six members, chosen at that meeting, were: the Reverend Joseph Osgood, who for more than fifty years had been pastor of the town's original First Parish; the Reverend E. Victor Bigelow of the Second Congregational Church; Dr. Oliver H. Howe, prominent local historian who would become, years later, one of the founders of the Cohasset Historical Society; Beechwood historian and prominent public figure Aaron Pratt, Esquire, known as "Squire" Pratt; Newcomb Bates Tower, owner of the town's largest maritime business and town clerk; and Edward Pomeroy Collier, son of Cohasset's most illustrious "Deep Sea Captain," James Collier, Jr. Given authority to enlarge its own membership, the committee added citizens Ira B. Pratt and George Collier to its group. The latter was another son of Captain James Collier.

Within two years the Committee on Town History had amassed a large collection of documents and artifacts relating to Cohasset's past and began to consider the writing and publishing of a comprehensive history of the town. Committee member Bigelow volunteered to do the writing, using information compiled by the members of the committee. Each was assigned a specific area of town history, to form the various chapters of the book. The committee then read each section as it was presented at meetings. Proven facts and verifiable traditions were included in the new book. Long hours of research and extensive culling of historical records were needed to ensure accuracy.

For two centuries Cohasset had been an agricultural and maritime community, with shipbuilding, fishing, and commerce as its main industries. By the time the town's history was being written, however, far-reaching changes had already begun. The shipyards at "Ship Cove" were gone, so were the mackerel schooner fleets, and only the very last of the "Deep Sea Captains" of Cohasset were still living. The community was on its way to becoming a modern big city suburb. The Town History Committee was well aware that much of the story of early Cohasset would be lost if not soon preserved in writing.

Thus it was that chapter by chapter, beginning with the town's underlying granite?ledge geology, extending to the new settlers' first arrival in the late 1600s, through its development first as part of its parent town of Hingham, then later as a separate and individual town, and finally "up to date" in 1898, Rev. Bigelow's book took final form.

In all, the book was a committee undertaking, with Bigelow providing the final writing in a uniquely flowing narrative style. The various chapters of Bigelow's Narrative History of the Town of Cohasset, Massachusetts explore such topics as "How the Soil Carne" (the story of the ancient glacial epochs); "The Aborigines" (the Quonahassit Indians from whom the town finally took its name); "The 'Quonahassit' Pioneers" (earliest visits by Hingham settlers); "Dividing the Land (the 1670 land division of the Conahasset upland); and "The First Homes" (early Hingham families who settled in Conahasset).

Also included is the story of the town's separation from Hingham; the growth of its earliest industries; the development of its earliest churches, schools, and libraries; its participation in the new nation's wars for survival; and its growth and decline as a seafaring and maritime community. The story of shipwrecks, lifesaving, and Minot's Ledge Lighthouse were presented in detail.

The Narrative History was ready for publication by early 1898. At this time the venerated chairman of the committee, Rev. Osgood, died, and Newcomb B. Tower succeeded to the chairmanship as the book went to press. A promotional flyer issued by the committee noted that the new volume "starts with the formation of the granite rock and follows the romance of nature and of human life which has transpired here. This is the only history of our town ever written, and the committee in charge of the matter desire to place it within reach of every household."

The book appeared in late 1898, to be greeted both by acclaim and by some constructive criticism. The Reverend Bigelow copyrighted the volume in his own name on December 15, 1898; then on January 18, 1901, he assigned the copyright to the Committee on Town History. That original printing of Bigelow's Narrative History soon was sold out and the book became increasingly difficult to obtain. A limited reprint was issued in 1970 as part of Cohasset's own Bicentennial celebration [and again in 1981. Most recently, the book was reprinted in 2002 as part of a three-volume set with the two succeeding narrative histories of Cohasset. Now readers can follow the history of Cohasset from the Ice Age to the twenty-first century.]