The first area of settlement in Marblehead was around Little Harbor. The early colonists chose the highest hill as the location for their meeting house and burial ground.

The meeting house was built around 1638, and Old Burial Hill was established at that time. Worshippers went there to hear Marblehead’s unordained minister, William Walton, preach. They also went to meet their friends and neighbors, to visit and gossip. 

Little Harbor and Burial Hill. Detail of map of Marblehead in 1700 by Sidney Perley. COURTESY PHOTO/MARBLEHEAD HISTORICAL COMMISSION

The meeting house was the center of the community, a gathering place for news, politics and social life. Services were held summer and winter, and in winter the parishioners often brought along their dogs. The dogs were allowed to sleep under the pews, which was a big help in keeping everyone’s feet warm.

Many worshippers went to the meeting house, but some townspeople preferred to go to Salem to attend the Puritan church. To do so, they traveled by ferry.

Tom Dixey ran a ferry service on the West Shore to take passengers across Salem Harbor. Just beside the ferry dock, on the Marblehead side, was a tavern owned by Tom Bowen. Some of the husbands didn’t quite make it all the way down the dock to the ferry, choosing instead to attend “Tom Bowen’s Church.” Their wives went off to church and then collected their husbands when they returned.

This story is still quite popular in Marblehead, as there seem to be quite a few people who wish that Bowen’s establishment was still in existence.

Marblehead has had a long reputation as a drinking town. It is interesting to note that the first official use of the town name appears in the colonial court records of the Colony of the Massachusetts Bay on July 2, 1633. The record states, “James White is ffined for drunkeness by him att Marblehead on the Sabboth day.”

Pam Peterson
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