Joshua Fisher (1621-1672) Colonial Inn-keeper and Surveyor, Part 1

Notable among the early surveyors in colonial New England and one who was among the most active was Joshua Fisher 3rd of Dedham, Massachusetts. The third generation of his family to bear the given name, he was the son of Joshua Fisher 2nd, of Medfield, England. Born in 1621, he was baptized at Syleham on April 2, 1621. In 1637 he emigrated to New England with his family, which settled in Dedham, the year after the founding of the community. He was sixteen years of age at the time.


Five years after the passengers of the Mary and John had made their way up the Charles River to establish a settlement at Watertown, several of the more venturesome among them went out to seek new fields and wider farms further up the river. Lacking means of transportation, they felled some large trees, and hollowing out the trunks, they made rude log canoes with which they paddled up the narrow curves of the deeply flowing stream. Emerging finally from the dense forest area into the open, they saw the river twisting forth through broad rich meadows in which they observed many wild fowl. In this serene wilderness, where the Charles River made its great bend, they staked out their home lots in a new plantation they named Contentment. In due time the court decreed that the name of Contentment should be changed to Dedham.

A Community Is Established
These first settlers located their house lots on the margins of the meadows, each house lot consisting of a part upland and a part meadow, laid out in narrow parallel strips. Houses were erected soon after the first settlement commenced. It was a time when there very few carpenters, joiners, or masons among them. The only boards available for the houses had to be sawn by hand in the woods, because there was no sawmill for many years until Fisher and Eleazer Lusher built one in 1658-59. A safety measure was enacted by means of a town ordnance that stipulated each house was required to have a ladder that extended from the ground to the chimney as a substitute for a fire engine. The settlers had brought with them a number of small hand mills, with which they were able to grind their grain, but it was not until 1640 that the first water mill was built.

Contentment's first meeting house was erected in 1637. The "pitts" (as the pews then were called) were five feet deep and four-and-a-half feet wide. The elders and the deacons occupied the seats in front of the pulpit, with the communion table placed between them. The men of the congregation were seated on one side of the galleries, the women and girls on the other, while the boys had to sit in front.

Soon after his arrival, Joshua Fisher apparently was employed as Dedham's first blacksmith, for on November 1, 1637 the Dedham Records reported that "it was condescended that Josua Fisher may enter upon the Smithes Lott & ther fitt himselfe ye building & otherwise for to doe some work of ye trade for ye Towne. In the behalfe of his Father, is expected this next somer. Provided y.t yf he cometh not in such a tyme as may be conceived fitting by our sayd society Then the sayd Josua shall leave ye sayd Lot & ye Towne be at liberty to put in another Smith: allowing vnto the sayd Josua his wholl Charges vpon ye same to be alowed by ye 2 Judicious men."

It was at about this time that Fisher signed the Covenant that had been adopted at the town's first recorded public meeting. It was held August 15, 1630, attended by 18 persons, by which each individual bound himself "to give information concerning any person who applied for admission to submit to such fines as might be imposed for violation of rules, and to obey all such bye-laws and regulations as the inhabitants shall judge necessary for the management of their temporal affairs, and for loving society."

In 1639 Fisher joined the Dedham Congregational Church, and in 1643 he married Mary, who was the daughter of Deacon Nathaniel and Mary Aldis. She died in 1653 and in the following year he married Lydia, the widow of the late Samuel Oliver of Boston. He was the father of four sons and five daughters.

Fisher was constantly involved and active in the young town's public affairs. In 1640 he became a member of the Ancient and Honourable Artillery Company and in 1648 he became an officer, rising from second sergeant. In October of that year the town of Dedham sent a petition to the General Court in Boston requesting appointment of officers for their Train Band. The petition requested "That whereas our band of Trayned Souldiers haue bin yet: defectiue for want of Oficers established: to exercise them: and as we humbly conceiue that we haue some amongst vs that may be fitt. To exercise our Company we haue with one consent made choyce of Eliazer Lusher to be our Captaine: and Joshua Fisher to be our Leiftenant and Henry Phillips to be our Ensigne humbly desyringe this Hon.r Court : that you would be pleased to Ratifie and confirme them in the said places if you should thinke good … ."

Fisher was appointed Lieftenant, a title which he bore thereafter and by which he became known throughout the Colony. In 1649 Fisher was made a freeman of the town, and on November 23, 1656 he was chosen to be one of the Select men and to keep the town books. Joshua Fisher continued to serve in that office for 22 years. During the nine years between 1653 and 1672 Fisher also was sent again and again as the town of Dedham's deputy to the General Court.

In September 1673 the selectmen of Dedham received an order from the General Court to put the town into a posture for war. Thereupon "the soldiers were frequently trained, the great gun mounted, a barrel of powder and other ammunition was procured, the people built a garrison, and set a watch." The first actual outrage of King Philip's War was committed at Dedham, where the body of a white man who had been shot was found in the woods. Dedham also was particularly connected with one of the events that led to bringing the war to a close with the death of Pomham, sachem of Shaomet, who was slain by a party of Dedham and Medfield men in 1676.

Tips and Strong Waters
In addition to his other activities, Fisher built and kept the "publicke house" in Dedham, which bore the name of the Fisher Tavern. It was situated near the junction of High and Court Streets on land adjoining the road to "the landing place" on the Charles River. Fisher soon engaged also in the brewing of malt liquors and had a tap room at his house, and he had also a drinking-room in the brew house. In the Fisher Tavern the "Great Room" was the featured attraction, with a huge fieldstone fireplace in which large logs blazed in winter and which was filled with asparagus, smoke tree, and green shrubs in summer. Nearby stood the tavern's high desk with its quill pens, sand box, and account book in which were recorded the sales of many pints, quarts, and gallons of "strong waters." The early Dedham settlers for the most part drank malt liquors and wine, and cider became popular as soon as orchards were grown. As in most taverns in England and New England, near the Tavern's exit a wooden box bound with brass straps was to be found; it had an opening through which coins might be inserted. Over the box were the letters "T.I.P" meaning "To Insure Promptness," which gave birth to the modern common phrase.

In 1649 the selectmen of Dedham petitioned the General Court to be freed from the customs levied on wine. The response was favorable, and stated "… in anser to ye request of the selectmen of Dedham, desiring, in regard to theire remoteness from Boston, Left. Joshua Fisher might haue liberty to sell some strong waters, to supply ye necessity of such as shall stand in need thereof in that toune, the Court grants theire request." Drunkenness and tippling were prohibited and tavern keepers who permitted such were fined ten shillings.

In every Colonial New England town, the two central places in which meetings were held the meeting house and the tavern. Due to concern of fire, it was the practice to never kindle fires in colonial meeting houses, and as a consequence the buildings were cold, damp, and gloomy in the autumn and winter seasons. During these seasons it was the tavern or inn that was a place of warmth, and became a favored resort also for recalcitrant worshippers on Sunday. In order to prevent backsliding, the General Court finally passed a law requiring all tavern keepers within one mile of a meeting house "… to clear their houses of all persons able to go to meeting during the time of service.

(To be continued)

About the Author

  • Silvio A. Bedini
    Silvio A. Bedini
    Silvio A. Bedini was a Smithsonian Institution historian who specialized in the history of scientific instruments and mathematical practitioners. A former deputy of the National Museum of American History, he has authored over 20 books and was Historian Emeritus with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. He was also a contributing author at the magazine for many years.

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