Tracing where Worcester’s ‘grit’ comes from

Paying homage to Daniel Gookin, Timothy Bigelow, and Isaiah Thomas

WORCESTER HAS BEEN long recognized as a “gritty” city in the heart of the Commonwealth.  But what exactly does that mean and how did it get this moniker?  Some have used it in a derogatory fashion, referring to our beloved city as a “gritty central Massachusetts mill town whose only attraction was its close proximity to Boston.”  But we know better.  A deep look through more than 300 years of Worcester’s history reveals three consequential individuals whose lives stand out as embodying the very best of Worcester spirit.  Daniel Gookin, Timothy Bigelow and Isaiah Thomas all exhibited courage, fierce tenacity, strength of character, and a strong sense of helping others and giving back to their community.  On this 300th Anniversary of Worcester’s founding, their stories can serve as a model for us all.

Daniel Gookin

If you do not know the name Daniel Gookin, you would not be alone.  Almost no one does, despite the fact that he may be fairly characterized as the true founder of Worcester and one of the most consequential individuals in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th Century.    He was a magistrate in government and one of the busiest men in the colony.  He attended legislative sessions, served on committees, was active in his church, tended to his farm, and helped establish rules for the Indian trade.  But perhaps his most persistent work was the 20 years he spent trying to establish a settlement in Worcester.

This work began on October 11, 1665, when the Great and General Court commissioned him, along with three others, to survey an area located “in the vicinity of Quinsigamond” – the  ancient Native American name of the area – to determine if there was an appropriate place for a plantation.  The area was considered wilderness at the time with “a tract of very good chesnut tree land.”  Gookin completed the work three years later and concluded that “there may be enough meadow for a small plantation, or town, of about 30 families … conveniently situated, and well watered with ponds and brooks, and lying near midway between Boston and Springfield, about one day’s journey from either.”

The General Court accepted the report and appointed Gookin to a committee.  Progress was slow and laborious.  Disputes arose by a few other claimants to the land.  But Gookin persisted.  He brought the committee together to develop a plan, which still exists in his own handwriting on the original book of records.

By 1673, 30 individuals were engaged to develop the plantation, but again they were stymied by deed disputes.  Gookin worked with the Legislature to resolve those, but he next had to address the rights of the indigenous people who lived in the area.  He did that as well on July 13, 1674, by obtaining a deed from the Nipmuk inhabitants in the area for eight square miles of land for a price of twelve pounds.  As a down payment, he provided “two coats and four yeards [sic] of trucking cloth for twenty six shillings.”  Gookin advanced half of the money for the property out of his own pocket.

Was this fair consideration for such a large tract of land?  It seems woefully inadequate by today’s standards, but we will never know the true nature of those conversations.  What we do know is that Gookin had a special relationship with the local native inhabitants of the area.  In fact, the only work Daniel Gookin performed that was possibly more meaningful to him than trying to establish a plantation in Worcester was what he did in his role as superintendent of the so-called Praying Indians. And this may be the most interesting part of his story, because it reveals to us unique insight into some of the first true inhabitants of our city.

The Praying Indians were Native Americans who converted to the English ways of life and practiced Christianity. They created several settlements across Massachusetts, one of which was called Pakachoag (meaning “where the river bends”) located in Quinsigamond on what is now College Hill on the campus of Holy Cross.  If one looks carefully on a map, you will see that the Blackstone River bends right below the north edge of the campus.

Gookin worked closely with John Eliot, who was a Puritan missionary to the American Indians.  Known as “the apostle to the Indians,” Eliot overcame the language barrier by learning Massachusett, the language of the local Indian tribes.  He published the first bible on American soil in 1663, which he translated into the Algonquin language.  It remains one of the most significant intellectual achievements of early America.

Gookin and Eliot frequently visited Praying Indian settlements to preach, pray together, sing psalms, and even hold court.  On September 17, 1674, they did just that at Pakachoag.  They arrived around noon and reported that there were approximately 20 families and 100 people who lived there.   We know this only because Gookin wrote about it in a manuscript entitled Historical Collections of The Indians in New England, which was written in December 1674, but not published until it was discovered over 100 years later in 1792.

Gookin described the village as “seated upon a fertile hill; and … denominated from a delicate spring of water that is there.”  Gookin and Eliot “repaired to the sagamore’s house (His name was Hoorawannonit, or Sagamore John, as he was known to the English)… who kindly entertained us.”   And then, as the community gathered:

“Mr. Eliot preached unto them; and they attended reverently.  Their teacher, named James Speen, being present, read and set the tune of a psalm, that was sung affectionately.  Then was the whole duty concluded with prayer.”

Gookin next performed some official business, formally appointing Hoorawannonit as a ruler “clothed with the authority of the English government” and appointing James Speen as Minister.  He closed with a charge for the community “to be diligent and faithful for God, zealous against sin, and careful in sanctifying the Sabbath.”

Less than a year after this special meeting, King Philip’s War broke out, and it had a devastating effect on Pakachoag and the rest of the Colony.  The war was the result of simmering tensions over land and autonomy.  It was fought between the English and several Native American tribes under the leadership of Metacom, or King Phillip, as he was known to the English.  The war lasted for 14 months and, by population, it remains the bloodiest and most savage war in American history.

Thousands of lives were lost, houses were burned, and 12 entire English towns were completely destroyed.  But the losses were most severe on the Native American side, and this includes the inhabitants of Pakachoag.  At least three members of the settlement were executed on Boston Common, many were sold into slavery, and others were sent to Deer Island in Boston Harbor where several ultimately died of famine and exposure.

Throughout it all, Gookin never ceased his unequivocal support and defense of the Praying Indians.  He was voted out of office by the English and his life was threatened several times by English mobs believing he was helping “the enemy.”  But he persisted and did everything he could, with mixed success, to fight for their rights and protect and support them during and after the war.

Upon the conclusion of hostilities, when peace was established, Gookin again picked up his efforts to establish a settlement in Worcester and called a meeting in 1678.  Many of the English had lost interest and were concerned by the exposure to violence and the remoteness of the place.  It wasn’t until 1684 that efforts began again in earnest.  Lots were divided and corn and saw mills began to be erected.  According to local history, “the zealous exertion of Gookin to promote the prosperity of the infant town were acknowledged by a donation of eight lots.”

Gookin and a few others made a motion to the General Court on September 10, 1684, “that their plantation at Quansigamond be called Worcester.”  It is not known why Gookin suggested this name, but it has been speculated by some that it was intended as a tribute to Oliver Cromwell.  Gookin was a huge admirer of “the great defender of the liberties of the English people,” and his family was very close with Cromwell.  Gookin himself had served as an agent of Cromwell in a failed scheme to build a colony in Jamaica.  To many, the defeat of the King of England’s forces in the city of Worcester in England in 1651 was a key turning point in the English Civil war and was regarded by Cromwell as a “crowning mercy.”

It was another 38 years before Worcester was formally incorporated as a town and Gookin would not live to see that day.  He died on March 19, 1687.  His lasting legacy is summed up well by William Lincoln, who wrote a history of Worcester in 1837.

“General Gookin, the early and faithful friend of the plantation, was called to the rewards of a long life, characterized by fervent piety, enlightened benevolence, incorruptible integrity, and the practice of every manly virtue.”

But it was not only the English who mourned his loss.  For his willingness to risk his life and career for the cause of the Praying Indians, it is said that Native Americans all over “lamented his death with unfeigned sorrow.”

Timothy Bigelow

Exactly 100 years after Gookin and Eliot met with the inhabitants of Pakachoag, the residents of Worcester County were about to have a meeting of a different sort.  Revolutionary fervor was intense, as the British Parliament had just closed the port of Boston and sent in a new military governor to ensure order in the wake of the Boston Tea Party.  Worcester was a hotbed of discontent and the town issued what many believe to be the first true Declaration of Independence of our country, which preceded by almost two years the more famous one.  It was one of the most “bold and treasonous” edicts of the time and came in the form of instructions given to Worcester’s representative, Timothy Bigelow, who was about to attend the Provincial Congress in Concord on October 5, 1774.  The declaration stated that if the infractions by the British are not redressed and the people’s rights not fully restored before the meeting the next day, then Bigelow was to:

“Consider the people of this province absolved, on their part, from the obligation therein contained [in the charter of the province] … and you are to exert yourself in devising ways and means to raise from the dissolution of the old constitution, as from the ashes of the Phenix, a new form, whereas all officers shall be dependent on the suffrages of the people for their existence as such, whatever unfavorable constructions our enemies may put upon such procedure.”

The Bigelow monument in Worcester.

So who was Timothy Bigelow and how did he get in this position?  Bigelow was born in Worcester in 1739 and became a blacksmith in town.  He was not well educated, but took great interest in reading, and collected books on a number of subjects and built a small library.  He became acquainted with English authors and taught himself “the art of speaking with directness and force, and of writing with point of accuracy.”

Bigelow built a blacksmith shop and forge just south of Lincoln Square.  He quickly became one of the most diligent, popular, and prosperous men of the village.  The well educated men in Worcester were mostly tories, supporting England prior to the Revolution.  Bigelow found himself more aligned with the other side, the Whigs, who were considered radicals at the time (and patriots today) by fomenting rebellion.  In 1773, Bigelow was elected to the local Committee on Correspondence, to keep in touch with patriots in other towns, and he helped organize the Political Society and hosted many of its secret meetings in his home.

Winston Churchill said that “there comes a moment in everyone’s life, a moment for which that person was born.”  This was clearly Bigelow’s moment.   He was unanimously elected to take command of the newly formed company of Minute Men and proudly led these troops.  He developed extraordinary skill as a military leader and prepared his troops extremely well, often engaging them in exercises on Worcester Common behind City Hall.  When Bigelow heard news of the Boston Tea Party, he immediately left his blacksmith shop, went into his home, and dumped all of the tea from his pantry into the fireplace.  But that wasn’t enough.  “As if feeling that everything which had come in contact with British legislative tyranny should be purified by fire, the canister followed the tea.”

On April 19, 1775, when word of the Battles of Lexington and Concord made its way to Worcester, Bigelow assembled his troops and led them on a march to Cambridge, where they arrived the next day.  When Washington later reviewed Bigelow’s troops after arriving in July, he was so impressed that he commented: “this is discipline indeed.”

Bigelow fought in almost every major battle of the Revolutionary War.  In September of 1775, he led an expedition into Quebec, marching through treacherous and wild conditions and through snowstorms in the Winter.  His route went by the Kennebec River in Maine and at one point his troops were stopped near what is now Carrabassett, Maine.  He needed to seek elevation for observation purposes, so he decided to ascend a steep and rugged nearby peak by himself, while his troops waited behind.  This ascent was so admired by his troops that the peak was subsequently named Bigelow Mountain after him, and continues to bear his name to this day.  It is on a ridge right across from what is now Sugarloaf Mountain.

Bigelow fought in the battle of Quebec and was “exposed to a shower of balls from the barriers and ramparts,” but somehow survived.  He was taken prisoner and later released in a prisoner exchange.  He continued to ascend in the ranks, and was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and then Colonel.  He marched with his troops to join General Horatio Gates in the Battle of Saratoga and arrived in time to help in the capture and surrender of British General John Burgoyne and his 5,800 troops.  This was the greatest victory for America at the time, and a key turning point in the war, as it prompted France to join the effort.

Bigelow fought in Monmouth and Yorktown. At Valley Forge, during a harsh winter when Congress had difficulty providing food and clothing to the army, some of Bigelow’s troops threatened to abandon the cause out of desperation. He rallied them by speaking from the heart. “I have enlisted for life,” he said. “I expect to suffer with cold and with hunger and fatigue, and, if need be, I shall lay down my life for the liberty of these colonies.”

Meet the Author

Douglas S. Brown

Chief administrative officer, UMass Memorial Health
All told, he spent eight years in active service fighting for independence for our country.  When the war concluded, he returned to Worcester with hopes of renewing his blacksmith business.  But like many veterans who return from the devastating effects of war, his life took a difficult turn.  Hard currency was hard to come by, demand for his services had plummeted, and he seemed to have lost his aptitude for the business.  He went into debt. When tragedy struck with the loss of a son, he suffered from depression.  While terminally ill, he chose to go to debtors prison instead of selling his property. And there he died on March 31, 1790 at the age of 51, a broken man.

But unlike Daniel Gookin, who history has seemed to forget, the people of Worcester gave Bigelow the honors he deserved.  On April 19, 1861, on the 86th Anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, in the midst of the Civil War, a beautiful monument behind City Hall was dedicated to Timothy Bigelow.  It was a huge event in town – streets were filled with spectators and buildings were decorated with the national colors.  There was a parade, a 34-gun salute, a song written and sung by the Glee Club, and a procession of dignitaries who gave speeches in Bigelow’s honor.   He was described as “the early patriot of Worcester” and “one of our bravest and most cherished citizens.”  The former governor, Levi Lincoln, Jr., himself a Worcester native, spoke eloquently as one of the few living at the time who “have ever looked upon the person of Colonel Bigelow.”  He recalled as a child the “respect and deference with which [Bigelow] was universally regarded,” and relayed that, “it was one of the most positive injunctions of the antiquated district schoolmistress to the boys of my day, enforced even by the fear of the rod, that we should always ‘pull off our hats to Parson Bancroft and Colonel Bigelow.”

Isaiah Thomas

Timothy Bigelow made Worcester proud through the use of his sword; Isaiah Thomas did so through the use of his pen.

Isaiah Thomas was born on January 19, 1749, the youngest of five children.  His father died at sea when Isaiah was three, and he was raised by a single mother who did all she could to take care of her family.  But Thomas needed to learn independence at a very young age.  When he was six years old, instead of going to school, he apprenticed in the shop of a printer named Zechariah Fowle.  Like Timothy Bigelow, Thomas lacked formal education, but had innate intelligence and a fierce drive.  Fowle agreed to provide Thomas with room and board and “to instruct him in reading, writing … and to teach him the art and mystery of a printer.”  Fowle apparently was not a great role model, as Thomas would later describe him as a “lazy and ignorant dolt.”  Nevertheless, Thomas was a quick study.

After 11 years with Fowle, at the age of 17, Thomas set out for Nova Scotia with only the shirt on his back.  He found employment with a local printer in Halifax and was paid $3.00 per month, which was used mostly to buy clothes.  The local printer quickly saw Thomas’s talents, and gave him total responsibility for publishing the Halifax Gazette, the official paper of the provincial government.  This is where Thomas’s independence and fortitude first started to blossom.

It was the period of the Stamp Act of 1765, where the British Parliament sought to raise revenue from the American colonies by imposing a duty on newspapers and other legal documents. Colonial opposition was fierce and the Halifax Gazette included a paragraph critical of the tax.  The owner of the newspaper was summoned by the authorities to answer for this “libel” and he avoided censure by throwing Thomas under the bus, claiming that his apprentice had slipped it in without his knowledge.  Thomas was not deterred.  He included more critical commentary in subsequent issues.  When there were protests in the streets against the Stamp Act, Thomas himself was suspected of inciting it and he was called in by the Sheriff who tried to intimidate him and reminded him he is not in New England anymore.  But Thomas didn’t flinch.  He questioned under what authority the Sheriff was acting (knowing he did not have a warrant) and the matter was eventually dropped.

But Thomas knew it was time to go.  He left Nova Scotia and had stints in Portsmouth, Boston, North Carolina, the West Indies, and Charleston, before returning to Boston in 1770.  This is when he created the newspaper for which he would become famous, The Massachusetts Spy.  After buying out his partner, he published his first issue in Boston on March 7, 1771, in the heat of the revolutionary zeal.  When the paper started, it was neutral in its approach, representing the views of both sides in the dispute.  But that quickly changed as the Royal government stopped sending anything into the paper, upset with the nature of the commentary.  As a result, The Massachusetts Spy quickly became the favorite and most influential channel for the distribution of revolutionary fervor and opinion in New England.

This did not sit well with the Royal authorities in Boston.  First they tried to intimidate Thomas by having his creditors immediately call-in the debt he owed for the purchase of his establishment in the hopes of closing his presses.  Friends came to his aid with funding and helped him beat back that threat.

Next it was the appearance of a bold essay in the paper by Joseph Greenleaf, under the pseudonym Mucius Scaevola, which referred to Lt. Gov. Oliver as “a perjured traitor” and asserted that Gov. Thomas Hutchinson “was not the legal governor.”  This was the last straw for Hutchinson, and three times he summoned Thomas to appear before him and the Governor’s Council.  Each time Thomas refused to appear (apparently after seeking advice from John Adams).  Hutchinson then referred the matter to the attorney general for prosecution, but the grand jury, asserting its independent spirit, refused to indict.

But it did not end there.  Thomas was considered persona non grata by the Royal authorities.  He was repeatedly subject to threats of personal violence and his paper was referred to as “the sedition factory.”  And yet he persisted.

The framers of the United States Constitution knew the threats that Thomas had endured.  They knew that his courage in continuing to publish and spread the word in the face of these threats was what helped bring about the Revolution.  The Constitution’s protection of the freedom of the press, something we take for granted today, was embedded firmly in our Constitution in no small measure due to the heroism of Isaiah Thomas.

But why did The Massachusetts Spy become so popular?  In part it was Thomas’s brilliance in understanding how to connect with common people throughout New England.  He shunned the high brow and fancy writing that was common at the time and targeted toward the learned class.  He preferred simple and clear writing that everyone could understand.  And this made all the difference.  As Thomas would later explain:

“Common sense in common language is as necessary to influence one class of citizens as learning and elegance of composition are to produce an effect upon another.  The cause of America was just, and it was only necessary to state that cause in a clear and impressive manner, to unite the American people in its support.”

By April of 1775, Thomas knew that his printing office was no longer safe from the Royal authorities, with war on the horizon.  And this is when his connection to Worcester began.  He had consulted with John Hancock who had advised him to move his press out of Boston to “some country town where it would be safe and be available to do the printing.”  But where would he go?  A few years earlier he was approached by our prior hero, Timothy Bigelow, who wanted Thomas to establish a paper in Worcester.  So he reached out to Bigelow again and a plan was hatched.

On the evening of April 16, 1775, three days before the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Thomas disassembled his presses and secretly ferried them with Bigelow across Boston Harbor to Charlestown, where Bigelow then took them by wagon to the basement of his home in Worcester.  Thomas stayed in Boston and two nights later rode with Paul Revere to help spread the word to the countryside that the redcoats were coming.

On April 19, Thomas joined the militia and took part in the Battles of Lexington and Concord. By May 3 he was back in Worcester and restarted his publication of The Massachusetts Spy, which included his own account of the Battles of Lexington and Concord.  In September of that same year,  Thomas was appointed as Postmaster for Worcester by Benjamin Franklin.

This appointment was beneficial for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that it put Thomas in a position nine months later (on July 14, 1776) to intercept a “hurrying post rider” who was carrying the Declaration of Independence to Boston.  “Not so fast,” we can imagine Thomas saying to this shocked post rider, “the people of Worcester will get the first crack at this!”  He then borrowed the document, immediately went to the western porch of the meeting house on the site of the current City Hall, and performed the first public reading of our Declaration of Independence to the gathering crowd.

Old South Church and Meeting House, where Isaiah Thomas read the Declaration of Independence. The rooster at the top remains in the collection of the Worcester Historical Museum.

After the war, Thomas’s business experienced explosive growth.  He united the three business lines of printing, publishing, and book selling.  He established the first bindery and the second paper mill in America.  At one point, he had 16 presses in operation all over the country.  He ran three newspapers, a magazine, and five book stores. He had become wildly successful.

By 1802, after the Constitution was ratified, Congress had moved to Washington, and George Washington had died, Thomas decided to step away from his business and pass it down to his son.  But resting “under his own vine and fig tree” was not in the cards for Thomas.  Instead, he launched a new chapter of his life, immersing himself in the history of American typography.  This extensive work and passion resulted in a book he published in 1810 called The Hisotry of Printing in America.  It was widely applauded by the critics and remains the standard authority on understanding the history of printing in this country.

As Thomas was doing research for the book, he gathered thousands of books, pamphlets, newspapers, and other documents.  But what would he do with all of the documents he assembled?  He felt an intense and compelling need to preserve them for future generations.  This stemmed in part from his life-long interest in books and collecting.  Years later at his funeral, a Worcester lawyer named Isaac Goodwin, would say this about Thomas’s abiding passion:

“To collect and preserve whatever could tend to illustrate the genius and exact condition of society at different epochs in its advancement from one state of improvement to another, was ever a favorite employment of Mr. Thomas, and formed a prominent habit of his life.”

In 1812, Thomas had his answer.  He would propose the establishment of a society to collect and preserve the documentary materials about America’s history.  He wanted this society to “enlarge the sphere of human knowledge, aid in the progress of science, to perpetuate the history of moral and political events, and to improve and instruct posterity.”

The American Antiquarian Society was born in Worcester, where it remains today and where it has been sharing the story of America for over 200 years.  The society is now a major national research library that houses the nation’s largest and most accessible collection of books, pamphlets, broadsides, newspapers, and other documents of early America. It is a true treasure in our midst.

Thomas was elected president of the society at its first annual meeting in 1812 and served in that role for almost 20 years until his death on April 4, 1831.  He generously donated his entire library to the society, as well as land and a building.  And his philanthropy did not stop there.  He spent enormous time and treasure giving back to the city of Worcester, including donating land and money and time for public construction projects downtown.  A patriot, a printer, an antiquarian, and a philanthropist, Thomas lived his life to the fullest, and much of it was for causes larger than himself.


Daniel Gookin stood up to mobs and fought for justice, refusing to accept the conventional beliefs during King Philip’s War that all Native Americans were the enemies.  He worked tirelessly to establish a settlement in Worcester, against all odds, believing it provided a site for hope and opportunity.  He gave Worcester its name.  One hundred years later, Timothy Bigelow exhibited a similar character, courageously taking a “bold and treasonous” message of independence into the Provincial Congress and fearlessly leading his troops in many epoch battles for our independence.  And Isaiah Thomas risked everything to stand up for freedom of the press so that the message of the patriots could spread across our land.

None of these men was perfect.  Like all of us, they had their share of failures, flaws, and dark spots.  But one thing is clear; each was willing to go against the grain in pursuit of a higher cause.  Justice, liberty, freedom, tenacity, courage.  These are the values that animated their lives; and these are the values that give meaning to the term Worcester grit.

Douglas S. Brown is an executive at UMass Memorial Health, a lover of history, and a collector of antiquarian books.  Last year, he was elected into the membership of the American Antiquarian Society.