Remembering Wessagussett

WEYMOUTH — The land isn’t much to look at, as even Jodi Purdy-Quinlan, the most ardent champion of these overgrown woodsy acres, will admit. “All this brush would have to come out,” she says with a sweep of her hand, as we slowly drive down Sea Street in her metallic-green Ford pickup truck. Surrounded by a neighborhood of unassuming houses, some with clapboard, some with aluminum siding, the land in question slopes downward, which may be one reason it has not yet been developed, unlike the nearby hills where homes have views of King’s Cove or the Weymouth Fore River or, less scenic, the Quincy shipyards.

But Ms. Purdy-Quinlan has a vision for this neglected real estate. She sees it as the perfect place to create a memorial to the beginning of democracy in America.

As if to anticipate a visitor’s skepticism — Weymouth as the earliest site of town government? Not Plymouth? Not Boston? — Ms. Purdy-Quinlan has packed a passel of maps, old newspapers, and books in the cab of her truck. When we get to Fore River Avenue she pulls up along the side of the road. By this time, it’s clear she has more than one reason to be attached to this part of North Weymouth. She had just pointed out the house a few blocks away where she grew up. “This was my turf,” she says. Looking out beyond a drab concrete sea wall, she adds, “I used to crab-fish on that jetty right there — take a stick and a string and a mussel and hang it in there until the crabs would grab it.”

She is dressed in a tan jacket and floral print skirt, her brown hair hanging straight to her shoulders and her eyes hidden by Ray-Ban sunglasses. She wears a medallion around her neck that bears the Weymouth town seal. As secretary of the Weymouth Historical Commission, she has ready access to materials that support Weymouth’s claim to a special place in American history.

“This area that we’re trying to save, it was part of an Indian village,” she explains. The peninsula was called Wessagussett when English settlers landed in 1622. She recounts the incidents leading up to the spring of 1624 when, according to historians, “a few hardy souls” calling themselves “the Inhabitants” gave themselves the right to vote and choose local officers. So it was on or near this land — somewhere between Sea Street and the Fore River — that the earliest “town meetings” in New England were held 375 years ago, Ms. Purdy-Quinlan maintains. She turns to a yellowed copy of the Weymouth Gazette from 1923 and reads a letter from a member of the local historical society of the time. “Why not raise as our slogan, ‘Weymouth, the first town with an American government,’ and shout it from Maine to Massachusetts?” he wrote.

But wasn’t Plymouth the first to hold town meetings? I ask. “Nope,” says Ms. Purdy-Quinlan firmly, eyes peering over her Ray-Bans. “Nope. Weymouth claims to be the place where it first took place.”

Weymouth boosters concede to Plymouth the title of earliest settlement. The Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact in 1620 before coming ashore to create Plymouth Colony. The earliest minutes of a town meeting in Plymouth, it turns out, date to 1637, while Weymouth’s earliest surviving records are from 1643. So a certain amount of circumstantial evidence enters into claims of who took the first steps toward self-government in the 1620s.

Nevertheless, Ms. Purdy-Quinlan thinks Weymouth has consistently failed to appreciate the momentous events that took place here. There have been several attempts to create a park and a memorial near King’s Cove, but without success. “I grew up up the street. This was my hangout, and I knew nothing of the history,” she says. What deepened her appreciation was looking into her own family’s history and finding out that one of her ancestors owned a part of the land where the original settlement was and sold it in 1891. She has traced her family’s roots in North Weymouth back six generations.

Now, Ms. Purdy-Quinlan believes the town may have one last chance to create a memorial here. The wooded, undeveloped land bounded by Sea Street is owned by a real estate developer with plans to build several new houses. Ms. Purdy-Quinlan and the Weymouth Historical Commission have proposed that the town buy the land from the developer. (The four-acre parcel is estimated to be worth at least $500,000, according to Ms. Purdy-Quinlan.) The matter will be brought up at Weymouth Town Meeting, which was scheduled to take the matter up in early May.

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Dave Denison

Founding Editor, CommonWealth magazine
Bringing an extra sense of urgency is another question that is to be decided by Weymouth voters: An election is scheduled for May 17 to decide whether the town will accept a new charter, changing the structure of local government. If the new charter is approved, Weymouth henceforth will be governed by a mayor and a town council. The board of selectmen and the town meeting will pass into history.

Ms. Purdy-Quinlan, who is one of 260 elected town meeting representatives, admits to being partial to the town meeting form of government. “I like the idea of town meeting,” she says. “I don’t like the idea of a single person and councilmen having ultimate control and authority.” She knows that some proponents of change consider town meeting to be “unruly.” She says she supposes it can be unruly. “I’m a rabble-rouser by nature,” she says. “I’m a child of the ’60s and ’70s. So I think it’s great.”

But at the same time she hopes that the heightened political drama caused by the charter proposal could persuade town meeting members to vote to create a legacy before it’s too late. “This could be the last town meeting, and town meeting members have to decide whether or not they want to save the site of the first town meeting,” she says. “It’s very ironic how everything has played out.”