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Town Government by Selectmen
 The following article appeared in the Dorchester Reporter, Thursday, October 16, 2008.

Keep Your Pigs Out of My Corn: Town Government by Selectmen

By Earl Taylor and Peggy Mullen

Dorchester has the distinction of establishing what is probably the first ?home rule? document in American institutional history.

Some three years after the arrival of the ship Mary and John, which brought the first settlers from Dorchester, England in 1630, the record of the town meeting says the inhabitants would select 12 men to act as a steering committee for the town.

"It is ordered that for the general good and well ordering of the affayres of the Plantation there shall be every Mooneday ? a generall meeting of the inhabitants ? to settle (and sett downe) such orders as may tend to the generall good as aforesayd; ? It is also agreed that there shall be twelve men selected out of the Company, that may or the greatest part of them, meete as aforesayd, to determine as aforesayd ..."

Thus, the notion of ?selectmen? was born.

Soon other settlements followed suit, which led to the law of the General Court, passed in 1636, regulating town governments, which has continued to the present day.

And what pressing affairs of state were the concern of those first elected officials?

Pigs, cows and fences.

Following the English ?open field? system, each family had a home lot of an acre or two, large enough for a house and gardens, and a grant of about 16 acres in the ?great lots,? - a large cultivated area that was fenced in common. The inhabitants made group decisions about the crops to plant in this ?common? and cooperated in the use of oxen for plowing. In addition, large tracts of land for pasturage were held in common for the use of all. The area now known as South Boston was called the cow pasture, and Columbia Point was the calf pasture.

In that first meeting on Oct. 8, 1633, the selectmen decided that maintaining the fence around the common fields was the responsibility of the person along whose land the fence passed. Failure to keep the ?pale? in good repair would incur a fine of 3 shillings per goad (possibly equal to a rod or 16.5 feet). The selectmen also ordered that ?every man for future tyme that put any Cattle in the necke be of what condition soever shall p?sently pay Two shillings an head.?

Through the years the records continue with the management of livestock and the maintenance of fences to keep the cows and pigs out of the corn. On May 20, 1634, the selectmen ordered that within two days, all pig sties shall be removed from all the pales (fences) or they would impose a fine of 20 shillings per day. Anyone who did not keep the pale in good repair would be liable for a fine of 10 shillings per day. Anyone whose swine were caught trespassing should make up for the damage caused.


In November of 1634, the selectmen ordered the construction of a public animal pound of sawn bars and posts. An order recorded just one month later said that if any hogs commit any ?trespasse in any of the corne fields within the Plantation,? the owner of the fence where they break in shall pay one half of the damage and the owner of the swine shall pay the other half.

By July of 1635, the rules got even tougher when selectmen ordered that such swine, goats or other cattle as trespass should be impounded and there to be kept till the owner shall pay for the trespass, and if the owner did not satisfy the claim within 3 days after being notified, the Bailiff could sell the swine to pay for half the damage. The Bailiff could attach the goods of the person responsible for the fence to pay the other half.

Orders for the control of animals and fences continued on in meeting after meeting, but the concerns of the growing town also included land transfers, the cutting of timber on common lands, rewards for destroying wolves, and the assessment and collection of taxes.

Their order on May 20, 1639 was another example of Dorchester leading the way in the shaping of America. At that meeting, they established an obligation of 20 pounds yearly on Thompson?s Island towards the maintenance of a school for Dorchester to be paid to a schoolmaster to teach English, Latin and other tongues as well as writing. It was left for further discussion whether ?maydes shalbe taught with the boyes or not.? To our knowledge, the school had only male students, and girls did not attend public school until the 19th century. This is believed to be the first public provision made for a free school in the world, by a direct tax or assessment on the inhabitants of a town.

At the end of Dorchester?s first decade, the selectmen were still dealing with animal control. Hogs were not allowed to stray out of a man?s property without risk of a fine. Richard Lippincott was chosen to keep the pound; fences were to be mended; no one could put cattle on the neck till April 15th; two men were chosen to keep the cows.

The town continued under this form of government until Jan. 1, 1870, when it was annexed to the city of Boston following a vote of the town in 1869.

Earl Taylor is a resident of Ashmont Hill and president of the Dorchester Historical Society. Peggy Mullen is a caretaker at the Society. Source material: ?Dorchester Old and New, 1630-1930,? Dorchester Massachusetts Tercentary Committee (1930); ?History of the Town of Dorchester, Massachusetts,? Dorchester Antiquarian and Historical Society (1859); Fourth Report of the Record Commissioners of the City of Boston, 1880; Dorchester Town Records, 1883.


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Created: October 19, 2008   Modified: October 19, 2008