William Spencer (c. 1631-1696)

William Spencer (c. 1631-1696)

The Spencer family legacy continued when William inherited the home and much of his parents’ property in 1683. He maintained his father’s place in Berwick as a leading businessman and farmer until his death in 1696. However, he never married.

Between 1663 and 1679, William Spencer acquired substantial tracts of land in the Old Fields neighborhood. In 1663, Thomas and Patience Spencer sold two tracts of land in today’s South Berwick to their son William for £18. The property included cropland situated within Thomas’s Vine Street/Old Fields Road house lot and eight acres of meadow adjacent to Wilcox’s Pond (Cox Pond). The most lucrative exchange took place in 1679. That year, William’s father willed to him his home, outbuildings, gardens, cornfields, pasture, and meadow lands situated on the “north side of the highway (today’s Brattle Street).” The Spencer home was comfortable by late 17 century standards. The dwelling was two stories and had a cellared lean-to attached to the rear of the building. The first floor included a hall, one bedchamber and presumably a parlor. A second bedchamber was situated on the second floor. William would receive his father’s ten-acre “home stall” and pasture, crop, and grazing lands after his mother had died (1683) and he had paid each of his two sisters £10 no later than six weeks after the deaths of both of his parents. William appeared to have met the terms of the agreement in 1684. William Spencer’s acquisition of his parents’ Old Fields homestead came during a time of deteriorating Anglo-Indian relations and open conflict. Growing inter-cultural tensions over expanding English settlement and trade abuses, English livestock damaging Indian planting grounds and mills disrupting fish runs, and Wabanaki retaliatory attacks on English livestock finally culminated in the first outbreak of widespread warfare.

The rising Anglo-Indian tensions and the warfare that followed had a dramatic impact on the layout of old Berwick and the daily rhythm of community life. The gradual spread of English settlement into the former traditional lands of the Wabanaki inhabitants was replaced by a time of uncertainty, emotional stress, and bloodshed. The most visible manifestation of these times was the construction and maintenance of a series of fortified garrison houses throughout old Berwick between 1675 and c. 1750. Local residents used these garrisons as temporary housing and shelter when rumors of impending Indian and French attacks circulated or when the settlement was under assault. The protective complexes often consisted of strongly constructed hewn log dwellings equipped with gun ports and surrounded by tall log fences or palisades. Other refugees sometimes lived in crude shelters hastily erected immediately inside or outside the walls of the wooden stockade. Not surprisingly, living conditions were uncomfortable due to the large numbers of people crowded into the limited confines of the garrison. These shortcomings were compounded by insufficient amounts of personal belongings, food, and water.

Anglo-Indian warfare did not break out again in Maine until the summer of 1688. However, relations between the English and Wabanaki of Maine remained strained in the intervening decade. Threats and rumors of attacks by the Indians and their French allies swirled about. By 1690, the whole of Berwick had once again begun to rearm and prepare for war. 

That year, a provincial inventory noted that old Berwick (today’s North Berwick, Berwick, South Berwick, and northernmost Eliot) had eight garrisons and six soldiers. The garrisons were based at the residences of Major Charles Frost, Benoni Hodgdon, Jonathan Nason, Daniel Stone, Ensign Thomas Abbott, Richard Nason, William Spencer, and Thomas Holmes. Unfortunately, neither this inventory nor any other historic documents provide a picture of the layout, makeup, or location of William Spencer’s garrison.

In 1690 and 1691, Wabanaki war parties resumed their attacks on Berwick. In March 1690, a large force of French troops and Wabanaki warriors attacked the village at Salmon Falls in present day South Berwick. The attackers burnt twenty homes and killed or captured 80-100 of the English inhabitants. The French and Indians continued south and attacked the fortified garrison of Thomas Holmes near his sawmill on the Salmon Falls River and the hamlet at Old Fields. In the process, they burnt the homes of Thomas Holmes, the town’s minister on Old South Road, and two others. However, the occupants of the nearby garrison of William Spencer fought off the Indian war party. Southern Maine remained in a high state of alert in the following year. In June of 1691, a party of twenty Wabanaki warriors ambushed William Spencer and several other men while they worked at one of the sawmills on the Great Works River. Spencer escaped capture and possibly death by hiding in nearby bushes. The Wabanaki warriors maintained a temporary attack base in old Berwick by returning to and occupying Thomas Holmes’s abandoned garrison. Three months later, an Indian war party surprised two men mowing a hay field near the Spencer garrison. They killed one man and left the other for dead. He eventually made his way to the safety of the garrison.

Despite the unsettled state of affairs in southern Maine, William Spencer remained in the Old Fields neighborhood until his death on May 12, 1696. While there, he developed a sizable estate and place in the affairs of old Berwick. Much of what he possessed stemmed from the generosity of his parents, as previously noted. He, however, built up a sizable array of property in the Berwicks during his lifetime. At the time of his death in his early sixties, Spencer’s estate was still relatively substantial at £220. His homestead was worth £100 and he owned a sizable number of livestock comprised of 3 oxen, 2 steers, 3 cows, 3 calves, 2 heifers, 3 yearlings, and 3 “small” pigs. However, aside from his homestead, William Spencer’s real estate was limited to three lots; a parcel of “racken Land” adjacent to Cox’s Pond, a second at the southern end of the pond, and 8 acres of marsh adjacent to the second lot. By then, the elderly Spencer had distributed most of his property to family members. No where was there any reference to his garrison. However, three items on the inventory, “Armes” and “powder and ball,”could very well have been part of the stock from Spencer’s garrison.

(Article by Neill De Paoli, Director, Old Fields Archaeology Project, Old Berwick Historical Society)

Old Fields Archaeology Project