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Chelsea's Changing Land

Land Acknowledgment

Many communities use land acknowledgments as a means to recognize the history and presence indigenous people. Land acknowledgments speak to both the history of displacement of indigenous people as well as the resilience of native peoples who are our neighbors today. Such statements speak to the original stewards of the land and the cultural erasure of colonial settlement.

Chelsea was the traditional land of the Pawtucket people and a place of meeting for other tribes including the Massachusett, Wampanoag, Nipmuc, Pennacook, Passamaquoddy and others. The first decades of colonization in this area brought devastating epidemics and violence that completely annihilated the Pawtucket tribe as a distinct people. Despite this, the presence of indigenous people continued and they remain in our community today.

Indigenous geography and Colonial boundaries

The naming and boundaries of Chelsea are a product of colonial settlement and industrial development. Over the past four centuries Chelsea’s borders and identity have shifted dramatically. This means that to the story of this community we can’t remain neatly within the land boundaries of the place we call Chelsea now.

Indigenous Tribes, c 1600-1650

The indigenous people of the Pawtucket, along with the neighboring Pennacook, Massachusett, Nipmuc and other tribes, lived here for centuries before 1624 and had their own ways of defining these lands. The landscape was the primary way of making sense of the area: amidst the hills and islands, there were marshes and waterways for fishing, fields and woods for planting, foraging and hunting.

From Chamberlain's 1930 "History of Chelsea"

A fresh water spring in the place we today call Chelsea Square provided the area’s name. Winnisimmet means “good spring nearby.” Geography influenced the culture and tribal territories of the people who lived here, creating a rich diversity of interrelated languages and practices. The sachem or leader of these bands came to be associated with individual areas.

Massachusetts Colonial Map detail, 1634. "WinniFimet" /Chelsea marked along with names of tribal sagamores

During the early decades of English colonial settlement, Chelsea was defined by the allotments of farms, each known by the deed holder. The names of these property owners, like Richard Bellingham, Thomas Pratt, Samuel Cary and Benjamin Shurtleff, still specify places within Chelsea today.

Detail map, 1775

The Massachusetts colony organized itself around a network of meeting houses. For a hundred years the small agricultural settlements of Winnisimmet, Rumney Marsh, Pullen Point, Noddles Island, and Hogg Island were considered parts of Boston. In 1739, centered around a meeting house, then a church and school in Rumney Marsh, the town of Chelsea was established. Less than one thousand people lived in Chelsea, an area far bigger than it is today. Chelsea's regional importance lay as a key transportation route via the ferry linking Charlestown to Winnisimmet, thus connecting north shore communities of Salem and Marblehead with Boston.

Detail of map of Boston and environs, 1806. Note how Winnisimmet (on the waterfront at the site for ferry boarding) is marked distinctly from Chelsea which was then centered in Rumney Marsh which today is the City of Revere.

Industrialization in the 1800s brought dramatic changes. The tops of hills were removed to fill the marshes, the waterfront shifted with the demands of ship building and factories. Fresh waves of immigrants arrived, exploded the population. In just forty years, from 1830 to 1870, Chelsea’s population grew 24-fold.

1846 map shows massive residential development in the city

The nineteenth century’s dramatic growth was reflected in changes to political organization and boundaries of Chelsea. A panhandle section split off to become Saugus (1841). North Chelsea became Revere (1846) and Winthrop (1852). No longer a modest town, Chelsea was granted a city charter in 1857.

1852 map detail showing Chelsea and North Chelsea


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