The First Board
Of Selectmen


by Bill Purdin

"Good historians, I suspect, whether they think about it or not, have the future in their bones.
Besides the question: Why? the historian also asks the question: Whither?" -- E.H. Carr

The records are sketchy. For those early settlers, it wasn't about history; it was just the hard work of scratching out a living every day, day by day. Theirs was the business of building a community that could survive on its own. They succeeded, but in the beginning, it was a struggle.

It is hard for us to truly visualize the situation confronting that first Board of Selectmen in 1648, but remember that it wasn't until 36 years later, in 1684, that the last descendants of Nanepashemet, chief of the Naumkeags, would sign a final deed for their land over to the Town. So, in the beginning, those first Marbleheaders were strangers in a strange land that had long been loosely controlled by Native Americans whose culture and appearance was as different from the newcomers as travelers from another planet might seem to us today.

The first European settlers came to Marblehead by sea and by land. The famous fishing station at Little Harbor, clearly the center of activity, and perhaps the area along the West Shore, were the first destinations. There were few homes or streets, obviously. It was overgrown, rough, rocky and probably even more beautiful and inviting then, than it is today. Fresh, virgin, untouched, open, in places richly forested, and thoroughly alluring; it must have been an exciting time, an exciting place.

That was around 1628 to 1630. The quiet land and shallow rocky seacoast just southeast of Salem had been Nanepashemet's retreat and fortification, and perhaps his final resting place. The Naumkeags were peaceful and unafraid, and they were ultimately overrun by the warlike Tarrantines, seizing on their weakness, destroying their pastoral existence, after devastating years of war and disease.

Beginning at Barnegat and "John Peach's Neck," along the Salem Harbor side, then expanding, in time, all the way to Forest River and across the "Neck" towards what is now Swampscott and Lynn, the settlement ultimately encompassed all our current area including one of the most beautiful and useful harbors on the East Coast, and the small island across the harbor connected by a narrow tombolo of sand and rocks at low tide.

The first settlers were British subjects, born in England, and in the early 1600's, living in the shadows of the intensely religious Puritans of Salem, who strongly advocated strict religious discipline and pressed their "simplified" ceremonies and creeds of the Church of England. "God's elect" were to be members of the church, period. It was still to be decades before the then gathering force of religious intolerance took its toll, led by, among others, Increase Mather and inspired by his Illustrious Providences in which he outlined God's special concern for New England and called for vigilance against "Witchcrafts, Diabolical Possessions, Remarkable Judgements upon noted sinners." The infamous Salem Witch Trials, which have come to symbolize the widespread hysteria, culminated in damning accusations against hundreds of local people, many sentenced to death, 19 actually killed, before the trials were finally stopped in 1692. But all of this was still the distant future in those early days as Marblehead began its own unique historic journey.

Considering the risks they took, and the life they chose, the earliest inhabitants of these 4000 acres were courageously out of step with the Puritans, and motivated by freedom and independence. The first mention of the name "Marblehead" in Colonial records occurs on July 2, 1633, when James White and John Bennet were fined for public drunkenness. But to be fair, the residency of these two is not precisely established by the records, although a John Bennet was listed in the first 24 taxpayers, so we can surmise the truth. But, those same early records do clearly bear out that Marbleheaders, from the beginning, were feisty pioneers, if somewhat reluctantly, in their independent spirits, their innovative commerce, and their efforts to establish and sustain a new community.

In September, 1631, the addition of Isaac Allerton, from the Plymouth Colony, and more importantly four years later, his son-in-law, Moses Maverick, to the mix of settlers in this area ushered in the dawn of the Town of Marblehead. Preserved over the next 350 years by its patriotic, hardworking and forward-thinking inhabitants, and then, by its amazingly congruous Board of Selectmen, our Town has played a prominent and honored role in the history of the United States, and it can be said, in the real time emergence of democracy as a world-wide phenomenon in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. First, as the determined revolutionaries credited for crucial victories, and, ultimately, as a continuing symbol of American independence and freedom, Marblehead's noble ancestry and incredibly consistent form of government of, for and by her people themselves, are truly unique. The history of the Marblehead Board of Selectmen is the history of democracy in America. The debates, the compromises, the lines that were not crossed, the men and women, the changing community, the conflict of preservation and progress, the politics, the leadership, and the ultimate history and traditions that emerged, all make for a story that is not over yet, and one that gets better each time we bring it up to date.

The establishment of "town lande," the parcelling out of the land to inhabitants, raising a sum for a "meeting house," arranging an amenable separation from Salem, taxing "strangers fishing or employed about fishing," and generally conducting business as an "orderly and law-abiding township," occupied the first Board's time. Records indicate that the first meeting of this group of then "seven men or selectmen" was held on Friday, December 22, 1648. That first board was the only Board in history, that is known, on which all members were brand new. Moses Maverick went on to serve a total of 14 years as a Selectman. Samuel Doliber served only one, that one. Francis Johnson served three years. Nicholas Merritt served five years. John Peach, Sr. served for ten years. John Devereux served for four years. And, John Bartoll served for eight years. But, while that first year was probably not considered to be all that significant to the men who served, it determined much about the way the Board would conduct itself and how the Town would be governed for the next 350 years.

According to some historians, there were two factions at the time : fishermen, and the more educated "agents and owners," or what we might call developers today. The latter were men like John Humphrey who had received land grants and, along with the enterprising fishermen, added to the Town's emerging stability, offering opportunities for new inhabitants to productively join in Marblehead's growth.

But remember, rather than a municipality at this point, Marblehead was more accurately a commercial venture, and a fairly successful one. For the owners, it was a foregone conclusion that they would serve in some capacity of leadership. The herding of cows back and forth from Barnegat to grazing land further inland, the raising of funds for a meeting house, the protection of the Town's wood resources from outsiders, and continuing to lay out the land and determining how it would be parcelled up, these were the items of the Selectmen's agenda, but mundane. The real agenda was always, to the founders, the founding of a new community. In the end, that was the key. The establishment of the Town of Marblehead was accomplished on an "as needed" basis to protect the commercial interests that were driving the developing community. Issues came up and were dealt with on that basis. The first Selectmen were businessmen, not politicians. Their interests were in maintaining order, building necessary facilities, and protecting what they had achieved.

Moses Maverick. Served 14 years: 1648, 1649, 1656, 1662, 1663, 1664, 1668, 1669, 1670, 1674, 1675, 1676, 1677, and 1681. Born in Devon, England in 1611. Died in Marblehead in 1686. First came to Marblehead in 1635. He was literate, married and had 11 children. Considered to be the "Father of Marblehead," he came to Town from Dorchester with his brother to join his soon-to-be father-in-law, Isaac Allerton, and Remember Allerton, his daughter, whom he married. Allerton had been assistant governor of the colony and had his share of difficulties, ending with expulsion. Allerton's troubles followed him to Marblehead and ultimately he was asked to leave the Massachusetts Colony again, ending his life in New Haven, Connecticut. But first he transferred ownership of all of his property to Moses, who remained here. Four years later the records indicate that Maverick was permitted to operate a tavern on a year-to-year basis. This clearly complemented his business of selling provisions to his fishermen. Land issues appear with Maverick's name on them: grants of acreage at Salem town meetings, court conveyances of land, and fortifications to protect the Town. And as early as 1647 he had been selected along with others to "carry out the affairs of the plantation." And then, in early 1648 he was named to the first Board of Selectmen. His name was listed first. He ultimately served the Town of Marblehead in various capacities for nearly 50 years. Places named for him: Maverick Street, Maverick Court, Maverick Cove and sometime in 1999 Moses Maverick Square at the northeast intersections of Washington and Pleasant Streets. No other Maverick has ever served on the Board.

Samuel Doliber. Served one year, 1648. (Various spellings: Daliber, Dalliber, Dalliver, Dallivar, Dallyber, Dalyber, Doliver, Dolliber) By 1650 he was listed as "removed" from Marblehead, probably meaning that he moved away. He served on the Board's first year and that was that, becoming the founding member of the fraternity of one-year Selectmen, the most popular term through the years, today numbering 101 names. He is recorded as born in 1600, died "at Gloucester" in 1683, first appearing in Marblehead in 1642. He came from his English home in Dorset. He was a merchant. He was literate, married twice, once in England, and again in Marblehead to Mary, possibly the daughter of Robert Elwell. He owned land and a house on Skinner's Head (First Cove, Waldron's Cove, now known as "Jimmy Lane's Cove). Places named for him and his family: Dolliber Cove, between Peach's Point and Little Harbor. Two other Dol(l)ibers served on the Board: Joseph Dolliber for two years: 1661 and 1682, and Deacon William Doliber served on the Board of Selectmen for four years during the American Revolution. 1775, 1776, 1777, and 1778.

Francis Johnson. Served three years, 1648, 1656, 1663. Born in London: 1608, died in Boston: 1691. He was literate, married with seven children. He came to Marblehead around 1644 and stayed for the next 22 years, then moved to Boston. He owned land in the Washington, Franklin and Orne Street areas. He was a Freeman. He was a trader and a merchant who, along with Moses Maverick, Isaac Allerton, William Pitt and others, supplied Marblehead fishermen with provisions. He was, perhaps, the first Town Clerk, as well, serving as the earliest keeper of the Town book. He stated that after he had given the Town book "to another," many of the original leaves were torn from the document, perhaps intentionally or perhaps "through sloppy recordkeeping." Places named for him: none known. No other Johnson has served on the Board of Selectmen.

Nicholas Merritt, Sr. (Various spellings, Marriot, Merret, Merrett) Served 5 years: 1648, 1660, 1664, 1665, and 1671. He was born in 1613 (birthplace is unknown) and died in Marblehead in 1686. He came to Marblehead in 1636. He was a farmer with about 12 and a half acres and some cows. He was cited in Salem for fencing in land on "Marblehead Necke" (the area between Forest River and the ocean near what is now Swampscott) in violation of Salem's orders. He was literate and married to Mary Sandin with 8 children. While on the Board, he was one of two collectors for pasturage. Places named for him: Merritt Street (from Front Street to Circle Street). No other Merritt has served on the Board of Selectmen.

John Peach, Sr. (Various spellings, Pech, Peche) Served for ten years on the Board: 1648, 1649, 1656, 1657, 1659, 1660, 1661, 1671, 1677, and 1681. He was born in Dorset, England between 1604 and 1614 and died in Marblehead in 1684. He was literate and unmarried. He was a fisherman and a landowner. He first came to Marblehead around 1630. He was named with Merritt for illegally fencing in land of "Marblehead Necke" and with Merritt was a collector. He was a prominent member of the community and one of "the two Peaches," with his cousin John Peach, Jr. His will names John Legg, William Peach, Peter and Joseph Dallivar as his cousins. Places named for him and his family: Peaches Point and Peach Highlands. Three other Peaches have served on the Board of Selectmen: John Peach, Jr., 1656, 1660, and 1661; George H. Peach, Jr., for one year in 1917; and Donald H. "Ki" Peach, for 7 years, 1962 to 1968.

John Devereux. (Various spellings Deverox, Devorux, Devereaux, Devorix) Served for four years: 1648, 1666, 1667, and 1674. He was the only member of the first Board who lived outside of the harbor settlement, now the historic district, or "downtown." He was born in 1615 in Suffolk, England and died in 1695 in Marblehead. Some historians believe that he came from "noble stock," the fifth son of Walter Devereux, Viscount Hereford, or perhaps he was a descendant of "Robert Devereux, son of the Earl of Essex, beloved and beheaded by Queen Elizabeth." He first came to New England, probably with John Winthrop, and then to Marblehead in 1636. He was a mariner, a farmer and a fisherman. He was literate, married and had 7 children. He bought a tract of land of 350 acres, known later as Devereux's farm for 100 pounds in 1659. He was the owner of the windmill on top of Training Field Hill (where Abbot Hall is today), and he became a Freeman in 1683. He also served as constable, juryman for trials, petty and grand juries. He was a boundary runner and fence-viewer. Much has been made of the famous Devereux Farm, but no better description of what it was like at its height is found than in Lord and Gamage's book:

"The land on the eastern side along 'ye sea' was his preference, for its soil was rich and brooks and ponds sparkled in many places above the beach. The fishing and clamming were excellent, the small animals and birds plentiful, and the apple trees found the soil and moisture to their liking." His will reflected this love for the land by specifying that it, "remain in the family and the name of Devereux from generation to generation... forever and ever."

It might be stretching it to call John Devereux the first conservationist Selectman, but clearly his love of the land and of Marblehead's natural resource cannot be overlooked. Late in his seventies, Devereux still served his community. Places named for him and his family: Devereux Beach, Devereux Street, Devereux Terrace. Burrill Devereux served on the Board of Selectmen in the years 1779, 1780, 1789, and, 1790.

John Bartoll. (Various spellings: Bartole, Bartol) Served 8 years: 1648, 1649, 1656, 1657, 1658, 1659, 1660, and 1661. Born in Somerset, England in 1600. He was found dead at sea on October 1, 1664 off Marblehead. He was a planter and a farmer, living on Coit's Hill, or perhaps on an island according to another historian. He was literate and married with 5 children. He once brought John Peach, Jr.'s wife, Alice, to court for defamation. She had claimed that his wife, Parnell, had committed adultery with the boatswain of the ship "Sampson" in her cabin. No decision is recorded. John Bartoll also was once struck on the head with a rock by William Keene, a troublemaker, who was subsequently fined 3 pounds. He also served as a constable in 1654. He died without a will, and Moses Maverick assisted his widow in an inventory of his estate. An inquest found that Bartoll was the cause of his own death and that he had mentioned on the day of his death that "he was lost." Places named for him: Fort Sewall was once known as Bartol's Head (also Gale's Head). Another John Bartoll served on the Board of Selectmen for six years: 1755, 1756, 1757, 1758, 1764, and 1768.


The Town's first Board of Selectmen was made up of seven men all born in England, mostly educated businessmen and landholders, selected by Town Meeting, directly engaged in and personally benefiting from commerce in Marblehead. They operated almost as a commercial organization's Board of Directors directing life and commerce to protect commercial interests. John Peach and, perhaps, John Devereux were the only fishermen. There were no traffic issues, no dog hearings, or even school issues in those early years, but there were disputes to be settled and decisions to be made. 1648 was a gestation period of seemingly small beginnings. But year to year, decade to decade, century to century, the student of Marblehead history is led step by step to what we have today. There are missing records, and unaccounted-for years, but there is no doubt about the 350 years of continuous, congruous, and fascinating consistency of the Board of Selectmen as an institution, now elected every year, that safeguards the history and traditions of our Town. As individuals, the Selectmen, all 400 or so of them, are a history in and of themselves. But the Board of Selectmen itself is the single unifying element that brings us together across the years.

Beginning on December 22, 1648, and continuing right up to this coming Wednesday night, 7:30 P.M. at Abbot Hall, they are still there, discussing, debating, agreeing, disagreeing and doing the job as they see it for the good of the Town of Marblehead. And, that's something you can count on.

Bill Purdin has written about and photographed Marblehead since the mid 1960's. He was serving on Marblehead's 350th Board of Selectmen while authoring this article.

Footnotes & Bibliography

1. The Cambridge Modern History: Its Origins, Authorship and Production (1907) Cambridge University Press, p. 143.
2. Samuel Roads, Jr. The History And Traditions Of Marblehead (1897, 3rd Edition), Press of N. Allen Lindsey & Co., p.3.
3. Ibid. p. 8.
4. Ibid. p.13.
5. Thomas Gray, The Founding Of Marblehead (1984), Gateway Press, p.13.
6. There are gaps in the records concerning the Board: 1650 to 1655 and 1684 to 1719 represent the majority of them.
7. Ibid., p.23.
8. Ibid., p.106.
9. Priscilla Lord and Virginia Gamage, The Spirit of '76 Lives Here (1972), Chilton Book Company, p. 46.
10. Ibid., p.322.
11. Gray, ibid., p.45.


1. Samuel Roads, Jr., The History And Traditions Of Marblehead (1897, 3rd Edition), Press of N. Allen Lindsey & Co.
2. Edward Hallett Carr, What Is History? (1965) Alfred A. Knopf
3. Thomas E. Gray, The Founding of Marblehead, (1984) Gateway Press
4. Priscilla Sawyer Lord and Virginia Clegg Gamage, Marblehead. The Spirit of '76 Lives Here, Chilton Book Company, 1972
Russell W. Knight, 'Headers in Life and Legend, (1989) Legend, Inc.
6. Historic Records in Town Clerk's Office
7. Selectmen's Minutes, Abbot Hall
8. Sidney Perley, Marblehead in the Year 1700, Essex Institute Historical Collections

Plus, the innumerable and ongoing conversations with Thomas Gray, Virginia Gamage, Donald Doliber, Dan Dixey, Paul Lausier, the late Russell W. Knight, and many, many others, have been enormously helpful over the years, and in preparation for this article.