Where Was Canterbury of Early Hatfield/Whately?

Canterbury came into existence as a place between places in early Hatfield-Deerfield lore, a perilous no-man’s land where only the brave dared linger, even then on high alert. Thus the confusion about the specifics of this place, named in the early days of Hatfield, that ultimately became the northeast corner of Whately.

No one is certain precisely why or when it was so named, or who named it. So, at this point, we’ll just have to live with the mystery at a time when only a few local historians are familiar with the obsolete name that went out of use long ago.

Fact is surveyors have never defined Canterbury, per se, by metes and bounds. No, it was just a name used by residents to identify a small section of town. Perhaps the acreage of this place grew over time as houses and outbuildings were added, trees and brush were cleared, and swamps were drained to create fertile farmsteads. In fact, that seems most likely.

The prominent landscape feature looming over Canterbury is distinctive Mount Sugarloaf, poking abruptly from the northern perimeter of the river meadows like a cathedral off the Connecticut’s west bank. First written as two words, Sugar Loaf, in Colonial documents, it was a common European name for mountains that looked from afar like the molded, conical lumps of sugar people bought in the marketplace.

From no perspective does Sugarloaf fit that profile better than from the meadows stretching out a mile south from its base. Anyone who’s traveled River Road from Hatfield to Whately knows the spectacle. And the same can be said for anyone familiar with the more twisted shape from the second and third western terraces, the latter known as Hopewell Plain, traversed by Long Plain Road, first known to colonials as the Pocumtuck Path – that is the road from Hatfield to Pocumtuck, later Deerfield.

The name “Canterbury” is written on the first maps of Whately. Likewise, it’s mentioned by 19th-century town historians Josiah Howard Temple (1815-1893) and James Monroe Crafts (1817-1903), whose published town histories appeared in 1872 and 1899. Though much of what Crafts wrote about the town’s earliest history dating back to its Hatfield days parroted Temple, he did make an important contribution with comprehensive genealogies of the town’s first families. For that, Connecticut Valley researchers are sincerely grateful.

Crafts set the groundwork, so to speak, which makes perfect sense given that he himself was from the earliest bolt of colonial Connecticut Valley cloth. Whately was his hometown. He was born and bred there, which cannot be said of the Framingham native Temple. Better educated than Crafts, Temple came to Whately as a Congregational minister, which doesn’t diminish his historical acumen one iota. Always thorough, careful, and accurate, Temple was the more astute antiquarian.

Contemporaneous historian George Sheldon (1818-1916), a prolific writer about all things Deerfield, never mentions Canterbury by name in his two-volume History of Deerfield (1896). He instead refers to the earliest settlers on both sides of the town line along Sugarloaf’s southern skirt as “Sugarloaf people.” He uses the description to identify residents petitioning for relief from Deerfield church and school taxes because their families attended both across the river in Sunderland.

In his extensive genealogies, Sheldon labels as Sugarloaf that Deerfield village hugging the Whately line between the mountain and the Connecticut River. Today lower River Road, Sheldon wanted to differentiate between it and the Bloody Brook and Mill River villages on the mountain’s west side. Perhaps the locative Canterbury had gone out of use by 1890s, or had always been an in-town location used only by folks in Hatfield and Whately. For whatever reason, Sheldon never mentions it.

Purely in-town vernacular usage would explain why another respected 19th-century valley historian, Sylvester Judd (1789-1860), follows suit. Judd – author of the History of Hadley (1863) and compiler of the 56-volume Judd Manuscripts housed at Northampton’s Forbes Library – never mentions Canterbury, even though it would have been within Hadley’s earliest borders. It’s not surprising. Hatfield split off from Hadley in 1670, after which it would have been only of peripheral interest to a Hadley historian. Plus, Canterbury likely hadn’t even been named by that early date, three years before Deerfield came into existence as Pocumtuck. So, it didn’t take long for not only Canterbury but the entire west side of the river to become irrelevant to Judd.

The same cannot be said for Reuben Field Wells (born 1888), esteemed Hatfield historian who shared authorship of the History of Hatfield (1910) with his father, Deacon Daniel White Wells (born 1842). Their publication has much to say about the Denison and Bradstreet Grants and the settlement of the original northeast corner of town without ever once mentioning the name Canterbury. Although that name is indeed more of a Whately phenomenon, it was settled between 1749 and 1770, when still part of Hatfield. Whately separated from Hatfield in 1771. Nonetheless, not so much as a word about it from Wells and Wells, and also not a word about its pioneer settlers.

When and why Canterbury was named may be out of reach as we approach Whately’s 250th birthday celebration next year. The problem is that a definitive answer may be more elusive now than it was for Temple and Crafts 148 and 101 years ago. Presumably, nuanced speculation will have to suffice now as it did then. But maybe, just maybe, we can attach a new spin that sings true and inspires further investigation.

Temple never took a shot at defining Canterbury’s boundaries or exploring the place name’s origin. He just listed Canterbury among 15 localities he believed to have been named “since the earliest settlement of the territory.” That includes Hopewell, which overlaps Canterbury and he believed received its name in 1679. He doesn’t say why.

Hopewell Plain overlooks River Road from the west, and is referred to as “Hopewell Hill” in early records. Hopewell Swamp hugs the base of the plain’s undulating western lip for approximately 3½ miles south, to within view of Hatfield Pond’s northern reach.

Another landscape feature named Hopewell is a brook bubbling from a spring-hole on the north end of Hopewell Swamp, just a stone’s throw from Sugarloaf’s southwestern skirt. The clear, mucky-bedded spring brook runs south approximately 1.3 miles, crossing under Christian Lane and River Road before joining the Connecticut River about 1,000 feet northeast of today’s Straits Road-River Road intersection.

Crafts was a little more daring than Temple about Canterbury, writing that it “was so called as early as 1718 and probably earlier,” without sourcing that information. He states unapologetically that he could “give no reason for its name.” He then attempted to define the area with: “It is now spoken of as including the S.W. Allis place to the Deerfield line.” Today, that description seems to have been conveniently extended some 200 feet south to Christian Lane by someone. So, if that’s the prevailing wisdom, then Canterbury consumes the final mile and a half of terraced meadows on both sides of River Road between the East Whately Burial Ground and the Deerfield line.

But wait a minute. Let’s take a closer look at the picture Temple and Crafts painted. Neither of them placed the Allis Farm, now owned by the Pasiecniks, in Canterbury, associating it instead with the old Bradstreet Grant, the northern boundary of which fell some 4,800 feet shy of the Deerfield line. That said, it seems logical to me that the Canterbury plot, as first known, was that very slice of rich, terraced farmland wedged between the Connecticut River and Hopewell Plain, north of the old Bradstreet Grant and south of the Deerfield line. Looming large in the background is the Sugarloaf cathedral, a tall, proud sentry guarding the farmland below.

The earliest settlers had to understand the spiritual significance Indians placed on the mountain. That’s why it wasn’t settled until the late date of 1749, by outsider Abraham Parker of Groton. It was still dangerous territory not far from frontier villages dating back more than 75 years.

Settlement had been a long time coming for fertile croplands purchased in 1672. When a border dispute immediately arose over the parcel that became Canterbury, between the Deerfield and northern Bradstreet Grant lines, the town line was fixed east and west from the point where Sugarloaf Brook crossed the Indian trail. In compensation for what was viewed as lost acreage, Deerfield was granted compensatory acreage north of the Deerfield River.

The Deerfield-Hatfield town line was finally marked 24 years later, in 1696. Two men from each town were chosen to blaze trees with the letters “H” on the south and “D” on the north. They started at a little walnut tree on the Connecticut River bank and continued two miles west to Mill Swamp. The previously established northern extension of Deerfield had been settled for years, running a mile east and a mile west from the mouth of the Green River, and three-quarters of a mile north.

Though valuable, fertile, and desirable, the disputed strip of Hatfield land below Sugarloaf remained unsettled for 77 years after purchase and 53 years after the town line was officially marked. Why? Because, according to Craft, settlers were fearful of marauding Indians, who continued to use Hopewell Swamp at the foot of Sugarloaf for refuge and concealment when passing through. Then along came Abraham Parker of Groton and Fort No. 4 (Charlestown, NH), and Canterbury settlement had begun. That was 14 years before the end of the final French and Indian War, and the neighborhood was perilous through the 1750s.

According to Temple and Crafts, two fellow Groton townsmen soon joined Parker in Canterbury. They were brother-in-law Joseph Sanderson and Nathaniel Sartwell (often spelled Sawtell). Philip Smith was another Canterbury pioneer. He descended from a founding family of Hatfield and had grown up a mile or so away on the Straits. Smith’s was the northernmost Canterbury farm, bordered south by the old Bradstreet Grant. Those four farms likely comprised all of Canterbury before Whately was established in 1771. As the years passed, extended-family members carved out additional farms and sold small parcels to new neighbors. Log cabins were replaced by farmhouses, most of which have burned to the ground, or were torn down long ago.

Today, the places name Hopewell and Canterbury have faded to vestiges of the past.

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