Over the years, this column has paid scant attention to the non-human creatures who have also played a role in the development of our corner of Essex County. Chief among the neglected is one of the most noble of beasts, and one which for nearly three centuries was the backbone of the region’s transportation system, the horse.
One of the earliest North Shore references to horses can be found in the journal of the Rev. Francis Higginson, who arrived in Salem on one of five vessels that ferried English emigrants to the fledgling plantation in 1629. In his diary, Higginson notes that aboard the ship George were, in addition to cattle, sheep and other livestock, 12 mares. These were used by the new settlers for personal transportation and for hauling crops and other goods to market.
Like everything else in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, horses were the subject of periodic scrutiny and action by the General Court. One piece of equine-related legislation, passed in 1647, made it illegal for citizens to use another’s horse without authorization. This was a common practice in an area where the animals were allowed to roam free to graze. In 1672, the General Court further decreed that horses should not be ridden at excessive speeds, especially on crowded areas.
Naturally, owners of horses were taxed for each equine they owned to raise monies for the Colonial coffers.
In the early years of the Salem plantation, people usually traveled by boat, as the town, Boston and most other settlements were situated either on the coast or along one of the nearby rivers. But as the population exploded in the 1630s, a result of the Puritan persecution in England, new immigrants began developing new communities in landlocked areas like present-day Hamilton, Wenham and Peabody. In those areas, horses would become increasingly important.