Cape Merrill Cape Merrill is the point of land on the north side of Parker River formed by the confluence of the Parker and Plum Island Rivers. It is marshland, occasionally flooded by the tide, and its crop of salt hay for many years past has been left uncut. East of Plum Island River lies Plum Island, eight miles long, its bare sand dunes extending from the mouth of the Merrimack south to the mouth of Ipswich River.
Twelve acres, at the end of the Cape, was granted by the town to John1 Merrill in 1646. Receiving his name it has been known as Merrill’s Point, or Cape Merrill, to the present day. Six acres of this land he conveyed to his son-in-law, Stephen Swett, and three acres to his brother Nathaniel1 Merrill. By a paper recorded 25 Nov. 1671, it appears that he sold “the rest of the poynt of marsh,” at the extremity of the Cape, to Abraham2 Merrill for forty shillings. (Proprietors Records, fol. 38, 64.)
Deacon Abraham Merrill acquired other marshland adjoining, and held it until 8 May, 1686, when he conveyed to Jonathan Emery of Newbury twelve acres “at a place Comly Called Merrills point bounded by Newbury river Southerly Plumb Island river Easterly & on ye Northerly & Westerly Side by ye marsh of Nathaniel Merrill Deced & Joseph King.” Deacon Merrill received in exchange twelve acres “in ye. Great Marsh below pine Island.”
The acknowledgements of these mutual deeds were not taken until August, 1719, and they were recorded with Essex Deeds, book 35, leaf 246, and book 36, leaf 244, respectively. Of the subsequent history of this land, for more than a century, I have no knowledge.
It was formerly the practice of farmers to cut the salt hay, and feed it to their stock, and early in the last century the farmers in some parts of the interior would go to the seashore in companies to get hay from the marshes. These parties would camp on the spot while the hay was cut and dried, and loaded on the great flat-bottomed boats, called “gundelows”, to be freighted to points near home as wind, and the tide in the streams, favored. The cost of labor for a generation past, however, has resulted in most of the salt marshes being left uncut. It’s cheaper for the farmers to buy salt for their cattle by the bushel.
In these journeys after salt hay Moses6 Merrill (Gyles5, Moses4,3, Daniel2) of Haverhill worked in conjunction with his neighbor, True Kimball of Plaintow, N.H. They bought in common a number of adjoining parcels of marsh at Cape Merrill, their holdings extending more than a quarter of a mile on Plum Island River, and about thirty-two rods on Oldtown, or Parker, River. The men and boys of the two households would go down the Merrimack and into Plum Island River with gundelows, and, after harvesting their crop, would return home and divide the hay for the Winter’s use.
The land at the extremity of Cape Merrill was purchased by them from Jonathan Ela of Haverhill, the purchase price being $35. The deed, dated 16 June, 1831, and recorded in the Essex Deeds, at Salem, in book 262, leaf 146, thus describes the land: “A certain parcel of saltmarsh situate in Newbury . . . at a place called Cape Merrill Point and is bounded Southwesterly on old Town River thirty-two rods, Westerly on land of Daniel Plummer eight rods, Northerly on my own land about thirty rods and Easterly on Plumb Island River twenty-five rods containing about three acres and one half.”
The three and a half acres at the extremity of the Cape was held in common until 18 Feb. 1858, when it was purchased by Gyles7 Merrill, son of Moses6, and it has since been kept in the family for the sake of the name. At the death of Gyles7 Merrill, in 1894, it came into the possession of his son, the compiler of this Memorial, who retains it as an interesting heirloom, paying annually to the Town of Newbury on account of it a tax of about sixty cents.
The scene at Cape Merrill has changed very little in the two and three-quarters centuries since John Merrill cut salt hay there. On the farther edge of the Plum Island marsh, half a mile away, a few modest shooting boxes can be seen, but beyond this the landscape in our day tells nothing of the changes which have transformed the New England wilderness of the middle seventeenth century into a populous land throbbing with the activities of industry and trade. In most landscapes time works great changes. At the mouth of Parker River, looking eastward, it seems almost as if the world had stood still while century after century has come and gone.
August was harvest time for the salt marsh hay, but in August as was the case in
all of the spring, summer and fall months, the salt marsh was soft and spongy. Horses
and oxen with their heavy weight and relatively small hooves would sink into the marsh
if they were used to pull mowers, rakes or hay wagons. Up until the mid-1800s all
marsh hay harvesting was done by hand. To keep the harvested hay above tidal waters,
it was stacked on wooden posts called staddles until the marsh was frozen and animal-
drawn wagons could take it to barns. if the staddle was by a tidal stream, the hay
would be loaded onto a gundalow, a flat barge, sometimes with a sail, for delivery to
Staddles were made by first obtaining rot resistant wooden posts about five feet in
length. Wood such as black locust, cedar and oak were used. One end of the posts was
sharpened with an axe and they were driven into the peat with large wooden mallets to
make circular structures ten to twenty feet in diameter, consisting of 45-55 poles.
The perimeter posts were higher than those in the middle for better stacking. Hay
would be stacked up as much as twelve feet above the top of the staddle and weighed
up to two tons. The staddles allowed the waters of the high tides to flow unhindered
beneath the stacked hay.
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