Dogtown in Cape Ann, MA | Abandoned Settlement Mystery
Soon it started to rain — big, hard drops that arrived without wind or other warning. Lightning flashed; wood cracked. I took shelter beneath a boulder, huge and angled in such a way that I could only hope it wouldn’t roll. After half an hour, the shower let up. The spot where my back had touched the rock was dry, the surface oddly flat. As it grew lighter I could see block letters carved into the granite: “If work stops values decay.”
I picked up my bag to head back. The woods were rain-slicked now, and heavy. Nothing looked familiar. I made several turns onto ever-smaller trails that crisscrossed and looped, before realizing I was lost. It began to rain again. Eventually I made my way out — not to where I’d entered, but to a place that let me loop the perimeter and locate my truck. Hours had passed. I was bug-bitten and soaked. I was also determined to come again — next time with a better map and a clearer sense, at least in physical terms, of what it was I hoped to find.
Dogtown maps were easy to obtain, it turned out, but reliable information less so. Ascertaining what happened there centuries ago is tricky. Some folks want to embellish it, others to deny it — the accounts therefore larger or smaller than the truth. Yet certain facts converge: Homesteaders first put down roots in what was then known as the Commons Settlement during the mid-1600s. Although the village lacked tillable land, it drew people because its elevated location made it less vulnerable to attack. The place had plenty of pastureland, too, plus a brook that powered a sawmill. In 1719, a general land distribution for men expanded the population; by the mid-1700s, as many as 100 families lived and worked in the Commons area.
Life there was stable until after the Revolutionary War, when a revival of fishing triggered a shift back toward Gloucester Harbor. The area fell on hard times after the demise of the original settlement: “Dogtown became an aberration, an embarrassment,” wrote Thomas Dresser in Dogtown: A Village Lost in Time. He described one inhabitant, Tammy Younger, as “queen of the witches,” who so intimidated passersby that they left her tithes of fish and corn. By 1828 the village was all but deserted. The last resident, a freed slave named Cornelius Finson, was found with his feet frozen and taken to the poorhouse in the winter of 1830.
With an eye out for cellars and rock walls and signs of Finson or other ghosts, I continued to walk in Dogtown, and I kept getting lost. My father, who had taught my sister and me how to navigate the woods behind our house when we were growing up, took exception to this. Slow down, he said. Retrace your steps the moment you’re not sure where you are. I knew to carry a compass and to watch the sun on my way in, but in Dogtown, it seemed, the sun reoriented itself at will.
On Cape Ann, what did or might have happened in Dogtown has long been part of local lore. “The walled ruins of Dogtown draw the curious and speculator,” wrote historian Charles Mann in 1896. “Why did more than one hundred families exile themselves from the life of the villages so near them, and dwell in loneliness and often in poverty, in this barren and secluded spot?”
That same question was at the heart of a Sunday morning walk taken recently by a local family to celebrate the birthday of its matriarch. In addition to Barbara Stewart, who was turning 80, three of her daughters, two sons-in-law, and four grandchildren gathered in a parking lot off Cherry Street in Gloucester. Directing the two-hour tour were Seania McCarthy and Dee McManus, who offer guided hikes in Dogtown. Sunlight filtered through the trees; McManus’s dog, Cooper, led the way.
“I’m so glad we’re finally doing this,” said Stewart, beginning the easy ascent on a paved road that soon gave way to gravel. A few minutes down Dogtown Road, McCarthy directed the family to pause, indicating a heap of rocks in the woods — an ancient house site. “Number 15; this one belonged to Easter Carter,” she said. McCarthy described Carter’s two-story house, grand by Dogtown standards, and Carter herself as a spinster who nursed others. She also alluded to an upstairs tenant: a cross-dressing stonemason, a former slave named Old Ruth, a.k.a. John Woodman.