Topsfield History Overview
Topsfield’s human history goes back well over a thousand years when Native Americans lived in the area as hunters and gatherers. By 1650, when the village was incorporated, there were few left due to a devastating plague, probably Small Pox, which decimated their numbers. Masconomet, Chief of these survivors, appears to have had a good relationship with the early settlers, helping them survive in return for their help defending his tribe against unfriendly tribes. He sold much of what is now Northern Essex County to John Winthrop for 20 pounds. Virtually all of the settlers were self supporting farmers with some involved in blacksmithing and saw and gristmill operations. Topsfield citizens took strong supportive positions for independence at their town meetings beginning with the Boston Tea Party in 1773. When the alarm came on April 19, 1775, some men immediately left for Lexington and Concord to fight the Redcoats back to Boston. Throughout the Revolution Topsfield men were considerably involved. Some had previous military experience during the French and Indian wars which was invaluable.
By the 1800’s shoe factories, stores and inns appeared. The Newburyport Turnpike was completed in 1805 and the railroad came in 1854, making it possible for residents to travel and work in other communities. In 1818 the first Topsfield fair was held and is now the nation’s oldest continuing fair. The historical society’s records show an active abolitionist movement during the 1850’s. The population in 1860 was 1292, with 132 men serving in the military during the Civil War. 22 never returned, making this the most deadly war in Topsfield’s history. Approaching 1900 the town’s character changed from a farming and shoe manufacturing community to a town of many large estates. This change preserved much open space which might otherwise have disappeared by now.
Topsfield’s character changed further as shoe making operations ended and the town gradually became a rural suburban community, a characteristic still present today. During World War 1, a home guard unit was formed and the women of the town organized a canning club to conserve food. The town’s character changed yet again after World War II which saw a large increase in population as many urban dwellers left larger towns to enjoy Topsfield’s rural atmosphere. Construction of Interstate Route 95 and other highway improvements made the town much more accessible and helped its population to grow to its present 6000.
The town clearly has had a rich history which continues today.
This overview was written by Topsfield Historical Society’s Norm Isler and was prepared from several sources, chief among them being Dow’s History of Topsfield, Jan Jansen’s research and the society’s archives. 3/16/04
For questions about Topsfield's history, ask HistoricalRecords@topsfieldhistory.org.