Before the town was named Somerset (part 1)
When Governor John Hancock of Massachusetts signed a bill establishing the Town of Somerset in 1790, the community that became today’s town had already been in existence for 110 years. From 1680- 1790, that community was part of Swansea and was always referred to in official records as “the part of Swanzey known as Shawomet.”
But, as discussed in a couple of past columns, the residents of Shawomet did act independently on some matters. The school system was established by people who lived exclusively in Shawomet. The constable of Shawomet was appointed by the community’s landowners. A minor official like the “fence viewer,” who checked the accuracy of boundary lines, was a Shawomet appointment. And, of course, the location and construction of roads and river landings were strictly Shawomet affairs.
But, the most compelling civic occasion was the town meeting when Shawomet’s farmers, tradesmen, and merchants joined with their Swansea townsmen. They came from the Village, they came from Brayton Point; some rode horseback, some walked. They came all along the “highway to Providence” which is Read Street today. They stopped when they reached the gathering place, a home that can still be seen today at number one Main Street in Swansea Village. There, they selected the town’s “select men” and made decisions on local matters that affected both Shawomet and Swansea.
The high point of the day was reached when the men voted for two of their town meeting members to represent Swansea in Boston as members of the Massachusetts colonial House of Representatives. To be eligible to vote for who would represent the town was a sacred right. To be chosen was to receive the greatest honor that a town could give. And it was given to the very best.
Jerathmael Bowers, who once lived on the corner of South and Main Streets in Somerset, was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1759. He was a merchant from Shawomet, and he would be re-elected again and again, serving more terms as a representative from Swansea than anyone before or since.
At first glance, it may seem surprising that farmers and tradesmen would choose a sophisticated and wealthy man like Jerathmael with whom they probably felt they had little in common. But Bowers earned their respect because he represented his constituents well. He had connections with powerful people, and he had considerable political influence in Boston himself. Of more importance to the farmers and tradesmen, he did not hesitate to use his influence for the benefit of his town. Early in Jerathmael’s legislative career, a horrific smallpox epidemic swept through Shawomet and Swansea. Bowers was able to secure an appropriation of 300 pounds to alleviate the ” great suffering.” No one forgot that.
Beginning in 1760, Jerathmael Bowers encouraged the town’s participation in the struggle for American rights within the British Empire. He and his friend, John Hancock, orchestrated the first successful colonial boycott of British goods. Later, following the Boston Tea Party, Bowers assumed the rank of colonel in the local militia. He also took part in creating a Massachusetts militia known to history as the Minutemen. And he was present as the town’s delegate to the Provincial Congress when George Washington arrived to take command of the first American army.
For the first year of the war, Americans were fighting for their rights as British subjects, not for separation from the empire. But by the summer of 1776, many local people began calling themselves Patriots as they increasingly supported separation and fought instead for independence. Jerathmael Bowers was not among them.
To be continued...