What and where was the Newtown Gate?

A:  The Newtown Gate was one of a number of gates in a livestock fence that surrounded the town.

From the beginning of English settlement on Nantucket in the second half of the 1600s until the early 1820s, livestock (cows, horses, and thousands of sheep) had the run of the island, and fencing was used to keep them out rather than in. The shareholders in the original venture to settle the island each received a piece of land for a homestead and shares or “commons” that allowed each proprietor to turn loose a set number of animals to graze. (The actual number of each kind of animal permitted varied from time to time.)

The Newtown Gate is shown above to the west of Shimmo. MS1000-3-1-7

In the early days, when there was a substantial Wampanoag presence on the island, outnumbering the English settlers for several decades, this caused a great deal of grief to the Wampanoags. They complained repeatedly that the English animals ate their crops, trampled their fields, and even knocked over their housing. The first fencing went up already in 1672 to divide off the western end of the island that the English had secured from the Wampanoags for themselves and their animals from the rest of the island.

The English settlement relocated from its original site on the North Shore to the present site of the town on Nantucket Harbor in the second half of the 1700s, and with the tragic “Indian sickness” of 1763–64, continuing Wampanoag complaints about abuses came to an abrupt end.

The issue then became one of keeping animals, sheep in particular, out of the town streets and people’s gardens, and this was accomplished by fencing the town. Nantucket became a gated community.  The enclosed town is depicted on Thomas Mitchell’s 1820 Chart of Nantucket with the Shoals. The various openings and “cow bars” (but not the fence itself) appear on a map of roads in the Town Pasture drawn by Daniel Allen and Daniel Macy in 1821. The Newtown Gate appears on both maps.

Orange Street was opened in 1726, just when the English settlement was in the process of relocation. At some point the Newtown Gate was erected roughly where the rotary at the end of Orange Street is today. It was in place well before Nantucket’s assessor Isaac Coffin compiled a list of Nantucket’s streets and neighborhoods in 1799.  It remained until 1822, and the memory of it lasted much longer.

The Newtown Gate was special, because it was a tollgate. It was through the Newtown Gate that carts and carriages passed out of town on their way to points east such as Polpis and ‘Sconset.  Next to the gate was the house of William Cash (born in 1740), who—according to Isaac Coffin—was the toll taker in 1799.

As townspeople exited the gate on their way across the commons, they passed a gruesome spot. In the 1700s ten men, all Wampanoags, were hanged on a gallows just outside the Newtown Gate.  The last execution took place in 1769, but the hangings inhabited Nantucketers’ collective memory for a long time thereafter.

The Newtown Gate was taken down in 1822, shortly after Thomas Mitchell drew a picture of it on his chart and the two Daniels indicated its location at one end of the fence that ran roughly along the route of today’s Sparks Avenue. By then the gate and the fence were becoming obsolete as shareholders in the commons were turning in their shares for large set-offs of private land. Sheep-raising continued but with less and less common land available for grazing. This brought about crises and court cases from the 1820s through the “sheep wars” of the 1850s. As the local whaling economy collapsed, Nantucket livestock-raising transitioned from commonage to individual farms.

The Newtown Gate is shown to the east of town in this drawing. Proprietors’ Book of Plans No. 1 at the Town Registry of Deeds

Toll taker William Cash only survived the gate he had tended by a half dozen years, dying in 1828 at the age of 88, but the memory of the gate as a location lingered on. In 1855 the Nantucket County Commissioners gave notice that they were going to lay out “a highway or County road” to ‘Sconset from near “the place of the old Newtown Gate.” Three years later the Nantucket Agricultural Society voted to purchase two lots “situated a few rods beyond Newtown Gate” for their fairgrounds. In 1867, a reader related to the Inquirer and Mirror his recollection of days past when “Orange Street had not been improved, and slow was the pace at which we jogged through the deep sand of the road to Newtown Gate.”

The tollhouse hung on for more than forty years after its owner’s passing. In 1871 the writer of a letter to the editors of the Inquirer and Mirror noted with regret “the demolition of an ancient building called ‘the Cash House,’ so long the sentinel of the old ‘Newtown Gate’ which stood so late as 1821, as a barrier to keep the sheep from coming into town, and was so often passed through on gala days on the way to Siasconset and other places eastward of the town. Who can forget that good old man, ‘Uncle Cash,’ who so kindly opened the gate? The toll paid was money well spent. The spot where this house has stood so many years, over one hundred and fifty, has many memories surrounding it.”

By the 1890s the road to ‘Sconset laid out by the County Commissioners in 1855 had become a state road, but the memory of the long-gone gate lingered on. In 1897 it was observed that “The bulk of suburban traffic on Nantucket finds its outlet from town via Newtown Gate, or what was formerly its site. Just beyond, the state road begins.”

Image 1: Thomas Mitchell’s map with its drawing of the fence enclosing the town and the Newtown Gate is MS1000, Drawer 3, Folder 1, No. 7.

Image 2: Daniel Allen’s and Daniel Macy’s map of the roads in the town pasture showing the location of the Newtown Gate is P12925. From Proprietors’ Book of Plans No. 1 at the Town Registry of Deeds.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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