Canterbury Tales

The Lands of the Boston Nature Center in the Nineteenth Century

Map of Boston Nature Center history

Current boundary of BNC in orange. Colors on map correspond to the color blocks in the timeline below.

Note: only Canterbury, Morton, Harvard, and Walk Hill Streets existed in the nineteenth century – for example, American Legion Highway didn't exist until the 1930s – so property lines weren’t confined by the same roads and other boundaries as today.

1600's | 1700's | 1800's | 1900's

1600s English immigrant Robert Williams was deeded large tracts of pasture, marsh, and woodland in what was called the Canterbury area of  Roxbury – including the future BNC site. The land remained in the family for generations.
Late 1700s
green square

Isaac Williams – a captain in the Revolutionary War, a deacon of the new church in Jamaica Plain – with wife Elizabeth and nine children live on sixty-acre farm that includes center of future BNC.

  • Homestead, gardens, and orchards near present-day Harvard Street, just off future BNC land
  • Family raises hay, corn, barley, potatoes, onions, dairy, vegetables, pigs, apples and pears
Purple square

Elijah Weld – a Revolutionary soldier and one of the first firemen in Roxbury – with wife Elizabeth and three sons purchase 34 acres of farmland along Walk Hill Street from Henry Howell Williams, land that would later become the western end of the BNC.

  • Family builds house off Canterbury Street and raises hay, barley, corn, potatoes, onions, vegetables, dairy
  • Elijah dies of tuberculosis in 1805, age 51; over next 15 years, all three sons die young
Blue Square
Joseph Morton, Boston merchant, and wife Mary buy land and build mansion along Canterbury Street; their property includes some (but not all) of the marshland and the eastern end of the future BNC.
green square

Isaac Williams dies of “decay of nature” (i.e. old age) at age 71, leaving the central farm to his family.

  • Son Benjamin Payson Williams takes over farm, with wife Margaret and seven children
Purple square
After death of last son, Elizabeth Weld marries William Williams, a local farmer (from a different branch of the Williams family), who joins her on the Walk Hill farm.
Blue Square

Joseph Morton sells small parcel of marshland to Isaac Houghton; various other strips of marsh are owned by other area farmers over the century, who harvest the marsh grass for use as animal fodder.

  • Morton family eventually moves to Milton; their farmland would be worked by tenants for rest of century
  • Morton Street constructed in 1853, serving now as the eastern boundary of the BNC
Purple square
William Williams dies; Elizabeth sells Walk Hill farm to William Cheever of Boston, with the stipulation that she will continue to live and work in the house and be given vegetables from the farm.
Purple square
William Cheever sells farm to Joseph and Ann Lambert, from Maine, who eventually build new house off Walk Hill Street; Elizabeth Williams continues to live and work in the house until her death in 1849.
green square
Walking the central farm on a Sunday evening, Benjamin Payson Williams dies of heart attack at age 57; his widow Margaret and family struggle to remain on the farm, son Isaac marries Nancy Brown and begins new family in 1848.
green square
After death of another son, Benjamin Jr., the remaining Williams family decides to leave the place, moving to Dorchester; the homestead is sold to Bishop John Fitzpatrick of Boston, and eventually to the Mack family in 1866.
green square
Final plot of Williams land, in central BNC area, sold to nearby Forest Hills Cemetery, who strip the topsoil for use in landscaping and for covering graves in the cemetery.
Purple square
Lamberts move to house on South Street in Jamaica Plain, renting the Walk Hill farm to George Fottler.

After Joseph Lambert’s death, widow Ann sells farm to Nelson and Syretha Pierce of Boston.

  • green square
    George Fottler and his brother Jacob, sons of a German immigrant, take over the old Williams homestead

All of these properties –

  • purple square
    the Pierce farm
  • green square
    the Forest Hills Cemetery land
  • green square
    the Fottler farm
  • blue square
    the Morton land
  • blue square
     the marshlands 
  • and other nearby properties are bought by the Boston State Hospital, who would occupy and further transform the land through most of the twentieth century.