In the 1640's development began when the colonists explored the area. They made their living as farmers, although farming in Needham was not always easy. The familiar English crops – wheat, barley, and rye – could not thrive in Needham's poor soils. Even Indian corn had limited success. In 1681 the Needham land was purchased from tribal leader William Nehoiden for 10 pounds in cash, 40 shillings worth of corn, and 50 acres of land in Newton at Hemlock Gorge for hunting and fishing.
The sections below are a restatement of the original petition to the House of Representatives for the creation of what eventually became the Town of Needham.
The Petition to Become Needham
To His Excellency Joseph Dudly Esquire, captain general and governor in chief, in and over Her Majesty's Province of the Massachusetts Bay in New England etc., and to the Honorable the Council and House of Representatives in General Court Assembly.
Petition of Sundry the inhabitants of the Town of Dedham, in the County of Suffolk in New England whose names are under written.
That whereas there is a certain tract or parcel of lands of about five miles square situate lying and being within the limits and bounds of the said Town of Dedham on the northerly side of Charles River and is bounded round with Charles River, Watertown Line, and Natick Line; upon the which tract bounded as above said there is already settled upwards of forty and five – families, many of which by reason of their remote living from the place of the public Worship of God in our own town, some 6, 7, 7, and 10 Miles. Which renders it utterly impossible for us with our families, duly to attend on the public Worship of God there.
And the poor petitioners being humbly apprehensive that Christ Gospel Ordinances, with His gracious presence in the midst of them is the chief glory of our land; and that it is our indispensable duty to seek after the enjoyment of it. And that the Lord of the Universe who hath made man for his own service, takes no pleasure in seeing such a number of families as we are already arrived to, content ourselves like the creatures to graze upon the Earth only; and to starve our own souls and the souls of our poor children that he hath given us the charge of, have.
We have heretofore, and lately, made our humble address to our Town of Dedham to whom we bear a memberly relation for redress or our grievance, humbly praying their leave and approbation, that the present inhabitants living within the bounds above mentioned; together with such as shall from time to time inhabit among them; excepting only the inhabitants living on the Great Island, should be freed from ministerial charge in our town, to the intent the poor petitioners might be a free people of themselves, for the setting up the public worship among them, as in and by the petition we presented to them, may more fully appear. Yet not withstanding are as likely as ever, to remain destitute both of schooling and preaching, unless helped and relieved by this Honored Court, and your honors will judge what may be expected of a people that can not enjoy either the means of education manners nor grace.
The poor petitioners therefore humbly pray this Honored Court, to pity us, and so to compassionate our affairs as to give us such relief in this matter as in your wisdom you shall see meet, and if it may please this Honored Court, to grant that all the present inhabitants living within the bounds above mentioned; that is to say between Charles River, Watertown Bounds, and Natick Bounds to gather with such as shall from time to time inhabit among them excepting only the inhabitants living on the great island commonly so called and recorded in said Dedham Town Book. Be allowed the bounds above mentioned; to be a distinct township.
The Sequence of Events after the Filing of the Petition
- June 27, 1710
The council ordered that the selectmen of Dedham be served with a copy of the petition of Benjamin Mills, Senior and other farmers praying to be made a district township
- June 28, 1710
The House of Representatives concurred
- November 1, 1711
A hearing was held before the whole General Court on the petition
- November 6, 1711
Order approved by Governor Dudley establishing the Town of Needham
- And thus the Town of Needham was established
Needham Moving Forward
Needham was incorporated in 1711 and has experienced numerous changes over its history. Early settlers relied primarily on agriculture and grazing plus some winter lumbering with orchards and tanneries as supplements in the 1700s. Saw and grist mills were opened along the Charles River through the 18th century. Extension of the rail and land speculation encouraged settlement, and the town saw the growth of industrial employment and production at the same time during the mid-19th century.
Knitters from the English Midlands, displaced by economic changes in their own country, migrated to Needham and the surrounding towns to reestablish their businesses. The most famous of these was the William Carter Company, which still produces fine knitwear (though no longer in Needham). Needham manufacturers made knit goods, underwear, hats, shoes, and silk, although attempts to cultivate silk worms were short-lived.
Needham suffered a setback in its growth in April 1881, when West Needham was granted permission by the General Court to separate from Needham and form the new town of Wellesley. The town's poor farm was included in the division with the site later becoming the Wellesley Country Club.
Post-World War Two
Land speculation, housing development and knitted underwear continued to be the foundation of Needham's economy into the 20th century. The construction of Route 128 in 1951 opened portions of the town to development as part of the high-tech highway in the post-World War II electronic industrial boom. The creation of one of the nation's first industrial parks in 1950, the later addition of high technology firms, the improvement of access to Route 128 and Boston, and Needham's fine schools and public services have contributed to the town's emergence as one of the more desirable suburbs of Boston. Today Needham is primarily a residential suburban community with easy access to Boston. A strong school system and strong sense of community keep the town vibrant and growing as it approaches its 300th anniversary.
We would like to thank and acknowledge the Needham Historical Society as one of the contributors to the summary on Needham's history.