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George Bird: Starting a Life in Massachusetts

(Source: Stozemamn, DF., Map of Massachusetts, Germany, 1796)

There are a couple of published contradictory notations regarding George, and there are facts that we will never know. When did he come to Massachusetts? Where did he go? How did he have enough money to buy a business by the time he was twenty-five years old? These are excellent questions and ones where a definitive answer may not exist. Searching scant biographies and local written histories offer a framework of George Bird’s life, but by pairing them with primary documents, possible answers to these questions may be discovered.

1790 US Federal Census, Cushing, Maine. Alexander Harthorn

It is difficult to pinpoint when George Bird arrived in Massachusetts. He appears to be enumerated in his grandfather’s home in the 1790 census. Alexander Hathorn reports 2 males over 16, 1 male under sixteen and 2 females. Seeing as Alexander and Mercy’s children were all born in the 1740s and 1750s, and by the 1790s they were out of their father’s home in their own established homes (per the 1790 census), potentially indicates the extra three people recorded with Alexander in this census are most likely his grandchildren. As stated in Francis W. Bird’s biography, his father George, was orphaned at an early age and was raised by his maternal grandparents. By 1790 records indicate George’s four older siblings had married and started their own families. It is highly likely the extra three people enumerated in Alexander’s home in 1790 are George, his sister Agnes/Nancy and brother Andrew. Francis’ biography further notes that George was “dissatisfied with their (his grandparents) provision for his education,” it is highly likely his grandparents expected him to become a mariner, just like his grandfather and his older brothers. In all probability, George came to Massachusetts soon after the 1790 census was taken in Cushing Maine.

Vose-Crane Paper Mill
Daniel Vose (1741-1807) image from “History of Milton” by Albert Teele

There are conflicting historical accounts as to where in Massachusetts George first lived. Some sources say he settled in Milton to learn the paper making business and other sources say he went to Needham. Looking at Needham and Milton history books on their early paper mills point to a logical destination for young George to have first learned the paper making business. By 1795, George was associated with the town of Needham, as he purchased water rights, as well as the right to widen the river in order to build a paper mill, on the Charles River with several other businessmen. In the book, History of Needham, Massachusetts, 1711-1911, it notes the first paper mill established in town was about 1800. Milton, Massachusetts is thought to be the first town in the colonies to establish a paper-mill. In a 1728 act, which was granted by the Great and General Court of Massachusetts to several businessmen, for the term of fifteen years, allowing them to establish a mill on the Neponset River, for the purpose of making paper. A twenty-year old mill, which had been built on the river, was retooled to make paper. Daniel Vose operated this mill along with a near by powder-mill from 1760 to about 1800. He was also involved with shipping. His sloops sailed in and out of Boston, Gloucester and Salem to ports all over the world. It is possible George Bird learned of possible jobs in the paper making business from his brother Samuel, a sea captain who was living in the Salem/Gloucester area by 1790.

Dam and Paper Mill, Charles River Village, Needham, MA

It is believed that George Bird bought a mill in Needham in 1795. However, the first document that George appears in is a May 1796 newspaper advertisement to sell a one-quarter interest in a mill plus a water privilege “owned by Jonathan Ellis, George Bird and others.” There does not appear to be a deed for the sale of this interest. Also, there is not a 1795 deed on file in the Norfolk County (MA) Deeds Office for the purchase of the mill in Needham. The first deed George is listed in is a November of 1796 a deed filed by Josiah Newell and Jonathan Ellis, that sells their undivided half of a parcel of land in Needham to George Bird and George Fisher. In this document, George is noted as a paper maker of Needham. It may seem curious that a deed for the original purchase of the mill is not on file. However, It was not unusual at that time for deeds to not be filed, or perhaps they were filed years later. This appears to be what happened to the original purchase of the Needham mill, which was filed on July 4, 1799. However, three months earlier on March 28, 1799 George Bird sold his one-quarter share of the mill to Jonathan Ellis. So it does appear that by 1795, George Bird, along with his partners, Jonathan Ellis, Josiah Newell and George Fisher, bought a gristmill in Needham at Charles River Village, which they intended to retool as a paper mill, and by 1799 this mill is referred to as a “paper mill.”

The New Mill built to replace the mill that burned, Mill Village, Dedham, MA

In 1799, after George sold his share of the Needham paper mill, he moved his family to Dorchester, having formed a partnership with Amasa Fuller to run a mill in Milton (near the bridge to Dorchester). The partnership with Fuller broke up within a few short years, and from 1803 to 1805 George was the superintendent of the McLean Mill in Milton. But as George was starting his new job at the McLean Mill, he was also setting a new plan in motion. In April of 1803 he purchased the Poor & Mann Mill, a paper mill and its water privileges in Dedham with his brother-in-law, Jonathan Newell from the estate of Richard Jordan and Calvin Whiting/Rueben Newell, and by 1805 George turned his full attention to running the Dedham mill, where he had secured a government contract to make banknote paper. About this same time, Ruggles Whiting built a new mill that produced wire next to the Bird’s paper mill and these two mills shared a waterwheel, which supplied power to both manufactories. In 1809, George’s Dedham paper mill burned down. Local papers reported George’s loss was around $3500. Whiting, fearing for the safety of his wire mill, offered to build the foundation of George’s new mill but across the river from his wire mill and the two mills would no longer share a water wheel. It was a deal that George was only too happy to accept. In five years time Whiting sold his mill and the new owner manufactured nails there. In 1819, George Bird, for the sum of $8000, bought this nail mill and its water privileges.  Working with Jabez Chickering, they retooled the mill to comb worsted fabric. In 1823 Chickering left the partnership, and Bird began working with Frederick Taft. They made cotton fabric, and landed a contract with a Fall River (MA) company to make as much fabric as they could in one year’s time. They ran the company night and day, and turned a large profit. It was about this time in 1824, George Bird sold all his interest in the Dedham mill. However, several years earlier in 1812 he had bought water rights on the Neponset River on the boarder of East Walpole/South Dedham. By 1818 he constructed a new paper mill on the sight. Now, without other businesses demanding his attention, George Bird began to build his new papermaking business there, one that is still around today!

The Early Years – A Business Timeline

Husband and Father

Go to George Bird Exhibit main page –>

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Sources:

United States Federal Census, 1790; database with images, familysearch.org; Alexander Harthorn, Cushing, Lincoln County, Maine; citing pg 330 NARA Microfilm publication M637, Washington, DC: National Archives and Record Administration, n.d.

Francis William Bird: A Biographical Sketch. Norwood, MA: The Norwood Press, 1897.

Clarke, George Kuhn. The History of Needham, Massachusetts 1711-1911: Including West Needham, now the Town of Wellesley. Cambridge, MA: The University Press, 1912.

Teele, Albert K. The History of Milton, Massachusetts 1640-1887. Boston, MA: The Press of Rockwell & Churchill, 1888.

John Bidwell, American Paper Mills: 1690-1832. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2013

Gries, Gloria. “Needham History: The Village Falls Park” The Needham Times, WickedLocal.com. 14 Sept 2020.

Ellis & Newell to Bird & Fisher. Norfolk County, MA: Deeds. bk 6/pg 367. Nov 5, 1796.

Richards to Ellis, Newell, Bird & Fisher. Norfolk County, MA: Deeds.  bk 12/ pg 35.  4 Jul 1799.

“Marriages in the First Church of Needham.” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Vol. LV, Jan 1901. Boston, MA: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1901.

Fisher, Philip A. The Fisher Genealogy: Record of the Descendants of Joshua, Anthony and Cornelius Fisher of Dedham, Mass 1636-1640 (Everett MA: Massachusetts Publishing Company) 1898.

Worthington, Erastus. Historical Sketch of Mother Brook, Dedham, Mass. (Dedham, MA: C.G. Wheeler Press) 1900.

“Will of Josiah Newell,” Norfolk County, MA: Probate File Papers, 1793-1877. Online database. AmericanAncestors.org. New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2019. (From records supplied by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Archives. Digitized images provided by FamilySearch.org)

Worthington, John W. “The Third Parish Cemetery: Epitaphs Prior to 1845.” The Record of Baptisms, Marriages and Deaths in the Town of Dedham , Mass. (Dedham, MA: The Office of the Dedham Transcript) 1888.

Guild, Calvin. “The Stone Mill and the Water Privilege Bought by Thomas Barrows in 1862.” The Dedham Historical Register, Vol. IV, No. 2 (Dedham, MA: Dedham Historical Society) April 1893.

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