History of Spectacle Island, 1634 – 1743

Compiled By Ledyard Bill, Edited by Rodger M. Wood

The early history of Spectacle Island in Boston Harbor and my Bill’s Family roots are
closely interwound.

The island was first mentioned in Boston town records on the 4th of March, 1634-35, when together with Deer Island, Hog Island, and Long Island, it was granted to the town of Boston for the yearly rent of four shillings for the four islands, or a shilling each island.


Very soon afterwards, the town allotted the island to different inhabitants, who paid a small annual rent, to insure the benefit of the free school.

Covered with trees and timber, Boston settlers used the island as a source of firewood.

Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop reported a tragedy which occurred there
during a cold New England winter.

“On the 13th of January, 1637 -38, thirty persons of Boston went out on a fair day to
Spectacle Island to cut wood, the town being in great need of it. The next night, the
wind rose very high to the northeast, with snow, and afterwards at the northwest for
two days. It was so cold that the harbor was frozen over, except a small channel. These
thirty adventurers met with bad luck, for twelve of them could get no further home
than the Governor’s Island, seven were carried in the ice in a small skiff through Broad
Sound to the Brewsters, where they had to stay two days without food and fire, and get
home by the way of Pulling Point, and many of the others, after detention, had their
limbs frozen, and one of them died.”

On the 19th of April, 1649, ten persons “bound themselves and their successors to pay sixpence an acre p’ yeare for their land at Spectacle Iland., forever to y’ use of the schole,
Y” soe it may be proprietye to them for euer, and they are to bring in their pay to the townes treasurer the first day of February for eu’r or else there land is forfeit into the townes disposing.”

These persons did not pay their rent as promptly as they should, and some of them conveyed their rights to others,

History of Spectacle Island, 1634 – 1743

A compulsory order was passed at a 1655 town meeting to levy and the constable collect the large arrears due.

It was not until the 11th of March, 1666-1667, that the town relinquished all its rights in the island to the planters and made void the agreement about the annual rent of sixpence an acre for the benefit of the school, on condition that the back rent should be paid up in full to that date.

About this time, my 8th great grandfather, Thomas Bill, a lighterman or operator of a 17th century barge, began to purchase up the rights of several owners.

In the year 1666-67, Josias Cobbam Jr of Boston sold him a piece or parcel on the southerly bend of Spectacle Island, containing three acres, or thereabouts, bounded E by the sea, W by the land of Daniel Turell and of Thomas Bill, N. by the cove, S by the land of Ralph Mason, etc. (Suff. Deeds, 8:315)

On the 3rd of March, 1667-8, Daniel Turrell of Boston and his wife Mary for 6 pounds sold Thomas Bill of Boston 2 1/2 acres on the southerly bend of Spectacle Island,
(Suff Deeds, 8:217)

On the 31st of August, 1678, Ralph Mason and his wife Annie sold Thomas Bill 8 acres (Suff Deeds 9:418).
By these purchases, Thomas Bill had acquired title to full half of the island.

On the 25th of January in 1681, he transferred his thirty-five acres to his son, Samuel,
my 7th great grandfather, a butcher, who had previously purchased five acres from John Salter and other parts from several other persons.

Boston land records showed Samuel Bill bought up all the other interests and by 1681
owned the title to the entire island for a total investment of 177 pounds..

In 1693, Drake called Spectacle Island, “Samuel Bill’s Island.
(Drake’s History, Boston, p 817).

In 1681, the island was covered with oak and heavy timber, and was valued for its nearness (4 ½ miles) to market.

During the period, 1684 – 1685, Samuel Bill became uneasy about his title to the
island property and obtained a confirmatory title that is reprinted below from
“a big Indian.”.

History of Spectacle Island, 1634 – 1743

“To all Christian People to whom these presents shall come. Josiah, son and Heyer of Josiah otherwise called Wamputuck, late Sachem of the Massachusetts Country in New England sendeth Greetings: –

Know ye that I the said Josiah, son of Josiah, for diverse causes and good considerations me thereunto moving and in particular for and in consideration of a valuable consideration of money to me in hand payd before the ensealing of this deed by Samuel Bill of Boston Butcher, Have with knowledge and consent of my wise men and Councellors William Ahoton, Sen, William Ahoton, Jun, and Robert Mamentaug, Given, granted, sold, enfeoffed, and confirmed, and by these presents Do fully freely and absolutely give grant, sell, enfeoffe, convey and confirme unto the sayed Samuel Bill his heyres and Assignes forever one certain Island Scituate in the Massachusett Bay rights priveledges and appurtenances, thereunto in any commonly known and called by the name Spectacle Island in the present possession the same Bill with all wise
appertaining and belonging. To have and to hold the same and every part and parcel thereof unto him the said Samuel Bill his Heyers and Assigns to his and their sole use and
benefit in firm and indefeasible estate of inheritance in fee simple forever – And the said Josiah for himself his heyers Executors Administrators and Successors doth hereby covenant and promise to and with the said Samuel Bill his heyers and Assigns that at the time of ensealing and delivery of these presents that (according to Indian right and title) he is the sole owner and proprietor of the said Island and hath full power and authority to sell and convey the same as abovesayd and the sayd bargained Island with all its priveledges, rights, and appurtenances belonging, will and sufficiently warrant and defend against himself his heyers and successors and against all and every other person whomsoever having, claiming, or pretending to have or claim any Indian right, title, or interest in or to the same or any part or parcel thereof.

In witness whereof the said Josiah and his councllors above sayd have hereunto put their hands and seals this thirtieth day of April in the year one thousand six hundred eighty-four.

Josiah his mark –o {seal}
William hahaton {Seal}
Old William A Ahaton {Seal}
Robert Mamentong Z {Seal}

Signed sealed and delivered in presence of George Meriott and Experience Ffisher
Josiah, Indian Sachem, and his Councellors acknowledged this to be their Act and Deed, May 1st 1684 before me”
William Stoughton
Suffolk Deeds 13: 172, 173

History of Spectacle Island, 1634 – 1743

Samuel Bill remained in full possession of Spectacle Island until his death on
August 18, 1705, when it was bestowed to his widow Elizabeth for her lifetime and
at her death to his son Samuel.

While he had a Boston house and garden on Black Horse Lane and was a butcher in Boston, there are indications in his will that Samuel had another house and raised cattle and sheep on Spectacle Island.

Samuel Bill’s will is dated August 13, 1705 and was proved September 20, 1705.

He gave his wife Elizabeth the use of all his real estate as long as she shall remain his widow, but should she marry, then the use of only one-third part. “To my son Samuel Bill, I give all my island known as Spectacle Island (in the various deeds) and all my stock of cattle upon it, he paying to my son Richard Bill six pounds a year out of the income thereof during his natural life. To Samuel he also gives two negro men. To Richard he gives his house and garden in Black Horse Lane, in Boston, “which was my father’s and also 200 pounds current money, when he finishes his apprenticeship.

After the payment of debts, the remainder shall be divided equally between his two sons, Samuel and Richard.

The Executors were his son Samuel Bill and William Welstead, to the latter of whom he gave five pounds.

The witnesses were Doctor Oliver Noyes, Robert Staples, and John Vallentine. (Suffolk Probate 16:46.)

Mrs. Bill remarried but in the course of events she and her new husband died, and the title of the island passed on in full to the son, Samuel Bill, my sixth great grandfather, in accordance with the will of his father.

While the Boston fire of 1711 destroyed his Boston residence and he had a house on the island, it is not known whether this Samuel Bill ever moved to the island.

We know, however, somebody had to care for the seventy-six sheep, two cows, two negro men, a boat, an old mare, and family hog, together with sundry tools on the island, which Samuel left in his will at death in 1733.

History of Spectacle Island, 1634 – 1743

Samuel Bill was bothered by financial problems and used Spectacle Island as leverage to make himself solvent again.

In 1714 an indenture was made, whereby Samuel Bill, of Boston, victualer, and Sarah, his wife, mortgaged the 60 acres on two heads of all his Spectacle Island for a 200 pound loan at 5 per cent interest to Andrew Fletcher, Addington Davenport, Thomas Hutchinson, John Wood, and Edward Hutchinson,

Still hurting financially, on July 30, 1717, Samuel Bill and his wife Sarah, for 100 pounds in bills of credit, conveyed to the Treasurer of the Province, Jeremiah Allen, Esq. a portion of land, being part of the southerly end of Spectacle Island, so called, and is bounded northerly by said Bills land, ten feet to the northward of the cellar wall lately built there, to erect a house for the Province, to entertain the sick, and is on the cleft or
brow of the southerly head or highland of said island forty- four feet wide, and from thence to run on a line about south southwest ninety feet, where it is also forty-four feet
wide, and thence to continue the line on the easterly side straight down to the sea and from said ninety feet on the westerly side to widen gradually on a straight line to the sea or salt water, where it is to be sixty feet wide, together with the liberty of landing on the southerly beach point and thence to pass and repass to and from the said granted land.

The Province continued to hold this portion of Spectacle Island for the purpose for which it was acquired until about 1735, when the General Court appointed a committee to buy a more suitable place for a hospital on Rainsford Island.

Prior to that, on the 18th of March in the year 1729-1730, Samuel Bill sold Spectacle Island, containing by estimation 60 acres, more or less, with the dwelling house, barn, and standing thereon, saving and reserving from this grant and sale, that part of said island which the said Samuel Bill conveyed to Jeremiah Allen, Esquire, Treasurer of the Province, July 30, 1717. to his brother Richard Bill (Suffolk Deeds, 44, 115)

February 17, 1738-9, William Foye, Province Treasurer. By virtue of a resolve of the General Court, passed in the session in November, 1736, for 130 pounds, conveys to Richard Bill, of Boston, all the interest of the Province of Massachusetts Bay in and to Spectacle Island, including the buildings where the hospital now is, being the same premises which were conveyed to Jeremiah Allen. Treasurer, by Samuel Bill and Sarah, his wife, both deceased, by their deed of July 30, 1717 (Suffolk Deeds, 57:162)

Richard Bill came into full and absolute possession of the island.

On the 18th of February, 1742 -3, Richard Bill sold the whole of Spectacle Island to his son-in-law, Joshua Henshaw Jr.

Source Material
History of the Bill Family, Ledyard Bill, editor, Alvord Printer,15 Fulton Street. New York, 1867, pages 46, 49 – 54, 105 -113.

Bill Family Genealogy

John Bill (1593 – 1638) – settled in Boston in 1633 with wife Dorothy Tuttle
Thomas Bill (1618 – 1696) – first owner of Spectacle Island
Samuel Bill (1654 – 1705) – second owner of Spectacle Island
Samuel Bill (1683 – 1733) – third owner of Spectacle Island before selling to brother
Richard Bill (1685 – 1757)
Samuel Bill (1720 – 1804) Elizabeth Bill + Joshua Henshaw (owner)
Samuel Bill (1743 – 1797)
Samuel Bill (1777 – 1840)
William Bills (1820 – 1900)
Sarah Eunice Bills (1857 – 1937)
Fred Fidele Herr (1881 – 1943)
Helen Sabine Herr (1907 – 1991)
Rodger Michael Wood

1 thought on “History of Spectacle Island, 1634 – 1743

  1. Amy Reinhart

    I’m wondering how you came up with 1633 as the date John and Dorothy (Tuttle) Bill settled in Boston. My recent research shows their youngest son Samuel was Christened in England in 1634. I’m curious, as it seems it’s difficult or impossible to find out passenger lists as they either do not exist any longer, never existed, or are in private hands.Thanks.


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