The Story of Watt’s Cellar and the first Settlement at Newburyport 

Watt’s real name was probably Walter Bagnall.    He was a trader who came to the region around 1625 fully a decade before the Newbury Plantation was begun in the region.     

He had originally come with a group of men under Thomas Morton who had arrived in 1625 without a patent for land and settled at Mount Wollaston [Braintree, MA].     He was actually Mr. Morton’s servant and left him to be an opportunist who sought riches in fishing, beaver pelts, land, and trade with Indians.  A servant’s position was a man who had sold his labor for a specified period of time to one of the four partners.     By the summer of 1626, dissention arose among the partners leading to the disbanding of the group. 

The Puritans considered them a low and lawless class of men.     They were viewed  as competing unfairly and dangerously in the fur trade of northern Massachusetts and Maine by exchanging firearms and rum for the Indians’ beaver pelts.       His independent ways and presence at the mouth of the Merrimack at the same time that New Hampshire was claiming jurisdiction to the river caused him to be considered a further threat. 

It was noted in old records, that Watt had accumulated 1,000 English pounds “in ready gold by beaver (pelts) when he dyed.” If he truly had that sum, it was a fortune in its day – it’s about ten times as much as a well-fed merchant would make in a year.      The Indians called him Great Walt or Great Watt. 
Watt probably built his cellar in Newburyport sometime between 1626 and 1628. There existed a natural cove that sheltered from the strong current by a point of rocks jutting into the river.    Nearby was a fresh water spring making a trading post at this spot ideal.  He chose a spot that today is about 75 yards from the river, but in his day would have been almost on the bank of the Merrimack.     In the intervening 381 years, the reedy banks that Watt knew have been filled in.       

A “cellar,” had a different meaning in the 1600s. Early settlers commonly lived in “cellars.” They were dug-out pits, perhaps 6 feet deep, lined with wood planks, with a wooden roof over the top. Watt is believed to have used his cellar as a storage facility, home and/or trading post.  
His reputation, according to his Puritan neighbors, was scurrilous.   “He was a wicked fellow, and had much wronged the Indians,” opined Massachusetts Bay Gov. John Winthrop in his diary.     The victors often write the history and the fact that he associated closely with the New Hampshire colonists did not win him any favors.      New Hampshire had laid claim to Salisbury all the way to the Merrimack River.  In London, the Council for New England ruled in favor of John Mason, the patentee of New Hampshire.   In spite of this, in 1628, the Massachusetts Bay Colony actually sent an armed contingency and drove out the New Hampshire settlers and with them Bagnall and Morton who had allied themselves with New Hampshire.  By 1630, the NH settlers were forced to move out.   Bagnall  re-settled on Richmond Island, off Cape Elizabeth, Maine.    He settled there because the head chief of all the Penacook Indians was there at Saco Bay, Maine who travelled from Maine to Cape Ann regularly.    Morton was captured and banished to England in 1628. 

Walter Bagnall was killed on Richmond Island in 1631 by Indians over a trading dispute. 

In the mid 1800’s, a farmer unearthed a portion of what is thought to be Great Watt’s fortune – 52 gold and silver coins.  A great portion of Bagnall’s Treasure has never been found. 

The Newbury settlers arrived in 1635 and settled at the mouth of the Parker River.   Later, settlers began to move up to an area around Watt’s Cellar.      An established site by 1642, the Cellar is used as a legal point of reference in land deeds. 

It has been mistakenly thought to have existed near the Market House (Firehouse Center for the Arts) but in fact Essex County Deeds accurately places the Cellar at Ferry Wharf at the corner where it meets Water Street since the boats would often be moored just behind the buildings facing the street. 

As for the purpose of Watt’s Cellar, for years it was assumed it was a place for the storage of dried fish though it was probably mostly used as a trading post.     It was common to “pickle” the fish caught so it could be transported to England and great vats for that purpose may have been present. 

One theory has it that it was a prehistoric structure that was simply modified into a fish storage facility or trading post.     The only way to confirm the actual construction is to do an archeological dig.    Unfortunately, a present building (13 Water Street (Lot 11-26)) exists at this spot and such a dig is highly unlikely to occur for a long while. 

The fresh water spring according to City records is 230 feet to the west of the cove of rocks.     According to an April 26, 1872 insert, the City had to make repairs to the spring in Market Landing.    The spring is in the rear of the Market House (Firehouse Center for the Arts). 


Documents, Legends, and Archaeology: unraveling the mysteries of Newburyport’s Past by Elizabeth J. Harris, Historical Survey Associates, Inc., Newburyport, MA, 1977. 

“Who was ‘Great Watt?’ A trader, opportunist” by John Macone, Staff Writer, Daily News of Newburyport, Published April 23rd, 2007.