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What Is the "Indian Roll" & Why Is It Important To Groton’s Early History?

Sample page from Caleb Butlers hand transcription of Groton’s ‘Indian Roll’.


Etching of Caleb Butler given to the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester by Dr. Samuel Green.


by Russell Harris
Groton’s earliest historical record, dating from 1662 to 1702, is called the "Indian Roll." The title words, "Indian" and "Roll" are misleading. This document is not about "Indians", nor was it a "roll" or scroll. Rather, it was a collection of pages from Groton’s first two books of town records.
     These records survive because Caleb Butler, who was born in 1776 and lived his adult life in Groton, hand-copied 359 pages of the deteriorated, partially illegible, handwritten mix of town records commonly called the Indian Roll.
     Apparently these records were called the ‘Indian Roll’ because they covered some of the years of the Indian wars in New England and because the pages were rolled up to keep them together.
     Ever since Butler transcribed these pages, and deposited them in the town clerk’s office, few have even been aware of their existence. Now about 175 years since being transcribed, these 359 pages of Butler’s handwritten pages have been scanned and are available for viewing. [See story page one] This is a truly remarkable event and discovery. Below is a reproduction of one of these pages.
     Describing his first encounter with the old book in chapter 3 of his History of Groton, Butler writes, “It seems to have been lost for a time. When the writer first saw it in the town clerk's office, it was rolled up, and upon the envelope was written, "THE INDIAN ROLL, Found at Dea. Lawrence's, Feb. 21, 1807." Butler came to know this material well when he took on the tremendous task of deciphering and hand-copying the pages, with a nibbed pen dipped in and recharged repeatedly with liquid ink.
     By copying these pages, he preserved this record for future
generations of Groton residents. These pages became the source material for the first third of Butler’s history. It must have been hard work. Some of the book’s pages were badly deteriorated, and some words were illegible as Butler mentions in his history of Groton.
     Butler’s history mines these early records for insights into how early Groton settlers governed themselves and the quirks of a medieval English society transforming into a new people, a new society, a new nation. Without this scholarly labor of love for his town and country, along with his Groton history, we would know little about the life of early Groton settlers. Butler quotes liberally from these early town records to paint a picture of the early years of English settlement in Groton.
     In his history, Butler writes, “These early records of the town will assist in forming a notion of the condition, habits, customs and manners of the first settlers, as well as afford some entertainment to us, who live under such different circumstances, and are surrounded with such different objects.”
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