For thousands of years, the land that encompasses what is today Norwell was inhabited by indigenous people. These natives grew crops, foraged, hunted, and fished in the Assinippi and North River areas. Circa 1617, there was a major outbreak of disease from European explorers and traders that decimated an estimated 90% of the native population in New England, including the Massachusett and Wompanoag tribes that inhabited this area. There are still descendants of these original inhabitants living on the South Shore today, and they are known as the Mattakeesett Tribe of the Massachusett Indian Nation , the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag, and Mashpee Wompanoag Tribe.
In the 1640s, Europeans who were living around Scituate harbor came up the North River to settle in what is today Norwell’s Church Hill area. Among the first were Cornet Robert and Honour Stetson, who purchased (and were later granted) land on the North River—some of which includes the Town-owned Stetson Meadows Conservation Area off of Stetson Shrine Lane.
The Stetson Kindred of America still owns the site where Robert and Honour Stetson's house stood. This organization of Stetson descendants meets regularly on the site.
The North River and native footpaths were the only means of traveling throughout the area at the time of European settlement, so the shores of the North River and the main footpath from the ocean to Assinippi (today’s Main Street—Route 123) were the first sections of town populated.
Shipbuilding was a vital industry in the North River area until the mid-1800s. The confluence of natural materials (timber from the forests lining the river and iron from the ponds of Hanover and Pembroke upstream) made the tidal river an ideal location, and over 1,000 ships were built at North River shipyards.
In addition to shipbuilding, early Norwell was primarily an agricultural town. Hay was harvested in the salt marshes and used as animal forage. The endless web of stone walls today attests to the former layout of fields and to the previously tree-less landscape—a result of both shipbuilding and fuel needs.
In 1849, residents of the southern portion of Scituate broke away amicably and incorporated themselves as South Scituate. Agriculture remained the primary industry, but shoe factories were built—mostly in the West End—and some large-scale farms appeared.
In 1888, summer resident Henry Norwell offered the Town $2,500 per year for ten years toward the upkeep of the roads, and the residents voted to change the town’s name to Norwell, in his honor.
After World War II, Norwell became less of an agricultural community and more of a commuter town. The construction of the Southeast Expressway in the mid-1900s provided highway access from Norwell to Boston. Home building and, as a result, population increased sharply—roughly 73% of the homes seen in Norwell today were built between 1940 and 1990.
Today, Norwell is known less for its shipbuilding and farming and more for its excellent school system and natural beauty.