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“my Beloved And Good Husband…”
Thus Margaret Winthrop to her spouse, the governor of the Bay Colony. Her letters—and John’s in reply—reveal behind the cold Puritan exterior a warm and deeply touching relationship
August 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 5
The Boston that Margaret came to was but a poor, straggling settlement set on a rolling, grass-covered peninsula jutting out into Massachusetts Bay. Its houses were for the most part wigwamlike huts of thatch, linked together by winding footpaths. Anticipating Margaret’s arrival, John had hurried the construction of a frame house, but it was probably unfinished when she landed—Governor William Bradford of nearby Plymouth Colony, their first guest, stayed aboard a ship in the bay. In the early i64o’s they would move into another house, one with six rooms, elaborate for a wilderness. The craftsmanship was of the crudest, and all Margaret’s womanliness was needed to make the bare walls a home. Even so, the house was plain and sparsely furnished, the hall (or living room) never boasting more than a cupboard, six chairs, a table, a white notions box, a case of bottles (wine from Madeira was commonly drunk in the family), pewter and tin plates, candlestands, snuffers, and here and there a piece of bric-a-brac, remembrances of Groton. John’s “study” with its books and writing materials—where every day, in the words of a contemporary, he wrote “particular passages of the country in a great book” (his journal History of New England ) —did duty as workshop and armory too. Yet for Margaret, John was there, John who had written during their separation: “Oh, how it refresheth my heart to think that I shall yet again see thy sweet face in the land of the living; that lovely countenance that I have so much delighted in and beheld with so great content.”
If it straggled in 1631, Boston and the colony grew quickly. During the first ten years some fifteen thousand people landed at Boston and spread out to settle as far as the Merrimack River in the northeast and the Connecticut in the southwest. Boston itself boasted well over one thousand people by 1640. Paths became streets; a new meetinghouse was built, and a market; substantial frame houses—John Coddington built the first brick house—each set in its own garden plot, gave the settlement the look of a village, then a town. One center of life was the church, and every Sabbath a bell called the Winthrops and their neighbors to prayer and preaching. The other center was Margaret’s house, for during most of his life in Massachusetts John served as governor. During regular sessions of the General Court, Massachusetts’ legislature, liveried militiamen formed a governor’s guard at the house; leading freemen and deputies crowded the “hall” and spilled over into the side parlor, which did double duty as bedroom for the master and mistress. Even between sessions the house was host to the great and near-great of the colony and the Puritan world outside—John Cotton, Sir Harry Vane, Roger Williams, Hugh Peter, Bradford of Plymouth, Thomas Hooker of Connecticut, Saltonstalls, Bradstreets, Dudleys, big and bluff John Endecott. This constant flurry of visitors, at least, was familiar to Margaret from Groton Manor.
She had much to learn and unlearn now. Even Thomas Tusser’s Huswiferie hints would have failed her, for Tusser and England knew nothing of the Indian corn that replaced wheat as a staple food; nothing of cooking without an abundance of expensive spices; nothing of silk grass, which replaced hemp and flax for the first few years, or of milkweed, which supplied candlewicks and filled pillows and bolsters. Yet Margaret had help in adapting to her new surroundings; some of the Groton servants had come over with John and gained a year’s experience which they passed on to their mistress. And if there were differences, there were many similarities between life in America and life in England. Unlike later American frontiers, this first one relied heavily on what it could buy from “home.” Margaret’s clothes, her linens, her “best” candles, her utensils; John’s books and swords and guns and tools; the equipment and livestock for the farms surrounding the town—all were brought in by ship. The colony was a “little England,” somewhat coarser and much simplified.
In Massachusetts, John was regularly at home, and this was a difference between the colony and Groton that Margaret found most pleasant. As governor or magistrate, John was ever busy with the daily business of government—to the neglect of his own affairs and the resultant diminution of his once-substantial income—and he was often perplexed by the sharp controversies that constantly broke out in the Puritan commonwealth. But at night he would come home to Margaret, to his books, and to his carpenter’s benchhe had turned out to be a quite respectable carpenter. Only occasionally did he have to travel, and then it was within the comparatively narrow confines of the colony. Few letters of the last years remain. Probably few were written, there being no postal system and not many travelers to carry a hurried note from Ipswich or Salem to Boston and Margaret: My sweet wife: … I praise God I am well. The Lord bless thee and all ours. So I kiss thee a second time. Farewell. …
I was unwillingly hindered from coming to thee, nor am I like to see thee before the last day of this week. … The Lord bless and keep thee, my sweet wife, and all our family, and send us a comfortable meeting. So I kiss thee and love thee ever. …
I am still detained from thee, but it is by the Lord who hath a greater interest in me than thyself. When this work is done He will restore me to thee again, to our mutual comfort, Amen. I thank thee for thy sweet letter; my heart was with thee to have written to thee every day, but business would not permit me. …