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New England In The Earliest Days
Before Plymouth Colony there was Sagadahoc, the short-lived settlement for which Sir Ferdinando Gorges had high hopes
August 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 5
We cannot pursue their story here. We must merely note that they went under a patent similar to all the other grants made by the Virginia Company, allotting them land but no powers of government. They never did get any grant of powers of government—all that was provisional, dependent upon the measures to be taken by the Crown for the government of New England when the time came. The Pilgrims never had the slightest reluctance—unlike the Massachusetts Puritans—in owning their allegiance and obedience to the Crown. What they were chiefly interested in was their separateness and sufficiency to themselves as a church. Satisfied as to that, they entered into a compact together—that is, the members of the church did—to form “a civil body politic for our better ordering and preservation.”
A lot has been made of that, a whole myth grown up around the Pilgrim Compact; in fact, it was merely common sense to operate like any corporate town at home in England. And it certainly did not represent the rule of the majority: it merely provided for popular “ratification of government by the best men.” Actually, Governor Bradford, governor for some thirty years, exercised a benevolent autocracy, as he was well qualified to do.
Having settled in New England, in 1621 they sued out a new patent from the New England Council, of which Gorges was the ruling spirit. Gorges made no difficulty whatever; he had no objection to Puritans; indeed we find him working in association with Warwick in the New England Council and he was friendly with other Puritan leaders, Sir John Eliot and Lord Saye and SeIe. He was glad to welcome the Pilgrims into his plans for the plantation of New England—always with the proviso of the ultimate governmental rights of the New England Council.
In 1621 Sir Ferdinando, still sanguine, married his second wife, a Cornish widow with a portion, which enabled him to dispend some more money on his schemes and undertake the building of a large vessel, the Great Neptune, to control the New England fishery. It was time for him to assert the council’s rights. That slippery customer Weston had forfeited his ship for exporting ordnance contrary to the law and slipped away to Massachusetts Bay with a very mixed crew of people, who were dealing ill with the Indians and causing trouble. This was within the council’s jurisdiction, but it had no effective power to assert it.
Gorges fell back on the pis aller of land grants to raise cash, and on the device of a grand lottery at Greenwich Palace, with King James amiably drawing lots on behalf of his still-sleeping privy councillors, by way of attracting publicity. As part of the campaign Gorges published his Brief Relation of the Discovery and Plantation of New England, our best authority for the first obscure stages in which he had been a prime mover. The book has the further interest of exposing his conception of colonization as an extrapolation of the normal English society of the day, in its usual organization and with its accustomed institutions. Laws were to be enacted by a general assembly; Gorges was in no way behind the first assembly of Virginia or the Mayflower Compact.
Among those who had got grants of land on Massachusetts Bay was Robert Gorges, Sir Ferdinando’s second son, and in 1623 he sent him over to assert authority as governor general of New England. There went with him Captain Francis West—of the De Ia Warr family so much interested in Virginia—to assert authority over the fishermen and various others who had taken up land with the idea of forming a plantation. The whole assumption was that this was but a forerunner to a larger expedition next year with the big ship, the Great Neptune, which was not yet ready. Until that happy consummation they had nothing to assert their authority with, and the realization of that gives a certain edge to Governor Bradford’s account of their proceedings, which betrays his satisfaction.
The Pilgrim governor conducted himself with perfect propriety and much worldly wisdom. He received the young Gorges with politeness when he came over from Wessagussett in pursuit of the contumacious Weston. When Weston perceived that Gorges possessed no greater power than himself, and was indeed dependent on the Pilgrims, he grew insolent. Governor Bradford did not question young Gorges’ authority; he contented himself with pointing out the impossibility of exercising it. It was a humiliating situation all the more since Captain West failed equally to get the fishermen to recognize his authority, while the clergyman they brought with them did not dare exercise his ministry in that holy place. Bradford sums up the episode in his History: “The Governor and some that depended upon him returned for England, having scarcely saluted the country in his government, not finding the state of things here to answer his quality and condition.”