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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
Sir Ferdinando did not blame his son for not having made a better effort, though he might well have done, for some of his company remained on there: the incoming Puritans later found David Thomson living alone on an island in Boston Bay and another comfortable solitary occupying Beacon Hill—William Blaxton, a nonconformist clergyman who preferred the society of Indians to that of the Puritans and later removed to Rhode Island. Some came back; others floated off to Virginia. Gorges put down his son’s failure simply to “the poor means he had.” Meanwhile, he himself was approaching the West Country towns once more to support his efforts. So far from that, they were only waiting for Parliament to meet to attack what they regarded as a fishing monopoly, upon which Gorges’ hopes rested; and, when Parliament met, the attack broadened into one against the council’s charter itself.
Gorges did his best in Parliament, appearing before the Commons’ committee, answering the agitation with his usual reasonableness and patience. But in vain: the government gave way over the fishing rights, and that knocked the bottom out of his plan for plantation. There were very few who had given him any support, and these now withdrew. “These crosses did draw upon us such a disheartened weakness as there only remained a carcass in a manner breathless.”
The next few years, 1624 to 1629, were occupied by desultory wars with Spain and France. Gorges, as governor of Plymouth, was busily employed not only there, struggling to equip and dealing with the debris of ill-managed expeditions, but also in operations at sea. In Canada Quebec was taken, and the whole of French territory fell into British hands. At the peace this was handed back to France, in return for the payment of Henrietta Maria’s dowry—to the understandable indignation of Puritan empire-builders, who did not much appreciate her private theatricals or her. Secondly, while Gorges’ back was turned and he had other things to think about, something happened that turned out to be decisive for the American future: the Massachusetts Bay Company got its charter for territory plumb in the middle of the New England Council’s grant—and incidentally overlaying Robert Gorges’ perfectly legal grant on the shores of the bay. It was the prelude to the big Puritan migration that, more than any other factor, made New England what it became. How the Massachusetts Bay Company got a patent, which it proceeded to turn into a royal charter, has never been fully clear and will never now come to light. And those legally minded Puritans, John Winthrop and company, were careful to carry their charter away with them from England so that, when the government asked for it for investigation, it could not be produced.
The story goes back to 1623 and to Dorchester, where John White was the pastor of Holy Trinity and St. Peter’s churches for nearly half a century. For most of that time he was an active propagandist of colonization in America and took a direct hand in equipping and sending out ships and colonists—a Dorset parallel to Gorges, with whom he was roughly contemporary. He was taken with Captain John Smith’s idea of combining fishing with plantation, and in 1623 got more than a hundred Dorset and Somerset folk to subscribe to a joint-stock for the purpose and form the Dorchester Adventurers, with his parishioner John Humfrey as treasurer—subsequently a leading figure in Massachusetts. They got their patent from the New England Council, sent out a colony in that year to Cape Ann, and in successive years dispatched further ships with supplies. By 1626 they lost everything they had put into it and more. (It does not seem that anybody ever made any money by these ventures.)
John White found, like Gorges before him, that fishing and planting did not go together. However, the Cape Ann venture had important consequences. In its last year Roger Conant moved up there from New Plymouth to take charge. He had come out from Raleigh’s parish of East Budleigh, but had been put off by the rigid separatism of the Pilgrims. Now he led the remnant of the Cape Ann settlement back to Massachusetts, where he became the founder of Salem. At home, with the gathering conflict between Crown and Parliament, between the Puritans and the Laudian church, a new idea of signal importance became grafted on to that of plantation: that of a Puritan refuge overseas. The idea was very understandable, if one thinks only of the blundering ineptitude of Charles I’s conduct of affairs.
There now came together three elements: John White and his West Country supporters; the London merchants who have been shown to be indispensable—chief among them Sir Richard Saltonstall of the Virginia Company, and a formidable group of East Anglian Puritans, whose leader was John Winthrop. His grandfather was Adam Winthrop, clothworker of London, who became the squire of Groton. His father, also named Adam, was auditor of Trinity College, Cambridge; his famous son, John, born in the Armada year, went up to Trinity before the end of the Queen’s reign, in 1602. He did not remain long; like all Puritans he was disturbed about his spiritual condition, and at seventeen he married. Reading between the lines, I rather think John Winthrop was of an amorous disposition—he ran through four wives. He married in April, 1605, and his first son was born in February, 1606—to become well known as governor of Connecticut.