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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 owe the name of New England to Captain John Smith. This may be surprising, since his name is so memorably associated with those first years in Virginia. But in 1614 he made a voyage along the coast of New England—the coasts of Maine and Massachusetts, from the towering cliffs of Penobscot, in and out of the islands that form a kind of barrier reef, to the sandy shores of Cape Cod and the Massachusetts coast that reminded him of Devon. The coast of New England in summer conquered him; from that time forward he was its slave and its promoter. Two years later he published his Description of New England, and from that time on the name stuck. Hitherto it had been known, rather clumsily, as the northern parts of Virginia, or North Virginia.
Smith was a sort of journalist-promoter as much as anything else. He published the best map of the New England coast to date, though it was somewhat marred by his habit of conferring his own names everywhere: lor example, Cape Cod, already well-known as such, he called Cape James. That name did not stick. He followed this up with New England’s Trials in 1620, and in 1624 his General History of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles. Nor was this the end of his publications: as late as 1631 there appeared his Advertisements for the unexperienced Planters of New England, or anywhere. By this time there were in New England many planters with a longer experience than his own. An Elizabethan, born in 1580, John Smith was not daunted by that.
A dozen years or so before was born a West Countryman to whom the actual colonization of New England owed much more—indeed probably owed more than to any other man. This was Sir Ferdinando Gorges. He came of ancient Somerset stock, connected with both the Queen and the Howards and therefore a court family. Being a younger son, he inherited little and went off to the wars in Flanders. In the 1590’s he served under Essex in Normandy, and in after year; used often to tell how Henry of Navarre carried him wounded from some breach or other. Certainly Henry had a high opinion of him and wrote recommending him to the Queen for promotion: “[he] hath gained very great reputation for his valour and conduct in war.” She responded with the command of the fort at Plymouth: he was the first there in the citadel looking out over the Barbican and Cattewater where the ships came and went for America.
Before the Queen’s death, exploratory voyages to the American coast, to both Virginia and North Virginia, were already being made. All this time, all through the war, the West Country fishermen were going regularly, and in increasing numbers, to the Newfoundland fishery. But the New England fishery, several hundred miles farther on, was yet to be discovered. In 1602 Captains Bartholomew Gosnold and Bartholomew Gilbert set sail from Falmouth for the New England coast, with the intention of leaving a plantation there. They were much impressed by the climate—in summer “as healthful a climate as any can be,” and “had not a man sick two days together in all our voyage.” They named Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Elizabeth’s Isle—names that stuck. They nosed up two main rivers that “may haply become good harbours and conduct us to the hopes men so greedily do thirst after,” i.e., a Northwest Passage. A report of the voyage was made to Raleigh, whose rights in regard to American colonization were at this time still in force.
He gave his permission for the voyage the next year inspired by Hakluyt and backed by Bristol merchants, chief among them Robert Aldworth—whose immense monument one used to see in his “own aisle” in St. Peter’s before the destruction of Bristol’s churches. The captain was that excellent navigator, Martin Pring, who made—so Gorges testified later—“the most exact discovery of that coast that ever came to my hands since.” He added that it was this, more than anything, that made him and that other Somerset man, Lord Chief Justice Popham, persevere with their efforts in spite of their initial discouragements. It was Pring who first penetrated into and appreciated the amenities of Massachusetts Bay. They took out with them a couple of excellent mastiffs, Fool and Gallant, “of whom the Indians were more afraid than of twenty of our men.” They took back an Indian canoe, which they thought much like a Thames wherry. Contacts with the Indians were as important as geographical discovery or the commodities of the country.
In 1605 Captain George Weymouth of Torbay, who had intended a fishing voyage on behalf of some Plymouth merchants, went instead on a prospecting voyage to Maine, set forth by the Earl of Southampton. People were becoming aware of the profits the French were making from the fur trade, and at the same time Champlain was exploring these coasts. Weymouth collected some furs and skins, but was chiefly interested in prospecting for settlement and in the Indians. Weymouth gave an interesting account of their habits and of contacts with them; more important, he brought back five, three of whom he handed over to Gorges on his return. Gorges wrote that “this accident must be acknowledged the means under God of putting on foot and giving life to all our plantations.”
With the peace of 1604 Sir Ferdinando, like other professional soldiers, some of whom went to Virginia, was rather at a loose end. He was a modest man who had been at Oxford briefly and described himself as “a plain soldier and one that is no scholar.” But he wrote plainly and well, and was interested in the problems of fortification and navigation. The three Indians were a godsend to an energetic soldier with time on his hands at Plymouth Fort. There he was closely in touch with the fishing voyages to Newfoundland, the ships going to and from America and the West Indies. “After I had those people sometime in my custody I observed in them an inclination to follow the example of the better sort, and in all their carriages manifest shows of great civility far from the rudeness of our common people.” (Remember, this is some ten years before the visit of Pocahontas.) “And the longer I conversed with them the better hope they gave me of those parts where they did inhabit, as proper for our uses, especially when I found what goodly rivers, stately islands and safe harbours those parts abounded with, being the special marks I levelled at as the only want our nation met with in all their navigations along that coast. And having kept them full three years, I made them able to set me down what great rivers ran up into the land, what men of note were seated on them, what power they were of, how allied, what enemies they had, and the like of which in his proper place.”
Next year, 1606, came together the two companies, the London and the Plymouth companies, to undertake American plantation in the south and in the north, without a complete separation between each other’s areas and with intermingled rights and claims. Support for the Western company came as much from Bristol as from Plymouth, and here Gorges found common meeting-ground with his Somerset neighbor, Lord Chief Justice Popham, who had been recorder of Bristol. It seems that the idea of a public plantation, instead of a series of individual enterprises, was Popham’s and that it was his influence that got the Virginia charter, combining London and West Country interests. From the beginning the Western ports, with their traditional jealousy and their conflict of interest with London, were displeased: their main interest was fishing, not plantation. And this cast a shadow over the whole future of the Plymouth Company and Gorges’ lifelong efforts.
However, optimistic and ardent, Popham and Gorges came together to send out a ship, victualed for twelve months, under Henry Challons as captain and with a Plymouth pilot who had been with Weymouth on the coast of Maine the year before. They look with them two of Gorges’ Indians from that coast. Their instructions were to make for Cape Breton and then feel their way south and west; instead they made for the West Indies, where they were captured and taken off to prison in Spain. This utter “loss and unfortunate beginning did much abate the rising courage of the first adventurers.” Popham’s second ship, under a Dorset, connection, Captain Thomas Hanham, and the invaluable Pring, made the coast of Maine and brought back such a promising account that “the Lord Chief Justice and we all waxed so confident of the business that the year following every man of any worth formerly interested in it was willing to join in the charge for the sending over a competent number of people to lay the ground of a hopeful plantation.”
Next year. 1607 the same time that the London Company sent its first colony out to Jamestown—the Plymouth Company sent its first plantation out from Plymouth. This consisted of the usual hundred landsmen, with arms and provisions, in two ships: the Gift of God under the stern Chief Justice’s kinsman, George Popham, and the Mary and John captained by Raleigh Gilbert. Shortly after they left, the Lord Chief Justice died. The Spanish ambassador Zuñiga reported joyfully to Madrid that, since he was the most active forwarder of the business and in the position to advance it best, Zuñiga expected it would now drop. And indeed it was a great blow; Gorges writes that Popham’s “sudden death did so astonish the hearts of the most part of the adventurers as some grew cold and some did wholly abandon the business.” In fact, he himself stepped into the breach: from this time forward it was he who most persistently, against all discouragements, kept the idea of New England colonization to the fore.
The colonists arrived safely in Maine and settled down at Sagadahoc on the Kennebec River for the winter, which proved hard. News from the colony was not good. “For first the President himself [George Popham] is an honest man but old and of an unwieldy body and timorously fearful to offend or contest with others that will or do oppose him.” Whereas “Captain Gilbert is described to me from thence to be desirous of supremacy and rule, a loose life, prompt to sensuality, little zeal in religion, humorous, headstrong and of small judgment and experience, otherwise valiant enough.” We see that he was a true son of Sir Humphrey, and now, a generation on, he remembered that his father had had the first grant for North America. “He holds that the king could not give away that by patent to others, which his father had an act of Parliament for and that he will not be put out of it in haste … besides he hath sent into England for divers of his friends to come to him, for the strengthening of his party on all occasions.” Like father, like son; this faction-fighting in the bitter Maine winter, with their storehouse burnt down over their heads, much discouraged the planters. One lesson that needed to be learned was that each colony, to be successful, needed one undisputed head: a Governor Bradford or a Governor Winthrop.
Three months later the second ship returned with nothing to show from a winter in Maine, except to say that, surprisingly, all the colony were well: not a death among them. However, “these often returns without any commodity hath much discouraged our adventurers, in especial in these parts.” But Gorges viewed the question of colonization from a loftier standpoint than immediate profit, and indeed, for himself, he was to spend all his private means and his wives’ upon it—many thousands—and impoverish himself in the end.
The soldier in Gorges realized the strategic importance of possession of the coast. Already the French had a settlement farther up the coast in Acadia. In this year Champlain founded Quebec; the Dutch were sending Hudson to explore the river later called by his name and were shortly to occupy Manhattan Island in the finest harbor in the world. Gorges was there in mind before them: he asked if King James “would be pleased to adventure but one of his middle sort of ships with a small pinnace”—as Elizabeth would certainly have done—“and I durst myself to undertake to procure them to be victualled by the adventurers of these parts, for the discovery of the whole coast along, from the first to the second colony.” Gorges offered himself for the command, would be proud to accomplish it. If it had been taken notice of, the English would have been first on the Hudson. Instead of which: no response.
Gorges and his associates in the West found means to send out two little supply ships from Topsham, and were racking their brains to find the means to send out another of 200 tons the next spring. But there was no return from the colony at all. When the Mary and John arrived with supplies for another year, they found that the president was dead. They brought news that was more disastrous: at home Sir John Gilbert had died, leaving his brother heir to his estate. To claim it Raleigh Gilbert returned home, and the colonists elected to return with him in the Mary and John, and the pinnace they had built that winter. She was the Virginia, first English ship to be built in North America; she survived to make several voyages to Virginia. Considering that all but two of the Sagadahoc colonists had survived, in contrast to Jamestown—the Maine winter seems to have acted as a preservative, perhaps a tonic—it was a most disappointing conclusion.
Thus ended the first plantation in New England—the parallel to Roanoke, 1585–86.
The Western adventurers had lost everything they put into these attempts, and they simply had not the resources of the London Company to go on and on until the plant rooted. (Even so, we know what a near thing it was in Virginia.) However, fishing voyages increased upon the coast and began to creep down to the New England fishery, which had one advantage in that it was much closer inshore than the Grand Banks. From this time forward there were constantly men visiting the coast, some of them remaining there—like Captain Williams from Popham’s colony, whom John Smith found leading a Robinson Crusoe existence on the mainland opposite the island of Monhegan, the best location for fishing. Gorges continued to send fishing vessels along with others in the hope that “by our ordinary frequenting that country” it would in time “yield both profit and content.” Southampton sent a vessel out in 1611 and another in 1614. The first brought back more Indians, one of whom, Epenow from Martha’s Vineyard, was sent to join Captain Weymouth’s Assacumet, from whom Gorges was learning about the Cape Cod area to the south.
Some of these Indians had fantastic experiences. Assacumet had been captured on Challons’ ship and taken with him to Spain, whence the Indian managed to escape and somehow got back to Gorges at Plymouth. Gorges’ contacts and conversations with these Indians helped to keep his interest alive. In 1614 a Captain Thomas Hunt seized a score or more Indians on the coast and took them to Malaga to sell as slaves. One of these, Tisquantum, or Squanto, managed to get a passage on a Bristol fishing boat out of Malaga to England, thence to Newfoundland, and back to England once more, on his way home to Cape Cod. In Newfoundland he met a Captain Thomas Dermer, who brought him back with him to Gorges at Plymouth. His interest in Indians must have been well-known by now, and he was certainly shocked by Hunt’s treacherous conduct, which naturally made the Indians on the Massachusetts coast mistrustful and hostile for some time to come.
Epenow, who was a fine-looking fellow, had been shown in London “for a wonder,” and preferring to get back to his people, put up a tall story about a gold mine on Cape Cod, which persuaded Gorges and his fellow adventurers to equip a vessel to take him across the Atlantic—treating it as his Cunard boat, evidently. When he got to the coast, being a man of great stature and strength, Epenow slipped out of their clutches over the side and joined his relations. That ended the hopes of that voyage: dead loss again. Nevertheless in 1618 Gorges tried once more, sending out a Captain Rocroft with a scratch crew, who, alter various adventures on the New England coast, made him go for Virginia where his ship was wrecked and himself killed in a quarrel.
Next year Gorges sent out Captain Dermer, an able navigator, with friend Squanto aboard, whom he set ashore among his people and then met with Epenow once more. In his exploration of the coast Dermer penetrated into Long Island Sound, got through Hell Gate, proving that Long Island was an island, and followed the coast all the way to Virginia, where he wintered. He returned in the spring to the New England coast, where Epenow tried to kill him, and, severely wounded, Dermer struggled back to Virginia to die.
The more amenable Squanto, however, does not seem to have resented his English experiences. When the innocent Pilgrims arrived at New Plymouth in 1620, they were astonished to find a savage who spoke fluent English: they considered him, of course, “a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation.” And indeed he made himself invaluable to them as their interpreter, put them in touch with the native chief Massasoit with whom they made peace, “directed them how to set their corn, where to take fish, and to procure other commodities, and was also their pilot to bring them to unknown places for their profit, and never left them till he died.” It was Squanto who gave them their contact with the Indians southward in Massachusetts Bay, which enabled them to start up a trade in beaver. On a journey with them to get Indian corn and beans, without which they could hardly have lasted out their second winter, he died, “desiring the Governor to pray for him that he might go to the Englishmen’s God in heaven, and bequeathed sundry of his things to sundry of his English friends, as remembrances of his love; of whom they had a great loss.” It is hard to see how the Pilgrims could have got through their first two years without him.
The Pilgrims were the first to make a permanent plantation, but there were already small settlements on the coast, fishermen wintering there, and regular communications with Virginia. Virginia was interested in the New England fishery, and sent boats up for supplies. The French were already settled on the coast farther north. M. de Monts had moved his original settlement (1604) from the St. Croix River to Port Royal in Nova Scotia. Now in 1613 a new French settlement was made in the Mount Desert area on the coast of Maine. This was within the latitude of the Virginia Company’s charter. They were not going to undertake all those efforts, undergo all those sacrifices, to find themselves forestalled by the French: they ordered Captain Samuel Argall up from Virginia to put an end to the settlements, which he did, effectively, but with complete humanity: no massacres like the Spaniards in Florida, or such as the Dutch were shortly to commit in Amboina. He took the colony’s leaders off into gentlemanly captivity along with Pocahontas at Jamestown.
This is not the full tale of the efforts made by Gorges and others in these years before the sailing of the Mayflower. Captain John Smith had come back in 1614 fired by an idea—no doubt others had it at the time, but he made more of it—namely, of combining planting with fishing. The fishing boats went out and back doubly manned, having to carry men to dry and cure the fish, in addition to the fishermen. What more obvious than that these should remain on shore as planters, supplementing the fishermen at need, instead of being carried to and fro?
This subsequently became the basis of Ferdinando Gorges’ next phase of activity, as also of the Dorchester Company with its brief colony at Cape Ann, out of which the Massachusetts Bay Colony sprang. In 1615 four London ships sailed for New England, only one from Plymouth and that largely provided by Gorges. She “returned as she went, and did little or nothing but lost her time.”
Next year Gorges had better luck with the ship he sent under his servant, Richard Vines; for though the ship’s company refused to explore but concentrated on fishing, Gorges’ men were able to trade along the coast and actually wintered there. Thus it was Gorges who tried out what Smith had only suggested, the feasibility of winter settlement in New England—the Popham experiment had made people very doubtful. What returns Gorges got from fishing ventures he spent on exploring with a view to settlement, his real passion: “This course I held some years together, but nothing to my private profit, for what I got one way I spent in another.”
On the basis of all this experience and dearly bought knowledge Gorges thought he now saw the way to successful plantation: he would secure from the Crown a patent for the northern territory with rights of government and power to grant licenses to plant and also to fish on the coasts; the payments for fishing licenses would provide funds for plantation. At once he found himself opposed by the Virginia Company under the redoubtable Sir Edwin Sandys. However, the Crown granted the charter for New England, with an extension of boundaries, as had been done for Virginia to include Bermuda—in this case to 48 degrees north to include Acadia. A council was set up, very different from the Virginia Company: a self-perpetuating body, including seven sleeping privy councillors who never attended; it was not under the control of the investors—perhaps that was why it had no investors, or very few, beyond Gorges, his family, and a few friends. They were a company of gentlemen. The absence of the merchants was fatal: the New England Council simply never had enough resources; it lived from hand to mouth. The whole idea was the Elizabethan one of a regulated colonial enterprise, already becoming inappropriate in the circumstances of seventeenth-century society.
Meanwhile, a very different body of men came forward: the Pilgrims. “In the story of American colonization,” C. M. Andrews says, “the Pilgrim plantation at Plymouth occupies a place apart from the normal colonizing process, in that its origin and purpose were entirely out of touch with the features of settlement characteristic of the time.” They were a religious body, at any rate the nucleus of them was—only 37 of the hundred or so who came over in the Mayflower.
The Pilgrims were in origin a Nottinghamshire group, who were in the habit of meeting at Scrooby Manor, where their Elder Brewster was the postmaster. To enjoy their own brand of religious observance and the ministrations of their pastor, John Robinson, the Pilgrims migrated to Holland. After a decade of that, they decided on America, “to live as a distinct body by themselves, under the general government of Virginia.” They sent two emissaries to London, where they “found the Virginia Company very desirous to have them go thither, and willing to grant them a patent, with as ample privileges as they had, or could grant to any.” They should have toleration in practice: the King could not openly depart from the law, but he “would connive at them, and not molest them.” King James and even the much-maligned bishops consented to the Pilgrim form of subscription. The Pilgrims were in the habit of regarding themselves as much persecuted in this world, but in fact everybody was very helpful.
At this time, 1619, Sandys gained control of the Virginia Company and gave them every encouragement. They got their patent to settle, the company approved their plan, declared the thing was of God, and, what was more important, loaned them £300 out of its exiguous resources. On this basis they went forward: “It is not with us as with other men, whom small things can discourage, or small discontentments cause to wish themselves at home again.” And so it proved. They were much aided in making their arrangements by a not very respectable merchant-promoter, a Thomas Weston, who obtained the patent for them and organized the business end of their affairs in London—which proved largely unremunerative, I may say, to the original investors. However, late in the season, much delayed, the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth on September 16, 1620.
They had originally intended to settle, as “but one particular colony or plantation,” within the area of the Virginia Company. As they drew near to the coast they thought of the Hudson River, but much buffeted and exhausted by the voyage, they halted at Cape Cod, then settled across the bay at New Plymouth. They kept the Mayflower with them that first terrible winter in which—as at Jamestown—half the colonists died. In one respect they were lucky: in the two or three years before their coming, most of the Indians on that coast, after bitter internecine war, had died of plague. This was regarded as a special providence, and it meant that in their weakened state they were not molested.
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.”
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.
Winthrop’s journal reveals him as becoming more intensely religious as family troubles accumulated and as the country moved from the balance of the Elizabethan Age to that sharpening of conflict, that scission and unbalance that foreboded the lamentable, the destructive, Civil War. All this group were very much under the influence of Puritan theologians—William Perkins of Christ’s, Ezekiel Culverwel, and the rest of them.
A group of such men, friends and relations, gentlemen, of ability and education—nearly all Cambridge men—came together. There were Isaac Johnson, John Humfrey, and Thomas Dudley, who, like Gorges, had fought under Henry of Navarre and was latterly a parishioner of the Puritan divine John Cotton at Boston. There were Increase Nowell and William Pynchon and Saltonstall. At Cambridge in 1629 they met and signed a compact to go to New England and found a commonwealth. They next decided to take their patent with them, for they meant to be in control themselves. This was the fundamental difference between them and the Pilgrims. These were not simple people content to obey; these were governing Puritans who were leaving the country because they could not have their own way. When they got to Massachusetts, from the beginning they made it clear that they meant to have it. People who wanted the Book of Common Prayer were soon given to understand that they had better leave—and indeed the Pilgrims had sent Church of England people away from New Plymouth.
Governor Endecott, that stern and unattractive Devonshireman, had gone before in 1628 to prepare the ground. In 1630 no less than fourteen ships left England with over a thousand colonists, and—since they had such strong backing and resources—no want of supplies. This was in marked contrast with everything that had gone before, in New England no less than Virginia. This was something exceptional. And there was another thing that was exceptional, too. In the interval they had managed to turn their patent from the New England Council into a royal charter, which confirmed to them not only territorial rights, but rights of government. “The charter created something that had not existed before, the right of these men as a corporate body to rule and administer the territory under their authority and to exercise complete sway over any colonies or plantations that might be set up on its soil.”
How had they managed it? Nobody knows. One thing is clear: they managed it when nobody was looking. For another, these Puritans were not lawyers, like John Winthrop, for nothing. For a third, there is no doubt at all that the Puritan magnates, the Earl of Warwick and Lord Saye and SeIe, were deliberately helping them out with their plans. They got their original patent from Warwick as president of the New England Council when Gorges was away at the war. There is no evidence of any conflict between Warwick and Gorges over the matter. And surreptitious as the whole thing was, it may have been simply that people thought the New England Council was moribund and were quick to take advantage of it. But the New England Council was not moribund, though it was some time before Gorges learned, or appreciated the significance of, what had happened. With the end of the war he married again, so that he could retire from his command at Plymouth, and was both free and in a position to take up his colonial projects where he had left them.
Before and during the wars Gorges had been associated with an interesting man, Captain John Mason, born in 1586, who had served six years as governor of Newfoundland, 1615-21. In 1622 they took out a joint grant of all the land that subsequently became Maine and New Hampshire. Here Mason settled David Thomson in the first settlement on the Piscataqua, where he lived by the fur trade and fishing. In 1629 Mason took a grant of the southern half of the territory to himself, becoming thus the founder of New Hampshire. In that year, with Canada conquered and Champlain a prisoner in London, Gorges and Mason set up the Laconia Company, hoping to tap the Canadian fur trade through the Lake Champlain route to New England. The return of Canada to the French knocked this project on the head and left Gorges and Mason with a dead loss.
Gorges had, however, secured in Mason a valuable and energetic recruit to the New England Council, of which he became vice-president in 1632, and which—to the surprise of the Massachusetts Puritans—now burst into renewed activity. A number of individual grants of land were made, Gorges being now careful to make them outside the territory of Massachusetts Bay. Meanwhile people were pouring into the Massachusetts territory “in heaps”—by no means all of them Puritans; indeed, it is likely that a majority of them were not. But all power was held by the governing Puritan minority—they were a governing class and they knew well how to govern. The board there arrogated all power to themselves, and they proceeded to show their mettle by driving out of the colony those of whom they disapproved.
It may be said that to this they had a perfect right; but it gave an opening to their opponents in England, who now realized more clearly what the Puritans were up to. The banishment of that merry scamp, Thomas Morton of Merry Mount, Sir Christopher Gardiner, and others, provided a matter to bring before the Privy Council. To everyone’s surprise, not least that of the Bay Puritans, Charles I’s Privy Council came to their defense and even offered them further support. They did not wish, they said, to discourage a colony that was of potential value to the nation, and anyhow the extruded persons were not very respectable. The Bay Puritans had influences very high up on their side, and thus Gorges’ first attempt to assert the general rights of the New England Council over the Bay Colony was blocked for the time.
It was not until Archbishop Laud was in the saddle and, realizing the implications of the Puritan migration overseas, formed the Commission of Foreign Plantation to control it, that Gorges got his opportunity. He proposed that New England should be divided into a number of provinces under proprietors, with a governor general over the whole, appointed by the Crown. Meanwhile the Bay charter was to be returned home for investigation by due process of law. The Puritans at once prepared to resist; they planned to fortify Boston Harbor. The undaunted Endecott defaced the flag of St. George on the ground that it was a popish symbol, and Massachusetts adopted its own ensign of a red and white rose. Only five years after their first settlement—and how it looks forward to 1776! They accepted all the advantages of the Crown’s protection, but they were not going to yield obedience in return.
This opened people’s eyes at home, though Laud’s respect for the law was such that no steps were taken until the Massachusetts charter was voided by due process of the courts, and that took two years. Gorges was to go out as governor general, with Mason as vice-admiral, in a new ship they were building, to control the shipping and trade that were now greatly increasing on the coast. But Mason, nearly twenty years younger than Gorges, died; “the Lord, in mercy, taking him away,” wrote Winthrop, “all the business fell on sleep, so as ships came and brought what and whom they would, without any question or control.” And, by a further special providence, when the ship was launched it “fell all in pieces, no man knew how.” Gorges was reduced to sending out a young nephew, William, to look after the various private family interests that were scattered about there, primarily the northern half of the Gorges-Mason grant, or Maine proper, which he called the province of New Somerset. In these last years Gorges was reduced more and more to his own family for support: after Warwick withdrew, significantly, from the New England Council, Edward, Lord Gorges, a cousin, took his place. Young William made no success of it in Maine and shortly returned home. Gorges’ servant, Richard Vines, remained on, holding the fort gallantly as deputy-governor.
At last the courts ruled in favor of the Crown over the Bay charter, and Gorges was named governor general. Massachusetts greeted this news by keeping “a general fast through all the churches, for seeking the Lord to prevent evil that we feared to be intended against us by a General Governor.” Either this or perhaps merely terrestrial events in England in the end turned out to be efficacious. Gorges sent various conciliatory messages, which Winthrop regarded as mere hypocrisy. Gorges, on the other hand, always spoke of Governor Winthrop with respect. There is no evidence at all that Gorges was hostile to Puritans as such; several of his friends he found among them; he was a firm Protestant, a fervent anti-Papist. When his cousin Thomas Gorges went out to govern Maine, he ruled it on rather Puritan lines and actually won the grudging approval of Massachusetts. All Sir Ferdinando cared about was the colonization of America; he was a man of one idea, but that a great one.
He received very little support from Charles’s Privy Council—only from Laud. He put forward to them his last and matured ideas on colonization, continuous with those of the Elizabethans: the special importance to England of an increase of trade and shipping, and consequently of colonies. He adduced the classic argument, borne out by England’s subsequent history, of the superiority of natural expansion by trading colonies to the imperialism of war and conquest—with Rome and Spain in mind. To this the pro-Spanish treasurer, Lord Cottington, replied: “Romans, Spanish and Dutch did and do conquer, not plant tobacco and Puritanism only, like fools.” When Gorges defended the Puritans by saying that, whatever their humors, their colonizing activity brought honor to the whole realm, Lord Cottington annotated, “What honour, if no profit, but extreme scandal to the whole Christian world?”
This shows something of what not only Gorges but Laud, too, had to put up with at home. However, in 1639 Gorges got his charter for Maine as a proprietary province, to support his position as governor general of New England, if ever he should come to it. It was all too late. He was no longer the man he had been; though capable of taking part in a horse race in his sixties, he now was “doubtful of the state of my own body, not able to endure the sea any long time.”
Gorges was an old man, his resources spent on his lifelong labors to bring about the colonization of New England. He sent out his young cousin, Thomas, to take his place, writing a last letter to Governor Winthrop to aid him “in any just and reasonable occasion he shall have cause to use your favour in, I having given him command to be careful to do his best that all fair correspondency be maintained between those two several plantations … and when God shall be pleased that I may arrive, I doubt not but you shall perceive my greatest ambition shall tend (next to the service of God) by what ways or means an union or conformity of all parties may be established, or at the least a patient or charitable bearing with each other’s errors or self-affections.”
That day was not to arrive; at home the country was splitting apart, was on the eve of the Civil War. The Massachusetts Puritans were free to go their own way; certainly the Lord, as they said, seems to have been on their side.
It has been usual to regard the career of Sir Ferdinando Gorges as a failure. I do not think we need do so, though he has no place in the American tradition commensurate with his contribution. Where Pilgrims and Puritans have always been held high in history, their cherished names entered not only into folk memory but into myth and poetry, his name is hardly remembered—except, of course, in Maine, where he is rightly honored as the Founder. It is only in the careerist sense that he did not succeed, for in fact his efforts did bear fruit, even if others enjoyed the rewards.