Profits In The Wilderness


The trouble was, there were lots of goers and not enough stayers to go around. As Thomas Hooker, a founder of both Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Hartford, Connecticut (and one of the foremost clergymen of his time), explained, towns all “want men of abilities and parts to manage their affairs, and men of estate, to bear charges.”

Because of the shortage, such men as there were were used over and over again, involving them deliberately in the process of town founding and rewarding them with land allocations, which they either sold or rented out. Before long the stayers were often initiating the process of town founding, hoping to prosper in a manner not altogether dissimilar to a modern-day real estate developer.

Some of these men, like Daniel Boone a hundred and fifty years later, kept up with the frontier, moving on as each settlement was firmly established. Cornelius Waldo, born in England in 1624, moved first to Ipswich, Massachusetts. In the 1650s he was one of the founders of Chelmsford, and in the 1670s of Dunstable. In the following decade he was an investor in the purchase of land on the Merrimack River that would become Lowell. As he moved from town to town, Waldo held on to the land he left behind as well as the small businesses he had founded. His descendants, far more prominent than he ever was, would be major land speculators in the next century, thanks to the patrimony he established.

Because the General Court, the legislature, had to grant permission to found a town, members of the court, and especially of the committee that dealt directly with these matters, were often granted lands in towns they never lived in. Joshua Fisher, who had come to Massachusetts as an indentured servant, ended up the owner of more than thirty parcels of land in four different towns, largely thanks to his membership in the General Court. Today such shenanigans, while hardly unknown, would be regarded as gross corruption. In the seventeenth century, however, it was strictly business as usual.

The settling of New England was the work of a breed of men so new they would not even have a name for two centuries: entrepreneurs.

Men with expertise in dealing with Indians were especially valued. Fur traders, many of whom spoke the languages of the natives, were frequently used in negotiations regarding purchases of Indian lands. They often ended up owning some of the land purchased. Joseph Parsons was one of the first settlers of Springfield and witnessed the deed signed with the Indians in 1636. He soon was active in Windsor and Hartford. In the 1650s he was an active trader with the Indians and a founder of Northampton. He sold some land he had bought from the Indians to the new town of Hadley and negotiated with the Indians for the land on which the town of Northfield was situated.

Altogether, Parsons was active in the settlement of at least five towns in the Connecticut River valley over a period of nearly fifty years. In the process he turned his expertise with the Indians into a considerable fortune. At his death in 1683 his estate was worth £2,088, one of the largest probated in western Massachusetts in the seventeenth century and a sizable sum at that time even in England.

To be sure, some of these profitseeking town founders were less than completely scrupulous. James Fitch, having taken title to more than a million acres from the Indians in eastern Connecticut, moved vigorously to entice settlers. But the settlers often complained that what they were promised and what they received were two different things. In a formal complaint the settlers alleged that after they had been pledged good land, Fitch had kept it all for himself, leaving them only “pore rockey hills.”

Regardless of such occasional lapses, the town-founding system improvised in the wilderness by the Puritans proved very effective, and southern and coastal New England was settled with astonishing speed. To a large extent this was thanks to a new breed of men, a type so new it would not even have a name in the English language until the middle of the nineteenth century: entrepreneurs.

So while no one can doubt that what brought most of these people to New England in the first place was the dream of building a shining city on a hill—a project still under construction after 350 years—many of them also worked hard to make a buck in the meantime.

Welcome to America.