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Profits In The Wilderness

June 2024
6min read

History, like most aspects of human existence, has fashions that come and go. In the nineteenth century the Great Man theory was very popular. Columbus was certain he could reach the Orient by sailing toward the setting, not rising, sun. He talked Ferdinand and Isabella into footing the bill, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today the Great Man theory is about as out of fashion as poor Columbus himself, and so-called people’s history is in vogue. Rather than Columbus, the fate of the native tribes he accidentally discovered and—equally accidentally—largely destroyed is now seen by many as all-important. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between.

Both these schools of history, of course, also routinely ignore the fundamental importance of technology itself. It was only because the fullrigged ship was fortuitously developed during Columbus’s lifetime that he was able to do more than theorize about the best way to reach India.

Even more ignored than technology as a driving force in history is economic organization. The full-rigged ship was extraordinarily expensive in the economic universe in which Columbus lived. If its full commercial potential was to be exploited, new ways of financing it beyond appealing to princes were needed. Spain did not develop these new ways and soon stagnated. England and Holland, however, developed the joint-stock company and prospered mightily.

Unlike a partnership, in which every partner’s entire net worth is at risk, in a joint-stock company only the amount invested can be lost. Using this form of organization, many capitalists (not that the word would be invented for another couple of centuries) could join together to seek the potentially huge profits in exploration and distant trade without having to fear being wiped out by the equally huge risks.

In England the Russia Company and the East India Company were chartered by the Crown in the late sixteenth century and evolved into vast, and vastly profitable, enterprises. The Dutch West India Company would make the Netherlands the richest country in Europe in the seventeenth century.

The joint-stock company is the direct ancestor of the modern corporation and thus, together with the nation-state itself, the most important organizational invention of the Renaissance. Without it the modern world simply could not have come into being.

And without the joint-stock company the history of that most modern of nations, the United States, would have taken a very different turn indeed. In a fascinating new book, Profits in the Wilderness (University of North Carolina Press, $34.95), John Frederick Martin makes plain the crucial importance of the joint-stock company and the pursuit of profit to the settlement of New England.

To begin with, both the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Plymouth Colony were organized as joint-stock companies. Some of the participants in these companies were known as “planters.” They were those who came to New England and contributed their labor to the success of the enterprise. Many of them, to be sure, while technically part of a commercial endeavor, looked for their rewards only in heaven. The men who contributed money but stayed in England, however, were known as “adventurers,” and they were certainly hoping for a quicker and more earthly return. (The old meaning of the word adventurer , by the way, still echoes in the modern phrase venture capitalist .)

Whatever the motives of the original settlers and their financial backers, the toehold of the first New Englanders established on the American continent soon proved a refuge from the rapidly deteriorating political situation in old England after Charles I dismissed Parliament and assumed personal rule. In the first great Atlantic migration, up to twenty-five thousand people came to New England between 1630 and 1643. How to settle these people in so vast a wilderness in so short a time was no small problem.

The usual image of the settling of America is one of a frontier line slowly, inexorably creeping westward as individual pioneers cut down the next patch of wood, fenced the next field, built the next homestead, and, eventually, established the next town.

It was not quite that simple, and certainly not so in the earliest days. To try to push back the frontier on an individual basis in the early seventeenth century would have been nearly Impossible, if not suicidal (and, anyway, entirely alien to the Puritan mind). Just consider all the things that had to be accomplished before people could actually take up residence in a new area of settlement. The colony’s government had to give permission. The site had to be chosen. The land had to be purchased from the Indians and surveyed (and the survey accepted by the government). The various lots —home lots, wood lots, planting lots, meadow, and swampland—had to be laid out and allocated fairly among the settlers. River frontage had to be divvied up, and roadbeds situated. Bridges had to be built.

All of this took a great deal of organization and cost a great deal of money. The only suitable organizational model the Puritans had at hand was the joint-stock company, and it was immediately pressed into service as a model for town founding. Now, instead of planters and adventurers, there were “goers,” who went to settle permanently in the new community, and “stayers,” those who provided money and/or expertise but usually did not take up residence.

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.

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