Chapter Seventeen


My most deare and loveinge Husband … I am sory for the hard condishtion of Rochell. the lord helpe them and fite for them and then none shall prevayle against them … the lorde who is a myty god and will destroye all his enimyes.


On the right bank of the river Gironde stood the citadel of Blaye, facing the vineyards of the Médoc. With its artillery, the fort controlled the approach to the port of Bordeaux. Since before anyone could remember, custom had decreed that foreign ships must unload their cannon at Blaye before sailing upstream to the city. Only on their way back downriver to the sea could they collect their guns and hoist them back on board. In 1626 the governor of the citadel was the Duc de Luxembourg, and he found the regulations highly convenient. In the autumn, the duke told his men to detain the entire English wine fleet in the estuary. Because they were disarmed, the ships fell into his hands without a shot being fired.

In Paris, waving aside the protests of an English diplomat, the king’s chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu, pretended that the duke had acted without authority. The French also pointed out that he had some justification for what he did. Not long before, English warships had boarded three French vessels returning home from Spain and carried them off to Falmouth. Even so, no one could seriously claim that the duke’s response was proportionate. He imprisoned in the Gironde 135 English ships, and another 45 from Scotland, with four thousand mariners aboard them. Like La Rochelle, Bordeaux had a resident community of English businessmen, and they stared ruin in the face. They had already loaded the ships with the new season’s wine and paid for their cargoes with borrowed money. On November 30, they wrote in despair to their ambassador in the capital, warning of “the utter overthrow of a great number of worthy marchants.”

During the following winter and spring, England and France approached and then crossed the threshold of war. The “great Arrest att Blaye,” as the incident came to be known, was simply the most blatant of a series of provocations that each country offered to the other. The sequence of insults and counter-insults had begun nearly eighteen months previously, soon after the marriage of Charles I to Henrietta Maria, sister of the French king. Behind the posturing and the bluster lay serious causes for division between the two countries. And, because of what it led to, a chain reaction of resented taxes, commercial ruin, military disaster, and civil disobedience, colored by religious animosity, the war with France had remarkable side effects in North America.2

Events on the old side of the Atlantic supplied the final impetus that secured the future of the Plymouth Colony, and paved the way for the much larger colony of Massachusetts Bay. This process happened in two ways. As a consequence of the French war, politics and religious tension at home gave migration to America a new urgency for a zealous group of activists. And, at the same time, the war led to a surge of Atlantic activity by merchants and mariners. They found a new incentive to cross the ocean when the war caused a sudden and steep rise in the market price of beaver fur in Europe. Carefully recorded by William Bradford, it made mercantile eyes turn westward at a time when the Pilgrims urgently needed the new resources they had to offer.

None of this would have happened as it did without the Anglo-French conflict, or the role within it played by the city of La Rochelle. So we start by asking how it was that the war came about at all, inflicting on England its strategic nightmare: simultaneous hostilities with Spain and France, the strongest powers on the continent of Europe.

From the outset, the marriage between Charles and a French princess caused embarrassment. Understandably, she insisted on bringing with her to Westminster an entourage of Catholic clergy to attend to her devotions and lead her retainers in worship, as the marriage treaty had provided. In July 1626, to placate outraged English opinion, Charles expelled her courtiers and her priests. This deeply offended her brother, King Louis XIII. He also knew that the Duke of Buckingham was secretly encouraging conspiracies against him inside France. In all this, far more lay at stake than merely injured pride.

England had gone to war with Spain in 1625, but the campaigns led to one debacle after another. Worst among them was a disastrous expedition against the port of Cádiz. By way of his marriage to Henrietta Maria, Charles hoped to rescue the situation by signing a military pact with the French. Instead, Louis signed a secret treaty with the Spanish. This was a prelude, it seemed, to some grand alliance of great Catholic nations against their much smaller Protestant opponents. And, by the end of 1626, Richelieu had also initiated a great rebuilding of the French navy. This project seemed to have three motives. Each of them endangered the interests of Great Britain.

Dispatches from the English embassy in Paris suggested that the French intended to make themselves “maisters of the Narrowe seas,” from Flanders to the coast of Spain. Second, it seemed that Louis XIII and Richelieu wished to revive the imperial ambitions of Henry IV and annex for France a lucrative share of the oceanic trades to the Indies. With this aim in view, the cardinal set up a colonial company, headquartered at the naval base of Morbihan, in Brittany, and in the spring of 1627 he reorganized the fur trade to French Canada around it. He put the whole of New France in the hands of this new monopoly, the Cent-Associés, with capital supplied by investors, including the beaver hat makers of Paris. But the most obvious cause for war was a third factor, something that provided perhaps the most important motive for the naval rearmament the cardinal had begun.3

French historians disagree with their British counterparts when it comes to apportioning blame for what happened next. Nearly eighty years ago, the keeper of the archives at La Rochelle wrote the classic account of the war and the siege. He argued that Buckingham provoked an unnecessary conflict.4 Richelieu, he said, never intended to extinguish by force the city’s independence, or to impose Catholicism. He simply wanted to make the Huguenots disarm their warships and agree to stop plotting against his master, King Louis. The cardinal began preparing for a siege only when Buckingham appeared on the French coast with an English fleet and army. Britons tend to take a different view. They argue that Richelieu always intended to suppress the liberties of La Rochelle. He could not attain his other goals while the Huguenots remained a potential cause of civil war.

For the history of New England, the British view has most relevance. This is not because it is more accurate, but because it was what the English believed at the time. It certainly looked as though the cardinal had a master plan for subjugation of the place. In the same month as the arrest at Blaye, word reached Whitehall that Richelieu had sent fifteen hundred soldiers to reinforce the forts that the French Crown had built to encircle the city. It seemed only a matter of time before he began an assault on it; and if La Rochelle were to fall, then the implications for England might be severe.

Of course, defiant La Rochelle would never succumb without a long fight. Protected by the sea to the west, and by marshes to the north and south, the Stalingrad of the Huguenots had deep earthwork ramparts of the most modern kind. Six bastions outside the walls allowed the defenders to halt an attacking army with enfilading fire. Supply ships could come and go through its narrow, fortified harbor mouth. Beneath the streets lay a catacomb of tunnels and cellars, reached by a staircase in the thickness of the battlemented walls of the Hôtel de Ville.

Only one tactic was feasible. That was to starve the city into surrender. So, before a siege, the cardinal and his commanders needed to make careful preparations for a blockade. First, they would have to occupy the Île de Ré, an island that controlled the entrance to the harbor. They sent twelve companies to hold their strongpoint on the island, the fortress of St. Martin, in February 1627. The arrest at Blaye seemed to fall into the same pattern. A warning shot, aimed at barring the English from internal French affairs, it put out of action ships that Buckingham might have mobilized in support of La Rochelle.

Even so, the English had three reasons for wishing to intervene, and Protestant solidarity was only one. A second was simple, and political. Like rooks on a chessboard, the Calvinists of La Rochelle pinned down the French armed forces, endangering their flank and rear. A conquered La Rochelle could no longer keep the French Crown in check. And, third, and despite occasional squabbles between the merchants of La Rochelle and those of England, the French port remained an irreplaceable economic partner.

Before their voyage to America, Christopher Jones and the Mayflower relied on it for business, on the wine it exported and the English cloth it received. In the harbor of La Rochelle, mariners like Jones found the bolt that riveted together the long chains of commerce between the Baltic, the Mediterranean, and the far side of the Atlantic. If Cardinal Richelieu subdued it, there would be nothing to stop the French from excluding English ships entirely from their ports. With his new men-of-war to back him up, Louis XIII might insist that all cargo coming in and out of French ports travel in French hulls, manned by French sailors, claiming back his nation’s seaborne traffic. In the words of an English member of Parliament, alarmed by the prospect, “If Rochelle be lost … what a blow shall we receive.”5


On the eve of the Puritan exodus to America, nothing held the attention of the politically aware more firmly than the fate of La Rochelle. Chronicled in the weekly news sheets, the reports from France arrived in a country already embittered by defeats sustained in the hostilities with Spain. Worst of all were the burdens suffered by coastal towns. These burdens, and the other stresses caused by war, helped to push their citizens toward dissent, but also toward the new opportunities that might be available in the west.

In January 1627, for example, the townspeople of Barnstaple sent their leading citizen to protest to the Privy Council about their plight. They listed seven grievances. Chief among them were the heavy costs of billeting and feeding soldiers coming home from Cádiz. The men and their officers spent eight months in the town and left behind them a heap of unpaid debts, which Barnstaple carefully totaled down to the last shilling. The town suffered too from a breakdown in trade caused by the war, from the “imbargoes in Spaine and in France, the troubles of late at Rochelle, and the many great losses … by Turkish piratts.” Similar complaints arose from other coastal towns, not to mention the unpaid seamen of the Royal Navy. In February, they marched to London. They demonstrated outside Whitehall Palace and threatened to pillage Buckingham’s house if he did not pay their wages.6

Behind all this lay a familiar but unsolved cluster of difficulties, a tangled mess of problems that fused arguments about religion with disputes about finance and political doctrine. Fiscally, the English state remained weak. Nobody had found a reliable way either to pay for a navy or to manage it with consistent competence. Indeed, the maritime shambles gave Barnstaple its incentive to complain: the town was trying to give reasons why it could not afford to pay ship money, the tax levied on seaports to finance the king’s fleet.

For the Crown that winter, the most pressing problem arose from the dismal end of the last parliamentary session. It was terminated by an angry monarch in June 1626. Charles halted the session because the House of Commons was calling for Buckingham to be impeached, blaming him for the losses at Cádiz. But he did so before Parliament voted him any new taxes to finance the war, either the existing hostilities with Spain or the new conflict likely with the French. This had fateful consequences, as we shall see, because the king had to find another way to raise money. And above and beyond the question of money, as always there loomed the question of God.

In the same week in which he dissolved Parliament, Charles issued a proclamation banning public debate on fundamental issues of theology. Perhaps this was intended as an evenhanded measure, to silence troublemakers of all kinds; but Calvinists read it as an attack specifically on them. For the next eighteen months, until he recalled his legislature, King Charles presided over his subjects in an atmosphere made acrid by distrust, sectarian and political. Puritans began to interpret his every move, and Buckingham’s, as steps along a road toward a despotic monarchy along Spanish lines: a despotism that would free him from any parliamentary veto. Worse still, they might be planning to return England to some form of union with the hated Church of Rome.

In the months after the arrest at Blaye, these controversies came to center on a single issue. During each year of the war, it cost about £300,000 to keep the navy afloat, with caulked seams, primed and loaded guns, and tolerably able seamen. But in 1626, it seemed only a matter of time before the fleet would be called on to mount its most ambitious operation since the reign of Elizabeth, in the shape of the relief of La Rochelle. Where was the money to be found? Without Parliament to assist them, Charles and Buckingham had to find another source of income. They turned to the so-called forced loan, levied by royal decree and without the need for a parliamentary fuss.

This was an old medieval and Tudor device, a loan demanded from the same taxpayers who usually paid the levies voted by the House of Commons. The loan was forced inasmuch as those who refused to lend would be sent to prison. It was simply a tax by another name, and it formed a tight bottleneck for Puritan anxieties. From October onward the loan met with stiff resistance. In the front rank we find men deeply engaged in the affairs of the Plymouth Colony.

It seems that they opposed the loan for two reasons, but neither sprang from pacifism. They were perfectly happy to fight the Spanish, and no Puritan wished to see Calvinist La Rochelle hoist the flag of surrender. But, leaving that aside, they wished to see the war run with efficiency; and they wanted to fight it with taxes voted by Parliament. Behind this lay a matter of principle about the limits of the monarchy’s power to rule without Parliament’s consent, but also a question of tactics. Puritans had few sticks with which to beat the king, and Parliament was their most effective.

In the last forty years, historians in England have shown how profoundly difficult it is to make generalizations about the politics of this period, and about the motives men and women possessed for doing what they did, including settlement in America. Labels like “Puritan” became ever harder to define, and the records contain many gaps. People often shifted their allegiances and acted for reasons of self-interest, and personal or local loyalty, rather than with granite integrity. However, the forced loan posed one very distinct threat to any Calvinist, and especially to those men and women who feared that the Church of England was sliding backward, toward reconciliation with the Vatican.

Parliament supplied a stage, where men acted and where they made their histrionic speeches in advocacy of their faith. If the king could raise money without it, he could do away with Parliament entirely. That would leave the Protestant religion bereft of its sharpest English weapon. Men and women were bound to find this all the more alarming if they belonged to the Puritan minority who felt that the English Church had never been Protestant enough in the first place. In such terms we can find a simplified account of the issues at stake. And simplified or not, no room for doubt exists about the connection between loud opposition to the forced loan and equally vocal support of the Puritan deployment to Massachusetts.

Among the opponents, the most illustrious, and the richest, was the Earl of Warwick, a man of Puritan sympathies, and also a keen financier of privateering voyages against Spain. By this time, he had assumed control of the Council for New England, as its president. From that position he did his best to accelerate trade and colonization. He smoothed the path of the Pilgrims, among others, by awarding them a revised, expanded legal patent protecting their rights of settlement. And earlier, in the late autumn of 1626, Warwick acted as ringleader of a group of noblemen who very nearly forced the Privy Council to abandon the forced loan entirely.

By far the most energetic of the group was a young Puritan aristocrat who, as a result, spent two years in the Tower of London. He later became an ardent supporter of the new colony in Massachusetts Bay, which drew many of its early migrants from among his tenants and his friends. He also had a curious connection with the Mayflower, a link with the Pilgrims that left its mark in one of the most tantalizing sentences William Bradford ever wrote.

The nobleman in question was the Earl of Lincoln, Theophilus Clinton. His sister Arbella sailed with John Winthrop in 1630 and gave her name to his flagship. The earl seems to have known the Pilgrims since as far back as the spring of 1619, when they were trying to finalize their legal patent from the Virginia Company. According to Bradford, the first patent for the Pilgrim colony was issued in the name of somebody whom he calls “Mr. John Wincob (a religious gentleman then belonging to the Countess of Lincoln, who intended to goe with them).” The countess was the young earl’s mother, but the records of the company helpfully add an extra detail. They show that Weyncopp (as they spelled his name) carried with him a recommendation from the earl himself.7

At that time, Theophilus was very young indeed. Nineteen years old, he had inherited his title only a few months beforehand. It is hard to know what to make of his involvement with the Pilgrims at such an early stage in their history. The Clinton family papers have disappeared entirely, it seems. All we have is the hint from Bradford that the Leiden community had friends and supporters among the aristocracy, as well as among the anti-Spanish party at court. But whatever his motives before the Mayflower sailed, by 1627 the young earl had become a very combative Puritan indeed.

As the new year began, Warwick and his friends quieted down, at least in public. Not so the young Earl of Lincoln. His territory lay in the southern half of Lincolnshire, not far from old Boston. Here the earl incited resistance to the loan by circulating a pamphlet that attacked the measure in outspoken, radical terms. Addressed “to all English freeholders,” and most likely written by the earl himself, the text accused the Crown of seeking to engineer “the overthrow of Parliament and the freedom that we now injoy.” According to the author, “If it goes forward we make ourselves and our posterityes subject to perpetuall slavery.”8

These were fighting words. They found eager listeners in the county. In March, commissioners acting for the Crown named dozens of people who refused to pay up. They included the mayor and nine citizens of Boston, and the same John Wincob who had applied for the Pilgrim patent in 1619. Alongside him among the protesters was William Coddington, who later traveled to America and founded Newport, Rhode Island. They also included the earl’s estate manager, Thomas Dudley, the second resident governor of Massachusetts Bay. He was accused of sheltering two of his colleagues among the earl’s staff, men wanted by the Crown for distributing the pamphlet.9

Despite the efforts of the Earl of Lincoln, resistance to the loan never became a genuinely national movement. When they added up the cash received, the officials in the Exchequer found that they had received four-fifths of the sum they were seeking: a good result for King Charles. Like the Puritan movement, opposition to the loan tended to be narrowly based, in specific locations. But in these places the roots of protest went very deep. This was nowhere more true than in parts of the City of London, where taxpayers had recently faced an irksome demand for money for twenty warships. The most dissident ward was Bread Street.

In July 1627, more than six months after collection of the forced loan began, the authorities reported that only thirty-two men in Bread Street Ward had agreed to pay up, including John Milton, the poet’s father. More than one hundred refused. This made Bread Street Ward by far the most unwilling part of the city for which records have survived. And if the area’s protest against the loan had a leader, it must have been the Mayflower investor John Pocock. Three days after the report was written, the Privy Council issued a warrant for his detention in the Fleet Prison.10

They ordered him into internal exile in the north of England, along with twelve other men from the city. Pocock apparently said no to that as well. His name figures on another list, dated September 30. It gives the names of thirty-five opponents of the loan who failed to report to their appointed places of house arrest. Pocock rubs shoulders on the schedule with the most eminent parliamentary critics of Buckingham, and his conduct of the war, men who later became his allies and associates in investment in New England.

The appearance of John Pocock in company such as this tells us how much had changed in the two years since Charles I ascended the throne. All the evidence suggests that Pocock was not only a shrewd trader but also, at less than forty, a man on the verge of entering the elite of the City of London. He had every prospect of reaching the same rank as John Slany, and becoming master of the Company of Merchant Taylors. His personal wealth had recently risen again, when his father died, leaving him the bulk of the Pocock family land in Berkshire. In his dealings with William Bradford and the Pilgrims, hitherto Pocock had behaved as such a man would, holding extremism at arm’s length.

And yet now, during the controversy over the forced loan, Pocock displayed open contempt for authority. What had happened? John Pocock had not altered his religious stance. Far from becoming a Separatist, he remained a member of his parish church in Watling Street, serving as a churchwarden.11 The blame for his new radicalism lay fairly and squarely with King Charles and Buckingham. Whether they were autocrats or simply inept, they set in motion a chain of events that pulled men such as Pocock across an invisible boundary. They entered a new political space where respect for the monarchy was very tenuous.

For the time being, the disobedience offered by men such as Pocock was passive, a matter of saying no. He was released from custody after several months of what seems to have been mild confinement at home. Even so, this new political environment was a place where men like him could begin to imagine more active resistance. This would be necessary if the Crown became an outright enemy not only of the rule of law, whatever that might mean, but also of the Protestant faith. Put simply, the forced loan compelled the Pococks and the Clintons to think more deeply than before about the proper limits of royal authority, about the value and the role of Parliament, and about alternative places to go if their homeland became intolerable. Against such a background, divisions between mainstream Puritans and the Separatists would tend to dwindle in significance. They were overshadowed by issues that reached more surpassing heights.

So far, events had not yet reached a point of acute emergency. But if that were so, perhaps it was only because the fate of the Huguenots still hung in the balance. If Buckingham achieved victory at sea, or defeated the French on land, then his critics might forget the outrage caused by the forced loan. In the summer of 1627, as Pocock pondered what to do about his impending arrest, all eyes were turned toward the coast of France. In the final week of June, an expeditionary force set sail from Portsmouth, bound for La Rochelle, with Buckingham in command. On board one hundred ships, the fleet carried seventy companies of infantry and a small force of cavalry. Buckingham commanded the Triumph, his brother-in-law sailed on the Victory, and close beside them was the Hope.

Nothing but humiliation lay in store. Far to the west, on the other hand, William Bradford and his comrades were about to achieve a series of victories, in a campaign of a very different kind. During the next twelve months, as the war killed ever more men in Europe, the Pilgrims set up their beaver post at Cushnoc. They wove a new network of connections that led back across the water, giving them a firm grip at last on the commerce they needed. By the summer of 1627, they were ready to seize the opportunities the war was about to create.


On August 20, 1627, a ship in the Thames called the Marmaduke, master John Gibbs, loaded a cargo of supplies to be sent westward to the Plymouth Colony. In the customs book of the port of London, we find itemized the contents of her cargo. The details give us a profile of the Pilgrims as they were, exactly so and without mythology or sentiment, and without the need for another narrator to add layers of distorting commentary.

For adults, the Marmaduke carried four dozen coarse shirts, three dozen woolen waistcoats, twenty-four pairs of men’s woolen stockings, and three dozen short coats. For children, she brought to New England two dozen plain hats. The men received two dozen Monmouth caps, a flat, round knit item of a kind often worn by sailors. Because Winslow and his colleagues had always enjoyed their duck and turkey shooting, the goods on board the Marmaduke included four hundredweight of lead birding shot. Some residents at New Plymouth must by this time have built houses with glazed windows, or they were planning to do so, because also among the freight were “glass leades,” to the value of twelve pounds.12 On board were eight dozen pairs of new shoes, but no women’s garments appear on the list of goods. This seems odd, but there may be an obvious explanation, as we shall see.

Back in the old country, men such as Brewster, the son of a rent collector, were used to keeping a written tally of who received what, to prevent village quarrels about fairness and status. In 1627, they divided their stock of cattle and shared them out carefully between twelve household units. Each one had exactly thirteen members drawn from two or three families who lived and worked together.

When they did so, they listed the members of each household, making 156 names. The details contained in the list match those in the manifest of cargo on the Marmaduke, down to the number of pairs of shoes carried for adults. From the two lists, of cargo and people, it seems that the colony possessed a balance of gender, age, and marital status ideal for a plantation on the verge of a breakthrough to prosperity, in an agrarian age where success required physical toil.

In these early days, New Plymouth resembled a town on the edge of a new oil field, serving drilling platforms out at sea, but still waiting to find out whether the company geologists were right about the reserves. The place was very masculine, by economic bias and by way of demographics. It seems that about fifty-seven of the residents were adult males, aged sixteen or more. There were only thirty adult women. Only two female adults in the colony lacked husbands, but as many as half the men, twenty-eight, were unmarried.

This accounts for the contents of the cargo on the Marmaduke. When they fitted out the ship, the investors only bothered to send over men’s shirts, waistcoats, and stockings for the unmarried laborers, those with no wives to sew, mend, and make garments. Everyone else, we may assume, wore homemade clothing. As for their ages, we cannot be entirely precise; but the average man seems to have been only about thirty, meaning that they were in their physical prime. Among the thirteen male leaders of the colony, listed first in each household, men like Bradford, Standish, Brewster, and John Howland, the average age was only about ten years older than that.

Hardship had winnowed out the weaker settlers. Exhausted older men died in the harsh first winter, or because of the arduous labor of the early years. Then the migrant ships, the Fortune in 1621 and the Anne in 1623, carried younger ones without families, perhaps escaping from unemployment in England or in Holland. Among the nearly seventy children in the colony, at the time of the cattle division nearly thirty were aged between eight and fifteen. They were old enough to do chores and simple farmyard tasks and to wear the “plaine hatts” from the Marmaduke. So, by 1627, the colony possessed an ample able-bodied labor force, with few unproductive mouths to feed. It had the means to grow more corn than it needed and the resources to defend itself with arms.

Their corn surplus gave them currency of a kind for buying fur, and they had recently found another. It took the form of wampum, tubular beads of white and purple. They were fashioned by the native people of the coast from shellfish, either northern whelks or hard-shell clams.13 They could be found in multitudes along the coast of southern New England, and for at least nine hundred years forms of wampum had been trafficked into the interior, reaching sites as far away as Michigan. After Europeans arrived, the volume of the trade grew rapidly. Objects made from wampum became bulkier and more opulent. Wide, long multicolored wampum belts appeared, made from as many as two hundred beads or more. A native counterpart of the beaver hat, they were sought after as marks of status and for the hint they gave of beauty and of spiritual power.

It seems that the Dutch began systematically to exploit this new resource with the help of extortion. In 1622 a Dutch trader abducted a native chieftain and demanded a ransom of a huge quantity of wampum. During the next four years, the Dutch invented a lucrative pattern of exchange, swapping cloth from Holland for wampum on the shores of Narragansett Bay. Carried up the Hudson River, it made a ready form of payment for furs. Once sold to the Iroquois, the beads spread the taste for wampum belts into a deep hinterland, adding more momentum to the trade.

At about the same time that the Marmaduke reached New Plymouth, the Pilgrims established a small trading post near the modern town of Bourne, Massachusetts, at the westernmost end of Cape Cod. It gave them swifter access to the Dutch along the coast. They bought wampum from Isaack de Rasières, the chief agent in America for the New Netherland Company. As de Rasières explained, he willingly sold them the beads as a way to deter the Pilgrims from entering Rhode Island and building their own supply chain. For both sides the deal made sense. With the wampum, their corn, and trading goods from England, Bradford could look forward to an excellent season for business on the Kennebec. Suddenly the moment of opportunity had arrived.

In 1627, the price of beaver skins began to soar on the eastern side of the Atlantic. Sadly, the records from England track only the volume of fur imported. We have only scattered indications of the rising price of beaver hats: by the early to mid-1630s, in London they cost about five pounds each, double the amount paid by the Prince of Wales some fifteen years previously.14 In France, however, the archives of the notaries of seaports contain far more detail, to show how the maritime war drove up the value of each pelt.*In 1621, a pound of beaver fur fetched only about five English shillings. Although the price crept up, it was still less than eight shillings in 1625. In 1627 it more than doubled, to nearly eighteen. It went on rising to reach a peak of more than twenty shillings in 1628, a price that held firm for another two years.15

The Pilgrims fully understood the benefits they stood to receive. As William Hubbard put it, writing in the 1680s, “having lived with the Dutch in Holland, they were naturally addicted to commerce and traffic.”16 In his own narrative, Bradford identified 1625 as the point of deepest frustration for the colony, but also the moment at which the corner was soon to be turned. And toward the end of 1626, Bradford and his closest colleagues took steps that gave them the financial stability they needed, if they were to reap the reward of the upturn in the market for pelts.

To put it bluntly, the Plymouth Colony was bankrupt. But if it could keep its boats afloat, and find new working capital to pay for copper and wampum, it could generate cash from beaver skins to pay at least a portion of its debts. So the Pilgrims sent the Mayflower passenger Isaac Allerton back to England with the authority to reconstruct their balance sheet. In London in November, he signed a new deal with the forty-one investors who remained. It was the kind of arrangement a modern insolvency lawyer would recognize.

First, they wrote off all the equity capital sunk into the project since 1620. Then they jointly agreed that the debt owed by the Pilgrims came to eighteen hundred pounds, a sum that must have been far less than the amount they had actually borrowed. They set a repayment schedule with nine equal installments, with the last one due in 1636. The money would be paid every September to five men led by Pocock and Beauchamp, acting as agents for the remainder of the consortium in London. In return, the investors at home abandoned all their claims on the colony’s assets in America: in other words, their land, livestock, and equipment.17

It was possible, of course, that the Pilgrims might fail to meet the schedule for repayment. So in July 1627, at about the same time as the cattle division, the settlers gave the responsibility for finding the money to a small group, known as “undertakers.” Led by Bradford, Standish, and Allerton, the undertakers agreed to pay the sums required in London. They made themselves personally liable in the event of a default. In exchange, the rest of the settlers gave the undertakers the profits of the trade in beaver fur for six years. They would also receive an annual rent assessed in corn or tobacco. After 1633, the rent would cease, and the fur trade would revert to the colonists as a whole. From England, meanwhile, the necessary working capital arrived, by way of additional loans from Beauchamp, Sherley, Pocock, and a few others. They demanded high rates of interest, but nevertheless they lent money.18

Under the terms of Allerton’s deal with the investors, the first installment of two hundred pounds fell due only in September 1628. Until then, the Pilgrims had a breathing space of two years. It turned out to be enough. By the time Allerton climbed up the steps of the Royal Exchange in London to meet the deadline, the battle for La Rochelle was nearly over. Its consequences in North America were only just beginning.

* The average pelt weighed about 1.7 pounds.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!