Chapter Nineteen


I wish I could write … good news touching the present state of affairs in this kingdom; but in truth … we have more reason to fear an utter downfall, than to hope for a rising.


Slung out in the sea like a discus or a jackknife, twelve miles from the coast of North Devon, the island of Lundy guards the approaches to a wide gulf, the great bay of Barnstaple. From the west, the tides fetch in across the full width of the Atlantic. When they reach the granite hulk of Lundy, they split and divide around the shoals that scatter from its corners. Even in sunshine and on a calm day, pale spots of foam mark the location of the rocks, first the Hen and Chickens and then the White Horses, more names awarded by seafarers dead many centuries ago.

To the east, the coast of the mainland sweeps off to form the crescent of the bay. Twenty miles across, it ends at the north in an escarpment of cliffs. The highest in England, they rise to nine hundred feet, divided by plunging chasms, curving and folding away from the eye like the ridge backs of a distant herd of speckled swine. Beneath them, plowed by offshore winds, in the age of sail the waters of the gulf were some of the most hazardous in the British Isles, even more vicious than those off Plymouth Sound, on the opposite side of the same county.

If you stand on the top of Lundy in the winter and look inshore, when the drizzle clears, you will see along the coast a line of surf. For a while, at the innermost middle of the bay, the cliffs dip and vanish, making way for a wide brown expanse of marshes, sand dunes, and mud. In front of them, the line of surf indicates the presence of a bar of silt, with above it shallow water, at the entrance to the estuary of the rivers Torridge and Taw. Crossed at the wrong time, Bideford Bar is fatal, yet another place where wind and tide conspire.

On January 23, 1628, if you had perched like a puffin on Lundy, you would have seen a sailing ship make her way westward from the bar. At two hundred tons, the White Angel was a little larger than the Mayflower, with a reputation as a craft fit for an attempt to find the Northwest Passage. On this occasion, the White Angel was outward bound to the Plymouth Colony, with supplies for the Pilgrims, shipped westward by Isaac Allerton.

Earlier that day, as she dropped down the river with the tide, her crew passed the timbers of a wrecked Dutch ship, the St. Peter of Amsterdam. The customs records describe her fate, driven aground that month by a storm, with on board her a cargo of steel, tar, and English woolen cloth. Looking south, the men on board the White Angel saw the church at Northam, a fishing village, and in front of the church a plot of high ground called Bone Hill, used as a sandy graveyard for dead sailors. Only twelve months previously, the villagers had buried six fishermen, drowned as they tried to cross the bar in bad weather.2

On the low hills above the estuary, a series of church towers offered landmarks to mariners. Signifiers of home and salvation, they guided men back to their wives and safe harbor, at a place where the Taw and the Torridge came together to form a sheltered anchorage. Around it were a series of small townships, not only Northam, but also Appledore, Bideford, Instow, and Heanton Punchardon. They looked for leadership seven miles upstream to Barnstaple, the chief town of the area, the port from which the White Angel sailed, and the place that gave its name to the Massachusetts county that now encompasses Cape Cod.

The English Barnstaple stood at the head of the tidal stretch of the Taw, at the place where the first bridge spanned the river. Confident and cosmopolitan, the town was a small Devon replica of La Rochelle. Fiercely independent, this too was a maritime republic, led by an elite of Calvinist merchants. Because of the damage done to trade by the war with France, and because of the new opportunities found by the Pilgrims, in the late 1620s the Barnstaple men in question stepped forward and became the leaders of English commerce in the North Atlantic.

They did so at a moment when at last, like the waters of two estuaries, an array of circumstances converged to permit and to compel a movement out across the ocean much larger than the journey of the Pilgrims in 1620. Suddenly men who had only dabbled or experimented in America found a multitude of new and urgent motives for wanting to make a permanent commitment. Some were shipowners and traders from Barnstaple, or its sister port at Bristol. Some were Puritans from London like John Pocock, and some were Lincolnshire dissidents such as Theophilus Clinton. At the end of 1628 and in early 1629, as it became clear that New England could at last be made to pay its way, thanks to the skin of the beaver, they found a common cause, and the movement began.

At Barnstaple, Isaac Allerton did most of his business with a merchant of fifty-three called William Palmer. In his career, and the town’s, we can see how and why events took the course they did.


It seems that William Palmer was sound, because a business partner called him “a just and upright dealer,” and he had a loyal following among his fellow citizens. Three times mayor of Barnstaple, Palmer kept the town’s archives and its store of gunpowder, and later, during the English Civil War, he led its armed resistance to the Crown. By virtue of his past, and the plight of his town in 1628, he had every reason to offer Allerton the help he needed.3

In his late twenties, Palmer lived in the Basque port of San Sebastián in Spain, working as an agent for an older Barnstaple merchant and making regular trips to the French town of Bayonne. Less openly, he spied for the English intelligence service, sending home reports of Spanish shipping movements for the eyes of Sir Robert Cecil. In the Basque Country, Palmer acquired a hatred of Spain that seethes from his letters, but he also found himself among men with the best knowledge available of the North American coast.

For nearly a century the Basque ports had been whaling, fishing, and fur trading as far as Labrador. North American maize grew in the fields around Bayonne, and Native Americans walked the town’s streets: a Micmac warrior lodged in the house of Bayonne’s mayor, a man Palmer mentioned in his dispatches to Cecil. What’s more, William Palmer’s employer was a man with American interests by the name of John Delbridge. Another mayor of Barnstaple and several times its member of Parliament, Delbridge dealt in tobacco with Bermuda and with Jamestown. As it happens, Delbridge was a Puritan—an opponent in a lawsuit called him “a man inclyned to Sect and Schisme, and in most things opposite to the government of the Church of England”—and this also had its bearing on the course of events in 1628.4

Given his background, in time William Palmer was bound to turn his eyes westward, and so he did. In the early 1620s, when shipowners from Devon began to send fishing expeditions to Maine, Palmer was among the first. As early as 1622, the Council for New England heard complaints of Barnstaple ships fishing without licenses in its territory. The following year, four Barnstaple vessels made the trip on behalf of “Mr. Palmer and others,” merchants of the town, fishing and trading for furs, this time with the council’s grudging approval. They even applied for their own patent “for the Settling of a Plantacion in New England.” No record exists that it was granted, but by 1626 a local man, Abraham Shurt of Bideford, was living at Pemaquid on the coast of Maine. He managed a fishing station, traded, and made sporadic contact with the Pilgrims.5

Even so, for the time being these Barnstaple adventures in New England remained modest and marginal. Very few beaver pelts reached the town; they may have come by way of French middlemen, and the ships that went to Maine were small, of eighty tons or less. Until the late 1620s, merchants such as William Palmer had quite enough to keep them occupied much nearer home. During the previous fifty years, they had created a flourishing system of trade across the sea, from Spain to Poland, with Ireland now essential too. As long as it prospered, there was no reason for them to go elsewhere in strength.

Barnstaple had no option but to be pragmatic. To the east lay the barren immensities of Exmoor, which reached the sea to form the cliffs of the bay, while to the south and west the country was too rugged to be worked by the plow for wheat or barley. Tall trees were few and far between. Barnstaple had a population of about three thousand, large enough to make it rank as a populous borough, and so, to feed its people, it had to find grain from elsewhere. To keep its fleet at sea, it needed timber from abroad. In 1615, we find Barnstaple importing rye, flax, iron, and masts for ships on Dutch vessels coming from Norway or the Baltic, while coastal craft ferried in oats, peas, and butter from English regions where the soil was more friendly.

One foreign seaport mattered far more to Barnstaple than any other, and that was La Rochelle. For centuries, ships had left the harbors of North Devon to sail there or to Bordeaux, the wine haven of the old Plantagenet domain of Aquitaine. But by the 1620s, these connections had deepened and intensified, thanks again to the sheep on England’s western hills and the weavers who lived in villages inland. Each year, ships leaving Barnstaple made about sixty sea voyages, carrying a new brand of woolen cloth known as “Barnstaple Bayes,” to be swapped in foreign ports for wine, salt, iron, figs, prunes, and all the other items the town required. Barnstaple ships sailed also to Cádiz, Lisbon, and the Canaries, but next to La Rochelle they went most often to Ireland. And this, as it turned out, came to be critical too, for the future of New England.6

Waterford and County Cork lay only four days’ sail away, and behind them were the grasslands of the Irish southeast, the best cattle country in Europe. After about 1610, as English landlords tightened their grip on Ireland, they began to breed livestock. By 1615 shiploads of twenty cows at a time were arriving at Barnstaple from Irish harbors. Soon horses came too, from as far away as Ulster, like the “xvii Yrishe horsses” that arrived from Derry that August.7

Thanks to its network of trade, the town of Barnstaple prospered, and its wealth took the tangible form of stone and candles. A preacher called the town “neat Barnstaple,” and visitors found the streets lit by lanterns until nine each evening. Travelers remarked on its broad, well-paved streets, its fine houses of stone and brick, and the “sweet and wholesome Air” of this little seaside city-state.8 When Palmer’s business partner died in 1624, he left a rich bequest to found an almshouse for the elderly. The arcaded building still stands, serving the same purpose, just like the Browne almshouses at Stamford.

And then, as a direct consequence of the king’s two wars, first with Spain and then with France, the storm clouds began to blow in from Lundy. When Parliament met in 1626, John Delbridge swiftly rose to his feet to list the many grievances afflicting Barnstaple. He spoke out against high taxes on imported wine, and of course he denounced the French for their confiscation of English ships. He raged about the losses suffered at the hands of Turkish pirates and Spanish raiders, and he blamed the Duke of Buckingham. Early the following year, Delbridge delivered the town’s petition to the Crown, protesting against the cost of billeted troops. Similar complaints came from many other towns, but most loudly from seaports. For Barnstaple, they reached their worst extent in 1628, after the massacre on the Île de Ré.

In the final weeks of 1627, French engineers at La Rochelle hurried to finish the great barrage that sealed off the port’s access to the ocean. The last supplies entered the city in early January, and by the end of that month English agents in France were reporting that the blockade was complete. For the merchants of Barnstaple, the siege removed their most valued trading partner. It dealt the town by far the most serious of the long series of blows it had sustained.9

Foreign trade dwindled almost to zero in 1628. That year not a single ship sailed from the Taw estuary to France or Spain, only scraps of woolen cloth left Barnstaple for foreign ports, and until midsummer there were no arrivals from any European port. Two Dutchmen evaded French warships and crept in with salt from Brittany, but the vast bulk of the salt and wine trade from abroad simply vanished. For salt, vital for its fishermen, Barnstaple had to rely on coasters making the long, dangerous voyage from Scotland, under threat from Spanish privateers ranging up and down the North Sea from Dunkirk.10 The Irish connection remained, but even so the town’s seaborne commerce fell to less than half the level seen before the war. “All things are dead with us,” said John Delbridge in the Parliament that met in March.11

At this very moment, William Palmer found his alternative in the west, in partnership with the Pilgrims. News of the barrage at La Rochelle would have reached North Devon no later than Christmas week. We know from the fate of the St. Peter that in Britain’s western approaches the weather was bad in January. When it cleared, off from Barnstaple to America went a small fleet of four ships, led by the White Angel. She was actually a Bristol ship, but the ports of Barnstaple and Bristol worked in tandem, with small vessels plying back and forth between the two. Both towns sent to sea as many privateers as they could—Palmer and his colleagues had fourteen letters of marque, allowing them to do so—and they used the prize money from taking French and Spanish ships to feed a joint pool of capital. When the time came, it was available to finance the Atlantic trade.12

As the Latin of the customs books put it, the White Angel was heading “versus Novam Angliam”—toward New England—and she carried a cargo of Irish and Barnstaple-made woolen cloth, haberdashery, and iron. Isaac Allerton was the exporter. The following day a second ship left, the Eagle, of fifty tons. For Allerton, she carried two fishing nets and another three hundred pairs of “novorum calceorum,” new shoes for the feet of the Pilgrims. Also on board were more haberdashery and groceries, shipped by Palmer.13

Two weeks later, on February 7, out sailed the Content, a fishing boat of only thirty tons, again bound for New England. Her master was John Witheridge of Instow, aged fifty-five, from a family with long ties to the Palmers. He was perhaps the town’s most experienced transatlantic seaman. A Newfoundland veteran, he had fished and traded for fur on the coast of Maine in 1623, where he met Samoset, the Abenaki chieftain who greeted the settlers at New Plymouth.14

Last of all, on March 2, the thirty-five-ton Pleasure left for America, under the command of a veteran Barnstaple seaman, William Peeters. He took with him a hogshead of brandy, enough for eight thousand shots of liquor. Gunpowder and lead shot made the crossing too, and a mass of tools and trading goods: hatchets, hoes, axes, scythes, scissors, knives, and iron pots. We know this because in his letter book Bradford copied out a set of accounts for the Plymouth Colony drawn up by James Sherley. They match the data from the port of Barnstaple.15

Each of the four ships made the journey safely, both ways. When they crossed Bideford Bar on their return, they brought with them a haul of beaver skins of a size hitherto unseen in their home ports. First to reach Devon on July 28 was the Eagle. After unloading her supplies for the Pilgrims, she had fished, collected train oil, and then sailed on to Virginia before coming home. She carried no fewer than 274 beaver skins, divided into three consignments for Barnstaple merchants. Of these, 230 went to a consortium led by William Palmer.

Into the Taw on October 2 came the Content, and on board John Witheridge brought back another 228 beaver pelts, sixty-five otter skins, and eight tons of wax from Jamestown. All the fur was for Palmer’s account. The Pleasure was the last to reach harbor, on October 17. Her cargo came directly from the Mayflower Pilgrims. Sherley mentioned the Pleasure, and Peeters, and two hundred pounds of beaver fur sent back from New Plymouth. Altogether, the Pleasure carried four tons of train oil and 726 beaver pelts for five Bristol and Barnstaple merchants. One of them, named John Brand, acted for Sherley. He packed Sherley’s pelts off to London to be sold on the colony’s behalf.

Nearly thirteen hundred skins from North American beavers arrived in the river Taw that season, more than a third of them imported by Palmer’s syndicate. These were remarkable totals. When London ships sailed home from Archangel in the early 1620s, they carried Siberian skins in far greater quantities, but Barnstaple was a small port, with a merchant fleet less than a tenth the size of the capital’s, and records list only some of the fur that came home in 1628. The White Angel left Lundy on her starboard bow and sailed on to Bristol. The customs books from that town have not survived, but the White Angel carried at least three hundred pelts from the Pilgrims alone. She may have picked up still more from other English traders who were making inroads along the coast of Maine. By weight, the skins brought home by the four ships probably amounted to at least three thousand pounds, the pelts of about eighteen hundred of the beavers of Mawooshen.

At this moment, the pattern of events in North America changed fundamentally. For the Mayflower Pilgrims, the trading season of 1628 supplied the reward for eight years of effort, often apparently wasted but ultimately worthwhile. That same year, in June, they sent Standish up the coast to eject Thomas Morton by force from his base at Mount Wollaston, on the grounds that he was selling liquor and guns to the Indians: he was packed off to England to be dealt with by the Council for New England, but the affair also stopped Morton competing with the Pilgrims for the Kennebec fur trade.

Meanwhile, back home in London, when the furs were sold, it became clear that the Pilgrims had made their first outright profit, and so they met their first deadline for paying off their debts. At the same time, they found new partners in Bristol and Barnstaple. Another man whose business had suffered because of the French war was a Bristol wine merchant named Giles Elbridge, and now he joined Beauchamp, Pocock, and Sherley in extending additional credit to the Plymouth Colony. Since Elbridge was also a successful privateer, he had the cash to do so, and soon afterward he founded his own colony in Maine. In this way, the momentum created by the Pilgrims began to roll out new settlements all along the New England coast.16

Until now, the French had dominated the fur trade of the north, sending back pelts in their thousands from the posts created by Champlain on the St. Lawrence. Suddenly the English stood on the brink of a period in which, for nearly four years, they had the region to themselves. Via their trading post at Cushnoc, and the canoe routes that converged upon it, the Pilgrims had found an avenue that led in and out of the territory, dense with beaver, between the Kennebec, Chaudière, and Penobscot rivers. As we shall see, the English were about to go further, and temporarily elbow the French out of Canada entirely. By doing so, they secured not only the fur supplies of the watershed but also those of the whole St. Lawrence valley. For a while they made the Gulf of Maine an English lake.

All this made possible the Great Migration of Puritans to New Boston. But, before it could occur, a new political crisis had to intervene in England, a crisis that added extra encouragement for those who wavered on the verge of exile. As the Barnstaple ships and their seamen tied up at the quayside in the town in the autumn of 1628, they found the symptoms of the crisis all too visible around them.

Soon after Witheridge dropped anchor in the Taw, a small boat arrived carrying fifteen starving soldiers, English troops who had been trapped in La Rochelle throughout the siege. They were evacuated after the city fell to Louis XIII in October. Similar boatloads of dying men reached many other western ports, and the stories they brought with them intensified a pervasive animosity toward the Crown. On the other side of the county in Plymouth, shipowners, merchants, and mariners began to display open civil disobedience. They refused to commit their men and their hulls to any more futile efforts against the enemy across the channel.

By mishandling the war as they did, the Duke of Buckingham and King Charles laid a trail of gunpowder that led toward New England. All it needed was a lit flame, and the man who struck the match went by the name of Matthew Cradock. Mentioned only briefly by most historians, because he never visited Massachusetts and never saw his land along the Mystic, Cradock founded the new company that settled Massachusetts Bay.

Under his leadership, in the spring and summer of 1629, the company took a series of decisions that led to the voyage of John Winthrop the following year. They were based on the experience of the Plymouth Colony, because Cradock knew the Pilgrims well.


Up to a point, Matthew Cradock resembled Thomas Weston, but the likeness was very superficial. Like the Westons, the Cradocks came from Staffordshire, where they dealt in wool and woolen cloth, and like Weston the young Matthew Cradock started his career exporting cheap textiles to France. Their names appear beside each other in the customs book for 1617. There the similarity ends, because Cradock rose to become an affluent luminary of the London scene, importing raisins and currants from the Near East. He invested in the East India Company, and he knew the fur trade, since he sat with the beaver king Ralph Freeman on the board of the Muscovy Company. In the spring of 1628, Cradock saw an opportunity to relaunch England’s fumbling ventures in America by taking over a failing enterprise that had tried to emulate the Mayflower Pilgrims.17

The enterprise in question came into existence in 1623. In that year, a group of investors from Dorset, on the south coast of England, decided to found their own Massachusetts fishing colony at Cape Ann. They too were Puritans, haberdashers, and cloth merchants, with a Calvinist preacher called John White at their head. They had a godly aim to bring the Gospel to the people whom they called Indians, but they had a political edge as well. Their number included members of Parliament, patriotic, anti-Catholic, and anti-Spanish, but their business acumen fell far short of their zeal and their national pride.

They sent too few men, in ships that were too small, and only a handful of cattle. They squabbled with the Pilgrims—Miles Standish tried to push them off their jetty in 1624—and in any event they had chosen the wrong place. It was too rocky and too windswept for an enduring post. In 1626, the leader on the spot at Cape Ann, Roger Conant, took them off twenty or thirty strong to a better site at Naumkeag, where Salem stands today. Meanwhile, the investors in England had lost heart, and so John White’s project faltered and ground to a halt.18

Not for long, however. By the time the Barnstaple men sailed off to New England, in the opening months of 1628, the business community in London had begun to see that the same place might offer solutions for their own dilemmas. They too were losing business, because of the war. So, in March, a group of London merchants including Cradock made what amounted to a takeover bid for White’s limping venture. They rebuilt it as the New England Company, with new investors and new capital from the City, and they prepared to send reinforcements to Naumkeag. In June, the Abigail left Weymouth in Dorset, a ship of 120 tons, with on board her John Endecott, whose task was to relieve and replace Conant as leader of the colony.

At last, enthusiasm about America north of the Delaware began to take hold in London. In February, even King Charles joined in, with a royal proclamation that called on parish churches to pass round the hat on Sunday to collect donations for a new colony in Casco Bay in Maine, “for the propagacon of the true religion … by converting those Ignorant people to Christianity.”19 This was also a matter of military strategy: the king had listened to men who argued that naval bases along the Gulf of Maine were essential, to protect the cod fishing grounds and resources of timber from the French and the Spanish.

Then, during the spring, as Cradock began to revive the White project, some of his near neighbors in London launched the first of two remarkable expeditions to Canada. Like John Pocock, the men concerned came from Bread Street Ward. Their leader, Gervase Kirke, lived in the parish of All Hallows. Another merchant who exported woolens to France, using the same ships as Thomas Weston, Kirke married a Frenchwoman from Dieppe. They had three sons, all of whom trained as navigators in the town. As the war shut down his relationship with France, Kirke became a privateer. In 1628 he saw a superb opportunity to outflank the French, by making a surprise attack on Champlain at Quebec.

Kirke and his partners fitted out three ships, led by his son Captain David Kirke, a young man of only thirty-one. He reached Canada that summer and seized the French trading post at Tadoussac. Then at the mouth of the St. Lawrence he turned to face a French squadron sent out by Richelieu.

Outnumbered by eighteen ships to three, Captain Kirke engaged the enemy closely, sank ten of the French vessels, seized the flagship and captured more than one hundred cannon. In Paris, they burned Captain Kirke in effigy, as a traitor to his mother’s homeland. But in London his victory at sea was swiftly recognized for what it was: the most successful English foray to North America since the reign of Queen Elizabeth. The Kirkes swiftly made plans for another, even larger effort the following year, in the spring of 1629.20

Meanwhile, as the Barnstaple ships collected their skins from the Pilgrims, and as Cradock sent the Abigail to Salem, in June 1628 the political climate became still more unsettled. When Parliament assembled, the House of Commons voted new taxes for the war, but on too small a scale. They would scarcely cover the naval budget if the ships remained in port, let alone pay for a campaign sufficient to relieve La Rochelle. While Buckingham remained at the right hand of the king, the Commons would do no more. The duke became the bottleneck for complaints of all kinds, dating back to the forced loan and before, about imprisonment without trial, about billeting, about the Turkish pirates, about the slump in trade, and about religion.

Members of Parliament began to insist, like John Preston, that if England suffered defeats, it was because the kingdom was ungodly. As the session neared an angry close, a cohort of truculent MPs accused Buckingham of a plot to subvert the Protestant faith and to carry the nation back toward the Church of Rome. The king saw no point in prolonging such nonsense as this. On June 26 he prorogued the session, with the intention of recalling Parliament later that year. To show his critics what was what, he appointed a new bishop of London, William Laud, a latter-day Richard Bancroft. A man close to the duke, Laud was likely to enforce the law strictly against any signs of Puritan dissent. The following month, Buckingham was assassinated. This brought the crisis to a head.

While Buckingham lived, he acted as a lightning conductor for Charles I. His opponents in Parliament could hurl at the duke the blame for every woe from which the kingdom suffered. Among their number were the men most likely to support a new Protestant colony in the west. A list can be made of MPs who called for Buckingham’s impeachment in 1626, and on it appear the names of six men who helped finance the early settlement of New England. But with Buckingham dead, they lost their scapegoat, and so if the same woes continued, they would find themselves driven to a much more uncomfortable conclusion: that church and state suffered from a malaise that was chronic, cancerous, and incurable. Worst of all was “the Dilligence of the Papists,” as they gnawed away at the base of a Protestant nation.

If, as seemed likely, Laud rose even further, to become archbishop of Canterbury, would he put an end to Calvinism and delete predestination from the doctrine of the Church of England? Would he, like Bancroft, begin a purge of suspect clergymen? Would he punish or dismiss the likes of John Preston, for all their learning and distinction? That too seemed likely. Men such as Pocock would lose the preachers to whom they looked for guidance, the men who maintained godly good order in the parish. Even leaving aside religion—as if anybody could—did England have a future? With its economy in ruins, “impoverished by decay of Trade,” how could its people afford Christian charity? In America, they had a charitable mission ready-made, in the duty to bring the Gospel to the Indians, just as Pocock had taken it to Merseyside, by way of Harrison’s grammar school.21

These were the views of a small Puritan minority, of course. Compared with those who stayed at home, the English who went to America were very few. And, as many historians have argued, as emigration gathered pace in the 1630s, many of those who made the crossing were not really Puritans at all, but entirely economic refugees. But in 1629 that was not the case: again, as with the Mayflower, in the beginning numbers mattered less than morale and leadership. In the spring of 1629, the motivation was a compound. Religion stood at the top of the list, but it was inseparable from politics, while business was essential to supply the wherewithal for accomplishing the task.

Parliament met on January 20 and sat for seven weeks. The king wanted money with which to fight the war, while the House of Commons wanted reform. Its members could not quite agree what they meant by the word, but the religious demand was relatively simple: they wanted legislation to defend and to safeguard the Protestant religion as it had been before Laud, Buckingham, and the king’s marriage to a French Catholic. The king would not agree, Parliament refused to grant taxes, and so the session ended. Seeing no purpose in further debate, King Charles dissolved Parliament on March 10. In doing so, he gave the last impetus required for Cradock and his colleagues to do the unavoidable and to launch a second, much larger model of the Plymouth Colony. Eleven years passed until Charles ordered a new Parliament to convene.

Six days before the dissolution, the king granted a charter to a new company to found a plantation around Massachusetts Bay. Formed by Matthew Cradock, it absorbed the settlement at Salem, and in March it began to make detailed plans for the future. On the eighteenth of the month, the Massachusetts Bay Company named Cradock as its first governor. With him in the chair, the company took its essential decisions, against a background of rising excitement about the opportunities identified by David Kirke.

On February 4, the Crown issued a patent to the Kirkes that marked another new high point in the scale of British ambition in North America. The king gave them a brief “to displant the French,” and if they could do so, then they could keep Canada as a whole. For the Kirkes, possession of the territory offered something of the highest value: “the sole trade of Beaver wools, Beaver skins, Furs, Hides & Skins of wild beasts” from Labrador inland to Lake Ontario and south to Nova Scotia. On August 20, Captain Kirke and his fleet duly captured Quebec, and with it Champlain, his Jesuit companions, his arms and ammunition, and several thousand pelts.

Until the middle of 1632, the English flag flew at Quebec, with the Kirkes standing ready to sink any French ship that approached. Eventually, they had to give back the settlement, under the terms of the treaty that ended the war, but during their period of occupation the English were free to do as they pleased on the far side of the Atlantic. The fur trade of Canada and New England belonged entirely to them. During that space of time the Great Migration began.22

Violent though they were, the Kirke expeditions demonstrated that success in North America depended on far bolder ventures than those undertaken hitherto. In reaching the same conclusion, Cradock could also draw upon the lessons taught by the arduous first decade of the Plymouth Colony. Cradock knew and trusted Isaac Allerton, who carried his letters to Endecott at Salem, by way of Barnstaple. He also knew John Pocock. In due course Pocock and three other New Plymouth investors went on to join the board of Cradock’s company.23

More clearly than anyone else, Cradock recognized that the ships sent to New England needed to be much larger, carrying settlers in parties numbering at least twice as many as the passengers on the Mayflower. Cattle had to make the journey too, numbering at least one hundred head. They had to travel with the first colonists, in order to achieve a rapid reproduction of an English diet on the other side of the Atlantic. Speed was essential, and Cradock saw fishing as a distraction: it simply did not make the required financial return.

Rather than wander the coast in search of cod, ships needed to head back to England as swiftly as possible to keep the wage bill to a minimum. On board, they had to carry the items that gave the fastest payback. They should carry fish only if the colonists had it ready and packed on the quayside. “Endevour to gett convenient howsinge, fitt to lodge as manye as you cann,” Cradock wrote to Endecott. “And with all what bever, or other comodities, or ffishe, if the meanes to preserve it, can be gotten readie, to returne in the foresaid shippes; and likewise wood … there hath not been a better tyme for sale of tymber theise twoe seaven yeres.”24

During the summer and autumn of 1629, the Massachusetts Bay Company took three essential decisions. First, on July 28, they approved the purchase of a ship called the Eagle of nearly four hundred tons, much larger than any used previously by the English in the Gulf of Maine. She was not yet available, because she was privateering in the Mediterranean, looking for Spaniards to sink, but, renamed the Arbella, she duly led the Winthrop fleet to America the following year. Still more capacity was needed, but it came within their grasp. With no new taxes from Parliament, Charles had to end the war with France one month later, in April. Soon ships committed to the war effort became free to cross the Atlantic with settlers. Then, as England became a neutral country, seaborne commerce began to thrive, as it carried cargoes for customers from every nation. In the next six years, English shipyards added ten thousand tons of new shipping, and this enabled the Great Migration to accelerate.

The second decision was made on August 29. Cradock and the assistants voted to transfer the company’s legal residence and government entirely to America. Why? One motive may have been to lessen the danger of interference by William Laud and the Crown, but another seems equally likely. They simply imitated the Plymouth Colony. It still owed money in London, but in 1626 it shook off the last ties of corporate control from the old country. It entirely ran its own affairs, and since Lyford’s departure it had done so with a tranquillity rare among the English overseas. Dual control could never work, causing only friction and disagreement between investors and settlers divided by sea crossings taking many weeks.

Finally, on October 15, they turned their attention to the beaver. Copying the scheme devised by the Pilgrims, they gave the company a monopoly on the fur trade in its territory for seven years, excluding from it the individual settlers. This allowed the company to finance the outlay required for the initial voyages, before the new planters established themselves. In return, the company bore half the cost of fortifications, churches, public buildings, and the salaries of clergymen. From the outset, Cradock and his colleagues understood that only the beaver could pay for the colony that they wanted to establish. Five days later, on October 20, John Winthrop replaced Cradock as governor, because Cradock had so many business interests that tied him to London. Immediately, Winthrop began to organize and to recruit for the fleet expected to sail in the spring of 1630.

Was this enough to create a durable New England? Not quite, but John Witheridge was about to add a last, ambiguous foundation stone. He did so two years later. Again the sequence of events had its origins in Barnstaple. In 1632, Witheridge made the first link between the colonies along the shores of Massachusetts Bay and the slave islands of the Caribbean.


This phase of the story begins with a minor catastrophe in Boston Harbor. Until World War II, ships heading out from the Charlestown Navy Yard toward the open sea passed a grassy island on their left. Created by glacial debris, and rising to nearly a hundred feet above the water, Governors Island was bulldozed in 1946 to become part of the landfill that now forms Logan Airport. On July 29, 1631, at the time of year when fogs are most frequent, a Bideford fishing ship called the Friendship ran aground just here. She beached on the mudflats beyond the island, close to the seaward tip of Logan’s longest runway.

She was not a total loss—in 1633, the ship was back home in the Taw, carrying tobacco—but her mishap at Governors Island wrecked an ambitious first attempt to extend the New England trade to the Caribbean. Hired by Allerton and James Sherley, the ship had left Barnstaple the previous winter and spent eleven choppy weeks on the Atlantic before foul weather forced her back to Devon. In May, she set out once more and reached Boston in July. There she landed cattle and sheep. She went aground as she was on her way out again toward the Caribbean island of St. Kitts.25

A little cluster of colonies existed in the Lesser Antilles, where sixteen hundred English settlers lived on St. Kitts, using slaves to grow tobacco. The colony had started life in 1624, and the first English slave ship arrived with sixty slaves two years later. Nearby, on the small island of St. Martin, salt ponds supported Dutch pioneers who sold the salt to fishing ships. To the south at Barbados, another new English colony produced tobacco and cotton wool.

If these settlements grew crops to be sold for cash, they would need to import food, and this the Barnstaple men could supply. First they would ship to New England fare-paying emigrants, livestock, and stores, in the form of Barnstaple rugs and woolens. These could be sold for fur. Off the coast, the Barnstaple men would fish for bass and cod. Then they would sail south to the Antilles, sell the fish, and pick up tobacco, salt, and cotton wool. They could head straight back to England, or stop on the way in Ireland or, now that peace had returned, at La Rochelle or in the ports of Spain. The goods could be sold wherever they fetched the best price. The Friendship failed in what seems to have been the earliest venture of this kind, but the Charles of Barnstaple succeeded.26

The master of the Charles was the same John Witheridge who sailed for Palmer and the Pilgrims in the tiny Content in 1628. His ship this time was a larger vessel, of 150 tons. Preparations apparently began in Barnstaple in September 1631, when Witheridge took delivery of six hundred pounds of peas from Somerset: peas in this sort of quantity were used as cattle feed. On April 10, 1632, the Charles duly set off for America, carrying twenty human passengers and some eighty cows and six mares. No comparable cargo of livestock had ever sailed to Massachusetts, and probably none of such a size had ever traveled to Virginia in the twenty-five years since Jamestown began.

To carry animals in these numbers required fine seamanship. When cows and horses traveled from Ireland to Barnstaple, the vessels involved had more than a ton of carrying capacity for each animal, to allow for stall space, fodder, and freshwater. But the two-hundred-mile journey from Cork to Devon took only four days. Even for that short voyage, the number of animals taken on the Charles would require 112 tons of shipboard volume, or three-quarters of the space on board. The passage to America was fifteen times longer.

Cattle breeds were scrawny in the seventeenth century, and doubtless the animals were allowed to lose more weight, in the hope of feeding them out in Massachusetts. But even so, and even if Witheridge cut the journey time by loading the cows in Ireland, he would need one thousand bales of hay and forty-five thousand gallons of drinking water to sustain the cattle until they reached New England.* Since the freshwater alone would fill the ship to bursting, the journey could not have been made nonstop. John Witheridge must have sailed by way of the Azores to replenish his stores, and possibly he called at Newfoundland too.

Finding these landfalls was no easy matter. To do so within a tight schedule called for excellence in navigation. Witheridge must have stowed much of his cargo on the open deck, and so he must have loaded his vessel not only with speed but also with great care. This too required skill and experience. And yet John Witheridge took the Charles from Barnstaple to Boston in only fifty-six days, ten days faster than the voyage of the Mayflower. She arrived on June 5, John Winthrop recorded, with her passengers “all safe and in healthe.”

Witheridge showed his caliber again that autumn. The Charles lingered off New England until September 22, presumably to fish. Little more than three months later, on December 31, 1632, she reentered the Taw estuary, carrying tobacco from St. Kitts, salt from St. Martin, and wool from Ireland. There are two possibilities. Either Witheridge collected his Caribbean cargo from some middleman in Jamestown or Bermuda, or, and this is more likely, the Charles sailed more than five thousand nautical miles in one hundred days, from Boston to the Caribbean and then back across the Atlantic to Devon.*

For the first time, Witheridge completed a vast elliptical circuit of trade between the British Isles, New England, Virginia, and the West Indies: the circuit that eventually came to form the colonial system of the eighteenth century. Other Barnstaple men swiftly followed, while John Pocock helped finance the trade from London. In June 1633, another ship arrived in Barnstaple, aptly named the Gift. On board were tens of thousands of pounds of cotton wool from Barbados, and the importers were led by William Palmer. In these voyages, we can see the future in embryo, and more futures than one.27

The first Irish immigrants to Boston were skittish cows, oxen, and frightened horses, taken on board at Waterford or Kinsale by ships bound out under masters such as John Witheridge. Between decks crammed with fodder and stinking with filth, they went south to the Azores and then on along the fortieth parallel to the far side of the Atlantic. To understand why the livestock were so essential, and the consequences that they had, we must go back to the Plymouth Colony. We have to return to the colony’s soil, and to the special properties of New England’s coastal strip, from the Connecticut River to Maine.

* Records of three cattle shipments from Barnstaple to America in 1636 show that ships’masters dealt with the problem of transportation by carrying only young livestock, or yearlings. Even so, each animal required 1.3 tons of shipboard capacity, and the largest cargo consisted of no fewer than 115 bullocks.

* The second possibility is more likely because the Barnstaple records specifically name St. Kitts as the point of origin of the tobacco.

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