We are all free-holders: the rent day doth not trouble us.
—WILLIAM HILTON, PLYMOUTH COLONIST, 16211
In the summer of 1633, an epidemic of smallpox struck New England. It lasted until the cold weather returned, and at New Plymouth it killed more than twenty men, women, and children. Among them was Samuel Fuller, their surgeon and physician. He was fifty-three and one of the original settlers from the Leiden community. Like eight other men who died, he left an inventory of his possessions. It shows that by sailing on the Mayflower, Samuel Fuller advanced himself in every conceivable way.
He found the religious liberty he needed, he improved his material well-being, and his status was far higher in America. Unusually, and perhaps uniquely, in Fuller’s case the evidence exists for an exact comparison between his existence across the sea and his kinfolk’s way of life at home.
Samuel Fuller was born in 1580, the third son of a butcher and tenant farmer called Robert Fuller, an unlettered man who signed his name with a mark like an H. Being unable to read and write was not yet an infallible symptom of poverty, and the Fuller clan were modestly well-off. They lived in a village in Norfolk called Redenhall. It was located not far from the highway from London to Norwich, and only ten miles from the port of Great Yarmouth, where Separatists were active. As so often, the size of the church is an index of prosperity. Even in a county renowned for great churches, the edifice at Redenhall was special, with a tall flint tower leaping up from the brow of a hill: a little too tall, perhaps, since lightning destroyed the steeple in 1616.
There were two manors at Redenhall, and they belonged to a family called Gawdy. They were successful lawyers, and they lived a mile from the church at Gawdy Hall, later enveloped by a handsome shooting estate of a typically Norfolk kind. If you go in search of the Mayflower Fullers today, you must drive carefully, to avoid the plump pheasants that stray out from underneath the hedges. About fifty men rented land from the Gawdys, and they included two Fullers, Robert and John. The latter was either the uncle or the eldest brother of the Pilgrim.
John Fuller ranked near the top of the rent roll, as one of the largest tenants. When he died at the end of 1608, his family made an inventory of his belongings too, listed room by room and marked with Robert’s mark. Thanks to this document, and the records left by the Gawdys, we can see precisely how well the Fullers lived at home, and how much better they could do on the other side of the Atlantic.2
If Samuel went to prepare the appraisal, first he would pass the stables where John Fuller kept his cart, his plows and harrows, his scythes and mattocks, and the harness for his horses and colts. Four spotted pigs and a sow rooted nearby, while in a barn the Fuller cattle were wintering on hay. Eight lambs sheltered in another barn, while twelve shillings’ worth of hens and chickens pecked their way across the yard. Set apart from the house was a dairy, with churns, tubs, and a press for making cheese, and the shed where the Fullers made their beer. It was kitted out with skillets, pots, and “two Brasse thinges.” If the family were eating, Samuel Fuller would find them in the hall, the largest room in the house. It served as the kitchen, with an open fire equipped with bellows and iron tongs. They dined around a long table, sitting on benches and four stools.
Six sides of bacon hung from the ceiling, while a musket leaned against the wall. In the corner was a cradle, awaiting an occupant, since John Fuller’s widow was three months pregnant when he died. In the parlor, the only room with a carpet, they kept their most valuable item, a four-poster bed, and nine cushions to go with it. Margaret Fuller owned a fine collection of linen, stored in three chests in a separate bedchamber: towels, pillowcases, six tablecloths, four dozen napkins, and thirty-six sheets. Somebody could read, because the inventory listed a desk and five shillings’ worth of books.
If he were hardworking, lucky, and an eldest son, this was the way a yeoman farmer might live in old England, but Samuel did far better in the new. He had two homes—a town house at New Plymouth and a country place by the Smelt River—and he could do far more with his assets. Horses were still in short supply, and so Samuel Fuller rode an ass, but he owned three firearms, a musket for defense and two fowling pieces. It was against the law for his brothers to shoot game birds in Norfolk, thin or fat, but at New Plymouth it was positively encouraged. When the Pilgrims divided up their land in 1628, they made a provision that “ffowling, fishing and hunting be free.”To help him hunt and fish, Samuel had a share in a boat.
In 1608, John Fuller had five beds, while in 1633 Samuel possessed only three, and his widow’s stock of linen was a little smaller than it might have been in England. Even so, the American Fullers had eight tablecloths, twenty-three napkins, and twelve sheets, and something new, rarely seen in the homes of English farmers: ten yards of calico, cloth sent back from India by traders such as Emmanuel Altham. Both John and Samuel owned much the same by way of tools, pots, pans, brass, and pewter, but in three categories Samuel far outdid his kinsman in England. Each of the three had something in common, because they were goods that conferred status of a special kind on their owner.
Apart from his houses and his livestock, Fuller’s most valuable asset was his surgeon’s chest. And besides his medical manuals, his inventory listed twenty-six books, including three Bibles and, of course, works by John Robinson and Henry Ainsworth. Finally, while John Fuller’s brothers never troubled to itemize his clothes, Samuel’s inventory carefully listed his apparel: two cloaks, five suits, a gown, and nine shirts, some of them apparently brand-new and unworn.
His chest, books, and garments showed that Samuel Fuller was an educated, professional man, a distinction denied to him in England. As a Separatist, he had no chance of obtaining a license to practice medicine, since these were granted by the Church of England, and he lacked the money required to become an apprentice barber-surgeon or apothecary. When his father died in 1615, Samuel received only fifteen pounds, since his three sisters needed larger sums if they were to live respectably. Instead, he went to Leiden, where he worked as a weaver. Somehow or other he acquired his medical training, possibly from lectures at the university’s medical school, one of the most advanced in Europe. Then he practiced freely in North America.
A learned profession made a man a gentleman, and so Fuller became a gentleman by sailing on the Mayflower. He did not use the phrase—none of the nine men who died in 1633 classified themselves by rank, as they would have done in England—but he received the respect a gentleman commanded. Among his bequests were a pair of gloves, which Fuller left to John Winthrop, a member of the English landed gentry, from a background similar to the Gawdy family’s. Winthrop and Fuller dealt with each other as equals, something inconceivable on the old side of the Atlantic.
At home, the Fullers were indelibly inferior to the Gawdys, or the Winthrops, because the Fullers belonged to a class of tenants called copyholders. A copyholder occupied his homestead by virtue of a copy of an entry in a document, the court roll of the manor, of the kind that has survived from Jacobean Redenhall. He kept his land for life and handed down his tenancy to his children, but the landlord’s demands often increased sharply each time such a transfer occurred. At the tenant’s death the landlord could also ask for a due called a heriot, often defined as the tenant’s best ox, horse, or ram. Copyholders had rights, litigation was frequent, and it was not one-sided, but this was not the same thing as independence. At New Plymouth, Bradford and his colleagues simply swept copyholding away, along with the rest of the paraphernalia of English manorial law. Men such as Fuller owned land in the colony outright, to buy and sell as they pleased, with no heriots to pay.
By the time of the epidemic, for men like Fuller emigration had accomplished everything they could have wished. Severe though it was, even the rate of mortality from smallpox was less than 10 percent, far lower than in bouts of plague in Leiden or London. In time, it became apparent that life expectancy in New England far outstripped that in the old. And by 1633, beneath the colony lay a bedrock of prosperity, modest but more than adequate. Although Samuel Fuller’s inventory was drawn up four months after harvest, it included a hundred bushels of corn, enough to feed nine people for a year, and if grain was plentiful, livestock was ample too.
In 1623, Altham counted only fifty pigs, a few goats, and some hens at New Plymouth. Since poor Altham tended to exaggerate, this must be an upper limit. Although the first cattle arrived the following spring, when Edward Winslow brought them back from England, even in 1628 the cattle still numbered only fourteen. But in the next five years, thanks to voyages like those of the Charles, the stock of animals expanded rapidly. Samuel Fuller owned three dairy cows, two calves, eight sheep, and thirty pigs, and he was a long way from being the wealthiest man in the settlement. That distinction belonged to Isaac Allerton, who clearly dealt well for his personal account during his trips to Barnstaple. When the colony levied a tax in 1633, Allerton paid twice as much as Bradford, and four times as much as Fuller.
How had all this been achieved? The beaver played its part, but there was another answer too. To find it, and the implications, we need to interrogate another Pilgrim, the old warrior Miles Standish.
STANDISH THE CATTLEMAN
Perhaps he understood the American landscape best, but if he did so, it was for very English reasons. To Standish, most of all among the Pilgrims, the coastal fringe of land from Cape Cod to Cape Ann promised material opportunities of a kind that the Old World had denied.
Miles Standish was a cattleman, and he lived in a cattleman’s homestead. At his death he owned four oxen, five horses, nine cows and heifers, and a calf. In 1863, an early archaeologist unearthed the foundations of his house in Duxbury, Massachusetts, and made a plan of what he discovered. The old soldier had built himself something a modern English hill farmer would recognize: a Devon long house. A long, rectangular structure, it accommodates human beings at one end and animals at the other. Examples, made of stone, still exist on the slopes of Dartmoor today. Since a door between the two segments of the house allowed the stockman to tend his calves without going outdoors, the design was ideal for cold English moorlands and Massachusetts winters too.3
Miles Standish fitted perfectly into a New England transformed by cows carried on ships like the Charles. They were the last element necessary to allow the Great Migration to prosper in the 1630s, attracting immigrants in thousands, rather than hundreds. Cattle, their manure, and their hauling power for plows allowed the colonies to step away from a lifestyle based on maize, and instead they began to give men and women the quality of life that they aspired to in the old country. Cattle offered independence, status, meat, and a chance to accumulate wealth, and their effects went far beyond those that can be quantified. Cattle farming dispersed the colonists, creating an array of scattered settlements, soon bearing little resemblance to the villages they knew in England. While the physical space in which they lived changed profoundly, their mental landscape underwent a transformation too.4
No longer insecure, the Plymouth Colony became an element within a new and dynamic series of townships snaking up the coastline and eventually leading into the interior, unified by buying and selling as much as by shared religion. And while this process alarmed William Bradford, who feared that greed and mobility would subvert the values of the Pilgrim community, the process also contained the seeds of conflict with the native peoples of the region. In 1633, a year after the Charles reached Boston, the demands of the new cattle economy led to the first documented case in New England of the legalized theft of native lands. As we shall see, it occurred with the dispossession of the Pawtucket people. They occupied the best stretch of cow country along the shores of Massachusetts Bay.
Standish and Winslow first entered their territory in 1621, when they went up the Mystic River in pursuit of beaver skins. And because of his background, Standish was ideally qualified to see the possibilities of the coastal strip where the Pawtucket lived. Besides his cattle, his house, and his land in Duxbury, Miles Standish bequeathed to his children another item of property. The old soldier died convinced that he had been cheated of his inheritance in England. In his will, he claimed ownership of estates in six villages in Lancashire. Some unnamed person had swindled his family out of the land, but it was rightfully his, said Standish; and the land in question bore a remarkable resemblance to the place where he settled in America.
Ten miles north of Liverpool, the six villages sat on a wide coastal plain, dotted with moss and peat. In the time of Elizabeth I, two-thirds of the usable land was under grass, for rearing cattle: the sturdy black long-horned beasts for which the county was renowned. Of the six places, the northernmost was Croston, beside an enormous wetland along the estuary of the river Ribble, still today one of the largest salt marshes in the British Isles. Between the spring tides it provided grazing for hundreds more cows. When the waters rose, they could be herded safely to the higher ground where the Standishes had once lived.5
So, in England, Standish already knew a kind of terrain that he saw in replica along the shores of Massachusetts Bay. To an English settler, the most striking feature of the new American landscape would have been just this: the long fringes of salt marsh. The grasses cling like a beard to the shore, colored in winter a muddy brown, when the cordgrass has died back, under Boston skies the color of moist mother-of-pearl. Then, in the months of summer sunlight, the whiskers turn a deep amber gold, of a grandeur no Englishman sees at home. Ten degrees of latitude separate his native soil from the wide beaches that reflect the New England sun into a windy blue cloudless sky.
When the Mayflower arrived, nearly a quarter of a million acres of salt marsh edged the coast from Rhode Island to Maine. Inside the Provincetown hook, and south toward Wellfleet, along the inner rim of the Cape they found classic locales for creating salt marsh, where the curve of the land depleted the energy of waves rolling in from the Gulf of Maine and allowed sediment to accumulate. It formed habitats ideal for grasses, shellfish, insects, and feeding birds: the environment that Bradford and Winslow described in Mourt’s Relation, with its salt ponds filled with mud snails and oyster crabs.6
A Massachusetts salt marsh in October. This example is at Wellfleet Bay, on Cape Cod, and forms part of the Massachusetts Audubon Society Wildlife Sanctuary. (Photography: Nick Bunker)
To begin with, the Pilgrims were more concerned about fish, fur, and corn, but as chance would have it, they blundered into a region where nature created a rich endowment for farming cattle. A North American salt marsh can produce more organic carbon per acre than a tropical rain forest, thanks to the rich blend of nutrients created by the mixing of freshwater from estuaries and salt water from the open sea. Tall cordgrass, which grows in the lowest, wettest part of the marshes, produces more carbohydrate per square yard than wheat or barley.
As it happens, with the exception of Winslow, all the early leaders of the Plymouth Colony came from places close to similar wetlands in the old country. The two Williams, Brewster and Bradford, grew up beside the Humberhead Levels. Allerton apparently came from the coast of Suffolk, where in the years around 1600 landowners and tenants actively reclaimed marshes for grazing land. John Howland’s family lived at Fenstanton, north of the city of Cambridge, a mile from the edge of the Great Level. A belt of tow-tying bog and swamp twice as large as the salt marshes of Massachusetts, the Level extended all the way to the North Sea, where it joined the fens that reach as far as old Boston in Lincolnshire.
So, when the time and the opportunity were right, the Pilgrims began to farm the marshes along the coast. This process had its origins in 1627, when they divided their livestock. To understand it, we have to step a pace backward, to the land and the fields as they were in the colony’s earliest phase.
A GREAT DEAL OF GROUND
In 1835, a medical doctor called James Thacher published a history of New Plymouth, from the Pilgrims to the age of Andrew Jackson. He gave a candid assessment of the qualities and defects of the place. “The land in this town is hilly, barren and sandy,” he wrote. So much so that by the nineteenth century the townspeople preferred not to farm but to ply the sea, make rope, or trade as merchants.
Most of the earth is pretty much the same as it is by Billington Sea, a coarse sand called Carver soil. Very acid, and prone to let water soak straight through, in its natural state it made for meager crops. Even so, a few patches of fertility existed, listed by Thacher with approval. One was called Plain Dealing, the second was Hobbs Hole, and the third was Warren Farm. All possessed excellent earth, said Thacher, and nearby was the beach, with rockweed and kelp as additional manure.7
Plot these locations, and what do we find? Plain Dealing is right at the northern limit of modern Plymouth, just inside the town line. Warren Farm lies at the town’s very opposite, southern end, four miles from Plain Dealing along the shore. Hobbs Hole sat between Warren Farm and Plymouth Rock, fifteen minutes’ walk from Burial Hill. Because of the pattern of the soil, and the need to stay close to water for the sake of natural fertilizer, the town Thacher knew was a strung-out, elongated sort of place. It had been that way for a very long time, since the early days of the colony. That being so, New Plymouth bore very little resemblance to a village of the kind the Pilgrims knew at home.
Bradford made many sensible decisions as governor, and one of his best was to make wills and inventories obligatory, and to insist that title to land be carefully recorded. In 1645, the court made a strict law against forging deeds, altering public records, or bribing officials to do so. Malefactors might be whipped in public and branded on the face with an F for “fake” or “forger.” Draconian though it was, the system had its merits. In old England title to land was mostly unregistered, and counterfeit deeds were commonplace.8 By making the rules he did, Bradford eliminated a source of conflict. He also ensured that later generations could trace exactly who owned what, and how the colony’s outline changed. In 1886 another Plymouth historian, William T. Davis, collated the early records and charted the locations against the streets he knew. From his book, and the topography, we can see how the Pilgrims first tried to copy an English village, and then how swiftly they gave up and did something else.9
At the very beginning, they had no choice but to cling to the Town Brook and Burial Hill. Too few to cultivate a wide area, they had to use the fields already cleared by Tisquantum’s people, and they needed the stream for freshwater and for the fertilizing alewives that swam up it. And since defense remained a paramount concern, men and women working in the open dared not stray over even the lowest ridge, which might conceal them from a sentry on the fort.
Then, in 1623, decisions had to be made. Under the terms of the contract with Thomas Weston, which made the colony a common stock, for the first seven years no individual settler could own a plot of land. To ensure that each farmer received his fair share of good or bad land, the slices were rotated each year, but this was counterproductive. Nobody had any reason to put in extra hours and effort to improve a plot if next season another family received the benefit. So, as Bradford says, they abandoned what he calls the “common course and condition,” and began to allocate the soil in lots that, in due course, the owners could keep or sell. This led to a rapid increase in output, and it followed models familiar from their homeland. Side by side with the open field system, fully commercial, individualistic farming had existed in England for at least three centuries. The Pilgrims knew it well.
Also in 1623, the Anne arrived with reinforcements, and these new settlers needed land too. So the Pilgrims responded by dividing up a much larger expanse of ground, and in doing so, they copied the layout of an open field village, such as Austerfield. Most of the lots were small, just one or two acres, like the strips laid out within the open fields at home. In Nottinghamshire, each village usually possessed three or four of them, encircling the settlement. At New Plymouth the Pilgrims began by creating something very similar.
About five hundred yards from Burial Hill, on a flat area of ground, watered by two brooks flowing down into the sea, they laid out a North Field. Covered today by a parking lot, where Plymouth keeps its school buses, the field gently slopes down to the water, with one of the brooks still gurgling away beneath it in a sewer. There was also an East Field, between Burial Hill and the sea, and a South Field off in the distance on the good land around Hobbs Hole and a stream called the Wellingsley Brook. The Pilgrims did not use all these field names, but they laid out the lots in these three locations all the same.
It was all very English, but did it make sense? At home, villages like Sturton and Austerfield had evolved over many centuries. They arranged their space as they did because of all sorts of English circumstances, to do with drainage, crop rotation, and the need to stop livestock trampling corn. Landlords set limits to what a tenant might do, and the manor, the parish, and the law knit the villagers together, willingly or not. Since men and women walked to church, the parish could not extend beyond a maximum radius of two miles or so, with a fixed perimeter and fields and houses clustered inside it. Above all, by 1600 in England, a village was a place where there were many people and relatively little land. The puzzle to be solved was how to find an equilibrium between the two.
In America, circumstances differed entirely. At New Plymouth, there were no landlords, and no hedges, and certainly no Anglo-Saxon boundary marks. New England had puzzles of its own, looming conflicts about the earth, but they took an unfamiliar shape. Sooner or later, the Plymouth Colony was bound to veer away from old English models—and all the more rapidly, because they were Separatists. When Brownists made the act of separation, they voted with their feet to abolish the parish system. They did away with the church, its compulsory tithes, and the legal obligation to worship in a single building every Sunday. That being so, how could the Pilgrims insist that men and women remain within a walkable distance of Burial Hill? And if the colony had ample land, and still few people, why should they remain tightly knit, tending fields arranged like satellites around Plymouth Rock, where the soil was scarcely ideal?
In 1627, the Pilgrims began to experience space in a new, un-English manner. They agreed to give each resident twenty acres, each one a perfect rectangle, arrayed in series, with the long side of each one adjoining the water’s edge. The colony took on its narrow pencil shape. To the south, a belt of rocky hills fixed a natural boundary, and so the colony marched up the coast to the north, toward the cove at Rocky Nook Point. Up here Fuller owned his second home, and John Howland laid out his farm.
Beyond the river and Rocky Nook lay another waterway, the Jones River. On its far side, Miles Standish discovered what he was looking for: pasture and meadow to replace the birthright he had lost. North of the Jones, a chain of tidal marshes swings off to the right to form a thick margin around the coastline. The belt of marsh extends for eight miles, as far as the town of Marshfield, founded by Winslow in 1632. Even today, when some of it has been reclaimed, Duxbury Marsh encompasses thirteen hundred acres. To its north at Green Harbor the salt marsh is still wider. Standish took the name for his new settlement from Lancashire, where the English Duxbury lies beside the Ribble, near the six townships where he claimed his inheritance.10
As cattle started to arrive in quantity in the early 1630s, it began to make even more sense to move northward. “The people of the plantation begane to grow in their outward estats,” wrote William Bradford. “No man now thought he could live, except he had catle and a great deale of ground to keepe them.” So the migrants laid out their new estates in a long line, from Duxbury to Marshfield. They made not the slightest effort to copy the design of a tightly clustered village in the east of England. As they established their marsh farms, men such as Standish founded a way of life that survived along parts of the New England coast almost unaltered until the 1890s, when men still cut the hay with a scythe. They also deeply worried their governor.
Based on data extracted from maps produced from the Massachusetts state survey of 1830, and then digitized by the Harvard Forest project at Harvard University, this map of Plymouth County in the early nineteeth century shows a very un-English pattern of settlement, following the fringe of salt marsh along the coast.
For William Bradford, dispersal was new, and threatening. Many men and women soon lived much too far away to come to the meetinghouse on Sunday. This in itself might undermine the religious mission of the Pilgrims. By 1643, the colony had exploded outward into eight distinct townships, scattered across forty miles, reaching north toward Boston and spilling out eastward toward the elbow of Cape Cod. Although Plymouth remained the largest, with 148 adult males, it accounted for less than a quarter of the total population.
A few years later, as he wrote his history, Bradford made plain his fears that the loss of solidarity endangered the very purpose of New England. His alarm may have been exaggerated: perhaps he had forgotten the quarrelsome nature of the focused villages he knew in the valleys of the Idle and the Trent. By scattering as they did, in all likelihood the colonists eased tensions and made godliness more attainable, rather than less. Even so, Bradford was right to register the fact that disorienting change was under way.11
He was far less likely to understand its economic origins on the other side of the Atlantic. Among the Pilgrims, perhaps Robert Cushman saw them most clearly. Born near the most expensive meadow and pasture in the south of England, on the coast of Kent, Cushman possessed the sharpest eye for the material realities of his native land. Transmitted three thousand miles across the ocean, they destroyed the way of life of the Pawtucket along the Mystic River.
GEORGE NO-NOSE AND THE MARSH
Two marshes bear the name of Romney. One of them forms a green wedge that pokes out into the English Channel, seventy miles from London, with at its farthest extremity the lighthouse at Dungeness. To find the other, simply look down as you drop toward Boston’s Logan Airport from the north, at a spot where two blue coils of shining water creep inland amid the brown of the tidal flats. A highway cuts across them in a sweeping arc. The road is the Salem Turnpike, and the water marks the course of two rivers, the Saugus and the Pines. They flow down between the towns of Lynn and Revere, reaching the sea about six miles from downtown Boston. Along the Pines lies the boundary between two counties, Essex and Suffolk, named after coastal shires in England.
Together with Chelsea, the next town to the south, the modern suburbs of Lynn and Revere cover an area that acquired in the 1630s a reputation as the best place to farm in English North America. Winthrop logged the date, 1633, when settlers first reaped a harvest of English wheat. It grew on the American Romney Marsh. The wetland formed the northern extension of a belt of marshes that began on the Mystic at Medford and then curved around the shore to Lynn, encompassing eighteen square miles.
It is hard to imagine what valuable soil this made, now that Greater Boston has swallowed up the region. What remains of the salt marsh lies concealed behind apartment buildings and a state police post, along the boulevard at Revere Beach, where the only vestige of a cow is a stand selling roast beef sandwiches. By far the richest slice of earth was some elevated ground called Oak Island, where many centuries of dying plants and trees created a dark bed of compost. Today it remains the best place to see the dense grass that attracted the early settlers. The island itself has disappeared into suburbia, covered with a grid of streets and houses, but the view of Romney Marsh remains.
Nobody knows who first awarded the name to this corner of Massachusetts, but it must have happened very soon after the earliest settlers arrived. Winthrop used it without any comment, as though it was already familiar. Whoever it was, by doing so he sent a clear message home about the potential of the New World, because the old Romney Marsh was land of the sort that every English farmer wanted most. Nobody understood this better than Robert Cushman.12
When he gave his sermon at New Plymouth in 1621, he preached about high rents and greedy landlords, and in his part of Kent the effects of both were very visible. Cushman was born in 1578 at a place called Rolvenden. Under Elizabeth I, this and the nearby village of Cranbrook achieved modest infamy, as a hive of Puritans who clashed with the authorities. But if outsiders had heard of them, the most likely reason lay in their valuable location. Rolvenden stood on a hill above the river that fed Romney Marsh, and the dead center of the marsh lay only ten miles off.
By the early seventeenth century, the reclaimed soil had become a vast ranch, divided into hundreds of smallholdings each of forty acres, with the tenants including Rolvenden men. As many as ninety-five thousand sheep and cattle lived on the rich grassland, in a space less than one-third as large as the salt marshes of Massachusetts. And as the population grew, and the price of grain and cattle feed rose, the cost of land at Romney soared. Rents per acre at Romney were four or five times higher than the English average. They almost doubled in the twenty years before the Mayflower sailed.13
So, when somebody borrowed the name for the marshes at Revere and Lynn, where nobody need pay rent at all, he issued an invitation that many farmers might find irresistible. Competition for grazing land in England was starting to taper off a little, thanks to the economic slump in Europe and the falling price of wool, but rents dropped only slightly, and the small farmer remained insecure. And for some of them, insecurity was becoming terminal, as more powerful men sealed their dominance of the wetlands that remained.
Since the 1580s, statesmen such as Burghley had worried that so much of England seemed to be infertile wasteland. As far back as 1589, a Dutch engineer proposed a vast plan to drain the fens of eastern England and turn them into cornfields and pasture. When, in the 1590s, disastrous harvests led to appalling hardship, projects such as these came to be seen as urgent necessities.14
For the next five decades, schemes to drain English wetlands proceeded in counterpoint with projects for new colonies in North America. Sometimes the same men were involved in both. Most of the fen drainage ventures were failures, for many reasons: costs far exceeded estimates, engineering skills were lacking, and the projects encountered angry opposition. Using a law passed in 1600, the Crown awarded control of immense tracts of wetland to “undertakers,” investors from the aristocracy or from the City of London. In return for financing the work, the undertakers received most of the fens they drained: hence their unpopularity among the farmers already occupying the same territory and rearing animals on it.
All of this had a direct bearing on the fate of the Pawtucket. The first colonists arrived on the American Romney Marsh in 1629, in the shape of two men in their twenties, Edmund Ingalls and his younger brother Francis. In England, they came from Skirbeck, by the sea close to the old Boston in Lincolnshire. Skirbeck was a fenland parish, and the two Ingalls boys lived by raising livestock. When their father died in 1617, he left them eight cows, nearly forty sheep, fifteen horses, and a rick full of hay, but prosperity such as this might not last. Here rents were still rising, and the fens around Skirbeck were among those that attracted most attention from outsiders. In 1630, Charles I granted tens of thousands of acres of the Boston fens to a consortium of undertakers, led by a well-connected courtier. Despite angry protests from the residents, the project went ahead amid allegations of corruption among local officials.15
The Ingalls brothers left no documentary evidence to say precisely why they left for America, but these were the circumstances from which they came. It seems likely that they were among the farmers displaced by fen drainage. They were also Puritans, with a Puritan vicar. This would have given them a clinching motive for emigration. In Massachusetts, they settled first at Salem and then moved to Lynn. As many as fifty other English families followed in their footsteps in 1630, with “a large stock of cattle, sheep and goats.” In doing so, they entered a space far less empty than it must have seemed to them. With its deer, shellfish, herbs, and berries and with ground ideal for maize as well as wheat, Romney Marsh already provided a spacious home to the Pawtucket. They were about to suffer their own catastrophe.
When Standish and Winslow went up the Mystic, they found the grave of Nanepashemet, the sachem of the Pawtucket. When he died, he left not only his widow, the Squa Sachem, but also three sons. They were known to the English as Sagamore John, Sagamore James, and Sagamore George. Of the three, George was by far the youngest, born, it seems, in 1616. The English also called him George No-Nose, though his real name was Wenepoykin. It fell to Wenepoykin to fight to recover Romney Marsh, stolen from his people during the first decade of the new colony beside Massachusetts Bay.
By 1630, because of disease and attacks by the Micmac to the north, the surviving Pawtucket had dwindled to a small but still significant number. Sagamore John led a group of forty warriors based at West Medford. His brother James lived by the Saugus at Lynn, with another forty men, while more made their homes on the marsh between the two. In 1633, the smallpox epidemic devastated those who remained. In the words of Thomas Hutchinson, the New England historian of the 1770s: “John, Sagamore of Winisimet, and James of Lynn, with almost all their people, died of the distemper.”
Before the epidemic, tensions had already existed between the Pawtucket and the English, with complaints about cattle trampling fields of maize. What happened afterward is not entirely clear, but as the Ingalls brothers settled down to farm and run a tannery, they attracted envious glances from the south. In 1634, the town of Boston officially annexed Romney Marsh as a whole. Its citizens began to divide up the land, with the lion’s share allocated to the wealthiest inhabitants. The Ingalls brothers received 120 acres, but by far the largest tract went to Captain Robert Keayne, commander of the Boston militia. In the end, Keayne owned eight hundred acres—“some of the best land on the New England coast,” it was said—including the stretch behind Revere Beach.*
From his brothers, Wenepoykin inherited the title of sachem of Chelsea and Lynn and in due course he began to wage a battle in the law courts at Boston to recover his property. Starting in 1651, the legal proceedings continued fitfully for eighteen years, as Wenepoykin tried to obtain a judgment against the new landowners on Romney Marsh, including Keayne. Although they offered no defense, except right of occupation, Wenepoykin lost his campaign of litigation and took up arms of a different kind. He fought against the English during King Philip’s War in 1676. When it ended in defeat for the native people, they shipped him off to Barbados as a convict. Eventually he returned, and died in about 1684. After his death, his family signed away their claim to land at Lynn, in return for silver worth sixteen pounds.16
A WESTERN DESIGN
Grievous stories such as that of Romney Marsh have almost too many dimensions. Religion, politics, ecology, and disease, dynastic warfare in Europe, and the ambitions of men and women of many kinds, tanners as well as evangelists, gentlemen landlords as well as fenland farmers: all of them had their roles to play in the making of New England. The foundation of the new colonies resembled a Jacobean drama. It had as many scenes and quite as much ambiguity as a play by Shakespeare, and this book has only covered act 1.
When a story is so complicated, with so much nuance, it serves no purpose to allot praise or blame in simple ways, as though we were slicing up the acres on Romney Marsh. To the south, in the Plymouth Colony, for example, the evidence suggests that Indian rights to land received far more respect. As for the Bostonians, perhaps men like Robert Keayne were acquisitive, or grasping, but if we could place him in the dock, Keayne would have his own case to make. What purpose did it serve, he might say, for a tiny people who lacked livestock to occupy soil that could house so many English families? It was smallpox, not the English farmer, that dispossessed George No-Nose, Keayne might argue, and smallpox killed the European and the native alike. Samuel Fuller died the same death as Sagamore John.17
So was the fate of the Pawtucket unavoidable? Did they fall victim not to greedy individuals but to blind and impersonal economic forces? In a sense they did. But this need not have been inevitable. What if cattle had never sailed to Massachusetts? Without them, no evictions would have taken place at Romney Marsh. But livestock could only cross the sea because English mariners had built larger ships and learned to sail them effectively. That was another story: the evolution of English enterprise by sea. Again, it possessed a logic of its own, but it did not follow anybody’s master plan.
Did New England have to happen at all? What if the Duke of Buckingham had brought his men home safely from the Île de Ré? Or what if he and King Charles had never provoked the French cardinal to lay siege to La Rochelle? The war between England and France was not bound to occur. What if it had never broken out, or if Charles I had won some victories? In either case, at home the political temperature would have fallen sharply.
Sea captains from Barnstaple might have proceeded happily on their way, carrying wine and woolens back and forth across the Bay of Biscay. They might never have needed to cross the Atlantic. And would John Winthrop and the Puritans have simply stayed at home? However much they hated Archbishop Laud, it was the crisis in Parliament in 1629 that tipped the balance in favor of departure to America. That crisis would not have occurred without the quarrels about taxation arising from the war.
Of course, this kind of speculation has its limits. Leaving aside the events of the late 1620s, were there deep and chronic flaws in the way England ran its affairs, in matters of religion, politics, and finance? There probably were, and if so, then occasional explosions of discontent were inescapable. Sooner or later men and women would seek an outlet by way of emigration. And the harsh demographics of old England provided another incentive. Even if they did not, there were other strategic reasons to make a push across the ocean.
New England simply offered too many resources—beaver skins, naval stores, and naval bases—for old England to ignore it indefinitely. So perhaps the turning point actually lay in the Canadian expeditions by the Kirkes. Their victories showed that England could challenge France and Spain for control of the North Atlantic. They also made a handsome profit, by way of pelts and captured ships and ordnance.
We could pursue arguments like these indefinitely, but we might end up by explaining nothing at all. The truth is that Calvinist zeal was far more important than any other single factor in bringing about the creation of New England. We cannot simply edit the Puritans out of the picture, however much some historians wish to try. It was the Plymouth Colony that made the essential breakthrough. The Pilgrims invented the model and set the tone for what came later. Investors like Pocock and Cradock would not have persisted with transatlantic projects if they had not seen Bradford and his people show how the job could be done. Even if New England was inevitable, somebody had to be first. And for the task to be accomplished, religion was essential, for two reasons. One had to do with money, while the other concerned morale.
Men such as Cradock and Pocock persevered because they possessed a sort of evangelical superego. It was nurtured in places such as Bread Street Ward, and it goaded them on when others gave up. Many people wished to make money in the City of London, but less hazardous ways existed than the American option, and those who put up the money for Massachusetts were few in number. They were very definitely Puritans, and Puritans of a particular type, the kinds of people who drilled in the Artillery Garden and refused to pay the forced loan demanded by the king.
Morale was necessary too, for leadership and as a means to cope with adversity. Commenced in a dire economic climate, when capital was short and mishaps were many, the Mayflower enterprise might have fallen apart at any point in its first seven years if circumstances had been even slightly more adverse. Although they soon learned to feed themselves, the colony could have failed if the Pilgrims ran out of gunpowder, lead, copper, and iron tools, if they provoked Massasoit or lost all their boats, or if a smallpox epidemic as severe as that of 1633 had occurred ten years earlier. Even if complete collapse had not occurred, the Plymouth Colony might have split into fragments, or its demoralized members might have headed south to Virginia. That last option would have been the easiest at any time after 1623. By way of John Pory, they had established good relations with Jamestown, and the start of a boom in the output of tobacco was beginning to make the south seem far more attractive.
Without Separatism, what reason to continue would Bradford, Winslow, and Brewster have possessed? Without an ideology, potent but flexible too, how would they have weathered each of the catastrophes that befell them? That being so, we need to understand exactly what Separatism was, and why it came into being as it did. Sadly, it has become commonplace to skewer the Pilgrims to a blackboard with modern vocabulary such as “fanatic” and “fundamentalist,” terms that either did not exist at the time or meant something very different from their modern definitions.
The word “fundamentalist” had no currency before 1910. It came into being in America to refer to evangelical Christians who were defending biblical religion against modern phenomena, such as Darwinism. On the day the Mayflower left Plymouth Sound, Darwin remained a very distant prospect far below anybody’s horizon. By the standards of our age, everybody was a fundamentalist in the seventeenth century, of some kind or another. When it comes to fanaticism, the Pilgrims could point their finger at many contemporaries far more guilty than they. If we want to find the worst effects of religious hatred in the period, the place to go is central Europe. Over the course of the Thirty Years’ War the population of Greater Germany fell by more than seven million.
Preserved at Barnstaple in Devon, this may be the earliest manuscript surviving in England to document the financing of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It concerns a dispute in 1635 between the London investor John Pocock and the Boston settler John Humfrey, about a cargo shipped on the Gift of Barnstaple. (Barnstaple Town Council and North Devon Record Office, Document B1/4090)
In any event, Separatism did not originate in religion alone. Its roots lay in the English politics of the early 1580s, when men and women worried about the defense of the realm, about the succession to Queen Elizabeth, and about the best way to run their localities in an age of divisive change. For a William Brewster, Separatism offered a means to respond, in religious language, to a set of situations or a predicament that went far beyond matters of worship. Compounded with ideas about gentility and good government, and seasoned with Greek and Roman ideals of republican virtue, Separatism gave rise to ambitions that had secular consequences. The new colony had to pay its way and govern itself, as well as kneel on the Sabbath.18
By any criteria that a Jacobean might recognize, the Plymouth Colony succeeded in all these respects, and remarkably so. Of course, even in 1640 the new English colonies between the Connecticut valley and Maine remained small. There were some twenty thousand settlers at the most, and many of these decided not to stay. Not long ago, a British historian called Susan Hardman Moore published a book correctly showing that a quarter of those who came west across the Atlantic went home again, not least because, in the 1640s, the Puritans seemed to be winning a great victory in the civil war in the old country.* But if we stand the statistic on its head, then 75 percent remained in America. This was quite enough to win a poll in favor of the New World by an overwhelming majority.
Why was this so? In the 1640s, New England suffered its own recession, but it survived, because by then it possessed a flexible, diverse way of life, in a material sense if not in others. Vital in the earliest phase, the trade in beaver fur remained important, but less dominant than it had been. This was because other activities abounded. Men working for Cradock set up the first American shipyard, on the Mystic in 1633. On the Saugus, John Pocock helped finance the first ironworks. Fishing carried on all year round, from places such as Cape Ann, while along the river terraces of the Connecticut valley corn grew in plenty. On the salt marshes of the coast, the herds of cattle multiplied.19
New England swiftly became an essential element within the much larger system that evolved from the voyages of the Charles. By the 1640s, by far the largest cattleman in New England was another farmer from south Lincolnshire, the freethinking nonconformist William Coddington. Like Pocock, Coddington resisted the forced loan; like the Ingalls brothers, he came to America as a Puritan from old Boston; and in the middle of the 1630s, he migrated to the marshes of Rhode Island. From Narragansett Bay he shipped livestock to the West Indies.20 Fish and timber made the same journey. English settlers in the Caribbean needed supplies that Massachusetts could provide, and in return they sent sugar and tobacco to New England. There was also the matter of slavery, because slavery was already embedded in the Sugar Islands. That subject lies beyond the limits of this book, but its looming presence must be registered: black slaves came to Boston as well as to Barbados. This was another possibility that John Witheridge created.
All of this happened under the banner of what became the British Empire. It did not yet exist, in a sense that Queen Victoria might recognize, but the flag was rising up the mast and beginning to flap in a strong wind from the west. Sixty years before, when Browne was pondering Separatism, the Spanish had annexed Portugal. By doing so in 1580, Spain apparently gave itself an unshakable grip on the Atlantic trades, because Portugal brought with it Brazil and the Portuguese island territories. When Edward Winslow died, in the 1650s, the place and the circumstances of his death told a very different story.
Miles Standish left his bones at Duxbury, but Winslow’s went to the bottom of the Caribbean. They buried him at sea, because the old Pilgrim had made a new career, under Oliver Cromwell, as a diplomat and civil servant in London. Cromwell shipped him out on an English fleet, on its way to seize the Spanish possessions in the West Indies. The expedition carried a grand title: the Western Design.
On May 7, 1655, Winslow died from a fever at sea. His funeral took place the next morning, with a salute of forty cannon. A few days later, the English task force began the invasion of Jamaica. It took time to subdue, but by the end of the century the island of slaves and sugar was by far the most precious British colony of all. Edward Winslow died helping to make Jamaica what it later became. He was a Pilgrim, and an imperialist.
We could never say that about William Bradford. Worrying as he did about spiritual corruption, about greed in the colony, and about the loss of its Christian purpose, Bradford would have had little time for anything as overbearing as Cromwell’s imperial agenda. At New Plymouth, Bradford died two years later. They interred his remains on the summit of Burial Hill, in sight of the sand hills of the Cape. What might he have thought, when he heard about his old comrade’s death? To find a lesson about the arrogance of empire, William Bradford might open his Bible, turn to the first book of Kings, and ponder what it said about the punishment Jehovah meted out to the proud.
* Keayne was an investor in the Plymouth Colony, and a comrade- in- arms of John Pocock’s in the Honourable Artillery Company of London.
* Susan Hardman Moore, Pilgrims: New World Settlers & the Call of Home (New Haven, CT, and London, 2007).