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John Winthrop

By Charles D. Elliot
The parish of Groton in the county of Suffolk, Eng., lies midway between the town of Sudbury on the river Stower and the town of Hadleigh on the river Bret, Sudbury being about five miles west, and Hadleigh five miles east of Groton, adjoining which to the west is Edwardston, the birthplace of the subject of this paper, Governor John Winthrop. He was born January 12, 1587 (O. S.), and was the son of Adam and Anne Winthrop, of Groton manor, which was the ancestral home of the Winthrops, this estate having descended to this Adam from his grandfather, Adam Winthrop, to whom it had been granted by patent in 1544 by Henry VIII.; the estate previously belonged to the monastery of Bury St. Edmonds.

The following record of Governor Winthrop's birth was made by his father in these words: ‘John, the only sonne of Adam Winthrop and Anne his wife, was borne in Edwardston on Thursday, about 5 of the clock in the morning the 12 daie of January anno 1587 in the 30 yere of the reigne of Qu. Eliza.’ Other entries in his diary concerning his son John relate concisely certain important events in the life of the future governor, viz., his entrance to college, his courtship, first marriage and honeymoon. These entries are as follows, viz.:—

‘1602. The 2d of December I rode to Cambridge. The VIIIth John my soonne was admitted into, Trinitie College.’ ‘1604. The XXIIId of Aprill my sonne returned from Cambridge.’

‘1604. The Vth of Novembre my soonne did ryde into Essex wth Willm Forth to Great Stambridge.’

‘1605. . . . March . . . the XXVIIIth day my soonne was sollemly contracted to Mary Foorth by Mr. Culverwell, Minister of Great Stambridge.’ [26]

‘The 16th of Aprill (1605) he was married at Great Stambridge.’

‘The VIIIth of May (1605) my soonne & his wife came to Groton from London, and the IXth I made a marriage feast,’ etc.

The above records show that Governor Winthrop was but seventeen years old when married. He immediately came under Mr. Culverwell's ministry, to which, in a confession of his youthful sinfulness made in after life, he ascribes his conversion to Christianity; of which he says, ‘The ministry of the word came home to my heart with power. . . . I could no longer dally with religion. . . . I had an unsatiable thirst after the word of God; and could not miss a good sermon, especially of such as did search deep into the conscience.’

In June, 1615, his wife Mary died, and on December 6, 1615, he married his second wife, Thomasine Clopton, who lived but a year after her marriage. Winthrop speaks of her as a ‘woman wise, modest, loving & patient of injuries’ . . . ‘& truly religious.’

In 1618 he married his third wife, Margaret Tindall. Two letters from him to this lady before their marriage, are models of commingled piety and affection for his future wife, and are very quaint and curious. His third wife died in June, 1647, and in December he married his fourth wife, widow Martha Coitmore, who survived him, and married a third husband, John Coggan.

The letters, still extant, between Governor Winthrop and his wives are conclusive evidence that in the lottery of matrimony he drew charming prizes, as did they.

Winthrop was a justice at eighteen years of age, and lawyer in London as early as 1622, and probably followed some branch of the legal profession up to the time of his appointment as governor—holding court as lord of the manor, and being for some time one of the ‘Atturnies in the Courte of Wards and Lyvereyes’ at the inner temple, etc. He seems to have had clients among the nobility, and to have performed professional service in connection with parliamentary proceedings. One of the bills drawn up by him is entitled ‘An Act for the preventing of drunkenness and of the great waste of corn,’ and has the following preamble: [27] ‘Forasmuch as it is evident that the excessive strength of beer and ale in Inns & Alehouses is a principal occasion of the waste of the grain of this kingdom and the only fuel of drunkenness & disorder,’ etc., and enacts that a strength of not over two bushels of malt in a hogshead of beer shall be hereafter used under a penalty of ten pounds for each offense, etc.

The commencement of the Massachusetts Bay Company, whose charter of 1628 Winthrop brought with him, is thus told by Deputy-Governor Thomas Dudley, in a letter to the Countess of Lincoln. He says: ‘Touching the Plantation which we here have begun, it fell out thus: About the year 1627, some friends being together in Lincolnshire, fell into discourse about New England and the planting of the Gospel there, and after some deliberation, we imparted our reasons, by letters and messages, to some in London and the west country, where it was likewise deliberately thought upon, and at length negotiation so ripened that in the year 1628 we procured a patent from his Majesty for our planting between the Mattachusetts Bay and Charles river on the south, and the river Merrimack on the north.’ . . .

Mr. Winthrop, of Suffolk (who was well known in his own country and well approved here for his piety, liberality, wisdom and gravity) coming in to us, we came to such resolution, that in April, 1630, we set sail from Old England.’ The company to whom this patent from King James of which Dudley speaks was granted was entitled ‘The Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England.’ Its records have been preserved and published, and are very full in detail, and intensely interesting with reference to the founding of Eastern Massachusetts, and the part taken therein by John Winthrop. The company held its ‘General Courts’ from time to time in London; the one in which we are most interested is concerning the transfer of its government to Massachusetts and appointment of Winthrop as governor. It was on July 28, 1629, and reads: ‘And lastly, Mr. Governor (Cradock) read certain propositions conceived by himself, viz.: That for the advancement of the Plantation, the inducing and encouraging persons of worth and quality to transplant themselves and families thither, and for other weighty reasons, to [28] transfer the government of the Plantation to those that shall inhabit there, and not to continue the same in subordination to the company here’ (in London). Those present were desired to privately consider this matter, and bring reasons in writing pro and con at the next General Court, and meanwhile to preserve secrecy, ‘that the same be not divulged,’ probably fearing that King James' government might defeat their purpose. On August 26, 1629, or within a month after this meeting, an agreement was drawn up between John Winthrop, Thomas Dudley, Richard Salstonstall, William Vassall, Increase Nowell, and others, all now good old New England names, ‘to embark by the 1st of March next’ . . . ‘to pass the seas (under God's protecton), to inhabit and continue in New England; provided, always, that before the last of September next, the whole government, together with the Patent for the said Plantation, be first, by an order of Court, legally transferred and established to remain with us and others which shall inhabit said Plantation,’ etc. On August 29, 1629, another general court of the company was held, and the matter of transferring the government and charter to New England again discussed, and on the next day the question came up for final decision. The records say that, ‘after a long debate, Mr. Deputy (Gov'r) put it to the question as followeth: As many of you as desire to have the patent and the government of the Plantation to be transferred to New England,’ etc., ‘hold up your hands,’ etc., ‘when, by erection of hands, it appeared by the general consent of the company that the government and patent should be settled in New England.’ At several other meetings the details of this transfer of government were discussed, and on October 20, 1629, the court met to elect the new governor, ‘and having received extraordinary great commendations of Mr. John Wynthrop, both for his integrity, and sufficiency, did put in nomination for that place the said John Winthrop,’ and he was by a general vote, ‘by erection of hands, chosen to be Governor for the ensuing year.’

Winthrop's voyage to America is described with minuteness day by dayin his diary. It begins:—

‘Anno Domini, 1630, March 29, Monday (Easter Monday). [29] Riding at the Cowes, near the Isle of Wight, in the Arbella,’ a ship of 350 tons, ‘whereof Capt. Peter Milborne was Master, being manned with 52 seamen and 28 pieces of ordnance,’ etc. At the present day this seems a pretty large armament for such a little canoe of a ship; however, disregarding the proverb of a century or more later, that ‘Greater ships may venture more, but little boats should keep near shore,’ they sailed from Old England, and after a long voyage full of incident and peril, from foe and from sea, arrived safely at Salem on June 12, 1630. Speaking of his arrival, Winthrop says: ‘About 4 in the morning we were near our port. We shot off two pieces of ordnance, and sent our skiff to Mr. Peirce his ship, which lay in the harbor.’ . . . ‘Mr. Peirce came aboard us, and returned to fetch Mr. Endecott’. . . . ‘and with him Mr. Skelton and Capt. Levett.’ . . . ‘We . . . returned with them to Nahumkeck (Salem), where we supped with good venison pasty and good beer, and at night we returned to our ship.’ On Thursday, June 17, he writes: ‘We went to Mattachusetts, to find out a place for our sitting down. We went up Mistick River about six miles.’ On July 2 he records: ‘My son Henry Winthrop was drowned at Salem.’ This was his first great sorrow since arriving.

Under Thursday, July 8, his diary says: ‘We kept a day of thanksgiving in all the plantations,’ and under August, but no date, he says, ‘Monday we kept at Court.’ This was the first general court held in Massachusetts; it was presided over by Governor Winthrop; it was on August 23, 1630, at Charlestown. Among his first day's state legislation was the order ‘that Carpenters, joiners, bricklayers, sawyers, and thatchers take no more than 2s. a day, under pain of 10s.’ fine. Under date of October 23, 1630, speaking of himself in the third person, Winthrop records:—

‘The Governor, upon consideration of the inconveniences which had grown in England by drinking one to another, restrained it at his own table, and wished others to do the like, so as it grew, by little and little, to disuse.’

Winthrop seems by this to have been the first practical temperance reformer in these parts. [30]

Cotton Mather relates that, ‘In the year 1632, the governor, with his pastor, Mr. Wilson, and some other gentlemen, to settle a good understanding between the two Colonies, traveled as far as Plymouth, more than forty miles through a howling wilderness’; . . . ‘the difficulty of the walk was abundantly compensated by the honorable reception’ . . . ‘which they found from the rulers of Plymouth; and by the good correspondence thus established between the colonies, who were like the floating bottles wearing this motto: “If we come into collision, we break.” ’

The harmony established at this time between the two colonies, whose interests in many ways were perhaps not identical, grew some years later into that confederation known as the United Colonies of New England, which was a potent factor in the defense and settlement of the country.

The governor resided first in Charlestown, in the so-called ‘Great House,’ where now is City square, in which building, also, was held the general court of the colony. Later, with others he moved to Boston. He settled on the easterly side of what is now Washington street, between Spring lane and Milk street, which place he called ‘the Green,’ where he built his house, at the corner of Spring lane, the frame of this house being brought over from Charlestown; it was destroyed by the British in 1775. His front yard is now occupied by the Old South church. This transfer to Boston was probably hastened by lack of good water in Charlestown. Blackstone, the lone settler of Boston, as the record says, ‘came and acquainted the Governor of an excellent Spring there; withal inviting him and soliciting him thither.’

This spring was probably on the south side of Spring lane, not far from Devonshire street, and from which the lane was named.

On September 6, 1631, Winthrop was granted 600 acres of land on the south side of Mystic river, which he named ‘Ten Hills.’

In 1632 he was granted ‘Conant's Island,’ in Boston harbor, and changed its name to Governor's Garden, he planting orchards, fruit, and vines there. It is now Governor's Island, the site of Fort Winthrop. [31]

In November, 1632, he received a further grant of fifty acres of land near Wannottymies river, which is now Alewife brook, and in 1634 he was with Craddock granted the fish weir on the Mystic, at Medford, and again another grant of 1,000 acres or more on Concord river.

Winthrop seems to have temporarily resided in Cambridge in 1632. He probably resided at Ten Hills summers, and at Boston winters, maintaining an establishment at Ten Hills the year round.

The original Ten Hills farm, as granted by the general court to Winthrop in 1631, comprised all the land south of Mystic river, from Broadway park to Medford centre, the southerly boundary of the farm being Broadway as far as the Powder House, and then by a line now obliterated to Medford centre.

Ten Hills might with some reason be called a Gubernatorial Demense, being with occasional interruptions owned in families of governors or their associates, from its first grant, to the present time. Its first owner was Governor Winthrop, of Massachusetts; then his son, John Winthrop, Jr., governor of Connecticut; then Charles Lidgett, an associate of Governor Andros; then the wife of Lieutenant-Governor Usher; then Robert Temple, son of the governor of Nova Scotia; then Robert Temple, Jr., grandson of the governor of Nova Scotia, and whose wife was daughter of Governor Shirley; then by Isaac Royal, a governor's councilor; then by Thomas Russell, another governor's councilor; and recently by Governor Oliver Ames; and now by Governor Ames' heirs. Some extracts from Governor Winthrop's diary give us a picture of his life here at Ten Hills and elsewhere at this time. He says, under date of October 11, 1631: ‘The governor, being at his farmhouse at Mistick, walked out after supper, and took a piece in his hand, supposing he might see a wolf (for they came daily about the house, and killed swine and calves); and being about half a mile off, it grew suddenly dark, so, as, in coming home, he mistook his path, and went till he came to a little house of Sagamore John, which stood empty. There he stayed, and having a piece of match in his pocket (for he always carried about him match and a compass, [32] and in summer time snake weed), he made a good fire near the house, and lay down upon some old mats, which hefound there, and so spent the night, sometimes walking by the fire, sometimes singing psalms, and sometimes getting wood, but could not sleep. It was (through God's mercy) a warm night; but a little before day it began to rain, and having no cloak, he made shift by a long pole to climb up into the house.’ . . . ‘In the morning he returned safe home, his servants having been much perplexed for him, and having walked about, and shot off pieces, and hallooed in the night, but he heard them not.’

‘October 30. The Governor, having erected a building of stone at Mistick, there came so violent a storm of rain, for twenty-four hours, from the N. E. and S. E. as (it being not finished, and laid with clay for want of lime) two sides of it were washed down to the ground; and much harm was done to other houses by that storm.’

‘November 2. The ship Lyon, William Peirce, master, arrived at Natascot. There came in her, the Governour's wife, his eldest son and his wife, and others of his children, and Mr. Eliot, a minister, and other families, being in all about sixty persons, who all arrived in good health, having been ten weeks at sea, and lost none of their company but two children, whereof one was the Governour's daughter Ann, about one year and half old, who died about a week after they came to sea.’

‘November 4. The Governour, his wife and children went on shore, with Mr. Peirce, in his ship's boat. The ship gave them six or seven pieces. At their landing, the captains, with their companies in arms, entertained them with a guard, and divers volleys of shot, and three drakes; and divers of the assistants and most of the people of the near plantations came to welcome them, and brought and sent for divers days, great store of provisions, as fat hogs, kids, venison, poultry, geese, partridges, etc., so as the like joy and manifestation of love had never been seen in New England. It was a great marvel, that so much people and such store of provisions could be gathered together at so few hours' warning.’

‘11. We kept a day of thanksgiving at Boston.’ [33]

The first ship built in Massachusetts was launched from this Ten Hills farm upon the Mystic in 1631, by Governor Winthrop, July 4—an historic day 145 years later, when a new nation was also launched. Winthrop called this boat the Blessing of the Bay. A few years since, old timbers were found beneath the flats, which are supposed to have been the ways over which this vessel was launched.

This ship was the first war vessel of the colony, doing valiant service against pirates in after years. Winthrop was succeeded by Thomas Dudley as governor in 1634, but was made deputy-governor in 1636, under Sir Henry Vane, and governor again in 1637, holding until 1640; again reelected in 1643, and yet again in 1646, retaining the office until his death in 1649.

He ruled with great discretion and firmness, with a clear judgment, and commendable fairness in the settlement of the various troublesome matters which came before him, among which were religious controversies, as well as civil dissensions. One of these was the misunderstanding between him and Deputy-Governor Dudley in many of the affairs of the colony. But these public troubles were not the only ones that Winthrop suffered; added to the death of his son Henry and another child, came that of his wife Margaret, and, to make his burdens more grievous, his confidential agent so managed his estates that financial ruin seemed inevitable.

This man, whose name was Luxford, in his letters to Winthrop, constantly reassured the governor of his faithfulness, and disclaimed the peculations with which rumor charged him, but was finally brought to trial, convicted of fraud, and also bigamy, and was imprisoned and his ears cut off.

The unfaithfulness of Luxford caused Winthrop to revoke certain testaments in his will, in which document he says that, through his servants, his debts are £ 2,600, whereof he did not know of more than £ 300.

In 1645 one of his worst misfortunes in public life befell him; this was his accusation and trial for ‘an invasion of the rights of [34] the people’ in quelling mutinous practices in Hingham, from which charge, however, he was finally acquitted.

His address to the general court after acquittal is certainly worthy of repetition here. He said:

I shall not now speak anything about the past proceedings of court, or the persons therein concerned. . . . I am well satisfied that I was publickly accused, and that I am now publickly acquitted. . . . But give me leave, before you go, to say something that may rectifie the opinions of many people. . .The questions that have troubled the country have been about the authority of the magistracy, and the liberty of the people. It is you who have called us unto this office; but being thus called, we have our authority from God, . . . and the contempt of it has been vindicated by God with terrible examples of his vengeance. I entreat you to consider, that when you chuse magistrates, you take them from among yourselves, “men subject unto like passions with yourselves.” If you see our infirmities, reflect on your own, and you will not be so severe censurrers of ours. We count him a good servant who breaks not his covenant; the covenant between us and you is the oath you have taken of us, which is to this purpose, “that we shall govern you, and judge your causes, according to God's laws, and our own, according to our best skill.” As for our skill, you must run the hazard of it; and if there be an error, not in the will, but only in the skill, it becomes you to bear it. Nor would I have you mistake in the point of your own liberty.

There is a liberty of corrupt nature, which is affected by men. . . . We are all the worse for it. 'Tis the grand enemy of truth and peace, and all the ordinances of God are bent against it. But there is a civil, a moral, a federal liberty, which is the proper end and object of authority; it is a liberty for that only which is just and good; for this liberty you are to stand with the hazard of your very lives; and whatsoever crosses it is not authority, but a distemper thereof.

There were many disturbing and unrighteous elements here in those days, and the old proverb was often exemplified, that ‘where the Lord hath a church the devil hath a chapel.’ [35]

Cotton Mather, in speaking of Winthrop, said:

Many were the afflictions of this righteous man! He lost much of his estate in a ship, and in a house, quickly after his coming to New England, besides the prodigious expense of it in the difficulties of his first coming hither. Afterwards his assiduous application unto the publick affairs (wherein he no longer belonged to himself, after the Republic had once made him her Chief Magistrate) made him so much to neglect his own private interests that an unjust steward ran him £ 2,500 in debt before he was aware; for the payment whereof he was forced, many years before his decease, to sell the most of what he had left unto him in the country.

Albeit, by the observable blessings of God upon the posterity of this liberal man, his children, all of them, came to fair estates, and lived in good fashion and credit.

Of the ancestors of John Winthrop I have already made passing mention; they were men prominent in England and in high esteem, holding eminent positions, and being lords of the manor of Groton, as was also John.

Of his descendants we can speak with equal terms of praise. His son John, Jr., and grandson Fitz John were both governors of Connecticut. His son Stephen was a major-general and member of parliament for Scotland; his grandson Waitstill was chief justice of Massachusetts. In more recent years the descendants of the governor, the chief of whom are the Hon. Robert C. Winthrop and the lamented Major Theodore Winthrop, who was killed in the battle of Big Bethel, have nobly maintained the character of this remarkable family.

Many mementoes of the Winthrops are, or were until recently, extant, but that which recalls to us the early history and home of the family, the ancient church at Groton in England is, I think, the most interesting. In its graveyard is the tomb of the early Winthrops, with its inscription:—

‘Heaven the Country, Christ the way. Here lies the body of Adam Winthrop, Esq., son of Adam Winthrop, Esq., who were patrons of this church and Lords of the Manor of Groton.’

John Winthrop bore an unblemished character. His virtues were written in every line of his life; he was cultured, yet unassuming; [36] liberal, yet conservative; gentle, yet firm; politic, yet conscientious; modest, yet courageous; a chivalric gentleman and noble Christian, and his memory deserves to be perpetuated on shaft of adamant, in letters of purest gold.

In closing, I wish to say, that if the day ever comes when the present desolate waste which was once Governor Winthrop's manor on the Mystic is again improved and restored, I trust that some lasting monument, worthy of the man, will be placed there, whose chiseled inscription shall relate to the young and old of the coming centuries, the story of his noble and unselfish character, his Christian virtues, and his distinguished services as the founder of our state.

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