Category: Business and political leaders
John Winthrop (12 January 1587/88 – 26 March 1649) was an English Puritan lawyer and one of the leading figures in founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the second major settlement in New England, following Plymouth Colony.
Winthrop led the first large wave of immigrants [over 1000] from England in 1630 and served as governor for 12 of the colony's first 20 years. His writings and vision of the colony as a Puritan "city upon a hill" dominated New England colonial development, influencing the governments and religions of neighboring colonies.
But this is not why he is on the site.
The settling of the first Puritan colony in Boston was chronicled by Governor Winthrop. A historian himself, Winthrop kept a record of the colony's first years in the New World.
Originally a diary, Winthrop documented his religious life, keeping a journal beginning 1605, it later became a book - John Winthrop - The History of New England from 1630 to 1649.
His journal is far from being a mere collection of unlikely anecdotes or village gossip. It is quite significant, therefore, that he regarded two spectacular sightings of unexplained phenomena as being sufficiently important to be recorded for posterity.
It was not Winthrop himself who made the sighting. It was Puritan James Everell and two others, who were “stunned as they saw a luminous mass that hovered and returned over a three-hour period”. Furthermore, their boat was pulled upstream by the phenomenon. But it is Winthrop’s account that provides us with the evidence. So a biography is in order.
John Winthrop was born in Edwardstone, Suffolk, England. His father's family had been successful in the textile business, and his father was a lawyer and prosperous landowner with several properties in Suffolk. His mother's family was also well-to-do, with properties in Suffolk and Essex. When Winthrop was young, his father became a director at Trinity College, Cambridge.
Winthrop was first tutored at home and was regularly exposed to religious discussions between his father and clergymen; he thus came to a deep understanding of theology at an early age. He was admitted to Trinity College in December 1602, matriculating at the university a few months later. The teenage Winthrop admitted in his diary of the time to "lusts ... so masterly as no good could fasten upon me." So he was normal! So normal that in the end, he left Trinity College to marry Mary Forth on 16 April 1605 at Great Stambridge.
In approximately 1613, Winthrop was enrolled at Gray's Inn. There he read the law but did not advance to the Bar, principally because in 1613, John’s father transferred the family holdings in Groton to Winthrop, who then became Lord of the Manor at Groton.
As Lord of the Manor, Winthrop was involved in the management of the estate, overseeing the agricultural activities and the manor house. He eventually followed his father in practicing law in London. He was also appointed to the county commission of the peace. The commission's responsibilities included overseeing countywide issues, including road and bridge maintenance and the issuance of licenses. Some of its members were also empowered to act as local judges.
But great sadness was to follow. Mary bore him five children, of whom only three survived to adulthood. The oldest of their children was John Winthrop, the Younger, who became a governor and magistrate of Connecticut. Their last two children, two girls, died not long after birth, and Mary died in 1615 from complications of the last birth.
John married Thomasine Clopton, soon after Mary died, on 6 December 1615. She was more pious than Mary had been; Winthrop wrote that she was "truly religious & industrious therein". And then Thomasine died on 8 December 1616 from complications of childbirth; the child did not survive.
He began courting Margaret Tyndal in 1617, the daughter of Sir John Tyndal, a chancery judge, and his wife Anne Egerton, sister of the leading Puritan preacher Stephen Egerton. The couple were married on 29 April 1618. Winthrop eventually acquired ‘a highly desirable post’ in the Court of Wards and Liveries.
The Puritan migration begins
In the mid to late 1620s, the religious atmosphere in England began to look bleak for Puritans. King Charles I had ascended the throne in 1625, and had married a Roman Catholic. Charles supported the Church of England in its efforts against religious groups such as the Puritans and this led Puritan leaders to consider emigration to the New World as a viable means to escape persecution.
The first successful religious colonization of the New World occurred in 1620 with the establishment of the Plymouth Colony on the shores of Cape Cod Bay. An effort in 1624 orchestrated by pastor John White led to a short-lived colony at Cape Ann, also on the Massachusetts coast.
In 1628, some of the investors in that effort joined with new investors to acquire a land grant for the territory roughly between the Charles and Merrimack Rivers. It was first styled the New England Company, then renamed the Massachusetts Bay Company in 1629 after it acquired a royal charter granting it permission to govern the territory. Shortly after acquiring the land grant in 1628, it sent a small group of settlers led by John Endecott to prepare the way for further migration.
In March 1629, King Charles dissolved Parliament, beginning eleven years of rule without Parliament. Winthrop lost his position in the Court of Wards and Liveries in the crackdown on Puritans that followed the dissolution. He wrote, "If the Lord seeth it wil be good for us, he will provide a shelter & a hidinge place for us and others".
The Massachusetts Bay Company shareholders met on 20 October and Winthrop was elected Governor. Winthrop and other company officials then began the process of arranging a transport fleet and supplies for the migration. Winthrop’s wife was due to give birth in April 1630, near the fleet's departure time, so she stayed behind. Margaret arrived on the second voyage of the Lyon in 1631, but their baby daughter Anne died during the crossing. Two more children were born to the Winthrops in New England before Margaret died on 14 June 1647.
John Winthrop’s journal: The Voyage of the Fleet and its arrival in New England
Easter Monday, 29 March, Anno Domini 1630: Riding at the Cowes, near the Isle of Wight, on the Arbella, a ship of three hundred and fifty tons, whereof Capt. Peter Milborne was Master, being manned with fifty-two seamen, and twenty-eight pieces of ordnance, (the wind coming to the N by W the evening before,) in the morning there came aboard us Mr. [Matthew] Cradock, the late Governor, and the Masters of his two ships, Capt. John Lowe, master of the Ambrose, and Mr. Nicholas Hurlston, master of the Jewel, and Mr. Thomas Beecher, master of the Talbot, (which three ships rode then by us, the Charles, the Mayflower, the William and Francis, the Hopewell, the Whale, the Success and the Trial being still at Hampton and not ready,) when, upon conference, it was agreed, that (in regard it was uncertain when the rest of the fleet would be ready) these four ships should consort together; ……whereupon Mr. Cradock took leave of us, and our captain gave him a farewell with four or five shot. About ten of the clock we weighed anchor and set sail, with the wind at N…………………….
Thursday, 8 April, 1630: About six in the morning (the wind being E and N and fair weather) we weighed anchor and set sail, and before ten we got through the Needles, having so little wind as we had much to do to stem the tide
"A Model of Christian Charity" is the sermon John Winthrop is said to have delivered on board the ship Arbella on April 8, 1630 while en route to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It is also known as "City upon a Hill" and has become so famous we have included it on the site in full. There is no mention of it in his diary and there are some who think it was delivered before they had set sail.
The sail was a very long one and the wind on occasions exceedingly strong. But they seem to have weathered it remarkably well………………… for example
It is difficult for us today to imagine the conditions on the ship, they had to tack when the wind was against them, whereas today of course people use their engine, and they had to be extremely careful with provisions, especially as they had no refrigeration……………
But eventually they arrived.
Below: The Founders Memorial on Boston Common showing William Blackstone, left, greeting John Winthrop
As we stood towards the harbor, we saw another shallop coming to us; so we stood in to meet her, and passed through the narrow strait between Baker’s Isle and Little Isle, and came to an anchor a little within the islands.
After Mr. Peirce came aboard us, and returned to fetch Mr. [John] Endecott, who came to us about two of the clock, and with him Mr. [Samuel] Skelton and Capt. Levett. We that were of the assistants, and some other gentlemen, and some of the women, and our captain, returned with them to Nahumkeck [modern Salem, MA], where we supped with a good venison pasty and good beer, and at night we returned to our ship, but some of the women stayed behind.
In the mean time most of our people went on shore upon the land of Cape Ann, which lay very near us, and gathered store of fine strawberries.
An Indian came aboard us and lay there all night.
On Thursday, 1 July, 1630, The Mayflower and the Whale arrived in Charlton [modern Charlestown] harbor. Their passengers were all OK, but most of their cattle had died. On Friday, 2 July, 1630, The Talbot arrived. She had lost fourteen passengers and John learned that his son, Henry Winthrop, had drowned at Salem. Winthrop had sailed on the Arbella, accompanied by his two young sons Samuel and Stephen, both of course without their mother. On Tuesday, 6 July, 1630:The Success arrived. She had had goats on board for food but lost them, and many of her passengers were near starved.
Winthrop and his deputy Thomas Dudley found the Salem area inadequate for a settlement suitable for all of the arriving colonists, and they embarked on surveying expeditions of the area. They first decided to base the colony at Charlestown, but a lack of good water there prompted them to move to the Shawmut Peninsula where they founded what is now the city of Boston.
Colonial life and death
Right Boston in 1770
The colony struggled with disease in its early months, losing as many as 200 people to a variety of causes in 1630; about 80 returned to England in the spring due to these conditions.
Winthrop set an example to the other colonists by working side by side with servants and labourers in the work of the colony. According to one report, he "fell to work with his own hands, and thereby so encouraged the rest that there was not an idle person to be found in the whole plantation."
The colony saw a large influx of immigrants in 1633 and 1634, following the appointment of strongly anti-Puritan William Laud as Archbishop of Canterbury. It also saw inevitable heated discussion about how it should be run. Bearing in mind the people had just left a kingdom still ruled by a king and with no democracy, it is inevitable that the demand for cautious advancement in deciding how laws should be enacted would be made. Winthrop was on the side of caution.
In general, Winthrop gives the impression of being a diplomat and peace maker over some extraordinarily difficult questions. For example on December 1636, a dispute had become so heated that Winthrop attempted to bridge the divide between the two factions, by writing an account of his religious awakening and other theological position papers designed to harmonize the opposing views. Winthrop was even criticized for being too moderate, with calls that he should "make their wickedness and guile manifest to all men that they may go no farther and then will sink of themselves." One particularly active trouble maker returned to England and was beheaded after the Restoration.
It is interesting that the pros and cons of tight immigration control were being discussed even then, but in relation to their fellow Englishmen. Winthrop vigorously argued that Massachusetts was within its rights to "refuse to receive such whose dispositions suit not with ours".
Winthrop's attitude toward the local Indian population, on the other hand, was generally one of civility and diplomacy. He described an early meeting with one local chief:
Moore, Jacob Bailey (1851). Lives of the Governors of New Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay
Chickatabot came with his [chiefs] and squaws, and presented the governor with a hogshead of Indian corn. After they had all dined, and had each a small cup of sack and beer, and the men tobacco, he sent away all his men and women (though the governor would have stayed them in regard of the rain and thunder.) Himself and one squaw and one [chief] stayed all night; and being in English clothes, the governor set him at his own table, where he behaved himself as soberly ... as an Englishman. The next day after dinner he returned home, the governor giving him cheese, and pease, and a mug, and other small things.
Furthermore the colonists generally sought to acquire title to the lands that they occupied in the early years.
Winthrop married his fourth wife Martha Rainsborough some time after 20 December 1647 and before the birth of their only child in 1648.
Winthrop died of natural causes on 26 March 1649, and is buried in what is now called the King's Chapel Burying Ground in Boston. He was survived by his wife Martha and five sons.
For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.
- James Silk Buckingham - 1660, New England, American Colonies - Aerial phenomena to the rescue of Puritanism
- Winthrop, John - 18 January 1644, Boston, Mass.: Luminous figures
- Winthrop, John - 25 January 1644, Boston, Massachusetts - A Voice from the light
- Winthrop, John - March 1638, Muddy River near Charlton - Massachusetts: Missing time among the Puritans
- Winthrop, John - The City upon a Hill Sermon
- Winthrop, John Junior - 11 September 1787, Edinburgh, Scotland - Wandering globe