John Winthrop the Younger

John Winthrop the Younger

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John Winthrop and the Settlement of New England

John Winthrop arrived at Salem, Massachusetts, a coastal city of New England, in 1630 (Image: By Library of Congress/Public Domain).

Once they made landfall in New England and set up a settlement on Massachusetts Bay, which they named Boston, Winthrop and the general court became not just the heads of a joint-stock company, but they also became the de facto government of a Puritan Massachusetts Bay. For the first time in their lives, the Puritan settlers of Massachusetts Bay could breathe freely as Puritans. Within that freedom, lurked a problem for John Winthrop. The Puritans of the Bay colony had left England swearing up and down that they were not Separatists—that they were not trying to dismantle the Church of England. Once they were in Massachusetts with no royal officials looking and listening, however, there would be a vast temptation to throw off these promises and these excuses, and to begin pushing Puritan radicalism to its limits, if there were any limits.

Land Ho! Winthrop Arrives in New England

The Massachusetts Bay Company’s fleet of 11 ships and 700 pseudo- employees left for New England in the spring of 1630. No one paid enough attention at that time to the fact that, contrary to English law governing corporations, neither Governor John Winthrop nor the general court nor the Bay Company Charter stayed in England. They all took ship with the fleet to America, and thus, before anyone could stop them, the government of the Massachusetts Bay Company was legally and geographically well out of the reach of any second thoughts on the part of King Charles.

This is a transcript from the video series The History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, Wondrium.

John Winthrop (1588-1649) and the general court became the de facto government of a Puritan Massachusetts Bay (Image: By Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

John Winthrop had anticipated this, and as governor during the voyage across the Atlantic, he had warned his fellow immigrants, in these terms: “We must be knit together in this work as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities,” our luxuries, “for the supply of others’ necessities, we must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body, for we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill.”

There’s that telling phrase for the first time in our history, “We shall be as a city upon a hill the eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work and so cause him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.”

Community in the City on a Hill

To be sure, there was every reason to believe that Winthrop’s Puritans would take this warning about the need for oneness, solidarity, community to heart. The Puritans who came to New England were, after all, a far cry from the freebooters and the street sweepings that populated so many of the other European colonies.

Take as a comparison the passenger lists of three immigrant ships that left England for America in 1635. Two of these ships—the Merchants Hope and the Elizabeth—were bound to Virginia with 114 settlers of that 114, however, 72 were single men whose average age was 20 years old, and all of them appeared to have been going as servant labor.

An unnamed passenger ship leaving Weymouth in England for Massachusetts carried, by contrast, 126 passengers, but among them were 13 complete households. In other words, there were husbands, wives, children, and servants. The average age of heads of those households was 36 years old, the midpoint of life expectancy in the 1600s.

In other words, the people bound for Virginia were footloose and poor. They were not a community they were not bound together. In fact, they were so overwhelmingly young and male that they have all the difference from the ship that went to Massachusetts Bay as you would imagine between, let’s say, a company of new Marine recruits and a Sunday School class. The people bound for Massachusetts had stability. They had families. They had firm ideas already shaped by years of experience about the kind of community they planned to erect, and so one might suppose that they would have taken Winthrop’s words about community to heart.

Populating the Boston-to-Be

Ideas are volatile things, though, and radical ideas can drive apart stable communities of families just as easily as garrisons of short-tempered gentlemen can be driven apart. Winthrop seems to have imagined that his description of Massachusetts Bay as a city upon a hill was to be taken literally, that Boston would be the only settlement and that all of the Massachusetts Puritans would submit themselves there to the oversight of the governor and the general court.

They showed no such thing. In 1631, Puritans crowded onto Boston’s tiny peninsula. Then, some of them moved across the Charles River and established Charlestown without so much as a by-your-leave. They were followed in short order by settlements with names like Dorchester, Roxbury, Lynne, Watertown, Ipswich, Newbury, Concorde, and Hingham. All of these settlements were beginning to look like multiple cities upon a hill, rather than a single organized city. In 1635, one Puritan minister, Thomas Shepherd, actually migrated entirely out of Massachusetts Bay and founded a settlement on the Connecticut River named Hartford.

John Winthrop found that he had little power this far from England to curtail the itching of his fellow Puritans for movement. In fact, when he tried to intervene in a case in Hingham involving the promotion of a militia officer, Winthrop was indicted before the general court by the Hingham settlers for exceeding his authority as governor.

In 1635, Roger Williams was banished to Narragansett Bay, where he organized his own Separatist colony of Rhode Island (Image: By Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

This action was only a sign that Puritan ideas could become as unstable as Puritan communities. In 1631, a radical Puritan named Roger Williams landed in Massachusetts and at once began advocating the conversion of the Massachusetts Bay churches into Separatist congregations. Winthrop was having none of it. He intervened, and in 1635, he arranged to have Williams banished to Narragansett Bay, where Williams organized his own Separatist colony of Rhode Island.

Then, in 1636, a radical laywoman named Anne Hutchinson bitterly divided the churches of Boston by teaching that God’s grace and sovereignty was so mysterious and so ineffable that no authority, not even the Bible, could stand in the way of its operation. Winthrop did not like hearing this, either. Winthrop trapped her as well when she began spouting what sounded like private revelations from God Hutchinson, too, was banished to the Dutch settlements on Long Island.

Common Questions About John Winthrop and New England

John Winthrop wrote that “We shall be as a city upon a hill , the eyes of all people are upon us” as he was a puritan and puritans held the belief that not only was their way the one right way, but they were responsible for setting the standard and showing the world their grace.

The New England colonies were Pilgrim colonies consisting largely of puritans for whom religion was the primary reason for being.

William & Mary Dyer

But Henry abruptly sailed back to England in August 1637, a year early. The same month, the Bay's ministers held a convocation to affirm their belief in salvation (only for the Elect or predestined) confirmed by keeping the Sinai Laws, and decry the Hutchinson teaching of salvation by faith in the grace of God, apart from the law. At the meeting, they set a November date for Anne Hutchinson's heresy trial.

An official letter signed
by Henry Vane in 1643
(second, centered).
Henry Vane took up naval administration with favorable professional advancement courtesy of his powerful father. By 1640, he was knighted, married to the daughter of Parliament’s treasurer, and started a large brood of children. As a Puritan, he supported the Parliamentary cause in the English Civil War of the 1640s, and was appointed Treasurer of the Navy. He continued to have an important, respected role in Great Britain's relations with its American colonies.

Raby Castle, purchased by Henry Vane the Elder in the 1630s, has been owned by
the Vanes and Neville-Vanes from then until now.
Samuel Pepys attended Henry Vane’s execution and recorded these lines in his journal:

You may have read in genealogy or wiki pages on the internet that Henry Vane the Younger was the father of Mary Dyer's "monster" anencephalic baby, and/or of Anne Hutchinson's molar pregnancy. That rumor started decades after the tragic pregnancies, some years after Vane's execution to cast judgment and vitriol on three people who were considered religious heretics. There is NO foundation to that lie.

For more information about the career of Henry Vane the Younger, who is the ancestor of Raby Castle's current owner, Henry Vane Lord Barnard, click HERE.

John Winthrop's Christian Experience

About 14 years of age, being in Cambridge [University] I fell into a lingring feaver, which took away the comfort of my life. For being there neglected, and despised, I went up and down mourning with myself and being deprived of my youthfull joyes, Ibetookmy self to God whom I did believe to bee very good and mercifull, and would welcome any that would come to him, especially such ayonguesoule, and so well qualifyed as I took my self to bee so as I took pleasure in drawing neer to him. But how my heart was affected with my sins, or


Betook: Caused to go or move



Christ: Jesus of Nazareth founder of Christianity


Essex: A country in England

what thoughts I had ofChristI remember not. But I was willing to love God, and therefore I thought hee loved mee. . . .

About 18 yeares of age (being a man in stature, and in understanding as my parents conceived mee) I married into a family under Mr. Culverwell his ministry inEssexand living there sometimes I first found the ministry of the word [of God] to come to my heart with power (for in all before I found onely light) and after that I found the like in the ministry of many others. So as there began to bee some change which I perceived in my self, and others took notice of. Now I began to come under strong exercises of Conscience: (yet by fits only) I could no longerdallywith Religion. God put my soule to sad tasks sometimes, which yet the flesh would shake off, andoutwearestill. . . .

Now came I to some peace and comfort in God and in his wayes, my chief delight was therein, I loved a Christian, and the very ground hee went upon. I honoured afaythfulminister in my heart and could have kissed his feet: Now I grew full of zeal (which outranne my knowledge and carried mee sometimes beyond my calling) and very liberall to any good work. I had anunsatiablethirst after the word of God and could not misse a good sermon, though [even if it was] many miles off, especially of such as did search deep into the conscience. I had also a great striveing in my heart to draw others to God. It pittyed my heart to see men so little to regard their soules, and to despise that happines which I knew to bee better then all the world besides, which stirred mee up to take any opportunity to draw men to God, and by successe in my endeavors I took much encouragement hereunto. But those affections were not constant but very unsetled. . . .





Unsatiable: Incapable of being satisfied




Wrought: Put together


Approbation: An act of officially approving


Plunges: Situations entered into suddenly

But as I grew into employment andcreditthereby so I grew also in pride of myguifts,and under temptations which sett mee on work to look to my evidence more narrowly then I had done before (for the great change which God hadwroughtin mee, and the generallapprobationof good ministers and other Christians, kept mee from makeing any great question of my good estate, though my secrett corruptions, and some tremblings of heart (which was greatest when I was among the most Godly persons) put me to someplungesbut especially when I perceived a great decay in my zeale and love, etc.).. . . I was ashamed to open my case to any minister that knew mee I feared it would shame my self and religion also, that such aneminentprofessour as I was accounted, should discover such corruptions as I found in my selfe, and had in all this time attained no better evidence of salvation and I should prove ahypocriteit was too late to begin anew. . . .

While I wandred up and downe in this sad and doubtful estate (wherein yet I had manyintermissions,for the flesh would often shake off thisyoakeof the law, but was still forced to come under it again) wherein my greatest troubles were not the sense of Gods wrath or fear of damnation, but want of assurance of salvation, and want of strength against my corruptions I knew that my greatest want was fayth in Christ, andfainewould I have been united to Christ but I thought I was not holy enough. . . .

Being in this condition it pleased the Lord . . . to manifest unto mee the difference between theCovenant of grace,and the Covenant of workes (but I took the foundation of that of workes to have been with man in innocency, and onely held forth in the law ofMosesto drive us to Christ). This Covenant of grace began to take great impression in mee and I thought I had now enough. . . .

I was now about 30 yeares of age, and now was the time come that the Lord would reveale Christ unto mee whom I had long desired, but not so earnestly as since I came to see more clearely into the covenant of free grace. First therefore hee laid a soreafflictionupon mee wherein hee laid mee lower in myne owne eyes then at any time before, and showed mee the emptines of all my guifts, and parts left mee neither power nor will, so as I became as aweanedchild. I could now no more look at what I had been or what I had done nor bee discontented for want of strength or assurance mine eyes were onely upon his free mercy in Jesus Christ. I knew I was worthy of nothing for I knew I could doe nothing for him or for my selfe. I could only mourn, and weep to think of free mercy to such avile wretchas I was. . . .


Eminent: Distinguished, well known


Hypocrite: A person who puts on a false appearance of virtue or religion


Intermissions: Temporary suspensions of activities


Yoake: Yoke a collar put on work animals


Covenant of grace

Covenant of grace: The Puritan belief that those who were willing to strictly obey God's laws were granted the state of being protected or sanctified by the favor of God


Moses: In the Old Testament of the Bible, the Hebrew prophet who led the Israelites out of slavery from Egypt significant to Winthrop because at Mount Sinai Moses also delivered to the Israelites the law establishing God's covenant with them


Affliction: To inflict suffering upon or to cause distress to


Weaned: Detached from a thing of dependence

Vile: Disgusting unpleasant


Wretch: A miserable or unfortunate person


Discerned: Determined

Since this time I have gone under continuall conflicts between the flesh and the spirit, and sometimes with Satan himself (which I have morediscernedof late then I did formerly) many falls I have had, and havelyenlong under some, yet never quiteforsakenof the Lord. But still when I have been put to it by anysuddainedanger or fearefull temptation, the good spirit of the Lord hath notfayledto beare witnesse to mee, giveing mee comfort, and courage in the verypinch,when of my self I have been very fearefull, and dismayed. My usuall falls have been through dead heartedness, andpresumptuousnesse,by which Satan hath taken advantage to wind mee into other sinnes. When the fleshprevaylesthe spirit withdrawes, and is sometimes so greived as hee seemes not to acknowledge his owne work. . . . .


Forsaken: To leave or abandon




Pinch: A difficult situation


Presumptuousness: Overstepping due bounds


Prevayles: Prevails wins

Governor of the Colony of Connecticut, 1698-1707

Born: March 14, 1637/8, Ipswich, Massachusetts
College: None
Political Party: None
Offices: Magistrate, Colony of Connecticut, 1664
Lieutenant and Captain in Richard Cromwell’s Army (England), 1658-1660
Deputy, General Court of the Colony of Connecticut, 1671, 1678
New London Representative to the General Court of the Colony of Connecticut, 1671
Head, New London County Militia, 1672
Sergeant Major of Long Island, 1673
Council member, Dominion of New England, 1687-1689
Assistant, General Court of the Colony of Connecticut, 1690, 1693-1697
Governor, Colony of Connecticut, 1698-1707
Died: November 27, 1707, Boston, Massachusetts

John Winthrop III, given the old Anglo-French patronymic (personal name) “Fitz” (“son of”) to help distinguish him from his father, was probably born at what is now Ipswich, Massachusetts, March 14, 1637/38, the son of John Winthrop, Junior and his second wife, Elizabeth (Reade) Winthrop. However, his birth is recorded in Boston. Ipswich, then known as Agawam, had just been established in the Massachusetts wilderness in 1633.

Fitz-John, along with several sisters and a brother, Wait Still, were born into an illustrious family. Their grandfather, John Winthrop, Senior, was the first governor of Massachusetts their talented and well-known father, John Winthrop, Junior was a physician, served in the Connecticut General Assembly, and was himself Governor of the Colony of Connecticut for eighteen years (1657, 1659-1576). John Winthrop, Junior, was a successful man, and his support and advice were in great demand. He was frequently away from home, sometimes for long periods of time. His changes in career and projects caused the family to move several times in Fitz-John’s early years, from Ipswich to Boston to New London. By the fall of 1646, when Fitz-John was about eight, the family had settled at Winthrop’s Neck on the Thames River in the New London area.

With all the moving and with the father’s absences, the boys’ education was somewhat neglected. The house at Winthrop’s Neck was the center of several farms owned by their father. Emphasis was not on studies but on the farms, and Fitz-John liked being outdoors, a preference that was to remain with him throughout his life. It was 1653 before he, at age sixteen, was sent with Wait Still to Fitch’s School for Boys in Hartford for a year and a half. He was an average student. Then, the boys were sent to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Wait Still entered a private boys’ school while Fitz-John took the examinations for Harvard. Fitz-John did not pass, his lack of education hindering him. A cousin who was a scholar was hired to tutor him for a year, but the cousin became ill and died.

Fitz-John stayed on in Boston with relatives. He had not been especially interested in attending Harvard and had applied mainly to please his father. Preferring action and the outdoors, in 1658 when loyalists in England needed soldiers to help the King retake his throne from Cromwell, Fitz-John jumped at the opportunity. Through family connections he became a lieutenant in Richard Cromwell’s Army, eventually rising to the rank of captain. The army moved down from southern Scotland to London and helped restore King Charles II to the throne in 1660. Fitz-John’s unit was disbanded, but he remained in England visiting other relatives.

Fitz-John was still there when his father came to London in 1661 to obtain a charter for Connecticut. In April 1663, both returned to New London, and Fitz-John became involved in the political life of the colony. He served as a judge and in October of 1664 was one of the Connecticut boundary commissioners, resolving conflicting land claims along the New York-Connecticut border. One result of the commission’s work was that Long Island, formerly part of Connecticut, was assigned to New York.

Fitz-John continued to take part in the Connecticut’s government, being elected as one of New London’s representatives to the General Court of the Colony of Connecticut in 1671. He served well in the legislature but preferred military campaigns to creating laws. In 1672, he was made head of the New London County Militia. In 1673, he was made Sergeant-Major of Long-Island and helped drive the Dutch from that area.

Scholars say that of the two sons of John Winthrop, Junior, Wait Still was most like his father. Fitz-John had many of his father’s qualities, but was more of an outdoorsman, a soldier, and his own man. He lived at a time when church and government were not separated, and there was close monitoring of public and private morals. Yet, as the son of a wealthy and influential family, he could flout convention in ways that normally invited serious punishment by church or government authorities. That is perhaps why he was not officially punished when about 1677 he entered into a common-law marriage with Elizabeth Tongue, fifteen years his junior, and the daughter of wealthy New London innkeepers, George and Margery Tongue. The couple had one daughter, Mary. Elizabeth, who signed deeds and letters as late as 1698 as Elizabeth Tongue, died April 25, 1731.

Although people generally saw Fitz-John as someone with a buoyant personality and with much common sense, he was slightly self-indulgent and could hold a grudge against those opposing him. The latter attitude created problems for him in his many business enterprises. He also had a health problem, being plagued all his life by an unknown illness for which he took an all-purpose remedy created by his father, who was a physician.

King Charles II of England, restored to the throne, wanted to centralize New England under one governor, doing away with separate governors for each colony. By 1686, he had created the Dominion of New England with one governor, Sir Edmund Andros, at its head in Boston. Andros governed with a council of 27 members from the various colonies. The only Council member from Connecticut was Fitz-John Winthrop, a great supporter of the King’s plan and a friend of Andros.

The Dominion of New England government was not popular. However, when it was overthrown in 1689, Fitz-John was in New London and his participation in the Dominion government did not seem to affect his overall popularity he was elected as an Assistant to the next General Court in 1690. His individuality showed itself once again in this post, as he did not attend any of the meetings, which were held in Hartford. At the next election, he was not reelected. However, he continued to serve the Colony of Connecticut by commanding its troops on an invasion of Canada. Going north along the Hudson River, this expedition consisted of men from New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, and was meant to end the French-supported Indian raids to those colonies. The troops only received limited food and transportation, and the expedition was forced to retreat. Governor Leisler of New York, jealous of Winthrop, used the retreat to accuse him of treason. Leisler imprisoned Fitz-John and held him for court-martial at Albany. There, a large group of friendly Mohawks freed him. Fitz-John returned to Connecticut, cleared his name, and received the thanks of the General Assembly. The next spring, a new royal governor came to New York and tried, convicted, and executed Leisler for treason.

While the 1690 expedition to Canada was in progress, another political crisis was brewing. The settlement of Connecticut had begun without a charter from the Crown. New York and Massachusetts, both chartered from the beginning, often tried to infringe on its territory. Although it had been hoped that the Charter of 1662, obtained by Fitz-John’s father, John Winthrop Junior, would prevent Connecticut from being taken over by Massachusetts or New York, those colonies did not give up their claims to Connecticut’s lands. Arguing that the creation of the centralized government of the Dominion of New England had invalidated Connecticut’s Charter, Massachusetts and New York attempted to annex Connecticut’s territory.

Massachusetts and New York officials had friends at Court, and in August 1692, the new governor of New York, Benjamin Fletcher, arrived with power to command the military forces of both New York and Connecticut. Robert Treat was then governor of Connecticut, and he refused to surrender command of Connecticut’s troops. Treat and the Connecticut General Assembly called on Fitz-John Winthrop’s diplomatic abilities and connections at Court. He was to go to England and appeal the validity of Connecticut’s 1662 Charter to King William and Queen Mary. Winthrop left for England late in 1693 and made his case early in 1694. A report prepared by the royal attorney and solicitor-general and ratified by the King and Queen confirmed the validity of the 1662 Charter of the Colony of Connecticut. Connecticut could continue to govern itself.

Fitz-John remained in England for three more years. When he returned to Connecticut, he was awarded five hundred pounds by a grateful General Assembly. He was elected as Governor in 1698, and was reelected annually until his death in 1707.

Although his common-law marriage and health problems somewhat affected his ability to govern, in the end Fitz-John accomplished much as governor. The 1662 Charter was threatened three times during his ten years in office, but each time Winthrop and the Assembly successfully defended it. Winthrop initiated a series of efforts to reorganize Connecticut’s political and judicial structure. In 1698, the Assembly broadened the governor’s authority to act between legislative sessions, and in 1699 the Assembly was divided into two chambers. The twelve Assistants to the General Court became one chamber, the Upper House, and the elected Deputies from the towns another chamber, the Lower House. Opponents at first criticized this change as no one was sure which House had authority over which issues. But adjustments were made, and these two Houses became Connecticut’s first steps towards its modern legislature with a Senate and House of Representatives.

Winthrop considered retiring from the governorship in 1702 after neighboring governors charged him with not supplying enough soldiers for a war against France. The Connecticut voters refused to let him leave office, and he stayed. While on a trip to Boston to see his brother Wait Still remarry and to attend the wedding of Wait Still’s son, Fitz-John became ill. He died on November 27, 1711 and was buried next to his father and grandfather in the King’s Chapel Burying Ground in Boston, Massachusetts.

Black, Robert C. The Younger John Winthrop. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966 [CSL call number F 97 .W8 B55].

Dunn, Richard S. Puritans and Yankees: The Winthrop Dynasty of New England 1630-1717. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1962 [CSL call number F 67 .W7957].

Frost, J. C. Ancestors of Henry Rogers Winthrop and His Wife Alice Woodward Babcock. [Brooklyn, NY: J. C. Frost], 1927 [CSL call number CS 71 .W79 1927].

Highways & Byways of Connecticut. Hartford: G. Fox & Co., [1947] [CSL call number F 94 .H54 1947].

Loomis, Dwight and J. Gilbert Calhoun, eds. The Judicial and Civil History of Connecticut. Boston: Boston History Company, 1895 [CSL call number HistRef F 93 .L86].

Maltbie, William M. “Winthrop the Younger.” Connecticut Bar Journal 6 (January 1932) 1:1-11 [CSL call number K 3 .O62.]

Mayo, Lawrence Shaw. The Winthrop Family in America. Boston: The Massachusetts Historical Society, 1948 [CSL call number CS 71 .W79 1948].

Norton, Frederick Calvin. The Governors of Connecticut. Hartford: Connecticut Magazine Co., 1905 [CSL call number HistRef F 93 .N 88 1905].

Raimo, John W. Biographical Directory of American Colonial and Revolutionary Governors, 1607-1789. Westport, CT: Meckler Books, 1980 [CSL call number E 187.5 .R34].

Wilkinson, Ronald Sterne. John Winthrop, Jr. and the Origins of American Chemistry. Thesis (PhD.), Michigan State University, 1969. Photocopy. Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms, 1998 [CSL call number F 97 .W56 W55 1969b].

“The Winthrop Papers.” Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1929- [CSL call number F 7 .W79].

Winthrop, Robert C. A Short Account of the Winthrop Family. Cambridge, MA: J. Wilson and Son, 1887 [CSL call number CS 71 .W79 1887].

This portrait of Fitz-John Winthrop in long, curly wig and armor of the era was painted by an unknown artist. The portrait is 38″ x 45″ in its frame.

Prepared by the History and Genealogy Unit, Connecticut State Library, August, 2002.

Leaving Persecution

During the 1620s, there was religious and political turmoil in England as King Charles I battled for the absolute power of the monarchy. Persecution of Puritans increased because the king wanted everyone to follow the formulas of the national church. Many Puritans planned to emigrate. By 1629 a group of them had formed the Massachusetts Bay Company to settle America. John was elected governor of the company. Soon he had enlisted 700 colonists for the new settlement, and in l630, their fleet sailed for America. It was on this voyage of the Arbella that John preached on Christ's "Sermon on the Mount."

While aboard ship, John also issued a "Model of Christian Charity," ideas that would stamp the young Puritan colony. He called for brotherly love and a strong commitment to the Christian faith-- but moderation in just about everything else.

November 4: Connecticut Founder John Winthrop Jr. Arrives in America

Today in 1631, John Winthrop, Jr., one of the most important figures in Connecticut history, first set foot in the New World, having arrived in Boston where his father, John Winthrop Sr., was governor the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A Renaissance man of many talents, the younger Winthrop was well-versed in alchemy, medicine, and early modern industrial technology, and quickly acquired a talent for political maneuvering as well. After establishing the town of Ipswich north of Boston, Winthrop briefly returned to England. There, a wealthy group of Puritan would-be emigrés engaged him to found a new colony on their behalf at the mouth of the Connecticut River. Winthrop named the settlement he founded in late 1635 Saybrook after the two leading investors (Lord Saye and Sele and Lord Brooke). Eleven years later, in 1646, acting on his own behalf, Winthrop founded another major early Connecticut settlement at the mouth of the Thames River. Originally called Nameaug –the Pequot Indian name for the site, which meant “the fishing place” – it would grow and evolve to become New London.

Connecticut Royal Charter of 1662 – secured by John Winthrop, Jr. to the amazement of everyone, it granted Connecticut virtual independence 114 years before the Declaration of Independence. (Connecticut State Archives)

Winthrop’s contribution to Connecticut history involved more than establishing new plantations (the English name for new colonizing ventures). He made the pursuit of alchemical science, medicine and industry the mission of New London, offering medical care, establishing mills, alchemical furnaces and iron works, while building a network of knowledge-sharing and trading connections that reached throughout the Atlantic world. In 1657, Winthrop was elected governor of the Connecticut colony. He served continuously in that position from 1659 until his death in 1676, all the while continuing his scientific studies and cultivating influential connections in England and on the European continent. Winthrop’s scientific reputation was so respected he became a founding – and the first American – member of England’s Royal Society, still one of the world’s leading scientific organizations..

Winthrop’s connections served him well in his efforts to secure a royal charter for a vulnerable Connecticut colony after the restoration of Charles II in 1659. Against all odds, Winthrop was able to convince King Charles II — who held a contemptuous view of Connecticut’s puritans for harboring some of the regicides that killed his father — to not just grant Connecticut a royal charter giving the colony legitimate status, but arguably the most liberal charter in the history of British North America. The Royal Charter of 1662 gave Connecticut an unprecedented degree of self-governance, almost completely independent of British influence, and merged the disparate plantations throughout the territory of Connecticut into one, significantly larger, unified colony whose territory stretched to the Pacific Ocean. Though the territorial grant was soon reexamined, the Charter’s lasting grant of virtual autonomy was so comprehensive that, following the American Revolution, Connecticans simply made a few small modifications (namely, removing all references to the Crown) and continued using the Charter to govern the state until 1818.

No person played a more critical role in establishing the government, economy, and even physical boundaries of modern-day Connecticut than John Winthrop Jr, whose new life in the New World began today in Connecticut history.

Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Winthrop, John (1606-1676)

WINTHROP, JOHN, the younger (1606–1676), governor of Connecticut, the eldest son of John Winthrop [q. v.], governor of Massachusetts, by his first wife, was born at Groton Manor, Suffolk, on 12 Feb. 1605–6. He was educated at the grammar school, Bury St. Edmunds, and was admitted a student at Trinity College, Dublin, but his name does not appear upon the roll of graduates (which commences in 1591). In November 1624 he was admitted of the Inner Temple (List of Students Admitted, 1547–1660, p. 241), but he found the law little to his taste. In the summer of 1627 he joined the ill-fated expedition to the Isle of Rhé under the Duke of Buckingham. After this he travelled for some time in Italy and the Levant, and was at Constantinople in 1628. In November 1631 he joined his father in New England. In 1634 he was chosen one of the assistants, and held this office in 1635, in 1640 and 1641, and again from 1644 to 1649. In 1633 Winthrop took a leading part in the establishment of a new township at Agawam, afterwards called Ipswich. In the following year Lord Saye and Sele, Lord Brooke, Lord Rich, Richard Saltonstall, and eight other leading men of the puritan party, having obtained a large tract of land by a patent from Lord Warwick and the New England Company, dated 19 March 1631–2, established a settlement on the river Connecticut, and appointed Winthrop governor. But the projected settlement was little more than a factory protected by a fort, and when emigrants from Massachusetts founded the colony of Connecticut the earlier settlement was absorbed in it. It is not clear how long Winthrop's connection with the settlement lasted, but it was evidently at an end in 1639, since the patentees had another agent acting for them nor does Winthrop seem to have lived there. In 1641 Winthrop was in England. Two years later he started ironworks in Connecticut, which, however, came to nothing. In 1646 he began planting at Pequot (afterwards known as New London), and he moved his principal residence thither in 1650. In 1651 he was chosen one of the magistrates of Connecticut. In 1659 Winthrop was elected deputy-governor of Connecticut, and in the following year governor, a post which he retained till his death in 1676 his salary was fixed in 1671 at 150l. per annum. In 1662 Winthrop came to England bearing with him a loyal address from the government of Connecticut to the king, and a petition for a charter. Winthrop made himself acceptable at court. His taste for natural science secured his nomination as a fellow of the Royal Society (August 1662), and brought him into contact with influential men, and to this was largely due his success in obtaining a favourable charter (sealed on 10 May 1662) for Connecticut. He was also able to secure the incorporation of Newhaven with Connecticut. He contributed two papers to the ‘Philosophical Transactions’—one on ‘Some Natural Curiosities from New England’ (v. 1151), and a second on ‘The Description, Culture, and Use of Maize’ (xii. 1065). At the close of 1675 he went to Boston as one of the commissioners of the united colonies of New England.

Winthrop died on 5 April 1676 at Boston, where he was buried in the same tomb with his father. He married, on 8 Feb. 1631, his first cousin, Martha Fones. She died in 1634, and he married, in 1635, while in England, Elizabeth, daughter of Edmund Read of Wickford, Essex, a colonel in the parliamentary army. By his first wife he had no children by his second wife (she died at Hartford, Connecticut, on 24 Nov. 1672) he had two sons and five daughters. The eldest son, Fitz John, born on 14 March 1638, served under Monck in Scotland, but returned to New England and was governor of Connecticut from 1698 till his death in 1707. The other son, Waitstill, born on 27 Feb. 1641–2, returned to Massachusetts, and became chief justice of that colony. He died at Boston on 7 Nov. 1717. Much of the correspondence between John Winthrop the younger and his two sons is published ​ in the ‘Massachusetts Historical Collection,’ 4th ser. vols. vi. and vii., 5th ser. vol. viii. A portrait is in the gallery of the Massachusetts Historical Society it is reproduced in ‘Winthrop Papers’ (vol. vi.), in Bowen's ‘Boundary Disputes of Connecticut,’ in Winsor's ‘History’ (iii. 331), and elsewhere.

[Massachusetts Hist. Soc. Collections (esp. 3rd ser. vols. ix. and x.) Winthrop's Hist. of New England Life and Letters of John Winthrop by Robert C. Winthrop Benjamin Trumbull's Hist. of Connecticut, 1797, i. 363 J. H. Trumbull's Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, 1850–2, vols. i. and ii. Palfrey's Hist. of New England Evidences of the Winthrops of Groton, 1896, p. 27 Thomson's Hist. of the Royal Soc. Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 19156, f. 24.]

John Winthrop describes life in Boston, 1634

Between 1629 and 1640, 20,000 Puritans left England for America to escape religious persecution. They hoped to establish a church free from worldly corruption founded on voluntary agreement among congregants. This covenant theory governed Puritan social and theological life, including the annual elections in which all free men, or church members, could vote. As John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, explained in his letter written on May 22, 1634: "Our civil Government is mixt: the freemen choose the magistrates every year . . . and at 4: courts in the year 3: out of each town (there being 8 in all) do assist the magistrates in making of laws, imposing taxes, & disposing of lands . . . Our Churches are governed by Pastors, Teachers ruling Elders & Deacons, yet the power lies in the whole Congregation."

Writing in 1634 from Boston, less than four years after the city had been founded, Winthrop described a population of 4,000 settlers "well provided of all necessarys." The American Indian population did not fare as well. Epidemic diseases introduced by European fishermen and fur traders reduced the population of New England’s coastal tribes by about 90 percent by the early 1620s. Their numbers continued to dwindle after Winthrop’s colony arrived in 1630, a development he took as a blessing: "For the natives, they are near all dead of the smallpox, so the Lord hath cleared our title to what we possess." This sentence—the last in this letter mostly about the weather and crops—reveals a belief in divine providence that would shape relations with Native peoples for centuries to come.

An excerpt is available.


That you are pleased among y r many & weighty imployments to spend so many serious thoughts and good wishes upon us, & the work of the Lord in our hands, I must needs acknowledge it among other the special favours of God towards us, and an undoubted testimony of y r sincere Love towards us: which makes me the more careful to satisfy y r desire, of being truly informed of our estate (this being the first safe means of Conveyance since I received y rs in October last) you may please therefore to understand that first, for the number of our people, we never took any survey of them, nor do we intend it, except inforced through urgent occasion (David’s example sticks somewhat with us) [some Protestants interpreted the Bible as forbidding a census] but I esteem them to be in all about 4000 souls & upward: in good health (for the most parse) & well provided of all necessarys: so as (through the Lords special providence) there hath not died about 2: or 3: grown persons, & about so many Children all in the last year, it being verye rare to heare of any sick of agues or other diseases, nor have I known of any quartan Ague amonge us since I came into the Countrye. For Our susistence here, the means hitherto hath been the yearly access of new Comers, who have supplied all our wants, for Cattle, & the fruits of our labours, as board, pale, smiths work etc: if this should fail, then we have other meanes which may supply us, as fish viz: Cod, bass & herring, for which no place in the world exceeds us, if we can compass salt at a reasonable rate: our grounds likewise are apt for hemp & flax & rape seeds, & all sorts of roots, pumpkins & other fruits, which for taste & wholesomeness far exceed those in England: our grapes also (wherewith the Country abounds) afford a good hard wine. Our ploughs go on with good success, we are like to have 20 at work next year: our lands are aptest for Rye and oats. Our winters are sharp & longe, I may reckon 4 months for storing of cattle, but we find no difference whither they be housed or go abroad: our summers are somewhat more fervent in heat than in England. Our civil Government is mixt: the freemen choose the magistrates every year . . . and at 4: courts in the year 3: out of each town (there being 8 in all) do assist the magistrates in making of laws, imposing taxes, & disposing of lands: our furies [?] are chosen by the freemen of everye town. Our Churches are governed by Pastors, Teachers ruling Elders & Deacons, yet the power lies in the whole Congregation and not in the Presbytery [not in a larger council of churches] further than for order and precedence. For the natives, they are near all dead of the smallpox, so the Lord hath cleared our title to what we possess.

People & Ideas: John Winthrop

In the year 1588, the British Royal Navy inflicted a decisive and devastating defeat upon the Spanish Armada. Henceforth Protestant Britain would rule the seas Catholic Spain was reduced to a second-string European power. The year of England's ascendancy also marked the birth of John Winthrop, born into a prosperous middle-class family from Suffolk.

As a young man, Winthrop became convinced that England was in trouble: Inflation coupled with population growth had led men to pursue wealth at the cost of their souls. Efforts to reform the Church of England had faltered. Zealous bishops hounded religious dissenters who resisted obeying the rules. Puritans like Winthrop were persecuted. As he worried about his future, Winthrop became intrigued by a new venture, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a commercial enterprise that offered the chance for religious freedom in the New World.

Winthrop struggled with the decision to abandon his homeland. He was keenly aware that hardships had claimed the lives of half the Pilgrims who had settled in Plymouth 10 years earlier. He had no illusions about the difficulties that lay ahead -- a hostile climate, bad food, sickness and isolation. When he survived a bad accident with his horse, he took this as a divine signal: God was calling him to create a holy community in the wilderness of New England.

Winthrop was chosen to serve as governor of the fledgling Puritan colony. Before leaving Southampton or perhaps onboard the flagship Arbella, (scholars disagree on the exact timing), Winthrop delivered a sermon titled "A Modell of Christian Charity," also known as "A City Upon a Hill." Reminding them of their covenant with God, he urged his fellow travelers to honor their duties and obligations, "or surely we shall perish." Yet underlying this warning was a message of hope. Drawing upon the book of Deuteronomy, he concluded, "Let us chose life that we, and our seed may live, by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him, for He is our life and our prosperity."And so Winthrop and his fellow Puritans sailed westward to establish a model Christian commonwealth they hoped would serve as an example that England and all of Europe would one day emulate.

In Boston, Winthrop assumed leadership of the colony. His energies seemed prodigious and inexhaustible. Whatever needed doing, he tried to do it. Repeatedly elected governor, he was chiefly responsible for maintaining civic and social order. Political unity demanded religious conformity. Yet Winthrop understood that a measure of dissent and disagreement was inevitable. By temperament, he was a moderate, inclined to seek compromise, as he did when his friend Roger Williams began testing the patience of the authorities. At the same time, Winthrop recognized there were limits to dissent, for challenges to religious authority could undermine political order and social stability. Roger Williams was eventually banished, and when Anne Hutchinson tested those limits, Winthrop took action. Hutchinson, too, was banished from Massachusetts for the rest of her life.

Watch the video: Sensational Spelling The John Winthrop Jr Story