Chapter I


Grants, Patents & Charters:


Vehicles for the Crown's Plan for New England




1.    The Corporate Origins of the New England colonies


One of the two sources of influence on the settlers were the charters issued in London for trading companies, and not for religious groups to found any city of God on earth. We must remember that colonization in the early seventeenth century was a commercial process set in a context of international competition for new outlets in the New World.


a)  Trade competition among European nations and the situation in North America.


After the loss of Calais in 1558, the dreams of the English changed from a continental empire to overseas possessions. However, they needed to act quickly since the Spanish and the Portuguese had already shared the New World between themselves, which had even been acknowledged by a papal bull of 1506[1]. Yet the Spanish, who were thereby to control the Western part of the New World - except for Brazil - were actually in possession of the southern half. The English, along with the French, the Dutch and even the Swedes, thus had a legitimate right to claim the lands in North America which were not actually settled by Spain. As a result, English settlers financially backed by the merchants of the Virginia Company founded Jamestown in 1607, the first lasting English colony in North America.


b)  The trading Companies.


The trading companies to which the charters for overseas territories were granted were supposed to exert political power in the colonies they controlled. The conditions and details of how and by whom power and authority were to be shared was stipulated in the charters, and this is what we shall examine here.

In the early seventeenth century English trading companies had existed for a long time, starting with the medieval guilds, and operated not only on a national level but also on a European level. There were also companies, trading specifically with foreign nations, which had monopolies over certain given areas because of the high costs of maintenance.

There were two types of companies: the "regulated" companies, in which each member traded on his own capital, according to the rules of the company, which were common to all; the second type of companies were the joint-stock companies, in which losses and profits were shared by the stockholders, and in which individual enterprise was replaced by mutual efforts.[2] They were intended to return a profit and a substantial percentage of the initial investment injected by the adventurer, but were also looking for new outlets, trying to trade beyond the depressed European market, and to escape rigid regulations.

As early as 1617, some Separatist Puritans from Scrooby in Lincolnshire,[3] then established at Leyden in the Netherlands, contemplated emigrating to America. They had heard of successful plantations in Virginia and thought it was better for them to emigrate on "English" soil, provided it was not England itself. That year they sent two agents to negotiate a patent from the Virginia Company, which they received in February 1620. They were allowed to settle within the bounds of the Virginia Charter.[4]

During the negotiations for their grant in America, the Pilgrims' agents agreed with the Adventurers on creating a joint-stock company for seven years, sharing profits and losses for all that time.[5] This modus vivendi lasted until 1623, when the stock company broke up and stopped the financing on account of insufficient profits. The Company was finally dissolved in 1627 under pressure from William Bradford, then the Governor of Plymouth Plantation: the Pilgrims had been left to fend for themselves for four years and it was enough.

A triangular examination of the links between the companies' chief investors, the Puritan circles and the spheres of power and authority might interestingly reveal motivations not visible at first glance and explain why Puritans, who were considered as little more than heretical traitors, were granted not only land overseas, but also the right to settle and prosper freely. Beyond the fact that settlers were hard to find and that the leaders of the Virginia Company needed some to start a new plantation in North Virginia, the Virginia Company liked the group from Leyden because, by their sober and religious life, the latter embodied the ideal settlers. Moreover, the Earl of Warwick, an avowed Puritan, was the leader of the Council of New England,[6] and Ferdinando Gorges[7] complained that it was through Warwick's influence - and in his own absence - that the Dorchester group obtained a patent from this Council on 19 March, 1628 - to be transformed into a royal charter the year after. It must also be pointed out that the six men who obtained it were all identified with Devon Puritans, less radical than their East Anglian counterparts, but Puritans all the same. Two of them furthermore, Sir Henry Rosewell and Sir John Yonge, did or had occupied the office of high sheriff of Devon.[8] However they lacked money and they had to make a deal with wealthy and powerful London merchants. Among them, Matthew Cradock, the future first Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Company, "owned 2000 worth of East India Company stocks", Theophilius Eaton was deputy-governor of the Eastland Company, Samuel and William Vassall were the "sons of a Huguenot member of the Virginia Company".[9] There were others like William Pynchon, Isaac Johnson, Richard Bellingham and later John Winthrop who were or had been in a position of power at county level.[10] This tangled web of wealthy, powerful and adventurous Puritans helps to understand why Puritans managed to be granted land in such a generous manner as we shall explore next.


2.    The content of the New England charters


In spite of their length and redundant phraseology, these documents are a mine of information on the territorial boundaries of the area granted, the reasons officially invoked for colonization, and the rough shape of government that were established, which if course is the part that is the most important for our study. Nevertheless, the other two are also helpful in so far as they convey a clear idea of the territories we shall be dealing with and the mind of the men in charge of the companies. As far as the shaping of government is concerned, we shall be looking for provisions which the settlers had to consider as binding.


a)  Territorial extent


As the starting point of all subsequent English North American colonial ventures, the 1606 Virginia Charter gave English settlers a right over lands located between the thirty-fourth northern parallel and the forty-fifth, which means between present-day North Carolina and the border between Vermont and Canada, on a coastal basis, and then from "sea to sea".[11] Two colonies were established: one with right over land between the thirty-fourth and the forty-first parallels - where Long Island now lies - in which Jamestown was founded, and in which the Leyden Pilgrims were expected to settle. The second colony was to settle lands situated between the thirty-eighth and the forty-first parallel.

When news reached England that the Pilgrim Fathers had eventually landed outside the bounds set by the Virginia charter - Plymouth lying approximately at the level of the forty-second northern parallel - the patent they had obtained was useless and they needed another one. It was drafted on 3 November, 1620 and now granted them land between the fortieth and the forty-eighth parallels, from sea to sea, thus including French Canada, provided it was actually possessed neither by other Christian subjects, nor by Indians, who had anyway been destroyed by a "wonderfull plague"[12] a few years before. Since they claimed lands which were utterly unoccupied, they had a legitimate right to stay there.

The territorial extent which they could claim was clarified by the 1629 Royal Charter, which was based upon, and made reference to, the 1620 Charter of New England. The Pilgrims were also granted the area between the Kennebec River and the "Western Ocean", both in present-day Maine. In the charter of Massachusetts, March 4, 1629, the Charles River, "in the bottom of Massachusetts Bay", was the southern limit of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, whereas the northern bound was the Merrimac River, plus three miles beyond both rivers - which implied that they had monopoly over the rivers, a very important trading asset. The grant extended from sea to sea as well. The future colonies of Connecticut and New Haven were later carved from the land granted by the 1620 Charter, but they were out of the jurisdiction of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Other parts were granted to Ferdinando Gorges and John Mason, both prominent men in the story of the English North American colonial experience. The lands they dealt were especially in New Hampshire and Maine.

The existence of Rhode Island was recognized and legalized by a 1643 patent granted by Parliament. The northern limit was the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the eastern limit was Plymouth Plantation, they could extend up to the sea in the south and up to the Narragansetts country in the west. All this land was not granted to them: they bought it from the Indians. Acknowledging the Indians as the proprietors of the land was an innovation and remained exceptional.


b)  Reasons invoked for settlement

The reasons invoked for settlement in the charters did not necessarily reflect the deep beliefs of the drafters and the recipients. First it must be reminded that all the companies from the Virginia Company to the Massachusetts Bay Company were trading companies set up for purely commercial purposes. The Massachusetts Bay Company originated from the Dorchester Company, which was an attempt at making cod-fishing easier and less expensive, something very far from building New Jerusalem.

As Samuel Eliot Morison has pointed out[13], the initial motivations for overseas settlements were always on a threefold level. The first one was patriotism, namely extending the bounds of the realm, in the same trend as can be discerned from the Middle Ages to Victorian imperialism.

The second reason was commercial: the trading companies speculated on potential gains which could be derived from overseas trade, or the exploitation of overseas resources, in order to lower the dependence of England on the importation of raw materials, and especially gold and silver from Spanish America.

Since at the time religion was omnipresent at all levels of life and society and had not been challenged yet by rationalism, the progress of science and the philosopher of the enlightenment, it would then seem illogical that religion - here in the form of evangelization - should not be one of the three main reasons for colonization. One must not forget that kings, and especially James I, were deeply convinced of deriving their power from God, and that every little departure from the State-established religion - we are not even contemplating any form of atheism, this would follow in the eighteenth century - was considered as heresy, and heretics, if discovered, where mercilessly burnt at the stake. However, bringing the Gospel to the heathens was not a priority, it was not the real reason that pushed them overseas. If they could convert a few Indians to Christianity, and thus according to them to civilization, then it would give a moral guarantee to the adventure. However, as far as English plantations were concerned, religion was initially not intended to be a dominant factor of the life of the colonies, as opposed to French Canada, where fur traders had been accompanied by Jesuit priests who directed life over there[14]. And unlike in Canada, where the King of France would not allow Huguenots[15], James I as well as Charles I allowed dissenters, even avowed Separatists, to occupy the colonies. In the case of the Leyden Pilgrims, we may well wonder whether King James and the Virginia Company jointly used them as pawns to people North Virginia before it was totally controlled by the French and the Dutch, and at the same time getting rid of unwanted subjects. On the other hand, James might have had to accept the terms of the Virginia Company, who had already reached an agreement with the Pilgrims. Indeed, James was aware that the Adventurers and the merchants in general were the only men from whom he could borrow money.

Now if we examine the reasons as they were stated in the charters themselves, the priorities become even more evident. The only religious part in the Instruction for the Virginia Colony (1606) can be found in the last sentence - "every plantation that our Heavenly Father hath not planted shall be rooted out"[16] - and gives the whole flavor of these deeply Protestant times: anything that had not been (pre-)ordained by God, be it kings or the practices of the Church, had no value, and was not worthy of existing. This reminder stands out even more strikingly in the Instructions for the Virginia Company, a down-to-earth text entirely concerned with finding the North-West passage - in order to get an easier and quicker access to the riches of Orient, not to potential recipients of Christianity - and with practical advice, warnings and military preparations against hypothetical enemies.

Paradoxically, the only motivation explicitly stated in the Virginia Charter of 1606 deals with the Indians, referred to as "infidels" and "savages" living "in darknesse and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worshippe of God", who were to be brought to "humane civilitie and to a settled and quiet governmente."[17] Obviously this kind of rhetoric assuming that any different culture is de facto inferior and needs to be "westernized" is typical of any colonizing nation. It is therefore not surprising to find it here, but it is disturbing to think that it is the only motivation they felt the need to state. The commercial aspect was obvious enough by the sheer fact that the Charter was granted to a trading company, therefore implying that the Adventurers were risking their money in the hope of reaping a good percentage of their initial investment. Moreover, the accompanying Instructions for the Virginia Colony contains an even more revealing, if yet involuntary so, piece of advice: the center of the town would be the market place, with "every street's end opening on it"[18].

The Instructions for the Virginia Company and the Virginia Charters do not concern New England. Nevertheless Virginia was the only English colonial precedent when Plymouth and the Council of New England were founded, so we must start by examining what the Virginia Charter stipulated. In the first of the three documents[19] which are the most relevant to us - namely the Charter of New England of 1620, the Charter for Plymouth Plantation of 1629 and the Charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company of 1629 as well - the reasons given in the texts of reference (the three Virginia Charters) are given again. The first one is the "inlargement of Christian religion, to the glory of God Almighty," followed by the territorial expansion of the royal dominions, and the settlement of "those deserts with people governed by lawes and magistrates", which is not even bringing civilization to the heathen since there were none, almost all of them having been decimated by the "wonderfull plague" already evoked. As royal possessions, they were to be considered as overseas offshoots of Old England, hence their name of New England[20], coined by John Smith. After these prerequisites, the motives of the Company were updated. Subsequently to the "wonderfull plague" of 1617, the savages who remained "wandering in desolacion and distress" were to be converted to "Civil Societie and Christian religion", two concepts which can be equated. The second principle was again the "inlargement of our dominions", and the third was now the "advancement of the Fortunes[21] of the Settlers", about which we may wonder if it is the Adventurers - the investors who remained in England - or the Planters - the actual settlers, who held shares as well - who were referred to.

The Royal Charter granted to William Bradford in 1629 being only a confirmation of the previous patents issued by the dissolved trading company financially backing the Pilgrims, the document is much shorter and the reasons for colonization unchanged. They were just summed up as, first, the propagation of religion, and "the great increase of trade to his Majestie's realm"[22].

Like the Charter for the Plymouth Colony, the Charter of Massachusetts Bay of 1629 was based on the 1620 Charter of New England. Actually, it also referred to a patent granted by the Council of New England of the year before, and it was much more concerned with establishing a clear form of government, rather than giving any reasons why the Massachusetts Bay Company should settle in the land they were granted. This, as we shall see later, was not the only missing clause in this particular charter. The only reference to the influence that the settlers might have on the Natives' life is that "by their good life and orderly conversation"[23] they might incite them to turn to Christianity, and thus to Civilization. But we might wonder whether it was an encouragement to evangelize the Indians, or rather for the Puritans to behave themselves.

There were other motivations, given how the economic situation in England had changed since the early 1620s. The economic slump would not end and unemployment was rampant. Crime and the number of vagabonds were soaring. Because of the system of guilds and of enclosures, it was more difficult to enter the work market and to have access to land. Moreover, there had been bad harvests in East Anglia in 1630 and 1631, and riots caused by unemployment. If these reasons might not all have played a part in the decision to create the Massachusetts Bay Company, they did in the peopling of New England. To these reasons must be added the loosening of the mores which infuriated and disgusted the Puritans,[24] and the persecutions against them engineered by William Laud, Bishop of London, later to become Archbishop of Canterbury.


[ To next page - Chapter I ]




[1] Sir George Clark, Early Modern Europe (1450-1720), Oxford UP, 1966, 67.

[2] G. M. Trevelyan, English Social History: A Survey of Six Centuries, from Chaucer to Queen Victoria, Pelican, London, 1944, 215.

[3] Separatists were Puritans who rejected the Church of England as hopelessly corrupt because it made no difference between the saved and the damned, an idea derived from the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. We shall come back on the idea of separatism again and present it more precisely when necessary. For a very thorough introduction to separatism, see Edmund S. Morgan, Visible Saints: the History of a Puritan Idea, Cornell University Press, New York 1963.

[4] George D. Langdon, Jr., Pilgrim Colony - A History of New Plymouth (1620 - 1691), Yale University Press, New Haven, 1966, 8.

[5] Ibid.

[6] It was created by the First Virginia Charter in 1606 to colonize the Northern part of Virginia. So far, there had been no permanent settlement apart from Jamestown.

[7] Another leading adventurer, always faithful to the Crown, he was granted several areas in North America - in present-day Maine and New Hampshire, upon which the Plymouth patent overlapped. See Samuel Eliot Morison, Builders of the Bay Colony, Boston, 1930, reed. 1958, 33.

[8] Ibid., 32, 33.

[9] Ibid., 34.

[10] Ibid., 34, 66.

[11] See The Second Charter of Virginia, 1609.

[12] See the Charter of New England, 1620. It was later interpreted as a sign from God, clearing the land so that it could be duly settled.

[13] Morison, Builders of the Bay Colony, 5-6.

[14] Trevelyan, English Social History, 229.

[15] Ibid., 228.

[16] Instructions for the Virginia Company, 1606. This was inspired by Matt. 15:13, "Every plant, which my Heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up."

[17] The First Virginia Charter, 1606.

[18] The Instructions for the Virginia Company.

[19] All the quotations in this paragraph come from the Charter of New England, 1620

[20] However plausible, this argument is debatable, given that all the possessions of European nations were called "New" followed by the name of the colonizing power: New Spain, New France, New Netherlands and even New Sweden, and this is not a reason why these possessions must be identical, or as close as possible to the Mother country. Yet the English overseas plantations were the only ones where some kind of transfer of the traditional model was attempted; they were also the only ones intended to be peopled and not to serve as mere trading posts. The idea of a transfer of the English model in the legislative and judicial fields will be more thoroughly studied in chapter IV.

[21] Italics mine, meant to draw the reader's attention on the ambiguity of the polysemous word "fortune": in the early seventeenth century, it could refer to riches and to luck. See Oxford English Dictionary.

[22] Charter for New Plymouth Plantation to William Bradford, 1629.

[23] Charter of Massachusetts Bay, 1629.

[24] See Winthrop's letter to his wife Margaret (May 1629), in Everett Emerson, Letters from New England - the Massachusetts Bay Colony 1629 - 1638, University of Massachusetts Press, Amhearst, 1976, 41, and Edmund S. Morgan, The Puritan Dilemma: the Story of John Winthrop, Harper Collins Publishers, 1958, 36-37.