The Settlement of Cape Ann: What is the Real Story?

by Mary Ellen Lepionka

Collection of the Cape Ann Museum. Scan � Cape Ann Museum Photo Archive 2015.

Unveiling Tablet Commemorating First Settlement of Massachusetts Bay Colony.    1907 Postcard

Quite often the truth is unwelcome. Tablet Rock in Stage Fort Park, for example, bears a plaque commemorating the 1623 landing of the Dorchester Company as the first settlement of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and founding of Cape Ann’s fishing industry. This vertigrised plaque has been at the center of a dispute about whether and how to clean it, but more important to me is that what it says is not true. Neither is the tercentennial marker in Fisherman’s Field that talks about Roger Conant averting a violent confrontation there through diplomacy. Averse to complexity, we oversimplify. Real history is more complicated than we are allowed to know.

Massachusetts Bay Colony did not exist before 1628. Between 1623 and 1628 the Dorchester Company plantation begun by Rev. John White failed; Salem Village was founded in Beverly by its remnants, led by Roger Conant; and the New England Company took over the Dorchester Company’s assets on Cape Ann after debts were paid.

Rev. John White

The New England Company sent John Endicott to govern and subsequently morphed into the Massachusetts Bay Company, which was financed by merchants, including some former Dorchester Company investors. The Massachusetts Bay Company then negotiated a royal charter with Charles I giving them sweeping rights and abrogating all previous claims. (At one time there were as many as 22 claims to all or part of New England.)

Endicott replaced Conant, who since 1625 had acted as governor for the Dorchester Company investors, replacing Thomas Gardner and John Tylly, the original co-leaders of White’s failed fishing plantation of 1623. In 1626, with the aid of an Indian guide, Conant had led the surviving plantation settlers—those who elected to stay rather than be returned to England—and their cattle on the Squam Trail to the Pawtucket village of Nahumkeak (Naumkeag) on the Cape Ann side of the Bass River (Beverly). This small party of English men, women, and children survived through Native agency and planted side by side with the Indians over the next 50 years. They established Salem Village and became known as the Old Planters—but that’s another whole story.

Statue of Roger Conant in Salem MA.

Endicott moved the seat of government across the river to present-day Salem, along with the Dorchester Company settlers’ first meetinghouse, which Conant had transported to Salem Village from Fisherman’s Field. Then in 1630 John Winthrop succeeded Endicott as governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, moved the capital to Dorchester, and established a General Court with a branch at Salem. He sent his son to prospect and protect Agawam, which became Ipswich in 1634. The Mass. Bay Colony expanded to absorb all the earlier settlements, including Plymouth Colony.

John Endicott

So, to say that Rev. John White’s Dorchester Company founded the Mass. Bay Colony (on the plaque) or even “founded the nucleus of the Mass. Bay Colony” (on the marker) is a bit of a stretch. That the fisheries “have been uninterruptedly pursued from this fort” (Stage Fort) since 1623 is essentially true, however. In 1637, before Gloucester was even founded, Endicott sent men from Salem to throw up earthworks at Stage Head to protect the fishing station there from possible Indian attack during the Pequot War.

Stage Fort Commemorative Tablet

However, the fishing industry on Cape Ann was founded by Plymouth, not Gloucester. From 1620 to 1626 fishermen from Plymouth established and operated fishing stations on Gloucester Harbor and at Stage Head; at Whale Cove, Straitsmouth, and Gap Head in Rockport; and at Great Neck, Ipswich, in the vicinity of Jeffrey’s Ledge. It was Plymouth’s stages for drying fish—and those of the Native Americans who also fished and dried fish there—for which Stage Head (aka Stage Point) was named.

Plymouth fishermen bunked in the Indians’ wigwams on Fisherman’s Field during the seasonal occupation of the fishing station. They complained to Governor William Bradford about the fleas. They were prompted to build their own wigwams, modified to have a chimney at one end, versus a smoke hole, and a rectangular door opposite—(until 1639, that is, when the General Court of the Mass. Bay Colony decreed that Englishmen may no longer live in wigwams but must build proper English houses).

In 1623 Governor Bradford resupplied Plymouth’s fishing outposts at Cape Ann and elsewhere. The fishermen included William Jeffreys and others who had sheltered at Plymouth following the failure of Thomas Weston’s colony at Wessagusset (present-day Weymouth), founded as a profit center for London merchants. Wessagusset lasted less than a year. Another refugee was Thomas Morton, who struck out on his own and founded the colony of Merrymount in Quincy. A second colony at Weymouth, founded by Robert Gorges (his father Ferdinando Gorges and John Mason also had a king’s grant to “New England”), also ended after a year. Both Weymouth experiments failed through bad decisions about relations with the Native people. Other fishermen at Cape Ann included free thinkers, outcasts, self-exiles, and DIY families from Plymouth, liberating themselves from what had turned out to be a strictly regulated society.

The earliest histories and accounts—Smith, Bradford, Winslow, Maverick, Hubbard, Phippen, Thornton—refer to Plymouth’s role in the founding of Cape Ann, but later ones—Adams, and especially Babson and Pringle—perhaps out of civic pride—gloss them over or omit them. In 1623 Plymouth bought a “Charter for Cape Anne” from Lord Sheffield, who had just received it from the Council for New England. Anxious to ensure the establishment of a successful Puritan colony in answer to the Pilgrim colony at Plymouth, the Council for New England had double-booked by issuing two “patents” that year—one to Lord Sheffield, and the other to Rev. John White, founder of the Dorchester Company. Without authorization and for unknown reasons, Sheffield promptly sold his charter to Plymouth. Governor Bradford later complained that he had been sold a “useless” (illegal) patent and that his Cape Ann had been “taken over by adventurers”.

Statue of Governor William Bradford in Plymouth MA

The “adventurers” were the 52 investors in the Dorchester Company. The venture capitalists’ plantation on Fisherman’s Field at Stage Head was intended to be a permanent agricultural settlement and fishery but was abandoned after three unprofitable fishing seasons, insufficient salt production, and two crop failures, even after resupplying from England. But theirs also is another whole story.

John White persuaded Roger Conant to lead any settlers who elected to stay at Cape Ann and to protect their cattle and other Dorchester Company assets, including their stages and the trappings of their salt-making operation. (Conant’s uncle was a friend of White’s and an investor.) Conant had left Plymouth to establish a trading post at Nantasket with John Oldham. Some fishermen with their families joined them there, including Conant’s brother, as well as Rev. John Lyford, whom Bradford had cast out of Plymouth for expressing “dangerous ideas”. These people came with Conant on the rescue mission to Cape Ann, except for Oldham, who turned down the offer of a monopoly in the fur trade with the Cape Ann Indians.

Conant found a sorry situation. Most of the survivors were brought back to England in ships the Dorchester Company sent for them, and some of Conant’s company also took advantage of the opportunity to return home, including Christopher Conant and John Lyford. In 1625, declaring Cape Ann unsuitable for anything, Conant made preparations to lead the party overland to another location to start over. This is where the plaque and historic marker come into the story again. They both refer to Roger Conant’s diplomacy that “averted bloodshed between two factions contending for a fishing stage.”

The event this refers to happened in 1625, but early historians got it wrong. Their take on it has been repeated ever since. It actually was a three-way confrontation over possession of the fishing station at Stage Head. It was between 1) Conant’s party, who were preparing to abandon the site; 2) Myles Standish, whom Bradford had sent to claim the area officially for Plymouth under the authority of the Sheffield Charter; and 3) West Countrymen from Plymouth under the leadership of John Hewes, representing disgruntled former Dorchester Company investors in London who had heard (from John Lyford) about the Dorchester Company’s bankruptcy. They were seeking to take possession of its assets to try to recover their losses.

Captain William Peirce, master of the Anne for the Plymouth Company, fishing Cape Ann waters, was anchored in Gloucester Harbor at the time. Peirce sent word to Governor Bradford about Hewes’ imminent takeover, and Bradford sent back Myles Standish to protect Plymouth’s interests. When Hewes’ men occupied the Dorchester Company stages and barricaded themselves behind hogsheads of salt, Standish threatened to open fire on them. At that point, according to Bradford (and to Hubbard who interviewed Conant in 1682), Conant and his men “rushed from their huts” (i.e., wigwams—for Conant had also complained to White about fleas) to intervene. Conant explained that the stages, equipment, salt, and patent for Stage Head were still the legal property of the Dorchester Company until further notice. I suppose you could call this diplomacy.

William Bradford recalled Standish and Peirce to Plymouth. Hewes and the Plymouth fishermen abandoned Cape Ann for the Kennebec River in Maine, where they established a fishing and fur trading post at Cushnoc. And Conant and his party left for Naumkeag. But I guess a historic plaque or marker can’t say all that. What they should say is that Tablet Rock was a sacred place for the Native people who lived on Fisherman’s Field and that the first English who came here would not have survived without their help.


Mary Ellen Lepionka lives in East Gloucester and is studying the history of Cape Ann from the Ice Age to around 1700 A.D. for a book on the subject. She is a retired publisher, author, editor, textbook developer, and college instructor with degrees in anthropology. She studied at Boston University and the University of British Columbia and has performed archaeology in Ipswich, MA, Botswana, Africa, and at Pole Hill in Gloucester, MA. Mary Ellen is a trustee of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society and serves on the Gloucester Historical Commission.

16 thoughts on “The Settlement of Cape Ann: What is the Real Story?

  1. Love this adventuring history–especially the grounding details about the changing use of flea- invested wigwams into, no doubt, flea-invested huts with square doors and chimneys.
    Please tell us more about how you know Tablet Rock was considered a sacred place.


  2. As my husband and his family are direct descendants of Roger Conant and my family has lived in Gloucester for 4 generations, it’s very interesting to read this historical perspective. Thanks so much for sharing these details. It really is always about the money, I guess.


    • I also enjoyed this historical correction.

      CammyGrammy, My family is also descendant from Roger Conant. Is there a way we can communicate directly? We have been living in California for generations now – but I grew up summering in Gloucester. BeeHappySolutions at gmail Alice


  3. There is a whole segment of events that are missing from this story. 1623 wasn’t the first time John White sent over a group of people. My line arrived in 1617-18, actually at the Popham colony. On the intent to restart that colony. But left, then migrated down to Cape Ann area Joining up with people who were still there from the original Popham Colony. My direct line was connected to King James, who were followers of John White and tried to get a charter, They came over early thinking it would be granted. But it wasn’t, So they were here. 1623 was their second more organised attempt. My line migrated down to Plymouth, after they found out it was founded,they tried to basically overthrow Bradford and take control of the Colony. As they were connected to the King. My line was originally from the group and the direct Bradford split, Who left and joined the John White following, They knew Bradford wanted to come over.So it started John White organising a plan to come over.
    They didn’t really deal with any companies to fund, being directly tied to the King through my family for the first venture. Which led to White starting the Dorchester Company later, After they left, failing to get the first Charter. (It was my grandfather who worked for King James and was in his court was the connection to the King. Contextually speaking it would be my father that left to come over, Leaving White to deal though my grandfather directly) Their intent was to beat Bradford over. Lot’s of unrecorded bad blood between the two groups.Which is written in what I have. They labelled Bradford as a heretic and of the devil, among other things. I don’t really know why they just up and left, without waiting, I think it was a ‘God’s will’ ideology.

    Through all of this my line were relegated to their own corner of Plymouth, as Bradford didn’t want to kick them out or punish them. Being connected to the King. Which led to Bradford going up to the Cape Ann area.

    I have lots of evidence to back up these assertions, I have the family bible and other documentation. As you know Bibles are the road map to putting it all together, they’re basically journals. But have been dismissed As through putting all this together through what I have, I get the feeling John White wasn’t thought to highly of. Not that it really matters today. The main point is we’re all here. But I have found speaking with others from the Jamestown line, and others from the Mass bay colony line. They want the story to be more about Plymouth and that’s it. Hence why my line has been written out of any story line and is non existent. But they were here.


  4. When Conant and others went to found Salem, Gardner is not mentioned. He was thought, by the Paine sisters, to, perhaps, have gone back to jolly England.

    No, Thomas and Margaret (and we just established her as the mother of his children) were in Cape Ann. They had the house, plantings, game and all of the resources to enjoy the first bit of free living in what became the U.S. Thomas went back and forth. But, back to Cape Ann would have been the rational decision of such a capable fella.

    Of course, Endicott had the house moved.

    Lots of tales pending the telling.


  5. Hello. I am impressed by all the research. Are any descendants of the Conant family, or any MA local historians planning to mark the 400th anniversary of Roger Conant’s arrival in the New World? I write from Budleigh Salterton, a few miles from East Budleigh, birthplace of both Roger Conant and Sir Walter Raleigh. Do let me know. E:
    Michael Downes (I am a volunteer at Fairlynch Museum in Budleigh Salterton


  6. One thing I noticed as I got familiar with this subject (Cape Ann, Naumkeag (Salem), Essex County, and more) was that the 300th anniversary (ought to be plural as each little town can celebrate – it’ll take over 50 years) motivated a lot of activity. Some of this effort by our ancestors ought to be re-addressed this time around. An example is the Old Planters Society (Instituted in 1899). Their focus was, generally, on the early arrivals who were not connected with Plymouth. A 1900 publication gave the content of their June 1900 meeting (Col. Thomas W. Higginson spoke of “The Alliance Between Pilgrim & Puritan in Massachusetts”), provided their Constitution, and list of Officers and Members. I see Conants on various lists.

    Another activity was a Pageant that was presented by locals. One task might to gather information about these events.


  7. Wonderful Article and dialogue from intelligent and informed descendants and learned scholars alike. I hope to hear more about this thread as I am from E. Gloucester (Rocky Neck) but live in CA with my son & husband who happen to be 10th generation grandsons of Roger Conant.


  8. Hello: I & all My family were here as Native American, with a last name as “Mountain” what else can We be, as always WE are never mentioned! I moved to Western Ma. for a few years for work, so as usual I looked up “OUR” History! I can not believe “AMHERST, MA.” is named after “Our Hitler”, I acquired a copy of “Lord Amherst’s Letter” to another General in the Hudson Valley, when ask how to get RID of “MY People” (the answer is written in His Hand & Signed) just go, when the next “Small Pox Epidemic” is raging, and collect all the Infected Blankets & Handkerchiefs & give them to the Indians & just WAIT, They will be dead in a Feel Weeks!! I have been with a Black Man, more than 1/2 My Life, so believe Me I’m glad that those “Folks” may get what is coming to Them, as the Joke in My Home for years was as soon as I get My Land back, “I’ll give You Your 40 Acres & a Mule”!! Everyone talks about 1619, I think everyone should go back a lot farther to at least 1492 but really way back as WE were here from the beginning of time!! We were not lost, so We did not need to be Discovered, the 1st people “To come to Steal Our Land & Kill Us Off were “Conquistadors”!! No one until President Biden even Mentioned Us, everyone is complaining about the number of people of their Race?! We have “FINALLY” 1, Debra Haaland, of the Dept. of the Interior, who better to take “Care of Our Land” than the Original People?!! I’m running out of of space but, sometime look up the “Little Ice Age” When the White Man come Here “WE” were 65 million strong in less than 100 Years WE were down to 5 million see what that Got “Man Kind”, & “Mother Nature” isn’t a Force to Mess with, She will Always Protect Herself!! All Anyone has to do is look at All the Epidemics, Our Present One “Corvi-19”, than A.I.D., and Ebola, where is a Vaccine for those, I worked in Cambridge City Hospital A.I.D.’s Clinic so I know what was coming & have worn an N-95 mask with a regular blue surgical mask since Jan.27, 2020, and have been called a “Crazy “B” since, every time I asks for 6ft. or pull up Your mask over Your nose & mouth politely, I’m threatened Verbally & Physically ?!! I just Hope Mankind will turn back in the Right Direction before it’s to LATE?! Time will Tell Thank You for the Opportunity to say what I feel!! I do not want Anyone’s Eyes Or Ears Bleeding, with so much to say, but someone Has to Stand Up for the “ORIGINAL” Land Owners My People!! Princessblackwolf Mountain


  9. I found this article interesting. A few years ago I wrote a little book about the Rev John White (‘Dorchester’s New Worlds – available through Amazon), which included a bit about the Dorchester as part of a wider story. It seems to me that we ought to be preparing to mark the 400th anniversary of the formation of the Dorchester Company – a significant date was 16 December 1623 when a meeting in Dorchester decided to go ahead with plans for a settlement at Cape Ann, with Sir Walter Erle identified as ‘Governor of the New England Plantation. Are there any plans for such a celebration in Cape Ann itself?


Leave a Reply to John M. Switlik President/Researcher Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s