How Did Gloucester’s Founding Shape Its Future?

Blyman Bridge. 1923
Edward Hopper (1882–1967)

by Mary Ellen Lepionka

As a municipality, Gloucester historically was regarded as poor compared to other seaside towns in Massachusetts. I wondered why and found answers in our early history. Massachusetts Bay Colony policies destroyed the productivity of the first comers to Cape Ann, and the newcomers who followed them were farmers who could not turn a profit on Cape Ann’s soils. Gloster Plantation was underfunded from the start. Its harbor never received enough investment to achieve its potential as an international port of trade. Later, the wars of the 18th and 19th centuries benefitted other towns but left Cape Ann depopulated and depressed. Historical circumstances shaped Cape Ann’s prospects, just as early childhood experiences can shape us in ways we may come to understand but find hard to change.

John Endecott (1588-1655)

In 1628 the New England Company, which became the Massachusetts Bay Company, sent John Endecott to govern the Old Planters at Salem Village (relocated members of Rev. John White’s failed Dorchester Company plantation on Gloucester Harbor) and to oversee Cape Ann. The next year the Company obtained a royal charter to start a colony and sent a fleet to Salem with 350 settlers, the so-called Higginson Fleet, named for the minister who wrote an account if it. Then in 1630, they sent John Winthrop with a much larger fleet to govern the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Masquenominet (Masconomet, Pawtucket sagamore) and his entourage canoed out to Winthrop’s vessel as it lay at anchor (in Beverly Cove or Mackerel Cove) and went aboard to welcome him. Winthrop gave trinkets to the Indians, relieved Endecott, and moved the capital from Salem to Dorchester. The Massachusetts Bay Colony then established a General Court.

The General Court promptly declared null and void all deeds of land bought directly from the Indians without the Court’s permission! Anyone living on such lands were squatters! They were to be evicted and the land redistributed to newcomers! This ruling (missing from what we are taught about the history of Massachusetts) had a devastating effect on all first comers. William Jeffreys, for example, lost his holdings at Jeffrey’s Creek and Jeffrey’s Neck and his lucrative fishing grounds on Jeffrey’s Ledge at Ipswich.

John Winthrop (1588-1649)

Independents and ex-Plymouth fisherfolk in Cape Ann’s nooks and crannies—Kettle Cove, Lobster Cove, Pigeon Cove—quickly added themselves to the rolls of the plantation or became part of the new town by gifting their land to it on condition of getting it back through redistribution or being allowed to live and make a living on it! In a long letter called The Planter’s Plea, John White begged the General Court to let the Old Planters in Salem-Beverly keep at least the land on which their houses stood, which was granted. First comers at Jeffrey’s Creek also were permitted some acreage for a town (renamed Manchester-by-the-Sea).

The four ships John Winthrop brought to New England, 1630
William F. Halsall (1841-1919)

The scale of this disaster makes one wonder if the plight of first comers—some of whose descendants still live here—is the deep-time source of local distrust of state government, prevalent in Gloucester and other coastal Massachusetts towns down to the present day. The earliest settlers and entrepreneurs had been disenfranchised, displaced, and potentially pauperized overnight. If they lacked ownership of their land, they lacked the chief means of upward mobility—other than participation in the slave trade by supplying corn, barley, and fish to the Bermuda and Caribbean slave plantations.

The fur trade was no longer a source of income. After a hundred years of dealing with Abenaki middlemen in the French fur trade, the Native people of Essex County were no longer interested and in any case, had already hunted beaver to near extinction. And the domestic shipbuilding and maritime industries had barely begun. The sketchy Cape Ann economy, interrupted, was soon thoroughly regulated and taxed, although to encourage maritime industries, the General Court excused fishermen from military training, duties on salt, and tithes on their catches.

The General Court redistributed the land first comers had borrowed, bought, or taken from the Indians to fleets of newcomers during the Great Migration, in which an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people emigrated to New England between 1630 and 1642.

Newcomers to Newbury, Rowley, and Ipswich included prosperous North Country weavers and woolen manufacturers and gentlemen farmers. They flourished on the rich alluvial soils of their broad floodplains and built country estates. Beverly and Beverly Farms likewise had large expanses of prime agricultural land.

First comers to Cape Ann (Gloucester, Rockport, Essex) had been fishermen from the West Country—Devon, Dorset, Hampshire—but most newcomers were illiterate and even less well-off farmers from Gloucester, Warwick, and Worcester. On Cape Ann, they were homesteading on marginal land unconducive to large-scale agriculture and easily damaged by over-grazing. Over time, first cattle and “rother beasts”, then sheep and pigs, and finally goats were all the land would support. Harvesting pole pines for the Royal Navy and salt marsh hay for animal fodder became the leading export industries.

Plantation proprietors petitioned the General Court for clear legal title to their lands, becoming towns with selectmen or aldermen. They were required to pay (or repay) the Indians to obtain quitclaim deeds. Gloster Plantation, established in 1638, and then the Town, incorporated in 1642, complied by renting land from Masquenominet! This is a little-known, possibly hidden, fact that you will not find in local archives. Gloucester rented to buy, paying the Indians over time. Over the next 50 years, they paid in kind—bushel baskets of Indian corn—in lieu of cash. The last recorded installment was paid in 1682. Gloucester paid its taxes and military dues the same way—in Indian corn, barley, and peas, with frequent requests for quota reductions and abatements.

In 1700/1701 Samuel English and Masquenomenit’s other grandchildren sued Gloucester in General Court—another little-known/hidden fact—and they won their case. The General Court ordered Gloucester to pay the balance owed in cash—£7 for the 10,000 acres, including Essex.

The newcomers to Cape Ann were farming among the rocks in sandy, acid soils, and after centuries of inshore overfishing, fishermen were having to sail five miles out to Stellwagen or Jeffrey’s Ledge (or 60 miles out to George’s Bank in the Gulf of Maine, and later even farther) to find market fish in any quantity. More important, the start of the English Civil War in 1641 put an abrupt end both to mass migration and to aristocrats’ investment schemes for making Gloucester Harbor into a prosperous international port.

In 1642 the General Court had invited a wealthy merchant prince in the tobacco trade, Maurice Thompson, to oversee Gloucester Harbor and to create and regulate shipping through a canal between Ipswich Bay and Massachusetts Bay. Such a canal—the Cut— would make shipping between Canada and Virginia both shorter and safer by avoiding the Cape, which was already littered with shipwrecks. The port also would serve as a distribution center for transatlantic trade. Thompson had a great flow of capital to invest from wealthy landowners in England, such as Richard Rich, the Earl of Warwick, who had a special interest in developing coastal New England.

The relationship between the Indian Village, Gloster Plantation, and the planned port at Duncan’s Point.

Governor Endecott had houses, docks, and warehouses built for Thompson at Duncan’s Point, where Harbor Loop is today, but the merchant prince did not accept the offer. He sent agents to check it out but never came. Greater riches were to be made in the Caribbean and South America. In 1643, in an effort to develop Gloucester on its own, the selectmen employed a Puritan from Plymouth, Richard Blynman, to make the Cut and serve as the town’s minister. Per usual, they paid in kind in lieu of a salary, offering some land and a free hand to profit from running a ferry or toll bridge across the Annisquam.

Things didn’t go well between the strict new pastor and the people of Gloucester. In 1650 he and his party, including the first town clerk, left for Connecticut Colony. The Cut was abandoned and soon filled in. It was dredged from time to time, but opportunities to salvage the dream were passed up again and again. By the time the Cut was reopened—in 1823 and again in 1907—it was too narrow and shallow to serve the international shipping industry, and steamships had less need of both the shortcut and the safety.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, Cape Ann men were out to sea or at war most of the time. Population declined. Provisioning fishing vessels became Gloucester’s main industry. Vessels were prey during the Anglo-Wabanaki and French and Indian Wars, the Revolutionary War, the Napoleonic Wars, and the War of 1812. It’s said the British replenished their ships’ stores by raiding sheep pastures in Dogtown. Other coastal towns capitalized on home front industries that could provide war materiel—soldier’s uniforms, canvas for sails and tents, gun parts. Gloucester, in contrast, provided service as privateers, troop transports, and merchant marines. Later, men left for the California gold rush even as the granite industry was starting. But exploitation of immigrant labor meant that the quarries enriched their owners and corporate chiefs more than the towns. Men who did not fish left Cape Ann for jobs. The fishing industry became hugely successful, but dependence on fishing had given Gloucester a risky, undiversified economy—a kind of monoculture gradually leavened by summer resorts, artists, retirees, tourists, and (we can only hope) new industries.

History is a great teacher. As individuals and as municipalities, historical circumstances shape our prospects, but they do not necessarily determine them. We make ourselves, and we are not poor. That things are hard to change doesn’t mean they can’t.

 

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.

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.