Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Winthrop Fleet fights its way to New England in 1630

© 2014 Christy K Robinson

Beach roses or salt-spray roses, growing on the shores of Maine
in June 2014, 384 years after the Winthrop Fleet passed this spot.
Flower photos courtesy of Dr. Rondi Aastrup.
In late March 1630, in their new year and on Easter Monday, the Winthrop Fleet of business investors and religious refugees heard a sermon and blessing by their favorite minister, John Cotton, and left the harbor on England’s south coast. The strong winds and rain kept the fleet glued to the coast, though, for a few weeks, and many of the passengers, including Thomas Dudley’s family and John Winthrop’s son Henry, spent time ashore rather than on the cramped ships.

Only three days into their venture, while the fleet’s occupants were fasting and praying, some farm laborers they’d brought “pierced a rundlet of strong water” (a 15-gallon barrel of whisky used primarily for medicinal purposes), and were put in "a bolt" (probably tied or chained to part of the ship) for a night and day to punish them.

The ships set their sails for Salem, Massachusetts, where a previous party, led by John Endecott, had gone a year earlier to found a town and plant crops to support itself and the hundreds of people set to arrive in 1630.

The 350-ton Arbella, admiralty ship of the Winthrop Fleet,
was often separated from the other ships by high seas and
a succession of raging tempests.
The fleet was at sea for 10 weeks, two weeks longer than expected, and they were two months later than their original plan called for. Storms blew the fleet apart for days at a time. They’d fought the westerly gales and sailed south to the 43rd parallel before they tacked back to the North Atlantic. After a month, they were only halfway across the Atlantic, north of the Azores and west of the Bay of Biscay. The ships had to strike their sails in the tempest and were reduced to drifting if they wanted to keep their masts in one piece. “The sea raged and tossed us exceedingly, yet, through God’s mercy, we were very comfortable, and few or none sick, but had opportunity to keep the Sabbath and Mr. Phillips preached twice that day.”
The Effects of Intemperance,
by Jan Steen
Tensions mounted. Men fought and spent the night in chains. A servant made a private deal with a boy (presumably the ship’s boy) to purloin three biscuits a day from the communal food supply, and upon discovery, the servant was tied to a bar and had a basket of stones placed around his neck for two hours. A maidservant, being seasick, drank so much whisky that she was “senseless, and had near killed herself. We observed it a common fault in our young people, that they gave themselves to drink hot waters [whisky] very immoderately.”

We will resist the temptation to call Mr. Winthrop “Captain Obvious” about young people and hard drinking, because in their world, their era, their religious customs, alcohol poisoning was a rare thing. As a rule, their drinks were very low in alcoholic content.

By the 29th of May, two months after their launch, three of the fleet were just off the Grand Banks, south of Sable Island and about 600 miles east of Salem. On the third of June, knowing they were nearing dangerous shoals, they sounded for depth, but found no bottom.

Cape Neddick, Maine, called Aquamentius in
John Winthrop's Journal
 Finally, on June 6, they sounded at 80 fathoms/486 feet. They were offshore of Aquamentius, Maine. The next day, Monday, they were becalmed, and they threw lines and a few hooks over the sides of the ship, and in two hours caught 67 codfish, “some a yard and a half long, and a yard in compass.” Any fish of 5½ to 6 feet will weigh 100 pounds or more, says Gulf of Maine Research Institute.   

Still, they couldn’t proceed too fast for fear of running on the rocks of the Isle of Shoals, a long line of rocks and small islands. They took a large boat out of storage to sail before the ships and take soundings so they could safely sail south to Salem. 

"We had now fair sunshine weather,
and so pleasant a sweet air as did much refresh us,
and there came a smell off the shore like the smell of a garden."
 John Winthrop wrote in his journal on June 8, "We had now fair sunshine weather, and so pleasant a sweet air as did much refresh us, and there came a smell off the shore like the smell of a garden." They celebrated by catching another 36 cod, much needed because during the extra-long voyage, they had consumed their stores of salted fish, and were low on other provisions.

On June 9, they could see mountains on the mainland, and many islands or half-submerged rocks between the ship and the shore. On the 10th, they saw several large and small ships doing commercial fishing. On the 12th of June, they came around Cape Ann and arrived at Salem.

But conditions at Salem were harsh, with a short growing season exacerbated by the frosts and famines of the Little Ice Age. The fierce storms that had battered the Winthrop Fleet had also worn down the settlers—and killed perhaps half of them. The Endecott party used up the rations they’d brought, and were barely surviving on seafood and wild strawberries by the spring of 1630. Until the meager harvest in August, or the arrival of the Winthrop Fleet with their provisions, Salem was hungry, run down, and sick.
The Winthrop Fleet, by WF Halsall (wiki)

Some of the officials of the Massachusetts Bay Company went ashore and supped on venison pasties (meat pies) and “good beer.” They met the Endecott party of settlers—who were not in good shape, and begged for the food stores on board the Winthrop ships. The town was not ready to receive the hundreds of passengers—not with food and fresh water, and not with shelter. The Winthrop party was too late to plant a food crop and build shelters for the next winter, and they had enough food only for a few more weeks. 

 What were they to do? You’ll find out in my book, Mary Dyer Illuminated. See the tab on this page or click this link: Books on William and Mary Dyer.  The books closely follow and personalize many more luminaries than the Dyers: William and Anne Hutchinson, John Winthrop, John Cotton, Thomas Dudley, Isaak Johnson, and other brave and brilliant people.

Christy K Robinson is author of these books (click the colored title): 
Mary Dyer Illuminated Vol. 1 (2013)  
Effigy Hunter (2015)  

And of these sites:  
Discovering Love  (inspiration and service)
Rooting for Ancestors  (history and genealogy)
William and Mary Barrett Dyer (17th century culture and history of England and New England)
Editornado [ed•i•tohr•NAY•doh] (Words. Communications. Book reviews. Cartoons.)


  1. So very interesting! I have ancestors who were in that party! And yes, those beach roses still smell sweet "like the smell of a garden."

    1. I had ancestors (Rev. Samuel Skelton and family) in the Endecott party. He had been the chaplain to the 4th earl of Lincoln, brother of Izaak Johnson's wife Arbella, and a fellow employee of Thomas Dudley, former steward to the earl. The historian James Savage wrote that Samuel Skelton denied liberty to unite in the Lord's Supper to Gov. Winthrop, Thomas Dudley, Izaak Johnson, and the rest of the company because they weren't members of the Salem church. They weren't reformed *enough.* (Yeee-ouch...)

      Skelton's wife died in March 1631, the spring of The Starving Time, probably from scurvy which was also an affliction in Boston at the time. Thomas Dudley (never a cheerful, effusive man) wrote of Mrs. Skelton, "she was a godly and helpful woman; she lived desired, and died lamented, and well deserves to be honorably remembered." Samuel died in 1634 at age 42. Their daughter Mary, who had come to America in 1629 at age 2, was seven. She grew up to marry Nathaniel Felton and have a large family.

  2. What an excellent job you have done here! The page is absolutely gorgeous but even more to the point, everything is correct. I am sure that you have had the experience of reading someone's assessment about the Winthrop fleet and stopping to say "That is not exactly correct." All of this material is spot on. Thank you.

    I have signed up the Partnership of the Historic Bostons. All of our folks should hear again about your work. Also Ms. Aastrup, you might enjoy the Partnership of the Historic Bostons facebook page. We are getting ready for Boston Charter Day events this fall. All are invited.


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