Friday, March 20, 2015

John Winthrop’s March 26 date with predestiny

John Winthrop in a portrait
made before 1630. It's considered
to be of the Van Dyck school.
  © 2015 Christy K Robinson

It’s not difficult to learn about the public life and accomplishments of John Winthrop, Sr., governor or deputy governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony between 1630 and 1649. There are books like John Winthrop, America’s Forgotten Founding Father by Francis Bremer, or websites galore, the Winthrop Society, and countless genealogical sites. If you’re not overly worried about accuracy, you might read Wikipedia.

I went to Winthrop himself for what I needed to characterize him for my books, Mary Dyer Illuminated , and Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This. I found a spiritual journal of his young adult years, called Experiencia, and made great use of the famous two-volume Journal Winthrop wrote that became a history of the founding of Massachusetts; another valuable book was the Winthrop Papers, which are correspondence between John Winthrop Sr. and Jr., their relatives, business colleagues, and others. Once you’ve studied his words and know him, you can read between the words to see what he didn’t say.

Out of his own books and papers, I’ve written several sketches of John Winthrop, including
and many others. I plan to write more, too. (Click the highlighted text to read the articles.)

To understand events in Winthrop’s family life that might give context to his records, I plotted events on a grid along with all the other characters in my narrative of the Dyers. He was no friend to the Dyers after the events of 1637, and he caused them much grief when he demanded the exhumation of their anencephalic stillborn girl—and then wrote letters about it and described the sensational details.

This Winthrop timeline is very light on professional accomplishments, and is more concerned with his personal life because I wanted to see what he was going through in private while he said and did such momentous things in public. The list is not biographical or historical, but it may help you to understand that Winthrop was no two-dimensional character—he was brilliant, hard-working, he struggled with lustful feelings after his second wife died and before he married Margaret, he was charitable, vengeful, self-righteous, submitted to (what he thought was) God’s will, hypocritical, educated in religion and the law, both harsh and lenient, anti-democratic and autocratic. He loved his wife and children with all his heart.

1588 John Winthrop is born.
1602 Admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge.
1605 Leaves Cambridge; marries Mary Forth. [Known children: John Jr., Henry, Mary Winthrop Dudley, Forth]
1606 Son John Winthrop Jr born
1607 Son Henry born
1609 Son Forth born
16?? Daughter Mary born, will marry Thomas Dudley’s son
1613 John studies law at Gray's Inn in London, becomes probate magistrate.
1615 Wife Mary Forth dies in June; Winthrop marries Tomasine Clopton in December.
1616 Wife Tomasine Clopton dies after childbirth; baby daughter also died. Winthrop tormented by “fleshly” (sexual) thoughts that he controls by prayer, diet, and exercise. At some unknown time, John studies medicine and dispenses remedies as a side business.
1618 Winthrop marries Margaret Tyndall in April. She bears more children for John. [Known: Stephen, Adam, Deane, Samuel, Anne, William, Sarah, miscarriage]
1619 Son Stephen born
1620 Son Adam born
1622 Son Deane born
1626-27 Son Samuel born, dies
1628 John suffers life-threatening fever.
1629 John signs on with Massachusetts Bay Company, prepares to emigrate to Salem.
1630 John sails for New England; writes first journal entry of Bay Colony; delivers his lay-sermon, "Modell of Christian Charity," aboard the Arbella. Wife and oldest son John Jr. stay to sell estate.
1630-31 Daughter Anne born in England, dies on voyage to America in 1631. Wife Margaret and several children arrive in late winter.
1632 Son William born in Boston in fall, must have died young. John is developing Ten Hills Farm and other properties.
1634 Voted out of the governorship.
1634-35 Daughter Sarah born, baptized, and buried within a few days. This is Margaret’s last baby.
1637 Reelected governor after rigging election against Henry Vane. Margaret has miscarriage Oct. 31, Anne Hutchinson is midwife. John is chief inquisitor at Hutchinson heresy trial.
1638 John is chief inquisitor/magistrate at Hutchinson’s second trial, Hutchinson party leaves for Rhode Island in April. John is extremely ill in May, but is reelected Governor.
1640 Voted out of governorship, partly because of his financial difficulties. Economic depression and famine hit American colonies as civil war begins in England.
1641 He probably wrote his book on the Hutchinson Antinomian Controversy at this time, then shipped a copy to England. (8-10 weeks at sea, then having manuscript typeset and printed.) The first edition was published in 1642. The 1644 edition contains the moralized version of Anne Hutchinson's 1643 death.
1642 Reelected governor.
1644 Mary Winthrop Dudley’s four-year-old son dies of a fever, and Mary follows him in a few days.
1645 John stands trial, having been accused of overstepping authority. Acquitted.
1646 Reelected governor and serves until his death.
1647 Wife Margaret Tyndall dies in June during yellow fever epidemic. In December, Winthrop marries a young widow, Martha Rainsborough Coytmore.
1648 In autumn, John is very ill. Martha bears son Joshua in December.
1649 Winthrop dies in Boston on 26 March, aged 61.

Winthrop's book about the Antinomian
Controversy, including an introduction by
Rev. Thomas Weld that trashed Anne
Hutchinson and Mary Dyer.
How did John Winthrop die? We don’t know what he died of, but at the end, he was bedridden with a cough. It may have started with a disease like malaria or yellow fever, and progressed to pneumonia, or it could have been a miserable cold. As a chemist and dispenser of medicines like mercury and other 17th-century killer substances, he might have had lung cancer at the end, but that’s speculation. We just don’t know.

His biographer, Francis Bremer, wrote that Winthrop had become very ill in the autumn of 1648. (Reference point: Mary and William Dyer, in Newport, Rhode Island, had recently increased their family with the births of Henry and Mary, and William was appointed General Recorder for the Assembly.) Winthrop had been married to his fourth wife Martha for about eight to ten months, and she was pregnant with their son Joshua.

The baby Joshua was baptized near Christmas (which Puritans did not celebrate) of 1648. Winthrop must have been quite ill during the harsh winter, for there are few words written by him. On March 1, 1649 (by our reckoning), Deputy Governor John Endecott wrote a letter inquiring after Winthrop’s health and indicated that he knew Winthrop’s life was in danger.

At the middle of March, his son Adam wrote to John Winthrop Jr. in Hartford, saying that their father had been very ill for a month. “He hath kept his bed almost all the time. He hath still upon him a feverish distemper and a cough, and is brought very low, weaker than I ever knew him.” The father desired that Adam tell John Jr. of his love, so the father knew this was close to the end.

In the meantime, Gov. Thomas Dudley, who had known Winthrop for decades, came to visit, and urged Winthrop, who was still in office as governor, to banish a heretic. Winthrop declined, saying he’d “done too much of that work already.” Here, Winthrop was surely remembering, and possibly regretting, the banishment of the Hutchinsons, Dyers, and many others who had founded the colony of Rhode Island. Anne Hutchinson's sister, Katherine Marbury Scott, certainly believed that the elder Winthrop regretted his harshness, when she mentioned it in a letter to John Winthrop Jr. nearly a decade later.
This memorial marker was made in the 20th century,
as you see by the final dates.

On the first day of what they considered the New Year, March 26, 1649, John Winthrop passed away at his Boston home. Puritans did not have funerals for their dead, considering that if the deceased was saved, they were in heaven already; if they were lost, they were in hell. When John’s wife Margaret had died, there was no funeral. But John had been governor and co-founder of the colony, and the officials gave him a memorable funeral, with booming ordnance, on April 3. He was laid to rest with his beloved Margaret and his friend Izaak Johnson. When Rev. John Cotton and John Wilson died a few years later, they were placed near Winthrop at the King’s Chapel Burying Ground in Boston. All of them believed in resurrection to eternal life for those who were predestined to salvation and had lived a life of good works.


  1. Hi Christy,
    My name is Mike Harper. I ended up on your blog kind of by accident as I was searching for other information pertaining to John Winthrop. The Governor is my 11th times great grandfather. I love learning about him and anything 17th century New England. I'm also descended from Thomas Dudley. What a pair.
    What I appreciated about your assessment of John Winthrop is that you judged him in the context of his generation and peers. So much of what those founders did, said and thought does not agree with our sensibilities of today. However, in his time, he was the moderate, while my other grandfather, Thomas Dudley was really hard core! Lol
    Thank you,
    I look forward to finding your book on Mary Dyer,
    Mike Harper, New Hampshire

    1. Hi, Mike.
      Thank you for noticing the way I tried to portray Winthrop as a well-rounded human being, and not a cartoon. I can't say I liked him, but I certainly respected him. I tried to do that for all of the people I covered in my Dyer books.

      When I was researching John Endecott, I found only one source, a biography written by an Endecott descendant in the early 19th century. He had some things wrong, but I noticed that he was a bit defensive AND apologetic about the colonial governor. It was like he looked and looked for something nice to say, and could find almost nothing.

      You can find my Dyer books at . That's a shortened URL for Amazon Author Central.

      Cheers on your genealogy research! By the way, I have several Harpers in my tree: the first were Quakers of Sandwich, Plymouth Colony, who had only girls. The others were on a different line from southern New England. So we may be distant cousins. (Just a note of interest, not an intent to stalk, LOL.)


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