Thursday, September 1, 2011

Something fishy about William Dyer

© 2011  Christy K Robinson
After the October 1651 Navigation Act in England opened the door to a trade war with the Netherlands, England seized more than 120 Dutch ships over the next eight months. "The Dutch have too much trade, and the English are resolved to take it from them,” said General George Monck, Duke of Albemarle. The first of four Anglo-Dutch wars was engaged. It was a naval war entirely, and was fought between 1652 and 1654. The most famous battles took place in the North Sea waters between the Netherlands and the southeast coasts of England; however, privateer battles raged, two ships at a time, in the Caribbean and in Long Island Sound, south of New England. 

Arms of Worshipful Company of Fishmongers
William Dyer (1609-1677) was the son of Lincolnshire farmers, and apprenticed to a London leather-goods trader in the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers for nine years. When he completed his service, you might consider his education on a par with a Master’s Degree in Business Administration, with emphasis in international import/export. Many men who belonged to this Fishmongers guild had become London council members and Lord Mayors. 

Dyer and his wife (Mary Barrett Dyer) emigrated to Boston in 1635, but were excommunicated for their religious and political beliefs in early 1638. Governor John Winthrop described William Dyer, at about age 25, as a successful businessman from London. Winthrop also called Mary Dyer “Mistress Dyer,” which carried a much higher status and respect than the usual “goodwife” or use of the first name only. But later, Winthrop described William as “having little to say” for himself, and “apt to meddle in publike affairs, beyond his calling and skill;” and that he shuffled and equivocated when under scrutiny. 

William Dyer co-founded Portsmouth and Newport, Rhode Island. (See image: Portsmouth Compact of 1638, probably in William Dyer's hand, as he was clerk and recorder. His signature is halfway down the page, as "William Dyre."

Over the next fourteen years, William served as clerk and secretary to the courts, and was a militia captain. From 1650 to 1653, he served as Rhode Island’s first attorney general, and was instrumental in obtaining the colony charters for democratic self-government and separation of civil and church powers. 

Dyer was commissioned New England's first admiral in 1652 by Sir Henry Vane the Younger, British naval commissioner and at times, President of the Council of State when Great Britain was between monarchs during the Commonwealth and Protectorate. 

On October 1, 1652, a letter was written from the British naval commission to the Colony of Rhode Island in New England, to give them power to stay Dutch ships and to appoint some fit person to take care of and preserve them for the State. 

As soon as Dyer returned to Rhode Island from England, he began to prepare for war. Dyer, Nicholas Easton, and John Sanford created New England’s first Court of Admiralty. And Admiral Dyer was chosen to be on a committee of seven to fortify and arm Newport. His large horse and tobacco farm property is now covered by the United States Naval War College. 

On May 17, 1653, Dyer was commissioned Commander in Chief Upon the Seas by the United Colonies of New England; and Captain John Underhill was commissioned Commander in Chief Upon the Land. They were charged with the defense of Englishmen from the Dutch, and to take ships by “inducement,” but to prevent the effusion of blood, and violence. Dyer and Underhill “assisted both to other for ye preparings of ye severall seizures for the honor of ye Commonwealth of England in which they are employed.” They were to work in concert, at land and sea. 

On June 3, 1653, Admiral Dyer was commissioned by Rhode Island (Newport only, where he was a resident neighbor, land-owner, businessman, politician, and well-known) as a privateer (a government-licensed pirate) with the charge to seize any Dutch properties claimed by the English.  The more-distant towns of Providence and Warwick, however, filed “A Brief Remonstrance” to disassociate themselves from what they believed were “illegal and unjust proceedings” of Dyer and his privateers. 

Dutch maps made before the Anglo-Dutch war of 1652-54 show they claimed a large chunk of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, all of Connecticut, New Hampshire—any place they could put a trading post, they claimed as Dutch territory. According to the English colonies, the Dutch were bribing the Indian tribes to kill the English settlers. This belief appeared to be confirmed in 1643 when Anne Hutchinson and 17 members of her family and friends were killed by Indians when they lived on a Dutch farm in what is now the Bronx. 
Ship passing House of Good Hope, at Hartford, Connecticut

Among the first conquests of Dyer and Underhill was the Dutch West Indies trading post called House of Good Hope, on the Connecticut River at Hartford. In the Treaty at Hartford, September 19, 1650, between the Dutch and English, it had been agreed that the Dutch should remain in full possession of their lands on the fresh river at Hartford. But by the spring of 1653, the Dutch trading post at Hartford, settled by Reverends Hooker and Stone, looked like shooting fish in a barrel. Both Dyer and Underhill were extremely familiar with this property, and it appears that they may have had designs on it before their commissions were made.

Admiral William Dyer, age 44, was considered an opportunist, provocateur, and privateer by the members of the United Colonies of New England—the very people who provided him with letters of marque! Along with Capt. John Underhill, he plundered Dutch and French ships and farms along the New England coast, particularly Long Island Sound.

A number of ship captains sailed under the authority of Admiral Dyer, including Edward Hull and Thomas Baxter, both of whom eventually came up on charges of piracy and overtaking their authority. They had seized the ships, cargos, and seaside farms of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Long Islanders who were not Dutch—only Englishmen suspected of trading with the Dutch. Baxter had lived in New Amsterdam, and so he knew which ships and farms to plunder. Hull had lived in Barnstable, Massachusetts, as well as Connecticut, Block Island, and Newport, and knew the ports and the ships that plied the waters. They would raid not only Dutch, but French and other nations’ ships in an apparent zeal of “hostile takeover first, ask questions later—if you can catch me.” Baxter was known for pirating Dutch possessions, then dashing for cover in Connecticut or Rhode Island rivers. His exploits set an example for other unscrupulous men, and soon the Long Island Sound was heavily patrolled against pirates. A historian later wrote that the Sound was “infested” with small-time pirates.  

Hull and Baxter were involved in other shady dealings over the course of two or three years. They were later ordered to make restitution and pay punitive damages. Baxter was imprisoned and handed back to the Dutch at New Amsterdam (Manhattan Island), but after a year of incarceration, he escaped.

Loose fish in a Dutch fishmonger stall
Thomas Janvier, a historian, described Rhode Island in those years and for many succeeding years, as “the abode of notoriously hard characters—even made a start on a little war of spoliation on its own account.” He referred to Capt. John Underhill and Admiral William Dyer as ‘loose fish of thievish proclivities” with license from “that disreputable colony” [Rhode Island] to “take all Dutch ships and vessels as shall come into their power.”

In the 1905 edition of The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, by Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, “Loose Fish” is defined as “A dissipated man. We also speak of a ‘queer fish,’ and the word ‘fishy’ means of very doubtful character. A loose fish is one that has made its way out of the net; and applied to man it means one who has thrown off moral restraint.”

Thievish proclivities. Dissipated. Doubtful character. Rejected moral restraint. Hard characters. Fishy! 

Though William Dyer is not often mentioned as a man of firsts, and his wife Mary is much more famous as the Quaker teacher who was hanged in Boston for her civil disobedience to the Puritan authorities, he did live a remarkable life as member of a prestigious guild, a Boston pioneer, co-founder of Portsmouth and Newport, horse breeder, Newport harbor developer, international trader, militia captain, politician, Rhode Island’s first attorney general, New England’s first admiral and commander in chief upon the seas, father of nine (seven of whom survived infancy)—and a licensed pirate. (Oh, dear!) 

But there’s one more thing you should know about William Dyer: A meeting of the United Colonies noted that Dyre had ‘quickly gathered around him a band of “resolute fellows” to fall on the Dutch farmes. New Amsterdam (now Lower Manhattan) built a defensive palisade across the island to defend themselves from land and sea raids by Indians and Englishmen (including the privateers under command of Dyer and Underhill). The wagon road running along the wooden palisade became known as Wall Street. 

Wall Street: the spiritual home of corporate raiders. Oh, the irony. 


Like this article? Read my non-fiction book on 17th-century life and times,
The Dyers of London, Boston, & Newport, by Christy K Robinson.
Nonfiction, illustrated. The research and recent discoveries behind the novels. The Dyers is a lively nonfiction account of background color, culture, short stories, personality sketches, food, medicine, interests, recreation, cosmic events, and all the "stuff" that made up the world of William and Mary Dyer in the 1600s.  Chapters on John Winthrop, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, John Endecott, and many others. More than 70 chapters, and all-new, exclusive content found nowhere else!

Christy K Robinson is author of the books:
·          We Shall Be Changed (2010)
·          Mary Dyer Illuminated (2013)
·          Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This (2014)
·          The Dyers of London, Boston, & Newport (2014)
·          Effigy Hunter (2015)
·          Anne Marbury Hutchinson: American Founding Mother (2018)


  1. Love this article - so much is taught about Mary, it is so interesting to read about William. Surely he would need to be a man of many accomplishments in order to hold his own with a woman with such a mind and spirit as Mary.

  2. I just found out that I am a direct descendant of William Dyer. WOW!!

    1. If you look at the top of this page on the left, there's a search box. Type "William Dyer" in the box and search. You'll find literally hundreds of articles about him in this history blog. I've also written three books on the Dyers (both of them), which you see in the article itself.

  3. Wow, I have a pirate for a forefather! Great article, Christy.

  4. Oh the irony! The Dyers are ancestors of my mother's family and my father is descended from the Dutch settlers being plundered.
    Thanks for the great insights.


Reasonable, thoughtful comments are encouraged. Impolite comments will be moderated to the recycle bin. NO LINKS or EMAIL addresses: I can't edit them out of your comment, so your comment will not be published. This is for your protection, and to screen out spam and porn.