We require great imagination to take us from the 21st century back to the 17th in South Wellfleet. Historians call the time frame of 1620-1692 the “Plantation Period”. This followed the “Contact Period,” pre-1620, when there were European explorers and fishermen making contact with the Cape’s native people. The word “plantation” means the time of settlement; Plymouth Colony’s reenacted village site is called “Plimoth Plantation.”
There’s no evidence of anyone establishing their “plantation” in South Wellfleet during this time, but land distributions were made by the Town of Eastham (also encompassing the area that is now Wellfleet) established by Plymouth Colony. Looking at these records made me curious about the legal basis on which lies the whole Plymouth Colony venture. Much of our history considers the “Pilgrims” (a term not used until the late 18th century) and their search for religious freedom. They were also referred to as “Separatists” to note their wish to separate from the religious practices in England. I wanted to look more closely at the business negotiations that brought them to North America, and the context for their venture. I sought to understand their changing role as Englishmen far distant from home. While greatly diverting from my South Wellfleet subject here, I am sharing understanding of the context in which the Plymouth colonists, and their Eastham counterparts, operated in the 1600s.
Fortunately, the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth has an explanatory piece on just this subject. An online essay “The Plymouth Colony Patent” outlines this legal arrangement in detail.
In 16th century England, there was new knowledge of the world’s geography, newly developing capitalism and its structures, and a wealthy landed gentry. Adventuresome aristocrats and rich merchants began to put together “companies,” pooling income, securing a patent from the Crown (thus gaining import duties and taxes), and funding a “project.” By 1615, there were two Virginia Companies with royal charters that split the monopoly on colonizing British North America.
The Virginia Company of London covered the Carolinas to northern New Jersey, and the Virginia Company of Plymouth (England) covered northern New Jersey to Maine, and was reorganized as the Council of New England around 1620. The Pilgrims obtained their patent — called the Peirce Patent — from the Virginia Company of London to settle within the jurisdiction of Jamestown. Creating these special patents was a mechanism to help the financially floundering Jamestown colony.
As we know, the Pilgrims landed on Cape Cod, putting them outside the jurisdiction of the Virginia Company of London patent, but instead under the aegis of the territory of the Council of New England. The Mayflower Compact, which they drafted and signed while in Provincetown harbor, was an attempt to structure a government to govern the conduct of the settlers. However, it had no force in law as recognized by any outside authority. The Compact did emphasize their commitment to mutual support and cooperation, but individual freedom — as we know it today — was not a consideration.
In 1621, the Plymouth settlers got a second patent, giving them permission to attempt a settlement. This patent was to last seven years, and that the settlement — not individuals — would receive 100 acres for every person who moved there, who stayed for three of the seven years, or who died in the attempt. The seven years proved successful, more or less – the Separatists in Plymouth began sending fish, clapboards, and beaver pelts back to England in December 1621.
When 1628 arrived and it was time for a new patent, a “deal” was struck by William Bradford whereby he and eleven of his fellow settlers agreed to take on the remaining debt of £1800 in exchange for the sole right to trade for six years. They became known as “the Undertakers.” The patent settled far more than 100 acres for every person, and even included territory in Maine where fur trading took place. In 1635, the Council for New England went out of business, and for 25 years Plymouth drifted along without any direct authority by England.
Dramatic changes were underway in England during this time. James I, who had been king when the Separatists left for North America, was succeeded by his son, Charles I, who was beheaded during the Civil War and the government came under the leadership of the Puritan Oliver Cromwell. Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 and ruled until 1685, when James II took the throne.
Now England began to pay more attention to its colonies, and made an effort to assert royal control. Proposals to appoint a royal governor were not met with enthusiasm, but neither was Plymouth’s request for a new royal charter granted. The Colony’s government drifted for a decade until, in 1675, King Philip’s War broke out in southeastern Plymouth Colony. This costly and bloody war lasted until 1678. The English government criticized Plymouth for allowing it to happen.
In the 1680s the Crown became aware that Massachusetts Bay Colony, a far wealthier settlement to the north of Plymouth, had been refusing to enforce the Acts of Trade and Navigation, England’s means of collecting taxes on the colonies. In 1684, Mass Bay’s charter was revoked, and all the colonies – Massachusetts, Maine, Plymouth, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, plus New York and New Jersey two years later — were consolidated into the “Dominion of New England.” A royal governor, Sir Edmund Andros, was sent to colonial New England to enforce all English laws, including religious toleration. (The Puritans in Massachusetts Bay had become rather extreme.) The new government tried to impose new taxes and limit the town meeting self-government that had grown up around New England. The colonists disliked Governor Andros, and there was growing civil disobedience.
The “Glorious Revolution of 1689” overthrew James II, and William and Mary came to the throne. In Boston, Governor Andros was overthrown too, and Massachusetts Bay Colony reasserted its colony status with self-government. At the same time — perhaps as a way to show their loyalty to the new monarchs — the colonies launched a poorly-planned expedition against Canada, where the French and their Native (Indian) allies had initiated hostile action against the English. Several Plymouth men were killed.
Plymouth Colony attempted to obtain a royal charter again during this period, but was overcome by the strength of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. There was even a chance during this time that Plymouth might be included in the New York colony. Finally, by 1691, a new charter was granted that annexed Plymouth to Massachusetts Bay; property rights and some aspects of representative government were kept, but a crown-appointed royal governor was put in place in Boston. The new charter arrived in 1692, putting an end to the Plymouth Colony.
This is the background of the time that Eastham — then comprising all of today’s towns of Eastham, Wellfleet and Orleans — was established and people came to settle in the area, the home of the indigenous Nausets, one of bands of southeastern New England Wampanoags.
The settlement of Nauset — later named Eastham — took place beginning in 1644, when a committee of seven Plymouth men first explored the area as a potential settlement. The area called Nauset was already known to the Plymouth settlers. During their December 1620 explorations while the Mayflower was anchored in Provincetown harbor, they had, over several days of exploration, found fresh water in Truro, stolen corn, disrupted a burial site, saw a grampus (blackfish) being slaughtered on the beach, and had their “First Encounter” in Eastham. The Plymouth settlers eventually paid for the stolen corn, and later purchased more during their first year during the time when they experienced starvation in Plymouth. The Nausets also helped the Plymouth colonists in April 1621, when the Billington boy wandered off too far and was taken into safekeeping, but later returned.
The seven men who came to be known as the “Proprietors of Eastham” were all leading citizens of Plymouth, office holders, and landowners. It had become apparent as a second generation was developing that Plymouth’s land was not especially productive. In fact, the Colony considered moving all of its settlers to Nauset, but later decided that the land could not support them all. The men who became the Eastham Proprietors included Governor Thomas Prence, who had been elected Plymouth Colony Governor in 1634 and again in 1638, during years when Governor Bradford was not in office. The other Proprietors were Josiah Cooke, John Doane, Richard Higgins (sometimes referred to as Higginson), Edward Bangs, John Smalley, and Nicholas Snow.
By 1645, John Jenkins, Samuel Hicks and Joseph Rogers had been added to the list of “freemen” and, soon after, Daniel and Job Cole, Robert Wixam, and John Freeman. By 1658 other men were on the list of freemen: Stephen Atwood (often referred to as “Wood”), Henry Atkins, William Walker, William Merrick, Thomas Paine, Ralph Smith, Joseph Harding, George Crisp, Richard Sparrow, William Twining and John Young. Some of these men may have gained their status by marrying the daughters of the Proprietors.
Plymouth had granted land previously for the establishment of other towns on the Cape: Sandwich, Yarmouth and Barnstable. However, these settlements were the result of religious disputes within the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Plymouth Colony had proven itself to be more relaxed in religious tolerance than were the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay.
The settlement at Nauset was the first on the Cape that sent Plymouth Separatists to the Cape directly. The seven men proceeded to purchase from two sachems. They purchased from Mattaquason, the sachem of the Manamoyick, a tract of land called Pochet, with a beach and small island upon it, and also all the land called Namskaket. They bought from George, the sachem of the Nausets, land as far as Indian Brook (today’s Hatch’s Creek, the line separating Eastham and Wellfleet).
There is an oral tradition regarding the remaining land north to the stream the English called Bound Brook (northern Wellfleet). George told them no one owned it, so the English purchasers claimed it as theirs. Later, a Native man named Lieutenant Anthony claimed to be the sachem of this land, for a group called the Punonakanits of Billingsgate. A deed was negotiated much later. This transaction reserved a small neck called Tuttomnest for the use of the native people. It became known as James’ Neck, and later Indian Neck. Confirming the arrangement in the sale, this land was set aside by the Eastham town meeting for the exclusive use of the native people in 1716. The island in South Wellfleet that was named for Lieutenant Anthony — “Lieutenant’s Island” — was not set aside for native use; rather, it was designated for common use in 1662, and in 1673 for the support of the ministry.
The Eastham Proprietors were acting for the Plymouth Colony, since no one had the right to buy native land individually. Thus, on March 3, 1645, the Plymouth Colony Court, whose records are carefully transcribed (and now on the internet!) issued to the Proprietors the following grant:
The court doth grant unto the church of New Plymouth, or those that go to dwell at Nossett, all the tract of land lying betweene the sea and sea, from the Purchasors bounds at Naumskeckett, to the Hering Brooke at Billingsgate, with the said Hering Brooke and all the meddowes on both sides of the said brooke, with the great basse pound there, and all the meddowes and islands lying within the said tract.
The Purchasers’ bounds at Namskaket refers to land south of Yarmouth that the original purchasers (the Undertakers) received in 1640 to reward them for their efforts in settling the colony. That land later became Harwich. The Nauset purchase began east of there, at today’s Namskaket Creek, which marks the line between Orleans and Brewster. By 1640, the remainder of the Plymouth Colony was in the hands of the Colony’s freemen. William Bradford, the often-elected Governor, had explored the Nauset area with the seven purchasers, but never settled there, though he did receive land and meadow grants there, including one at Blackfish Creek.
In 1646 the town of Nauset was established, and in 1651 it had an unexplained name change to Eastham. Once a town was established it then became the governing body including selectmen, a constable, men to maintain the highway, and representatives to the colony court, that served as both the legislative and judicial body.
Before ending this part of the Plantation era story, a word here about place names. It appears that Billingsgate was already a known name for the Wellfleet area by the mid-1600s. Sometimes it would be referred to as “Little Billingsgate,” but this did not appear to be a mere section of the area, but the whole. Some deeds called a section “Hither Billingsgate” to refer to the closest part — that being today’s South Wellfleet. Blackfish Creek, Blackfish River and Great Blackfish River were referred to in locating meadow grants, as was Boat Creek in Eastham.
Lieutenant’s Island was so named in the 1662 meeting when it was decided to keep it for public use. It may have had this name long before. Loagy Bay was referred to as “Loge Bay,” but I have found no explanation as to why this name was so given. Silver Spring and Indian Brook in South Wellfleet were early named reference points. Both arms of Duck Creek are referenced.
In what is now Orleans, Pochet or Pochey, was often referenced, along with Town Cove. Not all deeds had these reference points that can be understood today. Most deeds were very difficult to understand, as they named rocks, trees and other natural features, along with abutting owners. Sometimes a land description contains a useful clue to the researcher, such as naming a “Mill Pond” signifying that a mill had been built there.
There is no recorded information as to the first land distribution in Eastham, but we know from later records and from recorded wills that the Proprietors settled around Town Cove, building their first meeting house and homes there. The Cove Cemetery is today’s remnant of that settlement. They shared the common lands for grazing their cattle, used wood as needed, and fished and took shellfish wherever they wished. Soon that would change.
Baker, Peggy M. “The Plymouth Colony Patent, Setting the Stage,” downloadable at http://www.pilgrimhallmuseum.org.
Durand Echevierra, A History of Billingsgate, Wellfleet Historical Society, 1991.
James Deetz, Patricia Scott Deetz, The Times of Their Live: Love, Life and Death in Plymouth Colony , New York: Anchor Books 2000.
Jeremy Dupertus Bangs, editor, The Town Records of Eastham During the Time of Plymouth Colony 1620-1692, (Publication of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, 2012)
Plymouth Colony Records (Boston: William White 1855-1861) edited by Nathaniel Shurtleff and David Pulsifer (available on line)
H. Roger King, Cape Cod and Plymouth Colony in the 17th Century, Landham, MD: University Press of America, 1994.
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