Massachusetts Bound: The Winthrop Fleet

The English Puritan population grew steadily throughout the early 1600s. They disagreed strongly with the Church of England, and struggled for many years to bring reform in the practices of the state church. They were strongly opposed to the Roman Catholic Church and felt that many of the religious rituals practiced by the Church of England too closely mirrored those of the Catholics.

Depiction of John Winthrop landing at Salem in...
Depiction of John Winthrop landing at Salem in 1630. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

King James I struggled furiously to suppress the growing movement among the Puritans and to quell the ongoing rebellion against the established Church. Despite his best attempts, the Puritans soon were in the majority among the Members of Parliament.

The situation became even more volatile in 1624, when King Charles I ascended the throne and married a Roman Catholic. Charles viewed the Puritans as a direct threat to his rule and was determined to suppress them once and for all. After temporarily dissolving Parliament in 1626, and again in 1627, he finally abolished Parliament once and for all in March of 1629.

Charles declared Personal Rule, naming himself the sole authority over England, Scotland and Ireland. This period between 1629 and 1640 soon became known as the Eleven Years’ Tyrrany, as Charles ran roughshod over the population, exacting exorbitant fines and taxes to fund his government.

Knowing full-well Charles’s sentiment toward their beliefs, the Puritans began to view their future in England with a growing sense of dread. Many turned their eyes to New England as a potential haven.

A wealthy group of Puritan leaders began discussing plans for a settlement in the New World. This group of Puritans became major shareholders in a commercial company, first called the New England Company, and later the Massachusetts Bay Company.  Through this venture the investors were able to acquire a land grant for the territory between the Merrimack and Charles Rivers.

Almost immediately a small fleet of ships set off for New England under the direction of John Endecott. The ships carried 300 colonists who were charged with preparing the way for a larger Puritan migration.

The remaining Puritan leaders began planning and preparing for the successful colonization of New England. The leaders plotted out a careful course of action, and throughout the following winter, they began selecting a large group of Puritan families who would make the voyage to the New World. They hand-picked all manner of skilled laborers from a wide variety of trades to ensure a successful and self-sustaining colony.

John Winthrop, a wealthy Puritan lawyer, was elected to be the Governor of the fleet and eventually of the new colony. Winthrop was seen as the best candidate because of his extreme dedication to the cause of a safe haven for the Puritan faith. He worked tirelessly with other company officials to procure a transport fleet and the multitude of supplies needed for a successful migration. He was also a key recruiter for the skilled tradesmen and pastors that the colony would require.

Finally, the ships were procured and all was ready for the Great Migration. On April 8th, 1630, the first four ships of the Winthrop Fleet set sail from Yarmouth, on the Isle of Wight. John Winthrop sailed aboard the Arabella, the flagship (or “Admiral”) of the fleet. He was accompanied by his two young sons, Samuel and Stephen.

In all, seven hundred men, women, and children made the voyage on the eleven ships of the Winthrop Fleet. Winthrop made note in his journal of the ships that were under his command:

–          The Arabella, as we mentioned, was the “Admiral” of the fleet.

–          The Talbot was named “Vice Admiral” and carried John Winthrop’s son Henry.

–          The Ambrose, the “Rear Admiral” of the fleet.

–          The Jewel, designated “Captain”

–          The Mayflower (not to be confused with the Pilgrims’ ship)

–          The Whale

–          The Success

–          The Charles

–          The William and Francis

–          The Hopewell

–          The Trial

The voyage was a success, and was fairly uneventful aside from occasional adverse weather or wind delays. Many were sea sick, and the children were often cold and bored; however, due to the careful planning and preparation of the fleet, all arrived safely in Salem, Massachusetts that June.

The new colonists were warmly welcomed to Salem by John Endecott; however, John Winthrop and his deputy Thomas Dudley quickly discovered that Salem was inadequate for the needs of the new arrivals. They set off immediately to survey the area, first settling at Charlestown, but quickly moving the group of colonists to the Shawmut Peninsula. There they founded what has become the modern city of Boston.

The early months were a dire struggle for the colonists. As many as 200 settlers – including young Henry Winthrop – succumbed to disease and other factors.

The colonists refused to sit idle, however. According to one account of the day, “there was not an idle person to be found in the whole plantation.” Houses were built and businesses were opened. Winthrop himself built his house in Boston where he worked a fairly large plot of land.

Owing to the great success of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, many more flocked to New England. Throughout the 1630s, approximately 20,000 people had migrated to New England. This “Great Migration” carried on until the advent of the English Civil War in the early 1640s.


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