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Letter from William Bradford to John Winthrop, 11 April 1638

Letter from William Bradford to John Winthrop, 11 April 1638

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  • In a letter from Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Colony to Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, dated 11 April 1638, Bradford refers to "Mrs. Huchingson" (Anne Hutchinson), who soon would be exiled from Massachusetts Bay in the aftermath of the Antinomian Controversy of 1636-1638. Bradford clearly was concerned that Hutchinson and her followers might move into the territory of the Plymouth Colony. While he does not refer to her by name, Bradford also asks Winthrop for more information about a "monsterous & prodigious birth," to Mary Dyer, then a supporter of Hutchinson, who would die as a martyr to religious freedom in 1660.

    Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer

    Anne Marbury Hutchinson was born in 1591 in Alford, Lincolnshire, England. She married William Hutchinson there in 1612, and they had fourteen children before immigrating to Boston in 1633. Anne Hutchinson worked as a midwife and healer, but her fame grew because of the weekly meetings she held in her home to discuss religion. The meetings attracted a large and enthusiastic audience, including the new governor of Massachusetts Bay, Sir Henry Vane. Many of the spiritual and political leaders of the colony felt threatened by Hutchinson and her followers whom they labeled as "Antinomians"--heretics who felt that they were not bound by law and custom because of their direct communion with God. In 1637, Anne Hutchinson, whom John Winthrop described as the "American Jezebel," was tried for failing to honor the ministers of the colony and teaching without authority. She was banished from Massachusetts Bay and, in a separate trial, excommunicated from her church. The Hutchinson family moved first to Rhode Island and then, after the death of her husband, Anne Hutchinson and her children moved on to Long Island, then part of the Dutch colony of New Netherlands, where she was killed in an Indian attack in 1643.

    Mary Dyer came to New England in 1635 and almost immediately became involved in the Antinomian Controversy. The "monsterous" birth referred to in Bradford's letter refers to a deformed stillborn child born to Dyer in 1637. Anne Hutchinson had been Dyer's midwife and had attempted to conceal the birth. John Winthrop and Hutchinson's other religious and political opponents saw the birth as a punishment from God as they did a later, similar birth to Hutchinson. When Anne Hutchinson was banished in 1638, Mary Dyer and her family, loyal adherents to her religious beliefs, joined Hutchinson in exile in Rhode Island. Dyer later returned to England and became a Quaker convert and missionary. She was jailed for refusing to conform to the established church when she returned to Boston in 1657, and she was executed when she returned to Boston yet again to bear witness against religious oppression in 1660.

    The Old Colony Line

    The main body of the letter refers to the disputed border between the colonies of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay. In his letters and writings, Bradford refers to Winthrop and the other "reverend friends in the Bay of Massachusetts who were lately come over," in friendly but formal terms, but--even though the colonies had united in a war against the Pequots the year before--the dispute over the boundary line was the source of some tension. The Indian place names Bradford cites and his erratic spelling make it difficult to identify some of the places described in his letter, but "Sityate" is modern-day Scituate, Massachusetts, and "conahasete" is Cohasset. The spacious island recommended by Roger Williams has been identified as Aquidneck (or Rhode Island), the largest island in Rhode Island.

    Governor Winthrop used blank space on the cover sheet of Bradford’s letter for a memorandum of his reply. In this memorandum, Winthrop records the negotiations between Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay over the boundary between the colonies and whether Scituate, considered by the Pilgrims to be the northernmost town in the Plymouth Colony, actually lay within the bounds of Massachusetts Bay; and whether Hingham, settled by Massachusetts Bay, actually fell within the Plymouth Patent. The "Old Colony Line" that divided Plymouth from Massachusetts Bay remained in dispute even after Plymouth ceased to be a separate colony and became part of Massachusetts Bay in 1692 when the colonial border became a county boundary. [The 1677 map, A Map of New England, by John Foster, includes a bold vertical line towards the left side indicating the most expansive land claims of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The diagonal line extending from this vertical line is the "Old Colony Line," the disputed boundary between Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay described above; see the online presentation of the Foster map.]

    Sources for Further Reading

    The Antinomian Controversy, 1636-1638: A Documentary History. Edited by David D. Hall. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1968.

    Bradford, William. History of the Plimoth Plantation: Containing an Account of the Voyage of the Mayflower. Boston: Houghton Mifflin & Co., 1896 (reprinted by Russell & Russell; New York: 1968).

    Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647. Edited by Samuel Eliot Morison. New York: Knopf, 2000.

    Bremer, Francis J. John Winthrop: America's Forgotten Founding Father. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    LaPlante, Eve. American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2004.

    Philbrick, Nathaniel. Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. New York: Viking, 2006.

    Winthrop, John. The Journal of John Winthrop: 1630–1649. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996.

    Winthrop Papers. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1929- (6 vols. to date).

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