Today in 1631, John Winthrop, Jr., one of the most significant leaders in Connecticut history, first set foot in the New World, having arrived in Boston where his father, John Winthrop Sr., was governor. A remarkable Renaissance man of many talents, the younger Winthrop was well-versed in medicine, theology, and alchemy, and quickly acquired a talent for political maneuvering as well. After establishing the town of Ipswich north of Boston, Winthrop briefly returned to England, where wealthy proprietors convinced him to return to New England and found a new colony on their behalf at the mouth of the Connecticut River. Winthrop named the new settlement Saybrook after his benefactors (Lord Saye and Sele and Lord Brooke). Eleven years later, in 1646, Winthrop founded yet another major colony of early Connecticut: the colony of New London, situated at the mouth of the Thames River.
Winthrop’s contribution to Connecticut history involved far more than establishing new colonies and property boundaries, however: he made the study of science and industry the mission of the New London colony, establishing mills, iron works, and trade routes with neighboring colonies. In 1657, he was elected governor of the Connecticut colony at large; two years later, he was re-elected and held the position for the rest of his life, all the while continuing his scientific studies and cultivating a network of influential connections in England, becoming the first American member of England’s intellectual Royal Society.
Those connections served Winthrop well when he journeyed overseas to secure a royal charter for the colony of Connecticut in the early 1660s. Against incredible odds, Winthrop was able to convince King Charles II — who held a contemptuous view of Connecticut’s puritans for harboring some of the regicides that killed his father — to not only grant Connecticut a new charter, but arguably the most liberal charter in the history of British North America. The Charter of 1662 gave Connecticut an unprecedented degree of self-governance, almost completely independent of British influence, and was instrumental in combining the disparate colonies throughout the territory of Connecticut into one, unified colony. The language of the Charter was so comprehensive that, following the American Revolution, Connecticans simply made a few small modifications (namely, removing all references to British authority) and continued using the Charter to govern the state until 1818.
No one person played a more critical role in establishing the government, economy, and even physical boundaries of modern-day Connecticut than John Winthrop Jr, whose new life in the New World began on this day in Connecticut history.
“John Winthrop, Jr., Governor of the Colony of Connecticut, 1657, 1659-1676,” Connecticut State Library
Walter W. Woodward, “The Map that Wasn’t a Map,” Connecticut Explored