November 4: Connecticut Founder & Alchemist John Winthrop Jr. Arrives in America


Today in 1631, John Winthrop, Jr., one of the most important figures in Connecticut history, first set foot in the New World, having arrived in Boston where his father, John Winthrop Sr., was governor the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A Renaissance man of many talents, the younger Winthrop was well-versed in alchemy, medicine, and early modern industrial technology, and quickly acquired a talent for political maneuvering as well. After establishing the town of Ipswich north of Boston, Winthrop briefly returned to England. There, a wealthy group of Puritan would-be emigrés engaged him to found a new colony on their behalf at the mouth of the Connecticut River. Winthrop named the settlement he founded in late 1635 Saybrook after the two leading investors (Lord Saye and Sele and Lord Brooke). Eleven years later, in 1646, acting on his own behalf, Winthrop founded another major early Connecticut settlement at the mouth of the Thames River. Originally called Nameaug –the Pequot Indian name for the site, which meant “the fishing place” – it would grow and evolve to become New London.

Connecticut Royal Charter of 1662 – secured by John Winthrop, Jr. to the amazement of everyone, it granted Connecticut virtual independence 114 years before the Declaration of Independence. (Connecticut State Archives)

Winthrop’s contribution to Connecticut history involved more than establishing new plantations (the English name for new colonizing ventures). He made the pursuit of alchemical science, medicine and industry the mission of New London, offering medical care, establishing mills, alchemical furnaces and iron works, while building a network of knowledge-sharing and trading connections that reached throughout the Atlantic world. In 1657, Winthrop was elected governor of the Connecticut colony. He served continuously in that position from 1659 until his death in 1676, all the while continuing his scientific studies and cultivating influential connections in England and on the European continent. Winthrop’s scientific reputation was so respected he became a founding – and the first American – member of England’s Royal Society, still one of the world’s leading scientific organizations..

Winthrop’s connections served him well in his efforts to secure a royal charter for a vulnerable Connecticut colony after the restoration of Charles II in 1659. Against all 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 just grant Connecticut a royal charter giving the colony legitimate status, but arguably the most liberal charter in the history of British North America. The Royal Charter of 1662 gave Connecticut an unprecedented degree of self-governance, almost completely independent of British influence, and merged the disparate plantations throughout the territory of Connecticut into one, significantly larger, unified colony whose territory stretched to the Pacific Ocean. Though the territorial grant was soon reexamined, the Charter’s lasting grant of virtual autonomy was so comprehensive that, following the American Revolution, Connecticans simply made a few small modifications (namely, removing all references to the Crown) and continued using the Charter to govern the state until 1818.

No 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 today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

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