November 4: Connecticut Founder, Alchemist, and Witch Protector 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, natural magic, 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 contributions 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.

As an alchemist and student of magical arts, Winthrop was recognized as an authority on the acceptable and unacceptable uses of magic, and used that authority to intervene on behalf of accused witch suspects to protect them from conviction and execution. Before he became involved in witchcraft cases in 1655, Connecticut was New England’s fiercest prosecutor of witches, executing all seven of the people indicted for that diabolical practice between 1647 and 1655. (In contrast, Massachusetts acquitted half of the people charged with witchcraft in that colony during the same period). Under Winthrop’s influence (and later authority as governor), Cnnecticut moved from the colony most likely to execute witches, to the colonel that ended witchcraft executions a generation before the trials at Salem.

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.

Witnhrop’s leadership transformed Connecticut from the colony most likely to execute witches, to a colony that permanently ended witchcraft executions a generation before the Salem trials of 1692.

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.

While maneuvering carefully and effectively to secure the relative independence of the English people of Connecticut, Winthrop’s attitudes toward the independence of other people was more complex.  Winthrop was one of Connecticut’s earliest enslavers. In a 1661 will, the left his wife “use” of half the time of his enslaved man “Strange, alias Kabooder” – three days a week – during her lifetime. The remaining four days a week were Kabooder’s  to do with as he pleased, and at Winthrop’s wife’s death, Kabooder’s  time was to be entirely his own. The will also gave Kabooder fifty acres of land and a heifer or cow to be used to breed his own livestock.  Even as Winthrop benefitted from the enslavement of Africans, he fought fiercely – even in the face of physical coercion and peril – to protect a band of Pequot people living near his settlement from continued enslavement to the Mohegan tribe to which they had been given as a reward for the Mohegan’s alliance with the English against the Pequots during the 1637 Pequot War. Winthop’s sustained resistance to continued subjugation and enslavement of the Pequots was instrumental in helping them remain together as a separate tribe, and resist the cultural genocide imposed on them as a consequence of that conflict.

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, New England’s Other Witch Hunt: John Winthrop Jt., and the Alchemy of Justice (Video), Dairen Library

Walter W. Woodward, “The Map that Wasn’t a Map,” Connecticut Explored