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Labor in a New Land: Economy and Society in Seventeenth-Century Springfield

Labor in a New Land: Economy and Society in Seventeenth-Century Springfield

by Stephen Innes


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Stephen Innes studies the relationship between work, land, and community in seventeenth-century Springfield, Massachusetts. Using analytical concepts drawn from anthropology--dependence, mediation, and clientage--he shows that the town was a highly commercialized, developmental community contrasting sharply with the communal, quietistic models that currently form our image of early New England.

Originally published in 1983.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691613345
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #714
Pages: 220
Product dimensions: 9.10(w) x 6.00(h) x 0.50(d)

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Labor in a New Land

Economy and Society in Seventeenth-Century Springfield

By Stephen Innes


Copyright © 1983 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-04698-3


A Company Town

"Laborare est orare"

Springfield began as a commercial enterprise and remained such throughout the seventeenth century. Founded in 1636 by William Pynchon as a fur-trading post, the town quickly became the major merchandising center in the upper Connecticut Valley. The fur trade enriched the Pynchon family and brought large numbers of artisans, teamsters, and laborers to the community. Within a generation of setdement, the relationships between the Pynchons and the laboring classes had produced a society that can best be described as a company town.

The commercial orientation that William Pynchon brought to the Connecticut Valley reflected the economic individualism of his native Essex County. Pynchon had been born in 1590 into a family on the periphery of the English gentry class, and he grew to maturity in the modest Essex County village of Springfield. This was the region to which the enclosure movement had come earliest and, as a result, by the time of Pynchon's youth the manor was "little more than a rent-collecting machine." The growth of enclosed-field farming commercialized land exchange and fostered an environment of economic individualism. Most Essex County landholders — whether of free, lease, or copyhold lands — rationalized their production of cereal grains, wool, and livestock for export to the London market. Augmenting this increased market orientation was the transfer of day-to-day administrative and judicial functions from the courts Ieet and courts baron to the parish and justice of the peace. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the manor did not play a significant role in regulating farming activities in Essex and men were left to make their own decisions.

Or at least they were until the centralizing policies of Charles I brought higher levels of taxation, outside control, and religious persecution. William Pynchon, like many of the gentry of the eastern counties, became a zealous convert to the Puritan reform movement, and the King's new policies threatened his religious as well as his economic autonomy. By 1629, with Parliament suspended, higher taxes promised, and wool prices plummeting because of the Thirty Years War, Pynchon decided to leave England. He became one of the patentees of the Massachusetts Bay Company and set sail with the fleet that brought John Winthrop to New England. Accompanying him were his wife Anna and three daughters, and his son John would follow shortly. Already one of the luminaries in the company, William received a midvoyage invitation to dine with Governor Winthrop. The governor entered into his journal that "About eleven of the clock, our captain sent his skiff and fetched aboard us the masters of the other two ships, and Mr. Pynchon, and they dined with us in the round-house."

Upon arrival in America — displaying the energy and purposefulness characteristic of all he did — Pynchon began trafficking in furs, raising livestock, and farming. His boats plied the New England coast as far north as Sagadahock, Maine, sometimes with untoward results. In the fall of 1631, as Winthrop's journal relates, "Mr. Pynchon's boat, coming from Sagadahock, was cast away at Cape Ann, but the men and chief goods saved, and the boat recovered." Such mishaps aside, these voyages brought Pynchon into contact with fur traders and inspired him to concentrate most of his resources on this activity. He remembered the heavy demand for beaver pelts in the London hatmaking industry, and he possessed the right contacts on Fleet Street to begin immediately merchandising furs there. As early as 1621, Pynchon was engaged in a business partnership with Thomas Brocke, "Citizen and Mercer of London," sharing with him a £202 judgment in the Court of Common Pleas against a certain Thomas Elliot of Roxwell. By 1634, with the help of his London agents, Pynchon was the leading fur trader in Massachusetts with a volume of pelts tenfold that of his nearest competitor. He subsequently moved from Dorchester to the less densely settled town of Roxbury to maximize his advantage.

At the same time, Pynchon entered into a trading consortium with Governor Winthrop and his son John. The London merchant, Francis Kirby, alluded to this connection when he wrote John Winthrop, Jr., on March 26, 1633: "I understand how you have dealt with mr. Pinchen for the Cloth, which bargain is not amisse, but may produce reasonable profit if he deale well with you in the Condicion of the beaver that he shall deliver to you." The magnitude of this trade is suggested by the younger Winthrop's payment to Pynchon of £197 Is. 8d. for imported cloth in March of 1636. Four months later this order was followed by one for 225 yards of cloth valued at £90; and in September of that year Pynchon "Reckoned with mr. John Winthrop Junior ... for the fraight of 16 Tunn in the [ship] Blessinge at 35 shillings per Tunn ... [and] for 24 Tunn in the Batchelor for 45 shillings per Tunn."

Yet with the proliferation of traders around Massachusetts Bay, Pynchon recognized that his days of fur trading preeminence were numbered unless he moved west. By far the most promising region for fur trapping was the Connecticut Valley, and the lure of expanding his trade in such a bountiful environment induced Pynchon to move his family for the third time within six years.

The Connecticut Valley had long been known for the abundance of its fur resources. In 1614 the Dutch trader Adrian Block had traveled fifty miles up the river to reconnoiter its commercial potential. So successful was the subsequent Dutch intrusion that during the decade from 1623 to 1633 their traders obtained an average of ten thousand beaver skins annually. The forested valleys of the Connecticut River and its capillary system of tributary rivers and streams provided an ideal habitat for beaver, moose, otter, muskrat, marten, and lynx. Pynchon's decision to tap these resources was made easier by the large migration from Massachusetts Bay of the settlers who established the towns of Hartford, Windsor, and Wethersfield. But while the other migrants made the trek primarily for religious reasons, Pynchon went to the valley as a merchant, not a Puritan. The community he built reflected this priority.

For his trading post, Pynchon selected a site located immediately above the highest navigable point on the Connecticut River. Not only was it north of the three newly settled towns, but it also stood at the nexus of several major Indian trails. Most important, it bisected the principal Indian path from Narragansett and Pequot country in the southeast to Mohawk territory in the Hudson Valley. His intention to build the settlement on the lush alluvial lands near the confluence of the Agawam and Connecticut Rivers was thwarted when the Indians refused to leave. "[T]he best ground at Agawam [was so] incombred with Indians," Pynchon wrote John Winthrop, Jr., "that I shall loose halfe the benefit thereby: and am compelled to plant on the opposite side to avoid trespassing of them." He thereupon built his settlement on the less promising east side which, while it could not rival the opposite shore in agricultural potential, more than sufficed as a trading post.

In April 1636 Pynchon purchased the site from the Agawam Indians for "eighteen fathams of Wampam, eighteen coates, 18 hatchets, 18 hoes, [and] 18 knives." The deed divided the purchase into three separate sections: (1) the Agawam meadows, located southwest of the Agawam River; (2) the land on the east bank where the Springfield town center was eventually situated; and (3) the "Long Meadow" located four miles to the south on the east bank. The deed allowed that the Agawams, who were hunter-gatherers and primitive agriculturalists, "shal have and enjoy all that cottinackeesh, or ground that is now planted; And have liberty to take Fish and Deer, ground nuts, walnuts, akornes, and sasachiminesh or a kind of pease, And also if any of our cattle spoile their corne, to pay as it is worth; and that hogs shall not goe on the side of Agawam but in akorne time."

The commercial potential of the Connecticut Valley location appeared unlimited. William Pynchon doubtless was struck, as observers have been ever since, by the lushness and natural beauty of the valley. Formed out of the remains of a glacial lake dating back to the late Wisconsin period, the Connecticut basin comprises some 11,320 square miles of fertile and variegated countryside. The river itself meanders along a 410-mile course from the Canadian border down to Saybrook, Connecticut. In the colonial period, the plains and lower terraces flanking the river provided rich alluvial soil, the result of periodic flooding. Rising gently on either side of the valley were the mountainous remains of the perimeter of the lake; these were now covered with both deciduous and evergreen trees. As the first Indian cultivators discovered, the upper terraces of the valley, particularly the bluffs and plateaus extending eastward from the future site of Springfield toward the mountains, offered considerably less promising farmland than did the meadows and plains near the river. The bluffs and plateaus of the east, in addition to their irregular and difficult topography, possessed soil covered by a thin acid litter that severely diminished its fertility. The English setders later referred to this area as the "pine barrens." The most desirable farmland within the corporate confines of Springfield was found at the confluence of the Agawam and Connecticut Rivers. Here the annual spring floods washed up silt deposits from the rivers to replenish the soil's nitrogen. Not surprisingly, this was the location William Pynchon found "in-combred with Indians" upon his initial visit to the valley.

In addition to its obvious potential as a transportation center, the valley location offered the best environment in Massachusetts for cereal grain cultivation. While soil conditions elsewhere in the colony forced the settlers to rely on a combination of rye and Indian corn, in the Connecticut Valley wheat, oats, and barley all flourished. English grains grew successfully in New England only on the alluvial terraces bordering the Connecticut River from Middletown north. Wheat (always the favored grain for bread), barley (needed for bread and broth as well as beer), and oats (for fodder) all were thriving in the upper valley towns well before 1660.19 The region's climate offered particularly ideal growing conditions for wheat — wet springs followed by long, dry summers. If the climate of twentieth-century Springfield has not changed appreciably over the past three hundred years, the growing season usually averaged between 150 and 170 days, with average annual precipitation of just under fifty inches. The first frost rarely came before the mid-October displays of resplendent foliage. The only real drawback for agriculturalists and traders alike was that winters could be severe; and even in normal years, freezing temperatures usually prevailed for at least four months. During particularly frigid winters, even the wide and swift-flowing Connecticut River froze solid. This may have occurred with unusual frequency in the settlement period, as some geographers now believe that the seventeenth century was a quasi ice age, with exceptionally cold and prolonged winters. Under normal conditions, the ground began to thaw after mid-March and the area was usually frost-free by mid-April.

In addition to its potential as a trading post and an environment for raising cereal grains, Springfield offered equally promising conditions for livestock husbandry. The area's extensive pasturage meant that beef, pork, and horses could profitably be raised for the export market. Having grown up in the livestock-orientated wood pastures of East Anglia, Pynchon was determined to recreate in America the dual foundation of English farming: livestock, with grassland to feed it; and bread-grain for the family. Springfield's original incorporation agreement underscored the importance accorded to raising livestock. The first inhabitants alloted two acres of new mowing land for each head of neat cattle and twice that for every horse, "because estate is like to be improved in cattell, and such ground is aptest for theyr use." As with any livestock husbandry, the problems of spring feed, summer grass, and winter fodder all required quick resolution. Wheat and rye straw make excellent cattle fodder, but barley straw does not. Most important of all, however, were the summer grasses. And, as the "starving time" of Springfield's first years revealed, the valley soil's richness would remain largely untapped without the introduction of the superior English grasses.

The paltry harvest of 1637 brought home this lesson to Pynchon. The following spring he described the famine's effect on man and beast alike: "In regard to the great straits the whole population was in, both of persons and cattle for 2 or 3 months together: The wants of the Plantation were such, that som were forced to give malt to piggs to save their lives, and those that had som English meale, and would have kept it, were faine to spend it for want of corne ... and 3 or 4 were in Consultation to leave the Plantation for a while, to earne their bread elsewhere, till corne might be had here." Writing in both the third and first persons, he related that: "Mr. Pynchon's wants were often soe great, that divers times he hath not had half a bushell of corne in his house for his family ... Alsoe, my wife, walking more amongst my Cattle ... professed that It was her dayly grief to see them in that poore starveing condition." Soon thereafter Pynchon began the process of converting to English grasses. His account books show that he brought up thirty bushels of "Flanders grass seed" from Hartford. This was presumably red clover and it was later supplemented with white clover. (Both were eventually replaced by Timothy grass in the early eighteenth century.)

The successful introduction of English grasses by the early 1650s allowed Springfield to become the first major livestock-producing area in colonial Massachusetts. The Pynchons raised both hogs and cattle for market, stall-feeding the latter. The hogs were usually slaughtered and packed in Springfield itself, while the cattle were taken on the hoof to Warehouse Point at Hartford. The brackish water at Hartford was used to pack the beef for overseas shipment. After midcentury, the Pynchons' drovers also herded cattle from the rich pastures of Hadley and Hatfield and took them overland to markets in Boston.

William Pynchon was equally methodical in building up the town's labor supply. With the departure before 1641 of all but two of the original signatories to the town covenant, he immediately began to recruit indentured servants from Boston and London. Typically these servants arrived under direct consignment to the founder. He thereupon sold their remaining terms of service to one of his fellow villagers, often one of his sons-in-law, Henry Smith or Elizur Holyoke. On September 9,1650, Hugh Dudley signed an indenture with Pynchon. In the agreement, Dudley, apparently captured in Scotland during the Cromwellian wars, "did covenant promise and grant to and with William Pynchon of Springfield in New England merchant ... for and duringe the tearme of five yeares." His new master then "assigned and set [Dudley] over to Mr. Henry Smith of Springfield for the said tearme of 5 yeeres." Smith agreed to "allow [Dudley] three pounds and ten shillings per yeare, to find him apparell: and to endevor at the end of his tyme to provide him a convenient allottment of land." On the same day another Scot, James Wells, signed an indenture with Pynchon for "the tearme of nine yeares." This contract was likewise turned over to Smith. A third Scot, Edward Foster, was indentured to Pynchon for a term of nine years. Elizur Holyoke received this contract. Pynchon also apprenticed out other servants for the purpose of learning a trade. Hoping one day to become a weaver, on October 15, 1650, Samuel Terry "with the consent of my present master, William Pynchon of Springfield, gentleman, have put my self an apprentense to Benjamin Cooly of Springfield weaver ... [for] three yeeres 6 months."

Upon completion of their apprenticeships, these men — and most of the town's other inhabitants as well — became employees of William Pynchon. The labor needs of Springfield's founder were manifold. His fur-trading activities demanded the placement of agents throughout the valley, and marketing required extensive use of canoemen, teamsters, coopers, blacksmiths, and common laborers. Almost all men worked at least occasionally at one or more of these tasks. Pynchon constructed a warehouse at Enfield falls immediately below the highest point of navigation on the east side of the Connecticut River, approximately seven miles south of Springfield. He likewise built or rented warehouses in Hartford, Middletown, and New London. [See Connecticut Valley map.] The canoemen who carried goods to and from the warehouses usually traveled by canoes made either from birchbark or a hollowed-out log. Pynchon also needed coopers to build barrels in which to ship furs, pork, and beef, as well as smiths to construct agricultural implements, and common laborers to string the wampum used as Indian currency. Moreover, his burgeoning fields increasingly needed farmhands and tenants, particularly by the late 1640s. Pynchon revealed the scope of his work force in a letter written in 1644 to Stephen Day, who at the time was a mining prospector in the employ of John Winthrop, Jr.: "you write for butter and cheese [but] it is not to be had in all our plantation. I spend it as fast as I make it, because I have much resort and many workmen, which eate it as soone as I have it."


Excerpted from Labor in a New Land by Stephen Innes. Copyright © 1983 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • Acknowledgments, pg. ix
  • Abbreviations, pg. xi
  • Introduction: Social Diversity and Social Change in Seventeenth-Century NewEngland, pg. xv
  • Chapter 1. A Company Town, pg. 1
  • Chapter 2. Dominance, pg. 17
  • Chapter 3. Land, pg. 44
  • Chapter 4. Work, pg. 72
  • Chapter 5. Community, pg. 123
  • Chapter 6. Decline of the Gentry, 1684—1703, pg. 151
  • Epilogue. Springfield, John Pynchonf and New England Society, pg. 171
  • Index, pg. 185

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