FIRST ENGLISH SETTLER

WILLIAM BLAXTON

To commemorate the 300 anniversary of the founding of Boston in 1930, the Boston City Council erected a FOUNDERS MEMORIAL in the Boston Common. This bas-relief memorial depicts the city’s first English resident, William Blaxton welcoming John Winthrop’s party to Shawmut peninsula in 1630.  Later, Shawmut was renamed Boston after Boston, Lincolnshire, England, the home Lady Arbella, Simon Bradstreet, Thomas Dudley, Rev. John Cotton and other well known early settlers.  In the memorial, Blaxton (on the left) is extending his hand to John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Company.   As no known portrait of Blaxton exists, Boston’s flamboyant mayor, James Michael Curley, served as the model for Blaxton.

Behind the memorial- across Beacon Street on a building at the corner of Spruce & Beacon, six years earlier, in 1924, the City of Boston placed a tablet memorializing the site of Rev. Blaxton as the first settler of Boston.

Blaxton Tablet

Although his name is often shown as William Blackstone, the tablet renders it as Blaxton since this is how he signed his name on the bachelor’s graduation register at Emmanuel College, Cambridge University in 1617.

Blaxton Signature copy

Four years later in 1621 (as shown on the tablet), William Blaxton graduated again from Emmanuel College with a Masters Degree.

Popular tales recount that Blaxton was an eccentric who lived alone because he could not stomach self-righteous Puritans.  It is said that he rode around on a large white bull planting apple trees and left Boston for the wilds of Rhode Island only to return at age 60 to find a wife.  Unfortunately, no definitive work has been written on the life of William Blaxton and details of his life are as ambiguous as the spelling of his name.  What follows is a brief sketch of what is known.

Although the City of Boston tablet shows William Blaxton as having been born in the Horncastle Parish of Lincolnshire, England, Robert Charles Anderson disputes this fact in The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England, 1620-1633 and says that it lacks ‘satisfactory proof.’  Nathaniel Brewster Blaxton in his sketch of William Blaxton says that William was born in Durham County, England on March 5, 1595, to John Blaxton and Agnes Hawley and then baptized in Horncastle Parish, Lincolnshire.   And, General William Andrews Pew, author of The Right Honorable, The Lady Arbella and Her Friends, states, “Wm. Blaxton … was the son of a minister at Horncastle, Lincolnshire, England, where he attended a school founded by the Earl of Lincoln and afterwards enjoyed a scholarship at Emmanuel College given by the same Earl.”   Given that William Blaxton was well connected with others in the Earl of Lincoln’s circle, credence is given to General Pew.

Blaxton entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1614 at the age 18 and was a fellow student and roommate of Isaac Johnson of Sempringham, Lincolnshire who was 5 years his junior.  The two were classmates and friends while at Emmanuel College where together they completed their Bachelors in 1617; together they were ordained at Peterborough in 1617; and together they completed Masters in 1621.

Two years later in 1623, Isaac Johnson married Lady Arbella Clinton-Fiennes, the Earl of Lincoln’s younger sister.  The same year, William Blaxton left for America with Robert Georges, Governor General of New England.  It is easy to assume that upon entering the inner circle of the Earl of Lincoln by marrying, Lady Arbella, Isaac Johnson was able to secure a place for William Blaxton in Robert Georges’ expedition to America.  This is all the more evident when it is known that Earl of Lincoln’s family had married into the family of Sir Ferdinando Georges and that Lady Frances, a younger sister of the Earl and Lady Arbella, married Robert Georges, son of Ferdinando and brother to John.

As fate would have it, the Georges Expedition failed, and most of the party returned to England by 1625.  Rather than return, William Blaxton moved to the Shawmut Peninsula; built a hut on Beacon Hill at the edge of what is now the Boston Common and planted an apple orchard (the first in America).  In his hut, he had a collection of over 180 books to keep him (the largest collection of books in America at the time).

Back in England, Isaac Johnson and a group of entrepreneurs joined with the remnants of the Dorchester Company in 1628 to form the Massachusetts Bay Company.  Isaac had inherited a large fortune from his grandfather and became the largest investor in the company.  The flagship of their subsequent voyage was named the Arbella after Isaac’s wife, Lady Arbella. Isaac Johnson and his wife sailed for America in March 1630 with what is now known as the Winthrop Fleet.

The Arbella and accompanying fleet docked in Salem June 12, 1630. Salem was ill-prepared to deal with over 700 new inhabitants.  Many were ill with fever or scurvy, and Lady Arbella and Isaac were no exception.  A colonist writing home to England said that although Isaac Johnson and the Lady Arbella were “the chief persons of estate in the land and the ones who could do most good, even they were not spared the adversity suffered by all.”  Lady Arbella died on August 27, 1630, in Salem.  She had “come from a paradise of plenty and pleasure in the family of a noble Earl into a wilderness of wants, and although celebrated for her many virtues yet was not able to encounter the adversity she was surrounded with, and now left her worthy consort overwhelmed in grief and tears.

The most common story of the founding of Boston (as shown on the Founders Memorial) relates how Governor Winthrop relocated from Salem to present day Charleston seeking a good source of water and was then invited by William Blaxton join him on Shawmut where good water was plentiful.  However, General Pew says it is more likely that William Blaxton came to know that his schoolmate, Isaac Johnson, was in the area and the connection between these two old friends is what resulted in Shawmut being settled and renamed Boston.

Blaxton must have seemed a bit eccentric to the newly arrived settlers as he had learned to live off the land and had become fur trapper and trader.  In his Magnalia Christi Americana, Cotton Mather says of Blaxton, “This man was, indeed, of a particular humor, and he would never join himself to any of our churches, giving this reason for it, ‘I came from England, because I did not like the lord-bishops; but I can’t join with you, because I would not be under the lord-brethren’”.

On April 3, 1633, Governor Winthrop and the Massachusetts Bay General Court ordered: “that Mr. William Blackestone shall have 50 acres of ground set out for him near to his house in Boston, to enjoy forever.”  The irony of having invited Winthrop and company to join him on Shawmut only to then have them “grant” him what he already was in possession of must have been too much for Blaxton. One tradition quotes him as having said, “The King asserteth sovereignty over this New Virginia in respect that John and Sebastian Cabot sailed along the coast, without even landing at any place; and if the quality of sovereignty can subsist upon the substratum of mere inspections, surely the quality of property can subsist upon that of actual occupancy, which is the foundation of my claim.

The same year, William Blaxton left Boston and moved south to what is now Rhode Island (near present-day Providence) and built a house he called “Study Hall” on a hill he called “Study Hill“.  Two years later, Roger Williams moved within ten miles of Blaxton and established Rhode Island.  William Blaxton died at age 80 and was buried at Lonsdale, Rhode Island May 28, 1675.

©  by Barry A. Cotton

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