Imagine if your monarch offered you a gift of many hundreds of square miles of territory – all for yourself and your descendants.
In 1622, King James did exactly that, giving the aristocratic adventurer Ferdinando Gorges a proprietorship for the entire region of what is today the state of Maine. Ferdinando Gorges never came to North America. But his cousin Thomas arrived in Maine in 1641 with orders to create a government and a legal system for the fledgling colony.
From Maine, Thomas Gorges wrote home to Ferdinando and other members of the Gorges family, and to leading political lights within New England: John Winthrop, Richard Bernard (Roger William’s father-in-law), and others. The original letters have not survived, but Gorges’ letterbook remains in a British archive, a treasure of insight into early Maine and its relation to its rival in political vision, the Massachusetts Bay Colony (until Maine merged into Massachusetts in 1670.) He was a Maine enthusiast: “The Country heer is plentiful,” he wrote.
Gorges’ letters provide us with a unique window onto colonial New England. Religion and politics are still rarely considered polite conversation – including conversation by letter. But Thomas felt no qualms in discussing either. His letters are filled with his views of Puritan New England, his plans for Maine, and his interactions with Maine’s residents, both English colonists and Native Americans.
Led by UMass Lowell associate professor Abby Chandler, our discussion will examine some of Gorges’ letters from 1641-43. We will consider what they reveal about the contrasts and similarities between the colonial experiments in Maine and Massachusetts. Political and legal organization in the early English colonies depended on whether the colony was a chartered colony like Massachusetts, a royal colony like Virginia or a proprietorship like Maryland or Maine, where the entire colony remained under the control of the Gorges family for three decades. Maine was eventually absorbed by Massachusetts in the 1670s, but in these letters we can see the fascinating evolution of a non-Puritan colony in New England, whose separate identity would eventually lead to independent statehood in the 1820s.
Abby Chandler is associate professor of UMass Lowell and author of Law and Sexual Misconduct in New England, 1650-1750. She is advisor to the Partnership of Historic Bostons, and has led many spirited, insightful discussions of early New England for us. Click here for a rave review of her 2016 book.
All readings will be emailed to you as pdfs once you register.
Thomas Gorges’ letters.
Robert E. Moody, "Thomas Gorges, Proprietary Governor of Maine, 1640-1643," Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Third Series, Vol. 75 (1963): 10-26. We’ll also email you this pdf.
Hannah Farber, "The Rise and Fall of the Province of Lygonia, 1643–1658," The New England Quarterly, Vol. 82, No. 3 (September 2009), pp. 490-513. Reveals the messiness of politics in Maine in the early period.
E.A. Churchill, "A Most Ordinary Lot of Men: The Fishermen at Richmond Island, Maine, in the Early Seventeenth Century," The New England Quarterly, Vol. 57, No. 2 (Jun., 1984), pp. 184-204. A picture of the kind of colonists Thomas Gorges met in Maine.
Abby Chandler, Law and Sexual Misconduct in New England: 1650-1750: Steering Toward England (Routledge, 2015). Latest scholarly assessment of politics and law in colonial Maine. Available at university libraries in the Boston area.
What are my transport/parking options getting to the event?
It's very difficult to park near the Massachusetts Historical Society, so we recommend public transport. The nearest T stop is Hynes Convention Center, but Massachusetts Ave is also near by.
Where can I contact the organizer with any questions?
Please email us any time at firstname.lastname@example.org or ring Sarah on 917 553 4486.