JOHN PYNCHON, THE FIRST OF THE LORDS OF THE VALLEY
JOHN PYNCHON (ca. 1626–1703), a scion of one of the families of the English gentry, might justifiably be called a second-generation New Englander though admittedly he was brought over to Roxbury at the age of four. At the age of ten he accompanied his father, William Pynchon, to the Connecticut Valley, where he spent most of the seventy-seven years of his life. There he was privately educated, participated in the founding and development of the agricultural village of Springfield, and in 1652, when he was twenty-six, took over his father’s New England properties. He also assumed his place in the van of the first great American westward movement, over which he presided for more than half a century with the almost unanimous approval of the settlers in the Massachusetts or upper portion of the Valley.
Most historians insist today upon imposing patterns on the past, and in so doing they often reject or overlook some very important contributions made by certain rare individuals to the societies in which they lived. In this connection we would do well to keep in mind the injunction of the late E. M. Forster that “the historian must have some conception of how men who are not historians behave.” So also should social scientists. Both need to rearrange men as individuals whom they now use exclusively in the mass.1
True, nearly all of the men who lived in Massachusetts during the seventeenth century unavoidably remain anonymous, but such men as John Pynchon deserve more than that from history. Until his death on 17 January, 1702/3, contemporaries looked upon him as “the chief man in the west,” for above all he was an outstanding frontier personage.
As a devout English Puritan gentleman, deposited by fate on the banks of a great inland river of the New England wilderness, he fitted into no mold nor did he conform to any of the familiar colonial types. John Pynchon stands alone. He must be considered as an individual lest we fail to comprehend his great and peculiar importance during his lifetime, as well as in the history of the region.
Ample testimony to this claim is available in the 164 documents herewith offered to the curious public. These and the selections from his Account Books (to appear in a later volume of the Publications) provide a substantial amount of information about John Pynchon’s many and varied activities as the first of “the lords of the Valley.” Further, the letters enable one to trace in considerable detail economic and social development, as well as growth and political change, in western Massachusetts during the second half of the seventeenth century. They also afford more than a fleeting glimpse of the nature and character of their writer.
Many historians have written about the Pynchons. Our late president, Samuel Eliot Morison, and Miss Ruth McIntyre of South Hadley made excellent studies of the family’s English background and of the elder Pynchon’s role as the founder of Springfield and leading fur trader of New England.2 Most of the scattered facts about John Pynchon’s life were brought together by Joseph E. Smith of the New York Bar in his fine assessment in 1961 of The Pynchon Court Record; and Stephen Innes, now of the University of Virginia, endeavored to fit the man into a socio-anthropological pattern in a thesis presented at Northwestern University in 1977.3 These and other works render superfluous another biographical sketch in this introduction.4 What is called for now is a full-dress life-and-times study of John Pynchon, and this editor ardently hopes that the present volume of letters and of the extracts to follow will contribute to such an undertaking. We sorely need an estimate of the man—his personality, temperament, and character—viewed against the background of the age, both in Old England and New, from 1652 to 1703; only then can the extent and nature of his very great contribution to the founding and settling of New England be accurately gauged.
The essential feature of the farm and village society of rural England early in the seventeenth century was its communal quality. Each inhabitant of a given locality was somehow personally involved with most of the other members. From the lord or squire down to the humblest peasant, nearly every villager knew everyone else well enough to address him and be greeted by name. This interdependence, manifested in many ways, transcended customs and boundaries. Although all rural Englishmen shared this universal sense of community, it was the peculiar obligation of the country gentry to uphold and perpetuate it.
The leading English country gentlemen were, as Sir Henry Vane described them to Roger Williams, “public self-denying spirits”5 who labored for their communities without remuneration. They looked upon their privileged position in the country as entailing economic, social, and civic responsibilities: they administered the affairs of the parish, as well as their own estates; they drilled with the trainbands; they provided employment on their farms; and they saw to it that justice prevailed in the local courts leet and baron and the general sessions. The rural people wanted and expected these men of wealth and good birth to be their leaders and readily followed them.
The men of the Pynchon family belonged to the armorial gentry of Essex where, along with Suffolk, Puritanism predominated—the primary virtue required was piety. Even though they were not lords of a manor, they were looked up to and respected. Possession of “ancient riches” in the form of broad acres at Writtle and Springfield guaranteed them gentle status in the county.6
John Pynchon’s father, William, possessed in ample measure most of the virtues of the pious Puritan. Although he was not a university man or a justice of the peace, as were others of his family, he was well educated, familiar with English law, and sufficiently versed in theology to write and publish several tracts on the subject. Of his rectitude there was no question. Through marriage and friendship, Pynchon was closely connected with those Puritan country gentlemen and city merchants who, early in 1629, formed the Massachusetts Bay Company. In its charter he was named an Assistant and, in August, was one of the twelve signers of the Cambridge Agreement who pledged that they would migrate to New England provided the charter and government might be transferred across the Atlantic.
When gentle families, such as the Coddingtons, Hardings, Hutchinsons, Sanfords, Winthrops, and Wyllyses—together with the university-bred ministers—crossed the ocean, they had no need to create an “elite” or “oligarchy” on the spot; they had already begun at the top in the mother country. William Pynchon’s religious, social, and cultural credentials, well buttressed by considerable wealth, were evidence of divine approval, and the fact that he was Treasurer of the new colony from 1632 to 1634 is ample evidence that he was a good public servant.
From the precepts and examples of his parents, as well as of Master George Moxon (a graduate of Cambridge), John Pynchon developed and retained throughout his life the attributes common to English aristocrats and country gentlemen: courtesy, restraint, responsibility, service, charity, and, most of all, Puritan resignation to the will of God. What most impresses the historian about his education is how very English the formal part of it was and that it could be accomplished in a wilderness where, in daily intercourse, almost the only people John Pynchon encountered were simple farmers and frontier folk and members of the tribes of the Pocumtuck Confederacy. Not until 1656, when he was thirty years old, did he again set foot on the soil of England.
The letters that follow indicate that, in spite of the demands on his time, John Pynchon found occasion to read. They also reveal his capacity to think clearly and express his thoughts well. On the job in his father’s fur-trading and mercantile business, he gained a wide knowledge of the “mystery” of trade. In addition, by observing his father’s conduct in public office and on the bench as a magistrate and judge in Springfield, the youth was prepared for dealing with all classes and conditions of men; his mentors succeeded notably in training John Pynchon for leadership in this emerging society. His marriage to Amy, daughter of Governor George Wyllys of Connecticut, further strengthened the Pynchons’ position among the very first families of New England. That he grew up into an unusually wise adult, however, was doubtless due as much to his native intelligence and character as to any planned instruction.
In 1652, when William Pynchon returned to England to remain for the rest of his life, his son John, at the age of twenty-six, proved to be remarkably fitted for and capable of taking over his father’s lands and business interests in New England, and of assuming his public responsibilities as well. He had begun to serve as selectman and town treasurer of Springfield about 1650, and until his death in 1703 he occupied nearly every town office. Not long after his father’s departure, The Pynchon Court Record shows that John took his seat on the bench with Elizur Holyoke and Samuel Chapin.7 And within a year he fitted out a ship for the sugar trade with Barbados, became a lieutenant in the Massachusetts trainbands, shared the ownership of Cabbage-Tree Plantation in Antigua with several Connecticut gentlemen, and advanced the purchase price for the founding of a new town at Nonotuck (Northampton).
By the time of his first trip to England in 1656, John Pynchon was the foremost merchant and landowner in western Massachusetts and a distinguished member of the Puritan gentry. It may have been his wife, Amy Wyllys Pynchon, who, before 1652, introduced him to the Winthrops of New London and Fishers Island. In time he and John Winthrop, Jr., became regular correspondents, and their family relationship most intimate. For more than a year during 1654–1655, Amy lived in the Winthrop household at New London while John Winthrop treated her for a lingering ailment. The same kind of affinity developed with the rich and influential Wyllys and Allyn families of Hartford. John’s second son, Joseph, was schooled at Cambridge and then entered Harvard with the Class of 1654; John, Jr., the eldest son, set up by his father as a merchant in Boston, married the daughter of one of the most distinguished ministers in New England, the Reverend William Hubbard of Ipswich, the historian.
As the sole possessor of substantial wealth living in the upper Connecticut Valley, John Pynchon figured prominently in establishing communities of the English type in the area. In contrast to the centuries-old rural society of Essex and East Anglia, western Massachusetts was unoccupied land, an incipient rather than an existing community, which posed novel problems. First, it had to be cleared and settled by Englishmen; next it had to be turned into a productive countryside; and only then might the amenities of life be introduced. A careful survey of English and Dutch colonial ventures fails to uncover a more proficient and adept frontier leader than John Pynchon, whose record is one of all-around achievement. He was the ideal, indispensable “projector” for the time and place.8
The ordinary settlers at Springfield and the six other towns that he founded in the Connecticut Valley knew full well that they were fortunate that John Pynchon was able and willing to use his capital in their behalf. They knew from personal experience that some capital was essential in getting a new country started and in generating new wealth from hitherto unproductive land. Pynchon’s contributions to the development of the communities were many. By means of his trade in furs, Pynchon acquired the pelts to ship to London as returns for much needed goods and a few luxuries that he imported for the use of the River towns. He provided work for farmers and laborers in his rural industries, he sold many acres to those who could afford to buy them, and to poor settlers, who did not have the means to purchase property, he leased farm land. His extensive travels in New England and New York made him aware of the pressing needs of the entire region and prompted him to work for better roads and the building of bridges.
Not only did John Pynchon finance and promote the west; also, as the principal military officer on the ground, he directed the defense of the new communities against incursions by enemy Indians and the French. Preventing encroachments by the expansionists of Connecticut on Massachusetts land took much of his time. More than one of the Valley men must have thought the statement of the Reverend William Hubbard in his Election Sermon of 1676 pointed to this leader: “It is not . . . the result of time or chance, that some are mounted on horesback, while others are left to travel on foot. . . . The fearful and weak might be destroyed, if others more strong and valiant did not protect and defend them. The poor and needy might starve with hunger and cold, were they not fed with the morsels, and warmed with the fleece of the wealthy.”9
In the course of his efforts to weld the Valley communities into one broad Massachusetts countryside, John Pynchon displayed a combination of personal skills as rare in kind as in number. To conduct his traffic with the Indians, he learned at least one Algonkian dialect, and as a judge he dealt fairly with both red man and white. Moreover, he turned out to be one of the very few Puritan officials to fathom the nature and importance of intertribal rivalries and warfare; as a consequence, he steered his own people along a middle path that ensured peace with the Pocumtuck Confederacy until 1675. With his own kind, small or great, he was patient, generous, and discreet in private business, while as a soldier in the saddle he proved moderate and resourceful, and gifted with “Christian prudence.”10
The fact that the Pynchons were among the premier aristocrats of New England and had revealed outstanding executive and administrative talents over and over again assured John Pynchon’s entry to the topmost rank of the governing oligarchy of Massachusetts Bay. It also made it possible for him to conduct numerous diplomatic exchanges with the officials of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York. That he knew how to deal with men was widely conceded; and so was his caution. Above everything else, Pynchon was sure of himself and personally unambitious. He could defer to higher authority because he respected rather than resented those over him; and he always endeavored to carry out orders precisely and promptly. Throughout his long career as a public figure, John Pynchon never sought offices; rather they were thrust upon him—and not infrequently they proved burdensome.
In common with other human beings, Pynchon had his limitations. Like most of the leading Puritans, he lacked a sense of humor. Indeed he had not even a modicum of Cotton Mather’s wit, and nowhere in his correspondence do we detect a light touch. About everything he was deadly serious and unimaginative. The letters are full of reports of the illnesses of members of the family, so that we may conclude that often they were not robust enough to perform the tasks and carry out the demands of life on the frontier.
Running through this correspondence, like a leit motif, is the old-school Puritan’s religious commitment to the concept of an almighty God. In everything that transpired daily—even hourly—John Pynchon saw the Hand of God, whose “means,” though usually incomprehensible, had to be accepted with “Christian resignation” and never questioned. The deity was both omnipotent and omnipresent. The fact that the ultimate responsibility for all that happened lay with the Lord comforted and sustained Pynchon under all conditions: in success, in failure, in war, in controversy, in life, and in death. Even though he could not understand it, he never doubted that King Philip’s War was God’s vehicle for punishing a sinful New England: “savages” though they were, the Indians were divinely appointed to chastize the white sinners.
At this juncture it may be helpful to review briefly for future historians several points in which the editor’s conclusions differ from those of some previous scholars. Charges made more than a century ago that John Pynchon had used his position and monopoly of wealth in western Massachusetts to accumulate the best lands in the Valley are not acceptable. One cannot judge seventeenth-century practices by twentieth-century standards in any equitable way. In expenditure of time, labor, energy, advice, or wealth, he undoubtedly paid out more than he ever received.11 Moreover, land was the only medium in which he could be paid. Nor do these letters prove that he was indecisive, but rather that he was a man who could estimate a situation rapidly and act promptly when he had the authority to do so. No contemporary accused him of failure in this respect.
More questionable by far are the postulates of “decline” and “frustration” during the final years of his life, 1676–1703. The unfortunate loss was a father to the country or absence of letters for the years 1678–1688 has made possible such a misconstruction of an important man’s career. The truth is that just as the beaver disappeared from New England, so also did the fur trade come to an end. At fifty years of age in 1676, John Pynchon’s health did fail in part, as did the well-being of other members of his family, which provides a very good reason for his resignation as military commander for the west. Few New Englanders lost more heavily in buildings, rents, and goods during King Philip’s War than Pynchon, and recovery took time. Furthermore, affairs in the Bay Colony were in a state of confusion and uncertainty from the loss of the charter in 1684 until 1692.
While John Pynchon was recovering from his war losses, he carried out, as usual, his local and Hampshire County judicial duties, and, except for the years 1690–1692, he continued to sit with the Governor’s Council until 1703.12 No matter what political group was in power, its leaders apparently found his services indispensable. These were also his years of greatest intercolonial participation in Indian affairs that necessitated frequent arduous journeys to Connecticut and Albany.
“The most important feature of economic life in a colony or newly settled community is its commercial connection with the outside world,” Guy Stevens Callender pointed out more than seven decades ago.13 The persistent problem of procuring ample returns to pay for much-needed “European goods” had been met in a more or less satisfactory way by the Pynchons’ lucrative fur trade. That traffic, however, after reaching its peak in 1656, dwindled and finally ended in 1676. Thereafter, notwithstanding all sorts of difficulties, John Pynchon proved to be a resourceful “projector” who tirelessly cast about to procure returns in every way open to the colonists. He built and invested in ships for trading all the way from Newfoundland to the Caribbean—he chose Peleg Sanford of Rhode Island to be his agent in Barbados. At home he raised sheep and cattle for distant markets and, in 1655, joined with David Wilton of Windsor in wintering sheep near Newport with a Mr. Vaughan. In the 1690’s his several sawmills made it possible for him to ship off profitable quantities of lumber and timber products. The Account Books contain the records of numerous (though not always successful) industrial enterprises: lead mines, ironworks, grist- and sawmills.
After King Philip’s War and the decline of the fur trade, John Pynchon must be credited with perceiving earlier than nearly any other person that the economic structure of the expanding community was changing radically. As the region became more settled and more civilized, the kinds of returns it would produce would also change. By 1690, for the most part, he had recovered from the losses of the fur trade and the war years. It is erroneous, however, to brand him as land poor: his holdings never cost him much for upkeep, and some of his acres actually yielded rents from tenants. The area was rapidly losing its wilderness aspects and was coming to resemble parts of the English countryside. After John Pynchon’s death, a genuine decline in the family fortunes did take place. With the deer and beaver gone, most of the Indians moved westward into New York, and the denizens of the agricultural community were busily producing corn, wheat, and lumber. Life on the frontier, such as the Pynchons had known, had gone forever.
John Pynchon, one of those surprisingly “adaptable Puritans” trained in English ways, was unquestionably an outstanding citizen of seventeenth-century New England. He adjusted readily to the primitive society of western Massachusetts and with remarkable success employed the talents of the English gentry in situations alien to the English scene. In short, rather than act the conservator, he had to be the builder; and all over New England he was praised as “a useful man.” At the close of his life in 1703, the upper Connecticut Valley had become a rural region with thriving towns and, on the whole, a peaceful countryside.
More than any other one person, Pynchon had made it so, though he would have quickly pointed out that he was but the agent of the Lord in this process. In Alfred North Whitehead’s sense, John Pynchon had style, and in the select company of frontier builders—Abraham Wood, William Byrd (1), Peter Schuyler, and Benjamin Church—he stood primus inter pares. What Plutarch wrote of Cato could be applied to Pynchon: “He had not taken so public a life, like some others, casually or automatically or for the sake of fame or personal advantage. He chose it because it was the function proper to a gentleman.”
The great Soloman Stoddard, pastor at Northampton, tersely pronounced the best and truest encomium on John Pynchon in his funeral sermon: “He was a father to the country.”14