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John Winthrop, Jr’s Surprisingly Fascinating Life

New London’s founder has more tricks up his prim Puritan sleeve than you might expect.

If there’s anything that makes a long-dead and somber-seeming figure from the past appear even longer-dead and more somber, it’s a Puritan hat. The statue of long-time Connecticut Governor John Winthrop, Jr. wears such a hat. But stop at Hempstead Street and Bulkeley Place and look at him close-up someday. His cape is tied at the neck with a little bow, and his shoes have rigid tongues that look very uncomfortable. He wears a determined expression and holds a rolled-up paper in his hand. Despite being made of bronze, he seems, suddenly, like a real person. Even the hat looks less comical, and more practical, shading his eyes as he looks towards the river.

I looked up Winthrop, wondering about this man who figures in almost every aspect of the first days of New London and who would have, even in the heat of a Connecticut summer, worn stockings, breeches gathered at the knees, and a bulky coat. Here are a few of the things I didn’t expect to find.

1. He got around. Born in England, Winthrop went to school in Ireland. He later traveled to France – as part of a military expedition – and then Holland, Italy, and Turkey. This was all before coming to the New World to join his father, John Winthrop, the Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Once he was here, he didn’t stay in one place either. He wrote what may be the earliest Connecticut guidebook, after a journey from Boston to Saybrook and then east along the coast to Providence in 1645.

2. He could be mysterious. Some letters between Winthrop and Martha Fones, his first wife, were written in code. And it was apparently a good code – no one cracked it until the 20th century.

3. He made us official. In 1660, the Restoration left Puritan Connecticut, established without permission from the Crown, in legal limbo. So Winthrop traveled to England to secure a Charter from King Charles II. The document he brought back in 1662 outlined the Colony’s borders: “on the North by the Line of the Massachusetts-Plantation; and on the South by the Sea,” and from “Narraganset-Bay on the East, to the South Sea [i.e., Pacific Ocean] on the West Part.” It also incorporated the New Haven Colony into the Connecticut Colony, about which the New Haven Colony was none too happy. This is, by the way, the Charter that was hidden in the Oak when King James wanted it back 25 years later. (Though I’m not positive, I like to think this is what the Winthrop statue is holding. Or perhaps it’s something written in code.)

4. He was given Fisher’s Island as a present. The Massachusetts Bay Colony presented it to him, along with the land that became New London, after their victory in the Pequot War and conquest of the former Pequot lands.

5. He was against witch hunting. Whenever he could, Winthrop fought to overturn witchcraft convictions and protect women he believed to be falsely accused. Due largely to Winthrop’s influence, Connecticut quickly went from an aggressive prosecutor of alleged witches to a colony without witchcraft trials or executions. But it wasn’t because Winthrop thought the charges were cruel or ridiculous. It was more that he was so well-informed and practiced in all matters occult that he knew these so-called witches weren’t the real deal. And that’s because...

6. He originally intended New London to be Hogwarts. Well, sort of. Winthrop was seriously into alchemy. His early vision for a new version of London centered around the idea of alchemists from all over Europe gathering here to collaborate on experiments in medicine, metallurgy, agriculture, and the other varied disciplines that fell under the umbrella of alchemy at the time. Though that never happened, New London did become a sort of medical hot-spot, where Winthrop and his assistants treated the sick (for free) with powerful mineral-based cures believed to be divinely blessed.

And you thought he was just the guy who built the and got his name on a street sign.

steve July 16, 2011 at 11:01 AM
So Winthrop began the pharmaceutical industry in SECT?
jpsIII July 16, 2011 at 11:20 AM
I'd like to leave this comment in code but we'd have to wait until the 22nd century to decipher it. In the meantime: interesting piece, nicely done!
Doc Halliday September 19, 2012 at 11:44 AM
Can someone email me a picture of the Winthrop house that was next to the Town Mill. The site is where the Winthrop school used to be. I went to theat school as a child and was always interested in what the house looked like. usmc1862@aol.com

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