Letters from America

Ruth Herman

 

In the early eighteenth century the land of America was wild and dangerous. This was particularly true when the War of the Spanish Succession waged fiercely in Europe as the French and the English/British slugged it out in pitched battles.  The hostilities in this war for power in the old world spilled over into the new, and the settlers found themselves attacked on all sides by the French and the Native Americans. One of the fiercest theatres of these hostilities was the northern territories, close to the Canadian border and the towns of Quebec and Montreal. It included the Province of Massachusetts Bay, with additional colonial settlements (trading outposts) on Newfoundland and at Hudson Bay.  It was the difficult job of Joseph Dudley, the governor of Massachusetts to protect the English inhabitants and also maintain their trading and industrial endeavours.  He left a legacy of letters which can be found in the Hertfordshire and Local Studies archives. [1] They are addressed to the first Earl Cowper, sometime Lord Chancellor and active politician. Long and closely written they offer a snapshot of the difficulties the early Americans had to overcome to simply stay alive.  But perhaps the most interesting aspect of these trials is how they are conveyed through the lens of a politician who is trying to squeeze more support from the British government while trying not to harass and  alienate his distant masters, acknowledging that they were “diverted by greater affairs at home”.  One of the earliest letters tells of the problems while taking a positive stance:

 

Boston, 9 March 1709

Utmost care for the preservation of those provinces from the incursions of the French and Indians who are always labouring to distress and alarm our frontiers which has now agitated the poor frontier towns in several frontier towns … but we have maintained our lines since  my coming hither and the enemy has nothing to boast of.

In another letter he reminds Cowper that the settlers are pulling their weight:

The affairs of this [New England] government are in perfect satisfaction and the assembly supports the charge and the people march to the frontier with all diligence for their defence, [with] the men of this province in arms for three months together with no any dissatisfaction being themselves well defended

But all is not well and there is resentment that the British government is sending troops but expecting the hard pressed pioneers to dig deep into shallow pockets to fund them:

The last summer all the provinces stood in arms for months expecting her majesty’s fleet and force for the reduction of Quebec and Montreal which was diverted by great affairs at home but upon the humble application of her majesty’s government and the address of the assembly her majesty was graciously pleased to receive the matter as to order five ships of war with five hundred marines o be sent to be joined by fifteen hundred musketeers of these provinces to be sent to Port Royal.

I have this past year used all possible endeavours to prevent the raids of the French and Indians from Canada and Port Royal from the frontier by keeping up as heretofore a greet number of small garrisons ….  They make their incursions from time to time … and two vessels of war equipped at the province’s charge demand a thousand men in pay whose support of subsistence for their vessels and other incidental charges or the support of the government amounts  … to thirty thousand pounds per annum besides.. .  the good inclination of all her majesty’s government has obliged  give us thousand more musketeers and provisions for them accordingly.

He remonstrates that when inspected by the British government’s representative the New Englanders are fulfilling their side of the bargain:

Her majesty’s officer  saw these men well clothed in the field and exercised every day from the 20 may to the 5 November the expense of which soldiers, transport, and other  charges …assembly always very cheerfully paid and supported their credit being perfectly satisfied  

I have this past year used all possible endeavours to prevent the raids of the French and Indians from Canada and Port Royal from the frontier by keeping up as heretofore a greet number of small garrisons … and two vessels of war equipped at the province’s charge demand a thousand men in pay whose support of subsistence for their vessels and other incidental charges or the support of the government amounts  … to thirty thousand pounds per annum besides  … her majesty’s government has obliged  give us thousand more musketeers  … The expense of which soldiers, transport, and other charges … always very cheerfully paid.  [I would like to] Acquaint you lordship with of the present state of the government. The last summer all the provinces stood in arms for months expecting her majesty’s fleet and force for the reduction of Quebec and Montreal … but upon the humble application of her majesty’s government and the address of the assembly her majesty was graciously pleased to revive the matter as to order five ships of war with five hundred marines o be sent to be joined by fifteen hundred musketeers of these provinces to be sent to Port Royal.

There is a certain resentment as the governor points out that they don’t seem to have the same deal as other areas of the country:

The charge last year when we did nothing and the reduction of Port Royal this year have cost the province forty thousand pounds which add to their debts for the defence of the frontier will have left them greatly in arrears whilst Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Jersey and New York are covered by these … provinces and sit quiet from costs or charges at which the people have taken umbrage of dissatisfaction.

In 1713 the Treaty(ies) of Utrecht, finally ended the European war.  By the same peace negotiations Britain gained Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, the Hudson Bay region and France recognized British rule and trade with Native Americans further inland would be open to all nations. It was now time for the settlers to consider their attitude to their governor.  There is at least one letter in the archives accusing him of debauchery and even murder.

He defends himself in 1714 and claims that he is in office

with all satisfaction to the people who acknowledge their country to have  been well defended, their money justly disbursed, their laws executed and … the assembly within these six months addressed her late majesty for the continuance of their governor and everybody well pleased except some gentlemen Sir Charles Hobby, and Colonel Borfield and others who are lately gone home (as is thought here) to obtain the government for themselves.

 

But he was not popular.  Dudley himself is described in the Dictionary of National Biography as:

A cold and ambitious man who relished exercising power and had no qualms about increasing his personal fortune while in public office. Throughout his service as governor he exhibited the commitment to royal prerogative that had characterized his entire political career. On one occasion he was forced to return to England to rebut another series of charges levelled against him, but, even though he was absolved of any wrongdoing, his opponents grew in strength and eventually overwhelmed him and his influential English supporters. In 1715 he was replaced as governor.

It seems that at least one legacy of this period in American history might be the frustration of the colonies at the lack of support from their British masters.  The letters continually point out that the settlers are funding their own defence while still trying to build up their tar and timber industry, apparently leaving them out of pocket.   Would it be fanciful to suggest that the Boston Tea Party which anecdotally marked the beginning of the War of Independence had at least some connection with the troubles of the early eighteenth century and their resentments?  It certainly seems that the settlers had not been entirely happy some sixty years earlier and had declared their dissatisfaction through their governor’s letters to the Hertfordshire grandee.

[1] HALS ref:  DE/P/F144

This page was added on 27/11/2016.

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