John Winthrop — Puritan Leader and 1st Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony

1588–1649

John Winthrop was a Puritan leader who played an important role in the establishment, growth, and governance of Massachusetts Bay Colony for nearly 20 years.

John Winthrop, Massachusetts Bay Governor

John Winthrop. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Who was John Winthrop?

John Winthrop (1588–1649) was a Puritan religious and political leader who played an important role in the establishment, growth, and governance of Massachusetts Bay Colony. He was born into a wealthy English family, became a Puritan, and worked as a lawyer in the English Courts.

After the Church of England levied restrictions on Puritans, Winthrop lost his position in the courts and decided to move to America. After becoming involved with the Massachusetts Bay Company, he quickly rose to a leadership position. 

In April 1830, he led the first ships of the “Winthrop Fleet” to Massachusetts. For the next 20 years, Winthrop played a significant role in the growth and development of the colony, as he shaped its course based on principles he outlined in his speech “A Model of Christian Charity.” 

Winthrop died in 1649, leaving behind a legacy as one of the most important political and religious figures in the history of New England and the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

John Winthrop, Arrival at Salem, Winthrop Fleet
This illustration depicts Winthrop arriving at Salem in 1630. Image Source: A Treasury of Knowledge and Cyclopaedia of History, Robert Sears, 1853, Archive.org.

John Winthrop Facts

  • When was John Winthrop born? — Winthrop was born on January 12, 1588, in Edwardstone, Suffolk, England.
  • When did John Winthrop die? — He died on March 26, 1649, in Boston, Massachusetts.
  • What is John Winthrop known for? — Winthrop is known for being the first Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and playing a prominent role in the Great Puritan Migration.

John Winthrop History — Early Life and Career

John Winthrop was born on January 12, 1588, at Edwardstone, Suffolk, England. His parents were Adam Winthrop, a lawyer and the Lord of Groton Manor, and Anne Browne, the daughter of a wealthy trader. In 1613, he inherited Groton Manor from his father.

He was tutored at home and then enrolled in Trinity College at Cambridge in 1602 when he was 14. During his time at Cambridge, he became a devout Puritan and committed to the idea of purifying the rites and theology of the Church of England from within the existing church structure.

Winthrop left Trinity at age 17, before earning a degree, so he could marry Mary Forth. They had 5 children together, and one of them, John Winthrop the Younger, played an important role in the establishment of the Connecticut Colony.

After inheriting Groton Manor, he served as a Justice of the Peace, which likely exposed him to influential members of the English upper class, including lawyers, landowners, politicians, and clergymen.

At some point, possibly as early as 1613, Winthrop was admitted to Gray’s Inn, where he started his studies to become a lawyer. His wife, Mary, died in 1615 and he married Thomasine Clopton. However, she died in 1616.

Afterward, he studied to become a lawyer and married Margaret Tyndal in April 1618. He worked for the Court of Wards and Liveries in London and was admitted to the Inner Temple in 1628.

John Winthrop and the Massachusetts Bay Company

It was during the 1620s that tension between the Puritans and the Church of England escalated. At first, it led the Puritan Separatists to travel to the New World where they established Plymouth Colony in 1620.

In 1624, pastor John White established a colony at Cape Ann, along the coast of present-day Massachusetts.

After King Charles I took the throne in 1625, he worked with Archbishop Laud to implement policies that restricted the Puritans. Many of them, including Wintrhop, were removed from their jobs and positions as public officials. Winthrop decided to emigrate to New England with his family. 

King Charles I of England, Portrait
King Charles I. Image Source: Wikipedia.

A group of Puritan businessmen formed the New England Company and successfully acquired land in the New World. The land was located between the Charles River and the Merrimack River. Soon after, an expedition was sent to the area to begin the settlement. The expedition was led by John Endecott.

In the early part of 1629, King Charles I dissolved Parliament, beginning the 11 years of “Personal Rule” in which Parliament did not meet.

Responding to the dissolution of Parliament, the New England Company intensified plans for immigration. The name of the company was changed to Massachusetts Bay Company. In August, Winthrop shared a document in support of the company’s plans and gradually became one of the leaders of the company.

Winthrop Signs the Cambridge Agreement

On August 26, 1629, he signed the Cambridge Agreement, which dictated the charter and government for the Massachusetts Bay Colony would travel to America, rather than stay in England. In October, he was elected governor of the company, replacing Matthew Craddock.

Soon after, Winthrop and the company started working on gathering supplies and ships for the expedition, along with recruiting families to immigrate to the New World.

John Winthrop Sails to America

Winthrop set sail on April 8, 1630, setting out from the Isle of Wight. Winthrop and his sons Samuel and Stephen were with him on the Arbella, which led three other ships on the initial voyage. They were followed by six more in May. It is estimated the ships carried 700-1,000 people on them to the New World. At some point, Wintrhop laid out his vision of Puritan ideology in the speech “A Model of Christian Charity,” which he delivered aboard the Arbella

Winthrop Fleet, Sailing Past Hurst Castle, 1630, Illustration
This illustration depicts the Winthrop Fleet sailing past Hurst Castle, through the Needles Passage, on April 8, 1630. Image Source: The Winthrop Fleet of 1630, Charles Edward Banks, 1930, Archive.org.

A City on a Hill

Winthrop was determined to form a community in Massachusetts that served as a model for the rest of the world, based on the Puritan belief that they had a covenant with God, were his “chosen people,” and were fulfilling Biblical prophecy. He warned his fellow Puritans that the eyes of the world were on them — “as a city upon a hill.” The phrase comes from Matthew 5:14, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.”

Winthrop in Massachusetts

When the Winthrop Fleet first arrived in Massachusetts, they settled at Salem — which was known as Naumkeag at the time — but were forced to move due to a lack of natural resources. After a brief stay at Charlestown, they moved across the river to the Shawmut Peninsula. They established their new settlement and called it “Boston.” 

The colonists spread out and founded more settlements, including the present-day cities and towns of Cambridge, Roxbury, Dorchester, Watertown, Medford, and Charlestown.

Over the next decade, thousands of Puritans arrived in Massachusetts, where Winthrop was a political and religious leader for 19 years, serving as Governor for 12 of those years. He played a significant role in the growth and development of the colony and helped shape its relationship with other colonies and Native American Indian tribes living in the region.

Relations with Native American Indians

Winthrop knew Native American Indians inhabited the territory of Massachusetts, but did not understand their concept of land ownership, which was dramatically different than that of Europeans. 

The Indians believed usage of the land made it theirs, while Europeans believed making improvements to it — such as building a home, plowing a field, or building a fence — was a way of claiming ownership.

He wrote the land the Puritans settled on was theirs because they had, “peaceably, built a house upon it, and so it hath continued in our peaceable possession ever since…” By building homes, it gave the colonists “sufficient title against all men.” 

As far as Winthrop was concerned, this included Indians.

Disagreements with Williams and Hutchinson

Winthrop believed the Puritan Church and its leaders were supreme in all matters, which led to conflicts with some religious leaders who differed from the church and sought religious tolerance. 

The most famous people Winthrop clashed with were Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, who were both banished for their refusal to conform to Puritan ideology. Despite the conflicts, Winthrop was able to maintain unity within Massachusetts.

The Death of John Winthrop

Winthrop died of natural causes on March 26, 1649. He is buried in King’s Chapel Burying Ground in Boston.

John Winthrop, Death, Illustration
This illustration depicts John Winthrop on his deathbed. Image Source: A Treasury of Knowledge and Cyclopaedia of History, Robert Sears, 1853, Archive.org.

John Winthrop and Events that Shaped the Massachusetts Bay Colony

Cambridge Agreement (1639)

The Cambridge Agreement was signed by the shareholders of the Massachusetts Bay Company on August 29, 1629, at a meeting in Cambridge. The provisions of the agreement placed control of Massachusetts Bay Colony within the colony, instead of London. Shareholders who agreed to move to Massachusetts bought out the shareholders who decided to remain in England. Winthrop was one of the 12 men who agreed to move to America and signed the Cambridge Agreement.

Winthrop Fleet (1630)

The Winthrop Fleet was a group of 11 ships that arrived in New England in the summer of 1630. They were funded by the Massachusetts Bay Company and carried somewhere between 700 and 1,000 Puritan immigrants. Winthrop himself sailed on the Arbella, which was the fleet’s flagship. The Arbella and three other ships set sail on April 8, 1630. The remaining seven ships sailed in May 1680.

Great Puritan Migration

The Great Puritan Migration was a cultural event in which thousands of Puritans left their homes in England, migrated to the New World, and settled in New England. Although some historians point to the 1620 Voyage of the Mayflower as the beginning of the migration, it escalated with the departure of the Arbella. From 1629 and 1640, it is estimated that at least 20,000 Puritans moved to the colonies in America. The Massachusetts Bay Company and John Winthrop played a significant role in making that happen.

Pequot War (1635–1638)

The Pequot War was the first conflict between the English colonists in New England and the Native American Indian tribes in the region. After some English fur traders were killed, Massachusetts responded by attacking the Pequot — in Connecticut territory. Soon after, the Pequot launched attacks on Connecticut settlements at Fort Saybrook and Wethersfield.

On May 1, 1673, Connecticut declared war on the Pequot and their allies. Later that month, hundreds of Pequot people were killed at the Massacre at Mystic. Over the next few months, soldiers from Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay, along with warriors from various tribes, including the Narragansett, virtually eliminated the Pequot.

After the fighting ended, a treaty was signed that gave Connecticut control of the Connecticut River Valley and sold the surviving Pequot Indians into slavery. Winthrop is believed to have taken three Pequots into his home as slaves — one man and two women.

Burning of Fort Mystic, Pequot War
This illustration depicts the burning of Fort Mystic during the Pequot War. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Massachusetts Body of Liberties (1641)

The Massachusetts Body of Liberties was adopted in 1641. It was the first legal code established by European colonists in New England was a list of liberties for people, instead of restrictions, and was intended for use as guidance for the General Court. According to various accounts, Winthrop was a member of the committee that drafted the laws.

New England Confederation

Following the Pequot War, the Puritan colonies in New England formed an alliance. The colonies were Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Saybrook, and New Haven. The purpose of the alliance, which is also called the “United Colonies of New England,” was to defend against attacks from Indian tribes and New Netherland, while promoting the Puritan faith. Winthrop was one of the first commissioners of the New England Confederation.

Why is John Winthrop Important?

John Winthrop is important to United States history because of the role he played in the Great Puritan Migration to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the leadership he provided the colony for nearly two decades.

John Winthrop APUSH Notes and Study Guide

Use the following links and videos to study John Winthrop, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the New England Colonies for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

John Winthrop APUSH Definition

John Winthrop was a prominent Puritan leader who played a key role in the Great Puritan Migration and the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He led the Winthrop Fleet to Massachusetts in 1630, served as the colony’s Governor for a majority of the next 20 years, and oversaw the establishment of new settlements. Winthrop was largely responsible for maintaining order and stability which allowed Massachusetts to become the dominant colony in New England.

John Winthrop Video for APUSH Notes

This video from Boston History discusses the life, career, and impact of John Winthrop.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title John Winthrop — Puritan Leader and 1st Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony
  • Date 1588–1649
  • Author
  • Keywords John Winthrop, Puritans, Massachusetts Bay Colony, Winthrop Fleet, Great Puritan Migration, Boston
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date February 21, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 9, 2024

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