Vassal: A Biographical Sketch
Establishing a Colonial Home
William and his brother Samuel Vassall were among the original patentees of the Massachusetts Bay Company (1629). Samuel became very wealthy, eventually owning one-tenth of the entire Massachusetts Bay colony. His fleet of ships regularly supplied the colonists. But he was the first to refuse to pay the tax of "tonnage and poundage," a tax Parliament levied on supplies going to the Colonies. For this, he was convicted by the Star Chamber court and imprisoned for sixteen years. While Cromwell's Parliament voted him over £10,000 in compensation, it was never paid, and the family never recovered their former wealth.
As for William, he was an Assistant to Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop. He invested in the company and held a position as a magistrate. Almost all the Adventurers (investors) were wealthy businessmen (William is referred to in one source as an "opulent West India merchant") or landed gentry from the eastern coast or southwest of England, and active in Puritan religious and political causes.
These areas had a long history of Christian reform movements and were where Cromwell raised his Puritan armies in the 1640s.
There were 127 founding investors who formed the basis of the company at the granting of the Royal Charter in 1628. In return for their investment, each received a small acreage in the colony, just enough to be able to flee to if religious and political persecution under the rule of the Stuarts made it necessary. Many of them eventually emigrated.
At a meeting of the Company 15 October 1629, William was appointed to go over to the colony. In spring 1630, William sailed with about 300 families from Yarmouth for Massachusetts Bay. Their aim was to establish "an independent church, but not a separate one." Like many of the New England colonists, William disagreed with some tenets of the state church (Church of England) but was not ready for an open break. By being geographically distant from the centers of religious and political power in England, colonists were generally able to experience greater religious freedom.
The company landed first at Salem, where they found the population decimated by disease and hunger. Of the 1,000 immigrants who came to Salem that year, one-fifth died during their first 12 months. With provisions scarce and hardly any buildings available, the new colonists dispersed into neighboring communities. The first court of the Assistants was held at Charlestown, but a polluted water source led them to move again, this time to the Shawmut peninsula where there was an abundance of clear spring water. Here they founded the colony's capital, Boston.
The people of the colony were resentful of the magistrates' power, and by May 1631 the decision was made that all officers of the government be elected annually by the freemen of the colony. While this is one of several examples of early democratic tendencies in the colonies, it must be noted that there were only about 120 freemen and they had to be in good standing with the church.
Whether because of this incident, William's differences with Governor Winthrop, or some other reason, William returned to England "a short while" after arriving in the colonies on the Lyon (I've been unable to find a date for his return).
He appears in the records again in 1635 when he and Anna (age 42) and children [Mills ancestor] Judith (16), Frances (12), John (10), Ann (6), Margaret (2), and Mary (1) board the Blessing to return to the colonies. They settled first at Roxbury in the Bay colony, where Anna joined the church*, but moved "shortly after" (by November 1636) to Scituate in Plymouth Colony, just over the border from the Bay Colony. It's possible Anna was sister to the Thomas King who also came over on the Blessing and settled at Scituate.
[*Joining the church meant entering into the covenant. It afforded responsibilities and privileges in both the religious and secular spheres.]
The Vassall house, called West Newland, was one of the first built at Scituate (1636). In November of that year, William joined the Scituate church. He expanded his land holdings in 1638 with 350 acres and gained the right to keep a ferry. In 1639 he was given the rights to have an oyster bed on the West Newland River. In exchange for these grants, William took oaths of allegiance and fidelity to the Crown. William was wealthy and well-connected, with his brother Samuel a member of Parliament and numerous friends traveling back and forth to England.
Daughter Judith Vassall joined the Scituate church in 1637 when she was 18, and seems to have sided prominently with her father in the pending division of the church. In 1640 she married Resolved White in Scituate. Around this time William seems to have considered moving back to Salem, since court records show he was looking into buying a farm in the area, but nothing came of it. Eventually Judith and Resolved had their own home on land adjoining William's estate.
In 1642 William was chosen to be on the war council after the Narragansetts threatened the colony. The following year, his name appears on a list of militia members.
In 1643, the year Judith and Resolved married, the Vassalls moved to Marshfield, where William became a town officer. Mills ancestor Susannah White Winslow lived in Marshfield with her husband Edward Winslow, who during the period of our story sometimes served as governor of Plymouth colony. The Vassalls, Whites, and Winslows were on friendly terms and lived close to one another. William would have been in close contact with Edward Winslow in their work as town magistrates.
Part III: Dissension Begins: The Scituate Church Division >
< Part II: Establishing a Colonial Home