Cape Cod – The Towns – Pt. 2

THE general grounds of contention, ecclesiastical and political, — questions of land tenure and fishing rights, the division and government of parishes,—remained for the children and grandchildren of the first settlers. It was not that they were a quarrelsome people, but, rather, that they had a healthy, vivid, proprietary interest in the civic and religious development of their common life. Every man in a town had his criticism for each act of the General Court, for the management of his neighbor, and the religious slant of his minister; every man expressed his personal view of the general comity in no uncertain words, with a result that sometimes presented a picture of confusion when it was in reality no more than the process of boiling down to a good residuum. Nor has this early spirit died. The strongly protestant temper of the Pilgrim Fathers has survived in their descendants; even to-day if one alien to the community penetrates beneath the tranquil surface of things commotion may be discovered. And from time to time, one may venture to suppose, a spirit of joyful wrangling has swung through this town or that when the pugnacious Briton has cropped out in men finer tuned by a more stimulating atmosphere, who waged the combat not always for righteousness’ sake, but for pure pleasure of pitching into the other fellow.

In the early days, at any rate, there was some scope for the talent of an arbiter, and in the Reverend Thomas Walley who, after a stormy interval of ten years, followed Mr. Lothrop in the pastorate of Barn-stable, his people had cause for gratitude as “the Lord was pleased to make him a blessed peacemaker and improve him in the work of his house.” In 1669 Mr. Walley carried his peacemaking farther afield, and preached before the General Court a sermon en-titled “Balm of Gilead to Heal Zion’s Wounds.” Among other wounds were listed the “burning fever or fires of contention in towns and churches.” Occasionally outside powers took a hand in these difficulties and the Boston clergy were called into council. And shortly after the incumbency of Walley, when one Mr. Bowles seems to have officiated at Barnstable for a time, John Cotton wrote thus to Governor Hinckley at Plymouth: “This last week came such uncomfortable tidings from Barnstable hither, that I knew not how to satisfy myself without troubling you with a few lines. . . . It does indeed appear strange with men wiser than myself that such discouragements should attend Mr. Bowles. . . . I need tell you, worthy sir, that it is a dying time with preachers . . . and there is great likelihood of scarcity of ministers.” And so on, in favor of Mr. Bowles.

Schism, pure and simple, sometimes clove a church asunder, and the dissenters, under the man of their choice, retired to form a new parish; but natural division came about as a settlement spread to the more remote parts of a township. Such a group might remain a subdivision “within the liberties” of the mother town, but as frequently the younger parish became the nucleus of a growing settlement that might, in turn, be duly incorporated as a town. Nor was the process likely to be consummated without some heart-burning. In 1700 the Reverend Jonathan Russell of Barnstable sent a tart communication to the town meeting that had divided his parish and desired his pleasure as to a choice of churches. “On divers accounts,” wrote Mr. Russell, “it seems most natural for me to abide in the premises where I now am; yet since there is such a number who are so prejudiced or disaffected or so sett against my being there” — in short, being a wise man, he elected peace and chose “the Western Settlement if it may by any means comfortably be obtained.” And Mr. Russell took occasion to remind the parish that he should require some provision for “firewood or an Equivalent, having formerly, on first settlement, been encouraged by principal Inhabitants to expect it.”

These early clergymen were usually Cambridge or Oxford men, the liberals of their time, sure to stand for the encouragement of learning among the simple people with whom they had cast their lot. And whether or not by their influence, the sons of those who had set their names to the Compact were ready in 1670 to make some provision for schools. Looking about for a source of revenue, they perceived that “the Providence of God hath made Cape Cod commodious to us for fishing with seines,” and thus encouraged the General Court passed an act that taxed the fishing, and, further, contained the germ of our public school system: “All such profits as may and shall accrue annually to the colony from fishing with nets or seines at Cape Cod for mackerel, bass, or herring to be improved for and towards a free school in some town in this jurisdiction, for the training up of youth in literature for the good and benefit of posterity.” And the colony continued its work by requiring that children should be taught “duely to read the Scriptures, the knowledge of the capital laws, and the main principles of religion necessary for salvation.” Idleness was punished as a vice; wilful ignorance was an offence against “the safety and dignity of the commonwealth.” Read into the simple precepts what modern interpretations you will, and one finds the elements necessary for training the citizens of a state to be justly governed by the consent of the governed.

Less significant laws reached out to regulate the personal life of the people: a talebearer was liable to penalty; a liar, a drunkard, a Sabbath-breaker, a profane man might be whipped, branded, imprisoned, or put in the stocks. It cost Nehemiah Besse five shillings to “drink tobacco at the meeting-house in Sandwich on the Lord’s day.” For the man taken in adultery there was a heavy fine and whipping; the woman must wear her “scarlet letter,” and for any evasion the device should be “burned in her face.” And to curb the spirit of “divers persons, unfit for marriage, both in regard to their years and also their weak estate,” it was decreed that “if any man make motion of marriage to any man’s daughter or maid without first obtaining leave of her parents, guardian or master, he shall be punished by fine not exceeding five pounds, or by corporal punishment, or both at the discretion of the court.” As a sequence, it is written that a Barnstable youth was placed under bonds “not to attempt to gain the affections” of Elizabeth, daughter of Governor Prince. In Eastham a man was mulcted a pound for lying about a whale; elsewhere one paid five pounds for pretending to have a cure for scurvy. Men were had up for profiteering when beer was sold at two shillings a quart which was worth one, and boots and spurs which cost but ten shillings were sold for fifteen. Certain leading citizens were licensed to “draw wine”: Thomas Lumbert at Barnstable, and Henry Cobb ; Anthony Thacher at Yarmouth; at Sandwich Mr. Bodfish, and “when he is without, it shall be lawful for William Newlands to sell wine to persons for their need.” Constructive work was done in the way of building roads and bridges, for which Plymouth was willing the towns should pay; and a committee of the four Cape towns was appointed to draw therefrom, for such funds, “the oil of the country.” Representative government in the growing colony was practically coincident with the incorporation of the Cape towns, which sent representatives to the General Court and had local tribunals to settle disputes not “exceeding twenty shillings.”

The people neither had nor needed sumptuary laws : gentle and simple, they dressed in homespun. As late as 1768 a letter from Barnstable tells of the visit of some ladies “dressed all in homespun, even to their handkerchiefs and gloves, and not so much as a ribbon on their heads. They were entertained with Labrador Tea; all innocently cheerful and merry.” Men worked hard, and “lived” well: wild fowl and venison, fish in their variety throughout the year were to be had for the taking; and the farmers had homely fare a-plenty —seasoned bean broth for dinner, an Indian pudding, pork, beef, poultry. It was a life meagre, perhaps, in the picture of it, but all deep concerns were there — love, loyalty, birth, death, a conviction of personal responsibility for what should follow — and the whole web of it was shot through with a rich, racy humor. They could be neither driven nor easily led, these people; and justice they meant to exact and cause to be done. In the old time their fathers had turned misfortune to the profit of their souls, and in the new country the natural energy of the children led them to succeed in what they might undertake.

The Independents were men who, if they had not loved many luxuries, had loved one with a consuming zeal; and it was perhaps excusable that those of the second generation should dole out with a more sparing hand the freedom that had been purchased at so great a price. Yet were they, again, for their time, liberals; and it seems to have been true that the prospect of universal salvation brightened in proportion to the distance from Salem and Boston. Plymouth, at any rate, even in its “dark age,” between 1657 and 1671, was a bad second to Massachusetts Bay when it came to the persecution of heretics or witchcraft hysteria, although for the latter there might be people here and there who indulged themselves, without fear of molestation, in playing with the idea of magic.

There is a story of Captain Sylvanus Rich, of Truro, who, shortly before getting under weigh in a North Carolina port, bought from an old woman a pail of milk, and no sooner was he at sea than the ship was as if storm-bedevilled. The hag who had sold him the milk, declared Captain Rich, had bewitched him and his craft. Every night, he told his mates, she saddled and bridled him and drove him up hill and down in the Highlands of Truro. Far out of their course, they swept on to the Grand Banks and were like never to make port, when, by good luck, they fell in with a vessel commanded by the captain’s son who supplied their needs and as effectually broke the spell of the witch.

James Hathaway of Yarmouth was a stanch believer in “witchcraft and other strange fantasies”; but Hathaway was no puling mystic, and lived out ninety-five hale, hearty, vigorous years. A kinsman of his could give proof of the family strength by picking up a rum barrel in his own tavern and drinking from the bung; and the family eccentricity he evidenced by quietly dropping out of sight to save himself the trouble of defending a suit brought against him for embezzlement by a sister, and as quietly, after an interval of twenty-one years, returning to his wife and home. It had been thought he was drowned in the bay and to no avail “guns were fired, sweeps were dragged, and oil poured on the waters.” This same sister was a clever, well-read, witty creature, who married well, and for many years “associated with the intelligent, the gay and the fashionable.” She contributed to her popularity in the drawing-rooms of Boston and Marblehead by recounting with a lively tongue stories of witches she had seen and known, their tricks, their strange transformations. To the end, she vowed, she was a firm believer in witchcraft.

At Barnstable, one Liza Towerhill, so called because her husband came from that region of London, was reputed to be a witch, able at will to transform herself into a cat, and having constant commerce with the devil even though to the casual eye she were industrious, hardworking, and pious.

The colony does not have so clean a slate in respect of the persecution of Quakers. As early as 1656 the trouble began at Massachusetts Bay; but Plymouth lagged in the enactment of prohibitive laws against heretics, the execution of which, in the end, were more often than not evaded. Yet Plymouth had drifted far from the teachings of old John Robinson, who had charged his flock to keep an open mind “ready to receive whatever truth shall be made known to you.” The First Comers, who had heard and followed his words, were succeeded by men less well disciplined in mind and spirit, who were the more inclined to the strait doctrine of Massachusetts Bay. Then Rhode Island, under Roger Williams, be-came the citadel of tolerance; but Quakers, exiled from the north, continued to stream into the colony, to the no small discomfiture of its officers. The visitors, maddened by their wrongs, were not too courteous with those of high estate, and Winslow, particularly, was irritated by their demeanor, “sometimes starting up and smiting the table with a stick, then with his hand, then stamping with his foot, saying he could not bear it.” “Let them have the strapado!” cried he. Norton, arraigned by the General Court, had, in his turn, arraigned the Governor, whose “countenance full of majesty” in this instance, at least, availed him nothing. “Thomas, thou liest,” cried the Quaker. “Prince, thou art a malicious man.”

But, for the most part, the Quakers did no more than describe, in Biblical terms as was the custom of the day, the soul-state of their persecutors. They had been bred Puritans, and spoke the Puritan language. If Mary Prince called Endicott, as he passed her Boston prison, “vile oppressor and tyrant,” she spoke the truth mildly. “There is but one god, and you do not worship that god which we worship,” fulminated Juggins, the magistrate, in the trial of Lydia Wright. “I believe thou speakest truth,” returned the accused calmly. “For if you worshipped that God which we worship, you would not persecute His people.” “Take her away!” cried the court. “Away with him, away with him,” had been the only recourse left an earlier tribunal.

It was natural that the seemly magistrates of Plymouth objected to these new citizens who, when summoned “for not taking the oath of fidelity to the government,” announced that they “held it unlawful to take the oath”; and they flatly refused to pay tithes for the support of a clergy they despised. Nor were they without sympathizers in that contention. “The law enacted about ministers’ maintenance was a wicked and devilish law,” declared Doctor Fuller, of Barnstable. “The devil sat at the stern when it was enacted.” And for his vehemence, though a true believer, he was fined fifty shillings by the General Court, which at the same term had the even mind to elect him, for his ability, one of the war council, and later to appoint him surgeon-general of the colony’s troops.

Quakers held parsons in light esteem, yet not one of the Cape clergy could have conceived such a plan as Cotton Mather, in 1682, spread before Higginson of Salem. “There be now at sea a skipper,” wrote he, “which has aboard a hundred or more of ye heretics and malignants called Quakers, with William Penn, who is ye scamp at ye head of them.” Mather went on to recount that secret orders had gone out to way-lay the ship “as near ye coast of Codde as may be and make captives of ye Penn and his ungodly crew, so that ye Lord may be glorified, and not mocked on ye soil of this new country with ye heathen worship of these people.” Then the astounding proposition: “Much spoil can be made by selling ye whole lot to Barbadoes, where slaves fetch good prices in rumme and sugar. We shall not only do ye Lord great service by punishing the Wicked, but shall make gayne for his ministers and people.” The precious scheme some-how miscarried, the threatened engagement off “Codde” did not take place, and Philadelphia was founded.

When the Quakers Holden and Copeland, driven from Boston and whipped at Plymouth, came to Sandwich, they found soil ready tilled for their planting. The church there, said to have been “the most bigoted in the county,” had been wrecked by the bitter feud between liberals and “hard shells,” and its minister, a graduate of Emmanuel, Cambridge, “a man of great piety and meekness,” had retired to the more congenial atmosphere of Oyster Bay, Long Island. But the churchmen of Sandwich, as was the custom of their race, thirsted for religion, and in reaction against the old doctrines, the liberals there went over in a body to the simple tenets of the Quakers. In a year no less than eighteen families professed the new faith; but in the meantime authority had not slept.

The marshal of Sandwich, Barnstable, and Yarmouth, was one George Barlow, a renegade Anglican priest; nor had his colonial record been a savory one. At Boston, in 1637, he had been “censured to be whipped” for idleness; at Saco, on complaint that he was “a disturber to the peace,” he was forbidden “any more publickly to preach or prophesy “; and later when he turned lawyer at Plymouth, it was affirmed in open court “that he is such an one that he is a shame and reproach to all his masters; and that he, the said Barlow, stands convicted and recorded of a lye att Newbury.” When Copeland and Holden arrived at Sandwich, Barlow had been prompt to hale them before the selectmen, to be duly whipped. But the village fathers, “entertaining no desire to sanction measures so severe towards those who differed from them in religion, declined to act in the case.” Nothing daunted, Barlow presented his prisoners at Barnstable before Thomas Hinckley, then assistant to Governor Prince and later to succeed him in office.

Hinckley was the best-read lawyer in the colony, just and honorable some held, others that he was apt at running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. He had his enemies, Otis admits, and adds: “Barren trees are not pelted.” All are agreed that his second wife who was his helpmeet for more than forty years, was a beautiful and accomplished woman, and possessed, moreover, of “a character excellently suited to correct the occasional impetuosity of his own.” Whether or not that impetuosity had been galled by the Quakers, Hinckley permitted Holden and Copeland to be whipped, and in his presence. The scene, described by Bishop with simple eloquence, is typical of many a Quaker punishment by the magistrates in the presence of a more compassionate people. “They being tied to an old post, had thirty-three cruel stripes laid upon them with a new tormenting whip, with three cords, and knots at the end, made by the marshal, and brought with him. At the sight of which cruel and bloody execution, one of the spectators (for there were many who witnessed against it) cried out in the grief and anguish of her spirit, saying: `How long, Lord, shall it be ere thou avenge the blood of the elect?’ And afterwards bewailing herself, and lamenting her loss, said: `Did I forsake father and mother, and all my dear relations, to come to New England for this? Did I ever think New England would come to this? Who would have thought it?’ And this Thomas Hinckley saw done, to whom the marshal repaired for that purpose.”

Barlow was a ready tool for the hand of the reactionaries. Sent by the Court to Manomet to apprehend any refugees who might come there by sea — it was a law of the colonies that any captain bringing heretics should deport them at his own expense — Barlow included the more lucrative affair of raiding well-to-do farms. At East Sandwich a man was mulcted eighty-six pounds, and in default of payment, eighteen head of cattle, a mare, and two colts: in effect, all his property save his house, his land, one cow and a little corn, “left out of pity for his family.” But on a second visit Barlow, being warm with liquor, regretted his leniency, and took the corn, the cow, and the only remaining copper kettle. “Now, Priscilla, how will thee cook for thyself and thy family?” jeered he. “George,” she retorted, “that God who hears the young ravens when they cry will provide for them. I trust in that God and verily believe that the time will come when thy necessities will be greater than mine.” The event proved her right, and in his old age, brought low with drink and evil ways, Barlow often craved charity of Priscilla Allen, and was never refused.

As in the old days, the “blood of martyrs was the seed of the church,” and persecutions, petty or great, did but serve to increase the number of heretics, who as time went on not always practised the pacifism they preached. Two women were sentenced to be publicly whipped for “disturbance of public worship, and for abusing the minister”; there were fines for “tumultuous carriage at a meeting of Quakers.” There were fines, also, for sheltering Quakers; Nicholas Davis, of Barnstable, and others, were banished on pain of death. A Cape man, chancing to be at Plymouth when Nicholas Upsall, the aged Boston Puritan who had been outlawed for protesting against the persecutions, was driven thence, took compassion on him and brought him to Sandwich only to be ordered to “take him out of the government.” In no long time, however, reaction set in; the fair-minded of the community were roused to protest at the senseless persecution; and men were beginning to say that such intolerance was not in accord with the spirit of their faith. Mr. Walley, the parson, and Cudworth, driven from Scituate for his liberalism, and Isaac, the third son of old John Robinson of Leyden, spoke up for the oppressed. Edmund Freeman and others, of Sandwich, were fined for refusing aid to the marshal in his work. And later, when Quakers resisted the payment of tithes, it even became the custom to make up the required sum by levying an additional tax upon churchmen. Nor were the Quakers, for the most part, strangers, though refugees were harbored: for converts were many among the first settlers of the region, and we are told that after the laws against them were relaxed they were “the most peaceful, industrious, and moral of all the religious sects.” And in 1661, when King Charles sent his injunction against the persecutions by the hand of Samuel Shattuck, the Quaker who had been banished from Massachusetts Bay on pain of death, Plymouth welcomed the occasion to restore those whom she had disfranchised, and returned to the milder government that better suited her temper.