The Story of a Sword: Fitz-John Winthrop and King William’s War, Part II

Last week, Dan Boudreau posted about a sword held in the AAS collections that belonged to Fitz-John Winthrop, an early governor of Connecticut and the grandson of the famous John Winthrop—the influential Puritan leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This week, Dan continues the story, focusing on Winthrop’s participation in King William’s War and his connections to the controversial Edmund Andros.            

Liebler, Theodore August. “Sir Edmund Andros, Kent.” Late 19th century. From the American Portrait Prints Collection at the American Antiquarian Society.

Liebler, Theodore August. “Sir Edmund Andros, Kent.” Late nineteenth century. From the American Portrait Prints Collection at the American Antiquarian Society.

The much-reviled Edmund Andros has an important presence in the events of Fitz-John Winthrop’s life and links Winthrop’s efforts during King William’s war to other critical occurrences that were shaping the course of the war. Born in 1637, Andros had a strongly aristocratic and royalist upbringing that made him the perfect colonial administrator for the Stuart monarchy. By the end of his career, he had served as the governor-general of New England, New York, and Virginia. Like Winthrop, Andros was a military man through and through, and this shared background likely contributed to their friendship. Unlike Winthrop, though, he had no connections to Puritanism, and in fact hated the anti-Stuart sentiment and Calvinist republicanism that New England’s Puritans cultivated in the late seventeenth century.

While twentieth-century biographers make the case that Winthrop was only being dutiful and lawful in supporting Andros and his government, the fact that he was not just compliant but friendly with a man who held  such royalist convictions undercuts these types of claims. There is no doubt that Andros and Winthrop had a friendly relationship. When the governments of New York and Connecticut were disputing jurisdiction over the Winthrop family’s Fisher’s Island, Winthrop, despite his affiliation with Connecticut, chose to remain neutral in the affair, and Andros (governor of New York at the time) by all accounts seemed willing to show him some favor. Winthrop was not unhappy when New York won the dispute. On another occasion, Andros gladly confirmed a Winthrop claim to land on Long Island; Winthrop told his brother that “Sr. Edmd. has giuen me a confirmation of ye Indian guift of land on Long Island, & tells me he is ready to doe any thing elce within his power.”[1]

Unidentified artist. “Ideal Portrait of Baron Castine.” From Wheeler, George Augustus. Castine Past and Present: The Ancient Settlement of Pentagoet and the Modern Town: 12-13. Boston: Rockwell and Churchill Press, 1896.

Unidentified artist. “Ideal Portrait of Baron Castine.” From Wheeler, George Augustus. Castine Past and Present: The Ancient Settlement of Pentagoet and the Modern Town: 12-13. Boston: Rockwell and Churchill Press, 1896.

Andros’s notable presence in Winthrop’s life not only complicates Winthrop’s legacy as a proto-Patriot and Puritan, but also helps to contextualize the failed 1690 expedition into Canada. Winthrop’s mission was intended as a response to French and Indian threats in the north, and it was in part modeled upon previous expeditions into the north that were organized by Andros. During King Philip’s War, while governor of New York, Andros sent a force into Maine where they successfully established a critical fort. In 1688, during the early stages of King William’s War, Andros (now governor of the Dominion of New England) led another mission into Maine, this time in response to Abenaki attempts at halting the steady advance of English settlers. Here he would cross paths with Jean-Vincent d’Abbadie de Saint-Castin, a French military officer who lived among the Abenaki and was tasked with defending the southern border of French Acadia.  (Oddly enough, I was recently surprised to learn that I am a descendant of St. Castin: he is my ninth great-grandfather!)

The Present State of the New-English Affairs: This is Published to Prevent False Reports. Boston: Samuel Green, 1689.

The Present State of the New-English Affairs: This is Published to Prevent False Reports. Boston: Samuel Green, 1689.

St. Castin was known to the English as a troublemaker, supplying arms to and aiding the attacks of his Abenaki allies—even as he traded furs with Boston’s merchants. Andros, during his 1688 expedition, ransacked St. Castin’s home and took much of his property, including weapons, ammunition, and wine. Oddly, it was what Andros did not touch at the St. Castin property that proved most important: he chose to preserve the Catholic Frenchman’s chapel, and his New England soldiers took notice. When word reached the Puritans of Massachusetts, Andros’s actions were seized upon as further proof of the Catholic leanings so typical of a supporter of the Stuarts. It is not surprising, then, that New Englanders ousted Andros at the first opportunity, provided in April 1689 when news of the Glorious Revolution and the end of the Stuarts reached America. Edmund Andros’s administrative career was not over, however, and he later served as governor of Virginia. He died in London in 1714.

Mather, Cotton. The Present State of New-England: Considered in a Discourse on the Necessities and Advantages of a Public Spirit in every Man; Especially, at such a time as this. Boston: Samuel Green, 1690.

Mather, Cotton. The Present State of New-England: Considered in a Discourse on the Necessities and Advantages of a Public Spirit in every Man; Especially, at such a time as this. Boston: Samuel Green, 1690.

St. Castin’s father-in-law Madockawando, a Penobscot chief, also had dealings with Edmund Andros, and he was not left with a good impression of the English. Despite having made an agreement with the English in 1678, the Abenaki in Maine were finding their crops destroyed by settlers’ livestock, their property rights disregarded, and their complaints ignored. Andros refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of Abenaki grievances and attempted to silence them. Madockawando was furious. With the help of his son-in-law, he began to raid English settlements in the Casco Bay area. Clearly, Andros’s “diplomacy” had failed. It would be misleading, though, to place this failure solely on Edmund’s shoulders: this type of negotiation (or lack thereof) was part and parcel of the English method of dealing with native communities. Typically, representatives of the English colonies showed little regard for native sovereignty and almost no respect for native custom. Instead, they stubbornly insisted on adherence to the colony’s dictates.

Detail showing parts of contemporary Maine, from “A Map of New-England.” Boston: John Foster, 1677.

Detail showing parts of contemporary Maine, from “A Map of New-England.” Boston: John Foster, 1677.

In the affiliation between Madockawando and Jean-Vincent d’Abbadie de Saint-Castin, we see a different type of relationship between colonist and native, one indicative of the French approach. St. Castin was born to nobility in France, but when he relocated to America he was willing to integrate to a degree with native society: he lived among them, respected their customs, and even married a native woman. This was not unusual for French settlers in North America. In large part because of necessity, they were willing to accept native sovereignty and customs. Because of this, the French were able to maintain critical alliances with northern tribes during King William’s War, much to their strategic benefit. Working together, St. Castin and Madockawando launched numerous successful raids on English forts and settlements; Fitz-John Winthrop, perhaps wielding his Ferrara blade, was sent northward in response to these types of attacks.

Winthrop sword in its scabbard.

Winthrop sword in its scabbard.

Clearly, there is a lot to be learned from the stories revealed by this old sword. King William’s War is not often remembered by the wider public, but perhaps it should be: the conflict can tell us a lot about the struggle for power in colonial America that would eventually give way to the birth of this country. In these early conflicts, as with Winthrop and his contemporaries, we see complicated legacies that beg to be scrutinized.


[1] Winthrop, “Letters of Fitz-John Winthrop,” 286.

Full Works Cited

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