William Pynchon

from Green, M. A., 1888



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The man sailing out of Boston Harbor in 1652 was returning home to an England he had left in 1630. As the shore grew dim, perhaps the irony of his situation struck him: he had left England because he was not free to worship as he wished. Now he was leaving America because he was not free to believe as he wished. In 1629 William Pynchon, a country gentleman of comfortable means, lived on family land in Springfield, in the English county of Essex. His financial interests were varied, his religious affiliation was Puritan, and many of his friends were involved in plans to begin a colony in New England. As King Charles I increased taxes to fund his government and began to harass Puritans, Pynchon's life became less comfortable. Perhaps the idea of living where he could worship as he pleased while helping to shape a new community became more attractive. In any event, Pynchon signed the 1629 Cambridge Agreement by which he committed himself and his family to immigrate to New England and to pay a fine of 3 pounds per day after March 1, 1630 until they sailed.

And sail they did, landing at Salem in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in June, 1630. Soon Pynchon became a well-known fur trader along the coast of New England. At this time, anyone trading with Native Americans had to pay a tax of 12 pence/pound on beaver pelts. With the exception of William Pynchon, the highest single tax paid between 1632-34 was 2 pounds, 4 shillings for 44 pounds of beaver pelts. Mr. Pynchon, in contrast, paid 20 pounds for 400 pounds of pelts. (1)

The Old Pynchon "Fort" or Residence from Green, M. A., 1888

By 1636, residents of the Bay Colony were beginning to settle along the banks of the Connecticut River, leaving behind the crowded conditions and high taxes of the coastal settlements. William Pynchon and his family were among those willing to face the uncertainties of the wilderness in exchange for open space and closer proximity to a source of beaver fur. The Dutch and other Englishmen had leapfrogged their way up the Connecticut as far as Windsor, always trying to establish a trading post just north of their competitors. Pynchon selected a spot just north of the Enfield Falls, a spot where all travelers by water had to stop to negotiate the falls and to transship their cargoes from ocean-going vessels to smaller shallops. He positioned himself as the northernmost trader on the Connecticut River and erected a warehouse to store goods awaiting transshipment. In July, 1636, 11 Native Americans in the village of Agawam agreed to sell land on both sides of the river to Mr. Pynchon and his group of planters in exchange for 18 fathoms of wampum (a fathom = 6 feet), 18 coats, 18 hatchets, and 18 knives. Each of the 8 original planters received a 10 acre house lot on the east side of the river plus a 3 acre planting lot on the Agawam (west) side of the river. In order to reach his planting land, each man had to cross the 300 yards wide river by canoe. (2)

William Pynchon quickly learned the local Native American dialect, served as intermediary between the colonials and the Amerindians, and became the dominant trader of the area. He supplied the Native Americans with such items as wool-trading cloth in blue, red and white, ready-made coats, knives, hatchets, tin looking glasses, tobacco boxes, scissors, brass kettles, mackerel hooks, needles, and pins in exchange for furs. At the same time he developed a trade with the settlers, providing them with various kinds of cloth, thread, spoons, salt and other scarce foodstuffs. Life on the Connecticut River was proving to be very profitable indeed.

However, not everyone was pleased with Mr. Pynchon and his various transactions. In 1637, Connecticut Colony accused Pynchon of sharp trading practices and of forcing the local tribes to trade only with him because they feared him. Ultimately Pynchon and the planters of Agawam voted to separate themselves from the other river towns, removing themselves from the jurisdiction of Connecticut Colony. While this local controversy was heating up, the Massachusetts Bay Colony decided to reassert its jurisdiction over land bordering the Connecticut River, including Agawam. When the dust finally settled, Mr. Pynchon was named magistrate of Agawam by the Massachusetts Bay Colony and, in honor of his importance, the settlement was renamed Springfield after his home in England.

Hostilities between Pynchon and Connecticut Colony continued. When Connecticut Colony tried to establish a trading post above Springfield, William Pynchon complained to the Massachusetts General Court. The Court replied that for Connecticut to try to establish a trading post within the boundary of the Massachusetts patent "presented a distinct injury." (3) Not to be outdone, Connecticut Colony decided to force Springfield to contribute to the upkeep of Fort Saybrook at the mouth of the river in exchange for being allowed to ship goods down the river. Immediately Massachusetts decided that if Springfield had to pay Connecticut for use of the river, then Connecticut had to pay Massachusetts for use of Boston harbor, the shipping center of the English colonies in New England. Connecticut was forced to drop the matter, free use of Boston harbor was more important than making Springfield pay duty for sailing up and down the Connecticut River.

Pynchon's Book Burned on Boston Common from Green, M. A., 1888

William Pynchon had yet another side to his complex personality. Like many of his contemporaries, he was very interested in religious questions and followed the news from England even though it was outdated by the time it reached him. Perhaps it seemed to Pynchon that since so many people were voicing opinions on religious reform he should add his own views to the issue. In 1650, he wrote The Meritorious Price of our Redemption in which he "... condemned especially the doctrine that Christ suffered the wrath of God and the torments of hell to pay man's debt to his Creator." (4) The Massachusetts General Council members read the book and were aghast - they considered the book heretical and ordered it burned immediately on the Market Place at Boston. (5) Mr. Pynchon would be called before the General Council in May, 1651, to answer charges of heresy. Evidently Pynchon satisfied the Court enough to be left free, but the clergy were not completely satisfied. The General Court requested that William Pynchon return to court in October "to retract the rest of his errors or suffer the consequences." (6) To remain in New England meant conflict and ruin for William Pynchon if he did not recant entirely. At the age of 61, Pynchon decided to leave New England. During September, 1651, he quietly gave all of his lands and buildings in Springfield, on both sides of the Connecticut River, to his son John.

When the General Court convened in October, William Pynchon did not appear before them. Although the Court granted him another six months to answer their charges, Mr. Pynchon and his family sailed for England where he spent the last ten years of his life quietly, pursuing his interest in theological questions.


1 McIntyre, Ruth A. 1961. William Pynchon. Merchant and Colonizer 1590-1662. pp. 10-11.
Connecticut Valley History Museum. Springfield, Massachusetts.

2 Armytage, Frances and Juliette Tomlinson. 1969. The Pynchons of Springfield. Founders and Colonizers (1636-1702). p. 15. Connecticut Valley Historical Museum. Springfield, Massachusetts.

3 McIntyre, p. 21.

4 Burt, Henry M. 1898. The First Century of the History of Springfield. Vol. 1, ps. 80. Published by Henry M. Burt. Springfield, Massachusetts

5 Shurtleff, Nathaniel B. (ed.) 1853-1854. Records of the Massachusetts Bay in New England 1628-86. Vol. III, p. 215. Boston.

6 Morrison, Samuel Eliot. 1931. "William Pynchon, the Founder of Springfield." Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, Vol. III, p. 105; Shurtleff, p. 230.

Images from Green, Mason A., 1888. Springfield 1636-1886. C. A. Nichols & Co., Publishers.