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18 September 2014
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The History Detective: Story of George Burdett

By John Arnold
Spies, rebels and treason

Image of a map of New England
A map of 17th-century New England 
So we think that Burdett made it to America. But simply finding his name in a list does not add much to our picture. Let us turn, therefore, to another source - the journal of John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts in the 1630s and 1640s, who kept a record of the colony he controlled. As luck would have it, Burdett pops up there several times.

In November, 1638, Winthrop (who refers to himself as 'the governour' throughout his journal) notes a letter that he wrote:

November 1638. By order of the last general court, the governour wrote a letter to Mr Burdet, Mr Wiggin, and others of the plantation of Pascataquack, to this effect: That, wheras there had been good correspondancy between us formerly, we could not but be sensible of their entertaining and countenancing, etc., some that we had cast out, etc., and that our purpose was to survey our utmost limits, and make use of them. Mr Burdet returned a scornful answer, and would not give the governour his title, etc. [The governor goes on to write a letter to a Mr Hilton, complaining about Burdett and Wiggin].

A month later, there is further mention of this second letter to Hilton:

December 1638. The governour's letter to Mr Hilton, about Mr Burdet and Capt. Underhill, was by them intercepted and opened; and thereupon they wrote presently into England against us, discovering what they knew of our combination to resist any authority, that should come out of England against us, etc.; for they were extremely moved at the governour's letter, but could take no advantage by it, for he made account, when he wrote it, that Mr Hilton would show it them.

Relations between Winthrop and the settlement at Pascataquack were evidently getting worse. In the following spring, a third letter is sent:

March 1639. The general court, in the 7th mo. last [1 September 1638] gave orders to the governour to write to them of Pascataquack, to signify to them, that we looked at it as an unneighborly part, that they should encourage and advance such as we had cast out from us for their offenses, before they had inquired of us the cause, etc. (The occasions of this letter was, that they had aided Mr Wheelwright to begin a plantation there, and intended to make Capt. Underhill their governour in the room of Mr Burdett, who had thrust out Capt. Wiggin, set in there by the lords, etc.)

Another entry suggests that Winthrop had a spy in the Pascataquack camp:

May 1639. One of Pascataquack, having opportunity to go into Mr Burdett his study, and finding there the copy of his letter to the archbishops, sent it to the governour, which was to this effect: That he did delay to go into England, because he would fully inform himself of the state of the people here in regard of allegiance, and that it was not discipline that was now so much aimed at, as sovereignty; and that it was accounted perjury and treason in our general courts to speak of appeals to the king.

Published: 2005-01-28

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