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The Desire of the Country

“This country is in a state of bewilderment that cries out for good history.”
––Marilyn Robinson

I. Encountering History

I first went to Holland in the summer of 1976. It was an impulsive trip motivated by a KLM Airlines lottery ticket that I won for $176. The price echoed the numbers in the bicentennial anniversary of the American War for Independence (1776). The Dutch were the first country to recognize the flag of the colonial rebellion. Once in Holland I heeded the advice of Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who recommends that true travelers benefit from trusting intuition and having no fixed plans.

In that spirit I traveled from Amsterdam to Leiden, Rembrandt’s home, and happened upon the American Pilgrim Museum, a museum I didn’t know existed. I was unaware that the Plymouth Pilgrims, the original actors in America’s origin story, had lived in Holland for twelve years before embarking for the New World. Nor did I know that they thought they were going to northern Virginia. They rolled into Plymouth harbor in December of 1620 by virtue of a badly delayed departure, a severe mid-Atlantic storm that threw them off course, and gale winds that almost wrecked them on the shores of the Outer Cape whose beaches are well known as the “graveyard” of the Cape.

At the entrance to the museum was an alphabetical listing of the one hundred and two Mayflower passengers of 1620.

First:  Isaac Allerton, deputy governor, Plymouth, resident, Marblehead, New Haven, New Amsterdam

Next: Remember Allerton, Marblehead, Massachusetts

I was shocked. I lived in Marblehead at the time and had grown up in the next fishing town ––Swampscott, home of the famous Swampscott dory––and had never once heard the name Allerton. The eager efforts of many Essex County historians to locate any Mayflower ancestry should have unearthed the name Allerton. I was curious about what happened to Isaac Allerton as well as his daughter, Remember, who grew up in Plymouth and spent the rest of her life in Marblehead. Why had they disappeared from history?

Even though we believe our unique American profile first took shape in Plymouth, many people don’t notice that it is a male identity. (The great monuments around Plymouth Bay are to our “Forefathers.” No Foremothers.) None of the names of the twenty Mayflower women listed on the Museum walls have been provided with historical presence, even though they are undoubtedly the reason that some ––Remember and her two siblings among them––of the original thirty-four children survived.

Remember was born in Holland in 1614, arrived in Plymouth when she was six years old, and among her first memories of their new land was experiencing the death of her mother, Mary Norris, after a still-born childbirth. Because of her mother’s weakness, she probably was aboard the Mayflower in Provincetown harbor when Dorothy Bradford came up on deck and somehow slipped overboard and drowned on a clear, calm, sunny day. She also would have attended the burials of Catherine Carver, wife of Governor Carver; Elizabeth Winslow, wife of Edward Winslow; Rose Standish, wife of the military man Myles Standish; and many more, since fifty out of the 102 Mayflower passengers died by April.  The causes of death were scurvy, pneumonia, starvation and what historian Kathleen Donegan has called “ruinous ignorance.” They were surrounded by protein-rich sources of fish and shellfish that they did not know how to catch, cook or eat. Donegan also questions whether they did bury their dead because so many were ill and dying at the same time they barely had strength to bury their dead.

When she was twelve, Remember’s father, who had remained a widower for five years, married William Brewster’s nineteen-year-old daughter, Fear. (Isaac was thirty-nine.) Why were these young girls named Remember and Fear? Because Pilgrims often named their children to memorialize certain times or emotions and Fear was born during the “fearing time” in England when William Brewster had to hide out from the English sheriff to avoid arrest. Fear, who died at age twenty-seven from a smallpox epidemic in 1634, also disappeared from recorded history. Remember was named, perhaps, for some important, but unknowable, event that happened in 1614.

When she was seventeen in 1631, Remember accompanied her father to a deep U-shaped harbor further up the coast, then called Marble Harbor. She was there to help him set up what would become the first commercial fishing station in Massachusetts. Two years later she married his young partner in the cod fishery, Moses Maverick, and spent the rest of her life in Marblehead. Her cemetery headstone identifies her as “and wife” after the name of Moses Maverick. Women had no legal, civil or property rights: all legal standing was subsumed by father, husband, stepfather or nearest male relatives. This reality of the transfer of wealth sets the plot in motion for many Jane Austin novels and even the recent television series Downton Abbey which takes place in the 20th century. Despite our belief that democracy began in Plymouth, it didn’t. It took another 300 years for women to take part.

After my Holland trip, the Marblehead town librarian told me that Isaac Allerton was the fifth signer of the Mayflower Compact, deputy governor of the original Plymouth colony for at least ten years, a successful business agent for the colony in London for five years and, most important, the entrepreneurial founder of the first permanent fishing station in Marble Harbor, then still part of Salem. Samuel Roads, Jr, writes in the History of Marblehead  (1897) that Allerton was “one of the most prominent men of the Plymouth Colony,” and says he came to Marblehead in the ship White Angel after having “some difficulty with his associates” in Plymouth. Following the death of his second wife (he had three), he made his home with his daughter and son-in-law in Marble Harbor. But his future was to be elsewhere.  Governor John Winthrop and the General Court ordered that Allerton “be sent for to the intent that he may understand the desire of the country for his removal from Marble-Harbor.

How, I wondered, was the “desire of the country” determined? Desire is a word with resonance.

The Desire was also the name of the first fishing boat built in Marble Harbor launched the year after Allerton left. Three years after that it was transporting slaves.

Before departing in 1635, Isaac turned over all his lands, boats, and fishing equipment to his daughter and son-in-law, thus keeping the wealth in his family and out of the hands of Winthrop (four wives, thirteen children) and the seven ministers who made up the General Court. With this early inheritance as a head start, Moses Maverick became one of the town’s largest landowners and taxpayers. By the mid-1640s Marble Harbor, now a separate plantation from Salem, was said to be “the greatest fishing port in the New World,” a judgment later confirmed by the King’s agent. The single most desirable fish was the Atlantic cod.

II. The Sacred Cod

My job in 1976 was in the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs under then governor Michael Dukakis. When I had to go to the Massachusetts Legislature (still called the General Court) for meetings, I walked beneath a five-foot-long carved wooden fish, labeled the Sacred Cod.

Why I asked was the cod sacred?

The cod, I was told, was to New England what gold was to the Spanish. It built an economy and then a nation. All Massachusetts wealth could be traced back to the sacred cod: that venerated fish made the fortunes of Massachusetts’ first settlers and first families for two centuries and more.

When I inquired how fishing had created such wealth––after all how much fish could this relatively small colonial population eat–– I was told that I failed to understand the scale of the Atlantic world and where the market for codfish was located. The insatiable demand for dried or cured cod was in the Caribbean, particularly an English colony that was settled only seven years after Plymouth and before Massachusetts Bay Colony.

The reason Allerton might have been an obstacle to “the desire of the country” was that he had “non-conforming thoughts.” These created a great falling out with William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Colony. Their argument was over money, more accurately, over fishing as a source of money. Plymouth colony had been financed by London merchants and the colony was in considerable debt, increasing annually at staggering thirty percent interest. Allerton had been appointed as Plymouth’s business agent and had made at least a half dozen trips back and forth to negotiate with the London merchant investors, many associated with the Goldsmith House (later one of the institutions that formed the Bank of England). The merchants were impatient. They had good reason to expect their loan to be repaid through fishing because both Bradford and Allerton had assured them that fishing, rather than furs, was the most likely source of Plymouth’s wealth. “It is for certain,” they wrote in a letter dated 1623, “that great profite is here raised by fishing. . . fishing must be the cheefe means to do us good.”

Unfortunately, the Pilgrims did not know how to fish. They did not bring any fishing equipment. They did not like the ocean. (They also didn’t know how to swim.) The Pilgrims were landsmen and –women. In England wealth was equated with ownership of land. Rents from tenants created gentry. Fishing was a lower-class occupation and very dangerous. Equally important, Bradford didn’t like the character of fishermen. He found them coarse and “stubborne” and not the right kind of people to build the pure Christian colony he saw as their mission. (Apparently he didn’t know that the first disciples of Jesus had been fishermen. He was still translating the Old Testament.) Bradford subsequently blamed the colony’s financial disarray on his deputy governor Allerton and for the next 400 years Bradford’s version of events prevailed.

One winter morning, when I still lived in Marblehead, I walked down to Little Harbor, a small sheltered side harbor, where clouds of steam rose off the water because the ocean was warmer than the frigid air. Marblehead is a series of rocky peninsulas with a thin layer of soil, terrible for farming. In winter the granite exhales moisture and cold. It was here Allerton’s fishing enterprise began. We should not underestimate how difficult it was to start a commercial fishing venture in 1630s Marblehead.

Then an outpost of Salem, Marblehead did have some inshore fishermen, but their catch had to be sold fresh and locally. Starting a commercial operation required a different system for curing and storing. Although the greatest cod fishery was far to the north in Newfoundland, Samuel Maverick, Boston’s port inspector, had told Allerton that he thought the waters outside Marblehead harbor held the greatest promise for cod fishing. He was so certain of this, he even sent along his younger brother, Moses, to help.  Allerton had to set up an operation with enough boats and fishermen to catch a large quantity of fish, clean and preserve the cod either by drying or salting, and pack it for months-long voyage to its destination. This required providing the fishermen with multiple boats and bait, cutting timber to build curing racks (called flakes or stages), importing salt, hiring carpenters to build hogshead barrels in which to pack the cured cod, have cash on hand to pay the fishermen for their share of the catch, and manage the schedule so that the cured catch was ready to load when ships came in June or September to take the fish back to England or to colonies in the Caribbean. The key ingredient that a successful operation needed that Bradford failed to understand, was access to credit and capital. He saw Allerton’s abilities with finance as an absence from the spiritual realm.

Although Marblehead Harbor is now filled with sleek yachts and surrounded by too-large houses, the streets in Old Town follow a pattern that emerged in the seventeenth century when the first settlers crossed the bay from Salem. The wood frame houses are tucked right up to the street edge, and in their tiny back yards sharp granite still juts through thin outcropping of soil. Many of those houses have a pineapple carved into the molding over their front door, a symbol of New England hospitality and access to the exotic fruit that came only from the Barbados trade.  I lived in one of those houses (saved from a 19th century fire by wet sails roped to the chimney and draped over the exterior.  I have an old photo.) The house had a dirt floor cellar with a five-foot ceiling, pipes that froze in winter whenever there was a northeast wind, and a foundation built around jutting ledge that streamed water during heavy rain or spring snow melt. It was not hard to imagine Allerton and his daughter and Moses Maverick living in a thatched roof house built against a ledge at the edge of Little Harbor. Sometimes standing in the frigid winter stillness of Little Harbor, I was sure I heard the rhythmic stroke of oars and the squeal of winches.

III. Naming Geography

Among my responsibilities in the Environmental Affairs office were overseeing the details of the still-to-be-created Boston Harbor Islands Park. The idea was to select three or four islands from the thirty-three islands of Boston Harbor and link them by means of a water taxi so that citizens who lived around Massachusetts Bay, most of whom did not own boats, could take advantage of the islands to hike, swim, picnic and enjoy the ocean air, especially in our short summer months. The plan was to run a water taxi between islands on a regular schedule from the only island with a regular ferry service from downtown Boston.

So on another cold gray morning with the wind whipping white caps over Salem bay, I stood out on the dock at the very tip of Salem Willows, waiting to board a former tour boat that might be purchased as our water taxi. When I asked the name of the body of water to the left side of the dock, the boat owner explained it was the Danvers River.

We’re on the northernmost arm of Massachusetts Bay right here at the Willows, he added.

What’s the southernmost? I asked.

Point Allerton, he replied.

Massachusetts is named for the Massachusett Indians. Swampscott is named for the band of Nipmuc Indians who inhabited that part of the coast for the warmer months of the year. In winter they moved inland. Marblehead has a state historic sign at the entrance to Marblehead Neck saying it was home to the largest settlement of Nipmuc Indians in Essex County. Plymouth is named for a port town in Cornwall on the southwest coast of England. Boston is named for a town 100 miles north of London on the east coast.

If you approach Boston Harbor from the open ocean, as if you were coming from, say, England or Holland, the first land you see are three islands named for William Brewster, the learned statesman of the original Plymouth Colony. The Brewsters, as they are still called, are rock drumlins, remnants from two separate glacial advances and retreats. After you pass the high dunes of Great Brewster, and the lighthouse on Little Brewster, you are still nine miles from shore, but you have entered the embrace of the body of water known as Massachusetts Bay.

It was here on a September day in 1621, that a shallop–– a small ship that carries both sail and oars–– sailed into Boston Harbor carrying ten Englishmen and one Patuxet Indian. The leader of the expedition was Isaac Allerton, deputy governor of Plymouth. His guide was Tisquantum, called Squanto, the only known survivor of the Patuxet Indians.  Although it had been a mere ten months since the colonists had landed in Plymouth, the boat’s occupants were seeking a better location for settlement. Plymouth harbor had so many shoals and sandbars that the Mayflower had to anchor more than a mile and a half offshore not to run aground at low tide. With no shelter yet built on land, the Pilgrims spent most of the winter aboard the Mayflower, soon transformed into a hospital ship packed with the sick and dying.  By April of 1621 half their original number had died including the wives of all the principal men.

In addition to the harbor shoals, the problems with Plymouth as a settlement site included a lack of rivers into the interior for fur trading ––they were expected to send beaver skins back to England––and no Indian neighbors with whom they could trade for food. All 2,000 Patuxet who used to live on those shores had been wiped out by the smallpox epidemics of 1616 and 1617.  The villages that once lined the shore were rubble, bones still lying above ground. Massasoit’s Wampanoag villages were more than forty miles away in what is now Rhode Island.

None of the Pilgrims seemed curious about the circumstances under which Tisquantum had learned fluent English. Like Bradford, they took the appearance of an English-speaking Indian as a sign from God to further their holy mission, just as they saw the remaining bones of the deceased Indians as a sign that God desired that they have these lands and “cleared” them for that purpose. Or perhaps they were familiar with the slave trade in Native Indians that had flourished along the Maine and Massachusetts coast for decades. Tisquantum had survived the smallpox epidemic that ravaged his village because he had been one of the twenty-six Indians captured by Thomas Hunt in 1614.  As captain of John Smith’s second boat, Hunt had sailed into Plymouth/Patuxet harbor to trade –– iron pots, axes, colored cloth in exchange for Indian furs. After the trading was finished, he invited the young men on shore (many of them husbands and fathers) if they would like to come on board his boat for dinner. Once they were aboard, Hunt had his crew push them below decks, pulled up anchor and sailed for the slave markets of Spain. Except for Squanto, they were all sold and never heard from again.  He was purchased by anti-slavery Jesuits and traded to the London office of the Newfoundland fishery where he was taught English and put into service as a translator and negotiator.

He ended up back in Massachusetts only months before the Pilgrims landed, after his captain took a detour trip to Martha’s Vineyard to harvest sassafras root (an all-purpose New World medicinal with great demand in Europe). The Native chief on Martha’s Vineyard also had been captured by the English, enslaved, and later escaped. Hating the English, he ordered his warriors to attack the captain and the crew. Although the wounded captain escaped, many of his crew were killed or captured. Tisquantum, as a Patuxet, was transferred to Massasoit as a prisoner.

Massasoit soon realized he could use this English-speaking prisoner as leverage with the starving English who were soon dying like fleas on the shores of Patuxet harbor.   In the spring, at Massasoit’s instruction, Tisquantum was sent to live with the Pilgrims and teach them ––in English––how to fish, how to plant and where to hunt.  Without him, it is doubtful they would have survived a second winter. Tisquantum also translated the famous peace treaty between the Pilgrims and Massasoit (not his real name). Peace is a relative term here because within another eighteen months, Standish, the military officer, had killed seven Massachusett Indians and brought back the decapitated head of one of them to raise on a pike over the Plymouth stockade.

But the Standish raid had not yet happened in the summer of 1621. After it was clear they would have a good harvest of corn, Tisquantum told Allerton about a “better harbor” to the north and in September Allerton organized an exploring expedition. Squanto guided the boat around the dozens of islands that punctuate Boston harbor pointing out the smoke from the bands of the Massachusett and Nipmuc on the shore. He explained that although they too had been greatly weakened by the epidemics that flowed in waves down the coast from central Maine to southern Massachusetts, they still had strong villages. In the inner harbor, he indicated the wide mouth of a river that emptied into the bay and said that it ran far into the interior. He also guided these Elizabethan English into a second river that wound its way into what is today’s Medford. We know this because Edward Winslow later described seeing the fort of the recently deceased Nipmuc sachem, Nanepashemet, on the Mystic River.

The boat’s occupants quickly realized the superior advantages of this great harbor over their current site in Plymouth—a deep harbor for supply boats coming from Europe, two rivers leading into the interior for fur trading, and a population of local Indians who could trade with them for desperately needed food.

Before returning to Plymouth the expedition had named some of the key landmarks. They named the outer islands the Brewsters for their learned elder. They named a large island close to shore Squantum after Tisquantum, now part of Quincy. Just before they rounded the southernmost peninsula for Plymouth, they named the island at the end of a long sand spit Point Allerton, now in the town of Hull.

Back in Plymouth the leaders discussed the advantages of moving to Boston Harbor, but they awaited a sign from God that they should move. God, however, did not speak. They stayed where they were.

IV. The Desire

The third boat built in the colony was called The Desire. It was built in Marblehead for Matthew Craddock, the mind behind the Mass Bay Colony, a man who never left London but who visualized active trading throughout the global Atlantic, similar to his trading operations on the Baltic Sea and in the Mediterranean. The captain was William Pierce of Salem and Marblehead. The Desire was a ship of one hundred and twenty tons (a ton was a “tun” of wine) and Pierce spent his first two years in the fishing business. Then, in 1638, following the Pequot “war,” Governor Winthrop asked Captain Pierce to use the Desire to transport sixteen captured Pequot Indians to the slave markets in the Caribbean. When Pierce returned, he had a cargo of “salt, cotton, tobacco and negroes.”

The eight Africans who disembarked from the Desire are believed to be the first African slaves brought to Massachusetts. Remember Allerton’s brother-in-law, Samuel Maverick, purchased at least three of them to work on his Noddle Island farm (now part of Boston proper and the site of the Maverick T stop). Maverick treated the Africans like livestock, ordering the male slave to rape the female in order to impregnate her. We know about this because the woman complained bitterly and grievously to a visitor staying with Maverick about “the cause of her grief,” all of which he recorded in a letter.

Although this was the first documented instance of the exchange of Native Americans for African slaves, it was definitely not the last. It marked the nature of the Atlantic trading system ––exchanging rebellious Native Indians for Africans––and supplying cod to the slave plantations in the Caribbean, particularly Barbados, on a scale that would soon make New England rich.

Barbados is important because it was the first slave society in British America and entirely organized around reproducing a slave system where slaves were treated like livestock. As Andrea Stuart writes of her home island, “it was the first society that was entirely organized around the labor of enslaved Africans” and its systems ––legal, political, economic, social––would become the model for the plantation system throughout British America including legal codes governing slavery. Settled three years before Mass Bay Colony, John Winthrop’s son was already in Barbados in 1627, along with many other second sons cut out of their inheritance because of England’s system of primogeniture, seeking fertile plantation lands to buy and make their fortunes. Winthrop and Captain Pierce were among those Massachusetts settlers who invested in the sugar plantations, and some owned shares of slaves. They soon found that slave labor was much cheaper than indentured white English labor. Within a decade, the new Barbadian sugar planters refused to dedicate land to food crops because sugar was so valuable. Instead they imported most of their food and as much cured cod as Massachusetts ships could transport to Bridgeton. Cured cod, of not the best quality, was the sole protein source for the tens of thousands of imported enslaved Africans. (The Barbadians found Native Americans poor slaves because they were rebellious and refused to work.) Bridgeton became the most populous city in the British colonies––Boston was second–– and so many connections developed with Massachusetts merchants that one street in the Barbados capitol was known as “the New England Street.” (Massachusetts was then known as New England.)

In its day, Big Sugar was like Big Oil. The sugar barons were like oil oligarchs, extravagantly rich, and enforcers of the slave law that governed the island.

The Atlantic cod became a geopolitical fish.

By then Isaac Allerton was a merchant in New Amsterdam, operating out of a warehouse on Maiden Lane. He traded at ports up and down the coast in cotton, tobacco, timber and cured cod. According to Robert Charles Anderson in The Great Migration Begins, he flourished after he left Massachusetts:

Allerton was one of the busiest and most complicated men in early New England. Records for Allerton may be found in virtually every colony on the Atlantic coast and the Caribbean. . . and they do not come close to showing the magnitude and intricacy of his business activities.

He maintained his connection with Marblehead. Thanks to his daughter Remember and her husband, the fishing outpost he had started in Marble Harbor continued to grow, expanding with salt works, boatyards, carpentry shops, wine imports (Maverick had a tavern), garden farming, and livestock. Like most wives in fishing families Remember managed a garden farm, grazed livestock, had children (five, three lived), helped out at the tavern, provided food, and helped with accounts. Her father retained the right to graze “two cows” in Marblehead well into the 1640s according to town records. Moses Maverick made enough profit from his fishing operation that the Salem registry of deeds reveals that he bought and sold land up and down the coast. In the judgment of maritime historian Daniel Vickers, “Marblehead was the most important fishing port of New England in colonial times.”

I continued to work on the Boston Harbor Island Park and by the fall of 1976 the Park was ready to open. The docks had been built; the water taxi was in the water; the signage was being installed.  Every newspaper and television station in towns around the Bay had been invited to send a reporter and come out for the opening on a boat we chartered for the occasion. Opening ceremonies would include talks by Governor Michael Dukakis and Senator Edward Kennedy, who would be arriving by helicopter on Georges Island. I was approving the final galley proofs of maps and a brief history of the islands when I received a telephone call from one of the engineers saying we had to delay the opening.

I beg your pardon.

The workers digging out a wider path for a hiking trail had uncovered Indian artifacts.


By law, work has to stop. We need to call the state archaeologist to visit the site. And the Commissioner of Indian Affairs will have to be informed. It will take a couple of days.

Massachusetts has an Indian Commissioner?



John Peters.

Who is John Peters?

Also known as “Slow Turtle,” the late John Peters was a Wampanoag medicine man, educator and an important leader in American Indian affairs. In retrospect, much of what I know and eventually learned to ask about the Native history of the Boston Harbor, Plymouth Colony, and the Atlantic slave trade is thanks to the late John Peters, a self-professed “anthropologist of the white man.” The Wampanoag version of Plymouth’s origin begins in 1614 with the capture of Tisquantum. It includes ships that went directly from Boston to West Africa and returned with slaves. It includes Boston merchants of the 1600s that insured, financed, and built the slave trade. By the 1700s Newport Rhode Island rivaled Liverpool as the home port for the largest number of slaving vessels. The larger significance of Tisquantum’s slavery frames the world of the global Atlantic, with many people competing for a toehold in the commerce of the New World, including the righteous Boston Puritans and Plymouth Pilgrims, an era that historian Bernard Bailyn called “the Barbarous Years.” It was not the history that I was taught about New England superiority and Boston as “the Athens of America.”

When we understand the story of the first colonists as history, not myth, we realize how Pilgrim and Puritan ideologies still live on. “The tyranny of the 17th century Puritan roots,” wrote Margaret Atwood,” have always lain beneath the modern-day America we thought we knew.” Contemporary proposals to declare America a Christian nation by ending the separation of church and state and to place severe limitations on women’s rights (the repeal of Roe v. Wade making abortions illegal) are popular ideas on the political and religious right, espoused by both our current president and vice-president and many of their followers.

These ideas of a state religion and Christian nationalism have their roots in the seventeenth century. Neither Pilgrims nor Puritans believed in religious freedom; the Pilgrims wanted freedom from the Church of England; the Puritans were still part of the Church of England but wanted reform in papal practices. They didn’t believe in tolerance; they didn’t believe in or practice any of the concepts that we understand as foundational to America––religious tolerance, free trade, open markets, freedom of assembly, women’s rights, citizenship for former slaves. Those ideas were in Holland and transferred to New Amsterdam, where Allerton ended up.

The story of the “the sacred cod” and Allerton as the “dissident Pilgrim” ––barely mentioned in Bradford’s history Of Plymouth Plantation–– tell a complex story, one that unmasks power structures on both sides of the Atlantic and explains fissures in American identity that persist to present day. As the 400th anniversary of Plymouth Colony approaches, it should be the desire of the country to provide good history.





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