A Brief History
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the area around Dorchester was renowned for farming, in particular sheep husbandry and flax growing for use in rough clothing and sailcloth. Other trades were in fishing, ship-building, rope making and cloth production; skills which the emigrants took with them to New England. Prior to the great migrations of ‘pilgrims’ that started in the early 17th century many fishermen from the Dorset ports of Poole, Weymouth, Bridport and Lyme Regis were already making voyages across the Atlantic to the Newfoundland cod fishing grounds of the Grand Banks following their discovery in 1497 by the navigator John Cabot. The area around Bridport, Symondsbury and Dorchester, from where our tours will start, has retained much of its original features including traces of the strip lynchets on which crops were grown on the hilly terrain. Hemp and flax were important early crops forming the basis of the flourishing rope making industry that made Bridport famous from the thirteenth century onwards.
The great migration of farmers, craftsmen and town folk in the first half of the seventeenth century started mostly from here and other counties of England’s West Country. Undoubtedly some of these settlers had made the voyage by ship from the Thames near London and even further up the North Sea coast as far as Ipswich and Yarmouth to West Country ports to shorten the Atlantic crossing. Although there had been a certain amount of migration prior to the 1630s that decade saw more than 20,000 settlers in some 200 ships making the commitment to a new life on the American eastern seaboard.
Undoubtedly the turbulent religious times of 16th and 17th century England and Scotland and the encouragement of prominent Protestants and Calvinists such as the Reverend John White played a significant role in making the thoughts of a new life in the frontiers of New England highly attractive.
William Whiteway, member of a prominent burgess family of Dorchester noted in his diary that at least ‘20 sail of ships and in them 2,000 planters set off from the ports of Weymouth, Dorchester’s local port, and Plymouth alone in 1634’. The settlers came mostly from a few clusters of towns and villages; Lyme Regis, Bridport and the Brit Valley and Netherbury in West Dorset and Crewkerne, Chard and half a dozen satellite villages in South Somerset.
Many were driven to emigrate by worsening conditions at home where increases in population were making many poor lives even poorer as crops failed and work was hard to find. They brought with them the names of their home towns which are now recognisable in many towns and villages of New England.
However, there were some notable people in their midst. These included John Endicott, the future many times Governor of Massachusetts and John Winthrop who helped found the Dorchester Settlement and became the first Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Company. Francis Higginson and Samuel Skelton also sailed to the new colonies in 1629 to serve as Ministers in Salem, MA. The Rev. Walter Newburgh of Symondsbury and his brother Thomas were deeply involved in the development of Dorchester in Massachusetts; Thomas being there in 1634.
There have also been some notable descendants of the many families that made the journey across the Atlantic. The Presidents Bush, Senator Kerry and George Gallup (founder of the Gallup Poll) can all trace their ancestry to one John Gallop, born in Dorset, who married Christobel Brushett at St. Mary’s Church, Bridport and who made the crossing to Boston on the Mary and John in 1630.