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This Week in History
July 28-August 3, 1641

John Winthrop, Jr. Sets Sail for England To Finance Iron Production in the New World

July 2013

Above: John Winthrop, Jr.; below: his signature.

On August 3, 1641, John Winthrop, Jr. left the shores of Massachusetts Bay on a mission to England. The younger Winthrop, son of the leader of the Massachusetts Bay republic, was a skilled physician and a scientist with a special interest in metallurgy. He was now taking on the task of establishing iron production in New England.

When discussions about the projected Massachusetts Bay settlement were held during the early 1620s, the Puritan leaders made extensive plans not only for the survival of the settlement during its first years, but also for a productive future. In addition to the food, clothing, tools, and medicine which were loaded onto the ships, there were also specialists in various productive trades which the expedition's leaders hoped could be established in New England. These included glass-making, the weaving of cotton, linen, and wool, lumbering, ship-building, mining, the building of gristmills, and salt-making.

There were also provisions made for iron production. Two men, Malbon and Graves, were hired for their experience in English iron works, and they arrived in Salem in 1629, a year ahead of the major settlement which founded Boston. But Malbon returned to England after a year, and Graves returned in 1623, leaving no one with actual iron-making experience among the settlers. During the first ten years, this was not a major problem, because the other industries which had been planned did develop, and it was possible to obtain iron utensils from England.

But, by 1641, a major change was taking place in England. The large waves of immigration into New England slowed to a trickle, and investments into New England projects from Old England almost stopped. Hard times hit the Massachusetts Bay, stemming from the disruptions caused by the impending English Civil War between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians.

King Charles I had taken more and more power into his hands, and when the Puritans' arch-enemy William Laud was named Bishop of London, he used the Star Chamber to prosecute nonconformists, even if they were within, as were the Puritans, the Church of England. By 1642, Laud's quo warranto ("by what authority") proceedings were threatening the existence of the Massachusetts Bay settlement itself.

In this worsening situation, the leadership of the Massachusetts Bay determined that they must speedily establish their own iron industry. The younger John Winthrop travelled throughout the area, following up on any claims by settlers that they had found mineral deposits. He carried the samples back to his laboratory and tested them, and in this way, he pinpointed many areas that contained the bog iron which could support forges and bloomeries (a type of furnace once widely used for smelting iron from its oxides).

Then, in June of 1641, the General Court of Massachusetts, which was its elected legislature, passed a measure entitled "Encouragement to Discovery of Mines, &c." The bill allowed the discoverer of any mine to have a 21-year lease, after which, "this Court shall have power to allot so much of the benefit thereof to public use as they shall think equal." Armed with the legislation and the samples of bog iron he had gathered, Winthrop sailed for England to find investors and the wherewithal to operate an iron manufacturing complex.

The mission took longer than Winthrop had anticipated—he was not able to sail home to New England until a year and a half had passed. During that time he succeeded in recruiting a number of investors, who formed themselves into the "Company of Undertakers of the Iron Works in New England." These investors were not only Puritan merchants of wealth, but included clergymen, brewers, drapers, merchant tailors, contractors for military supplies, two public officers, physicians, and three ironmakers. He also recruited several skilled workers, and ordered tools and materials.

In the late summer of 1642, Winthrop made a trip to the European continent. The horrific Thirty Years War was still raging, but he managed to visit Hamburg, Amsterdam, The Hague, and Brussels. All these locations served as safe havens for scholars who had fled the war, and Winthrop met with many of the refugees, receiving both political intelligence and news about the state of science in Europe. When Winthrop visited Brussels, it is very possible that he visited the Duchy of Brabant's famous ironworks, for the sophisticated Walloon process of "indirect" iron refining was introduced in Braintree and Saugus when he returned to New England.

Rembrandt, Portrait of an Old Man (The Rabbi), said to be a portrait of Jan Amos Komensky.

While on the Continent, Winthrop also met with John Amos Comenius (Jan Amos Komensky, 1592-1670), a refugee Czech scholar who was a Bishop of the Moravian Church. Comenius was known for his linguistic ability and his educational theories. He proposed that classes be taught in the vernacular, instead of Latin, and that languages should be learned by the conversational method. Comenius also favored a universal system of education that would give equal opportunity to women. John Winthrop, Jr. almost succeeded in recruiting Comenius for the faculty or even presidency of Harvard College, but the Chancellor of a Swedish university offered him overwhelming inducements to stay in Europe.

By the spring of 1643, Winthrop had gathered his men and materials and set sail for New England. The voyage was long and difficult and almost all of the passengers suffered from scurvy as a result. They landed in Massachusetts in the fall, and thus had to wait until spring before the preliminary steps toward building a furnace could be taken. Then, Winthrop made a complete survey of possible sites for the ironworks, travelling from Plymouth Colony northward to Cape Elizabeth in the present state of Maine. The survey looked at possible water power, means of transportation, the availability of worker housing, what supplies could be obtained in the area, and the accessibility to markets.

In the meantime, the General Court granted to the Company of Undertakers land, exemption from taxes and military service, and a monopoly on the production of iron within its jurisdiction. However, the government also imposed a ceiling price on what could be charged for bar iron, in order to guard the general welfare. The legislature also stated that iron could not be exported until the needs of the Massachusetts Bay residents were met.

Saugus Ironworks National Historic Site in Masschusetts. Established in 1647 as a complete iron manufacturing establishment. The mechanics who trained here, moved out all over the colonies, to train others and set up new iron works..

Winthrop completed his survey and chose Braintree, just south of Boston, as the site for the ironworks. The expenses for building an iron foundry in the wilderness mounted quickly, and only a single furnace was ready by December of 1644. The investors were unhappy not only with the expenses, but with the General Court's provision that the needs of Massachusetts must be met first. They dismissed Winthrop in June of 1645 and appointed a successor named Richard Leader. Winthrop, now working on other things, maintained a keen interest in the success of the venture and occasionally gave Leader a helping hand when he asked for it.

Leader chose another site for a second ironworks, and this was at Saugus, north of Boston. Braintree worked with Saugus as an ancillary forge to convert Saugus cast iron into bar iron. Saugus itself was built as a state-of-the-art industrial complex, and its rolling and slitting mill, the first in America, was built when there were only about a dozen in the British Isles and European Continent. In addition, there was also a warehouse and factor's office at Boston, which handled the procurement of supplies for the ironworks as well as the sale and export of their products.

The managers and workers from Saugus and Braintree later fanned out to other colonies and trained several subsequent generations of skilled American ironmasters and ironworkers. John Winthrop, Jr., among his many other accomplishments, helped to found an ironworks at New Haven, and was elected Governor of Connecticut every year from 1657 until his death in 1676.


The original article was published in the EIR Online’s Electronic Intelligence Weekly, as part of an ongoing series on history, with a special emphasis on American history. We are reprinting and updating these articles now to assist our readers in understanding of the American System of Economy.