River valley settled by English pilgrims

“so he hath none to live on as well as myself.”

Enraged Weguogan Indians burned houses to the ground as they whooped and yelled throughout the settlement. Three fortified houses remained, 33 homes and 20 barns were burned to the ground. One man escaped to warn Pynchon. When 200 hundred men finally entered the town, they saw only smoking ruins.

The Indians escaped through Indian Orchard with their booty. Miles Morgan’s house was gone. So was the Holyoke house and Tom Cooper’s. John Pynchon, wrote about the horrendous attack, noting that John Hitchcock’s house and barns had burned with all his corn, “so he hath none to live on as well as myself. My grist mill and corn mill burned and 40 families are utterly destitute.”

How did these men and women survive in such a volatile environment? One must first understand the history of New England to fully appreciate these brave and tenacious pioneers, the forefathers of the proud city of Holyoke. The founders, who came from Old England, were convinced that a new life in America would give them the freedom of their thoughts, purpose and morality, which had been denied to them in their English homes under a domineering monarch, according to John J. Zwisler, a longtime resident of Holyoke and author of the book “Ireland Parish.” (You can find this 1999 well-researched version of the early history of Holyoke at the Holyoke Public Library.)

Under the recommendation of Paul Graves, Holyoke’s leading historian and a one-time employee of the Holyoke Public Library, I spoke with Mr. Zwisler, who astutely tells the story of the Western Massachusetts Pilgrims. He charts the story of this adventuresome group of Protestants, who decided to separate from the Church of England to set up congregations of their own.

In England, William Pynchon’s home had been in the parish of Springfield in the county of Essex. In 1629, King James gave a grant that included land from the Merrimac River on the north, to the Charles River on the south to 27 persons, of whom Pynchon was one. This was John Winthrop and company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England. In exchange for the land grant, the King laid claim to one-fifth of all the gold and silver ores that might be found in this domain.

This was largely a commercial enterprise that included London capitalists who were called “the adventurers.” Those actually going to New England were called “the planters,” hence the settlements came to be known as plantations.

Organizing and arranging for transportation and settlement took almost a year. On April 8, 1630, the Arbella, the Talbot and the Jewel weighed anchor and sailed out of the harbor of Cowles for the far distant New England. On June 12, they arrived in Salem, where Endicott was governor. Winthrop and his company soon settled in and around the vicinity of Boston, where Winthrop was to become Governor. John Pynchon made his home in Roxbury.

In 1629, they were given home rule and began settling their own concerns without interference from England. Springfield was the first town in Massachusetts to be settled west of Boston. In 1636, Pynchon’s party made a difficult journey through the wilderness to the Agawam meadows from the Hartford area. There were eight men who signed an agreement to settle in Springfield. They were William Pynchon, Henry Smith, Mathew Mitchell, Jehu Burr, William Blake, Edmond Wood, Thomas Ufford and John Cable.

Of the eight men who started the settlement in Springfield, William Pynchon, Henry Smith and Jehu Burr made an agreement with the Indians for the purchase of the lands on both sides of the Connecticut River. The price was 18 fathoms of wampum (beads formed of shells strung on threads), 18 coats, 18 hatchets, 18 hoes, and 18 knives. This payment would later be assessed on the lands that would be granted to the settlers. It was signed on July 15, 1636.

In 1651 William Pynchon went back to England. The younger men in the colony were then tasked with day-to-day operations.

It was an important moment in time for the young planters, who would be instrumental in distributing rights of land ownership, fairly governing the people and initiating further negations with the Indians.

Next month, you’ll read where Elizur Holyoke really lived and how John Pynchon shaped the young colony.

© 2006 The Republican. All rights reserved. Used with permission.