Common section

Image Origins of the Massachusetts Elite

This predominance of England’s eastern counties was even stronger among the Puritan elite. Of 129 university-trained ministers and magistrates in the great migration, 56 percent had lived in the seven eastern counties of Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk, Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and Kent before sailing to America. Only 9 percent were Londoners. The rest had been widely scattered through many parts of England.1

This statistic refers only to their last known addresses in England. Many more had some other connection with the eastern counties, and with East Anglia in particular. Altogether, 78 percent of New England’s college-trained ministers and magistrates had been born, bred, schooled, married, or employed for long periods in seven eastern counties.2

This little elite was destined to play a large role in the history of New England. Its strength developed in no small degree from its solidarity. Many of its members had known one another before coming to America. They had gone to the same schools. Nearly half had studied in three Cambridge Colleges—Emmanuel, Magdalen and Trinity. Approximately 30 percent had attended Emmanuel alone. They intermarried with such frequency that one historian describes the leading Puritan families of East Anglia as a “prosopographer’s dream.”3

Several of these genealogical connections were especially important in the history of New England. One centered on the county of Suffolk and included the families of Winthrop, Downing, Rainborough, Tyndal and Fones. A second connection had its base in Emmanuel College and united a large number of eminent Puritan divines, including Samuel Stone, Thomas Hooker,

Thomas Shepard, John Wilson and Roger Newton, all of whom came to New England. These men had known each other at Cambridge. Most had held livings in East Anglia and had been removed for their Puritan beliefs. They were often related by marriage or other ties of kinship.4

A third group had its seat in the household of the Earl of Lincoln. It included two of the Earl’s sisters and a younger brother, all of whom came to Massachusetts. Also in this connection were Thomas Dudley and Simon Bradstreet, stewards of the Earl of Lincoln; and Thomas Leverett and Richard Bellingham, alderman and recorder of the town of Boston in Lincolnshire.

A fourth connection had its home in the parish of Alford, Lincolnshire. This was a small settlement six miles from the sea, in the “fat marsh” country that ran many miles across east Lincolnshire from the Humber to the Wash. Alford sent three families who loomed large in the history of Massachusetts: the Hutchinsons (an armigerous family of county gentry), the Storres or Storys (prosperous yeomen), and the Marburys (a clerical family). These three groups were linked to many other families in the surrounding countryside, including the Coddingtons, Wentworths, Quincys and Rishworths, who would also play prominent parts in New England and Old Providence Island.

The spiritual leader of this flock was the Reverend John Cotton, vicar of Boston’s St. Botolph’s church—the largest parish church in England. Its tremendous tower called Boston Stump, 272 feet high, served mariners as a seamark, and the Puritans as a spiritual beacon. On Sundays the Marburys and Hutchinsons traveled twenty miles through the Lincoln fens toward Boston Stump where they heard John Cotton preach from the beautiful pulpit that still stands in the church.5

In Massachusetts, these various Puritan connections were soon united in a single cousinage. Genealogists have remarked upon “the vast number of unions between the members of the families of Puritan ministers.” One commented that “it seemed to be a law of social ethics that the sons of ministers should marry the daughters of ministers.” Mathers, Cottons, Stoddards, Eliots,

The East-Anglian Puritan Elite of Massachusetts
The Winthrop-Downing-Dudley-Endecott-Bradstreet-Cotton-Mather Connection

I. Descendants of Adam Winthrop (1548-1623)


II. Descendants of Thomas Dudley (1576-1653)


III. Descendants of Simon Bradstreet


IV. Descendants of Sarah Story


Note: In these and subsequent charts not all children are included.

Williamses, Edwardses, Chaunceys, Bulkeleys and Wigglesworths all came to be related to one another within a generation.6

A case in point was the web that formed between the Mather and Cotton families. The founders of these two houses in America, John Cotton and Richard Mather, both married the same woman, Sarah Story. John Cotton’s daughter Maria Cotton became the wife of Richard Mather’s son Increase Mather. A child of that union was the eminent minister Cotton Mather. By these various connections, John Cotton was simultaneously Cotton Mather’s natural grandfather on the mother’s side, and his step-grandfather on his father’s side. At the same time, Richard Mather was both Cotton Mather’s paternal grandfather, and his maternal step-grandfather. To compound the confusion, Cotton Mather married Ann Lake Cotton Mather, who was both his cousin and also his nephew’s widow.

The matriarch of this family, Sarah Story Cotton Mather, might be taken as the genealogical center of New England’s elite. By the mid-eighteenth century many leading families in eastern Massachusetts were related to her by linear or collateral descent.7Important marriages joined the Mather-Cotton dynasty to the Dudleys, Bradstreets, Winthrops, Sewalls and other leading families in Massachusetts. So dense was this web that Samuel Sewall, in his diary and letterbook, addressed as cousin at least forty-eight people with thirty-eight family names. This was the cousinage that governed Massachusetts. It went to the same schools, visited constantly with one another, joined in the same working associations, and dominated the public life of the Bay Colony for many generations.8

The ministers who belonged to this cousinage were forbidden to hold political office. But in every other way their power was very great. When a stranger made the mistake of asking the Reverend Phillips of Andover if he were “the parson who serves here,” he was abruptly told, “I am, sir, the parson who rules here.”9

This elite maintained its regional hegemony well into the nineteenth century. Harriet Beecher Stowe testified from the experience of her own generation that “In those days of New England, the minister and his wife were considered the temporal and spiritual superiors of everybody in the parish.”10 The moral ascendancy of this elite was very great. Its role in forming the folkways of New England was even greater.

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