John Underhill

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John Underhill

John Underhill (ca. 1597-1672), American military leader and magistrate, played an important role in the early Indian Wars in New England and in New York.

John Underhill's family was from England; his father was a mercenary in Dutch service. John was born possibly in Holland and received little formal education. In Holland he became a member of the Puritan church, although not of great conviction, and there he was married in 1628 while serving as a military student in the house of the Prince of Orange.

In 1630 Underhill went to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in America, where he organized the militia as one of its captains. He became a selectman of the town in 1634. The Puritans had little love of the military, however, and Underhill constantly had to fight for supplies. The Indian Wars came in 1637. Underhill fought in Massachusetts and in the Pequot wars in Connecticut. Returning to Boston in 1638, he became embroiled in a religious dispute and was branded an antinomian, disfranchised, disarmed, and discharged. He returned to England and wrote a book dealing with the Pequot wars.

By 1639 Underhill was in Boston again, where he was arrested and tried before the General Court for making contemptuous speeches. Found guilty, he was banished and fled to Dover, N.H., just in time to avoid trial for adultery. At Dover he became governor of the colony and stoutly resisted Massachusetts' claims to the region. However, he begged forgiveness of the Boston church for adultery and even returned to make a public confession; but he was adjudged insincere and excommunicated. Finally he was reinstated in the church, and in 1641 the sentence of banishment was removed.

At the invitation of the New Haven Court, Underhill moved to Stanford, Conn., in 1643 as captain of militia but quickly resigned to take employ with the Dutch in New Amsterdam (New York) to fight the Native Americans in that region. He settled on Long Island and became a member of the Council of New Amsterdam, but when he denounced Governor Peter Stuyvesant as a tyrant, he was almost tried for sedition. Moving to Rhode Island, he was commissioned a privateer in 1653 and seized the property of the Dutch West Indies Company at Hartford, Conn.

During the Anglo-Dutch War of 1665-1667, Underhill fought with the British to conquer New Amsterdam, and there in 1665 he became surveyor of customs for Long Island. Later he served as high constable and undersheriff of North Riding, Yorkshire, Long Island. He died on Sept. 21, 1672.

Further Reading

For details of Underhill's early activities see his News from America (1638). Biographies include two favorable treatments, J. C. Frost, Underhill, General (4 vols., 1932), and H.C. Shelley, John Underhill (1932). Less favorable is L. E. and A. L. de Forest, Capt. John Underhill (1934). Also valuable is John Winthrop, Winthrop's Journals, edited by J. K. Hosmer (2 vols., 1908). □