Sir Ferdinando Gorges

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Sir Ferdinando Gorges

The English colonizer and soldier Sir Ferdinando Gorges (1568-1647) was an important promoter of New England colonization.

Ferdinando Gorges's career covered the years from the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588) to the surrender of Charles I (1645) during the English civil war. This was the era when English efforts at North American colonization became successful, and Gorges was a significant figure in that drama. While he never established a permanent settlement or profited financially from his endeavors, he founded Maine and kept the idea of colonization in New England alive.

Gorges was born into a prosperous landowning family in Dorset. Although he was an infant when his father died, Gorges received a good education and entered into a military career. He served in Holland against the Spanish and in France in support of Henry IV's struggle for the French throne. While in France he was knighted by the Earl of Essex. Queen Elizabeth later rewarded Gorges by appointing him commander of the fort at Plymouth, responsible for organizing the defense of the western counties against possible Spanish invasion. Gorges's fortunes collapsed, however, when he was drawn into a rebellion being plotted by the Earl of Essex. The revolt fizzled, and Gorges testified against Essex at his former commander's trial. This experience convinced Gorges to support the monarchy ever after. As punishment for his complicity in the plot, he lost his position at Plymouth.

Gorges regained his command on the accession to the throne of James I in 1603, and it was after returning to Plymouth that he developed his interest in colonization. In 1605 Gorges met George Weymouth, who had returned from New England with five Native Americans. Gorges kept three of them in his household in order to learn about the New World. When peace was established with Spain, Gorges became active in colonization, promoting the Virginia Company of 1606 and participating in outfitting and supplying an ill-fated colony at the mouth of the Kennebec River in Maine.

Council for New England

Attempting to forestall permanent failure in English colonization, Gorges led in reorganizing the Plymouth branch of the Virginia Company. The new charter created the Council for New England, a group of 40 distinguished citizens who controlled all land in North America between the 40th and 48th parallels. The council was not interested in establishing colonies of its own but in encouraging others to do so. One of its first grants was to the Pilgrims on Cape Cod.

Members of the council were also given land, and in 1622 Gorges received a large grant jointly with John Mason. Gorges attempted one settlement on the New England coast when he had the council grant his son Robert a proprietary colony northeast of Massachusetts Bay. Robert Gorges sailed in 1623 but returned to England the following spring, and the enterprise was abandoned.

Struggles with Massachusetts Bay Colony

Gorges was forced to forsake his interest in the Council for New England when war broke out with France in 1627, and he was therefore unable to supervise the council's 1628 grant to the New England Company. When that company received a royal charter as the Massachusetts Bay Company, antagonism between Gorges and Massachusetts was certain. Not only did the Massachusetts land claim overlap Gorges's own, but Massachusetts' Puritan emphasis and company organization conflicted with Gorges's Anglicanism and dedication to proprietorship.

At war's end, Gorges, finding his interests had been preempted, set out either to get the Massachusetts charter annulled or to bring the colony under control of the Council for New England. For 3 years Gorges petitioned the English government regarding the threat to religious and political uniformity posed by Puritan Massachusetts. After investigation it was decided that Massachusetts must defend its charter. Gorges was appointed governor general of New England and instructed to present the order to Massachusetts. However, when his ship broke apart upon launching and, just as they were preparing to leave, his second in command, John Mason, died, Gorges abandoned the mission.

Meanwhile Gorges had decided to abolish the Council for New England, and after effecting a general division of the council's territory among its members, he engineered the surrender of its charter. It had been an interesting phase of English colonization, even though the council had accomplished little of permanent worth. In the last analysis it was Gorges's concept of colonization that defeated his goals. He viewed colonies as vast proprietary holdings into which the social, economic, and political institutions of England would simply be transferred. He never understood that the New World would not support such an unmodified transplantation.

Royal Grant for Maine

Gorges made one last attempt to salvage something from his efforts. In 1639 he received a royal confirmation of his earlier grant for the "Province of Maine." Since he was a royalist during the English civil war, however, his fortunes diminished with those of the King, and his plans for a vast proprietary colony were never fulfilled. He died in 1647, and his claims passed to his heirs, who eventually lost out to land-hungry Massachusetts.

Further Reading

The only recent biography of Gorges is Richard A. Preston, Gorges of Plymouth Fort (1953). Information about Gorges's colonial plans can also be found in Henry S. Burrage, Gorges and the Grant of the Province of Maine, 1622 (1923) and The Beginnings of Colonial Maine, 1602-1658 (1914). More general information is available in Herbert L. Osgood, The American Colonies in the Seventeenth Century (3 vols., 1904-1907), and Charles M. Andrews, The Colonial Period of American History (4 vols., 1934-1938). □

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