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Trent and Wells, eds. Colonial Prose and Poetry. 1901.

Vol. I. The Transplanting of Culture: 1607–1650

Francis Higginson

FRANCIS HIGGINSON, the founder of that distinguished New England family, was born in England in 1588, and died in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1630. Like most of the New England divines of his generation he was a graduate of Cambridge University, and had been an Anglican clergyman before his emigration. Becoming a Puritan, he gave up his benefice, and supported himself by preparing men for college, till in 1628 he accepted an invitation from the Massachusetts Bay Company, to join their colony. He reached Salem in the next year, and was almost immediately chosen teacher of the congregation there. The next year he sickened and died, an ironical commentary on the somewhat extravagant praise of the New England climate, that appears in his New England’s Plantation, or a short and true description of the Commodities of that Country, published in 1630, and reprinted in the first volume of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Collection. Our extracts are from this work. Higginson wrote also an account of his voyage, afterwards printed in Hutchinson’s Original Papers (1769). A Life of Francis Higginson has been written by his eminent descendant, Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1891).

“First Therefore of the Earth of New England, and All the Appurtenances Thereof.”
[From “New England’s Plantation,” 1630.]

… I WILL endeavor to show you what New England is … and truly endeavor, by God’s help, to report nothing but the naked truth, and that both to tell you of the discommodities as well as of the commodities. Though, as the idle proverb is, “Travelers may lie by authority,” and so may take too much sinful liberty that way, yet I may say of myself, as once Nehemiah did in another case, “Shall such a man as I lie?” No. verily. It becometh not a preacher of truth to be a writer of falsehood in any degree; and therefore I have been careful to report nothing of New-England but what I have partly seen with mine own eyes, and partly heard and inquired from the mouths of very honest and religious persons, who by living in the country a good space of time have had experience and knowledge of the state thereof, and whose testimonies I do believe as myself.

The fertility of the soil is to be admired at, as appeareth in the abundance of grass that groweth every where, both very thick, very long, and very high in divers places. But it groweth very wildly, with a great stalk, and a broad and ranker blade, because it never had been eaten with cattle, nor mowed with a scythe, and seldom trampled on by foot. It is scarce to be believed how our kine and goats, horses and hogs do thrive and prosper here, and like well of this country.

In our Plantation we have already a quart of milk for a penny. But the abundant increase of corn proves this country to be a wonderment. Thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, are ordinary here. Yea, Joseph’s increase in Egypt is outstripped here with us. Our planters hope to have more than a hundred-fold this year. And all this while I am within compass; what will you say of two hundred-fold, and upwards? It is almost incredible what great gain some of our English planters have had by our Indian corn. Credible persons have assured me, and the party himself avouched the truth of it to me, that of the setting of thirteen gallons of corn he hath had increase of it fifty-two hogsheads, every hogshead holding seven bushels of London measure, and every bushel was by him sold and trusted to the Indians for so much beaver as was worth eighteen shillings; and so of this thirteen gallons of corn, which was worth six shillings eight pence, he made about £327 of it the year following, as by reckoning will appear; where you may see how God blesseth husbandry in this land. There is not such great and plentiful ears of corn I suppose anywhere else to be found but in this country, being also of variety of colors, as red, blue, and yellow, &c.; and of one corn there springeth four or five hundred. I have sent you many ears of divers colors, that you might see the truth of it.

Little children here, by setting of corn, may earn much more than their own maintenance.

They have tried our English corn at New Plymouth Plantation, so that all our several grains will grow here very well, and have a fitting soil for their nature.

Our Governor hath store of green pease growing in his garden as good as ever I eat in England.

This country aboundeth naturally with store of roots of great variety and good to eat. Our turnips, parsnips and carrots are here both bigger and sweeter than is ordinarily to be found in England. Here are also store of pumpions, cowcumbers, and other things of that nature which I know not. Also, divers excellent pot-herbs grow abundantly among the grass, as strawberry leaves in all places of the country, and plenty of strawberries in their time, and penny-royal, winter-savory, sorrel, brooklime, liverwort, carvel, and watercresses; also leeks and onions are ordinary, and divers physical herbs. Here are also abundance of other sweet herbs, delightful to the smell, whose names we know not, and plenty of single damask roses, very sweet; and two kinds of herbs that bear two kinds of flowers very sweet, which they say are as good to make cordage or cloth as any hemp or flax we have.

Excellent vines are here up and down in the woods. Our Governor hath already planted a vineyard, with great hope of increase.

Also, mulberries, plums, raspberries, currants, chestnuts, filberts, walnuts, small-nuts, hurtleberries, and haws of white-thorn, near as good as our cherries in England, they grow in plenty here.

For wood, there is no better in the world, I think, here being four sorts of oak, differing both in the leaf, timber, and color, all excellent good. There is also good ash, elm, willow, birch, beech, sassafras, juniper, cypress, cedar, spruce, pines and fir, that will yield abundance of turpentine, pitch, tar, masts, and other material for building both of ships and houses. Also here are store of sumach trees, that are good for dyeing and tanning of leather; likewise such trees yield a precious gum, called white benjamin, that they say is excellent for perfumes. Also here be divers roots and berries, wherewith the Indians dye excellent holding colors, that no rain nor washing can alter. Also we have materials to make soap ashes and saltpetre in abundance.

For beasts there are some bears, and they say some lions also; for they have been seen at Cape Anne. Also here are several sorts of deer, some whereof bring three or four young ones at once, which is not ordinary in England; also wolves, foxes, beavers, otters, martens, great wild cats, and a great beast called a molke, as big as an ox. I have seen the skins of all these beasts since I came to this Plantation, excepting lions. Also here are great store of squirrels, some greater, and some smaller and lesser; there are some of the lesser sort, they tell me, that by a certain skin will fly from tree to tree, though they stand far distant.

“Of the Waters of New England, with the Things belonging to the Same.”

The abundance of sea-fish are almost beyond believing; and sure I should scarce have believed it except I had seen it with mine own eyes. I saw great store of whales, and grampuses, and such abundance of mackerels that it would astonish one to behold; likewise codfish, abundance on the coast, and in their season are plentifully taken. There is a fish called a bass, a most sweet and wholesome fish as ever I did eat; it is altogether as good as our fresh salmon; and the season of their coming was begun when we came first to New-England in June, and so continued about three months’ space. Of this fish our fishers take many hundreds together, which I have seen lying on the shore, to my admiration. Yea, their nets ordinarily take more than they are able to haul to land, and for want of boats and men they are constrained to let a many go after they have taken them; and yet sometimes they fill two boats at a time with them. And besides bass, we take plenty of scate and thornback, and abundance of lobsters, and the least boy in the Plantation may both catch and eat what he will of them. For my own part, I was soon cloyed with them, they were so great, and fat, and luscious. I have seen some myself that have weighed sixteen pound; but others have had divers times so great lobsters as have weighed twenty-five pound, as they assured me….

“Of the Air of New England, with the Temper and Creatures in It.”

The temper of the air of New-England is one special thing that commends this place. Experience doth manifest that there is hardly a more healthful place to be found in the world that agreeth better with our English bodies. Many that have been weak and sickly in Old England, by coming hither have been thoroughly healed, and grown healthful and strong. For here is an extraordinary clear and dry air, that is of a most healing nature to all such as are of a cold, melancholy, phlegmatic, rheumatic temper of body. None can more truly speak hereof by their own experience than myself. My friends that knew me can well tell how very sickly I have been, and continually in physic, being much troubled with a tormenting pain through an extraordinary weakness of my stomach, and abundance of melancholic humors. But since I came hither on this voyage, I thank God I have had perfect health, and freed from pain and vomiting, having a stomach to digest the hardest and coarsest fare, who before could not eat finest meat; and whereas my stomach could only digest and did require such drink as was both strong and stale, now I can and do oftentimes drink New-England water very well. And I that have not gone without a cap for many years together, neither durst leave off the same, have now cast away my cap, and do wear none at all in the day time; and whereas beforetime I clothed myself with double clothes and thick waistcoats to keep me warm, even in the summer time, I do now go as thin clad as any, only wearing a light stuff cassock upon my shirt, and stuff breeches of one thickness without linings. Besides, I have one of my children, that was formerly most lamentably handled with sore breaking out of both his hands and feet of the king’s evil; but since he came hither he is very well ever he was, and there is hope of perfect recovery shortly, even by the very wholesomeness of the air, altering, digesting, and drying up the cold and crude humors of the body; and therefore I think it is a wise course for all cold complexions to come to take physic in New-England; for a sup of New-England’s air is better than a whole draught of Old England’s ale.


Thus of New England’s Commodities.

Now I will tell you of some discommodities, that are here to be found.

First, in the summer season, for these three months, June, July, and August, we are troubled much with little flies called mosquitoes, being the same they are troubled with in Lincolnshire and the fens; and they are nothing but gnats, which, except they be smoked out of their houses, are troublesome in the night season.

Secondly, in the winter season, for two months’ space, the earth is commonly covered with snow, which is accompanied with sharp biting frosts, something more sharp than is in Old England, and therefore are forced to make great fires.

Thirdly, this country being very full of woods and wildernesses, doth also much abound with snakes and serpents, of strange colors and huge greatness. Yea, there are some serpents, called rattlesnakes, that have rattles in their tails, that will not fly from a man as others will, but will fly upon him and sting him so mortally that he will die within a quarter of an hour after, except the party stinged have about him some of the root of an herb called snake-weed to bite on, and then he shall receive no harm. But yet seldom falls it out that any hurt is done by these. About three years since an Indian was stung to death by one of them; but we heard of none since that time.

Fourthly and lastly, here wants as yet the good company of honest Christians, to bring with them horses, kine and sheep, to make use of this fruitful land. Great pity it is to see so much good ground for corn and for grass as any is under the heavens, to lie altogether unoccupied, when so many honest men and their families in Old England, through the populousness thereof, do make very hard shift to live one by the other.

“Of the Present Condition of the Plantation and what it is.”

There are in all of us, both old and new planters, about three hundred, whereof two hundred of them are settled at Nehumkek, now called Salem, and the rest have planted themselves at Masathulet’s Bay, beginning to build a town there, which we do call Cherton, or Charles town.

We that are settled at Salem make what haste we can to build houses, so that within a short time we shall have a fair town.

We have great ordnance wherewith we doubt not but we shall fortify ourselves in a short time to keep out a potent adversary. But that which is our greatest comfort and means of defense above all others, is that we have here the true religion and holy ordinances of Almighty God taught amongst us. Thanks be to God, we have here plenty of preaching, and diligent catechising, with strict and careful exercise, and good and commendable orders to bring our people into a Christian conversation with whom we have to do withal. And thus we doubt not but God will be with us; and if God be with us, who can be against us?

[The end of the tract.]