Guest Post: The Winthrops and their Books: A Transatlantic Tale

Guest posters Richard Calis and Madeline McMahon are graduate students in the History Department at Princeton University. Along with Frederic Clark, Anthony Grafton, and Jennifer Rampling, they are part of a collaborative research project (@WinthropProject) studying how multiple generations of Winthrops read, annotated, and acquired books on both sides of the Atlantic. 

John Winthrop (1588-1649) and his son John Winthrop Jr. (1606-1676) are now known primarily as protagonists in the turbulent political history of early America. But in addition to shaping the government and theology of New England as governors of Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut (respectively), they and the rest of the Winthrop family also participated in a transatlantic and inter-generational bookish culture. Long before the Arbella sailed to Boston in 1630 to build a “city upon a hill”, generations of Winthrops began to talk about books, ways to read them and, as we will illustrate here, the difficulties and contingencies of collecting them—on both sides of the Atlantic.

When John Winthrop Jr. sailed to New England, he took with him several barrels of books, in part inherited from his grandfather Adam Winthrop (1548-1623), an avid reader, and in part acquired through an intricate network of family members. When John Jr. was a student at Trinity College Dublin, for instance, his father shipped him books. But communications could be irregular across what John Sr. knew to be a “difficult and hazardable” route. “My deare sonne,” he wrote crossly in 1623, “I received no Letters from you since that in Latine wherein you wrote for Coopers dictionary, which I sent you since by London, and I have wrote twice since.”[1] What is more, acquiring books depended on family members being in the right place at the right time: on another occasion, an apologetic John Sr. was unable to acquire a copy of Aristotle because “uncle Fones is not in London to buye it, and I know not whither you would have Latine or Greeke.”[2]

While John Jr.’s need for books while studying at college is to be expected, the Winthrops at Groton Manor, the family estate in Suffolk, also wanted reading material. The family correspondence again opens a window onto their acquisition practices. John Sr.’s wife Margaret, for instance, asked her husband to buy religious books, including a psalter for their young son: “I pray b[u]y a salter for Deane I can get none heare.”[3] And later, when John Jr. was in London, his father asked him to “looke out amonge the booke sellers in Duck lane, and if you can finde an Englishe bible in [quar]to for 7 or 8 s[hillings].”[4]

Books and news often went together in the Winthrops’ exchange of letters. Winthrop Sr. promised to include “a booke of the newes this week” in a box of pepper he sent his wife.[5] He asked his son—then briefly residing with family at Fleet Street—“if there [be] any Curantos [newspapers] or other likely newes” and, if so, to send them down.[6] Likewise, John Sr. asked his brother-in-law “when you goe by Pouls [St Paul’s cathedral—the place to buy books in early modern England] buye me the book of the relation of the Blackfryars accident.”[7] In this case, a book about news also indicated God’s judgment: the fire at Blackfriars killed a number of Catholics gathered for Mass in London.

Further political and providential exigencies conspired in the Winthrops’ decision to move to the new world. After that step, books continued to travel across the Atlantic and along the Atlantic coast. By the time John Jr. had settled in Connecticut, he had amassed “above a thousand[8] books.” Edward Howes, his life-long friend and fellow alchemist in London, had become his chief book agent. Their lengthy and frequent correspondence testifies to the numerous volumes that crossed the ocean, at times marked by personal notes of friendship or reading instructions. In a copy of Dudley Digges’ Of the circumference of the earth (London, 1612), for instance, Howes left a marginal note about the unexplored geography of New England: how happy he would be, he writes John Jr.:[9]

“if this little treatise should add anything to your knowledge, Invention, or Industrie, to the atcheivinge of that Herculean work of the Straits of N: England, which I am as verilie perswaded of; that there is either a Strait, as our narrow seas, or a mediterranean Sea, west from you. The dutch O the dutch I doubt will prevent your discoverie, for they are the nearest, of any that have not as yet discovered it.”

For the Winthrops, then, books and politics were never completely separate.

The New World meant the family had to find new ways to send each other written materials. As Katherine Grandjean has shown in her new book American Passage, English arrivals to the colonies had to adjust to a completely new system of communication, with different expectations and fewer set systems for the circulation of news—couriers, for instance, might be Native American or be paid in wampum rather than shillings.[10] Moreover, the passage across the sea proved treacherous. Even before leaving the old world, one of John Jr.’s chests “conteyning in it apparell, books, & other n[i]c[et]ies appertaining soly to him”[11] was stolen by privateers off the cost of the Low Countries, presumably en route to New England.

As this example suggests, difficulties of communication and acquiring books were not completely new. Correspondents in the Winthrop family were not unaccustomed to the frustrations and contingencies of sending letters, books, and other goods over long distances—either from Groton Manor to Trinity College Dublin, or from London to Connecticut.

NB: The Winthrop Project consists of an intergenerational, transatlantic team of scholars tracing the multiple ways in which a much earlier set of readers, also transatlantic, also intergenerational, male and female, read —how they studied, annotated, and used almanacs and Bibles, pamphlets on witchcraft and treatises on alchemy, the lives of neighbors and the wonders of nature. The members of the project are Ann Blair, Richard Calis, Frederic Clark, Anthony Grafton, Madeline McMahon, and Jennifer Rampling. Apart from formal publications, it will produce a database of the Winthrop books held at the New York Society Library in New York. This will include images, transcriptions, and, where necessary, translations of the copious annotations left by various generations of readers. Two heavily annotated books that belonged to John Dee and later to John Winthrop Jr. will be digitized in full.


[1] Winthrop Papers, ed. Worthington C. Ford, et. al (6 vols., Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1929-1992) 1: 283.

[2] Ibid., 1: 273.

[3] Ibid., 2: 93

[4] Ibid., 1: 380

[5] Ibid., 2: 94.

[6] Ibid., 1: 336.

[7] Ibid., 1: 291.

[8] John Winthrop, The Journal of John Winthrop, 1630-1649, ed. Richard S. Dunn, James Savage, and Laetitia Yeandle (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 340-1.

[9] Dudley Digges, Of the circumference of the earth; or, a treatise of the northwest passage (London: W. W for Jon Barnes, 1612) [copy held in Winthrop Library, Massachusetts Historical Society]. Neil Kamil, Fortress of the Soul: Violence, Metaphysics, and Material Life in the Huguenots’ New World, 1517-1751 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 438-9.

[10] Katherine Grandjean, American Passage: The Communications Frontier in Early New England (Cambridge; Harvard University Press, 2015), 73; Winthrop Papers, 1: 404, 334; 2: 99.

[11] Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Fifth Series (Boston: Published by The Society, 1871), 1: 323.

4 responses

  1. Pingback: What We’re Reading: Week of Nov. 14th | JHIBlog

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