From Plymouth Colony to the Salem Witch Trials

From Plymouth Colony to the Salem Witch Trials

11/02/2023     General, Books & Autographs

New England 100 years before the Revolution: from Plymouth Colony to the Salem Witch Trials is a curated collection of 17th and 18th century manuscripts documenting life in colonial New England. Handwritten material originating from first- and second-generation settlers at Plymouth and the nearby Massachusetts Bay Colonies is naturally scarce; now, 400 years after the 1620 landing at Plymouth, fire, water, and other ravages of time have destroyed many a paper record. The collections of documents held by institutions throughout the region are cherished and oftentimes represent the core of an institution’s identity. Despite the existence of earlier colonial efforts, such as the Spanish settlement at St. Augustine or the extensively developed English plantations in Virginia, the hardships and personalities of early New England have endowed our national origin story like no other. In early New England, many aspects of later American culture took root, and it is from that first winter at Plymouth and the intervention of Native Americans that Thanksgiving was developed, the humblest and most unique of American holidays.

Collectors also value documents bearing the signatures of early notables. Before 1700, personal correspondence was not commonplace in New England, but an extensive record of legal documents such as wills, promissory notes, land deeds, and personal complaints, small and large, were painstakingly recorded, offering insight into the interpersonal history of colonial society. Individual examples of 17th-century documents are rare, let alone full collections offering a variety of them, and they are infrequently encountered at auction. Outside of institutions, material relating to the Salem Witch Trials is virtually unobtainable. Thus, the opportunity to study a group of these papers and potentially procure them for collections lacking holdings of such material is unparalleled.

The documents within New England 100 years before the Revolution: from Plymouth Colony to the Salem Witch Trials offer interesting, inspiring, and unusual episodes of 17th-century New England using the 1692 Salem Witch Trials as its lens. This disturbing event provided a bookend to the Pilgrim Century that had begun with the arrival of the Mayflower in the winter of 1620. From the outside in, the collection contextualizes the period by including documents signed by King James II, Samuel Pepys, and other influential figures in England in whose politics and religion the seeds of Puritanism and separatism were sown. From about 1640, once those first separatists and subsequent colonists had settled themselves into various towns and begun to grow their population in New England, the collection focuses deeply on not only documents signed by historically recognized officials such as John Endecott, William Bradford the Younger, and Samuel Mather but also stories of ordinary citizens whose lives are understood through their legal exchanges. An example of this is a very rare document relating to an attempted divorce in Boston in 1656, one of about 20 such cases in colonial New England.

As the decades passed, the collection turns to figures relating to the Salem Witch Trials. Following the harsh first winters and Great Migration, increasingly quarrelsome New Englanders tended to air their grievances, small and large, in public at the local general court. More legal documents survive than any other, as every dispute over small amounts of money owed, wandering animals, missing sundry objects, and unfulfilled obligations was recorded and heard by local magistrates so that rulings could be delivered.

At Salem, the first large town settled after Plymouth in 1625, residents are known to have grown aggressively quarrelsome over time, recalling the old adage that “familiarity breeds contempt.” What started in February 1692 as the troubling, fitful outbursts of two young girls, Betty Parris, 9, and her cousin Abigail Williams, 11, grew into the region-gripping hysteria known now as the Salem Witch Trials. In the fits, the girls screamed and contorted and complained of being pricked by pins. Other young women in the town came to exhibit similar behaviors. The first accused and arrested for witchcraft were Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba, an enslaved West Indian woman. The accused are thought to have been targeted for their outcast positions in Salem’s society: Good was destitute, Osborne rarely attended church and had married an indentured servant, and Tituba, owned by Samuel Parris, father of one of the accusers, had confessed to practicing witchcraft and other cultural practices that were highly foreign in 17th-century Salem. All three were sent to jail in Boston to await trial as magistrates awaited the arrival of a new governor carrying a new charter for the colony. Once arrived, the Court of Oyer and Terminer was created, and the next few months brought chaos and much unnecessary death to Salem.

Witchcraft had been heavily punished in Europe over the previous centuries, and there are several recorded instances of similar concerns in New England in the decades before the Salem Witch Trials. In the hysteria that overtook Salem in 1692, over 200 people were accused, 30 were found guilty, 19 were hanged, four people died in jail, and one man, 81-year-old Giles Corey, died due to the torture of "pressing,” in which he was slowly crushed for refusing to enter a plea. Without a doubt, it was the admission of “spectral evidence” (the testimony of those who claimed to see or be attacked by apparitions) into the courtroom that doomed many. The choice was not uncontroversial; both Increase and Cotton Mather condemned it, but it was allowed until accusations of witchcraft reached the wife of colonial governor William Phips, and he put an abrupt end to the trials in October 1692.

Two of the most notorious figures of the Witch Trials are judges John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin (the latter’s Salem home is the only structure still standing where questioning during the hysteria took place). Hathorne and Corwin are known to have been unrelenting in their questioning of the accused to secure confessions of witchcraft, which condemned many to death after sham trials. The two are also known to have defended the admission of spectral evidence into the courtroom. Corwin, born at Salem in 1640, served on the Superior Court and as a Judge of Probate after the trials and never expressed remorse for his role in the investigations (he died in 1718). John Hathorne, born at Salem in 1641, the notoriously harsh sentencing judge of the Salem Witch Trials, is best remembered for the shameful recollection of him by a later family member. One of the great figures of 19th-century American literature is Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter and other indictments of early New England. He was the great-grandson of John Hathorne. It is thought that Nathaniel added the "w" to the family name to distance himself from this notorious ancestor. The present collection offers a good example of the signatures of these notorious judges on an arrest warrant dated 1691.

As mentioned, "spectral evidence" collected in the interrogations led to many witchcraft convictions, including the case against a pious 71-year-old woman named Rebecca Nurse. Plymouth, Puritans, and the Salem Witch Trials offer a document signed by Thomas Fiske, the foreman of the jury that convicted Nurse. Fiske is one of several central figures to later express remorse for his role in the outcomes of the trials. Another scarce signature is that of Thomas Bradbury, whose wife Mary was convicted of witchcraft but escaped, eluding the gallows until the events of that spring, summer, and early fall had blown over. Other documents signed by Salem Witch Trials judges Thomas Newton, Nathaniel Saltonstall, and the wonderfully named Waitstill Winthrop further evoke this dark period of colonial history.

The scarce signatures of these figures, whose actions and decisions were critical to events of their time and came to greatly influence American history, offer a great opportunity to us now: a chance to engage in history by stepping into the shoes of those who lived it, as they signed documents and committed themselves to the permanent record. We are in debt to the recordkeepers of early New England for leaving a paper trail of both everyday and horrific events. New England 100 years before the Revolution: from Plymouth Colony to the Salem Witch Trials is rife with stories worthy of research and remembrance. In this collection, major historical and momentary figures interact. Such collections are infrequently offered at auction, and collectors, institutions, and all those interested in the history of early New England should certainly take note.

For a downloadable PDF brochure profiling this remarkable collection, Click here.

Rare Books, Autographs & Maps

Auction Tuesday, November 7 at 10am
Exhibition November 4 - 6

New England 100 years before the Revolution: from Plymouth Colony to the Salem Witch Trials comprises lots 1 - 48 in the November 7 auction.

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Peter Costanzo

Peter Costanzo

SVP/Executive Director, Books, Autographs & Photographs / Estate & Appraisal Services