Friday, 22 May 2015

James Cudworth, Plymouth Colony's Reluctant Soldier (c.1605-1681) (52 Ancestors Week 21) Theme: "Military"

For the past three weeks in the "52 Ancestors" project, my stories have touched on religious intolerance in England and New England in the 16th and 17th centuries. This week I am happy to be able to write about one man who was a voice for tolerance in these times: James Cudworth, my 8X great grandfather. Yes, he was also a military man, and, yes, he was involved in warring against the natives whose lands the English immigrants had settled, but one gets the sense that he was only trying to do his duty as a member of his community and that he was actually a reluctant (and not particularly effective!) soldier and commander.

Cudworth Family Background

James Cudworth was born in Aller, Somerset, England sometime between 1604 and 1612 to Reverend Ralph Cudworth, the rector of Aller, and his wife Mary Machell. Ralph was a very well-educated man, having received four degrees from Emmanuel College, Cambridge University: BA in 1592, MA in 1596, BD in 1603 and finally a DD in 1619. Ralph was a fellow of Emmanuel College and taught there as well as being a lecturer at St Andrews College, Cambridge. He became chaplain to King James I in 1603 when James succeeded Queen Elizabeth I; it was at court that he met his future wife Mary Machell who was a nurse to Prince Henry, the heir to the throne. When Ralph and Mary's first child was a boy, they named him James in honour of the King.

Church at Aller, Somerset where James's father Ralph was rector and where James was baptised in 1612

That James came from a very learned family is also evidenced by the career of his brother Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688). Like his father, son Ralph was also educated and taught at Cambridge where he became founder of the Cambridge Platonist school of philosophers. His many treatises include "Intellectual System of the Universe" and "A Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality". Many are still available but make rather tough slogging for those of us not trained in philosophy. Carrying on into the next generation, Ralph educated his daughter Damaris Cudworth (niece to the James of this story) at home and she herself became a philosopher though, being female, she wrote her treatises anonymously. Damaris became the lifelong friend and correspondent of the philosopher John Locke who said in a letter to Phillipp von Limborch that she was so well versed in theological and philosophical studies and had such an original mind that she was superior to most men in that field. Damaris also carried on an extensive correspondence about philosophical subjects with Leibniz. It must have been terribly frustrating for Damaris to be denied a university education and the ability to participate fully in the intellectual world in which she so obviously belonged.

Ralph Cudworth of Cambridge College,
Brother of James Cudworth

This is the exceptional family from which James Cudworth came. There has been no explanation for why he chose not to attend university when education seemed such an integral part of this family's life. Destiny had other plans for James.

Move To America 1632

James came to New England from Barnstable, Devon, aboard the ship "Charles" in 1632, settling in Scituate in what is now Massachusetts. The population of Scituate at the time was fewer than 60 people but by 1643 it would grow to be the second largest town in Plymouth Colony (after Plymouth itself).

In December of 1634 James wrote a letter to his step-father Dr. John Stoughton in England describing the situation of three churches in the area: there were no pastors nor teachers at Duxbury nor at Hingham. But (as he is quoted in Stratton's book), "Oures, Cittewate [Scituate], to whome the Lord has bine verey gracious, & his p'vidence has bine Admorabley sene oure beyenge to bringe to us oure Pastor whome wee so longe expected -- Mr. Lathrope, who the Lord has brought to us in safety, whome wee find to bee a holy Reverat & hevenly minded man." (No, this writing is not indicative of lack of education but was the accepted spelling at the time.)  James had belonged to Reverend Lathrope's non-conforming parish in England at Southwark, just out of London, prior to emigrating. Lathrope had been tossed into jail for failing to conform to English Protestant beliefs and was only released on condition that he leave the country and go to New England.

James also encouraged his step-father to send any of his friends and acquaintances who would be fit to be received into church fellowship at Scituate.  James said that, as his house was the largest, it was being used as the meeting house in Scituate until a proper meeting house could be built. (A map from 1633 showing the location of Cudworth's property can be found on the Scituate Historical Society website.)

Marker for site of First Meeting House in Scituate MA

On 3 March 1639/40, he was successfully sued by Timothy Hatherly for payment of a 12 pound debt. At about this same time, a group from Scituate moved to form the new town of Barnstable under the leadership of Lothrop. James Cudworth was among the breakaway group. He had a saltworks on Rendezvous Creek, known then as Saltern Point. The family soon moved back to Scituate where he was presented to the grand jury for selling wine without a licence. The man issuing the complaint was his old friend (and sometimes enemy) Timothy Hatherly. Timothy had probably come to New England on the same ship as James and their paths continued to cross time and again.

Sign for Cudworth House, Scituate MA

Taking a Stand for Religious Tolerance

When James Cudworth arrived in Plymouth Colony, all of the settlers were Puritans (who believed that the Reformation in England had not gone far enough and that religion should be further purified or simplified) or even the more extreme Separatists (Puritans wanting to separate from the established English Protestant church). But within a decade, some Baptists were to be found among the colonists. Denounced and forced to leave Plymouth Colony, Roger Williams and his followers (including my ancestor Stukely Westcott) left Plymouth to start the first Baptist Church in America at Providence in the new colony of Rhode Island.

By the 1650's, Quakers were also beginning to appear in Plymouth Colony. They were at the extreme edge of the Protestant church reformation movement and went much further than the Plymouth colony Pilgrims in rejecting all formal church ritual. Quakers even allowed women to speak at church meetings! They were vehemently denounced by the Pilgrims and ruthlessly driven into the wilderness. At the same time, Plymouth Colony sent a letter to the more liberal Rhode Island authorities insisting that Quakers not be allowed to settle there either. The strongest voice against this treatment was that of James Cudworth; he refused to sign the letter. (The only other man in the community who was known to disapprove of the persecution of these new religious groups was his old friend and enemy Timothy Hatherly!)

James had been Assistant Governor in 1656-57 and Commissioner to the New England Confederacy (against the Indians) from 1655 but was deprived of all his position in 1657 for his stand against Quaker and Baptist persecutions. He was also relieved of his captainship of the local militia. The year after being denied the right to take his seat as the Scituate representative to the General Court, he himself was hauled before that court for having written letters to  England deploring the colony's persecution of Quakers. Stratton on page 92 of his book quotes from Cudworth's intercepted letter to England: "He that will not Whip and Lash, Persecute and Punish Men that Differ in Matters of Religion, must not sit on the Bench nor sustain any Office in the Commonwealth. Last Election, Mr. Hatherly, and my Self, left off the Bench, and my Self Discharged of my Captainship because I  had Entertained some of the Quakers at my House. . . . But the Quakers and myself cannot close in divers things; and so I signified to the Court, I was no Quaker. . . . But withal, I told them, That as I was no Quaker, so I would be no Prosecutor."

Cudworth House, Scituate, MA

It would not be until 1673 under the Governorship of Josiah Winslow that Cudworth would have his rights restored and once again take part in civic life.

Even during his time of disfavour, it is obvious that Cudworth was much-admired as a thoughtful and fair man of intelligence and ability. For example, on 3 May 1659, John Coggan, minor son of deceased Henry Coggan, selected James Cudworth to be one of his guardians. (John, incidentally, is my 1st cousin 9X removed and his deceased father Henry my 8X great granduncle.) Also, the Scituate militia company re-elected him Captain in 1666, but the Court informed the militiamen that their choice was "unadvised"; this court order angered the militiamen and it was probably only a calming speech given by Cudworth that prevented the outbreak of violence over the matter.

Although James himself never adopted Quaker or Baptist beliefs, his daughter Mary was married by a preacher in Rhode Island to Robert Whitcomb, a member of a Quaker family. The marriage not being recognized as valid in Plymouth Colony, Robert was arrested and fined 10 pounds for living with a woman to whom he wasn't married. Robert and Mary (who are my 7X great grandparents)were then married again on 9 March 1660 by an accredited magistrate and had half the fine remitted.

Later Involvement in Civic Life and Military Affairs

Upon his return to civic life in 1673, James Cudworth was asked by his community to serve in an expedition against the Dutch. Quoted from Willison's Saints and Strangers, page 479, Cudworth's letter declining the position indicated that his refusal was not "out of any discontent in my spirit arising from any former difference, neither out of an effeminate or dastardly spirit; but am as freely willing to serve my king and country as any man whatsoever in what I am capable and fitted for; but do not understand that a man is so called to serve his country with the inevitable ruin and destruction of his own family."  He commented that the inexperience of a captain had been the ruin of armies and the destruction of commonwealths, apparently feeling that he himself lacked such experience and would not be a good choice. He went on to describe the ill health of his wife and the necessity to gather the hay and wood for winter. Interestingly, he adds that his only help is a small thirteen year-old Indian boy. Was he a paid servant, I wonder?

Notwithstanding his advancing age, two years later he became a leader in the early skirmishes in King Philip's War. Relations between the English settlers and the Wampanoag Indians, which had started out on friendly terms, had deteriorated and reached a boiling point by the mid-1670's. Increased immigration from England had resulted in greater and greater demand for lands to settle and infringement on the Indians' traditional hunting grounds. The Wampanoag leader Metacom had adopted the English name Philip and, under the name of "King Philip", assembled an alliance that included most of the Indians in New England. Attempts to resolve matters peacefully failed. War seemed inevitable.

When the Pilgrims sent a militia force of about 80 men to Swansea after some Indian hostilities in 1675, it was under the leadership of Captain James Cudworth. There is no evidence that he was a particularly able military man, nor that he had any particular training or expertise in military matters. Being well into his 60's and unaccustomed to life in the field, he was probably not the best choice for the position, but he tried to do what was required of him. It is clear that he was far more suited to be a voice of reason than to lead a military campaign.

Even though Plymouth Governor Winslow offered the command of the joint forces to any Massachusetts officer whom Governor Leverett and Council should select, they insisted that Cudworth retain command of all the troops. Cudworth continued to hold all the men in garrison until more forces arrived, but waited an extra day after their arrival (probably to allow them to rest). When they swept down the hill of Mount Hope Peninsula, they found they were too late: they encountered burned houses and eight English heads impaled on posts. The Indians were long gone. Rather than pursuing them, Cudworth built a fort on the Indian lands, something that has been considered as ineffective busy-work. Eventually, having achieved little, Cudworth led the men back to Plymouth, but an angry Governor Winslow allowed them just one night's rest before sending them in pursuit of the Indians. They didn't find them and were finally permitted to return home to harvest crops and prepare for winter. When King Philip saw the English settlers marching away, he took the opportunity to move his people to central Massachusetts. War then spread throughout New England resulting in hundreds of deaths, including that of other of my ancestors such as Ephraim Bullen. Although he held the titles of Captain, Major and perhaps General, it cannot be said that Cudworth had a stellar military career.

Final Days

In 1680, James Cudworth became Deputy Governor. Plymouth Colony wished to obtain a proper charter from England. James Cudworth was sent to England in the summer of 1681 to present Plymouth's case to the crown. During the following months, the colony waited for news from him but no news came. After many months of silence, news came that Cudworth had died of smallpox in England. He is probably buried in England, but there is a memorial for him at Scituate, Massachusetts.

General James Cudworth Memorial, Scituate, MA

His will was dated 15 September 1681 and the inventory taken 20 June 1682. His possessions included a pocket compass and 8 pounds worth of books. His will names sons James, Israel and Jonathan; daughter Mary Whitcomb's four children, Israel, Robert, James and Mary and his daughter Joanna Jones. He left half his estate to his eldest son James and one quarter to each of his other two sons.

Men of Kent Burying Ground at Scituate, MA. James Cudworth memorial on left.


  • Philbrick, Nathan, "Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War", 2006
  • Willison, George F, "Saints and Strangers", Scranton, PA: The Haddon Craftsmen, 1945
  • Cudworth, Frank Ezekiel, "Genealogy (Partial) of the Cudworth Family" presented to the Scituate Historical Society August 1963
  • Whitcomb, Charlotte, "The Whitcomb Family in America - Biographical Genealogy" Vol 1, Minneapolis 1904, p 50
  • US and Canada, Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, 1500's-1900s; Place: New England; Year: 1634: page number 120
  • "Search for the Passengers of the Mary and John 1630", Volume 14, page 16
  • Deane, "History of Scituate"
  • Stratton, "Plymouth Colony: Its History and People 1620-1691"
  • Coldham, Peter William, "The Complete Book of Emigrants 1607-1660", 1987
  • Langdon, George Jr., "Pilgrim Colony: A History of New Plymouth 1620-1691"


  1. Thank you for your research on one of my ancestors. It answered some of my questions, and gave me new sources to check out.

    1. Nice to hear from another (probably distant) Cudworth cousin. Please let me know if you learn any interesting new facts or stories about our ancestor, Judith.

  2. Joanne, it's good to see this. Mary and Robert Whitcomb are my 8th g-grandparent. So we're cousins :)

  3. My ancestry is through the Cudworth/Howland line...James and Mary Howland, daughter of Henry Howland.

  4. I suspect then that we also relate through the Howland line - in addition to my Cudworth family, I also descend from Henry Howland through his daughter Lydia who married James Brown. We are probably cousins a few times over since my understanding is that there were just so many intermarriages among the early New Englanders.

  5. I just found your site, Joanne - Thank you for the copious notes, sources and well documented factoids. Rev. Ralph (1571) was my 11th gr. grandfather on my paternal grandmother's side. I did not know my grandmother, and as the lone archiver of our family history, I am delighted to learn more of my generational history. Thank you for the work!! Cheers! Beth

  6. Thanks for posting your comments, Beth. It's nice to know that someone has read and found these stories to be useful. Cheers to you too, Cousin!