Mason’s Claim

The spring of 1683 brought an issue of great concern for the residents of Ipswich. If an ancient claim was confirmed in Boston court, every land title would be worthless and a landed medieval system known as “quit-rents” could be grafted upon New England.

In 1622, Capt. John Mason had obtained title to all land between the Naumkeag and Merrimack Rivers (Salem to Newburyport) as a principal partner in a stock company known as the Plymouth Council for New England. The company charter was surrendered in 1635 with the condition that the land be divided among its members, primarily Mason and Sir Ferdinando Gorges, founder of the “Province of Maine.” Neither man ever set foot in America.

Mason's Claim
Grant of Cape Ann to John Mason by King James in 1622, page 1 of 8, courtesy of Ed Reither

Mason’s claim was hampered by the English Civil War and the rise 0f Oliver Cromwell who supported Puritan colonization, so he turned his attention north of the Merrimack, named it “New Hampshire” and devised a scheme by which the land could only be leased with payments to himself. Seeing that their neighbors on the south side of the river were prospering, the towns of Salisbury and Hampton requested annexation to Massachusetts. Mason’s son John launched a long campaign to have the Massachusetts Bay Colony Charter revoked, but as John Winthrop wrote, “The Lord frustrated their design.” John Mason died.

Captain John Smith's map of New England
Captain John Smith’s map of New England

In 1660 the Crown was restored and the old claim was revived by Captain Mason’s grandson Robert Tufton, who had his surname changed to Mason. King Charles II saw this as an opportunity to reclaim control of Massachusetts, “a prejudicial plantation” that was flaunting tariff and navigation laws. The Attorney General for New England ruled twice that Robert Mason had a valid title to areas of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, but the Massachusetts Chief Justices countered that the claim was worthless.

In 1676 Edward Randolph was sent over but returned to England six weeks later denouncing the “Old Faction” running Massachusetts. The Colony sent two representatives to England in October, authorized to discuss Mason’s Claim, but not the trade issues. The Lords of trade continued pressing for revocation of the charter.

When John Mason claimed ownership of all land in New Hampshire, those communities requested annexation by the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

On January 4, 1681, John T. Mason presented the King’s letter to the General Court, which ordered “all said tenants” to appear in Ipswich. At this hearing, which was held on Wednesday, February 14, 1681, residents protested that they had owned their lands for fifty years and defended them against the Indians without a penny from Robert Mason. The magistrates reported back to the king, “We are in hope that what may be presented to His Majesty on behalf of said inhabitants will obviate the clamor and groundless pretense of the complainer.”

The next year the General Court was allowed to hear the case in Boston. The Colony’s lawyers were instructed to consent to nothing that would infringe on the Charter. A few property owners apparently agreed to pay “quit-rents” of two schillings a year (worth about $15 today), and an Essex County Court was established in 1683 to try each charge individually, but Mason failed to file . Like his grandfather before him found he had turned his sights to New Hampshire, and Massachusetts would never be turned into the personal fiefdom that he planned to call “Mariana.”

John T. Mason’s claim on New Hampshire was always the stronger case, and in an attempt to intimidate the colonists there, he instituted numerous lawsuits against landholders. At Dover several court officers were driven off while attempting to evict homeowners. They returned on the Sabbath armed with warrants for the arrest of the rioters, and in the tumult that ensued, a young woman knocked down one of the officers with her Bible. Faced by such forcible manifestations of popular hostility, even the Governor, who had been paid off by Mason, declared that the thirty or forty executions which Mason had managed to secure were useless.

Mason was thrown into a fireplace by angry colonists.
John T. Mason was thrown into a fireplace by angry colonists.

When Mason personally showed up in to stake his claim, angry colonists told him that it amounted to nothing, which so enraged him that he took hold of a settler named Wiggin, who in turn threw Mason across the room into the fireplace, severely burning him. His heirs still managed to profit from the old grant by selling empty land to investors and striking a deal which gave England full control over the state of New Hampshire.

Mason’s claim against the North Shore area had been used as an opening by the Crown to reclaim control of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which was in flagrant violation of its charter by ignoring the Navigation Acts. The Colonists would have served themselves well by paying more attention to this underlying issue. The Lords of Trade continued to press the King to act, and he revoked the Massachusetts Bay Colony Charter in 1684. From 1686 to 1689 all of New England was ruled by Sir Edmund Andros under an administrative unit known as The Dominion of New England, which led to the events by which Ipswich is known as the Birthplace of American Independence.

Sources and further reading:

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