Isaac Allerton: Saint, Sinner, Entrepreneur

By John M. Hunt, Jr.

allerton walk plimouth

Lone walk through Plimoth. Photo: Joseph Wood

Of the Mayflower passengers accorded biographies in the Dictionary of American Biography, the least considered by the public at large is Isaac Allerton (ca. 1586-1659). Yet Allerton was a proper Saint (Leyden Separatist), was fifth to sign the Mayflower Compact, and in the earliest years of Plymouth Colony was second only to Bradford in rank and power.

After the death of Governor John Carver in April 1621, "William Bradford was chosen Governor in his stead, and...Isaac Allerton was to be an assistant unto him" (i.e. Assistant Governor), says Bradford in his history Of Plymouth Plantation. In that great work, which spans the years 1620 to 1647, no "First Comer," with the possible exception of Edward Winslow, receives more mention and more attention than Isaac Allerton.

Yet Allerton's association with Plymouth was relatively short: by 1633 he had left in disgrace.

This disgrace, arising from his misconduct of the colony's business, denied him his place in history; but it should not be allowed to cast a shadow over the whole of his achievement , which was by any standard substantial.

Because of the complex mingling of good and bad in his character as "merchant," because of his position of prominence and "tragic" fall therefrom, because of his far-reaching activities, activities serving to weld colonies together, Allerton is a singular case among the Pilgrim Fathers. His story deserves a wider public.

The Pilgrims were not, in the beginning, experienced businessmen. In 1625, at the death of their "right hand" man in England, Robert Cushman, they found they needed Allerton's negotiating abilities and sent him post-haste as their agent to England. This mission (the first of several) was particularly significant. It produced a change in the financial arrangements between the merchant Adventurers and the Pilgrims whereby the former sold their entire interest to the latter, know as Purchasers, for 1,800 English ponds. Allerton negotiated the agreement in 1626.

In 1627, at Bradford's instigation, the Purchasers, fifty-eight in number, put the responsibility of the colony's debt on the shoulders of the eight Plymouth and four London associates, known as Undertakers. In return a monopoly was granted to Bradford, Allerton, and Standish in their position as original Undertakers. "Hitherto," wrote Bradford of the following year (1628), "Mr. Allerton did them good and faithful service, and well had it been if he had so continued."

At that point it seemed to Bradford that Allerton was subtly shifting upon the colonists at Plymouth such losses and expenses as were rightfully his own. Indeed, Allerton, so intermixed their goods with his "that if any casualty had befallen them at sea, he might have laid the whole of them if he would, for there was no distinction.

In other ways, too, Allerton caused them grief, almost as if he had a penchant for so doing. Not once but twice, in successive years (1628, 1629), he brought over grossly unsuitable characters: first, a certain Mr. Rogers, a man "crazed in his brain," to preach; second, a certain Morton, "an instrument of mischief" deported only the year before for misdemeanors, to be his private secretary.

Why did Allerton, at times, simply ignore instructions? "Private gain" led him astray, Bradford judged, quoting 1 Timothy vi. 10: "the love of money is the root of all evil."

Allerton was trying to solve, it must be granted, an almost impossible financial problem; but he came to imagine that he could concurrently remove the colony's debt and feather his own nest, and these two things were simply irreconcilable. In the end, as Bradford was forced to conclude, Allerton "played his own game" and brought his fellows, almost inextricably, "into the brairs."

For us now as for Bradford then, Allerton's dealings are sometimes "folded up in obscurity"; and in one instance, though contemporaries decried the action, the consequences of the action cannot be pronounced unequivocally bad.

Consider the affair of the White Angel. When in 1631 Allerton and certain English partners purchased the ship White Angel (and hired the Friendship), Bradford and the people of Plymouth were astonished that he had acted without their consent; strong opposition ensued. The quarrel, protracted as it was , impeded progress and damaged their credit. It came at a time when the colonists were seeking to trade on an ampler scale; the White Angel was an ocean-crossing vessel, precisely what they needed, having none of that capability, and promised them more and better in the way of commerce.

No matter. Allerton, too self-serving for Plymouth taste, had exceeded his authority one time too many, and in 1631 they "renounced [him] wholly for being their agent, or to have anything to do in any of their business." He thereupon left Plymouth, the richest man in the colony (according to the 1633 Tax List). His fellow colonists, however, while finding fault with him, could not do without him, as they proved by electing him an Assistant as late as January 1634.

What shielded Allerton from open criticism during his Plymouth days was his relationship to William Brewster: he was the Ruling Elder's son-in-law. Bradford, for his part, early orphaned and in his formative years much beholden to Brewster, was reluctant to risk offending the venerable old man.

Allerton had married Fear Brewster as his second wife in the hey-day of his responsibilities to the colony, ca. 1626. When Fear died in 1634, a victim of "pestilential fever," their son Isaac Jr. (b. betw. 1627 and 1630) was left in the capable hands of his grandfather. It is no accident that the boy, living with his grandfather, a university man (Cambridge), amid the books of his grandfather's notably large library, was prepared to take his degree at Harvard, which he did in 1650.

What Mary (b. 1616), Allerton's daughter by his first wife, Mary Norris (d. 1621), sensed of the growing disaffection between the colonists and her father is indeed a question. One wonders how she, in particular, bore his departure.

If any ill will existed, ready to fly in the face of an Allerton, it was quick to fade. Mary remained firmly in Plymouth (for the rest of her life, as it happened, dying there in 1699, the last survivor of those who had come on the Mayflower).

By a curious coincidence she married (ca. 1636) Thomas Cushman, son of Robert Cushman, the Pilgrims' agent in England, whose death in 1625 had created the opportunity for her father to function thus. It is a further coincidence that this Thomas Cushman spent his adolescence in Bradford's household, and so was the Governor's ward, and later became the second Ruling Elder of the Plymouth Church (1649-1691), and so was Brewster's successor.

Allerton's other daughter by his first marriage, Remember (b. ca. 1614), was with him in Marblehead, the first stage of his life after Plymouth. she had every reason to be so situated: she was the wife of Moses Maverick, a proprietor there, who was also her father's business partner.

Allerton set to work, sanguine as usual, in Marblehead. In a trice he had "houses" there, "buildings" (warehouses), and "stages" for curing fish; and the place served as headquarters for his fishing fleet. (In the season 1633-34 he fished the vicinity "with eight boats," according to John Winthrop's journal, while "seventeen fishing ships were come to Richmond's Isle and the Isles of Shoals," off the coast of Maine.)

Though he had some successes, and unquestionably stimulated the local fishing industry, his sojourn there was brief and ill-starred. In the middle of the night, the first day, the first day of February 1634, a house occupied by Allerton and many fishermen in his employ caught fire and burned down. Barks and pinnaces belonging to him were on other occasions wrecked or lost.

Not only were there such mishaps as these, but the authorities of Massachusetts Bay Colony did not take kindly to his presence and summarily ordered his "removal." Their directive is on record, but not their reason. It has been conjectured that Allerton caused interference, that he was controversial in his views, and that he perhaps expressed sympathy for Roger Williams at the time of the great firebrand's banishment from Salem (Marblehead was in face a part of Salem until 1647).

allerton newamsterdam

'New Amsterdam in 1651' Engraving by Joost Hartgers

Allerton has the honor of being the only Mayflower passenger to reside in New Amsterdam (New York City) in the Dutch colony of New Netherland. The evidence for his arrival there is a record of 18 February 1639 in which no less a personage then William Kieft, Director (Governor) of the colony, declares that he had offered to receive tobacco from Isaac Allerton in exchange for grain or money.

Allerton's standing in this community was immediately high, and remained so. Not only are Court Records of New Amsterdam lavish in their references to Isaac Allerton, his house and household, and his affairs; the Registers of the Provincial Secretary indicate that he was much sought after. He was routinely called upon to exercise power of attorney, sign bond as security, and act as referee in cases of difference between parties.

As he was "well known" to Governor Winthrop of Massachusetts Bay Colony ("I am well acquainted with him and his trade and dealings in this country'), so he was to Directors Kieft and Stuyvesant of New Netherland, and not merely in the role of merchant.  In 1643, in the face of Indian unrest, :the Commonality of Manhattas" chose eight popular representatives to form an emergency council, the "Eight Men" as its members were called, and Allerton was one of these.
 The Eight Men were potentially powerful, and in this case their independence was distinctly troublesome to the director. It was their letter to Amsterdam in 1644 charging Kieft with malfeasance in office that secured his removal and brought Peter Stuyvesant in his place. In this letter Allerton's signature, writ large and bold as always, was second in order.

In another hot spot, the settlement on Delaware Bay, the Dutch in 1642 made common cause with the Swedes to fend off further encroachment by the English. The problems triggered by this triple occupation compelled the United Colonies to call a mixed commission , the first of its kind in the colonies. Needless to say, the report issued by the commission was signed and certified by, among others, Isaac Allerton.

Allerton was also highly visible in missions and deputations. His service in this domain, while hardly having the tremendous moment of his transatlantic trips for Plymouth, was yet always prompted my some very immediate concern. In 1643, for example, he and Captain John Underhill were sent to New Haven to request aid against Indians in the form of a hundred men.

Also, in 1654, when Oliver Cromwell, moving to seize New Amsterdam, dispatched several men-or-war to Boston, it was Allerton who brought intelligence of this preliminary more (the projected war never materialized) to Director Stuyvesant.

All the time he was in New Amsterdam—in a colony founded on trade, not tillage—Allerton was a superlative trader. From the start he recognized the profitability of dealing in tobacco, and built a house and two-story warehouse for its storage on the East River, at present-day Peck's Slip, where he had 500 feet of water frontage. Such was his property that in a 1655 tax assessment listing sixty persons, only five were rated as owing higher taxes.

A letter of attorney of 13 October 1646 calling Allerton a "New Haven merchant" fixes the date of his association with that town, his last port of call. We do not know when he came to live there permanently, or when or where he married his third wife, Joanna Swinnerton, who long survived him. Though they retained their residence in New Amsterdam, the Allertons had in New Haven—by seventeenth-century standards, at least—a grand house boasting four porticoes. Moreover, their seats in meeting-house, the First Church of New Haven, were decidedly seats of honor, as records demonstrate.

Pilgrim Isaac Allerton died in New Haven between 1 February (when he appeared in court) and 12 February 1659 (when his inventory was taken). His estate was then greatly diminished, and his will is in the main a list of debts claimed as owned to him. In the pages of his will we find him still in harness, an extensive merchant with dealings with the Dutch, the Delaware Bay settlement, the colony of Virginia, and the Dutch West Indies. It would seem that, toward the end, Isaac Jr. was intimately involved in his father's pursuits, given his frequent appearances then on his father's behalf in court. Immediately after his father's death, in an act of show generosity, he paid the creditors for the New Haven house (with orchard and barn and two acres of meadow) and conveyed it to his stepmother for her life (d. 1682). He himself departed for Northumberland (later Westmoreland) County, Virginia, to occupy land which his father had acquired almost a decade earlier. He there married widow Elizabeth (Willoughby) (Overzee) Colclough, and through that line many Virginians, such as U.S. President Zachary Taylor, have claimed descent from Pilgrim Isaac. Young Isaac, having the Allertonian propensity to prosper, lived well, and was a colonel in the militia, Justice of the Peace for Northumberland County, and a member of the House of Burgesses.

Isaac Allerton's signature

Isaac Allerton's signature

The life of Isaac Allerton Senior is more complex than this partial survey can adequately convey. Young readers could do worse than contemplate the patterns of behavior of William Bradford and Isaac Allerton, prototypical American colonists, as exhibited in Bradford's history. But it is a mistake to leave Allerton, merely a flawed Bradford, floundering in Plymouth. He himself had wide horizons. He was nothing if not active and enterprising, bold and risk-taking, resilient and adaptable. True, he was acquisitive to a fault, and his faith in trading was virtually insatiable. But he was superior to mos of his time and place in knowledge of the world and familiarity with business; his broad spirit of enterprise was beyond the ken of most, surpassing in its results that of any other individual Mayflower passenger. In Holland and England, on the coast of America from Mine to Virginia, in the Dutch West Indies, in Spain and Portugal, wherever he was, he was influential. He seemed to know everybody of consequence, and they in turn seemed to know him. He held positions of trust almost as a matter of course.

Certainly one key to all this was his extraordinary ability to seize the moment. Who but Isaac Allerton would have personally greeted John Winthrop, on board the Arbella (flagship of his grand fleet), upon his arrival in Salem harbor, thereby welcoming the first Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony to the New World. Governor Winthrop's journal confirms the encounter. Allerton happened to by nearby in a shallop and, quite simply, seized the moment.

To study his strenuous life is thus, in a sense, to study the early history of the earliest American colonies, and to witness, as we have seen, various moments seized, some very wrongly, many rightly.

John Hunt, is a 12th-generation descendant of Isaac Allerton and John Tilley, and an 11th-generation descendant of George Soule and John Howland.