Politics in the archives: Records, property, and plantation politics in massachusetts bay, 1642-1650

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This essay concerns the permutations of English popular politics in its seventeenth-century Atlantic setting, using the record of local and individual experience of politics to examine the process whereby settlers took possession of land in Massachusetts Bay. Historians have long appreciated the importance of English local customs in the early North American settlements, but the explicit political significance of English corporate and manorial approaches to land law in these settlements, and in the expansion of the Massachusetts Bay regime during the 1640s, have not been properly understood. The essay's perspective is microhistorical, developing its case from Obadiah Bruen's detailed "town book" of the Gloucester plantation: the book that he kept as the settlement's recorder between 1642 and 1650. The plantation occupied a key set of coordinates at the junction of English popular politics and religion and the building of the Massachusetts Bay colony during the 1640s. Using a close reading of Bruen's text, the essay identifies a politics of land possession, fashioned from traditional English political forms and their uses of land law, that sustained the Gloucester plantation, much like the colony as a whole, through a decade of bitter internal divisions. In the face of religious conflict and the myriad difficulties of building a new regime, political order came to depend, in Gloucester as in Massachusetts Bay generally, on the power to convey secure title to the possession of land, a power enshrined in the routine administrative records of local notaries or recorders, officially required in each Massachusetts Bay township during the 1640s.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3-25
Number of pages23
JournalJournal of Early American History
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2011

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cultural Studies
  • History


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