Mayhew, Thomas Sr. (Governor)

Mayhew, Thomas Sr. (Governor)

Thomas Mayhew, Sr. (March 31, 1593 – March 25, 1682) established the first English settlement of Martha’s Vineyard in 1642.


Born: 31 March 1593, Tisbury, Wiltshire, England

Spouse: Anna Parkhurst, 1619, Jane Gallion, 1634

Died: 25 March 1682, Vineyard Haven, Massachusets

Parents: Mathew Mayhew and Alice Barter

Family Line: coming soon


Books have been written about this great man. Governor Mayhew “deserves to be ranked with Bradford and Winthrop, and other worthies, who established or governed the first English colonies inNorth America.” Johnson, in his “wonder Working Providence,” published in 1654, writes of Thomas Mayhew with serious profundity:

The richest Jems (Gems) and gainful things most Merchants wisely venter:
Deride not then New Englandmen, this Corporation enter:
Christ call for Trade shall never fade, come Cradock factors send:
Let Mayhew go another move, spare not thy coyne (coin) to spend. Such Trades advance and never chanc in all their Trading yet:
Though some deride they lose, abide, here’s faine beyond mans wit.

Despite Thomas Mayhew’s great acclaim during his own lifetime and following generations, today his accomplishments are largely unknown even to his descendants.

Thomas Mayhew was christened in the church of St. Johnthe Baptist, in the parish of Tisbury on the downs of southWiltshire County,Englandon April 1, 1593. Parish Records indicate that his parents were Matthew andAlice(Barter) Mayhew. The Mayhews had resided in the area at least since 1540, when Thomas Mayhew’s grandfather (also named Thomas) was listed in the tax register as a free-born landholder. Scholars suggest that the name Mayhew is of Norman origin and is probably a variant of Mahu, May and May, all of which are believed to be derivations of Matthew.

Thomas had relatives nearby, who on account of being older obtained the family estate. These relatives did not figure heavily in his life not only because of the difference in social station determined by ancient English Property Law, but also because they had remained adherents of the Roman Catholic Faith whereas Thomas’ immediate family had embraced the Puritan Movement. The circumstances and events of Thomas Mayhew’s boyhood and youth are unknown. At the age of twenty-one his father, Robert Mayhew, died leaving him an estate of forty pounds.

With inheritance in had, Thomas set out for Southampton, an important seaport and center of commerce. Thomas’ pursuits brought him close in contact with New Worldcolonization. He may have been the Mr. Maio of whom the Massachusetts Bay Company ordered material for beds, bolsters, and ticks in 1628. Mayhew later entered the employ of Matthew Cradock ofLondon. Cradock formerly had been the governor of the company of the Massachusetts Bay and was, upon return to England, one of the prominent merchants of the day. The many interests of Cradock inNew Englandrequired skilled supervision and so he appointed Thomas Mayhew his factor (agent).

Immediately upon his arrival in New England Thomas Mayhew became actively involved with social and political life. Mayhew’s first residence was at Medford near Boston.  Medford was the private thirty-five hundred acre estate of Matthew Cradock. Thomas was supervisor of the large corps of workers engaged in maintaining and developing Cradock’s diverse ventures. Although Mayhew’s position accorded him financial comfort and prestige, he apparently had plans of his own. In 1634, Thomas erected a water mill in Watertown, which later he purchased for himself and yielded him a great profit.

Cradock became suspicious of Mayhew’s financial success and at the urging of a jealous co-employee, terminated his employment. Although Cradock wrote Governor Winthrop and demanded an official investigation into the affair, no legal action of any kind was ever taken against Mayhew. Cradock, too, must have eventually determined that Mayhew was guiltless because in later years he reassumed business dealings with Mayhew. Upon termination of employment with Cradock, Thomas Mayhew took up residence atWatertown, where he already had business interests, Mayhew lived atWatertownfor the next seven or eight years continuing his identity in public affairs and enlarging his business interests.

Thomas held a large farm in Wattertown of two hundred and fifty acres and three tracts of “upland”, totaling more than one hundred and twenty acres. In addition he possessed thirty acres of meadow at the “westpine meadow” in the township.

Thomas Mayhew was still not satisfied with the comfortable life he had attained. He desired more for himself and his descendants. A certain Mr. Forrett, purporting to represent the commercial and landed interests of the Earl of Stirling, offered for sale, title to Mayhew of sixteen islands, including the Islands of Martha’s Vineyard andNantucket. Mayhew paid forty pounds for the islands, withStirlingretaining the right of payment of annual rents. The Earls of Stirling, whose rapid succession of deaths, left little time for attention to islands that constituted but a small fraction of their family’s great landed holdings. In fact, the first Early of Sti8rling was dead at the time of Forrett’s grant to Thomas Mayhew. Therefore no annual rents were ever collected. Mayhew was apprehensive about the legal worth of this deed and throughout his life bought, from others, any claims to the islands. Later it was on the basis of one of these other claims that Mayhew successfully defended his right to Martha’s Vineyard before the Duke of York inNew Yorkand was proclaimed governor for life.

In 1492, Thomas Mayhew’s son, Thomas Mayhew Jr., founded the first settlement atGreatHarbor, now Edgartown, on theislandofMartha’s Vineyard.  Every foot of territory within the bounds of Mayhew’s patent, settled by a white man, was purchased from its lawful Indian proprietor.  Although he held an English title that purported to descend from the crown, Mayhew chose to consider that title as granting him merely the exclusive right among Europeans to purchase lands from the aboriginal occupants.  When Mayhew sold land to a settler whom he himself had not purchased of the natives, he sold merely a right to the settler to perfect title from the proper Indian sachem.

Coming to the island as a feudal lord to found a family of landed magnates and to better his financial condition, Thomas Mayhew found himself drawn by a sense of pity to the unfortunate Indian.  Indeed, the great achievement of his life was not the settlement of islands or the founding of towns and villages, or the establishment of a government over planters.  In these things he was preeminently successful, but his greatest triumph was his administration of Indian affairs, his generous self-devotion to the noble design of civilizing and Christianizing the Indian inhabitants within his domains.  In his relations with the red man he achieved a success far beyond that of any other British governor inNorth America, unique in that he was the one alone to become a missionary among them.  A manorial lord, a British colonial governor, he became one of the great missionaries of his day and one of the greatest governors in all ages to govern and pacify a savage race.  To the Indian he was father, counselor, and ruler; “sachem,” as they upon occasion called him.

Missionary work at Martha’s Vineyard andNantucketwas not begun by cajoling or forces of arms.  It was not maintained by peonage, or its memory perpetuated in the minds of men be the erection of cathedrals in the name of the Lord.  It was not the mind of Thomas Mayhew to place wealth and labor in edifices dedicated to the lowly prince born inBethlehem, who scored the riches of this world.  The religion of Thomas Mayhew was a religion of the heart and mind, not a religion of pomp and heaps of stone.  By his righteous living and precepts, example and mental persuasions, he brought the children of the wilderness to the faith of the white man’s God and to a knowledge of the white man’s justice.  He taught them the religion of love and salvation and everlasting life.

The labor of gospelizing the Indians at Martha’s Vineyardwas first begun by Mayhew’s son, the co-patentee.  Following his death the work was continued by the father, and he in turn was succeeded by his grandson Zachariah.  Other members of the family preached to the natives upon occasion, or were empowered in government over them, for a period of time extending over two hundred years.  For centuries they were rulers, teachers, and civilizers.  Their service is said to be the longest of any one family in the annals of missionary history.

Thomas Mayhew even in his eighties would sleep in wigwams and walk upwards of twenty miles to minister to the Indians.  He alone of the Colonial governors kept in person the covenant the men ofEnglandmade unto their King when he granted them New World Charters, that one of the principal ends of their going intoAmericawas to carry the gospel of Christ to the native inhabitants.  Over a period of twenty-five years, beginning at age sixty-five, Thomas Mayhew preached to some Indian assemblies one day every week so long as he lived.  Thomas and his family mastered the difficult Indian language and taught them in their own tongue.

Governor Mayhew was successful in peaceably convincing the Indian sachems to adopt English laws and procedures.  In time there were established Indian courts with Indian judges and Indian juries.  Thomas Mayhew was so just and impartial in his treatment of the Indians that they possessed complete confidence in his government.  There were no armed conflicts between the Indians of Martha’s Vineyard throughout the forty years, he resided there.  Even the Indians onNantucketIslandwere pacified and came no more up to battle against the white man or rival Indian tribes.  When Indian messengers from the mainland would come to Martha’s Vineyard orNantucketand attempt to solicit the Indians’ support in raids on the white men or other Indian tribes the proposals were promptly turned down.

Full details are lacking of Mayhew’s marital life.  He is known to have been twice married.  The governor’s first wife and mother of his only son was Abigail Parkus.  Local tradition has it that she was a member of the Parkhurst family ofIpswich,England, of which Gorge Parkhurst of Watertown, originated.  It is not thought that the first wife lived to accompany her husband to theNew Worldas Thomas Mayhew contracted a second marriage about the year 1633.  Jane, the second wife through who we descend, was the widow of Mr. Thomas Paine, merchant, ofLondon, where it is said, the marriage took place.

To his union were born four daughters: Hannah; Bethia; Mary, who died young, and Martha.  Hannah, our ancestor, became the wife of Captain Thomas Daggett, an official many years prominent in the civil, judicial, and military life of the islands.  She was a favorite daughter and was known to the inhabitants as the “deputy-governor.”  After her husband’s death, she married, second, Captain Samuel Smith, of Edgartown, by whom she left no issue.

At Martha’s Vineyardtoday there stands a statue of Governor Thomas Mayhew as a lasting memorial to his great service as a governor, colonizer to the English and as a missionary and benefactor to the Indians.  In his honor, the town of Mayhew Station, Lowndes County, Mississippi, was founded in 1820 as a missionary station among the Choctaw Indians by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, and named “in memory of the excellent and devoted men who so successfully preached the Gospel to the Indians on Martha’s Vineyard, and consecrated their lives to his self-denying service at an early period in the settlement of our country.”  Truly, Thomas Mayhew followed the counsel of the Good Shepherd, “inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

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