Can’t We Just Get Along? The “knave, cheater, and…French dog”—Jersey Folk in 17th-Century New England

An excerpt from Professor Carrington’s remarks can be seen here: 

One of the leitmotifs of last fall’s Spectacle of Toleration Conference could have been the late Rodney King’s famous question, “Can’t we just get along?” Why is simple toleration so hard to sustain?

Several speakers came at this problem from various perspectives. One that caught my ear was Assistant Professor in Early American History at Roger Williams University Charlotte Carrington’s compelling story, “The ‘knave, cheater, and…French dog’: Jerseymen and Women in Seventeenth-Century New England.”

Jersey lies in the English Channel, closer to France than England. In the 17th century, the island, though subject to the English Crown, was, by dint of language, laws, and customs, more than geographically distant from England: it was a medieval holdout in a nascent modern world. Jersey settlers, the so-called “Essex French”, began arriving in Essex County. Massachusetts, in the early 1660s and there were at least some twenty to thirty families in and around Salem by 1685. While many held onto French, many others were eager to assimilate and anglicized their names: Zachiah LeBlanc became Zachariah White, Philippe L’Anglois became Philip English.

English and other bi-lingual Jerseymen formed a bridge between the francophone settlers and the anglophone authorities, assuming positions of influence with both groups. Philip English also played an important role in bringing Islanders to Massachusetts, young women indentured as servants for seven years, young men to work for four years, usually at sea.
English’s family lived on the south side of Salem Neck; nearby were other influential families: the Mazurys (Le Messariers), Februarys (Feveryears), and Browns (Le Bruns).

The Jersey settlers participated in communities of interest based on religion, nationality, craft, trade, and neighborhood. English, for example, was part of Salem’s blooming mercantile community and one of its Anglicans. Jersey folk men lived near and worked for more settled inhabitants, participated in town affairs, and formed local social and labor networks. The lives of Puritan and non-Puritan were intertwined, but differences between and among them were still recognized.

These plural networks existed simultaneously, sometimes harmoniously, sometimes not. The Jersey community itself was far from harmonious. William Prynne observed that “most have this Norman quality, that never a two of them do really trust one another, and will prove treacherous at any time to their nearest friends and kindred.” One area of perpetual discord was debt and bankruptcy. In Jersey, the law required a creditor to assume the entire bankrupt estate—debts and all—or lose his credit assets in it, exposing creditors to significant risk. Consequently, Jersey merchants were quick to sue a debtor, lest he go bankrupt. Philip English did not hesitate to sue his own father-in-law’s estate or his fellow Jerseyman, Benjamin Mazury.

Early New England was a very litigious place in general and Jersey folk were brought to court for countless reasons. One, John Brock, appears frequently in court records. Slow in settling his tax accounts, Brock, when confronted by Marblehead Town Constable Waldron, refused to pay, “with scoffing language at authority.”’ When Waldron, no paragon of virtue and piety himself, tried to make Brock stand more than his obligatory share of the town watch, Brock refused, stating that Waldron “was a pitiful constable.” Later, finding Brock in a public house with “three strange men”, Waldron ordered them all to leave. Brock ignored him; heated words ensued. Waldron called Brock a “knave, cheater and French dog,” accused him of cheating in weighing and selling fish, and threatened to “break [his] bones.” Unsurprisingly, witnesses reported that “the constable …[was] hardly able to stand… disguised with drink.” The judge admonished Brock, the constable, and the innkeeper.

Tax levies triggered a number of heated lawsuits and acts of violence. Many Jersey settlers believed themselves to only be transient residents of Essex County, as much of their time was spent at sea or trading on Jersey. Both Edward February and Nathaniel Beadle were brought to court for “abuse of authority” when they objected to the Salem constable’s tax demands. The constable complained that “ye sd February… after many reviling insulting Speeches he stroke me violently upon the breast & graspt me both skin & flesh & made me flesh sore…he saide he would trample me under his feet, notwithstanding I gaue him no provocation.” English was sued by the town of Salem in 1684 because, as constable, he refused to be held responsible for the rates assessed on men—possibly Jerseymen—who were no longer resident. The Jerseymen did not object because the rates were to support a Puritan church but because they believed they were not residents, as they spent so much time at sea.

In other cases, faith was a factor. English, who rowed to Marblehead to attend Anglican services, refused to pay rates to support the Salem Congregational church. In Ipswich, the Jerseyman Thomas Baker slept through William Hubbard’s service offerings. He refused to be served with a warrant, saying “he did not care of all the laws in the country.” When told he would be brought before Major William Hathorne, Baker scoffed that “he would not be tried by that white hat [white-haired] limping rogue.”

Jersey folk were also involved in worldly crimes. In 1673 Peter Leycros (LeCras) and two English colonists were arrested for and convicted of theft. He was a servant in the household of his victim, the eminent William Hubbard, making his crime seem worse. Leycros “carried a gallon bottle of wine, which he drew in his mistress’ cellar, to the house of Jonas Gregory…[where] the wine was drunk by the company.” On other occasions, Leycros was brought to court for stealing a sheep and an axe, and was “admonished for breach of the Sabbath.” Leycros evidently struggled to pay the fines for his misdeeds, so his employer stepped in, in return for two additional years of service.

Hubbard felt that Leycros had acted without restraint, a complaint that could be made against Jerseymen, the Irish, Native Americans, and many others deemed to be bad Christians. Still, while Jersey folk were not the only thieves in Essex County, they soon received a sinister reputation. In 1683, John Best spread a rumor around Salem that the Jerseyman Nathaniel Beadle had received £50 that “Black Dick, Mr Browns negro, had stolen from his master.” Beadle was innocent, but Best, who had himself led the slave to steal, assumed such accusations against Jerseymen would be believed, as they were thought willing to work alongside African slaves in pursuit of ill-gotten gain.
Jersey folk were also regarded as co-conspirators plotting to swindle everyone else. Mary Tucker agreed to arbitrate her differences with Abraham Kuitvil and any third party—“except a Jerseyman”, who would favor his countryman. New Englanders referred to Jersey folk, especially in heated speech, as “Jersey cheater”, “knave”, and “French dog”, the latter a serious insult as animals were believed to have no souls. People from Wales, Ireland, and Scotland were stereotyped, too—phrases like “Welsh curr” and “Scotch rogue” pepper the records—and similar language was directed against French newcomers to Rhode Island in the early 1670s.

Towards the end of the 17th century, tensions rose between the Jersey and English communities when France and England went to war. When fifteen impoverished Huguenot families—Protestants driven out of France by the Edict of Nantes—arrived in Salem in 1685, feelings ran high. Social hysteria manifested itself in numerous ways, including the imprisonment of Philip English and his wife as witches.

In an odd way, English’s wealth and influence put him most at risk. He was one of the wealthiest men in the county, owner of 27 ships, two of which sailed regularly to Jersey from Salem. His world was cosmopolitan; he traded in Bilbao, Oporto, Barbados, St Christopher’s, Jersey, Isle of May, and several French ports. His success depended on his extensive business connections and accumulated capital. His networks rooted him in the colony and helped bring it into the wider Atlantic world. Well-known in Salem—English served as a constable and a selectman and on the Jury of Trials—his prominence would draw attention at a time when anyone with French ties was suspect. Rich, litigious, and arrogant, the embodiment of the Jersey stereotype, he was envied and mistrusted.

At the height of the witch panic, English’s wife was arrested; subsequently a warrant was issued for his arrest. Forewarned, he fled the area, just in time. His house was sacked by a mob and the sheriff arrested his goods and property. After a month he gave himself up, lest his absence prejudice his wife’s trial. The Sunday before their trial, they managed to make their escape by carriage to New York. Once the fever subsided, the family returned to Salem and English managed to re-establish his business, which he ran till his death at eighty-five.

From our distant perspective, the line between English and non-English, Puritan and non-Puritan, appears blurred, but from the perspective of those living with but chafing at these differences, the line between themselves and the other appears to have been sharper. In times of calm and prosperity, the Jersey settlers, thanks to their economic contribution, were permitted to live in Essex County and were tolerated. But when the world seemed dangerous, simple toleration proved ephemeral, a casualty of prejudice, contempt, and fear.

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About the Author
Ken Yellis coined the term Toleration Studies. He is Principal of Project Development Services, based in Newport, RI. He has been deeply involved in The Spectacle of Toleration project and helped plan the Conference held in Newport and Providence in Fall 2013.

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