John Oldham (colonist)

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For the poet, see John Oldham (poet). For the baseball player see John Oldham (baseball)
John Oldham
Born July 1592
Derbyshire, England
Died July 20, 1636
Block Island
Nationality English
Other names "Mad Jack"
Occupation landowner, magistrate
Known for Founder of Wethersfield, Connecticut
Religion Puritan
Spouse(s) Jane Bissell
Children Richard, Mary, John Jr.

John Oldham (1592–1636) was an early Puritan settler in Massachusetts. He was a captain, merchant, and Indian trader. His death at the hands of the Indians was one of the causes of the Pequot War of 1636-37.[1]

Plimoth Plantation

Early life[edit]

Oldham was born in Derbyshire, England in 1592, and was baptized at the Church of All Saints (now Derby Cathedral) in Derby on July 15, 1592. A follower of the Puritans from an early age, he emigrated to Plymouth Colony with his sister in July 1623 aboard the Anne.[2] His sister, Lucretia Oldham Brewster, was married to Jonathan Brewster, son of William Brewster, one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact.

Bannishment from Plymouth Plantation[edit]

Oldham is proof that relations among the Pilgrims were not always harmonious. Over half of those who sailed on the Mayflower had come for economic opportunity, rather than religious motivations.[3][4] In 1624, Rev. John Lyford came over to America, and was welcomed at first, but soon disgruntled members of the group who wanted to worship as they had in England, gravitated to him. Lyford gave them encouragement and met with them in secret. Oldham was a supporter of Lyford, and the two of them were looked upon by Pilgrim leader William Bradford as trying to destroy the colony.[5]

Oldham and Lyford wrote letters back to England, disparaging the Pilgrim authorities. Bradford intercepted some of these letters and read them, which greatly angered Oldham. Oldham then refused to stand guard, and argued with the Pilgrims' military advisor, Miles Standish. Standish had a reputation among the Pilgrims as being argumentative and having a hot temper. A short man (he had to cut six inches off his rapier so it wouldn't drag on the ground when he walked), he was described by Puritan historian William Hubbard as "A little chimney is soon fired."[6]

Drawing his knife on Standish, Oldham angrily denounced him as a "Rascall! Beggarly rascal!" Lyford and Oldham were put on trial for "plotting against them and disturbing their peace, both in respects of their civil and church state." As a result, they were banished from Plymouth - an extreme punishment in this wild frontier.[7][8][9]

After Plymouth[edit]

Oldham recovered nicely though. He grew rich in coastal trade and trading with the Indians. He became a representative to the General Court of Massachusetts from 1632 to 1634. He was the overseer of shot and powder for Massachusetts Bay Colony. Oldham's company granted ten acres in assignment of lands in 1623 presumably for each person in Oldham's family and for the following: Conant, Roger, Penn, and Christian.[10]

In the aftermath of the expulsion of Lyford and Oldham, others who were disaffected left as well. The colony lost about a quarter of its residents, with some going to live at Oldham's settlement at Nantasket, and some going to Virginia or back to England.[11][12]

As a trader, Captain Oldham sailed to Virginia and England, but by 1630 he was back in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

He took up residence on an island in the Charles River and was a member of the church at Watertown. Oldham represented Watertown in the colony's first General Court or assembly in 1634. He continued in the Indian trade, sailing the coast from Maine to New Amsterdam.

In 1633 or 1634, Oldham led a group of ten men (which included Captain Robert Seeley), along the Old Connecticut Path to establish Wethersfield, Connecticut, the first English settlement on the Connecticut River.


In July 1636 he was on a voyage to trade with Indians on Block Island. On July 20 he was boarded by hostile Indians, presumed to be Pequots. He and five of his crew were killed, and his two boys with him were captured. The ship's cargo was looted. A fishing vessel rescued the boys and tried to tow his sloop to port. When adverse winds affected them, they scuttled the ship but brought the two boys home.

The Bay Colony was outraged at this latest incident, and sent John Endicott to Block Island with a force to retaliate.


  1. ^ Bremer, Francis J., and Webster, Tom (eds.) (2006). Puritans and Puritanism in Europe and America, p. 477. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 1-57607-678-4.
  2. ^ Alden House Historical Site, "First Comers," (
  3. ^ "Thanksgiving on the Net," (
  4. ^ Parker, Dana T., "Reasons to Celebrate the Pilgrims," Orange County Register, Nov. 22, 2010 (
  5. ^ Bradford, William, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, ed. by Samuel Eliot Morison, pp. 148-57, 165-6, 169, 209, 226, 292 and 374, The Modern Library, Random House, New York, NY, 1967.
  6. ^ Philbrick, Nathaniel, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, pp. 88-89, 164, Viking, New York, NY, 2006.
  7. ^ Bradford, William, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, ed. by Samuel Eliot Morison, pp. 148-57, The Modern Library, Random House, New York, NY, 1967.
  8. ^ Philbrick, Nathaniel, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, pp. 161-162, Viking, New York, NY, 2006.
  9. ^ Stager, Helen and Evelyn, A Family Odyssey, pp. 169-170, 309-310, Nicollet Press, Inc., Pipestone, MN, 1983.
  10. ^ Saints and Strangers, George F. Willison, published by Renal & Hitchcock , NY p.449.)
  11. ^ Navin, John, Plymouth Plantation: The Search for Community in the New England Frontier, p. 660, 1997.
  12. ^ Philbrick, Nathaniel, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, pp. 161-162, Viking, New York, NY, 2006.

Family records: The two young boys captured with John Oldham by the Indians off Block Island were his nephews, John and Thomas Oldham. Thomas Oldham Jr. stayed in Massachusetts. John migrated to the Virginia colony and became a significant land owner. His descendants subsequently settled in North Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri and Kentucky. They were some of the original settlers of Kentucky. Jessie Oldham came through the Cumberland Gap with Daniel Boone and helped him blaze the Wilderness Trail and plot and build Ft. Boonesborough. He was also credited with being one of the first white man to plant a crop in Kentucky.

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