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A Short Biographical Profile(1)

Trish Scott & Chip Cunningham
University of Virginia, Anth 509, Summer 1996

The Plymouth Colony Records cover thirty-eight years of the life of John Barnes, who lived out his life in the town of Plymouth from 1633-1671.

"My deare Children. . ."(2)

Barnes married Mary Plummer 12 Sept. 1633. She died eighteen years later, on 2 June 1651. By 1653 Barnes had married Joan, but to date no record as to who she was has been found. The only mention of children born to Barnes and Mary Plummer in the vital records of Plymouth Colony (marriages, births and deaths) are Lydia, b. 24 April 1647, and John, who died 25 Dec. 1648. It is clear from other references in the Records, and from the genealogical section of William T. Davis' Ancient Landmarks of Plymouth (1883)(3) that John was born in 1639, and so was nine when he died; that they had a son Jonathan, born in 1643, and two other daughters, Mary and Hannah. On 24 Aug. 1651, when Barnes drew up a deed of gift by which "some part" of his livestock was to be distributed to his children, "Jonathan, Mary, Hanna, and Lidia" were still living; Jonathan was eight years old and Lydia aged four. As Barnes was married to Joan by March of 1653, the deed of gift to his children would have been drawn up to protect their interests either in the event of his death, or of his remarriage. Following Barnes' death in 1671, Jonathan, who by then was 28 years of age, and his stepmother, Joan, were appointed by the Court as administrators of Barnes' estate.

In John Barnes' last will and testament recorded by Nathaniel Morton, Secretary to the General Court, and "signed" by Barnes, who made his mark on the document on 6 March 1667/1668, Barnes referred to his daughter Lydia as "Now deceased." In 1659 his daughter Mary had married Robert Marshall,(4) and their eldest son, John Marshall, inherited outright from his grandfather "all my land lying Near to Road Island," together with "ye silver dish yt I doe usually use to Eate in." Barnes made further provision for his grandson, for in the event that Barnes' wife Joan forfeit her third share of Barnes' moveable estate(5) (the widow's legal portion), it would "ffall to Sonn, or grandson John Marshall". Furthermore, John would inherit Lydia's third should Barnes' son Jonathan not require it. Barnes then bequeathed the final third of his estate to his "gr[an]dchildren now being together wth my Kinswoman Ester Ricket," each to receive an equal part of the third left to them, but there is no indication as to whether they were the children of his daughter Hannah or of Lydia.

"Ester Ricket" was Hester Rickard, née Barnes. Davis identifies Hester Barnes as the eldest daughter of John and Mary Barnes, but to date no primary source evidence for this connection has been found. "Kinswoman" to John Barnes is the only indication we have of her connection to Barnes. Robert C. Anderson(6) suggests that Hester was the daughter of a brother of John Barnes, Sr. of Plymouth, but can give no source for this. The vital records for Plymouth show that Hester Barnes married John Rickard, son of Gyles Rickard, Sr., on 31 October 1651.(7) According to Davis, the Rickards had three children: John, born in 1657, Mary, who married Isaac Cushman, and Lydia.(8) The only other Barnes mentioned in the Records is a Thomas Barnes, who was apprenticed to John Barnes, but released by the Court from his indentures to serve Mr. Rocke of Boston in July 1666. (9)To date no more is known of his origins.

"My housing, land's &c. . ."(10)

On 30 August 1671, after the death of John Barnes, an inventory of his estate was drawn up and his possessions appraised. Unfortunately his houses and lands were not part of the appraisal which has survived, but the appraisers listed his possessions under the rooms in the house in which they were found. From this "room by room" inventory, the following are the rooms mentioned in the order in which they appear:




Chamber over the Parlour


Middle Rome

Chamber over the outer Rome

little Rome att the South end of the house.

From this it seems clear that Barnes owned an asymmetrical hall and parlor house, with a central chimney, typical of a rural English seventeenth century house type with which many settlers were familiar. The house would have comprised a kitchen and parlor on the first floor, with a chamber over the parlor and one over "the outer room" which can be read as another term for the kitchen. The design of his house, however, has a middle room, a feature which is less common in the Plymouth Colony probate inventories, listed by the appraisers, together with the cellar, between the chamber over the parlor and the chamber over the outer room. The position of the middle room can be assigned with some degree of confidence to the first floor.

Barnes was a merchant, and profits in the merchant trade were large. The colony ran on credit, and Barnes was part of the merchant chain which linked Plymouth to Boston, and Boston to England.(11) He earned his living through trading cattle, raising crops, and through owning, trading with, and at times selling boats, as well as through various land deals. His land leases, purchases and deals were most prolific in the 1630s and 1640s; a typical example of his trading shows that he made 6 on one land deal in 1642, but lost 16 on another the same year. The volume of Barnes' trading in land, boats, and livestock puts him into the high trading bracket enjoyed by a fair number of individuals in Plymouth. At numerous times in the Records, we see where people are in debt to Barnes or where Barnes has lent financial backing or sureties to individuals. His inventory lists a wide range of trade goods as well as agricultural implements. Plymouth colony was essentially agrarian, and dairy, slaughter house and barn show him to be as deeply tied in to the soil as to his mercantile activities. Over all, the records suggest that Barnes was fairly well off in pecuniary terms.

"My trusty and wellbeloued frinds,"(12) neighbors, & servants

It is logical that through Barnes' multitude of land acquisitions, he would also accumulate a number of neighbors. Though we cannot say exactly where these neighbors were in relation to Barnes' properties, nor the specific time frame that they occupied these properties, we can speculate, by means of the Records, that during his lifetime Barnes shared proximity with Richard Wright, Gyles Rickard, Sr., and Thomas Pope; and probably the same is true for Thomas Prence, Samuel Jenney, and John Dotey (although the Records are not specific for these three). In addition, it appears that Josiah Cooke and Edward Holman shared a hayfield with Barnes at Gurnet's Nose. While Barnes seems to have had an amicable relationship with Rickard, Wright, and Prence, the record shows a boundary struggle later in Barnes' life in which he was vehemently and, in once case, violently opposed to Pope, Jenney, and Dotey. Although the Court settled the matter by remeasuring the boundaries, "bad blood" remained among these men.

Barnes' association with Gyles Rickard Sr., whose son John was married to Barnes' kinswoman Hester Barnes, appears to have been a congenial relationship. The Records make reference to the two together in several places, beyond mere coincidence, it would appear. They seem to have entered into business deals with one another, though one account in the Records evolves into a suit in which Barnes complained against Rickard over a deal involving a parcel of silk. Evidently, this argument did not affect a lasting friendship, as the strongest contacts in the record come later, when on two accounts Barnes is fined for drinking after being in the company of Rickard. The Records also show that Barnes was in frequent connection with Edward Holman. This seems to have been a purely business relationship, one which starts off in an amicable nature, but quickly spirals downward. It appears that Barnes and Holman were in similar businesses, and one could speculate that rivalry could have caused a downfall between the two. The last reference to the two together is a complaint by Barnes against Holman for entertaining his servant without Barnes' permission.

Barnes employed servants at various times. In addition to Thomas Barnes, there are references to servants John Rouse and Richard Willis in an exchange of servants between John Barnes and Thomas Prence, the Governor. There are new indentured servants acquired, including Elizabeth Billington, the six year old daughter of Francis and Christine Billington, bound to Barnes until she was twenty years old; Simon Trott, who was to serve Barnes until he was twenty-three years of age (but who was later sent to Thomas Clark); and Edmond Edwards, a former indenture of Henry Feake, of Sandwich. There is also the record of Barnes "neager maide seruant,"(13) of particular interest as records of slaves, of whom she was probably one, are not frequently found in the Records.

"The Court appoints. . ."

Barnes is recorded as being a freeman in 1633. The freemen of towns in Plymouth Colony elected the Governor, Assistants and Constable at the General Court which comprised the full body of freemen.(14) Barnes did his stint of public duties at intervals from 1636 through 1667. These included serving with several others to decide how best to enlarge the Greens Harbor cutting to make it navigable by boat (1636), and to survey land on both sides of Plymouth in order to set aside a highway and passage for cattle, so that the remaining land could be granted to those in need (1642). He was appointed Constable for Plymouth with Thomas Southwood in 1642, an important position in the town. According to Davis, the appointment of Plymouth's first constable in 1633, Joshua Pratt, constituted the first recognition of the town's establishment, apart from the colony.(15) Although Davis indicates that the duties of the constable had changed somewhat and become more numerous by 1642 when Barnes was appointed, they must still have contained some of the earlier responsibilities which had included attendance of "the General Court and the Court of Assistants, to act as keeper of the jail, to execute punishment, to give warnings of such marriages as shall be approved by authority, to seal weights and measures, and measure out such land as shall be ordered by the governor or government."(16) By 1640, with the development of the town of Plymouth and the number of new roads which were being made, a board of road surveyors came into being. Barnes was appointed Supervisor of the Highways for Plymouth with Richard Sparrow in 1647, and reappointed the following year, 1648, with a title change to "Surveyor" of the Highways for Plymouth, this time with three others. From this we deduce that by 1648 the population growth had continued, putting pressure on road building and maintenance. He held this office again fifteen years later in 1664, and then once more in 1667. Barnes also served on five juries in 1637/1638.

"In an action of trespas. . ."(17)

"For non paiment of a debt. . ."(18)

Between 1640 and 1667, a period of twenty-seven years, Barnes sued different people for damages at least nineteen times and was in turn sued by three people. He won fourteen of the nineteen cases, three were resolved or withdrawn without costs, and he lost two. In the cases where he was sued, in one (vs. Samuel Allin for slander) he had to give a public written apology, and two were withdrawn. It would seem that this pattern of resolving disputes was not atypical of citizens in Plymouth. The majority of cases were over the non-payments of debts, or for trespass. One of the most interesting is that of Barnes vs. Robert Ransom (1662), for neglecting to give him adequate security for the payment of a horse Barnes sold to him, as it shows us the high value set on horses in the colony. The Court ordered Ransom to give Barnes security of fifteen acres of meadow in the township of Plymouth, three acres of upland and the house on it at Lakenham, plus five or six acres of meadow belonging to it, and to pay Barnes a barrel of tar to cover the court charges.

"For his frequent and abominable drunkenes. . ."(19)

The biggest problem Barnes had was excessive drinking, and all his court appearances other than in suits for and against various people, are in this connection, with one exception, when in 1636 he was fined 30s for breaking the Sabbath and had to sit in the stocks for an hour. The earliest reference his drinking is 1643, and at this stage it was not anything more than a fine of 5s. In May 1648 Barnes was permitted by the Court to brew and sell beer to all visitors to Plymouth, but in December was presented to the Court "for inordinate drinking about four months since". He was again fined for being drunk in June of 1650. In March 1652/1653, Barnes, "having been divers times presented to the Court for drunkenness, and censured for the same, now coming drunk to court," had to find sureties for his good behavior. He was also guilty at this time of "opprobrious speech" to Timothy Hatherley, a member of the Court of Assistants.(20) It cannot be without connection that John Barnes' pattern of heavy drinking followed the death of his wife Mary Plummer in June of 1651, and his marriage to the contentious Joan Barnes who brought "an action of slander and defamation" against John Bower in March 1653,(21) and who, at the same Court, "for frequently slaundering and defameing the children of Captaine Willet and the daughter of Gorge Watson," was sentenced "to sitt in the stockes during the Courts pleasure, and a paper wheron her facte written incapitall letters, to bee made fast unto her hatt".(22)

Barnes seems to have broken his bond for good behavior, but there is no reference to the Court taking action against him. His continued drinking comes up in an accusation made by Barnes' "neager maide servant" against John Smith, where it is mentioned in passing that "John Barnes drank so much liquor at the house of John Ricard that when he reached the house of Samuel Dunham he was unable to light his pipe."(23) Possibly this took place before the March meeting, and so did not count, for no further mention is made of Barnes' being drunk until five years later, in March 1658, when he is again before the Court "for the frequent abusing himself in drunkenness", and is fined 5. This must have been regarded as a lapse, but not a serious one, since a year later, in March 1659, the Court granted Barnes a license to keep an ordinary at Plymouth. Gyles Rickard was granted a license to keep an ordinary himself, at the same time. However, by June of 1659 notice was given that four freemen of Plymouth Colony were to lose their status, and be disenfranchised. One was John Barnes. In October he was disenfranchised "for his frequent and abominable" drinking.

In June 1661 the ordinary keepers of Plymouth were prohibited from letting Barnes have any liquors, wine, strong drink, at any time, within doors or without, on penalty of a 50s fine if found to do so. This seemed to work, and the last reference to his being found drunk is in October 1665, four years later, and at the house of Gyles Ricard, who was fined 5s.

"How wee judge hee came by his death. . ."(24)

John Barnes's death was recorded on 5 March 1671/1672, and the jury appointed to inquire into the cause of death gave the following verdict:

Wee, whose names are underwritten, being summond together by order from the Gou to view the corpes of Mr. John Barnes, and to give in a verdict how wee judge hee came by his death, doe judge, that being before his barne door in the street, standing stroakeing or feeling of his bull, the said bull suddenly turned about upon him and gave him a great wound with his horne on his right thigh, neare eight inches longe, in which his flesh was torne both broad and deep, as wee judge; of which wound, together with his wrinch of his necke or paine thereof, (of which hee complained) hee immediately languished; after about 32 hours after hee died. Unto the truth wherof we have subscribed our hands.(25)

The names of the jury included Samuel Dunham and Gyles Rickard, Snr.

The following is purely the speculation of one of the researchers, some based on fact, and some based on wild imagination. This should not be used for purposes of reference or research:

Given to both "civil" and "less civil" interactions, John Barnes dealt with all walks of life in Plymouth Colony. He was a businessman in the truest sense, even in today's terms. He had enough gumption and gall to poison a snake, and still have some left over to pass around the room (who else would "pet" a bull; granted, the bull "stroked" him back). When refinement was demanded, Barnes was there to muddle through, but he was also a man given to the "darker byways" of colony life,(26) a lover of drink and pipe. Barnes gives us a glimpse at a Plymouth reality that our eyes have not been trained to see.

1. Written by Trish Scott and Chip Cunningham, based on references to John Barnes in the Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England, ed. by Nathaniel B. Shurtleff and David Pulsifer (Boston: William White, 1855-61; New York: AMS Press, 1968), v. 1-12. The Records are cited as PCR. Other sources cited are Barnes Deed of Gift , 21 Aug. 1651, to his "deare Children, videlecct Jonathan Mary Hanna and Lidia," PCR 12:214-15, and to his "Last will & Testament," 6 Mar. 1667/1668, and Probate Inventory (Plymouth Colony Wills & Inventories 3(1):31-36).

2. Deed of Gift, 21 Aug. 1651, PCR 12:214.

3. William T. Davis, Ancient Landmarks of Plymouth (Boston: A. Williams, 1883), Section II, "Genealogical Register of Plymouth Families," p. 12.

4. Davis 1883, II: 184. Robert Marshall was the son of John Marshall of Duxbury and Mary Partrich. His maternal grandfather was the Rev. Ralph Partrich of Duxbury. After their marriage in 1659, Robert and Mary Marshall had two sons, John and Robert, and possibly a third, Samuel. After John Barnes' death, his widow Joan Barnes advised the General Court that she was no longer able to care for Robert Marshall's children, from which we can infer that Mary had died by this date, although Robert was still alive as the Court summoned him to Plymouth to take care of his children (PCR 5:85). In 1681 the Court appointed Samuel Saberry of Duxbury as guardian to Robert Marshall, "son of Robert Marshall deceased, a poor orphen left at Plymouth, his frinds many of them being deceased" (PCR 6:66). Robert Jr. was eighteen at this date. John Marshall, his elder brother, had been "put out to learning of a trad[e]" in June 1673, fifteen months after Joan Barnes had complained that she could no longer care for John Barnes' grandsons (PCR 5:117).

5. The Records show Joan Barnes as being highly contentious, and in an apparent effort it seems to put a curb on her relations with his neighbors, Barnes' 1667/1668 will reads: "I doe Bequeath my moveable Estate as follow's one third to my wife for Ever in Case she shall not molest any pson to whome I have fformerly sould any Land's unto in Case she shall soe doe, yn it shall ffall to Sonn, or grandson John Marshall".

6. Robert Charles Anderson, The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England 1620-1633 (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1995), v. 1: 110.

7. PCR 8:13.

8. Davis (1883) II: 213.

9. PCR 4:133.

10. Plymouth Colony Wills & Inventories 3(1):31.

11. Darrett B. Rutman, Husbandmen of Plymouth: Farms and Villages in the Old Colony, 1620-1692 (Boston: Beacon Pres for Plimoth Plantation, 1967), pp. 20-21, discusses Plymouth merchants and the way in which trade operated, goods often being paid for in "country pay", mostly grain and livestock.

12. PCR 12: 214.

13. 3 May 1653, PCR 3:27.

14. Davis (1883) I: 70.

15. Davis (1883) I: 76-80.

16. Davis (1883) I: 77-78.

17. 1 Mar. 1652, John Barnes vs. John Bower, PCR 7:63.

18. 3 Oct. 1654, John Barnes vs. Robert Barker, PCR 7:72.

19. 6 Oct. 1659, PCR 3:176.

20. 1 Mar. 1652/1653, PCR 3:22.

21. 1 Mar. 1652/1653, PCR 7:63.

22. 1 Mar. 1652/1653, PCR 3:23.

23. 3 May 1653, PCR 3: 27.

24. 5 Mar. 1671/1672, PCR 5:89.

25. PCR 5: 89.

26. See John Demos, A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (London: Oxford University Press, 1970).