William Bassett 1595??-1667

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Plymouth Colony
Year range
1621 - 1667

We think of William Bassett as a Pilgrim, a blacksmith, and the owner of a many more books than usual for his time and place. But in 1621 he showed that he was also a risk-taker, when he embarked on a long sea voyage to a tiny colony in a strange land with a minimum of preparation. Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Colony describes ship Fortune’s arrival in his history Of Plimoth Plantation:

In Novembr [1621], about yt time twelfe month that themselves came [i.e., Bradford and the Pilgrims on the Mayflower], there came in a small ship to them unexpected or looked for, in which came Mr. Cushman and with him 35 persons to remaine & live in ye plantation; which did not a little rejoice them. And they when they came ashore, and found all well, and saw plenty of vitails [victuals?] in every house, were no less glade. For most of them were lusty yonge men, and many of them wild enough, who little considered whither or aboute what, they wente, till they came into ye harbore at Cap-Codd.
So they were all landed; but ther was not so much as a bisket-cake or any other victialls for them neither had they any beding, but some sory things they had in their cabins, nor pot, nor pan, nor overmany cloaths. The plantation was glad of this addition of strength but could have wished that many of them had been of better condition; but yt could not now be helpte.

This was no mere inconvenience. Half of the first 100 colonists had died the previous winter. The ship left in early December, and Bradford and his assistant

disposed these late comers into several families as they best could, took an exact account of all their provisions in store and proportioned the same to the number of persons, and found that it would not hold out above six months at half allowance, and hardly that; and they could not well give less this winter time till fish came in again. So they were presently put to half allowance, one as well as another, which began to be hard, but they bore it patiently under hope of supply.

William survived the winter. By 1623 he was married and by 1627 he and his wife Elizabeth had two children. Nobody knows who she was or exactly when they married; they might even have come over together on the Fortune.

They settled down and made good. Eleven years after he arrived, only four people in Plymouth paid more taxes than he did. He served on an inquest jury and hired an indentured servant for six years. (But I’ve never seen him called “Mr.” in the records. Although he rubbed elbows with Plymouth Colony’s elite he was never one of them.)

In 1630 the much more numerous, and somewhat less radical, Puritans settled not far to the north. (Unlike the Pilgrims, the Puritans considered themselves part of the Church of England, and took care not to seem too radical or separatist, for fear that the English authorities would crush them.) This large neighboring population created a market for corn and cattle, and in 1637 William was among the men who moved to a new settlement in Duxbury (”Ducksburrow”), about 5 miles across the bay from Plymouth, in order to make the most of the opportunity. Prominent settlers included John Alden, Myles Standish, Jonathan Brewster, and Thomas Prence.

The move made commercial sense but it split the colony. The Pilgrim Fathers had wanted to maintain a compact settlement in which the settlers could worship together, keep an eye on one another’s good behavior, and efficiently defend themselves against any Indian attack. Bradford lamented,

Those that had lived so long together in Christian and comfortable fellowship must now part and suffer many divisions. First, those that lived on their lots on the other side of the Bay, called Duxbury, they could not long bring their wives and children to the public worship and church meetings here [in Plymouth] but with such burthen as, growing to some competent number, they sued to be dismissed and become a body of themselves. And so they were dismissed about this time, though very unwillingly.

Sprawl won out in 1637 as it has almost ever since. William himself granted some land to Ralph Partridge, the new minister in Duxbury. In May 1638, the colony’s legislature ordered that

the lands on Duxborrow side shall not be disposed to any but to such new commers as Mr. Collyer, Mr. Partrich, Jonathan Brewster, & Willm Basset shall approve to be fitt for their societie.

William served in the colonial legislature — known in those days as the General Court — several times in the 1640s as one of Duxbury’s representatives along with Standish and Alden. He served several years as Duxbury’s constable, a responsible and sometimes onerous position. As blacksmith, he was responsible for mending guns, and in the spring of 1649 was fined five shillings for not getting them mended “in seasonable time.”

Even in his fifties he wasn’t done pioneering. In 1655 he left Duxbury to become one of the first settlers of Bridgewater, the first inland Plymouth Colony settlement. At some point after 1634 his wife Elizabeth died and he eventually married second the widow Mary Tilden Lapham.

Over time he accumulated one of the largest libraries in the colony. After his death his books were valued at almost 10 pounds, a significant fraction of his estate. In his estate inventory they’re listed as follows:

Ainsworth on the 5 bookes of Moses, ursinus, a Comentary on the Romans, a Concordance, a Comentary, Wilson on the Romans, Mayer on the Evangelests, Rogers his 7 treateses, harris on the beatitude, Wilsons Dixonary, Knights Concordance, Madyors exposition on, 2 smale bookes against prelacye, Weams his explanation of the Cerimoniall law, Dike on Deceitfulnes of the hart, Mr. Robinsons observations, a treatise of precious faith.

We may wonder whether William’s children ever reminded him of his younger adventurous self.

  • In March 1649 his daughter Sarah and her husband Peregrine White were in court charged with “fornication before marriage,” as were daughter Ruth and husband John Sprague six years later.
  • Son Nathaniel was fined 20 shillings in 1653 for “disturbing divine service” in Duxbury.
  • And in 1661 daughter Elizabeth asked for and received a divorce from her husband Thomas Burgess after he had been sentenced to two severe whippings for committing an unspecified “act of uncleanness” with one Lydia Gaunt. This was the first divorce granted in Plymouth. (Burgess and Gaunt took off for Rhode Island.)

Death caught William unawares; he wrote no will but Plymouth court testimony records the deathbed scene. On April 3, 1667, he found himself so weak and sick that he told Mary: “Wife, I must leave thee but I shall leave thee with the Lord; if God had lengthened out my life it might have been that thou mightest have been more comfortably provided for.”

His friends asked him about his estate, “whether his mind was as formerly; That hee would give his moveable goods with his Chattles to his wife.” He “answared yea it was his mind; and that shee should have the house and ground till shee Died; if she Married not; and then hee would give it to his son Williams son; and his tools to his son Joseph.”

What about his books, someone asked, “which hee formerly took care about”? “Answared hee Could not now Doe it.”


born not long before 1600, in England?

married (1) Elizabeth _____ before 1623,

married (2) Mary Tilden Lapham no later than 1664

died early April 1667 in Bridgewater, Plymouth Colony

ANCESTORS: None known. He may conceivably have been a son of the Pilgrim William Bassett of Leyden, Holland, but Robert Charles Anderson in The Great Migration Begins (page 127) says there’s no evidence.

The surname Bassett is French, meaning of small stature or low position. It was brought to England in Norman times. Family tradition holds that one of the bringers was sword-bearer to William the Conqueror; a Ralph Bassett is listed in the Domesday Book (1086), and many more held prominent positions in early England. But any evidence as to which, if any, of these people William was descended from has long since crumbled into dust.

DESCENDANTS: Plenty. Five of his six children -- William ~1624, Sarah White ~1628, Nathaniel ~1630, Joseph ~1632, and Ruth Sprague ~1634 -- had children.

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