By Robert F Huber
John Howland’s character was forged by danger and death and the result was courage on the Kennebec.
The young man from Fenstanton left England in 1620 as a Mayflower passenger and promptly showed his quick wit in a perilous situation when he was swept overboard during a violent storm and was able to grab some trailing halyards and hold on until rescued. When the Pilgrims landed on Cape Cod, Howland was among those who explored the strange land, braving terrible cold and Indian attack.
During the killer winter of 1620-21 he saw death deal a steady hand as half of the 102 settlers died. His inner strength helped him survive and do his part in caring for the sick and burying the dead.
And when his employer, Gov. John Carver, died of sunstroke Howland assumed the responsibility of managing his household. He soon became a leader in the colony and was placed in charge of Plymouth’s trading post in Maine. This was the colony’s most important assignment for the furs he got from the Indians went a long way in repaying the Pilgrim debt to the merchant adventurers who had financed the journey to the New World.
It was on the Kennebec River where Howland displayed raw courage when the fur-trade lifeline was threatened.
The Plymouth Pilgrims were always eager to trade with the Indians and was early as 1625 they sent a boatload of corn up the Kennebec.
Gov. William Bradford wrote that “God preserved them and gave them good success for they brought home 700 beaver, besides some other furs.” This expedition was made by Edward Winslow and some of the “old Standards” or first comers.
In 1627 Isaac Allerton was sent to London to secure a patent for the Kennebec and the Pilgrims then erected a trading house on the river at Cuchenoc in what is now Augusta. This patent was superseded by another in January 1630 under which Plymouth received exclusive jurisdiction over the Kennebec within a limit of 15 miles down the river from the falls where they had built a house.
In their trading they first used a shallop but soon found they needed a larger boat, so the Pilgrims cut the shallop in half, added six feet in the middle and decked it over. This vessel, called a barque, was used for the next seven years.
John Howland was put in charge of the trading post and in 1634 he and John Alden were the magistrates in authority there.
Unfortunately, Pilgrims and Indians were not the only ones on the Kennebec. Agents of Lord Say and Seal and Lord Brooke also were on hand to make a fast pound or two.
Now enter the hero and the villain.
One April day John Howland (the hero, of course) found John Hocking (the villain) riding at anchor within the area claimed by Plymouth. Hocking was from the nearby Piscataqua Plantation. Howland went up to him in their “barke” and politely asked Hocking to weigh anchors and depart.
Apparently Hocking used some strong language and the two exchanged some words not recorded, but the result of the conversation was that Hocking would not leave and Howland would not let him stay.
Howland then sent three of his men—John Irish, Thomas Savory and William Rennoles (Reynolds?) — to cut the cables of Hocking’s boat. They severed one but the strong current prevented them from cutting the other cable so Howland called them back and ordered Moses Talbott to go with them.
The four men were able to maneuver their canoe to the other cable, but Hocking was waiting on deck armed with a carbine and a pistol in his hand. He aimed first at Savory and then as the canoe swished about he put his gun almost to Talbott’s head.
Seeing this, Howland called to Hocking not to shoot his man but to “take himself as his mark.” Saying his men were only doing what he had ordered them to do. If any wrong was being done it was he that did it, Howland shouted. Howland called again for Hocking to aim at him.
Hocking, however, would not even look at Howland and shortly afterwards Hocking shot Talbott in the head and then took up his pistol intending to shoot another of Howland’s men. Bradford continues the story in his history of Plymouth:
Howland’s men were angered and naturally feared for their lives so one of the fellows in the canoe raised his musket and shot Hocking “who fell down dead and never spake word.”
The surviving poachers must have skedaddled for home where they soon wrote to the bigwigs in England but failed to tell the whole truth including the fact that Hocking had killed a Plymouth man first. The lords “were much offended” and must have made known their anger.
The Hocking affair did have severe international implications. Colonists feared that King Charles might use it as an excuse for sending over a royal governor to rule all New England. This was a real threat for early in 1634 the king had created a Commission for Regulating Plantations with power to legislate in both civil and religious matters and even to revoke charters.
Not long after the killings Plymouth sent a ship into the territory of Massachusetts Bay and authorities there quickly seized John Alden who was aboard the ship. Alden was imprisoned although he had no direct part in the Kennebec tragedy.
When Alden was jailed Plymouth was quite obviously upset for Massachusetts Bay had no jurisdiction over the Kennebec area or over citizens of Plymouth. This was not of their business.
Plymouth dispatched Capt. Myles Standish to Boston to present letters explaining the situation and Gov. Thomas Dudley quickly freed Alden, and after a later court hearing all blame was laid to Hocking. The matter was settled.