Colonial House

From 2002 until its premier in 2004, I served as a lead consulant for the emmy-nominated PBS-TV series, Colonial House. I was responsible for providing historical background for the show, creating the colony's laws, and the "backstories" for the colonists. I helped train the colonists and was one of the three experts who visited the colony on-camera, and assessed its strengths and weaknesses. 
The assessors arrive for Michaelmas
The assessors (left to right: Emerson Baker, Elizabeth Lodge, & Stuart Bolton) arrive at the colony, ready to join the Michaelmas feast. Photo by Jamie Bloomquist, courtest of Colonial House and WNET-13

Colonial House Links

Emerson W. Baker, “Is There a Historian in the House? History, Reality and Colonial House.”
Common-Place, 4, no. 4 (2004).This article explores some of the strengths and weaknesses of Colonial House.

Emerson W. Baker, “A Historian Awakens 1628.” Colonial House Web Site (December, 2003).
This article is a behind the scenes look at creating Colonial House.

Colonial House Web Site. This substantial site is the single best resource for the series.

Assessing The Colonial House Colony


Assessors Emerson Baker, Elizabeth Lodge and Stuart Bolton took pains to write an extensive description and critique of the colony.  Only a part of this extensive assessment could be aired on the tv-series, due to time constraints. Furthermore, many viewers had a misunderstanding about what aspects of the colony were to be assessed.

As a result, this assessor immediately drew comments from friends and other viewers questioning the assessment. As one southern friend put it: "Y'all were kind of easy on them, weren't you?" Or as someone else more directly put it, "do you really think they would have lasted the winter?"

Please realize that the assessors were not asked to judge the colony's ability to survive a harsh Maine winter. Clearly they were ill-equipped for such a task. Rather, the colonists were told they were to be assessed on their ability to function as a community, on their ability to live the lives of 1628 colonists, and on the financial viability of their colony.

Given the colony's meager financial fruits, some viewers have questioned the assessor's wisdom in suggesting the colony continue. However, the historical reality is that virtually no colony was disbanded during its first year, no matter how badly it failed. Even the worst colonies usually continued for 3-4 years. Only then would the European backers begin to tire of pouring more and more time and money into a bad investment. So, to be historically accurate, it would have been virtually impossible for the assessors to recommend the disbandment of the Colonial House Colony. Instead, when read in its entirely, the assessor's letter to the investors gives a frank look at the strengths and weaknesses of the colony, and makes recommendations for how things could be improved. 

Full Text of the Assessors' Letter

Right honorable and worshipful gentlemen,

We write to provide you with our assessment of your new colony in New England. We are writing by sundry conveyance how all things do with the colony, in hopes that you may receive this news with all due speed. We will here lay down not what our ears hath heard but what we have with our eyes seen to be true. After our arrival in New England, we found all the plantation in good health and neither man, woman or child sick.

And now to come more near to what we intend to write of and first of the situation of the Colonial House Colony. It is situated on a high hill close unto the seaside, and very commodius for shipping to come unto them. It is we fear far from the most fruitful fishing grounds. In this plantation are five houses, well laid out with a fair street between them. The planters have made small beginnings on fortification though still wanting to be brought to perfection. Furthermore there is belonging to the town six goats, thirteen hogs and pigs, and diverse hens. And lastly the town is furnished with a company of honest men, who endeavor to bring profit to the investors.

And now to speak more at large of the country and what profit is to be raised here; and first to speak of fishing that is in this country. They had bad fishing this summer, though neighbors tell us the winter fishing be best, so we have not yet taken full measure of what fish might here be had. Of the codfish they have seen none. Likewise of the turbots, salmon, bass, trout or eel, large or small. Yea indeed, the fruit of their labors lies in four mackerel, though clams and mussels are in aplenty and a source of food for the colony. 

And now to speak somewhat of the trade for fur. The rivers of New England are fabled for their abundance of peltry yet the settlers hope to get good store of beaver, otter and mink skins as also fox and raccoon, all of which will yield money – good store in England. They mean to trade for all skins to be had thereabout but have hindered themselves by entering into an agreement binding themselves in trade exclusively unto the Passamaquoddy nation, and none other.

Yet, to date the trade hath been the financial ruin of us all. Of the £25 in trade goods shipped, they have traded for only £6:00:04p in pelts with £5:12:07 remaining in goods. Some of the trade goods have been dispersed to the settlers and many were given as gifts to the Passamaquoddy to ensure their friendship. We are troubled that the first governor hath seen fit to enter into such unfavorable terms with the natives for possession of the land. Not only did they receive a hefty sum upon arrival, yea they demand further payment for every new comer. While the colony welcomed the cape merchant, he cost us a 3s 1p in trade goods (a hatchet and some beads) to appease the Passamaquoddy. We are gravely troubled by such ill-founded dealings and fear they shall only grow worse. Though this has cost much in trade, it has bought peace and friendship necessary for the colony to flourish.

Thirdly we will speak somewhat of the timber in the country and the profits it may raise. The timber here is far less substantial and consequential than previous reports led us to believe. We have seen some birch and maple, much spruce, fir and some pine, and have heard rumor of cedar and oak, though at some distance from the colony and not easily had. Although you had instructed the colony to produce staves and clapboards, they have produced some hundred spars – there being spruce and fir aplenty though little oak or cedar. We acknowledge that this is a new venture and commend the colonists for their effort to find merchantable timber. We see this as their most vendable commodity and hope it might fetch as much as £50 should the market prove favorable.

There are many other things in this country that may raise profit, as for example, the multitude of diverse berries, and shellfish. All these things put us in some small hope of the plantation becoming less chargeable to the company for their necessaries. Now as concerning the soil, it is all along, as far as we perceive, rocky rough and uneven, though, the colonists have achieved success with their Indian corn beyond our expectations. They planted an acre of ground and received at least a fifty-fold increase in their seed, despite a short, harsh season. They have planted fair gardens, some of which have yielded well and the rest (as time may serve) shall be made better.  Hunting has proved of less success, despite much endeavor. In the time they have been here our planters have only caught a few small game.

Though they have had little success in harvesting the bounty of the country, they have proven prudent and thrifty in their husbanding of the stores provided them. While there has been some neglect of the stores, few have been lost, and any faults remedied. The accounts of the supplies have been well rendered though we suspect some small discrepancies in beer, stores of which are now spent. Thankfully the water be sweet and wholesome. Supply intended to keep them only to Michaelmas may now last to Candlemas or perhaps even until the spring.

By the time you receive this letter you shall know of the departure of Governor Wyers and his family. The tragedy of the Wyers and the departure of a councilor left the settlement for a time in a turbulent state. However, the new government hath set things in good order and the colonists work obediently. Thankfully the colony has not been yoked with idle and unruly servants. During these turmoils they have served their masters well. For those who have doubted the prudence of sending women and children into a howling and desolate wilderness, they have been a source of strength to the colony.

Though the colony be presently well ordered, we have found that laws have been indifferently enforced. We are troubled that attendance at Sabbath is no longer enforced. The man selected as new governor must be able to rule the colony with a firm but fair hand, taking council where needed.

Given the current conditions of the colony, we recommend the following. First, we are displeased with the meager profits to date. Though we fear only half the hundred pounds required this year shall be forthcoming, we entreat you to moderate your effections and consider that no man expect fruit before the tree be grown.

We recommend that the colony continue and be supplied per the request of our cape merchant. We believe that their best prospects lie in the timber trade. Efforts at spar production should be redoubled and other timber resources exploited. The colonists located a most convenient place for a saw mill and the company should consider providing the men and materials necessary for this enterprise. Though furs be the wealth of this country, the natives fully understand the value of things as well as the next man. Our men have had little success in trade to date, though they believe they have assured the love and good will of the Passamaquoddy. The natives seem desireous to trade for corn and pork, and we encourage such efforts should they not pluck food from planters mouths.

Despite your cape merchant’s efforts, we remain doubtful for successful trade, especially under the current monopoly the Passamaquoddy have obtained from the settlement. We pray you instruct the cape merchant to sell none but at dear rates, for to trade at a loss is a fool’s business. Pray you instruct the new governor about the king’s title to these lands, and that he comes to better terms with the Passamaquoddy so you be not charged per capite but rather have liberty to send so many as you list.

We are encouraged by our planters good care of their cattle, yet they lack the means to increase their stock. To that end pray send a good bore and a buck. To dress the fields and provide draft animals for harvest of the fields and forest, please also send a bull calf and two heifers.

Governor Heinz is a Godly man whose true calling is for the church. He has chosen a site and we urge the company to provide an additional carpenter and other things needful to erect a suitable building for worship. As this undertaking will demand much of Mr. Heinz, we recommend a new governor be sent from England, so that Mr. Heinz may attend to his flock.  In the meantime we are heartened that the governor is so ably assisted by his council. Jack Lecza, your loyal cape merchant and treasurer, has agreed to remain in the colony until the first boat arrives in the spring to further the company’s interests. We would encourage the new governor to make good use of Don Wood, and retain him as assistant governor.  He is a humble man yet he has proven of able and good use to the company. Of course, the new governor will seek Reverend Heinz council in all matters of weight to the colony. 

Though we are pleased with the labors of the settlers, your venture cries out for men skilled at blacksmithing and fishing. It troubles us to see the plantation so defenseless in such a country, for the French are armed and near and we little trust the natives. Pray send armor, muskets, and swords enough for every man for the defense of the colony and a man to serve as captain to instruct them in martial affairs. We pray you send fishermen who can ply these waters to seek out advantageous grounds that we know to be nearby. 

The quartermaster has made a good start at exploring the land, though foolish to do so on his own, in such a howling wilderness. He and a servant have drawn plats of the settlement and the country roundabout. We pray you to encourage them to make further discovery of the country so to seek other profitable ventures. Indeed, the company must know that it may ultimately be necessary to move the settlement. If after another year, the timber fail and the fishing and trade improve not, pray instruct the governor to seek a place of better advantage.

For the better instruction of the planters, we have placed a copy of this letter in the governor’s good hands.

In everything your faithful servants,

Elizabeth Lodge
Stuart Bolton
Emerson Baker

New England, 1628

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