Roger Thompson's newest book, From Deference to Defiance: Charlestown, Massachusetts, 1629-1692, recreates the lost world of 17th-century Charlestown and the lives and work of the first three generations of its townspeople. By using a variety of surviving records, Thompson presents a colorful history of the town’s settlement and governance, its relationship with the land and sea, the church, local crime and violence, the role of women, and ultimately its involvement in the Glorious Revolution.
NEHGS staff member, Ginevra Morse, sat down with Roger Thompson to discuss his latest contribution to the study of early Boston and its environs.
GM: How would you characterize early Charlestown as compared to other early Boston suburbs?
RT: Compared to other Middlesex towns, Charlestown was directly involved in Atlantic trade—fish, furs, and timber—from its earliest days. Many inhabitants had far broader horizons than in neighboring communities. Leading citizens were often partners or agents for influential merchants in London, Bristol, and other West Country ports, as well as for Caribbean, Mediterranean, and Atlantic Wine Island traders. With many men away at sea, and foreign seamen idling in its port, Charlestown had far more social and sexual problems to control.
GM: What was the most surprising thing you learned while doing your research?
RT: Discovering that the disreputable pauper Sarah Largin had made a new life for herself in Delaware after disappearing from the Charlestown records. Her son married into the gentry. I had many other surprises, like the saviour of early Plymouth, or a neighbor of East Anglia's notorious Witch-Finder General settling in Charlestown, but I'll leave those to readers to uncover.
GM: What was your biggest challenge in compiling From Deference to Defiance?
RT: I had several major challenges. At the start: I had to familiarize myself with hundreds of names of inhabitants as I trawled through thousands of town, county, colony, and imperial records. Later, I was frustrated that all that survived of pre-Revolutionary Charlestown was the street plan and the burying ground. Everything else had been destroyed in the Battle of Bunker Hill. I also had many new areas of English sources to research: the local records and histories of London suburbs, the port of Bristol, the counties of Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Dorset and Devon, and English Caribbean islands, especially Barbadoes. The whole project took over 7 years.
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Roger Thompson is emeritus professor of American Colonial History at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, England. His earlier works include Sex in Middlesex: Popular Mores in a Massachusetts County, 1649–1699 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986), Divided We Stand: Watertown 1630–80 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), and Cambridge Cameos: Stories of Life in Seventeenth-Century New England (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2005).