Thomas Pownall, Governor of Massachusetts, January 1759–1760


September 30, 2020
by Bob Ruppert Also by this Author


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On May 7, 1757, Thomas Pownall sailed from England for Boston to take his post as the governor of Massachusetts. Aboard the ship was George Lord Howe, an army officer. The two men developed a friendship over the three month voyage. On July 8, 1758, Lord Howe, a brigadier general, led the right center column in Abercromby’s ill-conceived attack on Fort Ticonderoga. He was second in command to Abercromby. Two miles south of the fort, his column encountered a large French reconnaissance force. Shortly after the fighting began, Lord Howe was fatally shot. Abercromby after the battle wrote to Pitt, “I caused his Body to be taken off the field of Battle, and sent to Albany, with a Design to have it embalmed, & sent home . . . But the Weather being very hot, Brig. Stanwix was obliged to order it to be buried.”[1] Howe’s body initially was laid in the Schuyler family vault; later it was buried in St. Peter’s Church in Albany.[2]

At the beginning of 1759, Thomas Pownall had been Governor of Massachusetts for nearly a year and a half. During this time he had, unlike his predecessor, developed a working relationship with the colony’s general assembly. With their support he was able to recruit, provision and deploy the militia to defend the colony’s frontiers, support each commander-in-chief — Maj. Gen. John Campbell then Gen. James Abercromby and finally Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Amherst — secure partial reimbursements for the colony’s expenses incurred during the last two campaigns, and per Secretary of State William Pitt’s request, draw up a campaign plan for the taking of Quebec. He also came to realize that friends of the previous governor who were members of the colony’s council, along with Thomas Hutchinson, the colony’s lieutenant-governor, and Andrew Oliver, the colony’s secretary, were working against his efforts.

On January 19, 1759 Pownall informed Secretary Pitt that the assembly was prepared with their utmost abilities to support His Majesty’s Administration and Measures” as soon as they “received any Orders from England as to the Operations of Warr” for the upcoming year.[3] In the same letter he finalized plans for the monument to his fallen friend George Howe. He wrote,

The Legislature has this Sessions pass’d an Order . . . [It] endeavors to do honor to the memory of the late Ld Howe it is attended with very good Consequence that Mutual good offices must produce between the Provinces & the Army . . . It will, ’tis hoped, be very pleasing to His Majesty.[4]

There is little doubt that Pownall was the driving force behind the idea of a monument to Howe’s honor. The assembly appropriated the necessary funds, and arrangements were made for the monument to be placed in Westminster Abbey in London. Hutchinson disagreed with the appropriation of 250 pounds; he thought it was excessive.[5]

On February 25, Pownall received Pitt’s instructions for the coming year’s “Operations of Warr.” He was to

forthwith use your utmost Endeavors & influence with the Council & Assembly of your Province to induce them to raise, with all possible Dispatch . . . at least as large a Body of men, as they did for the last Campaign . . . that you do direct them to hold themselves in readiness, as early as may be, to march to the rendezvous . . . by the First of May . . . The King is further pleased to furnish all the men, so raised above, with Arms, Ammunition, & Tents, as well as to order provisions to be issued to the same . . .the whole therefore, that the King expects & requires from the several Provinces, is, the Levying, Cloathing & Pay of the Men.[6]

The force was going to attempt to enter Canada by way of Lake Champlain. On March 2, Pownall addressed the General Assembly.

His Majesty’s Service and your Affairs are wrought up to a Crisis. The War is now no longer a Dispute about Limits, for the French, have broken all Terms on which Treaties are founded . . . The Contest now is Whether the French Usurpations shall be erected into a Kingdom, or whether the British Empire in America, shall be established on a solid and lasting Basis – If Canada be not taken, the Empire of the French will fix its Root: And as every thing is ripe for its Reduction and noting to obstruct it, if it be not taken. now, it never will be taken.[7]

On March 14, the General Assembly responded,

Our Disposition is the same now that it has always been: Considering how much the Province is exhausted, both of Money and Men, we imagine it will be as difficult to raise Five Thousand Men this Year, as it was to raise Seven Thousand the last Year.[8]

Two days later, Pownall informed Pitt,

I have the pleasure to acquaint You the the General Court have made Provision by Treasurers Notes, which they promise to Pay Off at a short day with Interests, for 5000 Men . . . and have empowered me to compleat that Number by a Draught from the Militia On the 6th day of April if it shou’d not by the time be completed by enlistments.[9]

Besides the army’s needs, the navy also needed men. Pownall explained how he planned to solve the problem.

Notwithstanding the almost unconquerable Aversion our People have to go on Board King’s Ships, and the utter inflexibility of the General Court against ever making any Provision for that Service, yet knowing how essentially necessary it was to the King’s Service, that the Ships shou’d be supplied with men I went into the following Measures namely That if Admiral Durell would . . . absolutely engage that any Men which I should enlist into the King’s Ships for the same Time as the People going into the Land Service are enlisted for, shou’d be punctually dismissed at the Expiration of the time for which they were enlisted, shou’d not be carried to Europe nor the West Indies but return’d to Boston & paid their Wages at the time of their Discussion, and that all Vessels belonging to or Navigated by the Inhabitants of any Town which had so done its Quota to the Sea Service should be exempt from all Impress . . . whatsoever and if General Amherst wou’d allow that all such Men as thus were engaged in the Sea Service shou’d be esteemed as part of our Quota to the Land Service. I would try to get the General Court to Authorize the Measures to get the Merchants in the respective Towns to promote it . . . Mr. Amherst agrees to it.[10]

On April 19, Pownall proudly informed Pitt

I have the Pleasure to acquaint you I have been so happy as to induce [the Assembly] to make Provision for 1500 more to be raised by Enlistment . . . I have raised and am sending down to the Admiral [Durell] above 200 Seamen. As soon as I get these Matters finished I go to the Penobscot Country. The Possession of which I hope to secure to His Majesty by a Fort, which if I succeed will shut the last & only Door to the Atlantic that the Enemy has left in North America.[11]

On May 1, 1759, Pownall and 400 men set sail from Newbury, Massachusetts, for the Penobscot River, about thirty miles south of present day Bangor, Maine.[12] The purpose of the trip was to secure the countryside above and below the river and to construct a fort on a favorable site. On May 4, Pownall arrived at Falmouth, the staging area for the trip. On May 9, he reached Fort St George on the St. George River. Over the next three days, he reviewed the defensive works of the fort, met with local Indian leadership, and planned the final leg of the journey to the Penobscot River. He reached the Penobscot on May 13. For better than a week he explored the river for the best location for the fort. On May 24, he finally decided upon a site. Builders were sent for and work began immediately. By the end of the day on May 25, the foundation of the fort was completed. Confident that the construction was in good hands, Pownall set sail for Boston on May 27, and reached Castle William late in the evening on May 28.[13]

Detail from a French map of New England published at the time of Pownall’s governorship of Massachusetts. Note Penobscot at the upper right and Lake Champlain at the upper right. (New York Public Library)

On June 1, he addressed the Assembly regarding the events of his journey. One week later, they officially congratulated him and viewed his trip as

A fresh Instance of your great Care for the Interests of this Government and of your Zeal and Faithfulness to His Majesty . . . The securing to us the Possession of this River is a Matter the Court have very much at Heart, and it gives us the highest Pleasure to see your Excellency always attentive to the public Welfare.[14]

On June 26, Gen. James Wolfe with an army 8,500 reached the Island of Orleans, three miles east of Quebec City. He would soon commence his bombardment of the city. Realizing the St. Lawrence River was now controlled by the British, and French supplies as well as reinforcements would be unable to reach the city, Pownall became concerned that France might attempt diversionary attacks against the coastal cities and towns of the New England and Middle colonies. He ordered up-to-date sounding charts be made of Boston harbor, a cruiser stationed at the entrance to the East and to the West Channels, and the permanent garrison in Castle William increased.[15]

About this time the Lords at the board of trade began to show their dissatisfaction with Pownall’s leadership. They believed he unnecessarily conferred with and sought the support of the assembly on too many issues. The board had already expressed their concerns in a letter dated November 22, 1758:

The facts resulting from an examination into the acts and proceedings of the Council and House of Representatives, which we were induced to enter into from your representation of their conduct . . . are such as convince us that the dependence which by the constitution the Colony ought to have upon the executive part of the government . . . and the sovereignty of the Crown stands upon a very precarious foot, and that unless some effectual remedy is at  a proper time applied it will be in great danger of being totally set aside.[16]

Thomas Pownall’s appointment as governor in 1757 had been driven largely by William Pitt as Secretary of State for the Southern Department; by 1759, however, Pitt had become preoccupied with the war. This allowed the board of trade under Lord Halifax to reassert its authority over his administration. On July 25, 1759 a subcommittee of the board, the Lords of the Committee of Council for Plantation Affairs, reported that they had reviewed eighty-nine acts passed by the Massachusetts’ Assembly between 1756 and the end of 1758 and were preparing a full summary.[17] One week later, the same committee issued a full summary on another thirty Acts.

Death of General Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham following the British victory, by Benjamin West, c. 1770. (National Gallery of Canada)

On September 13, General Wolfe defeated the French army on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec City. On October 3, Pownall again addressed the Assembly:

It is with great Pleasure I can acquaint you, that the Parliament of Great-Britain have enabled His Majesty to Recompence His Colonies for their Services . . . [and] upon my building the Fort at Penobscot, I did, at your Request, dismiss the Garrison at Brunswick. I have now also directed the Dismission of the Garrison at Pemaquid [and] . . . the scouting Parties at the Lodgments on the Western Frontiers . . . And I should hope, as the Measures taken in the Eastern Part shall produce their Effect, I may be able to dismiss still more in that Quarter.[18]

Pownall, being one of the more knowledgeable men on the geography of North America, became concerned with how the new boundaries of the British American Colonies would be determined once the war was over. In a memorial, dated October 22, he stated “a “determinate line of demarcation” was paramount and then proceeded to outline it in detail. He addressed four areas; the Labrador coast, the St Lawrence River, the upper part of Louisiana and lastly, the Mississippi River. Regarding Labrador,

They know the worth of this, they know the fishery continues to lessen on the [Newfoundland] Banks and to the southward, they know the best and most plentiful is to the northward and will hope from our inexperiences of this truth to keep still . . . [The Labrador coast] not only abounds with the finest harbors but, like all the eastern shore of the north part of North America, is so hemmed in with islands that vessels may sail within such the whole length of it as within a harbor where there is an inexhaustible source of fish and peltry.

Regarding the border between Canada and New England, he did not doubt that Britain had a legitimate claim to all of the land up to the St. Lawrence River, but he also knew that

The British subjects living on the St. Laurence river will, so long as the French interest dominates there, be bad subjects to the British crown; which disaffection and disadvantage will extend itself into New England and Nova Scotia . . . If any part of the content on this side [of] the waters be divided between British and French, the French, by the ascendancy which they have gained over the Indians, will draw the Indians to live on their part, and have them always ready to pour down upon us, as a continual check and scourge.

Regarding the border between Canada and the upper part of Louisiana, he believed the land of the British Indian allies, most importantly, the Iroquois Nation, must be south of any demarcation line. Regarding the Mississippi River,

If therefore the English cannot expect to share the marine navigation of Mississippi with the French; and the marine navigation of the French is cut off by the falls from the inland navigation; it appears, that the two interests are divided naturally by a line drawn across the falls of the several rivers which run into the Mississippi.[19]

This Memorial, unfortunately, was given little consideration when the Treaty of Peace was negotiated in 1783.

Five days after his October 22 memorial, Pownall wrote to Pitt with a request:

May I beg, Sir, your Interposition with His Majesty that I may have leave to come to England for a few Months—nor wou’d I dare to ask this If I thought I cou’d be of any further Service here at this time & if I did not think I might be of some Service in England at a Juncture in which American Affairs must have so large a share in the interests of Great Britain.[20]

That same day the Lords of the Committee of Council for Plantations Affairs were given twenty-one Acts passed in the Massachusetts Assembly in March and April 1759 for review.

Unaware of the decisions being made in England, Pownall awaited word from Pitt regarding his request. On November 20, he informed Pitt,

I have this day received from Lt. Col. Arbuthnot . . . at St John’s River in Nova Scotia, an account that the Inhabitants of that River hearing of the Reduction of Quebec having surrendered themselves to him . . . [this] permits me Sir to observe one good effect of it—As every other River on the Atlantic was possessed by the King’s Arms, had this, a large River navigable to the largest Ships for near sixty miles from the Sea, been left open the Rendezvous of all those Canadiens & Indians who have now no remedy left for subsistence but to surrender.[21]

The beginning of 1760 brought relief to Massachusetts. On January 2, Pownall informed the Assembly that the struggle with the French was near its end, the financial strain on the colony abated, there was “unappropriated in the Treasury the Sum of 20,688 pounds Sterling remitted” for the previous year’s expenditures from London, and “a Great many Families stand ready to go down to Penobscot [country].”[22]

On January 7, Pitt sent to Pownall the colony’s militia quota for the year’s campaign. Again the King requested that he “raise, with all possible Dispatch, within Your Government, at least as large a Body of Men, as they did for [the] last Campaign.”[23] Three weeks later, Pownall informed Pitt that

I have previous to the receiving His Majesty’s Orders undertaken to recommend it to my Assembly to prepare for the next Campaign; and not withstanding the Clogg which hung upon the Measure by their Conceptions of the disadvantage under which they engaged in the Expence without any Promise of Reimbursement; yet I have the Pleasure, Sir, to enclose to you Resolves of the Court, inconsequence of my Recommendations, of as spirited and vigorous Efforts as the Province ever yet made.[24]

In the three enlistments of 1758, 1759, and 1760, Pownall and the Massachusetts Assembly were able to raise 7,000, 6,500, and 5,000 men respectively; the next closest numbers were raised by Connecticut, with 5,000, 4,600, and 5,000 during those years.

Pownall was fully aware that he served three authorities: first, the colony that paid him; second, the secretary of state who oversaw the prosecution of the war; and third, the Lords Commissioners of Trade who oversaw the day-to-day administration of the colony. Of the latter two, the secretary of state was the higher authority, but the Lords Commissioners could bring a great deal of pressure on the secretary and carried weight with the king. The Lord Commissioners did not like governors who were independent thinkers or were willing to act decisively without seeking their advice beforehand. This explains their action towards Pownall during the summer.

On November 12, 1759, Lord Halifax, the president of the board of trade, discussed a reshuffling of governors with King George II. On November 14, the Lords Commissioners, with the King’s consent, signed off on the following changes:

William Henry Lyttelton, Esqr. may be appointed Governor of Jamaica, in the room of George Haldane, Esqr. Deceased; that Thomas Pownall, Esqr. Governor of the Massachusetts Bay, may be appointed Governor of South Carolina, in the room of Mr. Lyttelton . . .that Francis Bernard, Esqr., Governor of New Jersey, may be appointed Governor of the Massachusetts Bay, in the room of Mr. Pownall; and that Thomas Boone, Esqr. may be appointed Governor of New Jersey, in the room of Mr Bernard.[25]

Both Lyttelton and Pownall were to return to England to receive further instructions.

The official letter from the Lords regarding Pownall’s new appointment was sent following the meeting on the 14th, as were the letters to the others. Pownall’s letter arrived in early February of 1760.

Three events led to Pownall’s transfer: first, the letter dated November 22, 1758 in which the board of trade expressed their dissatisfaction with his relationship to the Massachusetts Assembly; second, the death of Col. George Haldane, the governor of Jamaica, on July 26, 1759; and third, the fall of Quebec City, capital of the French empire in North America, Quebec City. The war would soon be over; the Lords Commissioners needed a governor who they could trust to restore and enforce the Board’s authority, repressive though it was, over one of the leading colonies in North America. In the words of George Bancroft, they wanted a man who was “the most willing friend to the English Church and to British authority.”[26]The man they chose was Francis Bernard, the governor of New Jersey and friend of Lord Halifax; Bernard’s wife was the cousin of Lord Barrington, the Secretary of War. It took about two months for a dispatch to travel from the colonies to London. This explains why the official decisions were made on November 14, 1759:the dispatch announcing the fall of Quebec City, had just arrived in London.

On March 20, 1760, Pownall addressed the assembly:

His Majesty Having been pleased as a mark of his Royal Favour to appoint me to the Government of South Carolina and having favored me with leave to go to England to receive His further Commands, the Right Hon’ble Lords Commissioners for Trade and Plantations think it Expedient for his Majesty’s Service that I should return thither as soon as conveniently may be. I am this Session to take my leave of You and of the Province, which I do under the most grateful Sense of the Honor and Happiness I have enjoyed Therein.[27]

Four days later, the assembly expressed their appreciation for his service.

Your Preferment from this, to a more advantageous Command, is a striking Instance of the Wisdom and Goodness of his Majesty’s reign; and the Happiness of that Administration wherein the Royal Favours are made theReward of distinguished Merit.
However disagreable this Separation must be to us, it would be ungrateful and unjust, not to applaud our Sovereign’s Conduct, and Congratulate you on this Occasion; as, May it please your Excellency, We now do, in the most sincere and respectful Manner.
But Sir, Permit us at the same Time to express the deep Regret that we and our Constituents feel, when we reflect how soon we must be deprived of a Governor, so perfectly acquainted with the Interests of the Crown, and these Plantations; and so indefatigable & successfulin jointly promoting the same.
’Tis your Knowledge of the Country, the Mildness and Probity of your Administration; Attention to public Economy, spirited Efforts in every measure for his Majesty’s Service; Care of our Civil and Religious Liberties, and tender Concern for the Distresses of this Barrier Colony, that have endeared you to the good people of this Province, and must transmit to Posterity a grateful Remembrance of your Excellency.
These Things demand our public Acknowledgments: For these we render our unfeigned Thanks.
Please Sir, to accept the same, with our ardent Wishes, that Heaven may long bless your Excellency with the Royal Approbation, and with Opportunities for doing Good, great as your Abilities and Inclination for that Purpose.[28]

On May 17, a group representing one hundred and fifty merchants expressed their appreciation for the benefits they received under his governorship.

The happy influence of your administration, while it has extended itself to every branch of the public interest, has been too sensibly felt by the merchants and others concerned in trade to allow us to part with you Excellency without the most particular acknowledgment of gratitude and respect.[29]

On June 30, Pownall set sail for London. On July 30, the lieutenant-governor of New York, James DeLancey, died. With the absence of the nominal governor, Sir William Hardy, the Royal responsibility fell to the seventy-three year old Dr. Cadwallader Colden, the senior member of the council. He knew he was not up to the task and he knew that Pownall was returning to London before assuming his new appointment. On August 22, he wrote to Pownall and asked if he would consider the position. Pownall arrived in London in August and probably received the letter in late October. The board of trade was willing to change his appointment from South Carolina to New York, but Pownall declined the position. He was also offered the governorship of Jamaica; initially he accepted the position but then declined it because he had fallen in love with a wealthy lady in London. Before the end of November, he would also decline the governorship of South Carolina.

On October 25, King George II died. He was succeeded by his grandson, King George III. Pownall and the King were polar opposites in their ideas on how the American colonies should be treated. Once George III ascended the throne, Pownall had to stand by and watch the King, who knew very little about the colonies, pursue a course of action that would change the world forever.

The highest compliment that Thomas Pownall received for his service in the American colonies came from none other than John Adams: “Mr. Pownall was a friend to liberty and to our constitution, and seems  to have had an aversion to all plots against either;”[30] and, “He was the most constitutional and Rational Governor in my opinion who ever represented the Crown in this Province.”[31]


[1]James Abercromby to William Pitt, July 12, 1758, Correspondence of William Pitt: When Secretary of State with Colonial Governors and Military and Naval Commissioners in America, Gertrude Selwyn Kimball, ed. (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1906), 1: 298.

[2]Ibid., 1: 298n4; Benson J. Lossing, The Life and Times of Philip Schuyler(New York: Sheldon & Company, 1872-73), 1: 155.

[3]Correspondence of William Pitt, 2: 9.

[4]Ibid., 2: 10.

[5]William Tudor, The Life of James Otis of Massachusetts(Boston: Wells and Lilly, 1823), 45.

[6]Correspondence of William Pitt, 1: 417-20.

[7]Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts(Meriden, CT: Meriden Gravure Company, 1961), 35: 265.

[8]Ibid., 35: 287.

[9]Correspondence of William Pitt, 2: 70; The Acts and Resolves, Public and Private, for the Province of the Massachusetts Bay(Boston: Wright & Potter Printing Co.), 4: 191, 199, 233, 234.

[10]Correspondence of William Pitt, 2: 71-2.

[11]Ibid., 2: 91-2.

[12]“Journal of the Voyage of his Excell’y Thos. Pownall, Esq., Captain General and Governor in Chief in and over his Majesty’s Province of the Massachusetts Bay, to Penobscot,” Collections of the Maine Historical Society, Series 1, Vol. 5 (Portland: Maine Historical Society, 1857), 363-387.

[13]Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts, 36: 108-10.

[14]Ibid., 36: 35.

[15]Ibid., 36: 49.

[16]George Bancroft, The History of the United States(Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1763), 4: 299n1; Bancroft claimed the letter was sent Pownall from the Lords of Trade without Secretary Pitt’s knowledge.

[17]K. H. Leeward, ed., Journals of the Board of Trade and Plantations, January 1759 to December 1763(London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1935), 11: 52.

[18]Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts, 36: 56-7.

[19]Thomas Pownall, The Administration of the British Colonies, 5th edition (London: J. Walters, 1774), 259-69.

[20]The Correspondence of William Pitt, 2: 202-03.

[21]Correspondence of William Pitt, 2: 213-14.

[22]Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts, 36: 127-29.

[23]Correspondence of William Pitt, 2: 231-34.

[24]Thomas Pownall to Pitt, January 29, 1760, Acts and Resolves, 4: 348.

[25]Journals of the Board of Trade, 11: 59-60; The London Gazette, November 27, 1759.

[26]Bancroft, The History of the United States, 11: 551.

[27]Journals of the House of Representatives, 36: 262-64.

[28]Ibid., 36: 277-78.

[29]S. G. Drake, The History and Antiquities of Boston(Boston: William Guild and Co., 1857), 649.

[30]John Adams, History of the Dispute with America, from its Origin in 1754(London, 1784), 8.

[31]John Adams to Mr. Tudor, February 14, 1817,” The Works of John Adams, Charles Francis Adams, ed. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1856), 10: 243.

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