Roger Conant: Founder of Salem

Roger Conant was the founder of Salem and became one of the first governors of Massachusetts when he took over a fishing settlement in Gloucester in 1625.

Conant is often described by historians as a calm, tolerant, peaceful leader who often felt uncomfortable with the strict and intolerant ways of Puritan life in the colonies.

The following is an overview of the life of Roger Conant:

Roger Conant in England:

Conant was baptized on April 9, 1592 in East Budleigh, Devonshire, England. He was one of eight children born to Richard Conant and Agnes Clark.

He was married twice, first to an unknown woman, and then to Sarah Horton, on November 11, 1618 at St. Ann, Blackfriars in London, England

The couple had a total of 10 children:

Sarah (1619 – 1620)

Caleb (1622)

Lott (1624)

Roger (1626)

Sarah (1628)

Joanna (birthdate unknown)

Joshua (birthdate unknown)

Mary (birthdate unknown)

Elizabeth (birthdate unknown)

Exercise (1637)

Roger Conant in New England:

In 1623, Conant and his wife and son Caleb immigrated on the ship “Ann” from England to Plymouth Colony. Conant found that he was uncomfortable with the strict Puritan way of life in Plymouth and moved his family to Nantasket, which is now modern day Hull, on Cape Cod, in 1624.

Conant lived in Nantasket for about a year and his second son, Lott, was most likely born there. The family lived in a large house that had been built in 1624.

Roger Conant's house in Nantasket
Roger Conant’s house in Nantasket

In late 1625, Reverend John White and other members of the Dorchester Company invited Conant to relocate to and become governor of their fishing settlement in Gloucester.

The reason White had chosen Conant was because he had heard from Conant’s brother that Conant was one of a few “religious and well-affected persons” who had left Plymouth due to his dislike of its strict society and felt he would be perfect for the fishing settlement, which was a settlement based on on commerce, not religion (Hubbard 106.)

After a year in Gloucester, the colony failed and many of the colonists returned to England.

Conant planned to move the remaining colonists to a nearby area called Naumkeag, now modern day Salem, which he believed provided better fishing and farmland.

Worried that Conant and the others might abandon the Massachusetts Bay Colony altogether for Virginia, White promised Conant that he would secure a patent for Naumkeag in order to make the colony legal and more official.

Roger Conant in Salem:

In the fall of 1626, Conant led a group of the Gloucester colonists to Naumkeag. The group included: William Allen, Thomas Gray, Richard Norman, Peter Palfray, John Balch, Walter Knight, Richard Norman Jr, John Tylly, John Woodbery.

At Naumkeag, the colonists built houses, cleared and prepared the land for the planting of corn and tobacco and other crops. It is believed that Conant built the first house in Salem, on what is now Essex Street almost opposite the Town Market, that year and his son Roger was also born that year, making him the first colonist born in Salem.

In 1627, Thomas Dudley and several others back in England began to discuss this new colony in New England and wrote to the Dorchester Company. After some negotiations, they purchased the company’s patent to settle the area, under the name the New England Company.

On June 20, 1628, Endecott, his wife and a few colonists sailed from Weymouth, England, in the ship Abigail, and arrived in Naumkeag on September 6.

Upon Endecott’s arrival in Naumkeag, Conant learned from Endecott that he and the New England Company were now the owners of the colony and that he must hand over control of the colony and everything they had built and cultivated to him.

Conant and his colonists were upset upon hearing this news. Endecott and his colonists were aware of this fact though and felt empathy for them and even offered them a share of the colony under the new royal charter, including two seats on their local council.

Historian John Wingate Thornton compared the two leaders. Endecott and Conant, in his book The Landing at Cape Anne, stating that they could not be more different:

“Besides strict integrity, there was little common to them. Each was peculiarly fitted for the duties and periods assigned to him, and had the order been reversed the result would have been fatal. Conant was moderate in his views, tolerant, mild and conciliatory, quiet and unobtrusive, ingenuous and umambitious, preferring the public good to his private interests; with passive virtues he combined great moral courage and an indomitable will…Endecott was the opposite of Conant; arbitrary and sometimes violent, he ruled with a determined hand and carried the sword unsheathed; quick to assert and ready to maintain his rights; firm and unyielding, he confronted all obstacles with a vigorous resistance; a man of theological asperity and bigoted, he was guarded against every insidious foe.” (Thornton 66.)

Conant, being the calm and level-headed peacekeeper that he was, decided to hand over control of the colony peacefully and work together with the new colonists to make the colony even stronger.

Conant was constantly involved in town government, he became a Freeman on May 18 of 1631, served on the General Court of Massachusetts in 1634, and served as a selectman, a justice on the Court of Quarter Sessions and a delegate to ordinations.

The seal of Roger Conant

In 1637, Conant moved to what is now modern day Beverly where he was granted 1,000 acres of land by the General Court.

In 1639, Roger Conant was one of the first to sign a contract to enlarge the meeting house in Town House Square for the First Church in Salem.

On November 19, 1679, Roger Conant died at the age of 87. It is not known where he is buried but it is believed he is buried in the Old Burying Point Cemetery in Salem.

In Conant’s will, dated March 1, 1677, he left his son Exercise 140 acres of land in Dunstable, 10 acres of land adjacent to Exercise’s land, two acres of marshland in Wenham, his swamp land in Beverly, and a portion of his land in Wenham adjacent to Henry Haggats land.

To his grandson John Conant he left 10 acres of land adjoining John’s 20 acres, to his grandson Joshua Conant he left 17 acres of land on the south side of the marsh near Wenham, to his daughter Sarah he left two acres of land in Beverly and to a man named Captain Roger Clap he gave 60 acres of land near Dunstable for the use of his daughter in Devon, England in lieu of goods that were sold but never paid. In addition he left small amounts of money to his children and grandchildren to be divided equally as well as some cattle and sheep.

Since Conant’s wife Sarah is not mentioned in the will, she probably died sometime before him.

Roger Conant Statue in Salem, Mass
Roger Conant Statue in Salem, Mass

In 1913, a bronze statue of Roger Conant was erected on Brown Street in Salem and was dedicated during a special ceremony on June 17.

The statue was designed by artist Henry H. Kitson for the Conant Family Association and stands on top of a boulder brought from the woods near the floating bridge in Lynn.

Sources:
Hubbard, William. A General History of New England: From the Discovery to MDCLXXX. C.C. Little and J. Brown, 1848.
Hutchinson, Thomas. The History of Massachusetts, from the First Settlement Thereof in 1628, Until the Year 1750. Vol 1, Thomas C. Cushing, 1795.
Thornton, John Wingate. The Landing at Cape Ann: Or, The Charter of the First Permanent Colony on the Territory of the Massachusetts Company. Gould and Lincoln, 1854.
Conant, Frederick Odell. A History of Genealogy of the Conant Family in England and America. Privately Printed, 1887.

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the author and publisher of the History of Massachusetts Blog. Rebecca is a freelance journalist and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

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