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William Phelps and the First Local Government in America

At the time of the emigration of the Dorchester colony, and other Massachusetts settlers, to Windsor, in 1635, it was supposed to be under the control of the Massachusetts Company, and a commission of seven persons was appointed to govern the new colony, in Connecticut; for one year Mr. William Phelps was one of this commission.

Dorchester was the first settlement in the Americas to establish local town government, and William Phelps played a key role in establishing that government. The following is a transcript(1) of the original document, preserving insofar as possible the peculiarities of the language of the time, with breaks added for readability.


March 3rd, 1636

A Commission granted to seuall Persons to govern the people att Conecticott, for the space of a year, now next coming, an Exemplificacon whereof ensueth:

Whereas vpon some reason & grounds, there are to remove from this o' comonwealth & body of the Mattachusetts in America, dyv's of o' loveing ffriends, neighb's ffreemen & members of Newe Towne, Dorchester, Waterton, & other places, whoe are resolved to transplant themselues & their estates vnto the Ryver of Conecticott, there to reside & inhabiite, & to that end dyv's are there already dyv's others shortly to goe, wee, in this present Court assembled, on the behalfe of o' said Members & John Winthrop, Jun', Esq. Goner appoynted by certain noble personages & men of qualitie, interested in the said ryvr web. yet in England, on their behalfe, have had a serious consideracon there [on] & think it meete that 'where there are a people to sitt down & cohabite, there will followe, upon occaZon, some cause of difference, as also dyvers misdeameanrs web will require a speedy redresse; & in regard of the distance of place this state and goumt cannot take notice of the same as to apply timely remedy, or to dispence equall iustice to them, & their affaires, as may be desired;

and in regard of the said noble psonages, and men of quallitie, have something ingaged themselves & their estates, in the planting of the said ryver & by vertue of a patient, doe require jurisdicion of the said place & people, & neither the mindes of the said psonages [they being writ unto] are as yet knowen, nor any manner of gount is yet agreed on, & there being a necesitie, as aforesaid, that some present goumt may be observed, wee therefore thinke mee[te] & soe order that Roger Ludlowe, Esqr., William Pinchon, Esq., John Steele, William Swaine, Henry Smythe, William Phelpes, William Westwood & Andrew Warde, or the greater pte of them, shall have full power and aucthoritie to hear and determine in a iudicial way, by witnesses vpon oathe examine, wth, [in] the said plantacon, all those differences, wch may arise between ptie and ptie,

as also, upon mis-demeanr, to inflicte corporall punishmt, or imprisonmt, to ffine & levy the same if occacon soe require, to make & decree such orders, for the present, that may be for the peaceable & quiett ordering the affaires of the said plantacon, bothe in tradeing, planting, building, lotts, militarie dissipline, defensiue in warr [if neede so require], as shall best conduce to the publique good of the same, & that the said Rodger Ludlow, William Pinchon, John Steele, Will- Swaine, Henry Smyth, Will- Phelpes, William Westwood, and Andrew Warner, or the greatr pte of them shall have power, under the great' pte of their ha[nds] at a day or days, by them appoyncted, upon convenient not[ice], to convent the said inhabitant, of the said towns to any convenient place, that they shall think meete, in a leagall and open manner, by way of Court to pleede in execute[ing] the power and authoritu of aforesaide,

and in case of presnt necessitie, two of them joyning to geather to inflict corporall punishmt, upon any offender, if they see good and warentable ground so to doe. Provided always that this commission shall not extend any longer time than one whole year, from the date there of, and in the-mean time it shall be lawful for this Cort, to recall the said psens if they see couse, and if soe be ther may be a mutuall, and settled govunt- condecended unto, by and with the good likeing and consent of the said noble psonages, or their agent, the inhabitants and the commonwealth, provided also, that this ma not be any prejudice to the interest of these noble personages in the sd. ryver and confined there of within their small lymitts.


^ 1Transcribed from The Phelps Family of America and Their English Ancestors, (Save $201 by ordering through us.) Two volumes. By Judge Oliver Seymour Phelps and Andrew T. Servin. (Eagle Publishing Company of Pittsfield, Mass., 1899) Original spelling and punctuation preserved. Vol. I, p 75-76