Black Sheep Sunday: Crime and Punishment circa 1633

John Sale and daughter Phebe 'bound over' for theft by John. Found in Pioneers of Massachusetts by Charles henry Pope, 1900. Public domain.
John Sale and daughter Phebe ‘bound over’ for theft committed by John. Found in Pioneers of Massachusetts by Charles Henry Pope, 1900. Public domain.


McMurray Family (Click for Family Tree)

Our Burnell, Tucker, Bannister, Pomeroy, Parsons, and Kingsley ancestors lived in Puritan Massachusetts in the 1600s, and the early 1700s as the society became more diverse. They may have known John Sales, or known of him- news travelled faster than we realize even though they did not have cell phones in those days. Thankfully, John Sales is not the ‘Black Sheep’ of our family, though he likely is such in some other family. His story, however, will give a bit of context to the time and place that our own ancestors lived.

Charles Henry Pope compiled information from many available sources, such as, in this case, the Records of Massachusetts Bay Colony or the General Court [Col. Rec.], and Gov. John Winthrop’s History of Massachusetts [W.]. Pope’s book Pioneers of Massachusetts was published in 1900.

These records show that John Sales was admitted as an inhabitant of Charlestown, Massachusetts, now known as Cambridge (Boston’s oldest neighborhood), and in 1630 the capital of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. From other sources we learn that John migrated from Little Waldingfield, Suffolk, England, in 1630, and his first residence in the colony was Charlestown. John most likely was already a member of the Puritan church- the ONLY religion tolerated in the colony. To become a member of the local church, however, John, like other men and women, had to be examined by local Puritan religious leaders and found to be steadfast and knowledgeable in his faith. In fact, he proved himself- John was one of the members from the very beginning of the First Church in Boston, on 27 August 1630- he was member #21.

Anne (Dudley) Bradstreet, the first female poet to be published in the English colonies- and the most famous poet in the colonies- was also listed in that first accounting of members of the new church. Her most famous lines are:

If ever two were one, then surely we.

If ever man were loved by wife, then thee.”

John Winthrop, the Governor of the colony, was a member of the Boston First Church, too.

So how did John Sales, who travelled in such prominent circles to some degree, end up being convicted of theft?? ‘Black Sheep’ that he was, he had the distinction of being the first person in the colony to be convicted of that crime, on 1 April 1633.

We know that times were pretty lean in the first years of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and we know that John had a daughter named Phebe to support. We do not know John’s status when he immigrated to the colony- was he part of the gentry, a merchant, a skilled craftsman, an apprentice, or indentured servant? His wife was not listed in any records (still existing) once he was in the colony. She may have died in England after the birth of their second daughter in 1628, or she died on board ship or shortly after arrival. My hypothesis is that she would have been on board ship, as it would be unlikely a man would bring a four-year old daughter- Phebe- with him to the colony without a woman to care for her. (Phoebe was baptized in 1626, but may not have been an infant at baptism, thus her actual age is unknown.) If his wife and second daughter, 2 year old Sarah had come on the voyage, they would have been like many other colonists, who travelled as a family. A number of passengers on board perished during the journey, however, and John’s wife and youngest daughter may have been two of them, as they are not mentioned in any of the Colony’s records.

John Sales and family probably sailed from England with the Winthrop Fleet, the 12 ships that landed in Salem, Massachusetts on 12 June 1630. The sick and decimated colonists already in Salem did not have enough food even for themselves, nor housing for the new arrivals. The newest colonists then only had a few months to find a different place to settle and build shelters for the oncoming brutal New England winter. They moved about twenty miles away, and founded Charlestown.

Wattle-and-daub construction, via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Wattle-and-daub construction, via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.

The colonists mostly lived in very simple housing such as wigwams, dugout homes, or wattle-and-daub (basically stick and mud) houses with dirt floors. The rich persons in town had clapboard houses, which would have been much warmer in winter than drafty wattle-and-daub. There was a lack of fresh water in Charlestown, and growing and gathering food to sustain them over that first winter would have been a challenge during the few remaining months of summer. Many got sick from poor diet, local conditions, and hard work. In that first year, about 200 of the approximately 1,000 immigrants died; the next spring, in 1631, another 200 returned to England. John Sale and his daughter Phebe somehow survived these tough times, and made it through their first year in the New World.

The year 1632 was harder, though, for John and Phebe. The Charlestown Town Records state:

“heere happened in this Towne, the first knowne thiefe yt [that] was notoriously observed in ye Country, his name was John Sales who having stolne [stolen] Corne from many people in this Scarce time was Convicted thereof before the Court…”

John was accused of

“… fellonyously takeing away corne & fishe from dyvers persons the last yeare & this, as also clapboards, &c.”

Not that stealing is acceptable, especially when others also do not have enough, but perhaps John was just trying to feed his daughter and himself, and either add clapboards to their home to help them stay warm, or use the clapboards for firewood. He may have been too sick to care for his daughter as well as bring home dinner or kindling from the woods. We cannot know his situation or motivation, but we do know what happened next.

We can also tell you that John Sales was not listed as an inhabitant of Charlestown on 9 January 1633/34. Obviously there was a big change in his life.

Tomorrow- The Punishment




Notes, Sources, and References: 

  1. Pioneers of Massachusetts by Charles Henry Pope, 1900, via
  2. John Sale is listed on page 2 of “Boston Church Records” The Records of the Churches of Boston. CD-ROM. Boston, Mass.: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2002. (Online database. New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2008 .)
  3. Entry for John Sales: The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England 1620-1633, Volumes I-III. (Online database:, New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2010), (Originally Published as: New England Historic Genealogical Society. Robert Charles Anderson, The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England 1620-1633, Volumes I-III, 3 vols., 1995). He is listed on p. 407-8 in a footnote in the profile of John Coggeshall, page 1616-1618 in his own profile as John Sales.
  4. “&c” means “and etc.”
  5. Double or dual dating is often used during this time period because of the change from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar. See the article on dual dating at and



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