John Wathen's Adventure

John Wathen's Adventure

It was an ordinary day in Bristol, one of the busiest port cities in England, in September of 1670. The docks bustled with activity as imports like tobacco and sugar made their way out of the New World into the Old. Tattered posters along the cobbled streets promised an exciting opportunity to "adventurers," young men and women who were brave enough to cross the Atlantic and settle in the English colonies.

England in the seventeenth century was experiencing high levels of unemployment, as many in the lower and middle classes of society struggled to find work. Colonies like Maryland, however, had a great need for able-bodied laborers to help work plantations and settle the New World.

Many who wanted to cross the ocean to America could not afford to pay for their own passage. Such individuals would often sign a contract, or “indenture,” committing themselves to serve a master for an agreed upon number of years in exchange for travel and provisions. The Maryland State Archives explains:

One form of indenture obliged the master to provide transportation, food, clothing, and lodging for the servant during the term of servitude. On completion of the servant's term, the master may have promised to furnish clothing, a year's provision of corn, and the right to 50 acres of land. The usual length of service was 4 to 5 years, but in the case of a valuable skilled worker, such as a blacksmith or cooper, the time could be shortened to induce the person to sign.[1]

On September 10, 1670, John Wathen was indentured to Hugh Thomas for three years to finance travel to Maryland aboard the Francis & Mary. John Wathen was a carpenter, a skilled laborer, which likely accounts for the shortened time of his indentured servitude. The fact that he was identified as a carpenter in 1671 also provides a clue about his age: According to the laws of Bristol, England, one had to apprentice for seven years after reaching the age of seventeen before becoming a carpenter, suggesting that John Wathen was born in 1646 or earlier.[2]

We don't know exactly what motivated John to make this journey to Maryland: Was he unable to find enough work in his homeland? Was he looking for freedom to practice the Catholic faith in Maryland? Was he driven by the promise of adventure at sea and in the unsettled lands of America?

John Wathen's journey across the Atlantic from Bristol to Maryland would have taken at least five weeks, and such journeys were usually treacherous. Indentured servant were often packed tightly below the ship's decks for the whole journey, and as many as half of the passengers might perish before reaching their destination.

When John Wathen did arrive in Maryland, however, he managed to do well financially. In her 1977 doctoral dissertation, Lorena Seebach Walsh cited the example of John Wathen to demonstrate that those who came to Maryland as indentured servants often achieved an economic status similar to their former masters. Her description provides many valuable details about John Wathen’s life in Maryland:

Wathen was a servant of Hugh Thomas, himself a former laborer become middling planter. In 1671 Wathen built for Thomas’ neighbor, Nicholas Grosse, a 15 foot by 10 foot house, a bedstead, and forms for 500 pounds of tobacco. Once freed, Wathen continued to work at his trades of carpenter and wheel-wright. He married and fathered five sons and three daughters. By 1702 he had saved enough to acquire 200 acres, which he named “Wathen’s Adventure,” and several lots and houses in the town of Newport. He had purchased another 200 acres by 1705. In 1697 and 1698 Wathen served on four Juries and acted as an overseer of highways. He died in 1705 having accumulated personal property worth £147. There was little in John Wathen’s career which distinguished it from his master’s.[3]

Historical documents provide quite a few other details about the life of John and his family in Southern Maryland. If you'd like to learn more details about his work as a carpenter, his five sons and three daughters, and his many, many descendants, be sure to pre-order The Wathens of Southern Maryland: Their Genealogy & History today!

To commemorate the anniversary of John Wathen signing his contract to travel to Maryland, enjoy 15% off of The Wathens of Southern Maryland from September 10 to September 17, 2022. Use the code 10SEPT1670 at checkout to apply the discount!

[1] Maryland State Archives, “Understanding Maryland Records: Indentured Servants,” ( : accessed 30 Jul 2022)

[2] Warthen, Robert O. “Early Wathen/Worthen/Warthen Colonists in America” (unpublished manuscript, 2006, Wathen Family Folder 2, St. Mary’s County Historical Society, Leonardtown, Maryland), 11.

[3] Walsh, Lorena Seebach, “Charles County, Maryland, 1658-1705: A Study of Chesapeake Social and Political Structure” (Ph.D. diss., Michigan State University, 1977), 177; digitized in Electronic Theses & Dissertations ( : accessed 31 July 2022) > Electronic Theses & Dissertations > Search the Digital Repository: Charles County, Maryland, 1658-1705.

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