MASON, JOHN, sailor, explorer, cartographer, colonizer, second governor of the first English colony in Newfoundland and founder of New Hampshire; b. 1586 at King’s Lynn, Norfolk, son of John and Isabella Mason; d. in London, 1635.
Nothing is known of Mason’s life before 1606 when he married Anne, daughter of Edward Greene of London, although there is a possibility that he may have been the John Mason of Hampshire who matriculated from Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1602 (Dean, pp. 34–35). His career becomes more certain from 1610 when he was commissioned by James I as commander of four vessels to assist Bishop Andrew Knox in reclaiming the Hebrides. This suggests that Mason, although not yet 30, had both considerable naval experience and private means, for he bore the expedition’s costs of over £2,000 himself. In recompense, the Scottish Privy Council awarded him the assize of herring in the northern seas but the Dutch fishermen refused to pay, while the Scottish fishermen had him imprisoned. When next heard of, in 1615, Mason was regarded as a pirate by the Scots and imprisoned in Edinburgh. There is no evidence of a trial but in August he surrendered his ship to the deputy treasurer for Scotland.
About this time Mason became governor of the colony at Cuper’s Cove (now Cupids), Newfoundland, in succession to John Guy. There is no satisfactory explanation of his appointment; it has been thought that it was a reward for his service to the king in the Hebrides, but it seems unlikely that anyone but the council of the Newfoundland company would make the appointment. No doubt Mason’s naval experience did influence the company, which was perturbed by the frequent attacks made on the island by pirates. By June 1616 Mason was at Cuper’s Cove and had already begun those explorations which enabled him to produce the first known English map of Newfoundland, based on personal survey. In August 1617 he wrote to Sir John Scot that “as huswives have many letts to good housewifry, Frontletts, bracellets partlets etc.; – so have Inletts, outletts, bayes Coves &c through their discovery, ben so many obstacles and hinderancs to my duty” (National Library of Scotland, Advocates MS 17. 1. 19, ff.221, 222v) and so the map did not appear until 1625 when William Vaughan’s Cambrensium Caroleia was printed; it was also included in Vaughan’s The golden fleece (1626). Mason appears to have lived continuously in the colony until October 1619, when he left for England to persuade the company to have the scope of their patent enlarged so as to give the colonists greater authority over the visiting fishermen. During Mason’s governorship the conflict between settlers and fishermen, that is, between London and West Country trading interests, had flared up and a series of charges and counter-charges had been presented to the Privy Council. His fellow-colonists did not know whether Mason would return, since his wife, who had probably been with her husband during most, if not all, of his residence there, had left in September.
While in England, Mason probably supervised the publishing of his A briefe discourse of the New-found-land which appeared in 1620. This rare and attractive little work described the geography and climate of Newfoundland, its flora, fauna, and natural resources realistically, for it was Mason’s intention to correct previous exaggerations. His motive seems to have been to interest his Scottish acquaintances in the plantation of the island and much space was devoted to proving how profitable and relatively easy settlement would be. He was apparently successful for, in a petition which the Newfoundland company presented to the Privy Council in March 1620, asking that Mason be appointed king’s lieutenant in the island to suppress piracy, “the Scottish vndertakers of the plantations” are mentioned; Sir William Alexander, Earl of Stirling, promoter of the settlement of Nova Scotia, certainly held land in the south of the island.
In May Mason received a commission from the lord admiral to command a vessel against the pirates and he probably did return to Newfoundland that year for the last time. About 1621, for a reason now unknown, Mason relinquished his connection with Newfoundland in favour of New England. Unfortunately there is very little documentary evidence on which to base an assessment of Mason’s career in Newfoundland. It does appear, however, that the colony was still reasonably successful: in 1620 the Privy Council had given the company permission to transport iron ore to Newfoundland for smelting there. This would suggest, as do letters written by a colonist, Thomas Rowley, that there were still a considerable number of settlers. It was after Mason‘s departure that effort seemed to flag.
In his New England ventures Mason acted in co-operation with Sir Ferdinando Gorges who was a commissioner for the regulation of the Newfoundland fisheries. In 1622 Mason received two grants of land in New England; one between the “Naumkeck” and “Merimack” rivers; the other, held jointly with Gorges, was the future province of Maine. He had not entirely abandoned his interest in Newfoundland for, in 1623, his agent there was trying to obtain certain fish due to him. The outbreak of war with Spain in 1624 and with France two years later distracted Mason from colonial affairs. In 1625 he was made commissary general, responsible for victualling the Cadiz expedition and, in 1626, became treasurer and paymaster of the English forces. Peace was made in 1629 and that year Mason was granted the area to be known as New Hampshire. Furthermore, in association with Gorges and others, he established the Laconia company to develop land on Lake Champlain. In 1630 a successful colony was set up on his land on the Pascataway (Picataqua). He became a member of the Council of New England in 1632 and, later that year, vice-president. He received further grants of land in 1635 and, when the council surrendered its patent, Mason was created vice-admiral of New England.
Meanwhile, in England, he had organized a scheme to encourage the fisheries in home waters at the expense of the Dutch. In 1633 the king granted a charter for “An association for the three kingdoms for a general fishery”; Mason was treasurer. The following year he was made captain of Southsea castle and inspector of all forts and castles on the south coast. Mason was making preparations to visit New Hampshire when he died in December 1635, bequeathing his vast estates in New England to his wife and then to his four grandchildren. So ended an extraordinarily active career to which his achievements in New England were a fitting memorial, even if those in Newfoundland were transitory.
Most of the letters, papers, and grants in the PRO and elsewhere relating to Mason have been printed in Capt. John Mason, the founder of New Hampshire, including his tract on Newfoundland, ed. J. W. Dean (Prince Soc., XVII, Boston, 1887). Other manuscript sources: Bodleian Library, Malone