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JOHNSON, GEORGE, English separatist, who, with three companions, searched Canada for a site for a Pilgrim settlement in 1597 and wrote of his experiences; b. 1564; d. 1605.

From 1590 Puritan separatists, known as Brownists, were harshly persecuted in England. Four of them were destined to come into contact with Canada: Francis Johnson (1562–1618), formerly a Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge, and an Anglican clergyman, had become a follower of the separatist Henry Barrow (executed in 1593), and pastor of a London congregation of Barrow’s followers, that was arrested en bloc in 1592; Daniel Studley, an elder in Barrow’s own congregation, of whose background little is known, but who was sentenced to death and reprieved, 1593; John Clarke (or Clerke) a husbandman of Wallsoken, Norfolk, and a prisoner since 1590; and George Johnson who had been to Christ’s College, Cambridge, and was a schoolmaster when arrested in 1593. An act of Parliament in 1593 required sentences of death or banishment for all separatists unreconciled to the Church of England, and, from then on, separatists were released and went into exile in Amsterdam where they formed a congregation, the leaders still remaining in prison. Francis Johnson, as early as 1593, had petitioned for the separatists to have leave to withdraw to some part of the queen’s dominions where they might exercise their religion freely. In 1597 the opportunity arose. Captain Charles Leigh and his friends, who may have been backed by the aged Lord Burghley, offered them the possibility of an English settlement on Ramea (the Magdalen Is.) in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. A petition by the imprisoned Brownists to go there was accepted by the Privy Council on 25 March 1597. Four of them were to set out at once, and were “to take with them such household stuff and other implements as may serve them for their necessary use,” since they, with one of the ships, were to winter on the islands and be reinforced by the remaining exiles in 1598.

The ships Hopewell and Chancewell made their way from the Thames to Falmouth in April 1597, Francis Johnson, as the leader of the congregation, and Studley, as an elder, accompanying Capt. Leigh on the Hopewell – their story is now Capt. Leigh’s – while George Johnson with John Clarke, chosen no doubt for his knowledge of practical agriculture, were on the Chancewell. There was some trouble at Falmouth. George Johnson had circulated among the crew the Brownists’ credo, A true confession of the faith ([Amsterdam], 1596), with its preface by Henry Ainsworth, poignantly characterizing the separatists – “wee are but strangers and pilgrims warring against many and mightie adversaries” – which was clearly seditious. Capt. Stephen van Harwick of the Chancewell wished to take severe action against George but Francis Johnson intervened and enabled the expedition to set out. (There were further attempts by George to convert the sailors at Newfoundland, and more dissensions, once again assuaged by Francis.) The ships crossed the Atlantic together, reaching Newfoundland waters on 18 May. After losing contact briefly they made a rendezvous at Conception Bay on the 20th and then worked their way down the Newfoundland coast, finally losing touch with each other in a fog on 5 June off Placentia Bay.

The Chancewell had evidently no pilot for the Magdalens and made no attempt to reach them, but sailed for Cape Breton. Her captain may have intended to fish, or look for prizes along the coast, although he may have also had some intention of allowing his Puritan passengers the chance to prospect for alternative settlement sites. However, in a great bay, some 18 leagues (about 54 miles) from Cape Breton (to the west, and perhaps St. Ann’s Bay) the Chancewell was wrecked, “the ship,” says George Johnson, “being thorow the headines of the Master in a faire sunne shine day run upon the Rocks.” They got the Chancewell off the rocks and beached her, but they had taken no precautions to safeguard her before she was over-run by French Basque fishermen from Ciboure, a flotilla of whose boats was fishing nearby. They stripped the ship and the men, leaving them little but their boats. Johnson and Clarke lost all their settlers’ gear, and were on bad terms at least with Capt. van Harwick. He was now in a dangerous position and thought his best course was to attempt a counter-attack on the French, but the consciences of his Puritan passengers, unwilling to countenance robbery, stood in his way. He offered, tauntingly, to leave them to live among the Indians (and perish), to be taken by the French (and compelled to hear mass), or to join with him in attacking a fishing vessel. Neither John Clarke nor Johnson would choose: they would accept “what he would lay on them,” and would undergo it with God’s help, but the captain was reluctant to make their decision for them and deferred it. In the meantime van Harwick equipped his men and rigged his shallops as best he could. Three or four days later he and George were walking on the shore “conferring of these things,” when “suddenly (being quick sighted) he saw a ship far off in the sea, and said I see a shipp.” George Johnson replied, “it may be the Lord wil send us help thereby,” and urged van Harwick to send out a shallop to make contact. This was done. On shore the newcomer was soon identified as an English ship; hope grew that she was the Hopewell, and so she proved to be. On 27 June there was a joyful reunion between the four exiles, “yea I cannot now write without teares, remembering such a wondrous providence of God even in a strange land,” George wrote in 1603. Francis shared his goods and food with his brother and the Hopewell, with her expanded complement, began her course of reprisals against the French which was to occupy Capt. Leigh until 5 August following. There was no attempt to discuss further plans of settlement; we may assume that Francis Johnson and Studley were disillusioned by their experiences on the Magdalens, or at least could see no prospect of building a stable settlement.

On shipboard the Puritans were preoccupied with their own affairs. George Johnson alleged that Daniel Studley stood aloof from the reunited brothers and that he had incited him, George, to “exhort and admonish” Capt. Leigh about certain, unnamed, shortcomings. The captain naturally resented such interference even though he was in sympathy with his passengers’ beliefs, and the result was a quarrel with George – ”who before had long bene deare frends.” Then too it was Studley, George tells us, who revived the theological criticism of Francis Johnson’s wife’s manner of dress which had already divided the congregation in prison. We have a vivid picture of George and Studley, lying in their cabins and putting out their heads to hurl scriptural arguments against one another on this abstruse matter. All this time the ship was searching for the Chancewell’s goods on the Cape Breton coast and then working along southwest Newfoundland, taking a Breton prize and trans-shipping to her before setting out for home on 5 August. In mid-Atlantic the arguments had become so fierce that George was ostracized by the rest and Francis Johnson urged, so George claimed, that Capt. Leigh should keep him on shipboard in case he disrupted the congregation at home. Reaching the Isle of Wight on 5 September, the frustrated pilgrims made their way to London from Southampton, trying to force George to keep quiet and not draw attention to them. Of the discussions with the rest of the congregation in London, now on parole, we have no record. They decided against emigration to America (although Leigh was still in favour of settlement on the Magdalens), and they left London to reassemble their congregation, with the earlier emigrants, in Amsterdam.

George Johnson was an unbalanced man: he continued to divide the church by his controversies with his brother and Daniel Studley, was expelled, and wrote his Discourse of some troubles (1603, extant only in copies in Trinity College, Cambridge, and Sion College, London), recounting, amongst other things, his experiences in Canada. He then returned to England and to prison where he died at Durham in 1605. Studley maintained a career of controversy until 1612. George Johnson tells us he “kept things in writing against me which fel out in our banishment when we were at sea and at New found land, never dealing with me for them but tolde them in open congregation.” Unfortunately, we lack his American journal. Of John Clarke no more is heard. Francis Johnson bravely led the “Ancient Church,” as it was later known, through various vicissitudes in Holland and at Emden, until his death in 1618. He is not known, personally, to have revived the plan of moving to America. But William Bradford, the founding father of Plymouth colony, regarded the pilgrims of 1597 as the precursors of the pilgrims of 1620. In his “Dialogue” (written about 1648, and given in A. Young, Chronicles of the pilgrim fathers (2d ed., Boston, 1844), 440–1), he says of the Brownists – ”the truth is, their condition for the most part was for some time very low and hard. It was with them as, if it should be related, would hardly be believed. And no marvel. For many of them had lain long in prisons, and then were banished into Newfoundland, where they were abused, and at last came into the Low Countries, and wanting money, trades, friends or acquaintances, and languages to help themselves, how could it be otherwise.” The Ramea venture was a false step on the road to Plymouth.

David B. Quinn

For further details of the expedition and a bibliography see Leigh.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

David B. Quinn, “JOHNSON, GEORGE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 10, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/johnson_george_1E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/johnson_george_1E.html
Author of Article:   David B. Quinn
Title of Article:   JOHNSON, GEORGE
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1966
Year of revision:   1979
Access Date:   December 10, 2023