Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Vassall, John

707409Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 58 — Vassall, John1899Bertha Porter

VASSALL, JOHN (d. 1625), colonial pioneer, who describes himself in his will as ‘mariner,’ was of French extraction. He was sent to England by his father, John Vassall, during the religious troubles in France from his home in Normandy. Vassall seems to have been recognised as an authority in questions of navigation, as we find him recommended to be examined by the judge of the admiralty as to ‘the skill of the pilot’ in a suit respecting the wreck of a vessel on the Goodwin sands in 1577. In 1588 Vassall fitted out and commanded a vessel of 140 tons to serve against the Spanish armada. In Harleian MS. 168, f. 177, his vessel is called the Samuell, while in the state papers in the record office (Eliz. vol. 215, f. 76) it appears as the Solomon.

Vassall was a member of the Virginia Company of London, and his name is inserted in its second charter of 23 May 1609 as ‘John Vassall, gentleman.’ In the following year he subscribed 25l. towards the adventure. From 1589 to 1602 he was apparently residing at ‘Ratcliffe hamlet,’ in the parish of Stepney, but about the latter year seems to have left the parish and gone to live at Cockseyhurst, Eastwood, Essex, where he had property. He died, however, at Stepney of the plague in 1625, and was buried in the parish church on 13 Sept. At Eastwood Vassall became acquainted with Samuel Purchas [q. v.], who mentions him in his ‘Pilgrimage’ (edit. 1617, p. 705) as ‘a friend and neighbour of mine.’

Vassall married, first, at St. Dunstan's, Stepney, on 25 Sept. 1569, Anne Howes, by whom he had no issue; and, secondly, on 4 Sept. 1580, also at St. Dunstan's, Anna Russell (d. 1593) of Ratcliffe, by whom he had, besides other children, Samuel [q. v.] and William (see below). Vassall married, thirdly, on 27 March 1594, Judith (d. 1639), daughter of Stephen Borough of Stepney and Chatham, brother of William Borough [q. v.], and widow of Thomas Scott of Colchester and London, by whom he had two sons and four daughters.

William Vassall (1592–1655), fourth son of John by his second wife, was born at Stepney in 1592. He was named in the first charter of the Massachusetts Company of March 1629, and sailed for the colony in July of the following year. Not being able to agree with his colleagues, he returned to England after a stay of only a few months. He again went to America in June 1635, and, after a short stay at Roxbury, removed to Scituate in Plymouth colony, where, on 28 Nov. 1636, he joined the church of John Lothrop. Already in 1637, when Scituate was petitioning for more land, Vassall had managed to quarrel with his surroundings, and a new tract of land was granted to the place on the condition that a township was founded and that the differences with Vassall were composed. In 1638 he took the oath of fidelity. Though a public-spirited man, his usefulness was much restricted by his inability to agree with those around him. He became one of the richest settlers in Plymouth colony. In 1646, with a few others as discontented as himself, he sailed for England to make his grievances known. Some account of the alleged grievances is given in a pamphlet entitled ‘New England's Jonas cast up in London’ (London, 1647), with the name of John Child on the title-page, but it was probably the work of Vassall. It was answered in the same year by Edward Winslow in ‘New England's Salamander Discovered,’ in which the author's opinion of Vassall is openly expressed.

In 1650 Vassall removed to Barbados, where he died in 1655, possessed of much property.

A descendant, Spencer Thomas Vassall (1764–1807), after serving at Gibraltar (1782) and in Flanders during the French revolutionary wars, and being nearly executed as a spy, purchased in 1801 the lieutenant-colonelcy of the 38th regiment, called under his command the ‘crack regiment of Ireland.’ He took part in the capture of the Cape of Good Hope, and was appointed governor of the town. He died of wounds received during the capture of Monte Video on 3 Feb. 1807. His remains were removed to St. Paul's, Bristol, where a monument, designed by Flaxman, with verses by Mrs. Opie, was erected to his memory (cf. Halford, Poems, 1811, p. 111; Budworth, Ramble to the Lakes, 1810, p. 353).

[Unpublished pedigree by the late Rev. W. Vassall; Visitation of London, 1633 (Harl. Soc. Publ.), xvii. 308; Murdin's State Papers in the Reign of Elizabeth, p. 617; Brown's Genesis of the United States, pp. 208, 223, 1036; Force's Tracts, iii. 36; Hill and Frere's Memorials of Stepney Parish, passim; Newcourt's Repertorium, i. 505, ii. 483; Chester's Marriage Licences (Foster); Brigg's Reg. Book of the Parish of St. Nicholas Acons, pp. 66, 67; P.C.C. 99 Clark; Hutchinson's Hist. of Massachusetts Bay, i. 10–14, 17; Massachusetts Hist. Soc. Collections, 2nd ser. iv. 240, 244, v. 121, 499–500, 517; Savage's Genealogical Dict. of First Settlers in New England, iv. 367; Anonymous Memoir of Lieut.-col. Vassall, passim; Gent. Mag. 1807, pp. 363, 481.]

B. P.