Christopher Levett

Capt. Christopher Levett (15 April 1586 – 1630) was an English writer, explorer and naval captain, born at York, England.[1] He explored the coast of New England and secured a grant from the King to settle present-day Portland, Maine, the first European to do so. Levett left behind a group of settlers at his Maine plantation in Casco Bay, but they were never heard from again. Their fate is unknown. As a member of the Plymouth Council for New England, Levett was named the Governor of Plymouth[2] in 1623 and a close adviser to Capt. Robert Gorges in his attempt to found an early English colony at Weymouth, Massachusetts, which also failed.[3][4] Levett was also named an early governor of Virginia in 1628, according to Parliamentary records at Whitehall.[5]

Capt. Christopher Levett
Christopher Levett

5 April 1586
York, England
Died1630 (aged 43–44)
aboard the Porcupine, Atlantic ocean
Resting placeburied at sea
Occupation(s)English naval captain, explorer, author
Known forexplorer of New England; granted 6,000 acres to settle Colony of York (now Portland, Maine), 15 May 1623
TitleCaptain; His Majesty's Woodward of Somersetshire; Principal, Plymouth Council for New England
Spouse(s)Mercy Levett (née More); Frances Levett (née Lottisham)
ChildrenSarah Levett Hitch; Mary Levett; Rev. Jeremiah Levett; Timothy Levett; Elizabeth Levett
Parent(s)Percival Levett, Elizabeth (née Rotherforth) Levett
Christopher Levett Signature.svg
Frontispiece, A Voyage into New-England, Begun in 1623, and Ended in 1624, Performed by Christopher Levett, his Majesties Woodward of Somersetshire, and one of the Councell of New-England


Levett was the son of Elizabeth and Percival Levett, a York merchant and innkeeper, and was admitted a freeman of York as a merchant himself.[6] Levett was also admitted to the Company of Merchant Adventurers in the City of York, along with his brother Percival.[7] There is evidence that the English attempts to colonise North America caught Levett's interest even while a York merchant. Rev. Alexander Whitaker, an early Anglican minister and English immigrant to the Virginia Colony made note in his will of 1610 that he owed a debt of some £5 to "Christopher Levite, a linen draper of the city of York."

Perhaps Levett's contact with Whitaker and other Englishmen stoked his zeal to become an explorer. Levett apparently grew restless, and instead turned his sights towards a career as an explorer. He served as His Majesty's Woodward of Somersetshire to King James I, and wrote a tract on timber harvesting that became the standard for selection of trees for the Royal Navy.[8]

Later, operating from his adopted home in Sherborne, Dorset, in the shadow of Sir Walter Raleigh and other adventurers, Levett became interested in the colonisation of New England.[9] Levett became associated with Sir Ferdinando Gorges and was appointed to the Council for New England.[10] He was granted 6,000 acres (24 km2) of land by King James I of England for a settlement in present-day Maine, which Levett proposed to call "York" after his birth city.[11]

On 5 May 1623, records for the Council on New England say, "Christopher Levett to be a principal patentee; and to have a grant of 6,000 acres (24 km2) of land." The next month, on 26 June 1623, the records note "the King judges well of the undertaking in New England, and more particularly of a design of Christopher Levett, one of the Council for settling that plantation, to build a city and call it York."[12] The King proclaimed that Anglican churches across England should take up collections to aid Levett in his settlement attempts.[13]

Levett was helped with his settlement ambitions, according to some historians, thanks to a deepening friendship with George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, the favoured courtier who acted as advocate for the young Yorkshireman. Levett's alliance to a powerful patron probably accounted for Levett's move to Sherborne and his appointment in the Royal forest in Somersetshire, putting him closer to Gorges and other early adventurers.[14]

On 26 June 1623, Secretary of State Lord Conway wrote to Lord Scrope, President of the Council of the North, urging him to assist Levett in his plan to settle a plantation in New England with a company of Yorkshiremen and found "a Citty and call it by the name of Yorke." Noted the historian Charles Herbert Levermore: "So the first New York that was planned for America was to be located in Portland harbor."[15]

Oblivious to the high-flying spiritual message of early Puritan founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, his partner John Mason and other merchant adventurers zeroed in on profit.[16] From what we know of Levett, he seems more nuanced: his dealings with Native Americans seem solicitous, especially given the era, and his first wife was the daughter of a prominent Puritan rector.

Nevertheless, either out of an explorer's zeal or a businessman's gimlet eye, Levett forged ahead. To further his plans, the Naval captain embarked from England on a trip to explore the coast of New England, paying particular attention to present-day Maine and New Hampshire.[17]

When he returned to England, he wrote a book called "A Voyage into New England, Begun in 1623, and Ended in 1624, Performed by Christopher Levett, His Majesty's Woodward of Somersetshire, and One of the Council of New England."[18][19] It was Levett's hope to stir settlement in the New World, and he hoped as the principal patentee (and first settler) of present-day Portland, Maine, to benefit financially from the arrangement.

All Saints' Church, Pavement, York, baptism of Christopher Levett, 5 April 1586

On the surface, Capt. Levett seemed ideally placed to push such settlement. "When A Description of New England was published in London in 1616," write Charles and Samuella Shain of Capt. John Smith's book, "it was only a question of time before another enterprising spirit would arrive who would realize Captain John Smith's plans for founding a permanent settlement on the Maine coast.... Better placed socially and therefore politically than John Smith, Levett was also richer."[20]

Levett apparently had his eye on New England's thriving fisheries, which English merchants had exploited for years. The naval captain reported to Gorges that with the region's best fishing in the winter months, settling a permanent colony would enable the merchant adventurers to double their profits, by enabling the ships to fish yearround.[21]

But despite his better connections, the tide of history was not in his favour. His salesmanship fell short. Public interest waned, as new settlements in Virginia and elsewhere took center stage. King Charles I's growing problems ate away at interest in colonisation.[22] The King's appeal for money in Yorkshire parishes to support the Levett scheme never yielded much. The gathering storm of Roundhead rebellion put Levett's benefactors under strain.

In the meantime Levett was assigned to more pressing matters in England. On 5 October 1625, Capt. Levett was at the helm of HMS Susan and Ellen as part of Lord Wimbledon's fleet of 80 English and 16 Dutch vessels sailing against the Spanish fleet at Cadiz. The expedition, mounted by King Charles I who pressured his subjects to fund it, was an abject failure, and the fleet returned to England in disgrace.[23] Levett later complained bitterly of the experience, claiming that even as a Royal Navy captain, he'd been treated "no better than a meare slave" by those in charge.[24]

Levett never returned to Maine, and the small group of men he left behind in a stone house were never heard from again. Levett's patented lands eventually passed to a group of Plymouth merchants as Levett's attention was diverted to more pressing Naval matters.[25] Eventually Levett returned to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where he met with Governor John Winthrop in 1630,[26][27] and he died aboard the return voyage home.[28][29] The body of the early adventurer was buried at sea, and his wife was forced to appear at a Bristol court the following year to recover his effects.[30]

Fort Levett and Ram Island Ledge, Cushing Island, Maine, 1909

Fort Levett on Cushing Island, Maine[31] in Portland Harbor is named for this early explorer. Present-day York County, Maine, derives its name from Capt. Levett's early appellation for his Maine settlement.

Even in death, Capt. Levett could not avoid the controversies roiling the age. Letters he carried aboard the vessel Porcupine, addressed by John Winthrop and other leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to sympathetic friends in England, fell into the hands of Puritan foes in England, apparently after Levett's possessions were searched after his death.[32] The letters stirred up some measure of controversy in England for the unfavorable stance the writers took toward the English church.[33][34]

Capt. Levett had six children, four by his first wife Mercy More, who was the daughter of Rev. Robert More, a Puritan rector in Guiseley, Yorkshire. He married a second time to Frances Lottisham,[35] daughter of Oliver Lottisham[36] of Somersetshire, and by her he had another two children.[37] A son, Jeremiah (Jeremy), graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge, and became the rector of Leyton, Essex.[38][39][40] His daughter Sarah married the Right Rev. Robert Hitch, Rector of Normanton, West Yorkshire and later Dean of York.[41]

James Phinney Baxter, mayor, Portland, Maine, and Maine historian


  1. ^ The Levett family from which Christopher Levett derived came from Bolton Percy, Yorkshire. But this York family shared a coat-of-arms with the Levetts of Normanton and High Melton, Yorkshire, sort of an early DNA assay, indicating that the two families had common roots. Christopher Levett's coat-of-arms appeared in an early survey of Sherborne, Dorset, where was residing. [1]
  2. ^ New-England's Memorial, Nathaniel Morton, William Bradford, Thomas Prince, Edward Winslow, Congregational Board of Publication, Boston, 1855
  3. ^ Bradford's History of Plymouth Plantation, 1606–1646, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1920
  4. ^ The length of Levett's service as Governor of Plymouth is unknown, but he returned to England the year following his appointment (1624), and during his time in New England seems to have been constantly on the move. Also unclear are what Levett's duties were as Governor of Plymouth, in which capacity he is referred to as the 'chief judicial officer,' with 'Esquire' appended to his name.[2][3][4][5][6][7] Governor William Bradford of the Plymouth Colony refers to the explorer as "Christoper Levite." Nathaniel Morton, Bradford's nephew and the colony's secretary, calls him "Christopher Levet." Record-keeping in the early days of the colony was sometimes sporadic.
  5. ^ Calendar of State Papers, Great Britain Public Record Office, Vol. 6, Colonial Series, William Noel Sainsbury, John William Fortescue, Cecil Headlam (eds.), Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London, 1860
  6. ^ Xpoferus Levett, marcer, fil. Percivalli Levett, gent., Admissions to the freedom of York, Temp. James I (1603–1625), British History Online
  7. ^ Smith, David M. (1996). The Company of Merchant Adventurers in the City of York: Register of Admissions 1581–1835. York: University of York. ISBN 9780903857734.
  8. ^ Collections of the Maine Historical Society, Second Series, Vol. IV, Published by the Society, Portland, 1893
  9. ^ Historical Addresses, James Baxter Phinney, 1831–1921, Portland, Maine
  10. ^ Provincial and State Papers, New Hampshire Colony Probate Court, 1895
  11. ^ Forerunners and Competitors of the Pilgrims and Puritans Or, Narratives of Voyages Made by Persons Other Than the Pilgrims and Puritans of the Bay Colony to the Shores of New England During the First Quarter of the Seventeenth Century, 1601–1625, with Especial Reference to the Labors of Captain John Smith, Vol. 2, Charles Herbert Levermore, New England Society of Brooklyn, N.Y., Published by The Society, New York, 1912
  12. ^ History of Boothbay, Southport and Boothbay Harbor, Maine, 1623–1905, Francis Byron Greene, 1906
  13. ^ Coming Over: Migration and Communication Between England and New England in the Seventeenth Century, David Cressy, Cambridge University Press, 1987
  14. ^ Christopher Levett: The First Owner of the Soil of Portland, James Phinney Baxter, read before the Maine Historical Society, 26 February 1891, Collections of the Maine Historical Society, Brown Thurston Company, Portland, Me., 1893
  15. ^ Forerunners and Competitors of the Pilgrims and Puritans: Or, Narratives of Voyages Made by Persons Other Than the Pilgrims and Puritans of the Bay Colony to the Shores of New England During the First Quarter of the Seventeenth Century, 1601–1625, with Especial Reference to the Labors of Captain John Smith, Vol. 2, Charles Herbert Levermore, New England Society of Brooklyn, N.Y., 1912
  16. ^ Many historians point to the efforts of Gorges and Mason, as well as their fellow Council member Levett, as attempts to plant the Church of England on the northern border of the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony.[8]
  17. ^ The Isles of Shoals, John Scribner Jenness, 1873
  18. ^ "New England Ancestors, New England Historic Genealogical Society". Archived from the original on 20 March 2008. Retrieved 19 March 2008.
  19. ^ Christopher Levett of York: The Pioneer Colonist in Casco Bay, James Phinney Baxter, 1893
  20. ^ The Maine Reader, Charles Shain, Samuella Shain, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1991
  21. ^ Fish on Fridays: Feasting, Fasting, and the Discovery of the New World, Brian M. Fagan, Basic Books, 2006, SBN 0465022847
  22. ^ Collections of the Maine Historical Society, Published by the Society, Portland, 1904
  23. ^ Christopher Levett, of York, the Pioneer Colonist in Casco Bay, James Phinney Baxter, The Gorges Society, Portland, Me., 1893
  24. ^ History of Plymouth Plantation, 1620n–1647, Vol. 1, William Bradford, Worthington Chauncey Ford (ed.), Massachusetts Historical Society, Published for the Society by Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1912
  25. ^ Maine Pioneer Settlements, Herbert Milton Sylvester, W.B. Clarke Co., Boston, 1909
  26. ^ The History of New England from 1630 to 1649, John Winthrop, 1853
  27. ^ The Maine Reader: The Down East Experience from 1614 to the Present, Samuella Shain, Charles E. Shain, Published by David R. Godine, Jaffrey, New Hampshire, 1997
  28. ^ History of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1912
  29. ^ Portland in the Past, William Goold, 1886
  30. ^ Following Capt. Levett's death, his wife Frances (Lottisham) Levett appealed to her good friend, the mother-in-law of John Winthrop the Younger, for help in recovering her late husband's effects. Winthrop's father-in-law Henry Payner then wrote to Winthrop in Massachusetts, "sollicting him to call for Captayne Endicott and Mr. Conant to examine them aboute it, and to doe for her what he can to helpe her to right."[9]. Winthrop's father-in-law's letter, combined with the fact that Capt. Levett was carrying letters with him to England written by the colonists and critical of the English church, may indicate that Levett himself was experiencing a change of heart towards the ongoing conflict between the King and the Puritan cause.
  31. ^ There is some question whether Levett's settlement was located on House Island or on nearby Cushing Island in Casco Bay. Historian James Phinney Baxter seems to suggest that Levett may have left his men behind on House.[10]
  32. ^ The Winthrop Papers, Adam Winthrop, John Winthrop, Wait Still Winthrop, Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Vol. 1, Fifth Series, Published by the Society, Boston, Mass., 1871
  33. ^ Forerunners and Competitors of the Pilgrims and Puritans, Vol. 2, Charles Herbert Levermore, Reprinted by BiblioBazaar, LLC, 2008
  34. ^ Christopher Levett of York: The Pioneer Colonist in Casco Bay, James Phinney Baxter, Printed for the Gorges Society, Portland, Me., 1893
  35. ^ Abstracts of Somersetshire Wills, Etc, Frederick Arthur Crisp, Frederick Brown, Privately Printed for Frederick Arthur Crisp, 1888
  36. ^ A Visitation of the County of Somerset in the Year 1623, Frederic Thomas Colby, The Harleian Society, Mitchell and Hughes, London, 1876
  37. ^ The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Henry Fitz-Gilbert Waters, The New England Historic Genealogical Society, Published by the Society, Boston, 1913
  38. ^ "Levett, Jeremy (LVT631J)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  39. ^ A History of the Parish of Leyton, Essex, John Kennedy, Phelp Brothers, Leyton, 1894
  40. ^ An examination of Leyton, Essex, records reveals that Jeremiah Levett also owned property at "Temple in the Forest of Knaresborough", North Yorkshire. His father being a Yorkshireman, it probably isn't surprising that Jeremiah Levett owned property in the county, although his exact ties to Knaresborough are unclear.[11] A John Levett became rector of Knaresborough in 1668 and served for 25 years.[12]
  41. ^ "Hitch, Robert (HTC611R)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.

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