Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

William Claiborne (1600-ca. 1677)
MSA SC 3520-246


William Claiborne, the hero of Virginia, is usually looked upon less favorably by Marylanders.  Off and on for forty years, Claiborne battled with the Maryland proprietors over Kent Island, which he felt rightfully belonged to him. After several military encounters failed to bring the island permanently under his control, at age seventy-six Claiborne turned to peaceful means, petitioning King Charles II to regain his cherished land. When Claiborne died shortly thereafter, Kent Island remained part of Maryland.

William Claiborne was born in Crayford Parish in Kent, England.  He was the second son of Thomas Clayborne and Sara James, and thus although his family was fairly well-off,  William could not hope to inherit land in England.  After attending Pembroke College at Cambridge University, William emigrated to Virginia in 1621, bringing with him three servants.  Although only 21 years old, Claiborne had been appointed Surveyor General of Virginia, a post which granted him 200 acres of land as partial payment for his services.  As surveyor, Claiborne was responsible for laying out the area on Jamestown Island that became known as New Towne.  He soon became a respected merchant-planter.

In March of 1623 Claiborne was appointed to the governing Council of Virginia and received additional land grants.  Claiborne must have pleased the right people, he was soon named the first Secretary of State of Virginia, a post he held until 1635 and then again from 1652-1660.  He also served as Treasurer from 1642-1660.

Claiborne matched his political advancement with economic success.  By 1630, he ranked as one of Virginia’s top 10 planters according to tobacco exports, but by this time he had already begun shifting his attention to the lucrative Chesapeake fur trade1 Beaver furs, popular for making hats in England, were in great demand.  In 1627 Claiborne obtained a commission from Governor Yeardley of Virginia to launch an expedition “for discoverie of the Bottome of the Bay” and to trade with the Native Americans.  Claiborne explored the bay area and became the first Englishman since John Smith to establish contacts with the Susquehannock Indians.2 In 1629 his fellow Councillors granted him the exclusive right to trade with these natives. Claiborne joined forces with the Susquehannocks against their common enemies and developed a long-lasting and mutually beneficial relationship.

In addition to his Indian allies, Claiborne also joined forces with wealthy investors back in England.  He became a partner in a joint-stock trading venture involving William Cloberry and Maurice Thomson and established a trading base on Kent Island.  The island, and three others claimed by Claiborne, proved a prime location for fur trading, far enough from the more settled areas and close to Indian territory but also possessing easy access to water transportation.  Claiborne never received an official land grant for Kent Island, but in May of 1631 King Charles I granted him a license to trade for corn, furs, or any other commodities “in those parts of America for which there is not already a patent granted to others for the sole trade.”3

In order to better support his fur trading business, Claiborne converted the initial trading post on Kent Island into a regular plantation, which he named Crayford Plantation, after his home town in England.  He erected mills and brought in a variety of workers – traders, sailors, interpreters, farmers, coopers, shipbuilders, millwrights and millers, hogkeepers, washerwomen, etc.– to run things. By the late 1630s there were 120 men and an unknown number of women living and working on the island.4

Claiborne’s good fortune ended in 1634 when King Charles I granted George Calvert, Lord Baltimore, a charter to establish the colony of Maryland.  Kent Island and Claiborne’s plantation fell within the bounds of the Calverts’s land grant.  Leonard Calvert, Maryland’s first Governor, arrived with instructions to deal with Claiborne carefully.  Calvert offered to allow Claiborne to keep his land as long as he pledged allegience to the Calverts and Maryland, but Claiborne refused to acknowledge the Calverts’s authority.  He felt that Kent Island was rightfully part of Virginia and that Calvert’s charter, which included "a certaine Countrey hereafter described, in the parts of America, not yet cultivated and planted..."did not apply to Kent Island, which was already settled and developed at this point in time.5 The Virginia Council, angry at having Virginia’s territory abridged, encouraged Claiborne to resist the proprietary forces of Maryland.

After Claiborne refused to cooperate, Henry Fleete, acting as an agent for Maryland and enforcing a prohibition against Virginians trading in Maryland waters, confiscated one of Claiborne’s boats and its valuable contents.  In response, Claiborne sent out an armed sloop, the Cockatrice, to attack Maryland ships.  After a brief skirmish, Claiborne’s vessel was defeated.  Next, he sent out a ship commanded by Captain Thomas Smith, and this time Claiborne’s forces succeeded in vanquishing those of Maryland.6

Sometime during all this activity, around 1635, Claiborne married Elizabeth Boteler. The couple eventually had three sons and a daughter.  By 1637, the Kent Island situation had not yet been fully resolved.  William Cloberry, who had funded Claiborne’s Kent Island enterprise, had begun to lose faith in Claiborne and replaced him.  When Claiborne returned to England to explain his actions and plead his case, the proprietary forces saw their chance.  Leonard Calvert sent thirty of the best musketeers to Kent and took control of the island.  Two months later, in April of 1638, the Lords Commissioners of Plantations, on behalf of King Charles I, finally ruled on the dispute.  They decided in favor of Lord Baltimore, stating that Kent Island belonged absolutely to him and that no trade or plantation should be allowed within their limits without his permission.7

Claiborne remained away from Kent Island for nearly seven years, during which time Maryland colonists, including Giles Brent, settled on his lands.  Claiborne, who was a Protestant, now forged close ties with leading Puritan businessmen in England before returning to Virginia in 1643.  At this point fortune briefly swung back in his favor.  Civil war had erupted in England and in 1645 Claiborne allied with the radical Protestant ship captain, Richard Ingle, to launch an attack on St. Mary’s City in Maryland.  Governor Calvert fled to Virginia, and for a two-year period known as the “plundering time”, Claiborne and Ingle ruled Maryland and Kent Island passed back into Claiborne’s hands.

Leonard Calvert was finally able to raise a force to repel his attackers, and in 1646 he returned to Maryland and expelled the invaders.  Maryland, including Kent Island, was once more in the hands of the Calverts.  Time passed during which Claiborne returned to England.  In 1651 he saw his chance for revenge when, along with Richard Bennett, Claiborne was named Commissioner for Parliament “to reduce all plantations within the Bay of Chesapeake to their due obedience to the Parliament of the Commonwealth of England."8 Maryland was not specifically named in Parliament's orders, but Bennett and Claiborne used the commission's vague language to extend their authority to include Lord Baltimore's colony.  They fostered ideas of consolidating the colonies into an integrated Protestant empire and encountered no armed resistance when they arrived in St. Mary’s.  The two men overthrew the proprietary government and ruled Maryland from 1652 to 1655.  However, when the radical Puritans they had put in chaarge of the colony began passing laws restricting religious freedom and infringing upon the political rights of Catholics and Anglicans, Maryland’s deposed Governor took action.  Governor William Stone faced the Puritan forces at the Battle of Severn in 1655 but was forced to surrender.  Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore, continued to press his case to Oliver Cromwell in England who, in 1657, ordered that a treaty be reached between Maryland and Virginia, restoring Maryland to the Calverts.

Both King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell had effectively ruled against Claiborne’s claims to Kent Island.  In 1677 at the age of seventy-seven, Claiborne tried one last time to regain control of the island.  This time he used peaceful means – a petition to King Charles II – but still failed to recover his land before his death.  For nearly forty years Claiborne had battled the proprietary forces of Maryland, refusing to quietly give up what he believed to be his island.

1 J. Frederick Fausz, "Merging and Emerging Worlds: Anglo-Indian Interest Groups and the developments of the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake, in Colonial Chesapeake Society. Ed. by Lois Green Carr, Philip D. Morgan, and Jean B. Russo. (University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 59.
2 Ibid.
3 Archives of Maryland III, p.19.
4 Fausz, "Present at the 'Creation': The Chesapeake World That Greeted the Maryland Colonists," Maryland Historical Magazine. Volume 79, Number 1 (Spring 1984), 12;  Isaac, Erich, "Kent Island: Part I: The Period of Settlement," Maryland Historical Magazine, LII (1957), 104.
5 The Charter of Maryland, also titled: "A Relation of Successfull beginnings of the Lord Baltimore's Plantation in Mary-land," (1635).  MSA SC 1399-526.
6 Clayton C. Hall, Narratives of Early Maryland, 1633-1684. (New York, 1910), 148-9.
7 J. Thomas Scharf, History of Maryland: From the Earliest Period to the Present Day, vol. 1: 1600-1765. (Hatboro, PA, 1967), 116-7.
8 Ibid., 209.

Fausz, J. Frederick, "Present at the 'Creation': The Chesapeake World That Greeted the Maryland Colonists," Maryland Historical Magazine. Volume 79, Number 1 (Spring 1984) 7-20.

Fausz, J. Frederick, "Merging and Emerging Worlds: Anglo-Indian Interest Groups and the developments of the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake, in Colonial Chesapeake Society. Ed. by Lois Green Carr, Philip D. Morgan, and Jean B. Russo. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Hale, Nathaniel C., Virginia Venturer: A Historical Biography of William Claiborne, 1600-1677. Richmond, VA: The Dietz Press, Inc., 1951.

Hall, Clayton, Colman, Narratives of Early Maryland, 1633-1684. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc.,1910.

Isaac, Erich, "Kent Island: Part I: The Period of Settlement," Maryland Historical Magazine, LII (1957), 93-119.

Jester, Annie Lash and Martha Woodroof Hiden, eds., Adventurers of Purse and Person:  Virginia, 1607-1625. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1956.

Maloney, Eric John, Papists and Puritans in Early Maryland: Religion in the Forging of Provincial Society, 1632-1665. PhD. Dissertation, State University of New York at Stony Brook, 1996.
Papenfuse, Edward C., Alan F. Day, David W. Jordan and Gregory A. Stiverson.  A Biographical Dictionary of the Maryland Legislature, 1635-1789, vol. 1: A-H.  Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.

Scharf, J. Thomas.  History of Maryland from the Earliest Period to the Present Day, vol. 1: 1600-1765.  Hatboro, PA:  Tradition Press, 1967.

Biography written by Jennifer Copeland, Intern at Maryland State Archives, February 2003.

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