Henry Roby of Hampton, New Hampshire stands out as one of the most intriguing minor figures in 17th-century New England. The fragmentary record of his life portrays an industrious colony-builder who demanded respect, but through some fundamental flaw in his character had failed to actually earn it. He abused the power of his position, disregarded his sworn oaths, and arrogantly transgressed the authority of the church. His encounters with smarter and more determined men revealed him to be a weak and ineffectual authority figure, easily flustered and prone to violence, which opened the way for disobedience to his orders and derision of his character. Drunkenness clouded his judgment and acquisitiveness made him an easy target of bribery.
In the end, it was written that he had been excommunicated from the church as a “common drunkard,” and that when he died his friends buried him in a secret location near his house, fearing that his creditors might ransom the body for his outstanding debts. Whether these stories are true or not, they illustrate the level to which he had sunk in popular opinion.
An English Immigrant
Roby was born in 1618-19 at Castle Donington, Leicestershire, England. In 1639 he and his nine-year-old brother Samuel were swept up in the great western migration of an estimated 20,000 English men, women, and children, most of whom had left the country of their birth for religious reasons. After landing at Boston, the Roby brothers whisked through the towns of Dorchester and Salem before setting down in Exeter, a new settlement whose lands had been bought from the local Indians by Reverend John Wheelwright. Roby arrived in time to sign his name to the town’s first charter for government, and while many of the signers eventually left for places like Maine and Rhode Island, he remained to take an active role in the governance of the small settlement.
Roby married Ruth Moore of Ipswich, Massachusetts sometime before the birth of their first child in 1646. After publicly disparaging Exeter’s minister, who happened to be the son of the Massachusetts governor, Roby thought it prudent to find another place to live. He bought the Hampton homestead of Isaac and Susanna Perkins, located on the north side of the meeting house green (near the present day Baptist Church on Winnacunnet Road), and moved there with his family, which by then had grown to include three children, Thomas, John, and Judith. In his lifetime he would have three wives, the last of which survived him, and would father nine children.
In Hampton, Roby served as selectman, lot layer, constable, militiaman, grand juror, attorney, justice of the peace, and a justice of the Court of Sessions. He accumulated wealth through his endeavors, which included farming, land dealing, and tavernkeeping. By 1680 his tax was over 13 shillings, one of the highest rates in town. Balancing out this stellar reputation were behaviors that landed him before the court as a defendant on numerous occasions— negligence as constable, assault on a neighbor, reproaching town ministers and a member of the court, selling wine without a license, public drunkenness, and keeping a poor public house. Even the town witches knew his character well enough to call him out by name.
Roby and the Vexatious Edward Colcord
If the Essex County court of the 17th century had been a business, lawyer Edward Colcord would have been its best (and most colorful) customer. He was constantly before the court, representing himself and others, and was accused of using subtle contrivances and underhanded practices to cheat dozens of men out of their property. He cursed, drank excessively, and was prone to violent outbursts, yet he was also the darling of the courtroom, as the justices gave him a very long rope with which to hang himself. Over a decade would pass before they dealt seriously with the complaints piling up against him, but finally, in 1661, they screwed their courage to the sticking place and sentenced him to prison in Boston—not for his fraudulent dealings, but for his needless and vexatious suits.
As Hampton’s constable at the time, it was Roby’s job to deliver Colcord to prison. He either wouldn’t or couldn’t, and through some cleverness Colcord was allowed to post a bond to avoid prison time. The situation was brought before the gentlemen of the General Court, who affirmed the Hampton court’s sentence on Colcord. They also voted unanimously that Henry Roby, “for his unfaithfulness in not duly attending his warrant,” would have to personally bear the charges of transporting Colcord to Boston.
This affair caused permanent animosity between the two men, and Roby would later sue Colcord for calling him a “base rogue” and for troubling him with many vexatious suits. The court fined Colcord for his abusive language, but did not agree with Roby’s second contention. Colcord then sued Roby and Norfolk County marshal Abraham Drake for assault and battery, claiming that they had “wounded him and endeavored to break open his house when he was peaceably at his calling with his family.” The defendants countersued Colcord for “illegally and vexatiously prosecuting” them, but even as the justices agreed that their darling had “violently resisted with weapons the marshal in execution of his office,” they determined that he had merely broken his bond for good behavior. Their reluctance to take strong measures against Colcord was especially maddening for men like Roby and Drake, who risked being fined if they did not enforce the law.
Roby the Tavernkeeper
Roby’s career as tavernkeeper began rather ingloriously, with an illegal tavern in Exeter. This tavern was eventually discovered and shut down, and he was fined 20 shillings. He later acquired an interest in the Great Island tavern of George Walton, but there is no record to show that he was anything more than a silent partner. Then in 1669 he applied for his first tavern license—which was granted to him with the proviso that he would not “suffer any townsmen’s children or servants to lie tippling in his house.” This may have been a caveat crafted specially for him, as not all tavern licenses were issued with this warning. Sometime before 1674 Roby leased Robert Tuck’s former public house from fellow townsman John Sanborn, who as the deceased Tuck’s son-in-law managed the estate for his wife. When Roby had a disagreement with Sanborn, perhaps over the terms of the lease, or perhaps over the way Roby was running his tavern, Roby knocked his landlord down with both words and fists. Sanborn sued in court, and Roby was ordered to pay reparations for his abuse. The men patched up their differences, and Roby continued to lease the house until it was sold to Captain Samuel Sherburne of Portsmouth in 1678. Roby then moved his tavern to his own dwelling.
Also in 1678, Roby married his third wife Sarah. While he pursued his occupations as attorney and justice of the peace, she ran the tavern (and would continue to run it under her own name after his death). License renewals that year were issued under a new law which made it illegal for tavernkeepers like the Robys to serve the inhabitants of their town. Needless to say, the result was much riding out to the taverns in neighboring towns, but this, too, was made illegal. Staff-carrying tythingmen were enjoined to search public houses and private homes for evidence of local tippling, for which they received one-third of any fines collected. Nevertheless, the crackdown on drinking went largely unenforced and the law was eventually repealed.
Roby was a pious man, in full communion with the Hampton church, but his strict Puritanism offered no immunity from the temptations of the tavern. He was convicted of the sins of “excessive drinking” and “drinking to the abuse of himself,” which led to later accusations and fines for keeping a sloppy tavern. These convictions gave the selectmen ample reason to refuse his yearly license renewals, but they did not, because in the 1670s Henry Roby had not yet become the guy everyone loved to hate. That would come later.
To be continued…
First published in the Hampton Union on January 20, 2017.
Sources for this series of articles: Essex County Court Files Vols. 1-3, New Hampshire State Papers Vol. 1, The History of Hampton by Joseph Dow, Genealogical Dictionary of Maine and New Hampshire by Noyes/Libby/Davis, Seaborn Cotton’s Journal (Massachusetts Historical Society), and Henry Dow’s Journal (Hampton Historical Society).
History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Cheryl Lassiter’s latest book is “The Queens of Hampton Beach: A History of the Carnival Queens and the Miss Hampton Beach Beauty Pageant, 1915-2015,” available at Amazon.com. Her website is lassitergang.com.