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Historic Norfolk UK people linked with North America

The fascinating historical connections between Norfolk and North America began in the 17th century, when a large number of migrants moved together to the newly-created colonies. 

Norfolk was the county had the biggest percentage of known passengers on The Mayflower. You may have seen the Hollywood blockbuster Lincoln, for which Daniel Day Lewis won an Oscar in the title role, but did you know Lincoln’s family came from Hingham, here in Norfolk?

Four hundred years later during the second world war, the flow of people ‘across the Pond’ reversed as thousands of men and women of the United States Eighth Army Air Force flew missions from bases across Norfolk in support of the allied war effort.

The Friendly Invasion

Thomas Paine Thetford

1 Thomas Paine was born in Thetford on January 29, 1737. Educated at Thetford Grammar School, he emigrated to America in 1774 with the help of Benjamin Franklin.

His famous pamphlet Common Sense, written in 1776, advocated colonial America’s complete independence from Britain, and helped rally support for this cause.

It sold more than 100,000 copies in just a few months, and founding father John Adams said that ‘without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.’

Paine lived in France through the 1790s and was involved in the French Revolution during which he was imprisoned in the Bastille for almost a year. Only American diplomatic pressure prevented him from meeting Mademoiselle Guillotine.

He also wrote The Age of Treason and the Rights of Man and died in America on June 8, 1809. Only six people attended his funeral, a result of Paine’s criticism of Christianity. After his death, Napoleon is said to have suggested that every ‘free-thinking city’ should have a gold-plated statue of Paine.

It’s believed Paine was also the man who came up with the name The United States of America for the newly-independent country.

Today he is commemorated with a gilded bronze statue outside Thetford town hall commissioned by American philanthropist Joseph Lewis, who believed Paine was the true author of the American Declaration of Independence.

The  statue has Paine portrayed in wig and period dress, holding a quill and a copy of Rights of Man. It was sculpted by Charles Wheeler RA, unveiled in 1964, and bears the inscription: ‘World Citizen, Englishman by birth, French citizen by decree, American by adoption’.

Wonder why Paine is holding his book upside down? Apparently it was a conceit of Wheeler’s to get us talking about the statue. So… it worked!

How a Norfolk man saved the American War of Independence

King's Lynn Captain George Vancouver & The Custom House West Norfolk

2 Captain George Vancouver, born at 23 Conduit Street in King’s Lynn on June 22, 1757 and baptised at St Margaret’s, surveyed the Pacific coast of America from California to present-day British Columbia, western Canada, between 1792 and 1794. He joined the Royal Navy aged 13 and accompanied Captain James Cook on his second and third voyages.  Vancouver city in British Colombia is named after him. The captain’s statue stands on the quayside in King’s Lynn, beside the Custom House.

Abraham Lincoln memorial, St Andrews Church Hingham

3 The decision of Samuel Lincoln from Hingham to sail from Great Yarmouth to Salem in 1638 helped start the chain of events led to his descendant, Abraham, becoming the 16th President of the United States. The Lincolns moved from Hingham, Massachusetts (named after the Norfolk village) to Pennsylvania, Virginia and then Kentucky, where Abraham was born.

He led the United States through the American Civil War, famously abolished slavery in American, and delivered the Gettysburg Address, one of the most famous speeches which began: ‘Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’.

There is an Abraham Lincoln memorial at St Andrews Church, Hingham in Norfolk.

The marriage of John Rolfe and Pocahontas

4 In 1585, John Rolfe was baptised in the font at Heacham that is still in use in the parish church. He left for America, and fell in love with the Native American Princess, Pocahontas, when she was held hostage in Jamestown.

Their marriage, the first inter-racial one in the new colony, ensured peace between the Indians and settlers for several years and it could be argued this was the beginning of The Special Relationship.

In 1616 they returned to England and Pocahontas was presented at Court. Unfortunately, the following year, just before their return to America she felt sick, died and was buried at Gravesend in Kent. Thomas Rolfe, the son of John and Pocahontas was brought up at Heacham Hall (little of the original building is left) by his uncle Henry. He left for Virginia aged 25, and his granddaughter married Robert Bolling, from which match several Virginian families claim descent.

Pocahontas is remembered today on the village sign of Heacham.

How a Norfolk man created The Special Relationship

Pocahontas Heacham village sign

5 Captain John Smith, a Lincolnshire man by birth, left his apprenticeship in King’s Lynn and signed on as an Adventurer on a Virginia-bound voyage. He was chosen to serve on the Colonies governing Council, but was disliked and accused of mutiny.

Once in Jamestown, the onslaught of disease and starvation led to Smith being asked to trade with the Indians. He was captured by them but saved from death by Pocahontas, the young daughter of Chief Powhatan, also known as Wahunsenacah, who put herself between Smith and his would-be executioners.

He became president of the Jamestown Colony and, perhaps because of Pocahontas, he worked with the Native Americans, in contrast to the massacres being perpetrated by the Spanish conquistadores.

He returned to England in 1609 having written prolifically about the natural abundance of the New World, whetting the colonizing appetite of prospective English settlers.

6 Samuel Cresswell returned to King’s Lynn after a five-year voyage of exploration, during which he became the first man to traverse the North-West passage.

7 New Hampshire was founded by John Mason, born in King’s Lynn in 1586. In addition to later becoming Governor of Newfoundland, he published the first reliable maps of the area and is buried in Westminster Abbey.

8 Vernon Castle of Norwich, who emigrated to New York aged 19, became one of the best ballroom dancers of the 20th century, appearing on the stage and in films, and founding a dance school with his American wife, Irene.

9 Thomas Willet, the first Mayor of New York, was the grandson of a Great Yarmouth man. William Towne from Great Yarmouth settled in Salem, and two of his daughters were accused of sorcery during the infamous witch trials. Also from Great Yarmouth (and buried there) was William Gooch, who became Governor of Virginia after negotiating the Treaty of Lancaster, which insured protection from the native Indian tribes to the north and west of the colony.

10 John Pory left Thompson to emigrate on the ‘Third Supply’, a fleet of 9 ships carrying stores and immigrants. He became the First Secretary of the Council of Virginia.

11 Temperence Flowerdew left Hethersett to sail to Virginia in 1609, marrying George Yardley, later Sir George Yardley, and the Governor of Virginia. Temperence became the first titled lady of America.

12 Samuel Whiting, a rector of St Margaret’s church in King’s Lynn, emigrated to New England in 1636 and Lynn, Massachusetts is named in his honour.

Oh, and perhaps one to forget…

Raynham Hall was the home of Charles Townshend (1725–1767), Member of Parliament for Great Yarmouth from 1747 to 1756, and Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1766 to 1767. His introduction of taxes (known as the ‘Townshend duties’) on the American Colonies was one of the factors which led to the American Revolution. The town of Townshend, Vermont, was named after Townshend in 1753.