||Peter Folger migrated to New England during the Puritan Great Migration (1620-1640).|
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Peter Folger (1617-1690), interpreter and public official in America, was born in Norwich, the son of John Folger and Meriba Gibbs. Little is known of Folger until 1635, when he and his widowed father immigrated to Massachusetts. They sailed on the ship Abigail.
During the voyage, Folger met Mary Morrill, an indentured servant, and apparently fell in love for he spent the next nine years of his life working as a weaver, miller, surveyor, and shoemaker to raise the £20 to buy out her contract and marry her in 1644. Mary had to obtain release from the indenture that bound her by the payment of 20 English pounds, a very large sum in those days. It took all Peter Folger had saved in nine years in the New World, plus all that he could borrow from his father, to secure the liberty of Mary. Throughout his life Peter Folger always boasted that the purchase of his Mary's indenture was the best bargain he had ever obtained.
The couple had nine children that survived infancy. (See below.) During the 1640s, the family moved to Martha's Vineyard, an island settlement that was effectively ruled by the senior and junior Thomas Mayhew. There Folger began a long and prosperous career as an interpreter and cultural intermediary with the American Indian population. At the Mayhews' puritan mission he evangelized the native inhabitants and mastered Algonquian, a major Amerindian language family that would have enabled communication with the vast majority of American Indians in New England. About 1648 the younger Thomas Mayhew extended the mission to nearby Nantucket Island, part of the Mayhew proprietorship, which was home to several thousand American Indians. In 1659 Folger, who was by then familiar with the island through his missionary work, aided a group of white settlers who had purchased the island from the younger Thomas Mayhew in surveying Nantucket.
In 1659, Folger also publicly declared himself a Baptist at a Martha's Vineyard town meeting, which undoubtedly agitated the puritan Mayhews and prompted Folger to move to the more tolerant colony of Rhode Island.
In 1663 Folger returned to Nantucket at the request of the island's proprietors in order to soothe worsening tensions with the native population that had arisen mainly from the interference of the white settlement's cattle with Amerindian crops. As an enticement he was awarded a half share in the proprietorship (full shares were reserved for families of original white settlers).
Nantucket was something of an anomaly in the puritan New England context in that established religion did not gain a substantial foothold among the whites until the eighteenth century. The only churches on the island in Folger's time, therefore, were found among the American Indians. In such tolerance, Folger comfortably settled his family, acted as an intermediary with the American Indians, and continued his highly successful evangelizing efforts. He also worked as a teacher, surveyor, miller, and farmer, and even served as the clerk of courts.
Folger's greatest triumph as chief diplomat to the American Indians came in 1665, when Metacom 'King Philip', arrived with a number of his warriors in pursuit of John Gibbs. Gibbs, an Amerindian from Nantucket who had recently finished his studies at Harvard, had insulted the powerful Pokanoket sachem by publicly speaking his father's name, Massasoit, which was an offence punishable by death. Gibbs was most likely a close friend of Folger, who had baptized the American Indian and given him the Christian name John Gibbs, which was the name of Folger's maternal grandfather. Neither the Amerindian nor the white population (about 100 people) was in a position to thwart Metacom through force, but Folger intervened to save Gibbs, offering his pursuer a ransom in exchange for Gibbs's life. Metacom agreed, but the people of Nantucket were only able to raise £11-significantly less than he wanted. An angry Metacom threatened to destroy the settlement, but the islanders called his bluff, threatening to attack him unless he departed, which he promptly did. A decade later Metacom led a coalition of Amerindians against New England in what became known as King Philip's War. The brutal fighting saw extensive slaughter and murder on both sides, but did not touch Nantucket.
Folger died on Nantucket Island in 1690. He was survived by a substantial family that would produce a number of prominent American scientists, merchants, and politicians, the most famous of whom was Benjamin Franklin, Folger's grandson.
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