William Eager: Scottish Prisoner of War and Indentured Servant

The recent discovery of certain facts by Jennifer Ehle concerning her ancestor, William Eager, have led me to consider his most unusual story, one far different than most of the early settlers of Marlborough.  At the town’s inception in 1660, almost all had come from neighboring Sudbury and most can be traced to their roots in England.  Some had been childhood friends there.  Until King Philip’s War broke out in 1675 there were few who could simply purchase property in town since the common land wasn’t being sold and the rest of it was given to the numerous offspring at one’s passing.

But the war brought opportunities for outsiders because the local Praying Indian tribe had been isolated to Natick and their large landholding in Marlborough was being broken up; some few plots to be sold to individuals at the discretion of the tribe and their colonial guardians, General Daniel Gookin and Minister John Eliot, and the balance (over a long period) in a somewhat questionable land deal.  The war brought other opportunities, since the town had to be abandoned after the Indian raid of 1676 and some never returned.

In this situation, any number of settlers sought to come west from the coastal cities.  The threat of Indian raids was all but eliminated and there was good farmland in the area and fewer ‘rules’ than in the larger coastal towns.  Some of these settlers had fought in the war and had passed through Marlborough since it was on the main route towards the warring tribes.  By the end of the war, much was known about Marlborough even by those who had never come this way.

This brings us to Mr. William Eager.  In a previous piece I wrote about his unusual purchase of Indian land, but here I wish to treat of his personal history, since it is so different from the other Marlborough settlers.  I owe most of this short treatise to the Scottish Prisoner of War Society website and the writings of Ms Ehle.

The Battle of Dunbar

During the English Civil War wherein the king was sentenced to die and the monarchy was abolished by Parliament, tensions were on the rise on the entire British island.  Oliver Cromwell invaded Scotland in the summer of 1650 to avert any action to protect the dead king’s son, Charles II, who was being protected in Edinburgh, from asserting his kingship over England. 

The Scots hastily assembled a large but inexperienced army of about 10,000 to cut off Cromwell’s route, and forced him into the small harbour town of Dunbar.  On September 3, 1650, in the dark of night, in miserable conditions, with a much smaller force, Cromwell made a desperate attempt to escape.  The Scots had unfortunately arranged themselves in an untenable position, were taken utterly by surprise, and were routed by the English.  Between 2,000 and 3,000 Scots were killed and as many as 5,000 taken prisoner.

The March South

Beginning on September 4 and continuing to September 11, the prisoners were taken by forced march to the northern English town of Durham, a distance today of 111 miles along the shore route.  One account asserts that about 2,000 died on the march. In Durham, more misery awaited them.  Up to 1500 men were believed to have died at the prison. Recent discoveries made in the area of Durham Cathedral where they were incarcerated, uncovered a mass grave where there were clear signs of large numbers dying in a short period of time.  

Remains of Scottish Prisoners at Durham, UK

The remaining prisoners stayed at the Cathedral until early November.  On various days between November 1st and the 10th  they were sent by sea to London via Newcastle.  The authorities in London were in a quandary about what to do with them.  Fearing that they might someday be among their enemies either in Scotland or on the continent, they instead decided to ship them as indentured servants to the American colonies of Barbados, Virginia and Massachusetts.  On November 11, 1650, 150 of the men boarded the ship Unity in Gravesend, England for a voyage to Boston, Massachusetts where they arrived in mid December. William Eager, then about 20 years of age, was one of these men.

Next in the series, William Eager in Massachusetts.

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