Crime and Scandal

Captain Walter Barefoot Fights the Law, 17th-Century Style

Back in the day when lawyers were cheap, Capt. Walter Barefoot was in and out of court almost 150 times during the second half of the 17th century.

He was a brawling, roguish ex-privateer who undoubtedly vexed Puritan magistrates like Simon Bradstreet. The Massachusetts Bay Puritans eventually threw him into prison, but in the end Capt. Barefoot won out with a little help from King Charles II.

Simon Bradstreet

Simon Bradstreet

He settled in Dover, N.H., in the mid-1600s, and made his living as a merchant and trader, as a doctor and owner of a ship and sawmill.

In the 1660s and 1670s he sued in Hampton and Dover, N.H.; in Boston, Salisbury, Ipswich and Salem, Mass.; and in York, Maine. He sued for unpaid bills, for an improperly built ship, for “unjustly molesting his person & estate”

Heaving the Pot

He went to court for another frontier wild man, his friend, Henry Greenland. Capt. Barefoot testified for Greenland after he had attempted a good wife’s chastity ‘in a foul manner.’ He also defended Greenland on a charge of slander for calling someone a ‘lying knave.’

Capt. Barefoot even tried to create his own courtroom in a Newbury, Mass., tavern. He claimed a Native named Sesegenaway owed him 100 skins. When Sesegenaway  eluded warrants, Barefoot and Greenland tracked him down to the public house. Greenland restrained the Native while Barefoot filled out a form he claimed had already been signed by a court.

Another tavern patron, Richard Dole, questioned what Barefoot was doing. They argued. Barefoot said to him, “Sirrah, get ye out of the room [or] I will heave the pot at thy head.” Dole didn’t leave, Barefoot threw the pot, and a 17th century barroom brawl erupted. Barefoot and Greenland were fined 5 pounds each by an Ipswich court.

Simon Bradstreet

Barefoot made the mistake of feuding with Andrew Wiggin, son-in-law of the powerful Puritan magistrate Simon Bradstreet.

In 1667, Capt. Barefoot and Wiggin fought in the road, and afterward the sue-happy Barefoot took him to court.

Barefoot claimed Wiggin molested him, stole his pistol and “some writings.” The court fined Wiggin. Wiggin countersued, claiming Barefoot had defamed him. Barefoot countersued for molestation.

In 1668, Barefoot sued Wiggin for debts and Wiggin tried to take Barefoot’s sawmill from him. In the courtroom, Wiggin approached Barefoot under the pretense of reconciling with him. Instead, he bit Barefoot in the face.

Barefoot finally got into serious legal trouble. He sold a piece of land along the Lamprey River to Robert Wadleigh. Other people claimed they owned the land, and Wadleigh demanded Barefoot clear the title. The court ruled Barefoot either had to clear the title or pay Wadleigh 400 pounds. Simon Bradstreet, a magistrate in the Court of Assistants, ruled against Barefoot.

Barefoot couldn’t come up with the money, and his creditors began to attach his assets.

Judge Walter Barefoot

Things went from bad to worse for Capt. Walter Barefoot. The Court of Assistants fined him for “profane and horrid oaths.” Then the court alleged he had abandoned his wife and children in England (not unusual at the time) and ordered him to return. They banned him from practicing medicine. They also ordered him to “abstain from [Mrs.] Hilton’s house at Exeter especially her company.” He ignored the court and returned to New Hampshire, where the law finally caught up with him. He was thrown into prison.

For the next few years Barefoot was in and out of prison and in and out of court. Finally in 1679, Massachusetts lost control of New Hampshire. King Charles II regained the throne and gave a commission to John Cutt as president of the colony. Thus Walter Barefoot escaped the wrath of Simon Bradstreet.

On Oct. 5, 1686, the New Hampshire County Court of Pleas and Sessions convened. Capt. Walter Barefoot was one of the six judges who took a seat.

With thanks to The Naked Quaker: True Crimes and Controversies from the Courts of Colonial New England, by Diane Rapaport. This story last updated in 2022.


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