The second son of the lord of the manor of Cleburne, William Claiborne was born in Westmoreland County, England, around 1587. Little is known of his early years in England. He first appeared in America in 1622, as the surveyor of the Virginia colony. Claiborne prospered in his work and rose steadily in the colonial bureaucracy; eventually King Charles I appointed him treasurer of the colony in 1642.
Claiborne, however, was ambitious to begin a colony of his own.Claiborne firmly opposed the founding of the Maryland colony by Leonard Calvert (see no. 39). Claiborne set up a trading post on Kent Island in Chesapeake Bay, squarely in between the Virginia colony and the newly designated Catholic colony in Maryland.
He had purchased the island from the local native tribe, and began a brisk trade with them in corn and tobacco. The island prospered so much that a resident was sent to Virginia to represent the island in the House of Burgesses. Claiborne, however, soon ran afoul of the Calvert family.
Learning that Claiborne was inciting the Native Americans of the Chesapeake region against the Catholics in Maryland, the colony’s proprietor, Cecilius Calvert, ordered his brother, Leonard, the governor, to arrest Claiborne. The governor was unable to accomplish this, since Claiborne went to England on his own accord in 1637.
The Maryland governor took over the jurisdiction of Kent Island during Claiborne’s absence.Meanwhile, the legal case finally came to a head in England. The Commission of Plantations found in favor of the Calvert family in their suits against Claiborne, and it appeared as if Claiborne had finally been defeated.
However, in October 1644, Claiborne and English sea captain Richard Ingle carried out a full-scale rebellion against the Calvert family. Claiborne, Ingle, and their forces drove Governor Calvert into Virginia, and gained control of the Maryland province, which they held until December, 1646.
In 1651, Claiborne was appointed to a commission of the Puritan Parliament that governed the plantations of the Chesapeake Bay region. The affairs of the Maryland colony were under the control of this body from 1652 until 1657, and Claiborne used all his skill to thwart the wishes of the Calverts.
Claiborne was forced to relinquish his authority in Maryland after King Charles II was restored to the English throne in 1660. Claiborne even lost control of Kent Island. Toward the end of his long life, Claiborne sent one last petition to King Charles II, asking that Kent Island be restored to him. His request was refused, but Claiborne retained his reputation as one of the feistiest and most contentious of all leaders in colonial North America.