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4.5: The Establishment of the New England Colonies

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    New England is the area of the Atlantic seaboard north and east of New York. During the seventeenth century, it consisted of the colonies of Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire. Several of these colonies are usually referred to as “Puritan” (Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut) because they were settled by Puritans (Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut) or Pilgrims (Plymouth), all of whom were Calvinists who had been persecuted in England and who sought freedom to practice their religion without interference in the Americas. Connecticut and Rhode Island were actually offshoots of Massachusetts Bay, settled either by Puritans or by those, in the case of Rhode Island, who had conflicts with the Puritan establishment in Massachusetts Bay. The New England colonies were settled before 1640.

    Puritans and Puritanism

    Puritanism was a major factor in the creation and the social, religious, and economic life of the New England colonies. Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay were founded by those who wished to practice their Calvinist-based Protestantism without persecution by the English Church or Parliament. Both the Pilgrims who settled Plymouth and the Puritans who settled Massachusetts Bay were Calvinists who wanted to carry John Calvin’s theories to their logical conclusions. Though the theology of the Church of England created a compromise between Catholicism and Calvinism, neither the Puritans nor the Pilgrims thought the Church had gone far enough to rid itself of Catholic theology and practice. New England Calvinists, like their counterparts in England, wanted to do away with stained glass in churches, robes for ministers, the use of incense during services, genuflecting at the sign of the cross, marriage as a sacrament, and the imposition of last rites. The Puritans and Pilgrims believed that idleness was a sin, and, hence, that monasteries were a waste of time. They equally disliked mysticism, meditation, and prescribed prayers. Those Calvinists who settled Massachusetts Bay insisted that the Church of England could be “purified” of its Catholicism; the Pilgrims of Plymouth were “Separatists” who were sure that the Church of England could not be reformed so that their only choice was to separate from it entirely. In 1609, as the result of intense persecution, the Pilgrims immigrated to Holland, where they created a Congregational Church in Leiden.

    Plymouth Plantation

    The Scrooby Congregation that followed their minister John Robinson to Leiden was, according to historian Nathan Philbrick, the “radical fringe of the Puritan movement.” Although the Dutch welcomed them and Leiden and its surroundings were reminiscent of their countryside of East Anglia (along England’s eastern coast), after a decade of living among the Dutch and fearing that their children were becoming unfamiliar with their English heritage, the Scrooby Congregation decided to practice their beliefs in the Americas. William Bradford, whose Of Plymouth Plantation tells the story of the Pilgrims in Holland and the new world, lamented that the children of the congregation were overworked to the extent that their “bodies became decreped [sic] in their early youth.” But worse than this and

    …of all the sorrows most heavie to be borne,--many of their children, by the great licentiousness in that countrie [Holland], and the manifold temptations of the place…were drawn away…into extravagant and dangerous courses, tending to dissoluteness and the danger of their souls.

    So, in 1620, the Separatists sought permission from the Virginia Company to move to its territory in North America. William Bradford reasoned that the trip to the Americas would be “well tolerated” as the immigrants were already “weaned from the delicate milke of our mother countrie, and enured to the dificulties of a strange and hard land [a reference to Holland].” After a good bit of negotiation, the Separatists received a charter from the Virginia Company and permission from the English Crown, and in spring 1620, set sail in the Mayflower. According to Bradford’s narrative, these “Pilgrims,” as they called themselves, went to the Americas with hopes of practicing their religion without interference and with “inward zeall…of laying some good foundation, or at least to make some way thereunto, for the propagating and advancing the gospell of the kingdom of Christ in those parts of the world.” Their goals were not unlike those stated by Columbus, Richard Hakluyt, in the Charters of Roanoke Island and the Chesapeake colonies and the settlers of Massachusetts Bay.

    Voyage of the Mayflower

    In July, 1620, 101 passengers left Delfshaven, Holland aboard the Mayflower for the sixty-five day journey to the New World. Fewer than one-third of the passengers were Pilgrims; the remainder Bradford referred to as “strangers,” or those not among the “elect” who were predestined for salvation. Among the “saints,” or Pilgrims, were William Bradford, William Brewster, and John Carver. The “strangers” included Captain Miles Standish, a soldier, and John Alden, an adventurer. After a long and stormy voyage, the Mayflower anchored at Provincetown, Cape Cod, on November 21, 1620. It was not the best time of year to attempt to establish a new settlement in a strange land.

    Screenshot (208).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor | An 1882 painting of the ship that brought the Pilgrims to the new world. artist: William Halsall Source: Library of Congress

    Because they landed north of the land granted by the Virginia Company with no charter and no title to the land, and in an area named “New England” by John Smith rather than Virginia, they drafted the Mayflower Compact, which created a government by social contract and bound them together in a common purpose.

    The Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact on November 21, 1620. After signing the Compact there was one more task to be completed: the election of a governor. For this role, they chose John Carver. When Carver died several months later, William Bradford was elected to replace him. Bradford served as governor for more than three decades.

    Screenshot (209).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Mayflower Compact | The pilgrims signing the compact, on board the May Flower, Nov. 11th, 1620. artist: Engraving by Gauthier after painting by T.H. Matteson Source: Library of Congress

    The Pilgrims landed initially at Cape Cod but soon discovered a more suitable site at the harbor named Plymouth, also by John Smith; they settled here on December 23, 1620. The first winter was as harsh as that at Jamestown. The Pilgrims, not unlike the Jamestown residents, spent a month exploring the surrounding area which left them with few provisions for the winter. One half of the company, including Governor Carver, died before spring; however, when the Mayflower sailed for England in April, 1621, not one of the original colonists was aboard. They had all decided to stay.

    Mayflower Compact



    In the name of God, Amen. (1) We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign lord, King James,

    (2) by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, etc. Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith and honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic,

    1. The Puritans opened the document with a form of prayer, expressing the religious beliefs which would later dictate the structure of their society

    2. The Pilgrims had left England ten years before, as they were persecuted as dissenters from the Anglican Church. They had been in Leiden for a decade, yet they still claimed to be loyal subjects of the English king. And even during the American Revolution, many colonists remained Loyalists

    (3) for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid;

    (4) and by virtue here of to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices from time to time,

    3. The covenant was a Puritan concept that referred to the covenant between the elect and God. Here, the Puritans linked their social, civil bonds to God, foreshadowing John Winthrop’s utopian vision of a Puritan “city on a hill.”

    4. It would become a common idea in the eighteenth century that law and reason were actually embedded in nature, and that the function of government was to protect and improve the lives of its people. In the next line it is also made clear that laws are enacted only to promote the welfare of the people; the suggestion is that any other legislation was not needed. This is an early statement of an ideal later expressed by John Locke.

    (5) as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony: unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

    (6) In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod the 11 of November, in the year of the reign of our sovereign Lord, King James of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fiftyfourth. Ano. Dom. 1620.

    5. This phrase refers to “equal laws,” implying that all were treated equally under the law. In the Puritan colonies, however, only members of the “elect” were treated equally; others had no rights to cast ballots or hold public office.

    6. The Pilgrims vowed obedience to this compact, pledging to uphold social order. The Mayflower Compact was followed until Plymouth merged with the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692.

    Pilgrims, the Indians, and the First Thanksgiving

    William Bradford’s narrative recounts the impact of the Pilgrims having arrived in an unknown land “with no friends to welcome them nor inns to entertain or refresh their weather beaten bodies and…no houses or much less towns to repair to.” In fact, the only inhabitants they encountered were Indians who “were readier to fill their sides full of arrows than otherwise.” And as if these problems were not serious enough, it was winter, “and they [knew] the winters of that country to be sharp and violent, and subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search an unknown coast.” Edward Winslow, a fellow traveler, echoed Bradford’s concerns when he wrote in Good News from New England (1624): “How few, weak, and raw were we at our first beginning, and there settling, and in the midst of barbarous enemies.” He would remark later, however, that the Indians and especially Squanto (whom Winslow called Tisquantum) were much like the Englishmen in that they were “worthy” of trust, “quick of apprehension, [and] ripe witted.”

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Plymouth Colony | Map of the Plymouth Colony to 1691. Author: Wikipedia User “Hoodinski” Source: Wikimedia Commons license: CC BY-SA 3.0

    By early spring, 1621, conditions in Plymouth had improved, including relations with the local Indians. In March, the Pilgrims were surprised when the Abenaki sachem, Samoset, who had picked up some words of English from fishermen in the waters off the coast of Maine, appeared in the settlement and greeted the settlers with the words: “Welcome, Englishmen.” Samoset and Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe of the Wampanoag Confederacy, helped orient the English to life in the wilderness. Squanto, who had spent time in England after being kidnapped by Thomas Hunt, one of John Smith’s lieutenants, taught the Pilgrims how to use local herring to fertilize the soil; soon thereafter crops, including maize, began to flourish. Bradford wrote in March,

    …it pleased God the mortalities began to cease amongst them [the Pilgrims] and the sick and lame recovered apace which put as [it] were new life into them: though they had borne their sad affliction with much patience and contentedness.”

    In addition to giving the new arrivals horticultural advice, Squanto acted as an interpreter in their dealings with the Wampanoag sachem, Massasoit, who came with Squanto to visit the English settlement. Due to the efforts of Squanto, an agreement was reached between Governor Carver and Massasoit in 1621, the contents of which were recorded by William Bradford. According to the treaty, the Indians would not injure the English or steal their tools, and if either party were engaged in warfare, the other would come to the aid of the first; the treaty lasted for twenty-four years.

    The famous “first” Thanksgiving took place in September or October, 1621 on a day when the Pilgrims had killed a large number of ducks and geese and Massasoit arrived with about one hundred Indians who later killed five deer to add to the feast. The deer were roasted on spits, and those assembled feasted on venison, fish, fowl, and beer. Historian Nathaniel Philbrick points out that there was no pumpkin pie or cranberry sauce, and no eating utensils except knives. Instead, the participants ate with their fingers and sprawled on the ground as they consumed the feast. Edward Winslow, in Mourt’s Relation, described the occasion:

    Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors….Many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the [Plymouth] Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others. And although it not always be so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want

    Government in Plymouth

    Because the settlers at Plymouth had established a town outside of the area of the charter they held from the Virginia Company, they had bound themselves together with the Mayflower Compact. But this agreement was not recognized by the Crown, so they later requested and received a charter from the Council for New England in which no specific boundaries were mentioned. Thus, to clarify their position, they created a formal structure of government. The executive body consisted of a governor and seven councilors who were chosen annually by popular vote. A legislative body, the “General Court,” was to be a meeting of the forty-one men who had signed the Mayflower Compact. As the colony grew in population and area, the towns began to send representatives to the meeting of the Court. In 1639, the Pilgrims adopted the Fundamentals of Plymouth, which recognized the structure that existed and guaranteed habeas corpus (the right to be charged upon arrest) and the right to a jury trial. Up until 1660, all adult males could vote; after this time, a property qualification was imposed. Plymouth, always small in population, was overshadowed by the larger Puritan colony of Massachusetts Bay, which absorbed Plymouth in 1691.

    Massachusetts Bay

    Ten years later, a second group of Puritans applied for a charter from the Council for New England. Led by a prominent Member of Parliament and lawyer, John Winthrop, these Puritans fled persecution in England, which had intensified in the 1620s under the increasingly pro-Catholic Charles I. Charles began his eleven-year rule without Parliament in 1629. Once Parliament was dismissed, Charles and the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, began the arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of those who did not conform to Anglicanism. The Puritans who followed John Winthrop to North America were non-separating Calvinists. Instead of breaking entirely with the Church of England, as had been the case with the Pilgrims, they intended to “purify” the Church, hence their name of “Puritan.”

    The Massachusetts Bay Charter, which was issued in March, 1629, created “the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts-bay in New England.” The recipients of the charter were referred to as “freemen;” they were the only ones who had a voice in the government. There was a governor, an assistant governor, and a legislative body, the General Court, which would make laws for the colony. For his part, Charles appears to have been only too happy to approve the Puritans’ application to emigrate, as it was easier to send them to the New World than to deal with them in England.

    If the motives of the King were somewhat unclear to those at the time, no doubt existed about the motives of John Winthrop and his Puritan compatriots, who in 1630 sailed for New England. Seventeen ships and 1,000 settlers comprised the Winthrop armada, the lead ship of which was the Arbella. While on board the Arbella, Winthrop delivered a sermon, “A Modell of Christian Charity,” that has since become famous as a statement of the purpose for those leaving England. Winthrop insisted,

    We must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are upon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken…wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.

    The settlers would, in other words, create a political and religious example in the new world that would be used as a model for reforming England and Europe.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Massachusetts Bay Colony | Map of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Author: Karl Musser Source: Wikimedia Commons license: CC BY-SA 3.0

    Boston became the capital of the colony, and soon a “Great Migration” of some 80,000 English headed for Massachusetts Bay. Only official church members, referred to as “visible saints,” could be freemen in the Massachusetts Bay Company, which became the temporary governing body of the colony. It is interesting that the basis for service in the legislative assembly was church membership rather than land ownership as was true of colonies like Virginia.

    Governing the Colony

    As was pointed out earlier, the outline of government was provided in the Massachusetts Bay Charter, which was moved to the colony in 1631. When working out the details of government, however, the General Court moved far from the specifications of the Charter. In its meeting of May, 1631, the Court confirmed that only freemen could participate in the government by voting or holding public office, but went further than the charter in insisting that only church members could be freemen. The office of Assistant, whose membership came from the membership of the General Court, would be held for life, rather than by annual election. The governor was elected from among the Assistants; the governor and the Assistants made law. They planned a government of the “elect,” or those predestined to be saved. This system, through which the Puritan leadership exercised firm control over the colony, was modified over the next few years. Before the end of 1632, Puritan leadership decided that the freemen, and not the Assistants, would elect the governor, though the governor still must come from the membership of the Assistants and a man still had to be a church member in order to vote. Additional changes were made in 1634, when the membership of the General Court was expanded to include freemen who represented the towns that had sprung up around Boston. Additional changes were made through the 1630s and 1640s, and, taken together, formed the Book of Laws and Liberties Concerning the Inhabitants of Massachusetts.

    Because only church members could vote and only the elect could be full members of the Church, Massachusetts Bay was not a democracy if one defines “democracy” as a system in which all persons over a certain age are allowed to vote. However, the New England town meeting to which all inhabitants were invited was definitely a democratic feature. Dorchester was the first town to adopt monthly meetings, but soon other communities followed suit, and, before long, most towns in Massachusetts Bay held regular town meetings. The system could be complicated and differed from one community to the next. In most towns, however, lived two classes of residents. On the one hand were “inhabitants” who had been granted land by the town, and admitted to church membership by the congregation; these exercised full political rights. The other category was that of “squatters,” or those who held no land, and while they could attend town meetings and voice opinions, they could not vote.

    Puritan Orthodoxy: The Bible Commonwealth

    The Puritans, or Calvinists, who immigrated to Massachusetts Bay followed a well-defined theology, differing from the belief system of the Pilgrims mainly in their conviction that the Anglican Church could be reformed; they intended to encourage this reformation by setting an example for the Anglican Church to follow. They were not, like the Pilgrims, Separatists. But here the differences ended; they all adopted the teachings of John Calvin.

    One of the most important bases of Calvin’s theology, and a key issue for the Puritans, was the doctrine of predestination, which affected how they conducted themselves in their daily lives. According to this doctrine, humans were sinful and could not be saved by their own actions. Rather, salvation came from the unmerited grace of God. A person, at the time of birth, was predestined to be either saved or damned, and nothing done in life could change this. Nor was there a way for anyone to know for sure whether they were saved, that is, among the “elect”; only God knew this. However, Puritans did believe that actions might reflect the state of the soul. It was thus common for Puritans to look for signs that they themselves, or their neighbors and friends, were among the elect. Most Puritans kept diaries in which they laboriously listed their activities, looking for any indication that pointed to their “election.” And when individuals applied for church membership, they must prove to the church council that they had experienced a true conversion and thus were one of the elect.

    Congregational Churches of Visible Saints

    The churches that were organized in Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut were created by visible saints who covenanted together to form a church body. The founders then examined any persons who wanted to join the church, taking care that anyone admitted to full membership was most likely among the elect. Once the church was established, a pastor was selected and other church officers elected. The New England churches were called “congregational” because they had no hierarchical structure of bishops and archbishops, as in the Anglican Church; rather, each congregation was independent of every other congregation. Leading ministers of the Puritan establishment in Massachusetts were John Cotton, Richard Mather, Increase Mather, and Cotton Mather, all of whom oversaw the social and religious activities of the colonists, both saints and strangers.

    Life in Puritan New England

    Puritan belief permeated every aspect of life in New England. Because of their emphasis on election and calling, the Puritans believed that the Bible and Calvinist theology provided “complete blueprints for a smooth, honest, civil life in family, church and state.” Not only did Puritans think that they themselves should be socially virtuous, they believed that their neighbors should be socially virtuous as well. And though they did not believe that one could earn salvation by doing good works, they did believe that such good works were a reflection of salvation. Thus, all of the elect would live orderly, hardworking lives, see to it that their children were educated and well behaved, attended church regularly, obeyed both secular and religious laws, and took care that they not slip from the prescribed way into moral decline.


    One of the most important necessities of life, in the opinion of the Puritans, was education, as it was crucial that all who wanted to qualify for church membership be able to read the Bible and understand and explain the tenets of their religion. Without education, salvation would not be possible. To this end, Harvard University was established in 1636 and the Old Deluder Satan Law passed in 1647. Acknowledging that the “one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, [is] to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures,” the latter required that towns with a population of fifty families provide an elementary school in which students would be taught to read and write and required to study the Bible. Towns with over a hundred families must provide a grammar school. The families in the town were to pay the wages of a school master and see to it that their children attended school and progressed in their studies.

    Cotton Mather and Richard Mather, leading Puritan ministers, warned of the consequences that would befall parents who neglected their duty to educate their children. If a child “should want Knowledge, and saving wisdom thro’ any gross Negligence of thine,” Cotton Mather roared, “thy punishment shall be terrible in the Day of the Lords.” And Richard Mather reminded parents that in the Day of Judgment, uneducated children would cry, “Woe unto us that we had such Carnall and careless parents.”

    Doing God’s Work: The Importance of the “Calling”

    All Puritans, whether the Pilgrims of Plymouth or those living in other New England colonies, emphasized the importance of having a “calling.” Two facets shaped the concept of the calling. On the one hand, individuals were called on by God to live a chaste life, go to church, pray, and adhere to the dictates of their religion. On the other hand, each had a personal calling by which they earned their living. Those who were faithful to God were expected to practice both callings with reverence and dedication. So, it was the duty of pious Puritans to work hard, help their neighbors, and contribute to the needs of the society. The callings were also gender specific. Most women might be called to be wives; they would never be called to be ministers. Children also had a place in an ordered society. Their callings involved obedience to the laws of the family and colony.

    The Puritan leadership often elaborated on the necessity of practicing one’s calling, even to the deprivation of sleep. Increase Mather, a leading minister and son of Richard Mather, wrote in his diary that he was not willing “to allow myself above Seven Hours and Four and Twenty, for Sleep: but would spend the rest of my Time in Attending to the Duties of my personal or general calling.” Similarly, John Cotton wrote in Parentator that a calling should “not only aim at our own, but at the publike good” for no occupation “is lawful but what is useful unto humane society.” It was, therefore, the responsibility of all Puritans to work hard, pray, care for one another, and be ever watchful for evidence of the work of the devil in society. The work of the devil, for example, brought the witchcraft scare to Massachusetts Bay.

    Offshoots of the Bay Colony: Connecticut, New Haven, and Rhode Island

    Three additional colonies appeared in New England before the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642. In 1636, the Reverend Thomas Hooker, pastor of the church in Cambridge and a proponent of expanded suffrage in electing colonial officers, received permission from the General Court of Massachusetts Bay to move with his congregation south into what became Connecticut. Two years later, the Reverend John Davenport and Theophilus Eaton, a wealthy London merchant and farmer, both of whom were strict Puritans, established New Haven, which maintained a separate existence from Hooker’s river towns until 1664. In New Haven, as in Massachusetts, participation in any part of the government was limited to church members.

    In 1639, the Connecticut freemen adopted the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, which created, by compact, a government for the colony. The executive branch, consisting of the governor and the assistants, was to be elected annually; the members of this branch could not succeed themselves. All freemen, or church members, voted for the executive. The legislative branch was to be elected by all inhabitants; in other words, a man did not have to be a church member to vote for the legislature. This practice departed from the restricted suffrage of Massachusetts Bay and New Haven.

    Rhode Island was founded by Roger Williams, a graduate of Cambridge University and Puritan theologian. He arrived in Boston in 1631 and quickly became a popular teacher and pastor. However, Williams, who was a Separatist, quickly became a thorn in the side of the Puritan establishment, regularly denouncing the teachings of the ministers in Boston as misinterpretations of Scripture. He condemned religious persecution by political authorities, believed in complete freedom of religion (for all except Quakers), and insisted that all laws requiring compulsory attendance at church and religious orthodoxy for voting should be done away with. He also insisted that the land belonged to the Indians and that the king had had no right to grant it to the Massachusetts Bay Company.

    It did not take long for the General Court to act, and in 1635, it instructed the church at Salem to dismiss Williams. Williams left Salem with five supporters. After spending a long winter in the woods of Massachusetts, he finally found friends within the Narragansett tribe. He purchased land from them and established Providence in spring, 1636.

    Williams was soon joined by another “heretic” who had been banished from the Bay colony: Mrs. Anne Hutchinson. Hutchinson, who had been interested in theology and theological debate before coming to Massachusetts, was the wife of a wealthy Bostonian and a neighbor of John Winthrop. She had been influenced by the sermons of John Cotton, to adopt Antinomianism, or the idea that once the doctrine of grace had been bestowed upon a person, it could not be removed. Thus the sermons of leading Massachusetts divines, including those of her own minister, Reverend John Wilson, were theologically unsound because they put too much emphasis on the strict moral code which was the basis of law in Massachusetts and too little on the what she called the “inner light.” She made the mistake of holding “theological salons” in her home in which she and other members of Wilson’s congregation commented on the content of the his sermons and their theological validity. Though initially Hutchinson had the support of the Reverend John Cotton, her claims to divine inspiration made the Puritan community nervous, and when an “Antinomian Controversy” threatened to upset the “holy experiment” in 1636, the leaders of the Bay Colony suspected “a plot of the old serpent [Satan] against Massachusetts.”

    Screenshot (212).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Colony of Connecticut | Map of The Colony of Connecticut, 1636-1776. Author: Karl Musser Source: Wikimedia Commons license: CC BY SA 2.5

    The Puritan oligarchy could not have a dissenter such as Hutchinson in their otherwise holy commonwealth. In November, 1637, she was brought before the General Court, condemned for her activities, and banished from the colony. In 1638, she was excommunicated and immediately left for Rhode Island, where she and her followers established the town of Portsmouth. When her husband died four years later, she moved with her children to Long Island, where she and her family were murdered in an Indian raid.

    By the time the English Civil War broke out, Rhode Island had no charter. The land had been bought from the Indians, an action that no one in England, or most of the colonies for that matter, thought produced a legitimate claim. Therefore, Williams petitioned Parliament for title to the land, which Parliament granted in 1644. Thus, the “Providence Plantations, in the Narragansett Bay in New England” was created. The government structure was much like that of Connecticut, with expanded suffrage and limited terms of office. The Puritan oligarchy was under siege as Rhode Island and other colonies surrounding Massachusetts Bay moved toward democracy and toleration.


    The remaining colony of New England, consisting of the territories of New Hampshire and Maine, saw sporadic settlement during the decades of the 1630s and 1640s. Most of the area had been given to the Englishmen Sir Ferdinando Gorges and Captain John Mason in 1622 by the Council for New England. They divided the tract into northern and southern portions. The first permanent settlements in New Hampshire were established at Exeter and Hampton in 1638 by two diverse groups: the Reverend John Wheelwright, the brother of Anne Hutchinson and like her an exile from Boston, and a group of orthodox Puritans from another part of the Bay colony. Most of the towns of New Hampshire were created between 1623 and 1640; all were annexed by Massachusetts in 1641-1643, partly because of the death of Gorges and partly because the Civil War in England gave elevated importance to Puritans in England and the American colonies.

    Maine was mostly an outpost for fishers, though recent discoveries have revealed an early settlement in Maine at Popham. It appears that in 1607, when James I granted land for the creation of what became Jamestown, he supported the establishment of a second colony in Maine. The colonists arrived at Popham in August, 1607 and began building what they called Fort St. George. As winter approached and supplies ran low, however, half of the colonists decided to return to England. At the end of winter, the remainder headed home, as well. The settlement there had lasted for less than a year. The sparse settlements in Maine were annexed by Massachusetts between 1652 and 1656; in 1691 Plymouth and Maine were formally joined with Massachusetts by the English Privy Council.

    Slavery in New England

    The “institution of slavery” is usually most closely associated with agriculture in the antebellum South, where slaves numbered in the millions. But, despite the common assumption that slavery was a southern phenomenon, “slaves were brought into New England throughout the entire colonial period” and were common in these colonies until the America Civil War. The first slaves arrived in Massachusetts Bay in 1638, having been exchanged for Pequot War captives, and though the number remained “quite small” for the first forty years, slave population doubled between 1677 and 1710. Even John Winthrop, well-known governor of Massachusetts Bay, not only owned slaves at his home, Ten Hills Farm, but helped pass one of the first laws making chattel slavery legal in North America in 1641. The Massachusetts Body of Liberties of 1641 states, “There shall never be any bond slaverie, villinage or Captivitie amongst us unles it be lawfull Captives taken in just warres, and such strangers as willingly selle themselves or are sold to us. And these shall have all the liberties…which the law of god established in Israell concerning such persons.” [sic]

    Two decades later, John Winthrop’s grandson, Wait Winthrop, gave his older brother advice on handling a slave recently arrived from Africa: “Have an eye to him…and [if] you think it not worthwhile to keep him, sell him or send him to Virginia or the Barbadoes.” A visitor to Boston in the late 1600s wrote, “you may…own Negroes and Negresses…There is not a House in Boston, however small be its Means that has not one or two. There are those that have five or six.​​​​​​​

    In 1715, the first “general census of New England” reported that there was approximately one “negro” for every six families in those colonies. However, the slave population was not found throughout the colonies; rather, it was “clustered along the seacoast, in major cities and in agricultural areas in Rhode Island and Connecticut.” By the 1770s, slaves were present in significant numbers in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, where they made up 30 percent of the population of South Kingston. There was also a notable presence of slaves in Boston (10 percent) and New London (9 percent). Most prominent New England merchants had ties to the slave trade and made vast fortunes from it.

    Because of sectional differences in economic development, slave occupations in New England were more diverse than in the South. Rather than working primarily on large agricultural units, northern slaves more often performed household duties and provided skilled labor in any number of industries: ship building, carpentry, printing, tailoring, shoe making, blacksmithing, baking, and weaving. In fact, “many became so talented in the crafts that the free white workers lost jobs to them.”

    England Confederation, 1643

    The New England colonies, especially Massachusetts Bay, posed a problem for the English monarchs during most of the pre-Revolutionary period. The settlers’ “independent spirit” first appeared with the foundation of the New England Confederation in 1643. The union of Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven, all Puritan colonies, was created without consulting Parliament or the Crown. The purpose of the Confederation was to pool the resources of the colonies and solve their mutual problems, primarily their struggles with the native populations. England was engaged in a civil war and therefore unable to give adequate protection to her colonies. This reason along with the Pequot War spurred the New England colonies into action. The preamble of the Confederation of “the United Colonies of New England” explained the motivation and purpose behind its establishment: “Whereas we all came into these parts of America, with one and the same end…and whereas we live encompassed with people of severall Nations…we enter into a present Consotiation…for mutuall help and strength.”

    It made no reference to the king or Parliament, and the wording was not unlike that of the Articles of Confederation, America’s first constitution, created 130 years later. The colonies entered into a “firm and Perpetuall league of friendship…for offence and defence, mutuall advice…both for preserving and propagating…the liberties of the Gospel and for their own mutuall safety and welfare.” The union lasted from 1643 to 1691, though it was not effective after the first decade. When Charles II was restored to the throne of England in 1660, he turned his ire on Puritanism and Puritans, holding them responsible for the execution of his father in 1642. In 1684, he revoked the charter of Massachusetts Bay, making it a royal colony, and his brother James II later established the Dominion of New England, which was placed under the control of a colonial administrator, Sir Edmund Andros, who had, among other things, served as the fourth royal governor of New York and was one of the original proprietors of the territory of New Hampshire and Maine.


    The New England colonies were founded between 1620 and 1642, when the English Civil War broke out. With the exception of Rhode Island, these colonies (Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, New Haven, and Connecticut) were Puritan, and Puritanism influenced their social morés, economics, and politics. Believing in a strict adherence to Calvinist doctrine and in the value of a society composed solely of “visible saints,” most New England colonists, with the exception of those in Rhode Island, did not welcome what they called “strangers,” nor did they practice toleration in any form. The colony of Rhode Island was different, as it was created by refugees from Massachusetts who disagreed with Puritan orthodoxy and the chokehold it had on Massachusetts society. The laws of this colony reflected religious and social toleration. Anne Hutchinson, who had been embroiled in the Antinomian Controversy in Massachusetts Bay, and Roger Williams, who purchased the land that became Rhode Island from the Indians, reflect the independence that could evolve from various ways of interpreting Calvinist doctrines.

    Because Puritans believed that anyone seeking membership in the church had to have a working knowledge of Scripture, education became an important aspect of life in their colonies, as did industry, because to be idle was a sign of the devil at work. Unlike the colonies in the South, where education was the responsibility of the family, New England was seen as the province of the state. While Plymouth remained small in population, Massachusetts Bay grew throughout the seventeenth century and became large and prosperous; in 1691 Massachusetts became a royal colony, absorbing the territories of Maine and Plymouth. In the same year, New Hampshire became a royal colony, independent of Massachusetts.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Who among the following were banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony?

    1. John Cotton and Richard Mather
    2. John Winthrop and Roger Williams
    3. Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson
    4. Anne Hutchinson and John Winthrop


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Which of the following founders and colonies is incorrect?

    1. John Winthrop/Massachusetts Bay
    2. William Bradford/Plymouth
    3. William Brewster/New Haven
    4. Thomas Hooker/Connecticut


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    The General Court in Puritan colonies was the _____ of the government.

    1. executive branch
    2. legislative branch
    3. judicial branch
    4. religious branch


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    One important difference between the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay and those of Plymouth was that:

    1. the Pilgrims wanted to reform the Church of England rather than separate from it.
    2. the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay wanted to reform the church of England rather than separate from it.
    3. the Pilgrims did not believe in the doctrine of election.
    4. the Puritans were not Calvinists.


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{5}\)

    According to the doctrine of predestination, a person was either saved or damned from the time of his birth.

    1. True
    2. False


    This page titled 4.5: The Establishment of the New England Colonies is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Catherine Locks, Sarah Mergel, Pamela Roseman, Tamara Spike & Marie Lasseter (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.