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Colonial America | Colonies | Massachusetts (Est. 1629)

In an inspirational speech delivered on board a ship headed for the New World in 1630, Governor John Winthrop shared his vision for Boston. "We shall be as a city upon a hill"—a shining example of Puritan piety, virtue, and endeavor. In the 17th century, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was ruled by zealots who imagined a strict religious community in the New World. While this vision suited some people, others saw it merely as an attractive alternative to living under the king's oppressive rule in England.

Click to read a historical
sketch of Massachusetts

on this informative website
hosted by the Secretary
of the Commonwealth of

The Massachusetts Bay Company began as a joint stock trading company chartered by the English crown in 1629. It included a vast area of New England that extended north of the Merrimack River to south of the Charles River. The company was to be managed by Governor John Endecott and a council of 18 assistants, elected annually by the ordinary freemen.On the list of those who made up the Massachusetts Bay Company were some eminently respectable names, all loyal to the crown. What King Charles I did not know, however, was that there were differences emerging between those who wanted the company to be an ordinary trading venture and those with more religious motives.

The Charles River that flows
through Boston was named
for King Charles I of England,
who signed the original
charter that allowed the first
group of emigrants to settle
in the New World.

Among the latter was a Suffolk squire from the village of Groton named John Winthrop. A justice of the peace and a graduate of Trinity College in Cambridge, Winthrop, like other Puritans, was alarmed at the direction of events in England.While King James treated the Puritan cause with disregard, Charles I went a step further and actively tried to suppress them. Charles I had dissolved Parliament in 1629, determined to rule as an absolute monarch. This left Puritans with no means to air their grievances. Another cause for Puritan concern was the number of severe defeats that the forces of Protestantism had suffered in Europe during the opening phases of the Thirty Years' War. This fed Puritan suspicions that their king's sympathies lay on the wrong side of the ongoing religious struggle.

Portrait John Winthrop

Read a biography of
John Winthrop.

Religious zeal was the main reason for Winthrop's changing allegiance to England. Like many other Puritans, he believed that England was becoming too corrupt and too resistant to change. Winthrop and those of like mind devised a plan to form a company with the idea of implementing their Puritan beliefs under the safety of the company's charter. The intention of the company's founders was not to disavow the English church or state, but to make interference difficult. The king's attention was focused on his own problems with Parliament, practically ensuring the company's success.

In pursuit of this idea, Winthrop and his group were aided by a remarkable oversight in the charter, which failed to specify that the company had to retain its headquarters in England. An agreement to buy out the non-Puritan elements of the company was accordingly concluded at Cambridge, England on August 26, 1629. This became known as the Cambridge Agreement. Three days later the plan was accepted at a hastily convened meeting of the General Court in London, attended by just 27 freemen out of 125. Soon afterward John Winthrop was elected governor.

Read about the 1630 voyage
of the Winthrop Fleet, including
individual ship and passenger

Among the plans for launching the company in the New World was John Endecott's assignment to take possession of the struggling Dorchester settlement in New England. The following year, the company sent more ships carrying supplies and additional colonists to join Endecott.

In March 1630, eleven ships were assembled for the purpose of transporting Governor Winthrop and more than a thousand emigrants to the New World. Winthrop sailed on the lead ship Arbella.The other chartered ships were the Ambrose, Jewel, Talbot, Charles, Mayflower (a different ship from that which brought the Pilgrims to Plymouth), William & Francis, Hopewell, Whale, Success, and Trial. The Winthrop Fleet, as they came to be called, set sail on April 7, 1630. When this group of Puritans left England, they already had a substantial base in the New World on which to build. Unlike the Pilgrims, the Puritans had considerable financial resources; and unlike the Virginia Company, they had realistic expectations.

Read the inspirational speech
that Winthrop delivered to the
Puritans on board the Arbella,
A Model of Christian Charity.

While on board the Arbella, John Winthrop addressed the Puritans saying, "Thus stands the cause between God and us: we are entered into covenant with Him." According to Winthrop's vision, the new settlements were to be "as a city upon a hill," an example to all the world. The Winthrop Fleet sighted the coast of Maine in early June before going on to Salem, where Endecott had built a scant settlement consisting of only a few huts. The council leaders desired a different location, however, so the fleet sailed to another site near the Charles River. It was here that they oberved a thin neck of land protruding into the bay and decided to settle the area. They named the settlement Boston after the town in Lincolnshire where some of the emigrants had come from.

Click to learn more about the
American Indians of the area,
including the Massachuset,
part of the Wampanoag tribes.

Not everyone stayed with Winthrop and the council, mainly because there was not enough land or water to sustain so many people. Other settlements sprang up around the bay, organized by congregations. A group of people would choose a minister, make a covenant to create a godly community, and begin building churches and homes.

As in Plymouth, the native inhabitants had been decimated by disease and were in no condition to resist the newcomers' purchase of their lands. Winthrop believed that the Massachuset tribe had been smitten by God to make the land available for his people. When the colonists approached the American Indians with land treaties, they had little knowledge of what they were signing. Their belief was that they were sealing friendships rather than giving away their lands.

map of Massachusetts Bay

Click the image to view an enlarged map of Massachusetts
Bay Colony, 1630-1642.

A number of settlers died in the first, harsh winter. The outbreak of disease was less prevalent there than in Virgina, however. The Puritans had come well equipped with livestock and every kind of tool. They also had the help and support of the Plymouth Colony. Farming, lumbering, and fishing were principal occupations. By the end of 1630, many towns had been established, including Charlestown, Roxbury, Watertown, Cambridge, and Dorchester.

The Puritans transformed the Massachuetts Bay Colony into a religious commonwealth and established a theocracy. Winthrop and his assistants began issuing various edicts for the better government of the colony. Naturally these had a strong moral tone. All general misconduct, gambling, blasphemy, excessive drinking, and paticipation in questionable entertainment (like dancing and theater) were to be severely punished, while church attendance was mandatory.

The Bay State is the nickname
most commonly attached to
Massachusetts. It is also
occasionally referred to as the
Old Colony State, the Puritan
State, and the Baked Bean
State. Click to read more
Massachusetts fun facts and

Since the Puritans intended to create a pure commonwealth, it was important that the corrupt elements be kept in check. Many of those who had crossed the Atlantic were servants who had not come by choice; others had come primarily for economic reasons. In May 1631, the Puritan leaders agreed to restrict citizenship (called freemanship) to church members. Freemen were the only people entitled to vote, hold office, or participate in public affairs. Newcomers to the colony were expected to follow the Puritans' religious beliefs and practices. Dissenters were suppressed or expelled to other settlements, such as Rhode Island or New Hampshire.

The settlements were widely spread, making it difficult for most freemen to attend the general court meetings. Thus, it was agreed that each town would send just two representatives instead. The result was that Massachusetts now had a representative government, but in no sense was it democratic. The decision-making was still limited to freemen who were full church members.

Within twelve months, the new system was put to the test when its authority was challenged by Roger Williams. A trained minister, Williams revealed his radical tendencies when he claimed that the general court had no authority in spiritual matters. He argued that church and state should be totally separate. He also denied the court's power to confiscate American Indian lands merely because of a charter from the king. In effect, he was denying both the religious and political authority of the Puritan establishment.On October 9, 1635, Williams was banished to Rhode Island.

Anne Hutchinson

Click to learn more about Anne
in Massachusetts
and Rhode Island.

While the threat posed by Roger Williams was successfully contained, Anne Hutchinson soon created even more tension after arriving in Boston in 1634.The daughter of an outspoken English clergyman, Anne and her husband, William, joined the church where John Cotton was minister.Noticing that the church's male membership met regularly after sermons, Hutchinson formed a similar group for women. Intelligent, articulate, and knowledgeable about the Bible and theology, she attracted around 60 women. Soon even men joined her discussion group. Initially the group met to discuss Sunday's sermons, but Hutchinson (and her followers) gradually began to disagree with orthodox Puritanism.

Because of the way its
constitution was written,
Massachusetts is one of four
states that is technically a
commonwealth. The other
three commonwealths are
Pennsylvania, Virginia, and

Unafraid to voice her beliefs and disagree with the magistrates, Anne Hutchinson's views challenged the principles of the religious and political system in Massachusetts. She claimed that the church contained many members who disguised their lack of belief by doing good works in an effort to get into heaven. She made matters worse in her claims that only two Boston misisters were truly saved, John Cotton and her brother-in-law, John Wheelwright. The rest she denounced for preaching a covenant of deeds rather than one of grace. Hutchinson's ideas were branded as Antinomianists (a belief that Christians are not bound by moral law). Intended to be derogatory, the term was erroneously applied to Anne's followers, who certainly did not believe that the inner Holy Spirit released them from obligation to moral law. The colonial government moved to discipline Hutchinson and her followers.

What began as a religious point of difference soon threatened the political stability of the colony. For unlike Williams, Hutchinson had powerful supporters. One of them, Henry Vane, was elected Governor in 1636. The Puritans fought back, however, and in the following year, Winthrop convened the general court and soon returned to the governorship. To prevent new Antinomians from settling in Massachusetts, Winthrop imposed a restriction on immigrants, among them Anne's brother and several of her friends.

The School Laws of 1642,
required that every father
teach his children the
Catechism; otherwise, the
children would be taken
from the home.

Under Winthrop's leadership, Hutchinson's brother-in-law, Reverend John Wheelwright, was banished from the colony. He fled to New Hampshire where he founded Exeter. Soon John Cotton was persuaded to affirm that grace was a state that had to be constantly sought. Finally, in November 1637, Hutchinson herself was called to face her accusers before the general court. All went well for Hutchinson until she claimed that her views had been revealed by God. She was found guilty of sedition and contempt, then condemned and excommunicated from the church.

Anne Hutchinson was banished from the colony. With her family and a small group of followers, Anne Hutchinson settled in Rhode Island. There, with the assistance of Roger Williams, they purchased land from the local American Indian tribe and founded the colony of Portsmouth.

Governor John Endecott

Read a brief biography of
Governor John Endecott.

Another cause of unease during these first years was the outbreak of hostilities between the settlers and the American Indians. Salem governor John Endecott, one of the military leaders, so mismanaged an expedition against a group of American Indians that he helped bring on the Pequot War.

After the war, serious attempts were begun to convert the American Indians to Puritan religious beliefs. The decision to focus on mission work was in part a response to criticism by Roger Williams and others of the Puritans' failure in this matter. Accordingly, in 1646 the Reverend John Eliot, the minister of Roxbury, established a mission for converting American Indians to Christianity. They were divided into settlements called "praying towns."

Read a short article about
Edward Randolph, the King's
envoy to the colony.

Meanwhile the general court was aware that Massachusetts still had no proper legal code. In 1636 John Cotton drew up a code which Winthrop called the "Mosaic Code". This code was modified in 1639, and it formed the basis of the Body of Liberties, which was adopted in 1641. Many deputies, however, felt that it still left too much room for arbitrary judgement of the magistrates and quirks of the law. Accordingly, in 1648 a further revision was undertaken, during which a number of legal volumes were imported from England.The result, published as "The Book of the General Lawes and Libertyes Concerning the Inhabitants of the Massachusets," defined more precisely the powers and functions of the leaders, the liberties of the individual, and the due process of law in Massachusetts.

King Charles II

Read a biography
of King Charles II.

Twenty thousand people came to new England in the 1630s during the Great Migration, and the natural population began to increase, as well. The expansion necessitated some additional changes, notably the creation of a county system in 1643. Initially four were established: Suffolk, Middlesex, Essex, and Norfolk. Each county had a bench of justices commissioned by the general court for determining petty criminal and civil matters. Major cases were still referred to the court of assistant.

Read the List of Grievances
Edward Randolph presented
before the Lords of Trade,
condemning Massachusetts.

In 1647 action was taken to ensure that the population at large received some scriptural instruction. Since knowledge of scripture was essential for salvation, all towns with fifty households or more were to appoint someone to teach their children how to read and write.

Learn more about the
Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Farming was necessarily the main occupation, since the colonists had to feed themselves. Most communities were close to the sea, and many settlers along the coast could fish. This activity encouraged a shipbuilding industry. In general the colony was remarkably prosperous during its first ten years, largely because a continuous stream of immigrants arrived bringing cash to buy livestock and other supplies with which to establish themselves. The decline of immigration after 1640 prompted new markets to appear, particularly in the West Indies, where planters were happy to exchange sugar for other provisions. Lumber and fish from Maine were also important products which found a ready market.

A religious group called the Quakers arrived in the colony in 1656.John Endecott had replaced John Winthrop as governor, and he was far less tolerant of religious dissension. His ten years in power were marked by the extreme persecution of Quakers. The early Quaker groups were small in number, and could be easily handled. In 1656 and 1657 Endecott succeeded in pushing several laws through the general court against the Quakers, which permitted banishing, whipping, and corporal punishment.The new laws also prevented any Quakers from entering the colony. In the fall of 1658, Endecott and the general court passed a law that banished Quakers upon pain of death. Public opinion changed the minds of the magistrates, however. The Quakers eventually fit in with Puritan society, even helping with the conversion of American Indians.

Meanwhile, the threat of further English intervention remained ever-present. In 1675 King Charles II appointed a special subcommittee called the Lords of Trade to supervise the colonies. The committee issued a stern warning requiring all the acts of trade to be observed. Shortly afterward, they sent Edward Randolph to check New England's compliance. His presence was deeply offensive to the general court, determined as it was to remain self-governing. The members believed that since Massachusetts was not represented in Parliament, Parliament's laws were not valid in the colonies. The most that the commonwealth would do was pass duplicate legislation as a gesture of goodwill.

Another act of defiance was the continued minting of the 1652 pine tree shilling, an abuse of one of the crown's most cherished privileges. The province had also reasserted control over New Hampshire and Maine. New Hampshire was finally declared a royal province in 1680, but Massachusetts kept its grasp on Maine, angering the crown further by buying out the heirs of Sir Fernando Gorges in an attempt to make good its claim.This move prompted the Privy Council once more to order Massachusetts to send envoys to England to answer Randolph's charges.

Massachusetts still hoped that the government of Charles II would either lack the means to implement its plans or be overthrown. The general court thus continued to drag its feet. It was slow to appoint envoys and gave them little power. The colonists opposed his authority when Randolph returned in 1678 with a permanent commission as collector and surveyor of customs.

But Randolph logged so many colonial misdemeanors that even the lackadaisical King Charles II would take action eventually. Apart from their infractions of the trade laws, Randolph noted that the Puritans failed to take the oath of allegiance and omitted the king's name in their official proceedings. The day of reckoning was not far away.

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Also see The Dorchester Company.

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