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The New England Colonies

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The New England Colonies of British America included the colonies of Massachusetts Bay Colony, Connecticut Colony, Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations and Province of New Hampshire. They were part of the Thirteen Colonies including the Middle Colonies and the Southern Colonies. These were early colonies of what would later be the states in New England.[1] Captain John Smith, of Pocahontas fame, was the author of “The Description of New England” published in 1616. The book was the first to apply the term “New England” to coastal lands of North America from the Long Island Sound to Newfoundland.[2]

Early 17th century

The English royal charters granted land to the north to the Plymouth Company, land to the south to the London Company and the land between could be settled first by either company There were several attempts early in the 17th century to colonize New England by France, England and other countries who were in often in contention for lands in the New World. French nobleman Pierre Dugua de Monts (Sieur de Monts) established a settlement on Saint Croix Island, Maine in June 1604 under the authority of the King of France. The small St. Croix River Island is located on the northern boundary of present-day Maine. After nearly half the settlers perished due to a harsh winter and scurvy, they moved out of New England north to Port-Royal of Nova Scotia (see symbol “R” on map to the right) in the spring of 1605.[3]

King James I of England, recognizing the need for a permanent settlement in New England, granted competing royal charters to the Plymouth Company and the London Company. The Plymouth Company ships arrived at the mouth of the Kennebec River (then called the Sagadahoc River) in August 1607 where they established a settlement named Sagadahoc Colony or more well known as Popham Colony (see symbol “Po” on map to the right) to honor financial backer Sir John Popham. The colonists faced a harsh winter, the loss of supplies following a storehouse fire and mixed relations with the indigenous tribes.

After the death of colony leader Captain George Popham and a decision by a second leader, Raleigh Gilbert, to return to England to take up an inheritance left by the death of an older brother, all of the colonists decided to return to England. It was around August 1607, when they left on two ships, the Mary and John and a new ship built by the colony named Virginia of Sagadahoc. The 30-ton Virginia was the first English-built ship in North America.[4]

Conflict over land rights continued through the early 17th century, with the French constructing Fort Petagouet near present day Castine, Maine in 1613. The fort protecting a trading post and a fishing station was considered the first longer term settlement in New England. The fort traded hands multiple times throughout the 17th century between the English, French and Dutch colonists.[5]

In 1614, the Dutch explorer Adriaen Block sailed along the coast of Long Island Sound, and then up the Connecticut River to site of present day Hartford, Connecticut. By 1623, the new Dutch West India Company regularly traded for furs there and ten years later they fortified it for protection from the Pequot Indians as well as from the expanding English colonies. They fortified the site, which was named “House of Hope” (also identified as “Fort Hoop”, “Good Hope” and “Hope”), but encroaching English colonization made them agree to withdraw a Treaty of Hartford, and by 1654 they were gone.[6]

[edit] Pilgrims and Puritans (1620s)

A group of religious dissenters known as the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower from England and the Netherlands early in 1620 to establish Plymouth Colony, which was the first British colony in New England to last over a year and one of the first colonies of British Colonial America following Jamestown, Virginia. About half of the one hundred plus passengers on the Mayflower survived that first winter, mostly because of diseases contracted on the voyage. [7] A Native American named Squanto taught the colonists how to catch eel and grow corn the following year (1621). His assistance was remarkable, considering that the Pilgrims were living on the site his deceased Patuxet tribe had established as a village before they were wiped out from diseases brought over by earlier traders from Europe.[8]

Although the Plymouth settlement faced great hardships and earned few profits, it enjoyed a positive reputation in England and may have sown the seeds for further immigration. Edward Winslow and William Bradford published an account of their adventures in 1622, called Mourt’s Relation.[9] This book glossed over some of the difficulties and challenges carving a settlement out of the wilderness, but it may have been partly responsible for erasing the memory of the Popham Colony and encouraging further settlement.

Major boundaries of Massachusetts Bay and neighboring colonial claims in the 17th century and 18th century. Modern state boundaries are partially overlaid for context. Learning from the Pilgrims’ harsh experiences of winter in the Plymouth Colony, the Puritans first sent smaller groups in mid-1620s from England to establish colonies, buildings and food supplies. In 1623, the Plymouth Council for New England (successor to the Plymouth Company) established a small fishing village at Cape Ann under the supervision of the Dorchester Company. The first group of Puritans moved to a new town at the nearby Naumkeag, after the Dorchester Company dropped support and fresh financial support was found by Rev. John White.

Other settlements were started in nearby areas, however the overall Puritan population remained small through the 1620s.[10] A larger group of Puritans arrived in 1630, leaving England because they were unable to change the Church of England, by their name to “purify” the church. The Puritans had very different religious beliefs compared to the Pilgrims who were Separatists from the Church of England and their colonies were governed independent of each other until the Massachusetts Bay Colony was reorganized in 1691 combining both colonies as the Province of Massachusetts Bay. Prior to the formation of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, the Puritan leaders used the government to enforce the strict religious rules that all Puritans were expected to follow.

Early dissenters of the Puritan laws were often banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Connecticut Colony was started after a Puritan minister, Thomas Hooker, left Massachusetts Bay with around 100 followers in search of greater religious and political freedom. Another Puritan minister, Roger Williams (theologian) left Massachusetts Bay founding the Rhode Island Colony, while John Wheelwright left with his followers to a colony in present day New Hampshire and shortly thereafter on to present day Maine. The Puritan beliefs of not having to directly pay for school also helped shape the public school system today.[11] Founding (1630s)

It was the dead of winter, January 1636, when Salem minister Roger Williams had been banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritan leaders pushed him out because he preached that government and religion should be separate and also believed the Wampanoag and Narragansett tribes had been treated unfairly. That winter, the tribes would help Williams to survive and establish a new colony in present-day Rhode Island which he named Providence as in the Divine Providence, for their new colony was unique in its day in expressly providing for religious freedom and a separation of church from state. Roger Williams returned to England two times to prevent the attempt of other colonies to take over Providence and to charter or incorporate Providence and other nearby communities into the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.


A map of the Connecticut, New Haven, and Saybrook colonies. Later in 1636, Thomas Hooker left Massachusetts with one hundred followers and found a new English settlement just north of the Dutch Fort Hoop that would later become Connecticut Colony. The community was first named Newtown then shortly afterwards renamed to Hartford to honor the English town of Hertford. One of the reasons Hooker left was because only admitted members of the church could vote and participate in the government, which he believed should include any adult male owning property. The Connecticut Colony was not the first settlement (Dutch were first), or even the first English settlement (Windsor would be first in 1633), Thomas Hooker would obtain a royal charter and establish Fundamental Orders, considered to be one of the first constitutions in North America. Other colonies, including New Haven and Saybrook would later be merged into the royal charter for the Connecticut Colony.[13]


Whaling in small wooden boats with hand harpoons was a hazardous enterprise, even when hunting the “right” whale. The earliest colonies in the New England Colonies were usually fishing villages or farming communities along the more fertile land along the rivers. While the rocky soil in the New England Colonies was not as fertile as the Middle or Southern Colonies, the land provided rich resources including timber that was valued for building of homes and ships. Timber was also a resource that could be exported back to England, where there was a shortage of timber. In addition, the hunting of wild life provided furs to be traded and food for the table. The New England Colonies were located near the ocean where there was an abundance of whales, fish and other marketable sea life. Excellent harbors and some inland waterways offered protection for ships and were also valuable for fresh water fishing.

The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony named the settlement on the Shawmut Peninsula as Boston. For most of the early years, Boston was the largest city in all of the British Colonial America.[14] By the end of the seventeenth century, New England colonists had tapped into a sprawling Atlantic trade network that connected them to the English homeland as well as the West African slave coast, the Caribbean’s plantation islands, and the Iberian Peninsula. Colonists relied upon British and European imports for glass, linens, hardware, machinery, and other items found around a colonist’s household. In contrast to the Southern Colonies, which could produce tobacco, rice, and indigo in exchange for imports, New England’s colonies could not offer much to England beyond fish, and furs, and lumber respectively. Inflation was a major issue in the economy.

Indian Slavery in New England

In the view of the Plymouth court, the enslavement of natives that were rebelling against English authority was quite lawful. This was a policy that had been going on for decades in Ireland, particularly at least since the time of Elizabeth I, and during the mid-17th century Cromwell wars in Britain and Ireland where large numbers of Irish, Welsh and Scots prisoners were sent as slaves to plantations in the West Indies, especially to Barbados and Jamaica.[15]

The income provided by selling Indian captives as slaves was helpful financially in covering war costs and in removing natives from the colony who were considered potentially dangerous – and in effect made more native lands available to English settlers.

One person among the colony hierarchy who did speak out at that time against Indian enslavement was military leader Benjamin Church, whose militia company ironically was responsible in August 1676 for the killing of King Philip. He said, in the summer of 1675 regarding Indian slavery, “an action so hateful…that (I) opposed it to the loss of the good will and respect of some that before were (my) good friends.” This said, Church, like many Englishmen in the colony, would be an owner of African slaves himself.[16]

Ships carrying native peoples as slaves began to leave New England ports for places far away late in 1675, and by the next summer the shipping out of slaves had turned into a regular process that removed what was considered dangerous native males by stating that “no male captive above the age of fourteen years should reside in the colony.” That fall, they had King Philip’s nine-year-old son in their hands and not known what to do with him – some wanted to execute the boy – but in the end he, as his mother had been, was shipped off as a slave.[17]

It is estimated that during King Philip’s War at least a thousand New England Indians were sold as slaves, with over half of those coming from Plymouth. By the end of the war, villages that were once crowded Indian population centers were empty of inhabitants. [18]


In the New England Colonies, the first settlements of Pilgrims, along with the later Puritans taught their children how to read and write for business and household management purposes, in addition to following their various faiths. Depending upon social and financial status, education was taught by private governesses, homeschooling and grammar schools, which included some or more subjects from reading, writing to Latin and math.

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