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Massachusetts Bay Colony

Massachusetts Bay Colony
Colony of England
1628–1684 de jure (1692 de facto)

Flag Coat of arms
Flag First Colonial Seal[note 1]
Capital Salem, Charlestown, Boston
 •  Established Land grant issued, 1628; Royal charter issued, 1629
 •  Revocation of royal charter 1684
 •  Dominion of New England established 1686
 •  Dominion dissolved 1689
 •  Royal charter issued for Province of Massachusetts Bay 1691
 •  Disestablished Province of Massachusetts Bay governance begins, 1692
Today part of  United States
A map depicting various colonial territorial claims related to Massachusetts

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was an English settlement on the east coast of North America (Massachusetts Bay) in the 17th century, in New England, situated around the present-day cities of Salem and Boston. The territory administered by the colony included much of present-day central New England, including portions of the U.S. states of Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. Territory claimed but never administered by the colonial government extended as far west as the Pacific Ocean.

The colony was founded by the owners of the Massachusetts Bay Company, which included investors in the failed Dorchester Company, which had in 1623 established a short-lived settlement on Cape Ann. The second attempt, the Massachusetts Bay Colony begun in 1628, was successful, with about 20,000 people migrating to New England in the 1630s. The population was strongly Puritan, and its governance was dominated by a small group of leaders who were strongly influenced by Puritan religious leaders. Although its governors were elected, the electorate were limited to freemen, who had been examined for their religious views and formally admitted to their church and also to their houses with self-control. As a consequence, the colonial leadership exhibited intolerance to other religious views, including Anglican, Quaker, and Baptist theologies.

Although the colonists initially had decent relationships with the local native populations, frictions arose over cultural differences, which were further exacerbated by Dutch colonial expansion. These led first to the Pequot War (1636–1638), and then to King Philip's War (1675–1678), after which most of the natives in southern New England had been pacified, killed, or driven away.

The colony was economically successful, engaging in trade with England and the West Indies. A shortage of hard currency in the colony prompted it to establish a mint in 1652. Political differences with England after the English Restoration led to the revocation of the colonial charter in 1684. King James II established the Dominion of New England in 1686 to bring all of the New England colonies under firmer crown control. The dominion collapsed after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 deposed James, and the colony reverted to rule under the revoked charter until 1692, when Sir William Phips arrived bearing the charter of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, which combined the Massachusetts Bay territories with those of the Plymouth Colony and proprietary holdings on Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. The political and economic dominance of New England by the modern state of Massachusetts was made possible in part by the early dominance in these spheres by the Massachusetts Bay colonists.


  • Background History 1
    • Early settlements 1.1
    • Plymouth Colony 1.2
    • Cape Ann settlement 1.3
  • Legal formation of the colony 2
  • Colonial history 3
    • Revocation of charter 3.1
    • Unifications and restoration 3.2
  • Life 4
    • Marriage and family life 4.1
  • Government 5
    • Laws and judiciary 5.1
    • Notable criminal prosecutions 5.2
    • New England Confederation 5.3
  • Economy and trade 6
  • Demographics 7
  • Geography 8
    • Boundaries 8.1
    • Timeline of settlement 8.2
  • See also 9
  • Notes 10
  • References 11
  • Bibliography 12
    • Online primary sources 12.1
  • External links 13

Background History

Early settlements

Map depicting tribal distribution in southern New England, circa 1600; the political boundaries shown are modern

Prior to the arrival of Europeans on the eastern shore of New England, the area around Massachusetts Bay was the territory of several Algonquian-speaking tribes, including the Massachusett, Nauset, and Wampanoag. The Pennacooks occupied the Merrimack River valley to the north, and the Nipmuc, Pocumtuc, and Mahican, occupied the western lands of present-day Massachusetts, although some of those tribes8,000.[1] This number was significantly larger as late as 1616; in later years contemporary chroniclers interviewed Indians who described a major pestilence that killed between one and two thirds of the population. The land use patterns of the natives included plots cleared for agricultural purposes, and woodland territories for the hunting of game. Land divisions between the tribes were well understood.[2]

Early in the 17th century a variety of European explorers, including [7] English ships continued to come to the New England area for fishing and trade with the Indians.[8]

Plymouth Colony

In December 1620, a group of Pilgrims, seeking to preserve their cultural identity, established Plymouth Colony just to the south of Massachusetts Bay.[9] Their settlement was joined in 1622 and 1623 by short-lived settlements at nearby Wessagusset (present-day Weymouth), whose settlers either joined the Plymouth colony, returned to England, or settled in small outposts elsewhere on Massachusetts Bay.[10]

Plymouth's colonists faced great hardships and earned few profits for their investors, who sold their interests to the settlers in 1627.[11]

  • Massachusetts Secretary of State: The History of the Arms and Great Seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
  • Quaqua Society: Massachusetts Bay Colony

External links

  • 500+ volumes of colonial records
  • The Charters and General Laws of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts Bay. Boston: Commonwealth of Massachusetts. 1814.  

Online primary sources

  • Adams, Charles Francis; Nash, Gilbert (1905). Wessagusset and Weymouth. Weymouth, MA: Weymouth Historical Society.  
  • Adams, Brooks. The Emancipation of Massachusetts. 
  • Adams, Charles; Nash, Gilbert (1905). Wessagusset and Weymouth. Weymouth, MA: Weymouth Historical Society.  
  • Addison, Albert Christopher (1912). The Romantic Story of the Puritan Fathers: And Their Founding of New Boston. L.C. Page & Co. 
  • Anderson, Robert Charles (1995). The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England, 1620–1633. Boston, MA: New England Historic Genealogical Society.  
  • Bowen, Clarence Winthrop (1882). The Boundary Disputes of Connecticut. Boston: James R. Osgood.  
  • Bremer, Francis (2003). John Winthrop: America's Forgotten Founder. New York: Oxford University Press.  
  • Bremer, Francis; Webster, Tom (2006). Puritans and Puritanism in Europe and America: a Comprehensive Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO.  
  • Dow, George Francis (1967) [1935]. Everyday Life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. New York: Benjamin Blom. 
  • Field, Edward (ed) (1902). State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations at the End of the Century: a History. Boston, MA: Mason Publishing.  
  • Fry, William Henry (1908). New Hampshire as a Royal Province. New York: Columbia University.  
  • Guiley, Rosemary (2008) [1999]. The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft, and Wicca. New York: Facts on File.  
  • Hart, Albert Bushnell (ed) (1927). Commonwealth History of Massachusetts. New York: The States History Company. (five volume history of Massachusetts until the early 20th century)  
  • Hayes, Kevin (2008). The Oxford Handbook of Early American Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  
  • Heath, Dwight (ed) (1986) [1963]. Mourt's Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Cambridge, MA: Applewood Books.  
  • Hubbard, Bill (2009). American Boundaries: the Nation, the States, the Rectangular Survey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.  
  • Hubbard, William (1848). A General History of New England. Boston: C.C. Little and J. Brown. 
  • Labaree, Benjamin (1979). Colonial Massachusetts: a History. Millwood, NY: KTO Press.  
  • MacDonald, William (1908). Documentary Source Book of American History: 1606–1898. New York: The Macmillan Company. 
  • Main, Gloria (2001). Peoples of a Spacious Land. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.  
  • Mayo, Lawrence Shaw (1936). John Endecott. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.  
  • Moore, Jacob Bailey (1851). Lives of the Governors of New Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay. Boston: C. D. Strong.  
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot (1956). The story of the "Old Colony" of New Plymouth, 1620–1692. New York: Knopf.  
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot (1981) [1930]. Builders of the Bay Colony. Boston: Northeastern University Press.  
  • Nagl, Dominik (2013). No Part of the Mother Country, but Distinct Dominions - Law, State Formation and Governance in England, Massachusetts and South Carolina, 1630-1769. Berlin: LIT.  
  • Rogers, Horatio (2009). Mary Dyer of Rhode Island: The Quaker Martyr That Was Hanged on Boston. BiblioBazaar.  
  • Stratton, Eugene (1986). Plymouth Colony: Its History & People, 1620–1691. Salt Lake City, UT: Ancestry Publications.  
  • Thayer, Henry Otis (1892). The Sagadahoc Colony. Portland: Printed for the Gorges Society. Retrieved 2008-12-23. 
  • Thomas, Hugh (1997). The Slave Trade: the Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440–1870. New York: Simon and Schuster.  
  • Vaughan, Alden T (1995). New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians, 1620–1675. Norman, OK: Oklahoma University Press.  
  • West, Willis (1922). The Story of American Democracy, Political and Industrial. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.  
  • Wheeler, Richard (2009) [1900]. History of the Town of Stonington, Connecticut. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Company.  
  • Winthrop, John; Dunn, Richard; Savage, James; Yeandle, Laetitia (1996). The Journal of John Winthrop, 1630–1649. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.  


  1. ^ Vaughan, p. 28
  2. ^ Hart, p. 1:129
  3. ^ Hart, pp. 1:127–128
  4. ^ Hart, p. 1:5
  5. ^ Hart, pp. 1:16–17
  6. ^ Thayer, pp. 13–216
  7. ^ Vaughan, p. 14
  8. ^ Vaughan, p. 15
  9. ^ Hart, pp. 1:67–70
  10. ^ Adams and Nash, pp. 15–34
  11. ^ Stratton, p. 27
  12. ^ Heath, pp. xiii–xv
  13. ^ Labaree, p. 26
  14. ^ Adams and Nash, pp. 29–34
  15. ^ Young, Alexander (1846). Chronicles of the First Planters of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, 1623–1636. Boston: C. C. Little and J. Brown. p. 26. Retrieved 2008-12-23. 
  16. ^ Moore, p. 238
  17. ^ Labaree, pp. 17–19
  18. ^ Dates in this article are in the Julian calendar, which was then in use in England. Because the new year in that calendar fell on March 25, dates between January 1 and March 25 are written with both years to avoid confusion.
  19. ^ a b Morison (1981), p. 32
  20. ^ Morison (1981), p. 31
  21. ^ Moore, pp. 347–348
  22. ^ Hubbard (1848), p. 112
  23. ^ Labaree, p. 39
  24. ^ Winthrop et al, p. 35
  25. ^ MacDonald, p. 22
  26. ^ Francis, Richard. Judge Sewall's Apology. p. 41
  27. ^ Labaree, p. 30
  28. ^ Bremer (2003), p. 175
  29. ^ Labaree, p. 85
  30. ^ Adams, pp. 181–182
  31. ^ Hart, p. 1:564
  32. ^ Adams, p. 212
  33. ^ Hart, p. 1:565
  34. ^ Starkey, pp. 129–131
  35. ^ Starkey, p. 131
  36. ^ Labaree, p. 56
  37. ^ Labaree, pp. 56–58
  38. ^ a b Labaree, p. 59
  39. ^ Labaree, pp. 48–49
  40. ^ Labaree, pp. 84–90
  41. ^ Labaree, p. 51
  42. ^ Main, p. 29
  43. ^ Hawke, David (2003). Everyday Life in Early America. New York: Harper. p. 66.  
  44. ^ Foster, Thomas (October 1999). "Deficient Husbands: Manhood, Sexual Incapacity, and Male Marital Sexuality in Seventeenth-Century New England". The William and Mary Quarterly 56: 723–744.  
  45. ^ Main, pp. 64–65
  46. ^ a b Hart, p. 1:103
  47. ^ a b Hart, p. 1:105
  48. ^ a b Hart, p. 1:106
  49. ^ Hart, pp. 1:104–105
  50. ^ Main, p. 47
  51. ^ a b Hart, p. 1:107
  52. ^ Hart, p. 1:108
  53. ^ Hart, p. 1:113
  54. ^ Hart, p. 1:112
  55. ^ Clifton E. Olmstead (1960), History of Religion in the United States, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., p. 71
  56. ^ Bremer (2003), p. 305
  57. ^ a b "Massachusetts Body of Liberties". Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Retrieved 2012-05-22. 
  58. ^ a b Dow, p. 200
  59. ^ All of these crimes were drawn from the records of Essex County during the colonial period. Dow, pp. 224–225
  60. ^ Dow, p. 201
  61. ^ Dow, pp. 200–204
  62. ^ Dow, p. 202
  63. ^ Dow, p. 224
  64. ^ Addison, p. 131
  65. ^ Guiley, p. 186
  66. ^ Rogers, pp. 1–2
  67. ^ Bremer (2006), p. 1:xli
  68. ^ Labaree, pp. 87–88
  69. ^ Labaree, pp. 100–105
  70. ^ West, p. 104
  71. ^ Hart, p. 1:448
  72. ^ Labaree, p. 90
  73. ^ Labaree, p. 93
  74. ^ Labaree, pp. 94–95
  75. ^ Labaree, p. 92
  76. ^ Hart, p. 1:424
  77. ^ Hart, p. 1:425
  78. ^ Hart, p. 1:431
  79. ^ Hart, p. 1:432
  80. ^ Hart, pp. 1:426–427
  81. ^ Hart, p. 1:427
  82. ^ Hart, p. 1:429
  83. ^ Hart, pp. 1:56–57
  84. ^ Hart, p. 1:55
  85. ^ Hart, p. 1:52
  86. ^ a b Hart, p. 1:54
  87. ^ Hart, p. 1:53
  88. ^ Hart, pp. 1:61–62
  89. ^ Hart, p. 1:63
  90. ^ Bremer (2003), p. 273
  91. ^ Bremer (2003), p. 314
  92. ^ Anderson, p. 1:211
  93. ^ Thomas, p. 453
  94. ^ Thomas, p. 207
  95. ^ Hubbard (2009), pp. 14–17
  96. ^ Winthrop et al, p. 339
  97. ^ Morison (1956), p. 156
  98. ^ Mayo, pp. 221–226
  99. ^ Hubbard (2009), pp. 13–14
  100. ^ Fry, pp. 54–65
  101. ^ Fry, pp. 19–22, 65
  102. ^ Labaree, p. 87
  103. ^ Bowen, p. 15
  104. ^ Bowen, p. 54
  105. ^ Field, p. 171
  106. ^ Field, p. 374
  107. ^ Wheeler, pp. 1–2
  108. ^ Field, pp. 98–101
  109. ^ Wheeler, p. 11
  110. ^ Field, p. 107
  111. ^ Wheeler, p. 15
  112. ^ Field, pp. 100,107
  113. ^ 1630: Information and Much More from


  1. ^ The colony's first seal, depicting a Native American with arrows turned downwards, saying "Come over and help us", an allusion to Acts 16:9.


See also

Timeline of settlement

Lands to the southwest in present-day Rhode Island and eastern Connecticut that had previously belonged to the Pequots were divided after the Pequot War. Claims in this area were disputed, particularly between Connecticut and Rhode Island, for many years.[107][108] Massachusetts administered Block Island and the area around present-day Stonington, Connecticut, as part of these spoils of war,[109][110] and was one of several claimants to land in what was known as Narragansett Country (roughly Washington County, Rhode Island). Massachusetts lost all of these territories in the 1660s, when Connecticut and Rhode Island received their royal charters.[111][112]

The colony performed a survey in 1642 to determine its southern boundary west to the Connecticut River.[103] This line, south of the present boundary, was protested by Connecticut, but stood until the 1690s, when Connecticut performed its own survey.[104] Most of the modern Massachusetts boundaries with its neighbors were fixed in the 18th century.[105] The most significant exception was the eastern boundary with Rhode Island, which required extensive litigation, including Supreme Court rulings, before it was finally resolved in the 19th century.[106]

[102] The colony and later the province and state retained control of Maine until it was granted statehood in the 1820.[101] The northern boundary was originally thought to be roughly parallel to the latitude of the mouth of the Merrimack River, since the river was assumed to flow primarily west. This was found to not be the case, and in 1652 Governor Endecott sent a survey party to locate the northernmost point on the Merrimack. Guided by local Indians, the party was taken to the outlet of

The southeastern boundary, with the Plymouth Colony, was first surveyed in 1639 and accepted by both colonies in 1640.[96] It is known in Massachusetts as the "Old Colony Line", and is still visible as the boundary between Norfolk County to the north, and Bristol and Plymouth Counties to the south.[97]

The colonial charter specified that the boundaries were to be from three miles (4.8 km) north of the Merrimack River to three miles south of the Charles River, and westward to the "South Sea" (i.e. the Pacific Ocean).[19] At the time, the course of neither of the rivers was known for any significant length, which eventually led to boundary disputes with the colony's neighbors.[95] Although the colony's claims were large, the practicalities of the time meant that the colony never actually controlled any land further west than the Connecticut River valley. The colony also claimed additional lands by conquest and purchase, further extending the territory it administered.


The Massachusetts colony was dominated by its rivers and coastline. Major rivers included the Charles and Merrimack, as well as a portion of the Connecticut River, which has been used to transport furs and timbers to Long Island Sound. Cape Ann, which juts into the Gulf of Maine, provided harbors for fishermen plying the fishing banks to the east, and Boston's harbor provided secure anchorage for seagoing commercial vessels. Development in Maine was restricted to coastal areas, and large inland areas (particularly the uplands in what is now Worcester County) remained under native control until after King Philip's War.


Slavery existed, but was not widespread within the colony. Some Indians captured in the Pequot War were enslaved, with those posing the greatest threat being transported to the West Indies and exchanged for goods and slaves.[90] Governor John Winthrop owned a few Indian slaves,[91] and Governor Simon Bradstreet owned two black slaves.[92] The Body of Liberties enacted in 1641 included rules governing the treatment and handling of slaves.[93] Bradstreet reported in 1680 that the colony had 100 to 120 slaves, but historian Hugh Thomas documents evidence suggesting there may have been a somewhat larger number.[94] The slave trade, however, became a significant element of the Massachusetts economy in the 18th century as its merchants became increasingly involved in it, transporting slaves from Africa and supplies from New England to the West Indies.

With the start of the English Civil War in 1642, migration came to a comparative standstill, and some colonists even returned to England to fight for the Parliamentary cause. In the following years most of the immigrants came for economic reasons: they were merchants, seamen, and skilled craftsmen. Following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, the colony also saw in an influx of French Protestant Huguenots. During the period of the charter colony, small numbers of Scots immigrated, but these were assimilated into the colony.[88] The population of Massachusetts remained largely English in character until the 1840s.[89]

The preponderance of the migrants were well-to-do gentry and skilled craftsmen. They brought with them apprentices and servants, the latter of whom were sometimes in indentured servitude.[86] Few titled nobility migrated, even though some supported the migration politically and financially, and also acquired land holdings in Massachusetts and other colonies.[87] Merchants, often the children of the gentry, also represented a significant proportion of the migrants, and would play an important role in establishing the economy of the colony.[86]

Most that arrived in the first 12 years came from two regions of England. Many of the colonists came from the county of Lincolnshire and East Anglia, northeast of London, and a large group also came from Devon, Somerset, and Dorset in the southwest of England. Although these areas provided the bulk of the migration, colonists also came other regions of England.[83] The pattern of migration often centered around specific Nonconformist clergy, who, under threat from Archbishop Laud, sought to leave England, and encouraged their flock to accompany them.[84] One characteristic unique to the New England colonies (as distinguished from some of the other English colonies) was that most of the migrants were emigrating for religious and political reasons, rather than economic ones.[85]


The Puritan dislike of ostentation led the colony to also regulate expenditures on what it perceived as luxury items. Items of personal adornment, like lace and costly silk outerwear in particular, were frowned upon. Attempts to ban these items failed, and the colony resorted to laws restricting their display to those who could demonstrate £200 in assets.[82]

The colonial government attempted to regulate the economy in a number of ways. On several occasions it passed laws regulating wages and prices of economically important goods and services, but most of these initiatives did not last very long.[80] Two trades, shoe making and coopering (barrel-making), were authorized to form guilds, making it possible to set price, quality and expertise levels for their work. The colony set standards governing the use of weights and measures. For example, mill operators were required to weigh grain before and after milling, to ensure the customer received back what he delivered (less the miller's percentage).[81]

The colony's economy depended on the success of its trade, in part because its land was not as suitable for agriculture as that of other colonies like Virginia, where large plantations could be established. The fishery was important enough that those involved in it were exempted from taxation and military service.[76] Larger communities supported craftsmen skilled in providing many of the necessities of 17th century life. Some income-producing activities, like the carding, spinning, and weaving of wool and other fibers, took place in the home.[77] Goods were transported to local markets over roads that were sometimes little more than widened Indian trails.[78] Towns were required to maintain their roads, on penalty of fines, and the colony in 1639 required special town commissions to lay out roads in a more sensible manner. Bridges were fairly uncommon, since they were expensive to maintain, and fines were imposed on their owners for the loss of life or goods if they failed. Consequently, most river crossings were made by ferry. Notable exceptions were a bridge across the Mystic River, constructed in 1638, and another over the Saugus River, whose upkeep costs were subsidized by the colony.[79]

The fur trade only played a modest role in the colony's economy, because its rivers did not connect its centers well with the Indians who engaged in fur trapping. Timber, especially for naval purposes began to take on an increasingly important role in the economy after conflicts between England and the Dutch depleted the former's supplies of ship masts.[75]

In the early years of the colony, it was highly dependent on the import of staples from England, and was supported by the investments of a number of wealthy immigrants. Certain businesses, notably shipbuilding, fisheries, and the fur and lumber trades, quickly got started. As early as 1632 ships built in the colony began trading, either with other colonies, England, or foreign ports in Europe. By 1660 the colony's merchant fleet was estimated at 200 ships, and by the end of the century its shipyards were estimated to turn out several hundred ships annually.[71] In the early years the fleet carried principally fish, to destinations from the West Indies to Europe.[72] It was common for a merchant to ship dried fish to Portugal or Spain, pick up wine and oil for transport to England, and then carry finished goods from England or elsewhere back to the colony.[73] Following the introduction of the Navigation Acts in 1651, this and other patterns of trade became illegal, turning colonial merchants who sought to continue these trading patterns into de facto smugglers. Colonial authorities, many of whom either were merchants or were politically dependent on them, opposed attempts by the crown to require them to enforce the collection of duties pursuant to those acts.[74]

Economy and trade

[70] In 1643, Massachusetts Bay joined

New England Confederation

The colonial leadership was the most active in New England in the persecution of Quakers. In 1660, one of the most notable victims of their religious intolerance was English Quaker Mary Dyer who was hanged in Boston for repeatedly defying a law banning Quakers from the colony.[66] In part because of the colony's hanging of her and three other Quakers (collectively known as the Boston martyrs), King Charles II in 1661 explicitly forbade Massachusetts from executing anyone for professing Quakerism.[67]

One of the first people to be executed in the colony was Dorothy Talbye. Apparently delusional, she was hanged in 1638 for murdering her daughter, as at the time the common law of Massachusetts made no distinction between insanity (or mental illness) and criminal behavior.[64] Margaret Jones, a female physician, was convicted of being a witch and hanged in 1648 after the condition of patients in her care allegedly worsened.[65]

Notable criminal prosecutions

The colony's council of assistants sat as the final court of appeal, and as the principal court for criminal issues of "life, limb, or banishment" and civil issues where the damages exceeded £100.[58] Lesser offenses were heard in county courts or by commissioners appointed for hearing minor disputes. The lower courts were also responsible for issuing licenses and for matters such as probate. Juries were authorized to decide questions of both fact and law, although the court was able to decide in the event that a jury failed to reach a decision.[60] Sentences for offenses included fines and corporal punishments such as whipping and sitting in the stocks, with the punishments of banishment from the colony and death by hanging being reserved for the most serious offenses.[61] Evidence was sometimes based on hearsay and superstition; for example, the "ordeal of touch" (in which someone accused of murder is forced to touch the dead body; if blood appears the accused is deemed guilty) was used in 1646 to convict and execute a woman accused of murdering her newborn child.[62] Bodies of individuals hanged for piracy were sometimes gibbeted (publicly displayed) on harbor islands visible to seagoing vessels. (Nixes Mate, now little more than a granite outcrop, was one such site, where pirate William Fly's body was displayed.)[63]

Many relatively trivial actions were frowned upon, and on occasion led to criminal prosecution. These included smoking tobacco, abusing your mother-in-law, profane dancing, kissing, pulling hair, sleeping during church services, riding behind two men (a woman named Lydia was convicted of this), playing cards, and engaging in any number of activities on the Sabbath.[59]

In 1641, the colony formally adopted its first code of laws, the Massachusetts Body of Liberties.[56] written or compiled by Nathaniel Ward.[57] This documented consisted of 100 civil and criminal laws, specifying required behavior and punishments by appeal to the Judeo-Christian social sanctions recorded in the Bible.[58] These laws formed the nucleus of colonial legislation until independence, and contained some provisions that were fairly advanced for the time. Among these provisions were the ideas of equal protection and double jeopardy that were later enshrined in the United States Constitution.[57]

Laws and judiciary

The transformation was complete: a trading company had become a (somewhat) representative democracy. In 1642 there arose a legal case that brought about the separation of the council of assistants into a separate, upper house of the general court. The case, involving a widow's lost pig, had been overturned by the general court, but the assistants, who had sat in judicial decision on the case, voted as a body to veto the general court's act.[53] The consequence of the ensuing debate was that the general court in 1644 voted that the council of assistants would sit and deliberate separately from the general court (they had until then sat together), the concurrence of both bodies being required for the passage of legislation. Judicial appeals were to be decided by a joint session, since otherwise the assistants would be in the position to veto attempts to overturn their own decisions.[54] As a group of emigrants had bought all the Massachusetts Bay Company's stock and brought the Charter to America in 1630, neither the English king nor Parliament or an English company exerted any influence in Massachusetts Bay Colony.[55] So it was, for some decades, de facto a republic (self-rule). It also practiced separation of powers.

In 1634, questions of governance and representation arose again, and some deputies demanded to see the charter, which the assistants had kept hidden from public view. The deputies learned of the provisions that the general court should make all laws, and that all freemen should be members of the general court. They then demanded that the charter be enforced to the letter, which Governor Winthrop pointed out was impractical given the growing number of freemen. The parties reached a compromise, and agreed that the general court would be made up of two deputies elected by each town.[51] The 1634 election resulted in the election of Dudley as governor, and the general court proceeded to reserve for itself a large number of powers, including those of taxation, distribution of land, and the admission of freemen.[52]

An additional 116 settlers were admitted to the general court as freemen in 1631, but most of the governing power, as well as the judicial power, remained with the council of assistants.[49] They also enacted a law specifying that only those men who "are members of some of the churches" in the colony were eligible to become freemen and gain the vote.[47] This restriction on the franchise would not be liberalized until after the English Restoration.[48] The process by which individuals became members of one of the colony's churches involved a detailed questioning by the church elders of their beliefs and religious experiences; as a result, only individuals whose religious views accorded with those of the church leadership were likely to become members, and gain the ability to vote in the colony.[50] After a protest over the imposition of taxes by a meeting of the council of assistants, the general court ordered each town to send two representatives, known as deputies, to meet with the court to discuss matters of taxation.[51]

The charter granted the general court the authority to elect officers and to make laws for the colony. Its first meeting in America was held in October 1630, but was attended by only eight freemen.[46] They formed the first council of assistants, and voted (contrary to the terms of the charter) that the governor and deputy should be elected by them, from their number.[47] This was modified in the next session of the general court, in which the governor and deputy were to be elected by the general court.[48]

Massachusetts Bay Colony, 300th Anniversary Issue of 1930

The structure of the colonial government evolved over the lifetime of the charter. The freemen"), and a council of assistants similar to a board of directors,[46] and ended with a governor and deputy governor, a bicameral legislature that included a representative lower house, and a body of freemen, a subset of the colony's adult inhabitants, who were authorized to vote in elections. The council of assistants sat as the upper house of the legislature, and served as the judicial court of last appeal.


Most children received some form of schooling, something the colony's founders believed to be important for forming a proper relationship with God. Towns were obligated to provide education for their children, which was usually satisfied by hiring a teacher of some sort. The quality of these instructors varied, from minimally-educated local people to Harvard-educated ministers.

Children were baptized at the local meeting house within a week of being born. The mother was usually not present because she was still recovering from the birth, and the child's name was usually chosen by the father. Names were propagated within the family, and names would be reused when infants died. If an adult died without issue, his (or her) name could be carried on by the naming practices of his siblings.

Within the marriage, the husband was typically responsible for supplying the family's financial needs, although it was not uncommon for women to work in the fields and to perform some sort of home labor (for example, spinning thread or weaving cloth) to supplement the family income. Women were almost exclusively responsible for seeing to the welfare of the children.

Sexual activity was expected to be confined to marriage. Sex outside of marriage was considered fornication if neither partner was married, and adultery if one or both were married to someone else. Fornication was generally punished by fines and pressure to marry; a woman who gave birth to an illegitimate child could also be fined. Adultery was a more serious crime, and was, along with rape, punishable by death. Rape, however, required more than one witness, and was therefore rarely prosecuted. (This had the unfortunate consequence of making ongoing domestic abuse difficult if not impossible to remedy.) Sexual activity between men was called sodomy, and was also punishable by death.[45]

Many of the early colonists who migrated from England came with some or all of their family.[42] It was expected that individuals would marry fairly young and begin producing offspring. Infant mortality rates were comparatively low as were instances of childhood death.[43] Men who lost their wives often remarried fairly quickly, especially if they had children needing care. Older widows would also sometimes marry for financial security. It was also normal for older widowed parents to live with one of their children. Due to the Puritan perception of marriage as a civil union, divorce was not entirely uncommon and could be pursued by both genders.[44]

Marriage and family life

The land within a town would be divided by communal agreement, usually allocating by methods that originated in England. Outside a town center land would be allocated for farming, some of which might be held communally. Farmers with large plots of land might build a house near their properties on the outskirts of the town.[41] A town center that was well laid out would be fairly compact, with a tavern, school, possibly some small shops, and a meeting house that was used for civic and religious functions.[38] The meeting house would be the center of the town's political and religious life. Church services might be held for several hours on Wednesday and all day Sunday. Puritans did not observe annual holidays, especially Christmas, which they said had pagan roots. Annual town meetings would be held at the meeting house, generally in May, to elect the town's representatives to the general court and to transact other community business. Towns often had a village green, used for outdoor celebrations and activities like military exercises of the town's trainband or militia.

Colonists arriving after the first wave found that the early towns did not have room for them. Seeking land of their own, groups of families would petition the government for land on which to establish a new town; the government would typically allow the group's leaders to select the land. These grants were typically about 40 square miles (10,000 ha), and were located sufficiently near other towns to facilitate defense and social support. The group leaders would also be responsible for acquiring native title to the lands they selected.[39] By this means the colony expanded into the interior, spawning settlements in adjacent territories as well.[40]

In the early years of the colony, life could be quite difficult. Many colonists lived in fairly crude structures, including dugouts, wigwams, and dirt-floor huts made using wattle and daub construction. In later years construction methods improved, and houses began to be sheathed in clapboard, with thatch or plank roofs and wooden chimneys.[36] Wealthier individuals would extend their house by adding a leanto on the back, which allowed for a larger kitchen (possibly with a brick or stone chimney including an oven), additional rooms, and a sleeping loft. These houses were the precursors to what is now called the saltbox style of architecture.[37] Interiors became more elaborate in later years, with plaster walls, wainscoting, and potentially expensive turned woodwork in the most expensive homes.[38]


In 1691, despite efforts by Massachusetts agents to revive the old colonial charter, King William III issued a charter, chiefly negotiated by Increase Mather in his role as the colony's ambassador-extraordinary,[34] unifying Massachusetts Bay with Plymouth Colony, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and territories that roughly encompass present-day Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia to form the Province of Massachusetts Bay. This new charter additionally extended voting rights beyond the Puritan sect, an outcome Mather had tried unsuccessfully to avoid.[35]

From 1686, the colony's territory was administratively unified by New France and conducted by French and Indian raiding parties.

Unifications and restoration

Following the English Restoration in 1660, matters of colonial administration drew the king's attention. Massachusetts in particular was reluctant to admit the king had any sort of authority to control its governance.[30] This led to crises in the 1660s and late 1670s in which steps were first planned, and then executed in England to vacate the colonial charter. In 1681 the Lords of Trade, who had decided for a variety of reasons to consolidate the New England colonies, issued quo warranto writs for the charters of several North American colonies, including Massachusetts.[31] The Massachusetts writ was never served for technical reasons, and the charter was not formally vacated until the chancery court issued a scire facias writ formally annulling the charter on June 18, 1684.[32] The proceedings were arranged so that the time for the colonial authorities to defend the charter expired before they even learned of the event.[33]

Revocation of charter

All of the New England colonies were ravaged by King Philip's War (1675–1676), when the Indians of southern New England rose up against the colonists and were decisively defeated, although at great cost in life to the colonies. The Massachusetts frontier was particularly hard hit, with several communities in the Connecticut and Swift Rivers valleys being abandoned. By the end of the war, most of the Indian population of southern New England had been pacified, killed, or driven away.

Colonial support for the Commonwealth presented problems upon the restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660. Charles sought to extend royal influence over the colonies, which Massachusetts, more than the other colonies, resisted. For example, the colonial government repeatedly refused requests by Charles and his agents to allow the Church of England to become established, and it resisted adherence to the Navigation Acts, laws that constrained colonial trade.

The advent of the English Civil War in the early 1640s brought a halt to major migration, and a significant number of men returned to England to fight in the war. Massachusetts authorities were sympathetic to the Parliamentary cause, and had generally positive relationships with the governments of the English Commonwealth and The Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. The colony's economy began to diversify in the 1640s, as the fur trading, lumber, and fishing industries found markets in Europe and the West Indies, and the colony's shipbuilding industry developed. Combined with the growth of a generation of people who were born in the colony, the rise of a merchant class began to slowly change the political and cultural landscape of the colony, even though its governance continued to be dominated by relatively conservative Puritans.

For the next ten years there was a steady exodus of Puritans from England, with about 10,000 people migrating to Massachusetts and the neighboring colonies, a phenomenon now called the Great Migration.[29] Many ministers reacting to the newly repressive religious policies of England made the trip with their flocks. John Cotton, Roger Williams, Thomas Hooker, and others became leaders of Puritan congregations in Massachusetts. Religious divisions and the need for additional land prompted a number of migrations that resulted in the establishment of the Connecticut Colony (by Hooker) and the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (by Williams and Anne Hutchinson). John Wheelwright, a minister who was (like Anne Hutchinson) banished in the wake of the Antinomian Controversy, moved north to found Exeter, New Hampshire.

Detail of sounding board, Old Ship Church, 1681, Hingham, Massachusetts, oldest Puritan meetinghouse in Massachusetts.

A flotilla of ships (sometimes known as the Winthrop Fleet) sailed from England beginning in April 1630. The fleet, which began arriving at Salem in June, carried more than 700 colonists, Governor John Winthrop, and the colonial charter.[27] Winthrop is reputed to have delivered his famous "City upon a Hill" sermon either before or during the voyage.[28]

Colonial history

Concerned about the legality of conflicting land claims given to several companies including the New England Company to the still little-known territories of the New World, and because of the increasing number of Puritans that wanted to join the company, the company leaders sought a Royal Charter for the colony. Charles granted the new charter on 4 March 1628/9,[25] superseding the land grant and establishing a legal basis for the new English colony at Massachusetts. It was not apparent that Charles knew the Company was meant to support the Puritan emigration, and he was likely left to assume it was purely for business purposes, as was the custom. The charter omitted a significant clause – the location for the annual stockholders' meeting. After Charles dissolved Parliament in 1629, the company's directors met to consider the possibility of moving the company's seat of governance to the colony. This was followed by the Cambridge Agreement later that year, in which a group of investors agreed to emigrate and work to buy out others who would not. The Massachusetts Bay Colony became the first English chartered colony whose board of governors did not reside in England. This independence helped the settlers to maintain their Puritan religious practices with very little oversight by the king, Archbishop Laud, and the Anglican Church. The charter remained in force for 55 years, when, as a result of colonial insubordination with trade, tariff and navigation laws, Charles II revoked it in 1684.[26]

John White continued to seek funding for a colony. On 19 March 1627/8,[18] the Council for New England issued a land grant to a new group of investors that included a few holdovers from the Dorchester Company. The land grant was for territory between the John Endecott, one of the grantees.[21] The next year, Naumkeag was renamed Salem and fortified by another 300 settlers, led by Rev. Francis Higginson, one of the first ministers of the settlement.[22] The first winters were difficult, with colonists struggling against disease and starvation, resulting in a significant number of deaths.[23][24]

Archbishop William Laud, a favorite advisor of King Charles I and a dedicated Anglican, sought to suppress the religious practices of Puritans and other nonconforming beliefs in England. The persecution of many Puritans in the 1620s led them to believe religious reform would not be possible while Charles was king, and many decided to seek a new life in the New World.[17]

Legal formation of the colony

In 1623, the Puritan minister John White (1575–1648) of Dorchester, in the English county of Dorset. White has been called "the father of the Massachusetts Colony" because of his influence in establishing this settlement and despite the fact that he never emigrated.[15] The Cape Ann settlement was not profitable, and the financial backers of the Dorchester Company terminated their support by the end of 1625. Their settlement at present-day Gloucester was abandoned, but a few settlers, including Roger Conant, remained in the area, establishing a settlement a little further south, near the village of the Naumkeag tribe.[16]

Cape Ann settlement


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