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Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Growth of Colonial New England

My writing interests are general, with expertise in science, history, biographies, and “how-to” topics. I have written over seventy books.

1930 United States two cent stamp commemorating the 300th anniversary of the founding of Massachusetts Bay Colony.

1930 United States two cent stamp commemorating the 300th anniversary of the founding of Massachusetts Bay Colony.


The same social and economic pressures that had brought the English to Jamestown, Virginia, and the Chesapeake Bay colonies in the early 1600s had also spawned the colonization of the land to the north named New England. The Chesapeake settlers were mostly poor immigrants who worked the tobacco plantations as indentured servants or slaves. The New England settlers differed from those to the south as most were middle-class men with families who could pay their way across the Atlantic.

New England’s climate was colder and less abundant, but it was an environment far less conducive to the spread of disease than the southern colonies. As one settler wrote of New England, “The air of the country is sharp, the rocks many, the trees innumerable, the grass little, the winter cold, the summer hot, the gnats in summer biting, [and] the wolves at midnight howling.” Into this land came thousands from England and Europe during the 17th century. They sought freedom from religious and economic oppression in their homelands.

In 17th century England, the church and state were united. The law required everyone to support the official Church of England with taxes and regular attendance. With the monarch as the head of the church, religious dissenters could be found guilty of both treason and heresy; thus, it was a dangerous time for free-thinkers. King Charles I, son and successor of King James I, used the pulpits to his advantage. In one instance, Charles demanded that sermons should chastise Parliament when it failed to raise new taxes requested by the monarch. “People are governed by the pulpit more than the sword in time of peace,” acknowledged King Charles.

England was in turmoil in the 17th century, with constricting economic conditions, a corrupt Church of England, and the dissolution of Parliament by King Charles I in 1629. The monarchy had cracked down on any religious dissenters who didn’t adhere to the teaching of the Church of England. One such group that fell under persecution from the government was the Puritans. This group of religious dissenters felt the Church of England was corrupt, and they wanted to “purify” the church from within and make it adhere more closely with the teachings of the Protestant faith.

The Puritans urged believers to seek God by reading the Bible, forming prayer groups, and heeding the words of a zealous preacher. The Puritan religion stressed the individual’s personal relationship with God and the community. Their relationship with the official church was different from the Separatists who founded Plymouth Colony in 1620. The Separatists, whom we now call the Pilgrims, wanted to separate from the Church of England, whereas the Puritans wanted to reform the church from within. The religious persecution, which could mean jail time and lack of opportunity in Great Britain, forced many to look elsewhere, such as Ireland, Germany, and America, for a new homeland.

Formation of Massachusetts Bay Company

To pave the way to the New World and the freedom they sought, a group of wealthy Puritans formed Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. The company had a royal charter which granted lands from three miles south of the Charles River to three miles north of the Merrimack River, from sea to sea. The colony would be administered by a governor and board of directors, called assistants, provided that laws of the company did not conflict with English law. The company consisted of twenty-six members, many of whom were unhappy in England. In a fortuitous twist of fate, the royal charter omitted an important clause specifying that the shareholders’ meetings must be held in England.

As a result of the missing clause in the charter, 12 of the members of the company convinced the rest of the members to move the company to America. This move allowed the leaders of the company to maintain Puritan religious practices without interference from the king and Anglican Church. The devout Puritan lawyer John Winthrop was chosen by the Massachusetts Bay colony to be the colony’s first governor. Winthrop set about the task of raising money, gathering individuals and families willing to participate in this “holy experiment,” and ships to carry them to the new land of Massachusetts. Those who chose to undertake this bold adventure were mostly Puritans who desired to build a godly community in New England, free of the watchful eye of the British Crown and church bishops. However, Winthrop and the leaders took care to enlist others to the group who were non-Puritans and possessed valuable skills to help ensure the long-term survival of the colony.

Seal of Massachusetts Bay Colony. It featured an Indian holding an arrow pointed down in a gesture of peace, and the unlikely words "Come over and help us," emphasizing the missionary intentions of the colonists.

Seal of Massachusetts Bay Colony. It featured an Indian holding an arrow pointed down in a gesture of peace, and the unlikely words "Come over and help us," emphasizing the missionary intentions of the colonists.

“We Shall Be as a City on a Hill”

After months of preparation, the 350-ton Arbella and 10 other ships set sail on April 8, 1630, from England with seven hundred men, women, and children. During the long journey to their new homes in New England, Winthrop gave an impassioned speech proclaiming the cosmic significance of their undertaking. He declared the Puritans had “entered into a covenant” with God to “work out our salvation under the power and purity of his holy ordinances.” He warned the people that to achieve this lofty and pious goal they must subordinate their individual interests to the common good. Winthrop claimed there could be no higher calling, proclaiming, “We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” His sermon would go down as one of the most famous in American History.

Few of the New England settlers who made the Atlantic crossing had ever been at sea; most were artisans and farmers. A typical ship would carry about one hundred passengers who all shared the cold, damp, and cramped hold of the ship along with all their worldly possessions, including some noisy and foul-smelling livestock. The norm for an Atlantic crossing to New England was about two months. The emigrants survived on a simple diet of barreled water, hard bread, and salted meat. As the weeks at sea dragged on, the water became foul, the bread moldy, and the meat worm infested. On calm days the passengers could spend a few hours on deck enjoying the fresh air and ocean vistas; more commonly, they would spend their days and nights huddled below deck being pitched about on a cold and merciless sea.

The ships first landed in the small settlement of Salem in June. Winthrop encouraged the group to sail southward to the natural harbor that is now Boston Harbor. The Pilgrims wanted to distance themselves from those in Salem who were sympathetic to the Separatists in Plymouth Colony. The first winter proved to be very challenging for the settlers as starvation and disease took the lives of many people. In the spring after the harsh winter, two hundred of the settlers gave up and returned to England. During that first year, additional ships arrived with new settlers and fresh supplies–cooking utensils, guns, cloth and clothing, and other items desperately needed in the new colony. Within a year the colony had established a level of sustainability. By the end of 1630, seventeen ships had reached Massachusetts Bay and eleven towns had been established with over one thousand residents. Over the remainder of the decade, around 20,000 people emigrated to Massachusetts and surrounding colonies in what became known as the Great Migration.

Drawing of the Arbella

Drawing of the Arbella

Governing the Colonies

With an ocean separating Massachusetts Bay Colony from the British Crown, it was up to the colonists to set up their own new government. Governor Winthrop and his assistant began issuing edits for moral conduct. All gaming, blaspheming, sexual promiscuity, drunkenness, and lascivious behavior were to be punished, while church attendance was to be required. With religion at the core of the community, the laws that came out were deeply intertwined with the edicts of the church. The church existed to define the moral law, the state was there to enforce it, and deviations from the code were dealt with harshly.

Per Winthrop’s interpretation of the company charter, the freemen--Puritan adult males who were not servants--were to elect the assistants. This group of assistants then elected the governor and deputy governors. The governor and his assistants would “have the power of making laws and choosing officers to execute the same.” After the first meeting of the general court in October 1630, Winthrop and his magistrates ran the settlement as they saw fit. Winthrop later told a delegation of town deputies, “It is yourselves who have called us to this office, and being called by you, we have our authority from God.” Like any government, money was required to execute their mandate. The governor and his assistants raised funds by levying taxes from the towns. To some extent, the towns complied with the mandate; however, in 1632, the inhabitants of the outlying community of Watertown had issue with the taxes. The residents argued that under the charter the magistrates did not have the power to levy taxes. To appease the people, Winthrop and his colleagues made some changes, allowing each town to send two representatives from each town to attend the General Court and, secondly, restoring the freemen’s right to elect the governor and his deputy. As a result of the unrest, the authority of Winthrop and the magistrates came into question; however, they still possessed the power to make laws, enforce the laws, and levy taxes.

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In the spring of 1634, the colonists felt that too much power resided with the governor and the magistrates. Several of the colonists demanded to see the colony’s charter, which Winthrop held tightly. Upon examination, the charter confirmed the colonists’ belief that the General Court held the sole authority to raise money, promulgate laws, and dispose land. This revelation cast doubt on Winthrop’s leadership; as a result he was not reelected as governor but did remain on the council. It would be several years before he would regain the position of governor.

As the settlements continued to grow it became increasingly difficult for the General Court to be attended by all freemen; therefore, it was agreed that each town would send two deputies to the general court to represent the voice of their communities in all matters, not just taxation. The colony now had a representative form of government, similar to that of the Virginia colonies. This form of government could hardly be considered democratic since only freemen who were full church members could participate. Since in several communities only a fraction of the adult men were full church members, around half of the men and all of the women were disenfranchised from participating in the government.

Portrait of Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop

Portrait of Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop

Growth of the Colonies

As the colony grew and spread out from Boston, the towns of Charlestown, Newtown, Roxbury, and Dorchester were formed. Hungry for more land to farm, colonists began to move from the coastal town into the interior. The colonial leaders were troubled by the expansion, preferring more consolidated settlements as they were more secure from Indian attack and it was easier to establish and maintain churches and schools. Title of townships was given to male settlers by the Bay Colony government. In these new communities, the founding fathers, or proprietors, made land grants reflecting the wealth and status of the town’s people. Men of the highest rank received the largest plots of land. All the town’s men received enough land to farm so they could feed their families, normally one to two hundred acres. Regular town meeting were held as a way for the men of the town to participate in their local government. Each year at the town meeting, selectmen passed ordinances, levied taxes, and elected representatives for the General Court.

Establishing a farm in New England required a lot of hard work from the family that owned the land. Unlike the southern plantation colonies, New England had few indentured servants or slaves. As a result the men, women, and children of the farm family would have to clear the forest, chop fire wood, build fences, build barns and houses, plow and plant crops in the rocky soil, harvest the crops, and construct mills to convert their crops to food. The short growing season and rough terrain precluded the farmers from growing the cash crops of tobacco and sugar, which were much in demand in Europe. Rather, a typical New England farm would grow crops better suited to the northern climate–wheat, rye, maize, potatoes, beans, and garden vegetables. In the pastures grazed the family’s livestock–commonly a few oxen, cows, horses, sheep, and pigs. Of those who lived in the towns, there were storekeepers, blacksmiths, carpenters, lawyers, doctors, shipbuilders, and shoemakers. Since hard currency was in short supply as New England had virtually no silver or gold deposits necessary for coinage, much of the trade was on a barter system.

The minister John Cotton believed that God meant for civilized people “to live in societies, first of the family, secondly church, and thirdly, commonwealth.” Husbands were expected to govern their families as petty monarchs in a “little commonwealth.” Married women had little legal authority in the colonies. They were by “coverture” laws subsumed within the name and legal identity of their husbands. Widows who did not remarry were able to own property, enter into contracts, and appeal to the courts in property disputes. The acts of voting, holding a public office, or becoming a minister were strictly relegated to men. Though women had a diminished legal status in New England, magistrates and church congregations routinely protected women from abusive husbands. The courts also allowed for divorce on the grounds of abandonment or sexual infidelity.

Map of New England in the early 1600s

Map of New England in the early 1600s


The steady stream of ships from England during the 1630s brought new settlers who wanted land and all the material needed to set up their new homes and farms. As the arrival of new settlers slowed during the 1640s, so did the economy of the region. Part of the draw to the northeastern coast of America was the fishing. The peninsula of land extending out from Plymouth Bay was named Cape Cod by Bartholomew Gosnold in 1602 because, as he put it, there was “a great store of codfish.” New England wasn’t rich in silver or gold, but it did have the Atlantic Ocean abundant with fish. The civil war in England during the 1640s disrupted the English fisherman, who sailed across the Atlantic to fill the holds of their ships with fresh fish bound for European ports. The New Englanders stepped in to fill the void created by the war in England. The coastal towns of New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts became port cities teeming with fisherman and their boats. Over the coming decades, thousands of men would be involved in the fishing industry, which stoked the economy of the northeast. The New English shipped their better-quality fish to Spain and Portugal, with the inferior grades going to the West Indies to feed the slaves working the sugar plantations.

The rise of the fishing industry spawned a new breed of men. The dirty and dangerous business of fishing drew the type of man who could to be away from home and family for days, weeks, or months at a time. It was not an appealing life for a middling Puritan tied to his farm or business. The rowdy and smoke-filled taverns of Marblehead bustled with fishermen and the women who followed them. Court records indicate that fishermen were disproportionately charged with public drunkenness, assault and battery, and Sabbath-breaking. Though the plentiful codfish did bring the type of folk the Puritans found unruly, it also brought relative prosperity to the region for several decades.

To provide the fleet of ships needed by the fisherman, a ship building industry sprang up. The abundance of wood from the native forests allowed the New England ship builders to produce ships at half the cost of their London competitors. Boston, at the heart of Massachusetts Bay Colony, became a ship building mecca. By 1700 Boston had fifteen shipyards, producing more ships than the rest of the colonies combined, and ranking only behind London in the number of ships produced in the British Empire. Shipbuilding became a powerful economic engine for Massachusetts. The construction of a 150-ton merchant ship required up to two hundred workers, most of whom had to be very skilled in their specialty. To feed, clothe, and house the shipyard workers and their families required barbers, restaurants, taverns, general stores, and a host of other businesses to service the growing industry.

The Settlement of Rhode Island

Though the governance of Massachusetts Bay Colony was not a pure theocracy, the ideas of the Puritans regarding “proper” behavior was a cause for tension between the citizens and the political leaders. This resulted in an almost constant battle over the laws that governed everything from the way people dressed to consumption of alcohol. The colonists became weary of any behavior that was outside the social norm. Those who differed with the Puritan faith were given, in the words of one Massachusetts Puritan, “free liberty to keep away from us.”

The prominent minister of the church in Salem, Roger Williams, condemned the way that the Puritan church meddled in the legal affairs of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Williams had spent two years at Plymouth Colony, where the leader William Bradford described him as “godly and zealous…but very unsettled in judgement.” Williams advocated the model of government of Plymouth Colony, which provided for more separation of church and state. He also objected to the way the Puritans swindled the Natives out of their land. Rather than purchasing the land for a fair price, they took it with little compensation. As a result of the conflict between the Puritan leaders and Williams, he was banished from the colony with the threat of imprisonment. Taking his followers, Williams moved south and founded Rhode Island, where they established the town of Providence.

Anne Hutchinson: Religious Dissenter (Religious Freedom in Colonial New England: Part III)

The Trial of Anne Hutchinson

Another target of the magistrates was a midwife, mother of fifteen children, and the wife of a prominent merchant named Anne Hutchison. After Sunday services, Hutchinson hosted regular Bible studies with as many as sixty women in attendance. Her father was a minister in England, and she had become very familiar with the Bible and discussion of religion. During her weekly Bible studies, the groups discussed the scriptures and recent sermons. Hutchinson questioned the minister’s emphasis on good behavior and works rather than on salvation through simple faith in God. Her interpretation of the scriptures, called antinomianism, believed that faith and the resulting grace came through direct revelation from God.

She developed a large following that believed as she did, and this caught the attention of the local ministers. A Puritan minister described Hutchinson as “a woman of haughty and fierce carriage, of a nimble wit, and active spirit and a very voluble tongue, more bold than a man.” Additionally, by her very vocal professing of her interpretation of the scriptures, which opposed the orthodox Puritan view, she was also guilty of preaching, which was strictly forbidden for women. The church elders and Winthrop admonished her, “You have stepped out of your place, you have rather been a husband than a wife, and preacher than a hearer, and a magistrate than a subject.”

The magistrates of Massachusetts Bay and the clergy accused Anne Hutchinson of heresy and put her on trial in 1637. She defended herself in both the civil and church trials, but in the end she was found guilty and banished from the colony. Along with sixty of her followers she left Massachusetts and walked over fifty miles to join Roger Williams to help found what is now the state of Rhode Island. Many in the colonies of Massachusetts didn’t agree with the religious dogmatism of the leaders and their persecution of dissenters, and they left of their own accord. One such dissenter was Thomas Hooker, who left the colony with one hundred followers in 1636. Hooker and his group settled in the Connecticut River Valley, establishing the town of Hartford, while others settled in what would become Wethersfield, Windsor, and New Haven.

Artist depiction of Anne Hutchinson on trial, c. 1901

Artist depiction of Anne Hutchinson on trial, c. 1901

Great Britain Asserts Control Over the Colonies

With the Atlantic Ocean separating the New England colonies from England, the colonies functioned with virtual autonomy. The Massachusetts Bay Colony considered itself to be an independent commonwealth, which came into conflict with the British Crown and their expectations for trade with the colonies. Charles II became king of England in 1660 and established a committee, The Lords of Trade and Plantation, to take control of colonial commerce and resources. At that same time, Parliament instituted new laws called the Navigation Acts, which required the colonies to trade only with England. These new laws reined in the colonial merchants trading with foreign countries in sugar, tobacco, and indigo. Much to the settlers’ dismay, the colonies now became subject to English laws that regulated trade and commerce.

Massachusetts Bay Colony asserted that they were exempt from the new trade regulations due to their royal charter. As a result, the colonies ignored the new regulations and continued to trade as they pleased with other countries. To gain control of the unruly colonies, the British Crown sent troops to the colony to force compliance with the regulations. On recommendation of the Lords of Trade, the English court revoked the colony’s charter in 1684. King James II consolidated the eight northern colonies, which included the five in New England, New York, and East and West Jersey, into a super colony known as the Dominion of New England. The new colony extended from the Delaware River to Canada.

Dominion of New England

King James II appointed Edmund Andros as the new governor of the Dominion. Andros exerted tight-fisted control of the colonies, banning town meetings, dismissing the assemblies, and casting doubt on the validity of land titles issued under the colonial charter. The acts of the new governor infuriated the colonists, and the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony petitioned King James II to have Andros removed. The king had bigger problems to deal with at home and ignored the colonists’ requests. In the Glorious Revolution of 1688, King James II was ousted from power and replaced by his daughter Mary II and his Dutch nephew and Mary’s husband, William III of Orange. Seizing upon the opportunity created by the chaos in the English Crown, the New England colonists revolted against Governor Andros and the Dominion council, placing 25 of them in prison.

With the ouster of Andros, Massachusetts Bay Colony asked for its original charter to be restored. The new monarchs, William and Mary, dissolved the Dominion but did not fully restore the colony to its original independent charter. Instead the monarchs created a new colony of Massachusetts under the royal charter of 1691, which brought Massachusetts Bay Colony, Plymouth, and Maine under the charter of Massachusetts. The new charter lessened the role of religion in the colonial government, allowing those adult males not associated with the Puritan Church to elect representatives. The new charter stripped away the colonists’ governor and retained this authority with the monarchs. Though not all the colonists were happy with the new government, most felt it was an improvement over the hated Dominion. The Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies would remain under the governance of the charter of 1691 for the next 70 years.


  • Middleton, Richard. Colonial America: A History 1565-1776. Third Edition. Blackwell Publishing. 2006.
  • Roark, James L., Michael P. Johnson, Patricia C. Cohen, Sarah Stage, Susan M. Hartmann. Understanding the American Promise: A History. Vol. 1 To 1877. Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2017.
  • Taylor, Alan. American Colonies. Penguin Books. 2001.
  • Ward, Harry M. Colonial America 1607-1763. Prentice Hall. 1991.
  • West, Doug. History of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies: Pilgrims, Puritans, and the Founding of New England. C&D Publications. 2020.
  • West, Doug. Religion in Colonial America: A Short History. C&D Publications, 2020.
  • Tindall, George B. and David E. Shi. America: A Narrative History. Seventh Edition. W.W. Norton & Company. 2007.

© 2020 Doug West


Doug West (author) from Missouri on March 31, 2020:

Glad you enjoyed this article. As you know I love history!

Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on March 31, 2020:

Great write up, Doug. I'm not sure if my first comment went through, so I wanted to let you know I learned a lot from your wonderful fact filled article. Stay safe and thanks.

Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on March 29, 2020:

Fascinating history!

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