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Learn about the people and motives that led to the founding of Massachusetts Bay Colony, as well as the growth and internal dissent that led to the establishment of Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Hampshire.

Pilgrims vs. Puritans

Map of the 17th-century Plymouth Colony
Plymouth Colony Map

There are some definite stereotypes about what people are like in different parts of the United States. For example, a lot of people say the West is more laid-back, or life is slow in the South, or the East Coast is really industrious.

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Now, that’s changing a little these days since our population moves around a lot more than we used to, but the way of life in different regions of the country really is different, and the roots of those differences go all the way back to the people who originally settled the area and why they did so. In this lesson, we’re going to take a look at the Northeast.The first settlement in New England was Plymouth Colony.

It was chartered by a group commonly referred to as the Pilgrims in 1620. After a rough start, they were happy in Plymouth. They could practice their own form of Christianity without bothering anyone else, and they had plenty of food thanks to their friendly Wampanoag neighbors.But just a few years later a second Northeast colony was chartered, overwhelming Plymouth in 1628. Soon, about 400 strict, religious Puritans arrived.

They were called Puritans because they felt it was their God-given duty to purify the church from the influences of Roman Catholicism. In Europe, the Puritans were actually a huge group with a lot of political influence, but a new English king was aggressively persecuting them, leading to civil war. Within a decade, 20,000 Puritans immigrated to America. Massachusetts Bay Colony had arrived.

Massachusetts Bay Colony

In 1630, the first wave of Puritans met up with survivors from an abandoned colony and renamed the little settlement Salem. Governor John Winthrop encouraged them to work hard and continually remind themselves and each other of God’s commands so that He would bless them.

In a famous speech, Governor Winthrop said ‘He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, ‘may the Lord make it like that of New England.’ For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.’This meant that hard work was a religious duty, and the way you lived your daily life proved whether or not you were saved. This so-called ‘Puritan work ethic’ meant that few of the original colonists had servants or slaves. In order to focus on pure, Christian living, they tried to eliminate worldly distractions, such as entertainment, decorations or holidays. For example, they made it illegal to celebrate Christmas because the Christian Bible does not mention that holiday.

Governor Winthrop encouraged colonists to see work as a religious duty
John Winthrop

There’s often a misunderstanding that the Puritans came to America to promote religious freedom. That isn’t really true. But to say they were intolerant isn’t really fair, either. Suppose you and your friends ran more than 3,000 miles away to live exactly the way you wanted to; would you put up with anyone who tried to move in and then change the way you were doing things?The colony was not a democracy, it was a theocracy – for the purpose of serving God and increasing His kingdom, not to let people live however they saw fit.

Any challenge to the Church’s authority undermined the colony’s mission and all that they had worked so hard to accomplish. Any person who challenged the strict practices of their faith was literally thrown out of the colony. This would have been a death sentence to individuals in the early years.

Rhode Island

Roger Williams was one of these unlucky Puritans. He didn’t agree with the practice of legally punishing citizens for breaking religious rules, and as a preacher, he taught that the land of New England rightfully belonged to the Natives, not the King or colony.

In 1635, Roger Williams was convicted of teaching diverse, new and dangerous opinions. He was ordered to leave Massachusetts before the spring. But since Williams wouldn’t keep his opinions to himself throughout the winter, the leaders of Salem decided to arrest him immediately and send him to England, where he was also likely to face imprisonment because of the Civil War.Instead, he fled into the wilderness alone. He was discovered in the snow, nearly frozen, by some Wampanoag. They nursed him back to health, and Chief Massasoit even gave him some land. Unfortunately, it was still inside the colonial charter, so Williams moved on yet again.

This time, he purchased land from the Narragansett Indians and established a settlement he called Providence in 1636. As you might expect, his colony guaranteed wide personal and religious freedom. Roger Williams was joined by his family and twelve followers.

Roger Williams established the colony of Rhode Island
Roger Williams

Two years later, a Massachusetts woman named Anne Hutchinson got in trouble with the church in Boston.

Unusually well-educated by her father, who was a minister, Hutchinson started hosting a discussion group for women in her home to talk about the sermons they had heard in church on Sunday. But because she sometimes criticized the preachers and sometimes taught men, she came under scrutiny. At her trial and sentencing, officials told her, ‘You have stepped out of your place, you have rather been a husband than a wife, a preacher than a hearer ; you are banished from out of our jurisdiction as being a woman not fit for our society.

‘ Even before her trial ended, Anne Hutchinson’s family and several close friends signed a compact and agreed to leave Massachusetts. Roger Williams convinced them to come to Narragansett Bay, where they also purchased land and founded the town of Portsmouth. Hutchinson joined them after her sentencing in 1638.A few years later, Roger Williams successfully combined Portsmouth, Providence and some other small communities into the colony of Rhode Island. When the Hutchinsons moved on to New Netherland, they were killed in an Indian attack. The leaders of Massachusetts Bay heard about this, but they didn’t feel guilty.

They felt justified in their condemnation of her.

Expansion and Conflict

Back in 1636, a preacher named Thomas Hooker led some Puritans out of Massachusetts because he disagreed with how the colony limited voting rights. Hooker and his followers founded the colony of Connecticut. The following year, another group of Puritans left Massachusetts because they thought it wasn’t being strict enough! Their colony, New Haven, and some other settlements were soon absorbed into Connecticut.

The last of the New England colonies to be formed was New Hampshire. It was chartered by the King directly in 1679 simply because Massachusetts was growing too large.

The New Haven colony became part of Connecticut in 1665
New Haven Map

The expansive growth of the English settlers led to conflict with local tribes. The Pequot Indians and their allies fought to defend their land and resources. But a combined force from Massachusetts and Connecticut effectively destroyed the tribe. In 1638, the Pequot War crushed the only organized resistance against the New England colonies for 40 years.

Lesson Summary

Soon after the Pilgrims settled in the Northeast, Puritans from England chartered the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Led by Governor John Winthrop, the Puritans had fled religious persecution in England and wanted a chance to establish a strict, religious government. Their goal to make Massachusetts a ‘City on a Hill’ led them to devote themselves to hard work and spiritual growth, banning activities that were not promoted in the Bible, including the celebration of Christmas.This commitment to a strict interpretation of religion meant that dissenters could not be tolerated. Roger Williams was banished after suggesting the land belonged to the Native Americans. He fled and formed Rhode Island.

Anne Hutchinson’s greatest crime was being a woman who stepped out of place; she was also banished.Connecticut was settled by Thomas Hooker, who thought every man ought to be able to vote, as well as some Puritans who thought Massachusetts wasn’t strict enough. Despite being a tightly controlled settlement, Massachusetts grew exponentially, leading to the overflow colony of New Hampshire. This expansion strained the land’s resources and the colonists’ relation with the Indians. After crushing native resistance in the Pequot War, there was no resistance to continued English immigration to the New England colonies.

Lesson Objectives

After watching this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Describe the Puritans and how they formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony
  • Identify John Winthrop, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson and Thomas Hooker, and their importance to the New England colonies
  • Explain how the colonies of Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Hampshire were formed

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