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The Founding of New England and the Middle Colonies

Whereas economic opportunity had been the factor which most contributed to the founding of the southern colonies, religion was clearly the driving force behind the founding of the colonies lying north of what would become the Mason-Dixon line. Motivated less by the earthly goals of personal profit and social status and more by the otherworldly goals of soul conversion and religious piety, northern settlers based their moral codes and social structures on religious principles. The colonies they created were rooted in religious freedom, but in many ways were the least free of all. By and large, freedom of religion for groups such as the Puritans meant the freedom to impose Puritan standards and practices on all inhabitants of the colony, whether the settlers were Puritans or not. This curious tension between religious freedom and repression would serve as a consistent thread running through northern colonial societies.

The Separatists and Plymouth Colony

What is now called Massachusetts was actually the product of two separate early settlements. The Pilgrims established the first on the coast of Cape Cod at Plymouth in 1620. The Puritans established the second, known as the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in the Boston area ten years later. They maintained their separate identities until a merger took place in 1691.

Religious turmoil engulfed Europe in the period following the Renaissance. The dominant and uncontested force in European politics and society had been the Catholic Church, but when Martin Luther began questioning the authority of the Pope, denying the miraculous powers of the priests, and charging the Church with corruption, he set the stage for a radical shift in the European power structure. Denying that priests or the Pope had the power to speak or act on behalf of God, Luther claimed that the only hope that humans had of escaping eternal damnation was the grace of God. His challenge, and the resulting religious battles that would be waged throughout Germany over his ideas, inspired other disaffected religious people to break off from the mother church in a movement that would come to be called the Protestant Reformation. In Switzerland, John Calvin established his own strict sect, claiming that, because God was omniscient, He could see into the future and know whether or not a person was bound for Heaven or Hell. This doctrine, called predestination, urged the faithful to act as if they knew that they would be going to Heaven. In France, Scotland, and the Netherlands, Calvin’s ideas helped inspire religious groups to found the Huguenot, Presbyterian, and Dutch Reformed Churches, respectively. In England, King Henry VIII, frustrated by having to share temporal power with the Church and by the Pope’s refusal to grant an annulment of his first marriage, took control of his nation’s church in 1534, creating the Church of England and establishing himself as the nation’s religious leader. Upon his death, the state church took on a decidedly Protestant form, and Henry’s daughter and successor, Queen Elizabeth, was herself a Protestant.

The Anglican Church under Elizabeth retained most of the trappings of traditional Catholicism. For many followers of Luther and Calvin, new Anglicanism was little better than old Catholicism. The most radical critics, known as Separatists, sought to separate themselves from the church totally, in protest against what they believed to be its continuing corruption and spiritual emptiness. When James I succeeded Elizabeth on the throne in 1603 and specifically denounced the Separatists, the dissident group feared for its safety and fled to the Netherlands. However, they found Dutch culture to be too different from that of their homeland, and their condition was further threatened by a potential invasion and conquest from Catholic Spain.

Thus, in 1620, the Separatists, along with some other English adventurers, obtained a charter from the Virginia Company, and prepared to start a new settlement at the northern edge of the company’s North American holdings. Setting out in September on a small ship, the Mayflower, the settlers eventually reached the American coastline. However, having arrived far north of their destination, they were not on the Virginia Company’s land. This error left them outside of the company’s jurisdiction and thus without any form of organized governmental authority. Consequently, before landing, the Pilgrims drafted a document, the Mayflower Compact, that served as the organizing and structural basis for their new community. Agreeing to remain loyal to the King and to do God’s will, the signers did not establish a formal government, but did assert that they would use majority rule in all in decision-making.

The first year in Plymouth colony was a difficult one. Arriving in December, they were too late to plant crops, and the subsequent food shortages, combined with the cold of the northern winter made daily life a desperate struggle. By spring, almost half of the small group of settlers had died from starvation, disease, and exposure. Despite these hardships, a sound, though always small, colony did emerge, in no small part due to the efforts of one of the colony’s young leaders, William Bradford. Bradford served as governor during the first harsh winter and led the colony in the years ahead. Cape Cod’s Wampanoag Indians provided critical guidance and aid in raising corn and other agricultural products. In fact, in the autumn of 1621, the Plymouth colony celebrated its first harvest with a formal day of thanksgiving.

The Puritans and the Massachusetts Bay Colony

The other branch of the Massachusetts founding tree was also the product of a group looking to practice its religion as it chose. In contrast to the Pilgrims who sought separation, the Puritans sought to reform, or purify, the Church of England from within. They achieved some early success. Puritan agitators got the Anglican Church to scale back many of the ceremonial aspects of the worship liturgy, and some Puritans achieved positions of prominence in the English government. However, the advances were short-lived and, when Charles I ascended to the throne in 1625, he undermined the reformers’ purification efforts. Charles saw efforts to reduce the church’s hierarchy as a direct challenge, and he quickly established his own primacy by restricting the Puritans’ freedom to worship and stripping many of their official posts. Understandably, the Puritans began to look toward the New World as a place where they freely could practice their religion unencumbered by meddling kings and bishops. After protracted negotiations, King Charles granted a charter to a Puritan delegation to establish a colony under the authority of the Massachusetts Bay Company, a Puritan joint-stock company. In 1630, over 900 aspiring colonists set sail for the New World to establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Before landing at Gloucester, just north of the Pilgrims’ colony at Plymouth, the newly elected governor John Winthrop declared, “Wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” Massachusetts must become, as the name of his sermon suggested, a “Modelle of Christian Charity.”

Unlike Jamestown and Plymouth, the Massachusetts Bay Colony thrived from the start, due in part to outstanding advance planning the steady flow of English immigrants. It was also a successful experiment in self-government. Moving its corporate headquarters from London to Boston so that the colony could be run more efficiently, the Massachusetts Bay Company retained power to make laws for all the colonists as well as govern them without giving a voice to anyone who was not a shareholder. However, to ensure the consent of the governed, Governor John Winthrop allowed settlers who were not shareholders to have a substantive voice in the election of the colony’s officers, including the legislature and the governor himself. Still, there were limits on this process, and the vote was restricted to male church members. Even so, more citizens could vote in Massachusetts than in England, where the right of suffrage was still limited by strict property requirements.

To ensure that citizens in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were properly educated in proper religious and social practices, members established the first formal educational institutions in the New World. Harvard College opened in 1636 as a school to train the colony’s ministers, and soon thereafter the colonial legislature established a system of primary and secondary schools. All towns of more than fifty inhabitants were required to have a functioning school with a teacher. As a result of these advances, the residents of New England would generally be the best educated in the New World.

Despite the advances in representative government and education, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was not truly a democracy. It was, rather, a theocracy, in which church and state were intermingled. Residents were required by law to pay taxes to support the church and to attend Puritan church services every Sunday, whether or not they were Puritans. Leaders, although elected by the people, were bound to uphold the strict Puritan interpretation of the Bible, even if it conflicted with the will of the people. Moreover, having left England in an effort to establish a pure religion, the early founders of Massachusetts did not tolerate dissent. Dissent was considered heresy, and heretics, were not welcome in Massachusetts’ “citty upon a hill.” Those who did speak out against the strict rules of Puritan society, including Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, were not so subtly encouraged to leave the colony.

The union of church and state typically kept residents of Massachusetts both morally and legally bound together, but one episode underscores a darker side to the connection. In the seaside village of Salem in 1692, two young daughters of the local minister began, in the words of a witness, “uttering foolish, ridiculous speeches which neither they themselves nor any others could make sense of.” When the two were found to be afflicted by a witch’s curse, townspeople began hunting for any signs of witchcraft and demanding that the courts condemn any and all witches to death. Accusations flew as enemies settled old scores by accusing each other of witchcraft. By the time that the Reverend Increase Mather stepped in to convince the town court to halt the madness, it had formally charged 150 people with witchcraft, of whom twenty-eight had been convicted, and nineteen had been executed. The episode would serve as a cautionary tale to those who favored building or strengthening the link between church and state.

A Religious Haven in Rhode Island

One of the earliest results of the Puritans’ intolerance was the founding of the colony of Rhode Island. Its founder was Roger Williams, an outspoken advocate of religious freedom who had arrived in Massachusetts Bay in 1631. Williams soon found that his espousal of a complete separation of church and state clashed with the Puritan leaders who, naturally, dubbed him a heretic and banished him from the colony in 1635. Heading south into the wilderness, Williams and his followers founded a new colony that became Rhode Island. In 1644, Parliament granted a charter that gave Rhode Island a government similar to that of Massachusetts.

Under Williams’ direction, this new colony offered settlers something completely new: absolute religious freedom. So many European dissidents and Puritan exiles sought out the safe haven of Rhode Island that the colony earned a reputation as the “sewer of New England.” One of the most prominent of these exiles was Anne Hutchinson. One of the first settlers in Boston, Hutchinson was married to one of the most powerful men in the colony, mother to fifteen children, and midwife to countless more. As she conversed with the other women of the town, she addressed what she considered to be inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the sermons of Puritan ministers. When the court accused her of defaming the clergy, she defended herself by claiming that she had received divine insights directly from God. Upon hearing this, the court banished her from Massachusetts in 1637. Hutchinson, her family, and supporters sought out refuge in Rhode Island in 1638. There, she and Roger Williams continued to speak out religious freedom. Together they made Rhode Island a place where that was a reality.

Puritan Offshoots in Connecticut and New Hampshire

Rhode Island was not the only colony that emerged due to dissatisfaction with the ways of the Puritans. In the case of Connecticut, however, the conflict was less religious and more political. Although basically in tune with the Puritan philosophy, Hooker believed that Winthrop and the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony had taken too much authority for themselves, a violation of his belief that the authority for government should come from the people. In 1636, Hooker led a group of similarly discontented Puritans southwest into Connecticut, where he founded the town of Hartford and undertook the task of authoring the first written constitution in the colonies. The resulting Fundamental Orders built still featured many of the social structures of Puritan society, but it was far more democratic than Massachusetts because it granted suffrage to non-church members. This more inclusive version of Puritanism attracted many converts, and Connecticut grew considerably by the end of the seventeenth century.

In the case of New Hampshire, there were no philosophical or religious differences that contributed to its settlement. Put simply, Puritans in Massachusetts began running out of room, so several groups moved to establish new towns and villages in areas to the north. Back in 1629, Sir Ferdinando Gorges and John Mason had claimed the land including Maine and New Hampshire, but neither was able to establish a permanent settlement during their lifetimes. However, as Massachusetts grew more and more crowded, settlers began to covet the plentiful land to the north. In 1677, Massachusetts paid a mere £1,250 to buy the Maine territory. Three years later, enough settlers had moved to New Hampshire that they were able to obtain a royal charter for their offshoot colony.

A Dutch Treat: New York and New Jersey

The founding of the colonies that became New York and New Jersey differed a bit from that of their New England neighbors in that economic rather than religious motivations were at the root of their establishment. Originally settled by Dutch fur traders and called “New Netherland,” the area was thriving when Charles II granted all of the land north of the Delaware River and south of Connecticut to his brother, the Duke of York. Expecting a conflict with the Dutch, the English force that arrived at the mouth of the Hudson River in 1664 was surprised to be welcomed by colonists unhappy with Dutch rule. These settlers quickly surrendered to the English, who renamed the area New York. Although the Dutch responded by declaring war, their harassment of English shipping had no substantive impact, and the land remained under the English flag.

Initially, New York was administered by a governor and council, both of which acted as the Duke of York’s representatives. It was a comparatively generous arrangement. The Duke allowed large Dutch and English landowners to keep their estates, awarded extensive grants of land to English settlers, and permitted freedom of worship. Although New Jersey had originally been part of the Duke of York’s holdings, he relinquished control in the mid-1660s, turning the grant over to friends, Sir George Carteret and Lord Berkeley. Berkeley, in turn, sold his half of the New Jersey claim to a group of Quakers, who immediately established settlements in the area. The Quaker settlers wrote a constitution granting exclusive power to an elected legislature and guaranteeing religious freedom and civil rights. However, miscommunication between the Duke of York, the governor of New York, and the Quaker settlers left the ownership of much of New Jersey in dispute for many years. In 1702, the sides finally agreed to reunite the colony of New Jersey and run it according to Quaker law.

Holy Experiments in Pennsylvania and Delaware

Although religion was central to the founding of Pennsylvania, commercial considerations played a prominent role in the development of the colony. During the years following the English Civil War, Admiral William Penn loaned Charles II a considerable sum of money when the besieged monarch was in exile. King Charles II remained chronically low on funds even after the monarchy was restored in 1660, and for years he was unable to repay the debt. When the Admiral died in 1681, his son William Penn inherited the claim. Rather than repaying Penn in hard money, King Charles II gave Penn a grant to the land north of Maryland and west of the Delaware River. With the grant in hand, William Penn, a member of the ridiculed and persecuted Quaker sect, sought to create a “holy experiment” in the New World. He established treaties with the Native Americans, buying their land and offering them protection in their dealings with others. He granted religious freedom to those who believed in “One Almighty and Eternal God.” In addition, Penn made the safeguarding of individual rights a priority. Penn’s desire to make the colony a “holy experiment” did not preclude him from maximizing his personal economic interests. He made land available on easy terms, but he reserved some of the best real estate for himself. A tireless promoter of his colony, William Penn sought to attract settlers from all over Europe. By 1685, there were approximately 9,000 settlers in Pennsylvania, a number that doubled by 1700. Ironically, although Penn’s views on politics were not particularly democratic, these new settlers found themselves living in the most democratic of the new colonies. Initially, Pennsylvania had a bicameral legislature whose members were elected by the vote of every man who owned land or paid taxes, the broadest electorate in the New World. But at the same time, the colony’s assembly was less a legislative body than an advisory board. It had the authority only to approve or reject legislation proposed by the governor or the council.

Delaware, meanwhile, was something of an orphan. Originally settled by the Swedes in 1638, it was conquered soon thereafter by the Dutch, who later relinquished control to of it and New Netherland to England. Finally, it became part of the Pennsylvania. The culturally diverse population of Delaware established an identity distinct from the Quaker society of Pennsylvania and, in 1704 William Pen allowed its residents to create a separate colonial government.

Early Life in the Northern Colonies

Distinctive societies and cultures began to emerge in each region during the early colonial period. Natural differences in climate, natural resources, and geography combined with sociological variations in the ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds of the settlers to produce singular ways of life in each region. The early economy of the New England region was agriculturally based despite the lack of rich soil. The short growing season, rocky soil, and harsh climate meant that subsistence farming was the general rule; few farmers made a significant profit. Because the small family farms yielded only enough to support the immediate family, there was no incentive to import numerous servants or slaves or to establish plantations. Indentured servants, with terms usually limited to four to seven years, provided supplemental labor when necessary. The crops they grew (grain, squash, beans, and vegetables) were also grown in England, so the region was of limited interest to English mercantilists. Lacking cash crops but still needing money to buy English goods, New Englanders turned to shipping as a means of becoming profitable. Timber cut from the plentiful New England forests soon became a major component of the region’s economy. The ships built from lumber led to other enterprises; soon, fishing and shipping emerged as important contributors to the region’s economic well being.

The issue of a social hierarchy was closely related to the economy. Remnants of the Old World’s class system accompanied the colonists to North America, but none of the rigidity that marked the English system remained. Distinctions did exist, but the further settlers moved from their European roots, the more the old barriers crumbled. Because the class lines were so often based on wealth and property, and because the colonies offered so many new opportunities to farmers and unskilled workers alike, there was significant opportunity for movement. By the time of the Revolution, class differences remained, but it was possible for anyone—except for slaves—to climb the social ladder.

The physical layout of most New England towns reflected their religious roots and the Puritan commitment to a society of small family farms. As the early settlements in Boston, Salem, and Charlestown filled up, New Englanders distributed themselves to new locations, with several families moving at the same time. The new village elders established a local government, divided land among themselves into small 150-acre plots, and formed churches. Town founders deliberately laid out villages with houses, meetinghouses, and schools arranged around central pastures or village greens. The design of the village thus both reflected and reinforced the New Englanders’ strong sense of community and commitment to Christian modesty.

Life in New England towns revolved around the family unit. Most settlers in New England were free men working as farmers, artisans, or merchants. Skilled and literate, they had migrated with their wives and children. The importance of family ties was underscored by the relatively long life expectancy of seventy years that resulted from the healthier climate in the Northeast. Moreover, low mortality rates made for more rapid reproduction as, on average, families could expect six or seven children to live to maturity. Consequently, the population of New England doubled every twenty-seven years at a time when numbers in the Chesapeake hardly increased at all.

Unique to New England, the town meeting formed the basis of local government. Only property-holding church members were allowed to vote and participate in town meetings. The village leadership also provided a measure of authority and stability for a people who still believed in the importance of hierarchy. The church and its leaders were also important in preserving the social order. The churches oversaw public morality, fining and punishing the citizens for everything from drunkenness to adultery. Despite the obvious intermingling of church and state, Puritan ministers held no civil power; they were not members of the government.

Nevertheless, problems arose during the latter half of the seventeenth century as the New England settlements spread, religious intensity waned, and commercialization grew. The cohesive, tightly-woven communities of the first half-century felt the strain of growth and challenges from the inside and the outside groups and forces. The dream of a “citty on a hill” did not die, but it had to adapt to the terrain of New England, to the demands of a growing population, and the political struggles between the colonies and the mother country.

Early Life in the Middle Colonies

The population of the Middle Colonies was more diverse than any other part of the American colonies. Settlers from Ireland sought refuge from the anti-Presbyterian policies of the Anglican Church, a fact that led to animosity towards the English. Meanwhile, another wave of immigration came from the German states, as people fled an area ravaged by religious wars and a devastated agricultural economy. Pennsylvania became a haven for many of these people, but Germans also settled among the Swedish and Dutch communities already established in Delaware and New York.

Settlers in the Middle Colonies based their economy on farming, but unlike their counterparts in New England, these farmers were blessed with rich and fertile farmlands. Pennsylvania was the center of the region’s agricultural production. The colony’s farmers produced a surplus of corn and wheat, which helped feed people in neighboring colonies. New York’s land was as just as fertile as Pennsylvania’s, but policies established under the colony’s original Dutch founders had created a system modeled on Europe’s feudal system, and this significantly limited that colony’s harvest.

As the colonies grew, they expanded to the base of the Appalachian Mountains, establishing new settlements that came to be known as the backcountry. Subsistence farming was the rule in these areas. Given their geographic separation from the main settlements, they developed distinctly independent ways and beliefs, including a deep-seated antipathy toward the colonial government. These western settlers believed that government was controlled by and only responsive to wealthy eastern interests. Their opposition sometimes took violent forms, as in the case of a group of Pennsylvania frontiersmen who became known as the notorious Paxton Boys. Like the Virginia settlers that had joined with Nathaniel Bacon nearly century earlier, the Paxton Boys became incensed by the colonial government’s refusal to protect them from belligerent Native Americans. In 1763, they undertook their own war against the Native Americans as a prelude to marching on Philadelphia. Unfortunately, they attacked a peaceful tribe that they mistook for the tribe with which they were at war, destroying a village in the process Cooler heads ultimately prevailed, and they were talked out of their planned attack on the capital. However, the independence that sparked this action was never extinguished despite the gradual improvement in relations between the backcountry and the coast.

Cities and the Colonies

Although the overwhelming percentage of the population lived in rural, farm-based communities, northern colonists soon built cities that played an important role in colonial development. Boston, New York and Philadelphia became the major ports for the developing shipping trades and also served as the focal points for the growing trade between the coast and the backcountry. Indeed, these cities served as the cultural centers of colonial America. It would be in these urban environments that the colonial economy would grow and flourish, where the arts and sciences found willing audiences, and where citizens would meet to share, exchange, debate, argue, and publish their ideas. The ability to communicate freely with other colonists would become particularly significant as the eighteenth century dawned and in the difficult century that followed.

Chapter III Vocabulary Terms

Protestant Reformation



Mayflower Compact


John Winthrop

Roger Williams

Salem Witch Trials

New Netherland

William Penn

Paxton Boys

Chapter III Review Questions

1. In what ways did the ideas of the Protestant Reformation lead to conflicts between the Church of England and smaller denominations?

2. What were the major differences in the way in which the New England colonies were founded and the way in which the middle colonies were settled?

3. What is the significance of the Mayflower Compact?

4. How did the early settlers of New England and the middle colonies treat the Native Americans that they encountered?

5. What was the basis of the early New England economy? What was the basis of the early middle colonies economy? How did their economies change and develop over the years?

6. Why and how was the social system in New England different from that of Europe? How was it different from that of the middle colonies?

7. What was the primary reason for New England colonies to place such an emphasis on education?

8. What was the most agriculturally successful colony in the middle colonies or New England? Why?

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