English Colonization - By Kevin Sweeney


During the 1600s, England, like other European countries, wanted to establish colonies in the Americas to acquire needed resources and to frustrate the efforts of rivals, particularly the Catholic Spanish. The Colonies were also a useful place where some of England's rapidly growing and underemployed population could be sent to work or merely dumped. England sought to obtain its colonies inexpensively. Instead of providing direct support, the English monarch granted charters to groups of private investors, who assumed the costs of establishing colonies and in return received economic privileges, limited powers to govern and grants of lands claimed by the English king. There was little concern at first about the fact that these lands were already inhabited by other people.

Even before the arrival of English colonists in New England, contact with European fishermen and traders had begun to transform Native communities in the region. In the 1610s, diseases introduced by European mariners decimated Native populations along the coasts of what are today Maine and Massachusetts. Competition to form alliances with Europeans to obtain protection and trade goods led to conflict among Natives. The heavy loss of life and the disruption of Native communities created openings and opportunities for those English men and women who displaced and replaced the region's surviving Native peoples over the course of the 1600s.

Beginnings of Massachusetts

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Seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1629. The Native in the engraving is saying "Come over and help us."
Original in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Archives, Boston, MA.

The largest of the English colonies, Massachusetts Bay Colony, began with a royal charter granted by King Charles I in 1629. The lands included in this charter lay in an area that the English called New England. Homelands for centuries to various Algonkian-speaking peoples, this area was actually considered marginal to the colonial enterprise of England and other European powers. Riches from the fur trade and catches from the Grand Banks fisheries drew the French and other Englishmen to the north. Warmer and more fertile lands of the Caribbean basin and Chesapeake Bay where tobacco, sugar, or other cash crops could be grown attracted other Englishmen to the West Indies and Virginia. By contrast New England appeared to have little of economic value to Europeans, and during the 1600s, only 21,000 Englishmen and women would head for New England, while 120,000 would sail for the Chesapeake and 190,000 for the West Indies. In the grand scheme of English colonization, Massachusetts was a sideshow.

This less than promising site for a colony did appeal to certain religious dissenters in England. The individuals who received the charter for Massachusetts were distinguished from many other Englishmen by the intensity of their Protestant faith, and contemporaries mockingly called them Puritans because of their desire to purify or reform the established Church of England. For some of these Puritans the founding of Massachusetts offered an opportunity to practice freely their religious preferences. But they did not intend to tolerate the beliefs or practices of those who differed from them in matters of religion; on the contrary, they would suppress beliefs they found alien or threatening. Leaders of Massachusetts used their royal charter as a basis for creating a government of the godly in which only church members gained the right to elect a governor, a court of assistants (the legislature's upper house) and delegates to a lower house that represented the colony's towns. Local affairs were managed by selectmen chosen by the voters and by larger gatherings of inhabitants in town meetings. At both the colonial and local level there was a relatively high degree of popular participation in government, though the colony's leaders did not seek to create a democracy, a form of government they associated with anarchy. But maintaining order and the legitimacy of a new government that lacked aristocratic leaders or a standing army required a greater degree of popular participation than was the case in England.

New England Colonists

Between 1630 and 1640, approximately 13,000 English colonists arrived in Massachusetts. Most stayed while two to three thousand chose to settle in the neighboring colonies of Plymouth, Connecticut, New Haven, and Rhode Island. Unlike the immigrants to most English, French, and Spanish colonies, a majority of the settlers of New England came as members of families who paid their own way. Most Englishmen sailing for the Chesapeake or the West Indies were single men in their late teens or early twenties who went as indentured servants bound for a period of usually seven years service. By contrast the settlers of New England were as a rule relatively prosperous farmers and craftsmen of the middling sort. Few that were very rich or very poor migrated to New England. There were four females for every six males; in the early years of Virginia, it was more common to find one female for every six males. The closer balance between the sexes in New England and a relatively healthy environment compared to that found in the Chesapeake and the West Indies helped create a more stable society able to grow by natural increase. Most men and women married, whereas in England one in four adults stayed single. Women married in their early twenties; men in their mid to late twenties; and on average marriages produced 6 to 7 children. After 1640, New England's population grew primarily from natural increase, not additional immigration which slowed to a trickle.

Acquisition and Use of Land

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With this document, a Pocumtuck sachem named Chauk "sold" the land that became the town of Deerfield to the Dedham proprietors. In the deed, he reserves his people's fishing, hunting and gathering rights. Click here to link to the deed's artifact page for a closer look at the text and more information.
Copyright Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Deerfield, MA. All rights reserved.

English immigrants and their numerous offspring expected to take up land and recreate family farms approximating those found in England. With them, the colonists brought English livestock, crops and farming methods. The fixed and fenced fields of the English and the wanderings of their unfenced livestock disrupted Native agriculture and hunting while creating constant demands by colonists for more land that could only be obtained from the region's Natives. Prominent individuals licensed by the Massachusetts government negotiated deeds to obtain lands from Natives. As a practical matter, the English compensated Natives for the occupation of their lands even though they believed that the king and possibly God had given them title to the land. While the English expected the Natives to vacate the lands that they sold, the deeds often indicate that Natives expected to make continued use of lands that the English purchased.

Treatment of Native Peoples

The region's Natives did not figure prominently in the plans of most English colonists. Some merchants such as William Pynchon of Springfield and his son John traded with Natives to obtain beaver pelts. But by the later 1650s the New England fur trade had diminished in volume and significance. Unlike the Spanish and the French, New England's colonial settlers devoted little time and relatively few resources to converting to Christianity the region's Natives. Despite this half-hearted effort some Natives did embrace Christianity. By 1670 there may have been 1200 Christian Natives living in a dozen villages located primarily in eastern Massachusetts. The town of Deerfield was created as compensation for the English residents of Dedham who had some of their town's lands taken to create the "praying town" of Natick where some of these Christian Natives lived. In the aftermath of King Philip's War, 1675-1677, the number of Christian Natives in Massachusetts declined dramatically.

Establishing Towns

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A partial map of the Deerfield town street and north meadows, circa 1680-1700, showing numbered house lots and fields. Click here to go to the survey's artifact page for more information and a closer view.
Copyright Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Deerfield, MA. All rights reserved.

Acting on the basis of the charter's land grant from the king, the colonial government of Massachusetts granted blocks of land to groups of colonists who sought to establish new towns. The recipients of these lands became proprietors who formed a land corporation. These proprietors or the individuals to whom they sold their shares settled a new town. In most of New England, the settlers created towns consisting of separate farmsteads. But in the Connecticut River valley in towns such as Deerfield, the proprietors and settlers created nucleated villages surrounded by long, narrow strips of land lying side-by side in large, open fields enclosed by a single, commonly maintained fence. While the individual strips of farm land were privately owned, the town or proprietors managed the use of such fields, deciding when it was time to plant and time to harvest.

Establishing Churches

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Dudley Woodbridge made these sketches on a visit to Deerfield in 1728. They show the imposing third meeting house, built in 1696, and other houses, including the Ensign John Sheldon house (bottom right), which survived the 1704 attack.
Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA.

Each Massachusetts town established is own independent, Congregational Church whose members chose a minister that was expected to serve his congregation for the rest of his life. New members were admitted to the church only after the minister and the church's other members had listened to and evaluated candidates' accounts of their experiences of saving faith, the sign that they were among the elect chosen by God for salvation. All residents, not just those admitted to church membership, were required by law to attend Sunday services. Worship services took place in meeting houses, square or rectangular buildings from which altars, stain glass windows, steeples, and other sacred adornments traditionally associated with Christian places of worship were consciously omitted. The same meeting houses were also used for town meetings that regulated civil affairs. Puritan worship services emphasized preaching and explaining of the Word of God as contained in the Bible; there was little in the way of formal ritual.

Massachusetts in 1700

By 1700, Massachusetts had a population of about 60,000 living in approximately 80 towns. In the whole of New England there were probably 90,000 English colonists and somewhere between 1000 and 2000 African slaves. Boston, with a population of around 10,000, was the region's commercial center and an integral part of the larger Atlantic economy. Most colonists, however, lived in agricultural communities of 300 to 800 inhabitants where they earned their livelihoods from the land. Each town had its settled minister and a group of recognized leaders chosen by the voters to fill a myriad of local offices. The Congregational Church retained a privileged position with its ministers supported by local taxes, but Anglicans, Baptists, and Quakers were now grudgingly tolerated.

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Joseph Dudley (1647-1720), royal governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony 1702-1715. Oil portrait circa 1682-86, artist unknown.
Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA.

Under the colony's new charter granted by King William and Queen Mary in 1691, church membership was no longer a qualification for voting, which was now based solely on meeting a property qualification. The colony's governor was no longer elected by the voters, but selected by the monarch. Voters still chose representatives who sat in the legislature's lower house. The royal governor appointed the colony's judges and the local officers who commanded the militia which consisted of every able-bodied male between the ages of 16 and 60. Not all residents of Massachusetts approved of these changes which reduced the control of the colonists and increased the influence of the government in England. But war with France during the 1690s and the renewal of this conflict in 1702 with the start of the War of the Spanish Succession increased the influence of the colony's royal governor, Joseph Dudley, and of even more distant officials in London.

Further Reading

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