Massachusetts Bay Colony

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded by a group of Puritans in 1630. Puritans had come under increasing religious prejudice in England. Eventually, prominent members of the group dominated the Massachusetts Bay Company, a joint-stock, colonizing venture. In 1629, the company received a liberal charter from King Charles I, just before he dissolved Parliament. In 1630, the company moved its charter, its headquarters, and hundreds of people to the shores of Massachusetts Bay.

John Winthrop was elected governor of the company and colony; he would serve in that capacity for many of the colony’s formative years, until his death in 1647. Discontented colonists from the Massachusetts Bay Colony later broke off to form several other New England colonies during the seventeenth century. Thus, the influence of the original colony was widely felt in the northern region of English North America.

Massachusetts Bay under Puritan rule was a strict, moral colony, and many of the colony’s leaders believed that God had formed a special covenant with the Puritan community. This sentiment was reinforced by John Winthrop’s Modell of Christian Charity speech delivered aboard the Arabella. In the new colony, full church membership was restricted, and, initially, only full church members could vote and hold office. It would be a mistake to label this form of government a theocracy, however. While ministers were powerful, they were forbidden from holding office in Massachusetts.

The main unit of government in Massachusetts Bay was the town. Town, congregation, and family were all extremely important to early colonists. The Puritan way did not deal particularly well with dissent, and several colonists, most notably Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, ran afoul of the authorities and were banished. Puritans soon came to view Native Americans as agents of the devil and, accordingly, fought the Pequot War (1637 1638) in a strikingly vicious manner.

As the seventeenth century progressed, hard-core Puritans comprised a smaller and smaller portion of the population, and a vigorous merchant class began to assert itself. The Congregational Church was also undergoing changes, exemplified by the Half-way Covenant of 1662, which extended some privileges to people who had not undergone a conversion experience. The economy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was diverse, but fishing, shipbuilding, and trade were three of the main activities.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was the chief beneficiary of what has been termed the Great Migration, in which tens of thousands of Puritans immigrated in a matter of decades. As the Massachusetts Bay Colony expanded westward, it exerted pressures on native communities, and a series of wars, the most devastating being King Philip’s (Metacom’s) War (1675 1676), which permanently disrupted native life in the region.

In the 1680s, Massachusetts Bay was one of the colonies included in the Dominion of New England. The Dominion was an attempt by James II and others in the English government to exert a new level of control and extract a new level of profit from American colonies. This met fierce opposition in Massachusetts; Dominion government essentially ended when rebels in Boston imprisoned Sir Edmund Andros, the Dominion’s governor.

In 1691, the Massachusetts Bay Colony received a new royal charter that gave it control over the former Plymouth Colony, adding many miles of new territory and increasing the population of the larger colony. Massachusetts continued to move farther away from the Puritan ideals upon which it had been founded and closer to the Yankee commerce-oriented ethic that would dominate the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The eighteenth century saw Massachusetts assert itself as a crucial part of England’s overseas empire. Throughout the century, Massachusetts was a battleground in the ongoing conflict between the French, the English, and native peoples allied with both groups. In King George’s War, Massachusetts forces took the massive French fort at Louisbourg, only to see it returned as part of the peace settlement. In the aftermath of the French and Indian War, Massachusetts became a hotbed of anti-English sentiment and eventually led the movement toward independence.

Massachusetts activists, the Sons of Liberty, led the protests against the 1765 Stamp Act and famously rejected the Tea Act of 1773 by disguising themselves as Mohawks and dumping British tea into the harbor. It is not surprising that Massachusetts was an early advocate of independence. In 1775, fighting broke out between British and Massachusetts forces at Lexington and Concord, signaling the beginning of the American Revolution. Matthew Jennings See also: Boston; Massachusetts Bay Charter; Puritanism; Winthrop, John. Bibliography Labaree, Benjamin W. Colonial Massachusetts: A History. Millwood, NY: KTO, 1979. Morgan, Edmund S. The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop. 2nd ed. New York: Longman, 1999.

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