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Massachusetts Bay

For most of its human history, the area that became known as the Massachusetts Bay was Native American territory. The native peoples who came to the bay area, following game as glaciers receded, built sophisticated cultures based on its physical characteristics and animal life. English settlement on the bay dates from the early years of the seventeenth century. By the late eighteenth century, Massachusetts Bay was the location of one of colonial America’s largest cities.

Although they were mainly Algonquin, the native peoples of southeastern New England spoke a number of distinct languages, many of which were mutually unintelligible. The Massachusett, Wampanoag, and Nauset established semipermanent villages and relied on the rich marine life of the bay for food and other resources. In precolonial times, the bay was home to large numbers of cod, herring, haddock, giant tuna, and swordfish. Closer to shore, clams, scallops, and some oysters could be obtained as well. Generally speaking, deep-sea fishing was a male task, while women, also in charge of agriculture, gathered shellfish.

Just prior to English colonization, particularly between 1616 and 1619, European disease decimated native populations. The Massachusetts were hit particularly hard; about nine in ten Massachusetts may have died in the epidemics. At the time he encountered the Pilgrims, Wampanoag sachem Massasoit presided over a shattered world.

Forays by Giovanni da Verrazano and Esteban Gómez the latter a Portuguese mariner in the employ of Spain along the Massachusetts coast in the 1520s piqued European interest in the region but did not alter native lifeways significantly. The same cannot be said for intensive English efforts at colonization, which began about a century after the earliest European explorations. Beginning with the small band of separatist Pilgrims led by William Bradford that established Plymouth in 1620, English interest in, and immigration to, the land surrounding Massachusetts Bay continued to grow. The Massachusetts Bay Company, a joint-stock trading venture, eventually came to be dominated by Puritans, whose troubles in England seemed more serious every day. The leadership of the company obtained a liberal charter from Charles I, which gave them a great deal of local decision-making power, and they made it even more liberal by removing it to New England.

On the shores of Massachusetts Bay, under the guidance of John Winthrop, the Puritans set about the business of establishing a holy example for the Anglican Church: a “city upon a hill.” While the dream of establishing a godly society eluded Puritan leaders, the towns they founded, such as Rockport, Salem, and Boston, grew rapidly. In a period known as the Great Migration, roughly 10,000 Puritans came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony between 1630 and 1640, along with about 10,000 other settlers. Many thousands more followed them as the seventeenth century progressed. Englishmen fished the waters of the bay, and a fledgling shipbuilding industry took hold. In the marshes that grew alongside the bay, cattle grazed, further sustaining the remarkable population explosion.

While seaside towns founded by the English prospered, native communities in the Massachusetts Bay area suffered correspondingly. Native peoples struggled at first to survive as autonomous political entities, but after King Philip’s War (1675–1676), as sovereignty vanished, cultural survival and ethnic identity became more important than political independence.

Boston became one of the most important English seaports in the Americas. It counted 3,000 inhabitants by the 1660s; the population approached 20,000 on the eve of the War for Independence. While English capital had financed the earliest shipbuilding and mercantile ventures, Americans operating out of Boston and Salem took over these activities as settlements expanded.

In the 1760s and 1770s, Boston became a hotbed of American Revolutionary activity. Reinvigorated by the global successes of the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), the English Parliament attempted to tighten the reins of its expanded empire, with disastrous effects. The Stamp Act riots of 1765 and the furor over the Townshend Duties brought Bostonians of many different social groups together in protest against what they perceived as new and unfair forms of taxation.

The Sons of Liberty first organized in Boston in the 1760s. Massachusetts Bay itself became a symbol of protest when Revolutionaries, dressed as Mohawks, dumped three ships’ cargoes of East India Company tea into Boston Harbor. Following independence, American fishing and shipping operations continued to expand in the region, prompting commercial and industrial growth well into the nineteenth century. Matthew Jennings See also: Boston; Cape Cod; Fish and Fisheries; Massachusetts Bay Colony; Transportation, Water. Bibliography Labaree, Benjamin Woods. Colonial Massachusetts: A History. New York: KTO, 1979. Salisbury, Neal. Manitou and Providence: Indians, Europeans, and the Making of New England, 1500–1643. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

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