Modern history

Pilgrims and Puritans settle New England

Along with merchants, planters, and indentured servants, religious dissenters also traveled to North America. Critics of the Church of England formed a number of congregations in the early seventeenth century, and some sought refuge in New England. One such group, the Pilgrims (also known as Separatists), landed on the Massachusetts coast in 1620 and established a permanent settlement at Plymouth. Their goal was to establish a religious community wholly separate from the Anglican Church. The Puritans, who hoped to purify rather than separate from the Church of England, arrived a decade later with plans to develop their own colony. Over the next two decades, New England colonists prospered, but they also confronted internal dissent and conflicts with local Indians.

Map of New England in 1614 This engraving by the Dutchman Simon van de Passe in 1616 is based on a map drawn by the English explorer John Smith two years earlier. After leaving Jamestown, Smith, who is pictured in the upper left corner, sailed along the Atlantic coast of North America, a region he named New England . Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale university

Pilgrims Arrive in Massachusetts

In the 1610s, to raise capital, the Virginia Company began offering legal charters to groups of private investors, who were promised their own tract of land in the Virginia colony with minimal oversight by the governor or the company council. One such charter was purchased by a group of English Pilgrims who wanted to form a separate church and community in a land untainted by Catholicism, Anglicanism, or European cosmopolitanism. Thirty-five Pilgrims from Leiden in the Dutch Republic and several dozen from England signed on to the venture and set sail on the Mayflower from Plymouth, England, in September 1620.

Battered by storms, the ship veered off course, landing at Cape Cod in present-day Massachusetts in early December. With winter closing in, the exhausted passengers decided to disembark. Before leaving the ship, the settlers, led by William Bradford, signed a solemn pact, which they considered necessary because they were settling in a region where they had no legal authority. The Pilgrims agreed to “combine ourselves together into a civill body politick.” The Mayflower Compact was the first written constitution adopted in North America. It followed the Separatist model of a selfgoverning religious congregation.

After several forays along the coast, the Pilgrims located an uninhabited village surrounded by cornfields where they established their new home, Plymouth. Uncertain of native intentions, the Pilgrims were unsettled by sightings of Indians near their hastily built fort. They did not realize that a smallpox epidemic in the area only two years earlier had killed nearly 90 percent of the local Wampanoag population, leaving them too weak to launch an assault on the Pilgrims. Indeed, fevers and other diseases proved far more deadly to the settlers than did Indians. By the spring of 1621, only half of the 102 Pilgrims remained alive.

Desperate to find food, the survivors were stunned when two English-speaking Indians—Samoset and Squanto—appeared at Plymouth that March. Both had been captured as young boys by English explorers, and they now negotiated a fragile peace between the Pilgrims and Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag tribe. Although concerned by the power of English guns, Massasoit hoped to create an alliance that would assist him against his traditional native enemies. The Wampanoags supplied the English with seeds, fishing gear, and other goods that allowed them to take advantage of the short growing season and the abundant fish and wildlife in the region. The surviving Pilgrims soon regained their health.

In the summer of 1621, reinforcements arrived from England, and the next year the Pilgrims received a charter granting them rights to Plymouth Plantation and a degree of self-government. The region’s cold climate turned out to be a boon as well, minimizing the spread of disease. These developments encouraged the Pilgrims to take a more aggressive stance toward Indians, like the Massachusetts tribe, who posed a threat to them. In 1623 Captain Miles Standish led an attack on a Massachusetts village after kidnapping and killing the chief and his younger brother. The survivors fled north and west, alerting other Indians to the Pilgrims’ presence. Although Separatist leaders in Leiden were appalled that their brethren were assaulting rather than converting Indians, Standish’s strategy ensured that Massasoit, the colonists’ Wampanoag ally, was now the most powerful chief in the region.

The Puritan Migration

As the Pilgrims gradually expanded their colony during the 1620s, a new group of English dissenters, the Puritans, made plans to develop their own settlement. As religious dissenters, Puritans faced persecution in England. However, persecution was only one reason the Puritans chose to leave England. They believed that their country’s church and government had grown corrupt and was being chastened by an all-powerful God. During the early seventeenth century, the English population boomed but harvests failed, the poor suffered from famine and rising prices, the number of beggars multiplied, and crime and taxes rose. The enclosure movement, in which landlords fenced in fields and hired a few laborers and tenants to replace a large number of peasant farmers, increased the number of landless vagrants. At the same time, the English cloth industry nearly collapsed under the weight of competition from abroad. In the Puritans’ view, all of these problems were divine punishments for the nation’s sins.

Thus, from the Puritans’ perspective, New England was a safe haven from God’s wrath. Puritan lawyer John Winthrop claimed that God offered New England as “a refuge for manye, whom he meant to save out of the general destruction.” Consequently, under his leadership a group of affluent Puritans sought and received a royal charter for the Massachusetts Bay Company. To the Puritans, however, New England was more than just a place of safety. Unlike the Pilgrims, they believed that England and the Anglican Church could be redeemed. By prospering spiritually and materially in America, they could establish a model “City upon a Hill” that would then inspire reform among residents of the mother country.

About one-third of English Puritans chose to leave their homeland for North America. They were better supplied, more prosperous, and more numerous than either their Pilgrim or Jamestown predecessors. Arriving in an armada of seventeen ships, the settlers included ministers, merchants, craftsmen, and farmers. Many Puritans sailed with entire families in tow, ensuring the rapid growth of the colony. Having seen the risks of settling in unhealthy or unknown locales, they studied John Smith’s map of the New England coast to select the best site for their community.

The first Puritan settlers arrived on the coast north of Plymouth in 1630 and named their community Boston, after the port city in England from which they had departed. Once established, they relocated the Massachusetts Bay Company’s capital and records to New England, thereby converting their commercial charter into the founding document of a self-governing colony. They instituted a new kind of polity in which all adult males participated in the election of a governor (John Winthrop), deputy governor, and legislature. Although the Puritans suffered a difficult first winter, they quickly recovered and soon cultivated sufficient crops to feed themselves and a steady stream of new migrants. During the 1630s, some eighteen thousand Puritans migrated to New England, fourteen thousand of those to Massachusetts. Even without a cash crop like tobacco or sugar, the Puritan colony flourished.

Eager to take advantage of the abundant land, the close-knit community spread quickly beyond its original boundaries. The legislature, known as the General Court, was thus forced early on to develop policies for establishing townships with governing bodies that supported a local church and school. By the time the migration of Puritans slowed around 1640, the settlers had turned their colony into a thriving commercial center. They shipped codfish, lumber, wheat, rye, oats, pork, cheese, and other agricultural products to England in exchange for cloth, iron pots, and other manufactured goods and to the West Indies for rum and molasses. This trade, along with the healthy climate, relatively egalitarian distribution of property, and more equal ratio of women to men, ensured a stable and prosperous colony.

Puritans also sought friendly relations with some local natives; in their case it was with the neighboring Massachusetts tribe, who were longtime enemies of the Pilgrims’ allies, the Wampanoags. Many Puritans hoped that their Indian neighbors could be converted to Christianity. Such efforts were made easier by the death of many of the Massachusetts tribe’s religious leaders in the Pilgrim attack of 1623. Puritan missionaries taught their pupils how to read the Bible, and a few students attended Harvard College, founded in 1636. In an effort to wean converts from their traditional customs and beliefs, missionary John Eliot created “praying towns.” There Christian Indians could live among others who shared their faith while being protected from English settlers seeking to exploit them. Yet most “praying Indians” continued to embrace traditional rituals and beliefs alongside Christian practices.

The Puritan Worldview

Opposed to the lavish rituals and hierarchy of the Church of England and believing that few Anglicans truly felt the grace of God, Puritans set out to establish a simpler form of worship. They focused on their inner lives and on the purity of their church and community. Puritans followed Calvin, believing in an all-knowing God who had seen his flock wander away from his most basic teachings. The true Word of God was presented in the Bible, not in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer or hymns written by modern composers. The biblically sanctioned church was a congregation formed by a group of believers who made a covenant with God. Only a small minority of people, known as Saints, were granted God’s grace, and Puritans believed (or at least hoped) that their churches were filled with Saints.

Saints were granted God’s grace even though all humans since the fall of Adam were deserving of perpetual damnation. Whether one was a Saint and thereby saved was predetermined by and known only to God. Yet Puritans believed that those who were chosen led a godly life. Visible signs included individuals’ passionate response to the preaching of God’s Word, their sense of doubt and despair over their own soul, and that wonderful sense of reassurance that came with God’s “saving grace.” Saints were also expected to be virtuous, neighborly, benevolent, and successful.

Puritans, like most Christians at the time, believed that signs of God’s hand in the world were everywhere. They appeared in natural phenomena like comets, eclipses, and deformed births as well as in “remarkable providences” that eased believers’ way. Thus when a smallpox epidemic killed several thousand Massachusetts Indians in 1633—1634, a Puritan town council observed: “Without this remarkable and terrible stroke of God upon the native, we would with much more difficulty have found room, and at a far greater charge have obtained and purchased land.” Clearly God was shining his light on the Puritans, rather than on the Massachusetts.

Shared religious beliefs helped forge a unified community where faith guided civil as well as spiritual decisions. Most political leaders were devout Puritans. Indeed, ministers often served as members of the General Court or presided over town meetings. Puritan leaders determined who got land, how much, and where; they also served as judge and jury for those accused of crimes or sins. Their leadership was largely successful. Even if colonists differed over who should get the most fertile strip of land, they agreed on basic principles. Still, almost from the beginning, certain Puritans challenged some of the community’s fundamental beliefs, and in the process, the community itself.

Dissenters challenge Puritan Authority

In the early 1630s, Roger Williams, a Salem minister, criticized Puritan leaders for not being sufficiently pure in their rejection of the Church of England and the English monarchy. He preached that not all the Puritan leaders were Saints and that some were bound for damnation. Despite admonitions from the Massachusetts Bay authorities, Williams continued to rail against what he saw as deviations from the one true faith. By 1635 he was forced out of Salem and moved south with his followers to found Providence in the area that became Rhode Island. Believing that there were very few Saints in the world, Williams and his followers accepted that one must live among those who were not saved. Thus unlike Massachusetts Bay, Williams welcomed Quakers, Baptists, and Jews to the community, and his followers insisted on a strict separation of church and state. Williams also forged alliances with the Narragansetts, the most powerful Indian nation in the region, trading with them and securing land for a growing number of English settlers.

A year later, Anne Hutchinson and her followers joined Williams’s Rhode Island colony. When put on trial in November 1637, Hutchinson was initially accused of sedition, or trying to overthrow the government by challenging colonial leaders, such as Governor John Winthrop, who were devout Puritans. An eloquent orator, Hutchinson ultimately claimed that her authority to challenge the Puritan leadership came from “an immediate revelation” from God, “the voice of his own spirit to my soul.” Since Puritans believed that God spoke only through the intermediary of properly appointed male ministers, her claim was condemned as heretical.

Hutchinson was seen as a threat not only because of her religious beliefs but also because she was a woman. The Reverend Hugh Peter, for example, reprimanded her at trial: “You have stept out of your place, you have rather bine a Husband than a Wife and a preacher than a Hearer; and a Magistrate than a Subject.” Thus the accusations against her were rooted as much in her challenge to gender hierarchies as to Puritan authority, although her accusers no doubt viewed these as synonymous.

Wars in Old and New England

As Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams confronted the religious hierarchy, Puritans and Pilgrims faced another serious threat from the Pequot nation. Among the most powerful tribes in New England, the Pequots had been allies of the English for several years. Yet some Puritans feared that the Pequots, who opposed the colonists’ continued expansion, “would cause all the Indians in the country to join to root out all the English.” Using the death of two Englishmen in 1636 to justify a military expedition against the Pequots, the colonists went on the attack. The Narragansetts, whom Roger Williams had befriended, fought with the English in the Pequot War. After months of bloody conflict, the English and their Indian allies launched a brutal attack on a Pequot fort in May 1637 that left some four hundred men, women, and children dead. The English saw the victory as a sign of God’s grace, and the Narragansetts saw it as the defeat of a powerful rival.

Puritans in England were soon engaged in armed conflict as well, but this time against other Englishmen. Differences over issues of religion, taxation, and royal authority had strained relations between Parliament and the crown for decades, as James I (r. 1603—1625) and his son Charles I (r. 1625—1649) sought to consolidate their own power at Parliament’s expense. In 1642 the relationship between Parliament and King Charles I broke down completely, and the country descended into civil war. Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan, emerged as the leader of the Protestant parliamentary forces, and after several years of fighting, he claimed victory. Charles I was executed, Parliament established a republican commonwealth, and bishops and elaborate rituals were banished from the Church of England. Cromwell ruled England as a military dictator until his death in 1658. By then, much of England had tired of religious conflict and Puritan rule, so Charles I’s son, Charles II (r. 1660—1685), was invited to return from exile on the continent and restore the monarchy and the Church of England. In 1660, when Charles II acceded to the throne, the Puritans recognized that their only hope for building a godly republic lay in North America.

During the civil war of the 1640s, English settlements had quickly spread throughout Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, as well as into Maine and what became New Hampshire. The English king and Parliament, embroiled in war, paid little attention to events in North America, allowing these New England colonies to develop with little oversight. In 1664, after the restoration of the monarchy, the English wrested control of New Amsterdam from the Dutch and renamed it New York. Although it would be another decade before they fully subordinated the Dutch to their rule, by 1674 the English could claim dominance—in population, trade, and politics—over the other European powers vying for empires along the northern Atlantic coast.

The spread of English control was, however, still contested by various Indian groups. In New England, only 15,000 to 16,000 native people remained by 1670, a loss of about 80 percent over fifty years. Meanwhile the English population soared from a few hundred to more than 50,000, with settlers expanding into new territories and encroaching on native hunting grounds. In 1671 the English demanded that the Wampanoags, who had been their allies since the 1620s, surrender their guns and be ruled by English law. Instead, many Indians hid their weapons and, over the next several years, raided frontier farms and killed several settlers. English authorities responded by hanging three Wampanoag men.

By 1675 the Wampanoag chief Metacom, called King Philip by the English, came to believe that Europeans had to be forced out of New England if Indians were going to survive. As conflict escalated between the English and the Wampanoags, Metacom gained the support of the Narragansett and Nipmuck Indians. Together warriors from the three tribes attacked white settlements throughout the region. Armed with hundreds of guns as well as more traditional knives, hatchets, and arrows, Indians terrorized frontier communities. They burned fields, killed male settlers, and took women and children captive.

Initially, the English were convinced they could win an easy victory over their Indian foes, but the war dragged on and became increasingly brutal on both sides. Some 1,000 English settlers were killed and dozens were taken captive during the war. Eighteen New England towns were destroyed, almost 1,200 homes were burned, and 8,000 cattle were slaughtered. Metacom’s forces attacked Plymouth and Providence and marched within twenty miles of Boston. The English meanwhile made an alliance with Mohawks, Pequots, Mohegans, and praying Indians (mostly Christian Wampanoags) in the region, who ambushed Narragansett forces. The English also attacked enemy villages, killing hundreds of Indians and selling hundreds more into slavery in the West Indies, including Metacom’s wife and son. Indian losses were catastrophic on both sides of the conflict, as food shortages and disease combined with military deaths to kill as many as 4,500 men, women, and children. About a quarter of the remaining Indian population of New England died in 1675—1676.

The war, called King Philip's War by the English, finally ended when Wampanoag, Narragansett, and Nipmuck forces ran short of guns and powder and the Mohawks ambushed and killed Metacom.

The remaining Algonquian-speaking Indians moved north and gradually intermarried with tribes allied with the French. As the carnage of the war spilled into New York, Iroquois leaders and colonists met at Albany in 1677. There they formed an alliance, the Covenant Chain, in hopes of forestalling future conflict so that they could continue their profitable fur trade. In the following decades, furs and land would continue to define the complex relations between Indians and Europeans across the northern regions of North America.


• How did the Puritans' religious views shape New England's development?

• Why did conflict between New England settlers and the region's Indians escalate over the course of the seventeenth century?

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