Colonial Period: Massachusetts Bay Colony
The Massachusetts Bay Colony is the second lesson in the Colonial Period unit with Marquette and Joliet, Bacon’s Rebellion, and the French and Indian War to follow. It was preceded by the Plymouth colony.
The pre-Colonial Period saw European explorers, through the use of triangular trade and particularly the Atlantic Slave trade, colonize indigenous people while establishing indentured servitude and slavery as sources of labor. In mainland North America, settlers would establish thirteen colonies, areas that are now the states known as:
- New York
- New Jersey
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
- New Hampshire
- Rhode Island
There were other scattered colonies like St. Augustine in what is now known as Florida. In the early days of the colonial period, the settlers did not know how to live in the wilderness, and they faced many hardships.
In Massachusetts, for example, the Plymouth settlers, spent most of their first winter (1620–21) on board the Mayflower. The following winter, the Pilgrims lived on land but in wigwams and sailcloth tents. Many were sick and all were hungry, with nearly one-quarter of them dying, before a ship from England brought fresh supplies.
In time, the colonists learned how to live in the wilderness — through trial and error and the help of some of the more friendly Native American tribes. By the 1700s, small cities and towns were well established. The colonists slowly developed their own customs and lifestyles. Eventually they began to feel that this new land was now their true home.
Life In Colonial America
Life in colonial America centered around the family. Most people worked, played, learned, and worshiped at home. A large family was necessary in colonial days to get all the work done.
The father was considered the head of the household. He made all of the decisions concerning their families and earned money through farming and jobs outside the home. Women worked in the home, raising the children, preparing the meals, sewing clothes, preserving food for the winter, scrubbing laundry, fetching water, and stoking fires.
Most children in early colonial times never saw the inside of a schoolhouse. Instead, colonial children usually learned about the adult world by doing things the way their parents did. But, just because they didn’t go to school, their lives were not easy.
Children were expected to help with a share of the family’s work. Boys helped their fathers and girls did chores at home. By a time a girl was four she could knit stockings!
By the time they had reached age 14, most children were already considered adults. Boys would soon take up their father’s trade or leave home to become an apprentice. Girls learned to manage a house and were expected to marry young, probably by the time they were 16 and surely before they were 20.
Massachusetts Bay Colony
The Massachusetts Bay Colony (1628–1691) was an English settlement on the east coast of America around the Massachusetts Bay, the northernmost of the several colonies later reorganized as the Province of Massachusetts Bay. The lands of the settlement were in southern New England, with initial settlements on two natural harbors and surrounding land about 15.4 miles (24.8 km) apart—the areas around Salem and Boston.
The territory nominally administered by the colony covered much of central New England, including portions of Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. Territory claimed but never administered by the colonial government extended as far west as the Pacific Ocean. The Dutch colony of New Netherland disputed many of these claims, arguing that they held rights to land beyond Rhode Island up to the western side of Cape Cod, under the jurisdiction of Plymouth Colony at the time.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded by the owners of the Massachusetts Bay Company, which included investors in the failed Dorchester Company which had established a short-lived settlement on Cape Ann in 1623. This second ultimately successful attempt began in 1628 seeing about 20,000 people migrating to New England in the 1630s.
The population was strongly Puritan, and its governance was dominated by a small group of leaders strongly influenced by Puritan teachings. Its governors were elected, and the electorate were limited to freemen who had been examined for their religious views and formally admitted to the local church. As a consequence, the colonial leadership exhibited intolerance to other religious views, including Anglican, Quaker, and Baptist theologies.
The colonists initially had good relationships with the local Indian populations, but frictions developed which ultimately led to the Pequot War (1636–38) and then to King Philip’s War (1675–78), after which most of the Indians in southern New England made peace treaties with the colonists (apart from the Pequot tribe, whose survivors were largely absorbed into the Narragansett and Mohegan tribes following the Pequot War).
The Massachusetts Bay Colony was economically successful engaging in trade with England, Mexico and the West Indies. Legal tender included England’s pound, Spanish “Pieces of eight”, wampum in the 1640s and of course, barter. A shortage of hard currency prompted the colony to call on the respected John Hull to establish a mint, serve as mintmaster and Treasurer in 1652. The Hull Mint produced oak tree, willow tree and the pine tree shillings.
Political differences with England after the English Restoration led to the revocation of the colonial charter in 1684. King James II established the Dominion of New England in 1686 to bring all of the New England colonies under firmer crown control.
The dominion collapsed after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 deposed James, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony reverted to rule under the revoked charter until 1691, when a new charter was issued for the Province of Massachusetts Bay. This province combined the Massachusetts Bay territories with those of the Plymouth Colony and proprietary holdings on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. Sir William Phips arrived in 1692 bearing the charter and formally took charge of the new province.
Cape Ann Settlement
In 1623, the Plymouth Council for New England (successor to the Plymouth Company) established a small fishing village at Cape Ann under the supervision of the Dorchester Company, with Thomas Gardner as its overseer. This company was originally organized through the efforts of Puritan minister John White (1575–1648) of Dorchester, in the English county of Dorset. White has been called “the father of the Massachusetts Colony” because of his influence in establishing this settlement, even though he never emigrated.
The Cape Ann settlement was not profitable, and the financial backers of the Dorchester Company terminated their support by the end of 1625. Their settlement was abandoned at present-day Gloucester, but a few settlers remained in the area, including Roger Conant, establishing a settlement a little further south at what is now Salem, near the village of the Naumkeag tribe.
Government of Massachusetts Bay Colony
The structure of the colonial government changed over the lifetime of the charter. The Puritans established a theocratic government limited to church members. John Winthrop, Thomas Dudley, Reverend John Cotton and other leaders sought to prevent dissenting religious views, and many were banished because of differing religious beliefs, including Roger Williams of Salem and Anne Hutchinson of Boston, as well as unrepentant Quakers and Anabaptists. By the mid-1640s, Massachusetts Bay Colony had grown to more than 20,000 inhabitants.
The charter granted the general court the authority to elect officers and to make laws for the colony. Its first meeting in America was held in October 1630, but it was attended by only eight freemen. They formed the first council of assistants and voted (contrary to the terms of the charter) that they should elect the governor and deputy from among themselves. The general court determined at the next session that it would elect the governor and deputy.
An additional 116 settlers were admitted to the general court as freemen in 1631, but most of the governing and judicial power remained with the council of assistants. They also enacted a law specifying that only those men who “are members of some of the churches” in the colony were eligible to become freemen and gain the vote. This restriction was not changed until after the English Restoration.
The process by which individuals became members of one of the colony’s churches involved a detailed questioning by the church elders of their beliefs and religious experiences; as a result, only individuals whose religious views accorded with those of the church leadership were likely to become members and gain the ability to vote in the colony. Supposedly, after a protest over the imposition of taxes, the general court ordered each town to send two representatives known as deputies to meet with the court to discuss matters of taxation.
Questions of Governance and Representation
In 1634, when several deputies demanded to see the charter, which the assistants had kept hidden from public view. The deputies learned of the provisions that the general court should make all laws, and that all freemen should be members of the general court. They then demanded that the charter be enforced to the letter, which Governor Winthrop pointed out was impractical given the growing number of freemen.
The parties reached a compromise and agreed that the general court would be made up of two deputies representing each town. Dudley was elected governor in 1634, and the general court reserved a large number of powers for itself, including those of taxation, distribution of land, and the admission of freemen.
Upper and Lower House
A legal case in 1642 brought about the separation of the council of assistants into an upper house of the general court. The case involved a widow’s lost pig and had been overturned by the general court, but the assistants voted as a body to veto the general court’s act. The consequence of the ensuing debate was that the general court voted in 1644 that the council of assistants would sit and deliberate separately from the general court (they had sat together until then), and both bodies must concur for any legislation to be passed. Judicial appeals were to be decided by a joint session, since otherwise the assistants would be in the position to veto attempts to overturn their own decisions.
Laws and Judiciary of Massachusetts Bay Colony
In 1641, the colony formally adopted the Massachusetts Body of Liberties which Nathaniel Ward compiled. This document consisted of 100 civil and criminal laws based upon the social sanctions recorded in the Bible. These laws formed the nucleus of colonial legislation until independence and contained some provisions later incorporated into the United States Constitution, such as the ideas of equal protection and double jeopardy.
Protection for Non-Freemen
On the other hand, Massachusetts Bay was the first colony to legalize slavery with provision 91 of the Massachusetts Body of Liberties which developed protections for people unable to perform public service. Another law was developed to protect married women, children, and people with mental disabilities from making financial decisions. Colonial law differentiated among types of mental disabilities, classifying them as “distracted persons,” “idiots,” and “lunaticks”. In 1693, “poor laws” enabled communities to use the estates of people with disabilities to defer the cost of community support of those individuals. Many of these laws remained until the American Revolution.
Many behaviors were frowned upon culturally which modern sensibilities might consider relatively trivial actions, and some led to criminal prosecution. These included sleeping during church services, playing cards, and engaging in any number of activities on the Sabbath.
Conversely, there were laws which reflected attitudes that are still endorsed by popular sensibilities in 21st century America, against things such as smoking tobacco, abusing one’s mother-in-law, profane dancing, and pulling hair. Children, newcomers, and people with disabilities were exempt from punishment for such infractions.
The colony’s council of assistants sat as the final court of appeal and as the principal court for criminal issues of “life, limb, or banishment” and civil issues where the damages exceeded £100. Lesser offenses were heard in county courts or by commissioners appointed for hearing minor disputes. The lower courts were also responsible for issuing licenses and for matters such as probate. Juries were authorized to decide questions of both fact and law, although the court could decide if a jury failed to reach a decision.
Trials and Sentencing
Sentences for offenses included fines and corporal punishments such as whipping and sitting in the stocks, with the punishments of banishment from the colony and death by hanging reserved for the most serious offenses. Evidence was sometimes based on hearsay and superstition.
For example, the “ordeal of touch” was used in 1646 in which someone accused of murder is forced to touch the dead body; if blood appears, the accused is deemed guilty. This was used to convict and execute a woman accused of murdering her newborn child. Bodies of individuals hanged for piracy were sometimes gibbeted (publicly displayed) on harbor islands visible to seagoing vessels.
One of the first to be executed in the colony was Dorothy Talbye, who was apparently delusional. She was hanged in 1638 for murdering her daughter, as the common law of Massachusetts made no distinction at the time between insanity (or mental illness) and criminal behavior. Midwife Margaret Jones was convicted of being a witch and hanged in 1648 after the condition of patients allegedly worsened in her care.
The colonial leadership was the most active in New England in the persecution of Quakers. In 1660, English Quaker Mary Dyer was hanged in Boston for repeatedly defying a law banning Quakers from the colony. Dyer was one of the four executed Quakers known as the Boston martyrs. Executions ceased in 1661 when King Charles II explicitly forbade Massachusetts from executing anyone for professing Quakerism
New England Confederation
In 1643, Massachusetts Bay joined Plymouth Colony, Connecticut Colony, and New Haven Colony in the New England Confederation, a loose coalition organized primarily to coordinate military and administrative matters among the Puritan colonies. It was most active in the 1670s during King Philip’s War. (New Hampshire had not yet been organized as a separate province, and both it and Rhode Island were excluded because they were not Puritan.)
In the early years, the colony was highly dependent on the import of staples from England and was supported by the investments of a number of wealthy immigrants. Certain businesses were quick to thrive, notably shipbuilding, fisheries, and the fur and lumber trades. As early as 1632, ships built in the colony began trading with other colonies, England, and foreign ports in Europe. By 1660, the colony’s merchant fleet was estimated at 200 ships and, by the end of the century, its shipyards were estimated to turn out several hundred ships annually.
In the early years, the fleet principally carried fish to destinations from the West Indies to Europe. It was common for a merchant to ship dried fish to Portugal or Spain, pick up wine and oil for transport to England, and then carry finished goods from England or elsewhere back to the colony. This and other patterns of trade became illegal following the introduction of the Navigation Acts in 1651, turning colonial merchants who continued these trading patterns into de facto smugglers.
Many colonial authorities were merchants or were politically dependent on them, and they opposed being required by the crown to collect duties imposed by those acts. In 1652, Massachusetts General Court established the “Hull Mint” established by John Hull and Robert Sanderson producing the pine tree shilling.
The fur trade only played a modest role in the colony’s economy because its rivers did not connect its centers well with the Indians who engaged in fur trapping. Timber began to take on an increasingly important role in the economy, especially for naval purposes, after conflicts between England and the Dutch depleted England’s supplies of ship masts.
The colony’s economy depended on the success of its trade, in part because its land was not as suitable for agriculture as that of other colonies such as Virginia, where large plantations could be established. The fishery was important enough that those involved in it were exempted from taxation and military service. Larger communities supported craftsmen skilled in providing many of the necessities of 17th century life. Some income-producing activities took place in the home, such as carding, spinning, and weaving of wool and other fibers.
Goods were transported to local markets over roads that were sometimes little more than widened Indian trails. Towns were required to maintain their roads, on penalty of fines, and the colony required special town commissions to lay out roads in a more sensible manner in 1639. Bridges were fairly uncommon, since they were expensive to maintain, and fines were imposed on their owners for the loss of life or goods if they failed. Consequently, most river crossings were made by ferry. Notable exceptions were a bridge across the Mystic River constructed in 1638, and another over the Saugus River, whose upkeep costs were subsidized by the colony.
The colonial government attempted to regulate the economy in a number of ways. On several occasions, it passed laws regulating wages and prices of economically important goods and services, but most of these initiatives did not last very long. The trades of shoe-making and coopering (barrel-making) were authorized to form guilds, making it possible to set price, quality, and expertise levels for their work. The colony set standards governing the use of weights and measures. For example, mill operators were required to weigh grain before and after milling, to ensure that the customer received back what he delivered (minus the miller’s percentage).
The Puritan dislike of ostentation led the colony to also regulate expenditures on what it perceived as luxury items. Items of personal adornment, particularly lace and costly silk outerwear, were frowned about. Attempts to ban these items failed, and the colony resorted to laws restricting their display to those who could demonstrate £200 in assets.
Black and Indigenous Slavery
Slavery existed but was not widespread within the colony. Some Indians captured in the Pequot War were enslaved, with those posing the greatest threat being transported to the West Indies and exchanged for goods and slaves.
Governor John Winthrop owned a few Indian slaves, and Governor Simon Bradstreet owned two black slaves. The Body of Liberties enacted in 1641 included rules governing the treatment and handling of slaves. Bradstreet reported in 1680 that the colony had 100 to 120 slaves, but historian Hugh Thomas documents evidence suggesting that there may have been a somewhat larger number
Revocation of Charter
England had difficulty enforcing its laws and regulations in the Massachusetts Bay colony, as it was a joint-stock colony which was unlike the royal colonies and proprietary colonies that the English crown administered. Massachusetts Bay was largely self-governing with its own house of deputies, governor, and other self-appointed officers. The colony also did not keep its headquarters and oversight in London but moved them to the colony.
The Massachusetts Bay colonists viewed themselves as something apart from their “mother country” of England because of this tradition of self-rule, coupled with the theocratic nature of New England Puritan society. The Puritan founders of Massachusetts and Plymouth saw themselves as having been divinely given their lands in the New World with a duty to implement and observe religious law.
Two delegates from Massachusetts Bay were sent to London to meet with the Lords of Trade when the crown threatened the colony with a quo warranto. The Lords demanded a supplementary charter to alleviate problems, but the delegates were under orders that they could not negotiate any change with the Charter and this enraged the Lords. The quo warranto was issued immediately.
The King feared that this would stir problems within the colony and attempted to reassure the colonists that their private interests would not be infringed upon. The declaration did create problems, however, and the confrontations increased between the moderates and conservatives. The moderates controlled the office of Governor and the Council of Assistants, and the conservatives controlled the Assembly of Deputies. This political turmoil ended in compromise with the deputies voting to allow the delegates in London to negotiate and defend the colonial charter.
When the warrant arrived in Boston, the General Court voted on what course the colony should take. The two options were to immediately submit to royal authority and dismantle their government or to wait for the crown to revoke their charter and install a new governmental system. The General Court decided to wait out the crown. They lacked a legal basis to continue their government, yet it remained intact until its official revocation in 1686.
Unification and Restoration
James II of England united Massachusetts with the other New England colonies in the Dominion of New England in 1686. The dominion was governed by Sir Edmund Andros without any local representation beyond his own hand-picked councillors, and it was extremely unpopular throughout New England. Massachusetts authorities arrested Andros in April 1689 after the 1688 Glorious Revolution in England, and they re-established government under the forms of the vacated charter. However, dissenters from the Puritan rule argued that the government lacked a proper constitutional foundation, and some of its actions were resisted on that basis.
King William III issued a charter in 1691, despite efforts by Massachusetts agents to revive the old colonial charter. It was chiefly negotiated by Increase Mather in his role as the colony’s ambassador-extraordinary, unifying Massachusetts Bay with Plymouth Colony, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and territories that roughly encompass Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia to form the Province of Massachusetts Bay. This new charter additionally extended voting rights to non-Puritans, an outcome that Mather had tried to avoid
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