Common Characteristics of the New England Colonies

17th century map of New England

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The North American colonies that were settled by the English are often divided into three different groups: the New England colonies, the Middle colonies, and the Southern colonies. The New England colonies consisted of Massachusetts Bay, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. These colonies shared many common characteristics that helped define the region. The following is a look at these key characteristics.

Physical Characteristics of New England

  • All of the New England colonies had been covered by ice during the last Ice Age, which created poor, rocky soil. The final melt-back of the glaciers left some of the rocky areas peppered with large boulders.
  • Rivers are fairly short and their floodplains are narrow, unlike in other areas of America, and do not allow for the creation of huge agricultural plots along their banks.
  • The major resources available and used by the colonists were lumber and fish.

The People of New England

  • The New England region was an area of mostly homogeneous culture, mostly settled by large groups of people from England who were fleeing religious persecution or seeking new opportunities.
  • The New England colonists settled in towns, typically surrounded by 40 square miles of land that were farmed by the individuals who lived in the towns.
  • Indigenous Native American groups such as the Pequot in Connecticut were involved in extensive trading with the Dutch, but the situation became tense when the English started arriving in the 1630s. Britain launched the Pequot War in 1636–1637, after which many Pequot were executed and many survivors were sold into slavery in the Caribbean. In 1666 and 1683, Connecticut colony built two reservations for the remaining Pequot.

Major Occupations in New England

  • Agriculture: Farms surrounding the farms were not terribly fertile. As a group, the farmers brought a high degree of mechanical ingenuity and self-sufficiency.
  • Fishing: Boston began exporting fish in 1633. In 1639, Massachusetts Bay was exempted from paying taxes on fishing boats; and as a result, by 1700, the fishing industry was huge. The colonists obtained crustaceans and pelagic fish from saltwater bays and freshwater rivers, and Pilgrim fathers also hunted right whales off Cape Cod.
  • Commerce: Individuals from the New England area were heavily involved in commerce. Extensive trade with England allowed ship holders to flourish, and the New Englanders also maintained lucrative trade connections with the West Indies and French colonies to the north.

New England Religion

  • Calvinism and the Social Contract Theory: Many individuals who lived in the New England area were Calvinists or heavily influenced by John Calvin's works and thought. While many look at John Locke as the primary founder of the idea of the social contract (which defined proper government as an agreement or contract between the individuals to join together into a society), the Calvinist doctrine was one of the first to espouse the idea in England. The fact that many New England settlers followed the religious doctrines of John Calvin meant that this theory was part of their religious heritage. Further, this belief in the importance of social contracts transferred to economic contracts as well.
  • A Belief in Predestination: One of the tenets of Calvinism is the idea of predestination. This was the belief that God had already predetermined everything, including who was going to heaven and who to hell. The idea that God had chosen the British colonies for a special destiny to take the North American continent and develop and maintain an ideal of liberty and democracy later fed into 19th century manifest destiny.
  • Congregationalism: This style of religion means that the church itself was governed by its own members, and the congregation chose its own minister, rather than being assigned one by a hierarchy.
  • Intolerance: While the Puritans might have escaped England due to religious persecution, they did not come to America to establish religious freedom for all. They wanted to be free to worship the way they wished. In Massachusetts Bay colony, people who did not subscribe to the colony religion were not allowed to vote, and nonconformists such as Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams were excommunicated from the church and banished from the colony.

The Spread of the New England Population

The small towns only lasted a few years, as the populations outgrew the 40-acre supporting fields. That resulted in the rapid increase of many new small towns: instead of having a few large metropolises, New England was dotted with many smaller towns that were established by breakaway groups. This low-intensity settlement pattern lasted until the 1790s when a transition to commercial agriculture and small-scale industry began.

In essence, during its first few decades, New England was an area that had been founded by a fairly homogeneous population, most of whom shared common religious beliefs. Because the region lacked huge tracts of fertile land, the area turned to commerce and fishing as their main occupations, though individuals within towns still worked small plots of land in the surrounding area. Slavery did not become an economic necessity in New England, as it grew to be in the Southern colonies. This turn to commerce would have a major impact many years later after the founding of the United States when questions of states rights and slavery were being discussed.

Sources and Further Reading