The Founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony

John Winthrop Landing in Massachusetts

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Massachusetts Bay Colony was settled in 1630 by a group of Puritans from England under the leadership of Governor John Winthrop. A grant issued by King Charles I empowered the group to create a colony in Massachusetts. While the company was intended to transfer the wealth of the New World to stockholders in England, the settlers themselves transferred the charter to Massachusetts. By so doing, they turned a commercial venture into a political one.

Fast Facts: Massachusetts Bay Colony

  • Also Known As: Commonwealth of Massachusetts
  • Named After: Massachuset tribe
  • Founding Year: 1630
  • Founding Country: England, Netherlands
  • First Known European Settlement: 1620
  • Residential Indigenous Communities: Massachuset, Nipmuc, Pocumtuc, Pequot, Wampanoag (all Algonkin)
  • Founders: John Winthrop, William Bradford
  • Important People: Anne Hutchinson, John White, John Eliot, Roger Williams,
  • First Continental Congressmen: John Adams, Samuel Adams, Thomas Cushing, Robert Treat Paine
  • Signers of the Declaration: John Hancock, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry

John Winthrop and the "Winthrop Fleet"

The Mayflower carried a mixture of English and Netherlands Separatists, the Pilgrims, to America in 1620. Forty-one colonists on board the ship signed the Mayflower Compact, on November 11, 1620. This was the first written governmental framework in the New World.

In 1629, a fleet of 12 ships known as the Winthrop Fleet left England and headed for Massachusetts. It reached Salem, Massachusetts, on June 12th. Winthrop himself sailed aboard the Arbella. It was while he was still aboard the Arbella that Winthrop gave a famous speech in which he said:

"[F]or wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us; soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our god in this worke wee have undertaken and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a byword through the world, wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of god and all professours for Gods sake...."

These words embody the spirit of the Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. While they emigrated to the New World to be able to freely practice their religion, they did not espouse freedom of religion for other settlers.

Settling Boston

Though Winthrop's Fleet landed at Salem, they did not stay; the tiny settlement simply couldn't support hundreds of additional settlers. Within a short time, Winthrop and his group had moved, at the invitation of Winthrop's college friend William Blackstone, to a new location on a nearby peninsula. In 1630, they renamed their settlement Boston after the town they had left in England.

In 1632, Boston was made the capital of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. By 1640, hundreds more English Puritans had joined Winthrop and Blackstone in their new colony. By 1750, more than 15,000 colonists lived in Massachusetts.

Unrest and Exile: The Antinomian Crisis 

During the first decade of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, several political crises occurred, unfolding simultaneously, concerning the way religion was practiced in the colony. One of those is known as the "Antinomian Crisis" which resulted in the departure of Anne Hutchinson (1591–1643) from Massachusetts Bay. She was preaching in a manner that proved unseemly to the colony's leaders and was tried in civil and ecclesiastical courts, which culminated in her excommunication on March 22, 1638. She went on to settle in Rhode Island and died a few years later near Westchester, New York. 

Historian Jonathan Beecher Field has pointed out that what happened to Hutchinson is similar to other exiles and departures in the early days of the colony. For example, in 1636, because of religious differences, Puritan colonist Thomas Hooker (1586–1647) took his congregation to found Connecticut colony. That same year, Roger Williams (1603–1683) was exiled and ended up founding Rhode Island colony. 

Christianizing Indigenous Peoples 

In the earliest days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Puritans carried out a war of extermination against the Pequots in 1637, and a war of attrition against the Narragansetts. In 1643, the English turned the Narragansett sachem (leader) Miantonomo (1565–1643) over to his enemies, the Mohegan tribe, where he was summarily killed. But beginning with the efforts of John Eliot (1604–1690), missionaries in the colony worked to convert the local Indigenous peoples into Puritan Christians. In March of 1644, the Massachuset tribe submitted themselves to the colony and agreed to take religious instruction.

Eliot set up "praying towns" in the colony, isolated settlements such as Natick (established 1651), where newly converted people could live separated from both English settlers and independent Indigenous peoples. The settlements were organized and laid out like an English village, and the residents were subject to a legal code that required that traditional practices be replaced by those proscribed in the Bible.

The praying towns roused dissent in the European settlements, and in 1675, the settlers accused the missionaries and their converts of treason. All of the Indigenous peoples professing loyalty to the English were rounded up and placed on Deer Island without adequate food and shelter. King Philip's War broke out in 1675, an armed conflict between English colonists and the Indigenous people led by Metacomet (1638–1676), the Wampanoag chief who had adopted the name "Philip." Some of the Massachusetts Bay Indigenous converts supported the colonial militia as scouts and were crucial to the eventual colonial victory in 1678. However, by 1677, the converts who had not been killed, sold into enslavement, or driven northward, found themselves restricted to praying towns that were essentially reservations for people reduced to live as servants and tenant farmers. 

The American Revolution

Massachusetts played a key role in the American Revolution. In December 1773, Boston was the site of the famous Boston Tea Party in reaction to the Tea Act that had been passed by the British. Parliament reacted by passing acts to control the colony, including a naval blockade of the harbor. The first Continental Congress was held in Philadelphia on September 5, 1774, and five men from Massachusetts attended: John Adams, Samuel Adams, Thomas Cushing, and Robert Treat Paine.

On April 19, 1775, Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, were the sites of the first shots fired in the Revolutionary War. After this, the colonists laid siege to Boston, which the British troops held. The siege eventually ended when the British evacuated in March 1776. Signers of the Declaration of Independence from Massachusetts on July 4, 1776, were John Hancock, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, and Elbridge Gerry. The war continued for seven more years with many Massachusetts volunteers fighting for the Continental Army.

Sources and Further Reading

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Kelly, Martin. "The Founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Kelly, Martin. (2023, April 5). The Founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "The Founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).