History of Massachusetts
Pilgrims, Puritans, and Early Settlers
The area that is today the State of Massachusetts has a long and colorful history as part of the original thirteen colonies.
Famous for the Pilgrims that sailed the Atlantic in the Mayflower, Massachusetts was also home to several of the first pioneering groups to cross the ocean.
The Pilgrims left Great Britain to avoid religious persecution, first by going to Holland and then by sailing to the New World in 1619. They first landed near the tip of Cape Cod, but after some exploration settled at Plymouth by 1620. An interesting fact of this group is that before landing and establishing their settlement, they created a self-governing document called the Mayflower Compact which was their legal code.
The Pilgrims were very faithful people that traveled across a country, then an ocean, to be able to observe their religious beliefs in freedom. The first year, they were besought by disease, struggled to get their first crops in, and worked hard to build the new settlement so that only half of the Mayflower company survived.
A local Native American tribe, the Wampanoag’s under-chief Massasoit, helped them through their troubles so that in 1621, the newly formed Pilgrim colony celebrated their first Thanksgiving Day together with the Wampanoag’s to thank God and the Indians for their survival. Across the United States, we Americans still gather with our families today to celebrate Thanksgiving Day and thank God for all of our blessings.
Hardly had the Pilgrims set up their village at Plymouth before their own promoter, Thomas Weston, sent out a group of rowdy individuals to settle nearby and establish a fishing post. Unused to the New England winter, the latest arrivals did not plant crops or prepare, so their settlement was a failure.
Not far away another colony was under the control of Thomas Morton who rocked conservative New England to its foundations by turning his colony into the merriest settlement in America. Calling his place Merry Mount, he put up an enormous maypole around which his men danced, drank, and frolicked with the Indians and their women. The natives approved and brought their beaver skins to Merry Mount instead of Plymouth, while the Pilgrims looked on in righteous indignation.
Unhappy not only with the loss of the fur trade, but the influence of the Merry Mount settlement on the morals of the area, the Pilgrims took a stand. One of his first official acts in America was to send Miles Standish across Massachusetts Bay to Merry Mount to chop down Morton’s Maypole. Colonizing was serious business for the Pilgrims.
In 1629, the New England Company was rechartered under the name of the Massachusetts Bay company. The new charter was significant in American history because it allowed for government of the colony to be controlled in American with no governing council in England. Puritan squire John Winthrop wanted to sponsor a small immigration to the New World but would not do so unless he had full governing power. Approved in Great Britain, Winthrop became the governor and 840 immigrants arrived in Massachusetts in 1630.
Significant to America was that the new arrivals included not only workers but men of means who had qualities of leadership. 1630 is called the year of the great migration due to the discontent with the ruling King Charles I of England, who ignored Parliament and was arbitrary in both political and religious matters.
The Massachusetts Bay colony was not without food shortages and personal suffering as they built their new settlement, but after the first few years growth was rapid. By 1643 the population stood between 14,000 and 16,000 which may have been more than the population of England’s other American colonies.
Many other new colonies formed around Massachusetts Bay in the late 1600s and early 1700s making it a growing and thriving area of fishermen, farmers, blacksmiths, shop keepers, and others.
Massachusetts and the American Revolution
One of the most influential colonies in the movement that became the American Revolution, Massachusetts produced many of our founding fathers.
Prior to the Declaration of Independence, King George III continued to antagonize the American colonists by adding more taxes without their consent and removing their freedoms. He stubbornly told his prime minister, Lord North, that a state of rebellion existed and that Britain would not yield an inch, “blows must decide whether they are to be subject to this country or independent.” But the colonists met his challenge, passed and ratified the Declaration of Independence declaring their independence and right to self government. (For more information see the History of the Declaration of Independence.)
The Boston Tea Party, in which local Boston colonists dressed as Indians, boarded boats in Boston harbor by night and dumped the tea overboard was in defiance of the large tax on tea. This caused the British government to pass the Intolerable Acts in 1774 bringing stiff punishment on Massachusetts. Closing the port of Boston, the economic lifeblood of the Commonwealth, the British removed local self-government.
The Massachusetts Provincial Congress was formed by local patriotic colonists after the provincial legislature was disbanded by British military governor Thomas Gage. The tyranny of the British rule of Boston caused great sympathy and stirred resentment throughout the Thirteen Colonies. On February 9, 1775, the British Parliament declared Massachusetts to be in rebellion, and sent additional troops to restore order to the colony.
During the winter of 1775-1775, General Thomas Gage of the British army concentrated his troops around Boston and the neighboring villages. Gage learned from his spies that in the village of Concord, twenty-one miles south of Boston, there was a major supply depot, and that in Lexington, five miles from Concord, there were a couple of incendiaries name Samuel Adams and John Hancock.
Gage dispatched 700 soldiers to capture the two men and destroy the supplies. As Gage’s men marched on the evening of April 18, 1775 Paul Revere, William Dawes, and Dr. Samuel Prescott sped on horseback through the night to warn of the redcoats’ advance. The colonials turned out and when Gage’s troops appeared at Lexington at dawn, they were met by thirty-eight villagers in military formation. In the ensuing exchange of shots, eight Americans died and nine were wounded. Leaving the rebels to count their losses, the British troops now moved on to concord. The first blood in the American Revolution had been drawn.
After the supplies in Concord were destroyed, Gage’s troops fought off an attack at Old North Bridge and began the return march. Angry Massachusetts farmers all over the area snatched rifles from above their fireplaces and swarmed after the redcoat line. Under almost constant fire, the British troops stumbled along. By night, they were back in Charlestown, but the journey to Concord had cost them 247 in killed and wounded while the American “rabble,” who were not supposed to be a match for the King’s men, had lost 88.
The skirmish in the Massachusetts villages now became a flaming challenge to the British and a symbol across America to the colonists. In Virginia, George Washington announced that now it was either war or slavery. The colonists had talked merely of resistance before, now they were talking revolution.
In the summer of 1776, the leaders of the thirteen colonies met together in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as the Second Continental Congress. This home-grown congress drafted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, announcing that the thirteen colonies were at war with Great Britain.
The Massachusetts delegates to the Second Continental Congress were:
Robert Treat Paine
This Declaration of Independence was a formal document explaining why the colonists voted to go to war with Britain. In it, the beginnings and basic tenants of the freedoms granted by the United States of American to all its citizens were initially outlined.
It was signed first by Massachusetts resident John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress. Soon afterward the Declaration of Independence was read to the people of Boston from the balcony of the Old State House.
Many ordinary Massachusetts farmers and workers went to fight for the freedom that we enjoy today as soldiers of the American Continental Army, including Deborah Sampson, dressing as a man and taking the identity Robert Shurtleff, who served in the Revolutionary War.
Post Revolutionary Times
When the Constitution was drafted after the war was won, Samuel Adams and James Bowdoin, wrote in the Preamble to the Constitution of the Commonwealth:
We, therefore, the people of Massachusetts, acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the goodness of the Great Legislator of the Universe, in affording us, in the course of His Providence, an opportunity, deliberately and peaceably, without fraud, violence or surprise, on entering into an Original, explicit, and Solemn Compact with each other; and of forming a new Constitution of Civil Government, for Ourselves and Posterity, and devoutly imploring His direction in so interesting a design, Do agree upon, ordain and establish, the following Declaration of Rights, and Frame of Government, as the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Part of the original thirteen colonies, Massachusetts ratified the United States Constitution on February 6, 1788, thereby becoming the sixth state of the union.