17th Century Massachusetts

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The 17th century was a time of immense change in the history of Massachusetts.

Tens of thousands of Native-Americans lived in Massachusetts prior to colonization and the area was frequented throughout the 16th and 17th century by European traders and fisherman. These traders and fisherman inadvertently introduced diseases to the Native-Americans that quickly devastated their population.

By the time the colonists arrived in the early 17th century, the Native-American population had already been dramatically reduced and much of their land was vacant and available for settlement. Once colonization began in the 1620s and 1630s, the colonist population of the area suddenly exploded and overcrowding quickly became an issue.

Two colonies were established in Massachusetts, Plymouth Colony and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and these early colonists faced many hardships including disease, famine, brutal winters, hot and humid summers, warfare with local Native-American tribes as well as with other countries that were also trying to colonize North America and political struggles due to political instability in England.

The colonies in Massachusetts started off as separate, privately-run colonies but by the end of the century they became one large royal colony that was closely ruled by the British government. This itself caused a lot of unrest and anxiety in Massachusetts at the end of the century and made the colonists fearful of the future of their colony.

The following is a list of notable events of 17th century Massachusetts:

Captain John Smith’s Visit to New England:

Captain John Smith was an explorer who helped settle the Jamestown colony in Virginia. After he was forced to leave Jamestown due to his unpopularity there, he later sailed to New England in 1614 with the hopes of starting a colony there. Smith himself coined the name “New England” and also named a number of Massachusetts landmarks that still retain these names today. Smith returned to England with a newly drawn map of the New England region and tried to raise funds and support for his own colony there but failed after numerous attempts and never returned to New England again.

The Mayflower:

The Mayflower ship was a cargo ship that brought some of the first colonists, the pilgrims, to Massachusetts in 1620. The ship was originally headed for Virginia but strayed off course during the long voyage and landed in Provincetown in Cape Cod just as the pilgrims were running out of supplies. After a skirmish with the local Native-American tribe there they were forced to sail to Plymouth where they disembarked and began to build their colony there.

Plymouth Colony:

Plymouth Colony was settled by the pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower in 1620. The colony, which was financed by the Plymouth Company, was the first official colony in New England. The colony struggled in its first year and many of the colonists died of starvation and disease but eventually thrived with the help of the local Wampanoag tribe. Plymouth colony was later merged with the Massachusetts Bay Colony when they became a royal colony, known as the Province of Massachusetts Bay, in 1691.

The First Thanksgiving:

The First Thanksgiving was a harvest celebration that the pilgrims held in the fall of 1621. After a long, hard year full of starvation and death, the pilgrims were finally able to grow enough food, with the help of the local Wampanoag tribe and the tribe’s slave, Squanto, to feed the colony during the coming winter. To show their appreciate, the colonists invited the local tribe as well as their king, Massasoit, and Squanto, to the celebration. The celebration later became a New England tradition and eventually became a national holiday in the 19th century.

Massachusetts Bay Colony:

Massachusetts Bay Colony was settled in what is now modern day Boston in 1630. It was financed and founded by the Massachusetts Bay Company after the company was granted a charter to engage in trade in New England by King Charles I in 1629. The colony became the largest colony in New England and was hugely successful.

The colony’s charter was revoked in 1684 when it refused to obey orders from King Charles I and was merged into a mega colony, called the Dominion of New England, with many other New England colonies in 1686. The Dominion was dissolved a few years later in 1689. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was then merged with Plymouth colony and became a royal colony, known as the Province of Massachusetts Bay, after a new charter was established by Queen Mary and King William of Orange in 1691.

Slavery in Massachusetts:

The first slaves were brought to Massachusetts during the early 17th century. Although Massachusetts’s climate and rocky soil couldn’t support plantations, many colonists still used slaves as personal household servants. Slavery in Massachusetts continued until it was abolished in the late 18th century.

New England Confederation:

The New England Confederation was a military alliance between the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Plymouth Colony, Connecticut Colony and New Haven Colony. The alliance, formed in 1643, was intended to provide joint military support for each colony in the event that they were attacked by Native-Americans, the Dutch or the French. The confederation lasted a little over 40 years before it eventually came to an end in 1686 when the Dominion of New England was established.

Dominion of New England:

The Dominion of New England was a merging of several New England colonies, Connecticut, Massachusetts Bay, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, into one mega colony in 1686. King James II created the dominion as a way to gain better control over the administrative affairs of the various colonies and to strengthen colonial defenses against attacks by Native-American, Dutch or French forces. The dominion was not overall successful and proved too large to manage effectively. It was ultimately overthrown after news of the Glorious Revolution in England sparked the Boston Revolt in 1689.

The Salem Witch Trials:

The Salem Witch Trials took place in Salem in the year 1692. Salem was a settlement within the Massachusetts Bay Colony and, like much of the colony, it was under a lot of stress due to disease epidemics, warfare with local Native-Americans, crop failures and the political turmoil brought about by the colony’s loss of the original charter in 1684 and the establishment of a new royal charter in 1691. It is believed these issues were some of the underlying factors that caused the witch trials.

The trials began when a group of girls in Salem Village began behaving strangely in the winter of 1692 and a local doctor determined they were bewitched. After the girls named three women who they believed were bewitching them, one of the women confessed that she was in fact a witch. This confession triggered a mass hysteria in the settlement which prompted the colonists to turn on each other and, as a result, started the infamous trials.

17th century Massachusetts

Images of Massachusetts in the 17th century. Top left: Image of the Mayflower arriving in New England. Top right: Image of the first Thanksgiving. Bottom left: Image of the Salem Witch Trials. Bottom right: Image of the pilgrims going to church

Massachusetts; Suzanne LeVert, Tamra B. Orr; 2009

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the owner and operator of this website and all the articles are written and researched by her. Rebecca is a freelance writer and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

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