History of the Massachusetts Bay Colony

Massachusetts Bay Colony was a British settlement in Massachusetts in the 17th century. It was the most successful and profitable colony in New England.

The following are some facts about the Massachusetts Bay Colony:

What Type of Colony was the Massachusetts Bay?

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was a charter colony. This meant that the administration of the colony was elected by the colonists and the colony was allowed to self-govern, as long as its laws aligned with those of England.

Who Founded Massachusetts Bay Colony?

Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded by the Massachusetts Bay Company during the Great Puritan Migration.

The Massachusetts Bay Company, which was strongly Puritan, had been conducting business in the New World for a few years as the New England Company.

The company then renamed itself the Massachusetts Bay Company, after the tribe of Massachusetts Indians that lived in New England, and the company was granted a charter by Charles I, on March 4, 1629, to officially engage in trade in New England.

Who Settled Massachusetts Bay Colony?

When the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter was issued, it neglected to say that the company members had to stay in England to conduct their meetings.

In August of 1629, the company held a series of meetings in Cambridge where they voted to take advantage of this omission and move the entire company to New England, according to the book The Charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony:

“The men reasoned that if they company continued to meet in England, the king could find things to quarrel about and could possibly take back the charter. This had happened to the Virginia Company of London. Taking the charter with them to America would remove much of the king’s power to interfere in their affairs. The company could erect a self-governing religious commonwealth. It would allow the leaders to create the kind of society they wanted, a ‘City of God in the wilderness.’”

In April of 1630, the Puritans, led by one of the company’s stockholders, John Winthrop, left their homes in Boston, England and gathered at a dock in Southampton to set sail for the New World.

At the dock, the Puritans listened to Reverend John Cotton preach his now famous sermon, titled “God’s Promise to His Plantation.” Cotton informed the Puritans that they were on a holy mission and urged them to convert the Native American population in the New World to Christianity. Winthrop tried to persuade Cotton to come with them to the New World but Cotton declined and returned to his church, St. Botolph’s in Lincolnshire.

The fleet of 11 ships, now known as the Winthrop fleet, set sail and finally reached the shores of Massachusetts on June 12 and landed at Salem.

The existing colony in Salem, which was occupied by members of the failed Cape Ann settlement in 1626 and taken over by Governor John Endecott by order of the New England Company in 1628, did not have enough food or shelter to accommodate the 700-800 new colonists, according to Governor Thomas Hutchinson’s book The History of Massachusetts:

“The Arabella arrived at Salem the 12th of June. The common people immediately went ashore, and regaled themselves with strawberries, which are very fine in America, and were then in perfection. This might give them a favourable idea of the produce of the country; but the gentlemen met with enough to fill them with concern. The first news they had, was of a general conspiracy, a few months before, of all the indians as far as Narragansett, to extirpate the English. Eighty persons out of about three hundred had died in the colony the winter before, and many of those that remained were in a weak, sickly condition. There was not corn enough to have lasted above a fortnight, and all other provisions were scant. They had not above three of four months to look out proper places for settlements, and to provide shelter against the severity of the winter. With this prospect of difficulties, great enough for them to encounter, sickness began among them. Being destitute of necessary accommodations, they dropped away one after another…Before December, they had lost two hundred of their number, including a few who died upon their passage. The governor, and some of the principal persons, left Salem the 17th of June, and travelled through the woods to Charlestown, about twenty miles, to look for a convenient place for their chief town, which they had determined should be in some part of the bay or harbour between Natasket and Cambridge….”

The Puritans finally settled in Charlestown, across the river from the Shawmut peninsula, which is now modern day Boston. Although they had finally settled, the colony still suffered due to a lack of fresh water.

Little did Winthrop know, a friend he had attended the University of Cambridge with back in England, William Blackstone, was living on the nearby Shawmut peninsula. Blackstone, a member of the failed Dorchester colony, had moved to the peninsula after the remaining members of his colony returned to England.

After Blackstone heard of Winthrop’s arrival from his Native-American friends, the two met and Blackstone invited the puritans to live with him on the peninsula. Winthrop accepted the offer and the Puritans began construction on their settlement.

"Gov. John Winthrop -- In honor of the birthday of Governor John Winthrop, born June 12, 1587," wood engraving, circa 1860-1880
“Gov. John Winthrop — In honor of the birthday of Governor John Winthrop, born June 12, 1587,” wood engraving, circa 1860-1880

In September of 1630, the colonists officially named the settlement Boston after their hometown in England.

By the mid 1630s, the Puritans had invited hundreds of more colonists over from England and were taking over the area.

After the Puritans took control over almost all the land Blackstone believed was his, Blackstone decided to sell his remaining 50 acres back to the Puritans, which later became Boston Common, and moved to the area that is now Rhode Island.

In 1632, the colonists officially made Boston the capital of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

By 1640, more than 40,000 English colonists had moved to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Coastal communities, such as Salem town, became overcrowded and colonists began to move inland to establish farming communities, which led to the formation of Salem Village and many other farming towns in Massachusetts and New England.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony towns and settlements founded during the Great Puritan Migration were:

  • Weymouth, Massachusetts, settled by Thomas Weston of Plymouth Colony in 1622, failed in 1623, surviving colonists joined Plymouth colony, Weymouth taken over by Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635, originally named Wessaguscus
  • Gloucester, Massachusetts, settled by the Dorchester Company in 1623, taken over by Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1642
  • Salem, Massachusetts, settled by the Dorchester Company in 1626, taken over by Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1628
  • Charlestown, Massachusetts, settled by Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1628
  • Saugus, Massachusetts, settled by Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629
  • Boston, Massachusetts, settled by Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630
  • Roxbury, Massachusetts, settled by Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630
  • Dorchester, Massachusetts, settled by Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630
  • Hull, Massachusetts, settled by members of the Plymouth Colony in 1624, taken over by Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, originally named Nantasket
  • Watertown, Massachusetts, settled by Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630
  • Cambridge, settled by Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, originally named New Town or Newtowne
  • Ipswich, Massachusetts settled by Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1633, originally named Agawam
  • Hingham, Massachusetts, settled by Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635, originally named Bare Cove
  • Newbury, Massachusetts, settled by Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635
  • Concord, Massachusetts, settled by Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635, first inland settlement in New England
  • Dedham, Massachusetts, settled by Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636
  • Rowley, Massachusetts, settled by Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1639
  • Salisbury, Massachusetts, settled by Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1638, originally named Colchester, renamed Salisbury in 1640
  • Sudbury, Massachusetts, settled by Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1638
  • Haverhill, Massachusetts, settled by Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1641, originally named Pentucket

More Puritans continued to travel over from England and the number of colonies in New England expanded to a total of four: Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Connecticut and New Haven.

These colonies included many villages. Each village consisted of houses, a community garden and a meetinghouse to host church services.

Schools were also built, including the first American public school, called the Boston Latin School, and laws were passed requiring a school in every town with more than 50 inhabitants.

In 1643, the four colonies formed a military alliance, known as the New England Confederation, to help defend themselves from Native American attacks.

The colonists feared the Native-Americans but also felt it was their mission to help “civilize” this New World as well as the Native-Americans who lived there.

The original seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony even depicted an image of a Native-American saying “Come over and help us.”

In 1648, the Massachusetts Bay Colony tried and executed an accused witch for the first time. The accused was a midwife named Margaret Jones from Charlestown and she was hanged at Gallows Hill in Boston after she was accused by some of her patients.

Diseases brought by the colonists started to ravage the Native American population. By 1650, about 90 percent of the Native Americans living in New England died due to disease.

Growing resentment between Native Americans and settlers eventually led to King Phillip’s War in 1675, which decimated the Wampanoag and Narragansett tribes. The Native Americans that survived the war either fled to the west or surrendered and were sold into slavery.

The original Massachusetts Bay Colony seal
The original Massachusetts Bay Colony seal

While the Native American population declined, the number of colonists flourished. By 1676, Boston had 4,000 residents.

The colonists continued to build up the city, constructing its first post office in 1639 and published its first American newspaper in 1690 titled “Publick Occurrences: Both Foreign and Domestick.”

Colonists also declared war on local wildlife that they deemed a threat, such as the local wolf population, according to the book Disguised as the Devil: A History of Lyme Disease and Witch Accusations:

“Wolves were considered flat out pests. They became the pariah of the wilderness – dark, insidious predators biting at the heels of civilization. They had a price on their heads from almost the moment of contact with the English colonists. Well nourished on deer meat, this thriving wolf population was unfortunately not discerning enough to know a domesticated animal from their wild prey. When they began to add pork, beef, and mutton to their diet, it was not tolerated. In 1678 Salem Village was rimmed by a set of wolf traps. The last wolf bounty in Massachusetts was paid in the nineteenth century at the end of a successful eradication program that took over 200 years to complete.”

The population of Boston continued to grow in the 17th and early 18th century, despite small-pox outbreaks in 1690, 1702 and 1721.

By 1730, Boston had over 13,000 residents. Many of Boston’s most famous buildings were built during this time period, such as the Old State House in 1713, Old North Church in 1723, Old South Meetinghouse in 1729 and Faneuil Hall in 1742. By 1750, Boston’s population had risen to 15,000 people.

Massachusetts Bay Colony Government and Religion:

From the moment they landed in the New World, the Massachusetts Bay colonists worked tirelessly to establish a government that was not only efficient but one that also reflected their personal and religious ideals, according to the book Massachusetts: Mapping the Bay State Through History:

“While the Pilgrims were occupied with the problems of survival, the better organized and provisioned Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony came with a mission, to establish their own shining ‘citty [sic] upon a Hill,’ free of the sin and corruption of the land and society they were leaving. They moved quickly to establish their political and religious – and eventually, geographical – authority, with confidence based on their religious faith and the later economic success that they took as a sign of divine consent.”

Religion and government were deeply intertwined in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and only the most devout Puritans could participate in governmental affairs, according to the book Politics and Religion in the United States:

“While everyone in the community was a member of a congregation and was expected to attend services and support the church, only those who went through the arduous process of demonstrating their spiritual regeneration could become full-covenant members, thus gaining a say in both ecclesiastical and secular government. The civil government had authority over everyone in the community, but was controlled by the minority of the population that had achieved full church membership.”

The Puritans were highly intolerant of other religions and came to the New World specifically to escape religious persecution and create their own community where they could live only among like-minded people.

As a result, the Puritans frequently persecuted other colonists who didn’t share their religious views, especially Quakers, according to the book Politics and Religion in the United States:

“At first, Quaker missionaries who came to Massachusetts to spread their views were simply banished. However, as Quakers kept coming, harsher punishments were introduced for them, such as cutting off their ears or boring a hole in their tongues with a hot iron – and then banishing them. When even this didn’t stop Quaker missionary activity, the death penalty was added. Between 1659 and 1661, four Quakers were put to death by the Puritans. It appeared that the persecution would become even more deadly; however, in 1661, King Charles II intervened and prohibited any corporal punishment of Quakers.”

After the establishment of the English Commonwealth in 1649, the colonists also declared Massachusetts a commonwealth, although they had no authority to do so. The Cromwell government in control of England at the time did little to respond to this move.

After King Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, the British government attempted to take more control of the Massachusetts Bay Colony by sending a series of royal commissions, first in 1664 and then again in 1676, to settle land disputes and reform the colony’s administrations.

The colony rebuffed each commission, but, once again, the British government didn’t respond to or attempt to punish the colony for these acts of defiance.

In 1684, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was disheartened to hear its charter was revoked due to repeated violations of the charter’s terms. The list of violations included establishing religious laws, discriminating against Anglicans and Quakers and running an illegal mint.

In 1686, King James II decided to reign in these rebellious New England colonies by merging all of them together to form the Dominion of New England and appointed Sir Edmund Andros as its governor. Andros immediately set to work proposing new taxes, pushing aside the General Council and forbidding town meetings.

In April of 1689, when word reached Boston that King James II had been overthrown by William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, a mob formed in Boston and they quickly seized and ousted the royal officials and put the former Puritan leadership back in power.

In 1691, a compromise was made over the unpopular Dominion of New England and a new charter was issued. This new charter united the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Plymouth Colony and Maine Colony into one single colony, known as the Province of Massachusetts Bay, and called for a Royal Governor and elected assembly to be established.

The new charter also restricted religious-based laws, such as the church membership requirement that was needed to become a voter, extended religious tolerance to other Protestant denominations, required oaths to be taken to the king and not the government of Massachusetts and tightened the British government’s overall control over the colony.

This caused much anxiety among the colonists. The Puritans started to worry that their religion, and they themselves, were once again under attack. This fear and anxiety is considered to be one of the many underlying causes that sparked the Salem Witch Trials in 1692.

In the mid 1700s, the government’s expenses during the French and Indian War, which took place between 1754-1763, brought in a whole new set of problems for both England and the colonists, according to the book Massachusetts: Mapping the Bay State Through History:

“At the end of what was known in America as the French and Indian War, the British economy was on the brink of collapse. British statesmen, notably George Grenville, first lord of the treasury (the equivalent of prime minister), after deciding that the government’s budget could be cut no further and an increase in taxes at home was out of the question, turned to the colonies as a source of revenue – the same colonies whose exports were up, who continued to flaunt British mercantile policies, whose per capita income may have been as much as twice that of England’s, and who, at least from the British point of view, contributed little or nothing toward their own support.”

A series of unpopular taxes and acts that were intended to make money off of the colony, such as the Stamp Act of 1765, the Declaratory Act and the Townshend Act, sparked massive protests and backlash from the colonists and eventually set the American Revolution into motion.

Massachusetts Bay Colony Economy:

By the mid-18th century, Massachusetts Bay Colony had grown into a successful colony with a large trade industry that exported fish, lumber and farm products to Europe.

Yet, in the early years, the colony not only struggled to supply enough of these products to meet the demand in Europe but was actually hesitant to engage in trade with Europe at all, fearing it would hurt the health, autonomy and independence of the colony, according to the book Building the Bay Colony:

“Many Puritans initially feared that these endeavors could pull their communities into the transatlantic world too quickly, distract them from the virtues of husbandry, lead to unhealthy levels of profit, and become ‘a prison and constant calamity’ as a result of the individual’s spending his life ‘in doing little good at all to others, though he should grow rich by it himself’…By satisfying the local market before endeavoring to reach more profitable export venues with these valuable commodities, Puritan pioneers set an important precedent: they would fully meet local needs first. This decision, perhaps more than any other, shaped the contours of Massachusetts’s seventeenth-century economic development. It made what we might call ‘persistent economic localism’ a customary, and quite fertile, Puritan value.”

"A South East View of the Great Town of Boston in New England in America," etching by John Carwitham, circa 1730-1760
“A South East View of the Great Town of Boston in New England in America,” etching by John Carwitham, circa 1730-1760

Things quickly changed though in 1640 when the colony suffered its first economic depression and the settlers decided to pursue the exportation of its goods, especially beef, to Europe and the West Indies, according to the book Disguised as the Devil:

“Many early frontier towns in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, like Sudbury, were set up on inland meadows specifically as cow towns. The domestic beef market became a key part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s economy that would later shift focus from the depressed domestic market to provide an important commodity for early trade with the West Indies.”

In fact, exporting domestic beef became so profitable for the colony that in 1692, when Salem Sheriff George Corwin wasn’t busy arresting accused witches, he spent the rest of his time confiscating the accused witches’s cattle, barreling up the meat and shipping it off to the West Indies for his own personal profit.

Slavery also played an important role in the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s economy. Starting in 1644, Boston merchants began to engage in the Triangle Trade, a three-stop trade route in which merchants imported slaves from Africa, sold them in the West Indies and then bought cane sugar to bring back to Massachusetts to make molasses and rum.

Some Massachusetts merchants, such as Captain John Turner, who built the House of Seven Gables in Salem, chose to skip importing slaves from Africa and instead sold fish to plantation owners in the West Indies as food for the slaves and then bought cane sugar from these same plantation owners to import to Massachusetts.

Many wealthy Massachusetts colonists also bought and sold slaves themselves for household labor in Massachusetts. In fact, in 1641, Massachusetts became the first state in the North American colonies to make slavery legal when John Winthrop helped write a law allowing slavery in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

The colony’s trade activities continued into the 18th century, although the importation of slaves came to an end after slavery was slowly phased out in Massachusetts starting in 1780.

The colony’s prosperous trade industry even played a pivotal role in the American Revolution when Britain attempted to tighten its grip on New England’s trade activities, after decades of salutary neglect, as a way to raise revenue after the French and Indian war in nearby Canada took a toll on Britain’s finances.

When the government’s activities began to hurt the local economy and threaten the colonist’s autonomy, the colonists responded by boycotting British imports, protesting the government’s actions through acts of rebellion like the Boston Tea Party and eventually declared war on Britain, which brought about the colony’s independence at the end of the eight-year-long Revolutionary War in 1783.

To see a timeline of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, check out the following article on the Massachusetts Bay Colony timeline.

Hutchinson, Thomas. The History of Massachusetts. 2nd edition, vol. I, M. Richardson, 1765.
Moe, Barbara A. The Charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company: A Primary Source Investigation Into the 1629 Charter. Rosen Publishing Group, 2003.
Drymon, M.M. Disguised as the Devil: A History of Lyme Disease and Witch Accusations. Wythe Avenue Press, 2008.
Corbett, Michael and Julia Corbett-Hemeyer, J. Matthew Wilson. Politics and Religion in the United States. Routledge, 2014.
Virga, Vincent and Dan Spinella. Massachusetts: Mapping the Bay State Through History. Morris Book Publishing,  2011.
McWilliams, James E. Building the Bay Colony: Local Economy and Culture in Early Massachusetts. University of Virginia Press, 2007.
Hall, Albert Harrison. How Massachusetts Grew, 1630-1642: A Study of Town Boundaries. Cambridge Historical Society, 1936.
“Historical Sketch.” Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, www.sec.state.ma.us/cis/cismaf/mf2.htm

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the author and publisher of the History of Massachusetts Blog. Rebecca is a freelance journalist 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.

19 thoughts on “History of the Massachusetts Bay Colony

  1. Tim Dans

    Awesome information on this colony but want to know if there are books on this colony and its people because I am descendent of Robert Abell, who came with the Winthrop Fleet.

  2. Aidan

    I love this website. It has lots of information about the history of Massachusetts. Between 1-10 I will get 10 out of this. Thumbs up, do a great job at it!!! I’m going to visit this website ever day.

  3. Janelle Scribner

    Great information as I am researching my family history…the Streeters of Mass. is there any passenger lists of the Colony? In researching, my relatives fought the Indians 1675, fought in the Revolution, Civil War, etc. Just curious about when they got here.
    Thank you for any information you or anyone could share.

  4. Catherine

    I can’t find this question ” What was the purpose of Massachusetts bay colony during that time period?”

    1. Rebecca Beatrice Brooks Post author

      I’m assuming this is a homework question. What time period are you referring to? In general, the purpose of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was to harvest raw materials for the Massachusetts Bay Company.

  5. Kyra Marie Smail

    I’m not sure what made the colony thrive and I really need to get an A on the project I’m doing. and what made the colony thrive is required in the info.

  6. Judith Fenton

    Interesting that John Winthrop was in favor of slavery when, indeed, the Colonists were enslaved, in a way, by the British. I am a direst descendent of John Daggett who came with John Winthrop on the Arabella to establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He owned many acres of Martha’s Vineyard and had a rich history in the politics of same.

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