The Massachusetts Bay Colony charter of 1629 was a royal document that gave the Massachusetts Bay Company permission by the English crown to establish a colony in New England.
A charter is a document that gives certain rights to a colony, town/city, university or institution. The colony’s charter defined the type of government the colony would have, spelled out the rules the colony must follow and also identified the boundaries of the colony’s territory.
The charter dictated that the colony’s territory consisted of the area of New England “which lies and extends between a great river there, commonly called Monomack river, alias Merrimack river, and a certain other river there, called Charles river, being in the bottom of a certain bay there, commonly called Massachusetts, alias Massachusetts Bay…” as well as the area within three miles south of the Charles river, the area within three miles of the southern most point of Massachusetts Bay, as well as the area within three miles north of the Merrimack river.
The charter of 1629 established the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a charter colony rather than a royal colony or a proprietary colony. This meant that the administration of the colony would be elected by the colonists and the colony would primarily be allowed to self-govern, as long as its laws aligned with those of England.
The charter also required that the colony share a portion of some of the resources harvested from the region, such as any gold, silver or minerals, and pay customs on goods exported out of the colony.
Why Was the Charter Unique?
The charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company is considered unique because it didn’t have a clause requiring the Massachusetts Bay Company to remain in England.
Historians have long debated whether this omission was even unusual and, if so, was it a deliberate attempt by the colonists, perhaps a result of a bribe, in order to flee England?
Clauses in English charters at the time required corporations to remain in England in three ways:
- By requiring the corporation to hold its meetings at a specified place
- By requiring that the company’s officers reside in specified places
- By designating the corporation as being of a certain place
According to Ronald Dale Karr in an article in the New England Quarterly, there were about a dozen joint stock or other commercial corporate bodies that were issued charters during this time period and a number of them lacked a designated meeting place:
“The omission of a designated meeting place in the Massachusetts Bay Charter of 1629 was thus neither unprecedented nor unusual. In fact, this absence can easily be accounted for without assuming bribery or deliberate attempts to deceive royal officials. Whoever drafted the Massachusetts Bay charter likely followed the third Virginia charter of 1612 in establishing the company’s government (although the chief officer was the conventional governor instead of, as in Virginia, the colony’s treasurer.) Unlike the Massachusetts Bay patent, the third Virginia charter confirmed and extended governmental powers already granted, and so, since it was probably assumed that earlier conditions still applied, the requirement that the Virginia council be resident in London was not reiterated nor was a place of meeting specified. If the person or persons who later prepared the Massachusetts Bay charter were following the third Virginia charter but not the first or second, they may well have forgotten that residency and meeting places had not been addressed.”
Less than two years after the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter was issued, a charter was issued for the Providence Island colony that stated the company could meet “in any place or places convenient” and also lacked a residency requirement for the corporation’s officers.
Another charter issued in 1660, for the reincorporation of the African Company of 1618, also lacked a designated meeting place as did yet another charter issued a few years later in 1663.
The Company for the Royal Fishery of England was also not required to meet in a specific location when it was issued a charter in 1677.
Yet, a charter issued for the Company of Copper Miners in England in 1691 required it to hold its annual meetings in either London or Westminster, as did another charter issued for the Amicable Society for a Perpetual Assurance Office in 1706, which makes it unclear why some charters at the time named designated meeting places and some did not.
Karr points out though that even if the omission was unusual, it was most likely not a deliberate act on the part of the colonists since records of the Massachusetts Bay Company’s meetings indicate they only even began to consider leaving England after Charles I dismissed Parliament and arrested its leaders in March of 1629, shortly after the charter was finalized, and only did so reluctantly more than a month later:
“It seems highly unlikely that anyone connected with the company could have conceived of the entire corporation being transferred across the ocean before Charles’s peremptory act.”
After all, the Massachusetts Bay colonists were non-separatist Puritans who were reluctant to separate from the Church or England, either physically or figuratively, and only did so when hostility towards Puritans in England grew worse and they felt they had no choice.
Why Was the Charter Revoked?
In 1684, the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter was revoked due to repeated violations of the charter’s terms. These violations include:
- The colonists continued to trade with other countries despite the Navigation Acts of 1651 and 1660 prohibiting them from doing so
- The colony ran an illegal mint that made coins without the king’s image on them and melted down English coins to remake them into their own coins
- The Massachusetts General Court created a number of laws that did not align with England’s laws, particularly by passing religious based laws that discriminated against Quakers and Anglicans
As a result of these violations, the charter was officially revoked on October 23, 1684.
What Happened After the Charter Was Revoked?
After the charter was revoked, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was later merged with the colonies of Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island into one large royal colony, known as the Dominion of New England, in 1686.
When the Glorious Revolution occurred in 1688, the colonists overthrew the Dominion officials once they received word of the revolution in early 1689.
Two years later, in 1691, the new king and queen of England, King William III and Queen Mary II, issued a new charter for Massachusetts Bay, which converted it into a royal colony called the Province of Massachusetts Bay and absorbed Plymouth colony and the Province of Maine into the colony.
Affidavit of Captain James and Mary Oliver, 1666, Mass. Archives, vol. 106, nos, 125 and 139.
Petition of the Massachusetts General Court to Charles II. 1 Aug. 1665, Documents and Records Relating to the Province of New Hampshire, from the Earliest Period of its Settlement: 1623 – 1686.” Vol. I, Edited by Nathaniel Bouton, George E. Jenks, 1867.
Lesh, Benjamin. “The Assertion of English Royal Authority in the American Colonies and Royal Revenue: 1651-1707.” Western Oregon University, 2016, digitalcommons.wou.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1052&context=his
Ziegler, Bart. “Stolen Massachusetts Colonial Charter Page Recovered.” AP News, 9 March. 1985, apnews.com/3d70009aac33b98d85d18e5cea268fe1
Campbell, Colin. “Theft Stirs Questions on Handling of Massachusetts Archives.” New York Times, 20 Aug. 1984, www.nytimes.com/1984/08/20/us/theft-stirs-questions-on-handling-of-massachusetts-archives.html
Trufant, Jessica. “Art thief with Milton ties loses suit seeking return of antique firearms.” Patriot Ledger. 8 Aug. 2018, www.patriotledger.com/news/20180808/art-thief-with-milton-ties-loses-suit-seeking-return-of-antique-firearms
Hall, Michael G. “Origins in Massachusetts of the Constitutional Doctrine of Advice and Consent.” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, vol. 91, 1979, pp. 3–15. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25080845
Barth, Jonathan Edward. “‘A Peculiar Stampe of Our Owne’: The Massachusetts Mint and the Battle over Sovereignty, 1652-1691.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 87, no. 3, 2014, pp. 490–525. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43285101
Jordan, Louis. “Chronological Listing of Documents and Events Relating to the Massachusetts Mint.” Coin and Currency Collections, University of Notre Dame, coins.nd.edu/ColCoin/ColCoinIntros/MAMintDocs.chron.html
“Pine Tree Shilling, United States, 1652.” National Museum of American History, americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1082064
The Charters and General Laws of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts Bay. Boston, T.B. Wait and Co, 1814.
Berkin, Carol and Christopher Miller, Robert Cherny, James Gormly. Making America, Volume 1 To 1877. Cenage Learning, 2012.
Rothbard, Murray. “The English Crown Versus Massachusetts.” Mises Institute, 16 Oct. 2012, mises.org/library/english-crown-vs-massachusetts
“Laws During the Dominion of New England.” State Library of Massachusetts, mastatelibrary.blogspot.com/2018/04/laws-during-dominion-of-new-england.html
Karr, Ronald Dale. “The Missing Clause: Myth and the Massachusetts Bay Charter of 1629.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 77, no. 1, 2004, pp. 89–107. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1559688.