History of the New England Colonies

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The New England colonies were a series of English colonies established in New England in the 17th century. They were a part of the original 13 colonies of North America.

What Were the Original New England Colonies?

There were originally seven colonies in New England in the 17th century:

  • Plymouth Colony, founded in 1620, absorbed by the Province of Massachusetts Bay in 1691
  • Province of Maine, founded in 1622, later absorbed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony
  • New Hampshire Colony, founded in 1623, later became the Province of New Hampshire
  • Massachusetts Bay Colony, founded in 1630, became the Province of Massachusetts Bay in 1691
  • Rhode Island Colony, founded in 1636
  • Connecticut Colony, founded in 1636
  • New Haven Colony, founded in 1638, absorbed by Connecticut Colony in 1664

How Many Colonies Were in New England in 1750?

There were four colonies in New England in 1750:

  • Province of Massachusetts Bay
  • Rhode Island Colony
  • Connecticut Colony
  • Province of New Hampshire

New England Climate & Geography:

The New England colonies had a humid continental climate. Humid continental climates have four seasons: winter, spring, summer and fall and exhibit large seasonal temperature contrasts with hot summers and cold winters.

Precipitation was ample throughout the year, with rain in the spring and summer and about one to four months of snow in the winter.

A map of the New England Colonies, published in The Redway School History, in 1910
A map of the New England Colonies, published in The Redway School History, in 1910

One advantage of the cold weather in New England was that it limited the spread of certain diseases, such as malaria, which were a considerable problem in the southern colonies. One disadvantage of the cold weather was that it shortened the growing season to about five months.

The geography of the New England colonies was shaped by glaciers during the last ice age. The glaciers dug up and scraped away the rich soil in New England, leaving behind a thin layer of rocky soil that was too poor to sustain many crops. The many hills, mountains and thick forests in New England also made it difficult to farm the land.

New England Natural Resources:

The natural resources in the New England colonies were:

  • Lumber
  • Furs
  • Whales
  • Fish
  • Iron ore
  • Granite

Economy of the New England Colonies:

Since the soil in New England was poor and the growing season was too short to grow many crops, besides corn, beans and squash, the New England colonies had to rely on other ways to make money, primarily through fishing, whaling, shipbuilding and rum making.

Fish was the primary export of the New England colonies by the 18th century, according to an article by Christopher P. Magra in the Enterprise and Society journal:

“Between 1768 and 1772, fish represented 35% of New England’s total export revenue. The second most valuable export commodity, livestock, represented only 20% of this revenue stream. By 1775, an estimated 10,000 New Englanders, or 8% of the adult male working population, labored in the fishing industry.”

The fish that New England colonists caught and traded included cod, mackeral, halibut, herring, hake, sturgeon and bass.

Shipbuilding was also an important industry in the New England colonies as a result of the abundance of tall, straight oak trees and white pine, which were ideal trees for shipbuilding. To take advantage of this natural resource, the colonists built many sawmills to process these trees into lumber for the shipbuilding process.

According to the book Encyclopedia Americana, between the years 1674 and 1714, a total of 1,332 vessels were built in New England shipyards (Encyclopedia Americana 115.)

The New England colonies were also involved in the Triangle Trade, which was the slave and rum trade. The Triangle Trade involved three ports where goods were shipped and sold.

One example of the Triangle Trade is when slaves were shipped from Africa to the Caribbean in the Americas to work on the sugar cane plantations, then the sugar cane was shipped from the Caribbean to the New England colonies where it was used to make rum, then the rum was shipped from the New England colonies to Africa where it was sold or traded for slaves to be shipped to the southern colonies.

Another example of the Triangle Trade is the colonial molasses trade, when raw sugar and/or molasses was shipped from the Caribbean to New England where it was used to make rum which was then shipped to either Europe or Africa where it was sold or traded.

Religion in the New England Colonies:

The dominant religion practiced in New England was Puritanism, except for in Rhode Island were many colonists were Quakers.

The Puritans were a sect of Protestant religious dissidents who felt the Church of England was too closely associated with the Catholic religion and needed to be reformed.

The New England colonies were established by two religious groups within the Puritan religion. These two groups consisted of two different sects of Puritanism: Separatist Puritans and Non-Separatist Puritans.

Non-Separatist Puritans believed the church could be reformed and wanted to remain in the church.

Separatist Puritans believed the Church of England was too corrupt to reform and decided to distance themselves from it by separating from the church.

Plymouth Colony was established by Separatist Puritans while the Massachusetts Bay Colony was established by Non-Separatist Puritans.

Government of the New England Colonies:

There were two main government systems used in the New England colonies:

  • Royal Government
  • Charter Government

Royal colonies were ruled directly by the English monarchy and government officials were appointed by the crown.

Charter colonies were generally self-governed and government officials were elected by the colonists.

The New England colonies were all originally charter colonies and were quite proficient at self-governing themselves, according to Alan Taylor in his book American Colonies:

“By virtue of their especially indulgent charters, the New England colonies were virtually independent of crown authority. Answering to no external proprietors, the New English developed republican regimes where the propertied men elected their governors and councils, as well as their assemblies, and where much decision-making was dispersed to the many small towns” (Taylor 247.)

Many of the New England colonies eventually had their charters revoked though and became royal colonies when the crown began to tighten its control over the colonies due to its growing economic interest in colonial trade.

The monarchy first converted some of its southern colonies before attempting to convert the New England colonies, according to Taylor:

“During the seventeenth century, crown officials gradually converted a few proprietary colonies into royal colonies. Such conversion primarily meant that the king, rather than a proprietor, appointed the governor and council, for the crown felt obliged to retain the elected assemblies. The crown acted first where the revenues were greatest, to secure control over tobacco-rich Virginia and the sugar colonies of Barbados, the Leeward islands, and Jamaica. The crown was slower to reorganize the New England colonies because they lacked a lucrative staple critical to the royal revenue. Moreover, the numerous Puritan colonists promised to make any imperial attempt to compel their obedience expensive and difficult” (Taylor 247.)

After converting the southern colonies, the English monarchy established the Dominion of New England in 1686, merging the colonies of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, together into one large royal colony. Two years later, in 1688, New York and New Jersey were added to the Dominion.

The Dominion was short lived though and came to an end after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 occurred in England and the colonists rose up and overthrew the Dominion officials.

After the dominion was overthrown, many of the New England colonies remained royal colonies. A new charter was issued for Massachusetts Bay in 1691, which converted it into a royal colony called the Province of Massachusetts Bay and ordered Plymouth colony to be absorbed into the province.

A new charter was also issued for New Hampshire in 1691 which converted it into a royal colony called the Province of New Hampshire.

Only Connecticut and Rhode Island remained charter colonies after the Glorious Revolution.

Education in the New England Colonies:

New England colonists highly valued education and had a much higher literacy rate than the southern colonies. This was partly due to the colonist’s desire that everyone should be able to read the bible.

In fact, in 1642, the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a law requiring that children be taught “to read & understand the principles of religion & the capitall lawes of this country.”

A few years later, in 1647, the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed another law requiring that all towns establish and maintain public schools. Towns with 50 or more families were obligated to hire a schoolmaster to teach their children how to read and write and in towns with 100 or more families the schoolmaster had to be able to teach Latin.

As a result of this emphasis on education, the New England colonies became highly more educated and literate than other colonies.

According to Kenneth Lockridge in his book Literacy in Colonial New England, about 60 percent of white New England men were literate between 1650 and 1670. Between 1758 and 1762, that number rose to 85 percent, and between 1787 and 1795, it rose to 90 percent. In cities such as Boston, the literacy rate had come close to 100 percent by the end of the 18th century.

Yet, female literacy rates still lagged behind men in New England. Lockridge estimates that while male literacy rates rose from 60 percent to 90 percent in the late 18th century, female literacy rates rose at about half that rate, from 31 percent to 48 percent.

Eventually, the female literacy rate caught up to the male literacy rate and by 1810, nearly all women in New England were literate.

Taylor, Alan. American Colonies. Penguin Books, 2001.
Encyclopedia Americana. Vol 24, The Encyclopedia Americana Corporation, 1919.
MAGRA, CHRISTOPHER P. “The New England Cod Fishing Industry and Maritime Dimensions of the American Revolution.” Enterprise & Society, vol. 8, no. 4, 2007, pp. 799–806. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23700768.
“The Charter of 1662.” Connecticut History, connecticuthistory.org/the-charter-of-1662/
Winson, Gail I., “Researching the Laws of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations”(2003). Roger Williams University School of Law Faculty Papers. Paper 1. http://lsr.nellco.org/rwu_fp/1
“Every Man Able to Read.” Colonial Williamsburg Official History & Citizenship Site, www.history.org/foundation/journal/winter11/literacy.cfm
“Laws During the Dominion of New England.” State Library of Massachusetts, mastatelibrary.blogspot.com/2018/04/laws-during-dominion-of-new-england.html
“A Brief History of New Hampshire.” NH.gov, www.nh.gov/almanac/history.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.

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