New England Settlements

By David Saville Muzzey, 1920

Landing of the Pilgrims on Plymouth, by Peter Frederick RockRothermel, 1869

Landing of the Pilgrims on Plymouth, by Peter Frederick RockRothermel, 1869. Click for prints and products.

While the “Old Dominion” was being established at JamestownVirginia, a very different history was taking place in the northern regions granted to the Ferdinando Plymouth Company. This company sent out a colony in the very year that the London Company settled Jamestown in 1607, but one winter in the little fort at the mouth of the Kennebec River, on the ice-bound coast of Maine, was enough to send the frozen settlers back to England. Sir Ferdinando Gorges, governor of Plymouth, was the moving spirit of the company, and despite his losses in the expedition of 1607-1608, he showed a determination worthy of a Sir Walter Raleigh. In 1614, Gorges sent Captain John Smith, who had earlier played an important part in founding Jamestown, to explore the coast of “northern Virginia,” as the Plymouth grant was called. Smith made a map of the coast from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia, and called the land “New England.” On the map of America that he made, he first set down such familiar names as Cambridge, the Charles River, Plymouth, and Cape Ann. In 1620 Gorges persuaded the king to make a new grant of this territory to a number of nobles and gentlemen about the court, who was designated as the Council for New England.

Mayflower Compact, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1932

Mayflower Compact, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1932

A few weeks after the formation of this new company, a group of 100 men and women, later known as the “Pilgrims,” landed the little vessel of Mayflower at Plymouth. They were not sent by the Council for New England or by the London Company. Their objective was neither to explore the country for gold nor to find a northwest passage to the Indies. Instead, they came of their own free will to found homes in the wilderness, where, unmolested, they might worship God according to their conscience. These “Independents” had separated from the Church of England because it retained in its worship many features, such as vestments, altars, and ceremonies, which seemed to them as “idolatrous” as the Roman Catholic rites, which England had rejected.

During this time, religion was an affair of the state, not alone of private choice. Rulers enforced uniformity in creed and worship, in the belief that it was necessary to the preservation of their authority. For men who were too brave to conceal their convictions, and too honest to modify them at the command of the sovereign, only three courses were open, — to submit to persecution and martyrdom, to rise in armed resistance, or to retire to a place beyond the reach of the king’s arm.

Pilgrims holding bibles

Pilgrims holding bibles

Many of these separatist congregations took refuge in Holland in 1608 but were not content to be absorbed into the Dutch nation and have their children forget the customs and speech of England. Determined to migrate to the new land of America, they got permission from the London Company to settle in; but their pilot brought them to the shores of Cape Cod, where they landed December 21, 1620.

Although they had neither a right to the soil, nor power to establish a government, before the Pilgrims landed, they gathered in the cabin of the Mayflower and pledged themselves to form a government and obey it. It was the first instance of complete self-government in the nation’s history, as the assembly which met at Jamestown the year before the landed, was called together by orders from the Virginia Company in England.

The first winter of 1620-1621 was difficult for the immigrants. Yet, when the Mayflower returned to England in the spring, not one of the colonists went with her. Their home was in America.

The first Thanksgiving in 1621

The first Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims. 1921 painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

They had come to conquer the wilderness or die, and their determination was expressed in the brave words of one of their leaders: “It is not with us as with men whom small things can discourage.”  The little colony grew slowly and was never granted a charter by the king. Consequently, its government, which was carried on by the democratic institution of the town meeting, was never legal in the eyes of the English court. However, because of its small size and quiet demeanor, the colony of Plymouth was allowed to continue undisturbed by the Stuarts.

Politically, the little colony was of slight importance, but its moral and religious influence on New England was great. The Pilgrims demonstrated that industry and courage could conquer even the inhospitable soil and climate of the Massachusetts shore and that unflinching devotion to an ideal could make of the wilderness, a home.

It took its part bravely in the defense of the New England settlements against the Indians and saw half its towns destroyed in King Phillip’s War in 1675. Years later, in 1691, Plymouth would be annexed to the powerful neighboring colony of Massachusetts Bay.

While the settlement at Plymouth was slowly growing, several attempts were made by Gorges and other members of the Massachusetts Council for New England to plant colonies in the New World. About 50 scattered settlements were established by March 1629 around the shores and on the islands of Boston harbor.


Massachusetts Bay Colonists

Massachusetts Bay Colonists

In 1628 a company of Puritan gentlemen secured a grant of land from the council and began the largest and most important of the English settlements in America — the colony of Massachusetts Bay. The next year, they obtained from King Charles I, a royal charter constituting them a political body ruled by a governor, a deputy governor, and eighteen “assistants,” all elected by the members of the company.

However, King Charles I, coming more and more under the influence of men who thought the only ecclesiastical reform needed was the extermination of independent opinions of all sorts, and the lamblike submission of Church, courts, and parliaments to the royal will made little distinction in his despotic mind between Separatists and Puritans. He was as glad to have the latter out of England as his father had been to get rid of the former, and he granted the Massachusetts charter less as a favor than as a sentence of exile. He little dreamed that he was laying the foundations of a practically independent state in his distant domain of America.


Puritans. By George Henry Boughton, 1884

In 1629, King Charles I  angrily dismissed his Parliament and entered on his eleven years’ course of despotism, at which time, several leading members of the Massachusetts Company decided to emigrate to America themselves and take their charter with them. In 1630 they sent over to Massachusetts, 17 ships with nearly 1,000 colonists.

John Endicott had established the first settlers of the company at Salem in 1628, but when the main body of emigrants came over with John Winthrop two years later, the colony was transferred to a narrow neck of land a few miles to the south, known to the Indians as Shawmut. The spot was rechristened Boston, after the Puritan fishing village in the east of England, where John Cotton was the pastor. Winthrop and Cotton were the leading spirits of the colony in its first twenty years: the former, a cultivated gentleman from the south of England, serving almost continually as governor; the latter, a scholar, and preacher of great power acting as director of the Massachusetts conscience. The Puritans, like the Separatists, protested against what they called “the idolatrous remnants of papacy” in the English Church; but, unlike the Separatists, they believed in reforming the Church from within rather than leaving its communion.