Excavations in Massachusetts reveal that the earliest human inhabitants arrived about 3,000 years ago. The first European mention of Native Americans dates from about 1500 A.D. The Native Americans in Massachusetts were mostly from the Algonquian Nation; tribes included the Massachuset, Nauset, Nipmuc, Pennacook, Pocumtuc, and Wampanoag. Tragically, diseases brought over by pre-Pilgrim European settlers decimated the Indians in 1616 and 1617. By 1620, the Pilgrims found that the Indian population had dropped from 30,000 to about 7,000.
European history in Massachusetts begins with adventurous explorers, who roved about the coast of Massachusetts centuries before the Mayflower made its famous voyage. There is a legend that Leif Ericson and his Norsemen touched here in the year 1000, and probably fishermen from France and Spain, bound for the teeming waters off the Grand Banks, stopped now and again to cast their nets for cod. In 1497 and 1498 John Cabot carried through the explorations upon which England based her original claim to North America. Other occasional landings were made by voyagers seeking a new route to the fabled treasures of the exotic East, and occasionally abortive plans for colonization took vague shape. In 1602 Bartholemew Gosnold explored the bay and christened Cape Cod for the fish that swarmed about it. Twelve years later John Smith wrote of his New England journeyings with a fervor that stirred the blood of discontented English farmers, describing "Many iles all planted with corne; groves, mulberries, salvage gardens and good harbours". A second enthusiast, William Wood, in 1634 contributed his "New England Prospect" to the growing travel literature of the New World. There was talk in Europe of the wealth that lay here and the trade that might be established; but the first important movement toward settlement originated not in material but in religious aspirations.
The Pilgrims, seeking religious freedom, set sail for North America in 1620 and established their colony in Plymouth' which they had chosen under the influence of Smith's A Description of New England. There they set up a democratic government in accordance with the terms of the famous "Mayflower Compact", an agreement binding all to conform to the will of the majority. In spite of great hardship, the Pilgrim settlement prospered (the local Wampanoag, including the English-speaking Squanto and Chief Massasoit, were very helpful), and in 1621 the first Thanksgiving was observed. Gradually small fishing and trading stations were established, notably at Wessagusset (Weymouth), Quincy, and Cape Ann.
More important, however, was the arrival of the Puritans, who were also determined to find a place where their religious views and practices would be free from persecution. In 1628 a shipload of emigrants led by John Endicott left England for Salem, there to join Roger Conant's band of refugees from the abandoned fishing station on Cape Ann. The following year a royal charter was granted to the Massachusetts Bay Company, to promote the settlement of the territory "from sea to sea" that had been granted to the Puritans, and to govern its colonies. The charter given to the Company was the foundation of the government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It provided for a General Court which was a single body, of which the Court of Assistants was an integral part. Later the Court of Assistants separated from the General Court and became America's first elected Upper House.
Colonizing When John Winthrop and a large group of Puritans arrived at Salem in 1630, bearing with them the prized charter, a self-contained English colony, governed by its own members, was assured. Winthrop moved from Salem to Charlestown and thence to Boston, other settlements were founded, and by 1640 the immigrants in Massachusetts numbered 16,000, all seeking greater opportunity and a free environment for their dissentient religious views. Many also felt it their mission to "civilize" the land and its people; the seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony shows a Native American saying "Come Over and Help Us."
The colonizing movement spread rapidly along the coast and then westward; those who were restless and rebellious against the rigid rule of the ministers went out into what are now other New England states, founding towns based upon the Massachusetts pattern. Small-scale farming was the fundamental way of earning a living, and compact settlements with outlying fields grew up around the central green, which is a characteristic of old New England towns. The long winters gave leisure for handicraft, and "Yankee ingenuity" first showed itself in the variety of products the farmers turned out to supply their own and their neighbor's needs. The most enduring feature of the community pattern was the town meeting, in which every taxpayer had equal voice. In evolving that most democratic of governmental procedures, Massachusetts contributed greatly to the political development of the nation.
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