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Northeast: 1620–1730

Life in the New England Colonies

New England Geography and Economy

The geography of New England discouraged farming for profit. However, the coastal waters and natural ports supported thriving fishing and shipbuilding industries and prosperous trade.

The regional geography of New England was unlike Europe and unlike the middle colonies, where large swathes of land could be farmed at the plantation level. The term plantation, in this sense, means a large farm where high-value crops may be grown in quantities great enough to sell. For example, Virginia's open land and fertile soil allowed farmers to easily grow cash crops such as tobacco or cotton to be sold at market or exported for profit. In New England, forested mountains took up too much of the land for large-scale farming. What was left along the coast contained vestiges of the ice age, such as granite, that made land cultivation extremely difficult.

Land and its resources determine what its inhabitants must do to survive. Rocky soil reduced the farming efforts of native tribes and colonists alike to subsistence levels. Colonists raised livestock and planted crops for their families' needs. In spite of this, the colonies thrived. The abundance of forests led to a booming lumber industry. Proximity to the ocean and the existence of natural ports sparked a prosperous shipbuilding industry and encouraged brisk trade in products from all over the world. The fishing industry also contributed significantly to the economy.

With abundant global trading, Northeastern colonies also engaged in the slave trade. While their land did not favor large-scale farming that required slave labor, access to ports and ships ensured that slave ships made regular stops in New England coastal cities. In time, New England ports became a leading destination for slave ships in colonial America.

Coastal Enclave of New England, 17th Century

New England was an isolated coastal enclave in the 17th century. With mountains to the west, the ocean and natural ports were the primary economic resources for the colonies.
Credit: Visscher, Nicolaes, 1649-1702/Library of Congress Geography and Map Division

Governance Structures in New England

The colonies in the Northeast were governed by religious men who then reported to the monarchy in England. By way of town meetings, colonists had a voice in their government and its decisions.

Religious faith and freedom were foundational aspects of the colonies in New England, though atheists and other nonbelievers were not tolerated. New ideas about self-governance began to emerge, most notably in Plymouth Colony, settled by Pilgrims. A key document in shaping the rules of governance in the colony was the Mayflower Compact. This document set out the rules of community cooperation for the good of the colony. One of its framers, William Bradford, was a devout Pilgrim and served as governor of Plymouth Colony for nearly 30 years. He was a proponent of democratic town meetings where church members could resolve issues that affected the colony. He also favored providing a safe place for all separatist Christian groups fleeing England to find freedom.

Puritan John Winthrop governed the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He established a similar structure of town meetings and church leadership for the colony. The colony's charter also incorporated this system of self-governance, with the initial approval of King Charles I of England. However, the level of independence exerted by the colony—which at times bordered on disobedience to the Crown—eventually provoked the king to revoke the charter in 1684. When a fresh charter was issued in 1691, it ensured the Crown's control of several colonies all at once. Massachusetts Bay Colony was merged with Maine and Plymouth Colony.

The colonial legal system consisted of a judiciary in which civil magistrates tried criminal cases and doled out punishments. They were guided by English law and perhaps local statutes. In some cases printed guides for the lay judiciary and public were consulted, as well as religious writings on legal subjects. But there were few actual law books available to colonial lawyers. These lesser texts would guide common law until the legal libraries grew, thanks to the gradual spread of printing presses throughout the colonies.

Religion and Society in New England

Religion pervaded the social structure of the colonies, dictating gender roles and forming the basis of education.

Women's roles in the New England colonies were defined by religious ideology and strict social expectations. The strength and well-being of a colony relied on a social structure supported by the foundational concepts of a patriarchal nuclear family. A woman's tasks were to marry, establish and preserve an ordered household, see to the moral development of the children, and play a subservient role to her husband. Marriage involved the transfer of any property a woman owned to her husband and placed the woman legally under her husband's authority and protection. Women rarely worked outside the home. With their lives focused on the family and not the outside world, they exercised no political power and had no voice in government.

Schooling for girls took place in the home and was the responsibility of the mothers. If a mother was literate, the girl might learn to read and write. But it was deemed more important that she learn about faith, morals, and her gender roles. She learned the arts of spinning, weaving, cooking, and maintaining a well-ordered home—all matters female she would need in her own married life. More than a century would pass before cultural shifts in views of women and their roles would permit New England girls to attend school on par with boys.

Among the Puritans, the centrality of religion to daily life required public education. Only a literate congregation could be expected to read the scriptures. Children were initially educated at home. Then, in 1635 the Massachusetts Bay Colony instituted public schooling for boys at the Boston Latin School. Pupils paid no tuition, as the school was supported by taxes. Educational materials consisted of the scriptures and hornbooks—children's primers that included the alphabet, Roman numerals, and the Lord's Prayer. Hornbooks taught reading alongside moral lessons. Later, a longer textbook, the New England Primer, fulfilled this role. By 1647 all Massachusetts towns populated by over 100 families were required to build a public school.
The New England Primer, first printed in Boston in 1690, remained the most popular book for children in New England for more than a century.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-53677
Massachusetts was also home to first university in the New World. Harvard University was established by the colony in 1636 to train young men to take on Puritan roles, especially as ministers.