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Northeast: 1620–1730

Plymouth Colony and Massachusetts Bay Colony

Pilgrims and Plymouth Colony

The first European settlers to successfully found long-term communities in New England came primarily seeking a safe place to worship and to strengthen their vision of Christianity, which opposed the Roman Catholic Church and split from the Church of England. These included the Pilgrims, who founded Plymouth Colony.

In the Northeast region of North America, settlements were established in the early 17th century by two major religious groups: Pilgrims and the Puritans. The Pilgrims settled along the Atlantic coast at the site of present-day Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620. They were members of a religious sect that had separated from the Church of England, believing that the church had not detached itself sufficiently from Catholicism. They envisioned something untainted, more pure. Upon arrival in the New World, they established Plymouth Colony, the first permanent colony in New England.

The Pilgrims' route to New England began in Plymouth, England. From there, the group emigrated in 1607 and 1608, settling in the Netherlands for about 12 years. Then, harsh living conditions forced another move. On September 6, 1620, the Pilgrims set off on a 66-day voyage across the Atlantic Ocean on the Mayflower. About a month after sighting land, they officially settled at the site they called New Plymouth. Among the Pilgrims was William Bradford, who helped organize this expedition in search of religious freedom and a better economic situation. Other colonists of note were Myles Standish and John Alden. Standish would serve as leader of the military and a liaison with Native American tribes. Alden, a cooper—someone who makes and repairs barrels—would be active in colonial government throughout his life.

Bradford helped to frame the Mayflower Compact, the first governing document of Plymouth Colony, which served as the voluntary rules of governance and community cooperation within the colony. The Mayflower Compact was the first document of self-governance in the New World. By signing it, the colonists agreed to remain loyal English subjects, to live and work as Christians, and to abide by laws created and enacted for the good of the colony.

In 1621 Bradford became Plymouth's governor and served in that capacity for most of the next 30 years. He chronicled the challenges the Pilgrims faced in his book History of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–1647. In it Bradford details the tragedies and triumphs of creating a plantation—meaning, in this context, a settlement in a new country or region—to solidify a community based on Puritanism.

Pilgrims Walking to Church, by George Henry Boughton

Formerly called "Old Comers" or "Forefathers," in 1820 Daniel Webster dubbed the Pilgrims "Pilgrim Fathers."
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-3291

Puritans, Quakers, and Massachusetts Bay Colony

Puritans established Massachusetts Bay Colony, where they could practice their exacting faith. More tolerant Puritans founded Rhode Island, and Quakers founded Pennsylvania.

The Puritans, a separatist Christian group, sought religious freedom in the New World. Puritans desired to live godly lives in a covenant with their Creator and free from the rituals observed by the Church of England. They preferred preaching from scripture, and their style of worship was frowned upon in England. To escape oppression by the Crown, they immigrated to North America and founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This English settlement established in New England in 1630 was led by Governor John Winthrop.

In 1629 the Massachusetts Bay Colony was established by charter, a written document that defines the laws and privileges of a state or country and is granted by a sovereign power. In this case the sovereign power was King Charles I of England. He allowed the colony to trade goods and govern itself under the direction of a joint-stock company. A joint-stock company is a business entity made up of many shareholders who buy a part of the company in hopes of earning a profit. However, by 1691 the king desired more control over his colonies. He cancelled the charter and merged the Massachusetts Bay Colony with other colonial holdings in southwestern Maine. Plymouth Colony was also brought into the fold.

Though the Puritans had come to the New World seeking religious freedom, they did not always tolerate dissenters within their midst. One such dissenter was Puritan minister Roger Williams. He held some nonconformist religious and social views that were not welcomed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Most notably, he believed that civil authorities had no right to punish or interfere with a religious belief or mode of worship that differed from the norm. He further believed that Indian land should be purchased by the colonists, not confiscated. Such radical notions challenged the authority of colonial society and were deemed to threaten its stability. Forced to flee the colony's intolerance, Williams founded Providence Plantation in 1636 and the later colony of Rhode Island in the name of religious tolerance—acceptance of the practice of religions other than one's own.

Within the Puritan community of Massachusetts Bay Colony, another group of Christians with unorthodox views called Quakers emerged. The Quakers, members of a religious group called the Society of Friends, chose to worship without a leader or written rules and sought a direct connection with God through pacifism and religious tolerance. Many of the Quakers had been part of a Puritan sect and similarly came from England to avoid persecution. However, Quakers in Massachusetts Bay Colony now found themselves persecuted by the Puritans because of their beliefs. Nevertheless, the Quakers grew in numbers here and in other colonies in Rhode Island, North Carolina, and New Jersey. In 1681 a charter was issued by King Charles II to William Penn, an English leader of the Quakers. By this charter and under the guidance of Penn, the American Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was founded. Its government would embody Quaker ideals built on a foundation of religious freedom.

To acquire land for the colony, Penn chose negotiation with local native tribes over use of military force. He dealt primarily with the Delaware tribes, justly and fairly securing land and their friendship through treaty. In addition to land, these negotiations secured new trade routes and established the legal relationship between colonists and Indians. Under Penn's influence and fair policies, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania remained a peaceful haven for colonists and Native Americans alike for many years.