Digital History

17th Century

Dimensions of Change in Colonial New England Previous Next
Digital History ID 3581



Although most of New England's settlers were Puritans, these people did not agree about religious doctrine. Some, like the Pilgrims of Plymouth, believed that the Church of England should be renounced, while others, like Massachusetts Bay's leaders, felt that the English church could be reformed. Other issues that divided Puritans involved who could be admitted to church membership, who could be baptized, and who could take communion.

Disagreements over religious beliefs led to the formation of a number of new colonies. In 1636, Thomas Hooker (1586-1647), a Cambridge, Massachusetts minister, established the first English settlement in Connecticut. Convinced that government should rest on free consent, he extended voting rights beyond church members. Two years later, another Massachusetts group founded New Haven colony in order to combat moral laxness by setting strict standards for church membership and basing its laws on the Old Testament. This colony was incorporated by Connecticut in 1662.

In 1635, Massachusetts Bay colony banished Roger Williams (1604-1683), a Salem minister, for claiming that the civil government had no right to force people to worship in a particular way. Williams had even rejected the ideal that civil authorities could compel observance of the Sabbath. Equally troubling, he argued that Massachusetts's royal charter did not justify taking Indian land. Instead, Williams argued, the colonists had to negotiate fair treaties and pay for the land. Instead of returning to England, Williams headed toward the Narragansett Bay, where he founded Providence, which later became the capital of Rhode Island. From 1654 to 1657, Williams was president of Rhode Island colony. The New England Puritans, like many Americans before the nineteenth century, rejected the idea that prices should fluctuate freely according to the laws of supply and demand. Instead, they believed that there was a just wage for every trade and a just price for every good. Charging more than this just amount was "oppression," and authorities sought by law to prevent prices or wages from rising above a customary level.

Yet within a few decades of settlement, the Puritan blueprint of an organic, close-knit community, a stable, self-sufficient economy, and a carefully calibrated social hierarchy began to fray as New England became increasingly integrated into the Atlantic economy. To try to maintain traditional social distinctions, Massachusetts Bay colony in 1651 adopted a sumptuary law, which spelled out which persons could wear certain articles of clothing and jewelry.

But as early as the second half of the seventeenth century, a growing number of New Englanders were engaged in an intricate system of Atlantic commerce, selling fish, furs, and timber not only in England but throughout Catholic Europe, investing in shipbuilding, and transporting tobacco, wine, sugar, and slaves. Particularly important was trade with the West Indies and the Atlantic islands off of northwestern Africa. Such trade was highly competitive and risky, but over time it gradually created distinct classes of merchants, tradesmen, and commercially-oriented farmers.

For nearly half a century following the Pequot War, New England was free of major Indian wars. During this period, the region's indigenous people declined rapidly in numbers and suffered severe losses of land and cultural independence. During the first three-quarters of the seventeenth century, New England's indigenous population fell from 140,000 to 10,000, while the English population grew to 50,000. Meanwhile, the New England Puritans launched a concerted campaign to convert the Indians to Protestantism. John Eliot, New England's leading missionary, convinced about 2,000 to live in "praying towns," where they were expected to adopt white customs. New England Indians were also forced to accept the legal authority of colonial courts.

Faced with death, disease, and cultural disintegration, many of New England's native peoples decided to strike back. In 1675, the chief of the Pokanokets, Metacomet (whom the English called King Philip), forged a military alliance including about two-thirds of the region's Indians. In 1675, he led an attack on Swansea, Massachusetts. Over the next year, both sides raided villages and killed hundreds of victims. Twelve out of ninety New England towns were destroyed.

The last major Indian war in New England, King Philip's War, was the most destructive conflict, relative to the size of the population in American history. Five percent of New England's population was killed--a higher proportion than Germany, Britain, or the United States lost during World War II. Indian casualties were far higher; perhaps 40 percent of New England's Indian population was killed or fled the region. When the war was over, the power of New England's Indians was broken. The region's remaining Indians would live in small, scattered communities, serving as the colonists' servants, slaves, and tenants.

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