Study Guide

Colonial New England Introduction

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Colonial New England Introduction

Several centuries ago, different indigenous nations were hanging out in what's now called North and South America. Then the Spanish rolled up and were like "You go, indigenous people, you just keep on keepin' on." 

Just kidding. Actually, they totally disrupted everything, stole huge amounts of land, spread deadly diseases, exploited all the natural resources, and enslaved the surviving indigenous people.

So, we have the Spanish and the indigenous people, but you'll notice that what you're reading is in English, not in Cherokee and Spanish.

Why are we writing in English then? Because the English colonized the territory that is now the eastern United States. English speakers eventually dominated both indigenous people and Spanish speakers in what is now the U.S. And the English impact spread beyond language. English culture, law, religion, and technology have all left their mark on the American way of life.

While the English got a rocky start in establishing colonies (Roanoke, uh, disappeared...), their second colony, Jamestown, squeaked by. After 80% of Jamestownians died of starvation, American Indian attacks, disease, and other top-ten worst ways to die, the colony finally stopped croaking and figured things out. Jamestown's residents discovered they could make money by selling a plant used in Native-American religious practices to Europeans—tobacco. 

But while Virginia colonists moved to America to strike it rich from tobacco and other cash crops, other colonists had more respectable reasons for moving. The colonists in New England moved to escape religious persecution.

In the early 1620s, the King of England, James I, wanted his country to be religiously united, both for religious reasons, as James I was a devout Anglican (Church of England dude), and for political reasons, because James I wanted to prevent different religions from dividing his people. He was a class-A "my way or the highway" kind of guy.

As a result, James I persecuted all religious groups except the Church of England. So, religious minorities, the Puritans and the Pilgrims, felt oppressed by more chilled-out Christians and organized voyages across the sea. These travelers found a land radically different from the society they left behind. The New World represented a fresh slate, an ocean away from the sins and corruption of the Old World and a chance to start anew, to build a society from the ground up on firmly pious principles.

We hear they're the best building materials.

In their first half century on the new continent, the English settlers learned from, interacted with, and battled against the indigenous nations of the Americas, and not necessarily in that order. The settlers also developed the institutions for which they would be forever remembered: the town meeting, the Congregational church, the hardscrabble farming life of New Englanders, and the Protestant work ethic, all of which influenced the character and composition of the subsequent American society.

However, for early English settlers, one thing that was just as important as hard work was making other people do hard work

We'll look at how New England's white settlers multiplied in number, transformed the landscape with their imported customs, tools, and livestock, and spread westward as land became increasingly coveted. We'll also take a gander at the region's Native Americans, who sought redress from the colonial government, and the early country's forgotten slavery, indentured servitude.

What is Colonial New England About and Why Should I Care?

What can the seemingly distant and obscure facts of life in colonial New England—a land of Indian wars and witch trials, proto-capitalists and Puritans— possibly have to do with your 21st-century life? What can that far-off place teach us about our own times?

A lot. Or at least that's what Nathaniel Hawthorne (one of our greatest novelists) and Arthur Miller (one of our greatest playwrights) thought. Each looked at aspects of society in colonial New England and found a story with myriad implications for their own generations.

When Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter in 1850 and set the story in 17th-century New England, he described a specific, long-lost time and place even while capturing a universal truth about the complex interplay of morality, guilt, and social condemnation. His protagonist, the adulteress Hester Prynne, was too individualistic to completely internalize the public scorn heaped upon her by the conformist society of Puritan New England, symbolized by the scarlet "A" branded onto her chest.

Even today, Hawthorne's work reminds us that every society has its mavericks, who suffer the stigma of being unorthodox or independent thinkers. And while the Puritans seemed to be very homogenous on the surface, when you get a closer look, you might find that they harbored serious internal divisions.

When Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, a play about the late-17th-century Salem witch trials, he was actually telling a parable about the paranoia of his own society in 1953. Joseph McCarthy was vigorously pursuing communists both real and imaginary in controversial hearings that were often compared to witch hunts. So, Miller utilized historical research he'd conducted as a college student to write The Crucible as a parable of McCarthyism: a tale of paranoia, rampant accusations, and unfounded condemnations. It has been his most frequently-produced play.

Both Hawthorne and Miller composed fictional works based on real events during the colonial era in New England. Both understood some of the broader themes we can draw from history. Both made that history their own. 

So, here is the history itself, facts and all. Interpret away. You're in good company.

Colonial New England Resources


Charles E. Clark, The Eastern Frontier: The Settlement of Northern New England, 1610–1763 (1970)
This book discusses the distinctive culture that developed in the south of what become Maine and New Hampshire during the colonial period.

Elaine Forman, Ebb Tide In New England: Women, Seaports, and Social Change, 1630–1800 (1998)
Forman charts the status of women in four port towns—Salem, Boston, Newport, and Portsmouth—throughout the colonial period. Despite a female majority in these densely populated areas, Crane finds a decrease in female autonomy over time, reverting back to the female dependency of the earliest days of settlement as the market economy and government infrastructures expanded and further empowered men.

Judith S. Graham, Puritan Family Life: The Diary of Samuel Sewall (2000)
Basing his work on the diary of jurist and merchant Samuel Sewall (1652–1730), Graham depicts an affectionate family whose lifestyle debunks—at least in part—many of the old myths and stereotypes about joyless, disciplinarian Puritans. The book is more compelling in its arguments about parenting and parent-child relationships than it is about the relationship between Sewall and his wife Hannah.

Daniel R. Mandell, Behind the Frontier: Native Americans in Eighteenth-Century Eastern Massachusetts (1996)
An interesting history based on documentary records—not oral histories—that reminds us of the continued presence and the exceptional perseverance of Native Americans in New England during the 18th century.

Mary Beth Norton, In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 (2002)
Here's a significant contemporary reinterpretation of the events at Salem, contextualized within all of Essex County and New England and the frontier conflict known as King William's War. Norton utilizes newly available materials from the trial records, letters, and diaries to write a compelling account.

Laurel Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650–1750 (1983)
Ulrich writes a wonderful work of history that debunks many Puritan stereotypes while reiterating the strict codes and difficult circumstances under which these women labored and lived.


Hesperus, Colonial America (2003)
Hesperus Early Music Ensemble promises "spirited sounds from across the sea to the shores of the new land" and delivers just that. This collection of classic compositions reflects the diverse mix of settler communities in 17th-century America.

Hesperus, Early American Roots (1997)
Another fantastic offering from the Hesperus Early Music Ensemble, this disc includes 22 performances based on 18-century ballads, hymns, and cotillion tunes. See if you can pick out the unique sounds of baroque violins, recorders, violas da gamba, and other period instruments.

George Fenton, The Crucible: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1996)
Composer George Fenton utilizes viols, sackbuts, and other obscure period instruments to carefully craft the soundtrack to this film based on Arthur Miller's play about the witch hunts in 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts.

John Barry, The Scarlet Letter: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1995)
Composer John Barry integrates Native-American rhythms and period melodies to provide a dark and riveting soundtrack for this Hollywood film based on Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous novel.


An Early Map
John Foster's "A Map of New England," 1677.

Colonial New England
John Green and Thomas Jefferys' map of "the most Inhabited part of New England," 1774.

A Clergyman's Map
Cotton Mather's map of New England, 1702.

Early New England Architecture
The 1695 Margaret Bliss house in Springfield, Massachusetts offer a good example of 17th-century New England architecture, 1890.

The Carnage of King Philip's War
New England communities attacked in King Philip's War, 1675-1676.

Colonial Settlement
New England settlement patterns, 1691-1765.

Spreading Settlement
Spread of European settlement in New England, 1691-1765.

New England Towns
Spread of European settlement and town incorporation in New England, 1620-1791.

Movies & TV

Salem Witch Trials (2003)
In this two-part made-for-television film, 21st-century political tensions are reflected.

Secrets of the Dead: The Witches Curse (2001)
This is a memorable episode in the PBS Secrets of the Dead documentary series. "The Witches Curse" explores the infamous Salem witch trials using historical documents, expert testimony, and even chemistry.

The Crucible (1996)
Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder star in this adaptation of Arthur Miller's play about a group of young girls in 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts, who trigger a witch hunt that leads to the persecution, incarceration, torture, and execution of dozens of men and women.

The Scarlet Letter (1995)
Based on Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel, actress Demi Moore is Hester Prynne, the wife of an Englishman who arrives alone in the Massachusetts Bay colony to prepare their new home. Nearly a year passes, however, with no sign of her husband and in her despair, she seeks comfort from a young pastor. When their secret love is revealed, Hester is forced to identify herself as an adulterous and face her returning husband's wrath.


Yale University's Avalon Project: 17th-Century Documents
This page contains several primary-source documents, including original grants and charters from the 17th century. You've got your Massachusetts Charter of 1691, several other charters, and the English Bill of Rights (1689), plus way more.

National Geographic's Salem Witchcraft Hysteria Interactive Tool
Walk through the hysteria of Salem's witch hunts with this interactive National Geographic tool.

The Goody Parsons Witchcraft Case
This website describes and contextualizes a 17th-century witchcraft accusation in Massachusetts, and includes images of original documents with transcriptions, photographs of period homes, maps, and some portraits. From the site: Mary Parsons is perhaps the most infamous resident of Northampton's early settlement period. She was involved in witchcraft-related trials in 1656 and 1674, and possibly again in 1679. Her story is a fascinating one that sheds light on the workings of the Puritan mind and the complicated social and cultural situation of the period.

Historical Documents

King Philip Voices His People's Grievances (1675)
Metacom, or King Philip, conveyed the trials and tribulations of his Wampanoag people in 1675 during a meeting with John Easton, Attorney General of the Rhode Island colony. Easton was trying to broker a settlement, but he failed. As it turns out, his most important accomplishment was recording the King's comments for posterity.

"Such Was the Tumultation These Women Made" (1677)
Sailor Robert Roules recounts a July 1677 Indian attack on his boat at Marblehead, Massachusetts. The local Native Americans had been targeting fishing ketches in their relentless struggle against the white settlers. They were part of an Indian resistance that continued up and down the New England coast for as much as two years after Metcaom was killed and King Philip's War "officially" ended. The white settlers recaptured Roules' boat and the white women of Marblehead proceeded to exact violent revenge on their own Indian captives.

"Packed Densely, Like Herrings" (1750)
Organist and schoolmaster Gottlieb Mittelberger emigrated to Philadelphia in 1750 along with 500 of his fellow Germans. But he returned to Germany in 1754 and wrote this tract to warn people of the false promises of America.

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