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Massachusetts History: Historic Facts and Overview: Massachusetts FlagMassachusetts History

Historic Facts & Overview of Massachusetts History

Find an overview of Massachusetts history. Discover an overview of the rich history, heritage, historic events.

One of the six New England states, and one of the first 13 states in the Union (it entered in 1788), Massachusetts is known as the "Bay State" or as the "Old Colony State." The Pilgrims established their settlement at Plymouth in 1620, arriving on the Mayflower. They were followed shortly by the Puritans, who established the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritans named their colony after a local Indian tribe whose name means "a large hill place." The birthplace of many of the ideals of the American Revolution, Massachusetts attracted people who believed in self-government. It's appropriate that the state flower is the mayflower, also known as the trailing arbutus!

Overview of Massachusetts History and Heritage

Four themes dominate the history of this small but influential state: the importance of individual and personal freedom and liberty, mercantile activity and entrepreneurship, inventiveness, and industrial genius, and pioneering social action.

Early European Exploration and Colonization The coast of what is now Massachusetts was probably skirted by Norsemen in the 11th century, but in the late 16th century, European ships explored the New England coast, led by Giovanni da Verrazano in 1524 and Bartholomew Gosnold in 1602. Their explorations were based in part upon the information of Europeans on fishing voyages who had reached North America during the 16th century.

Interest in the commercial exploitation of New England grew in Europe, especially in England. The first permanent settlers in Massachusetts, however, were not fortune hunters but the religious group known as the Pilgrims, whose first land- fall was Cape Cod rather than their original Virginia destination.

In December 1620 they landed at Plymouth, where they established a colony according to terms drawn up in the Mayflower Compact before debarking. Their first governor, John Carver, died the next year, but under his successor, William Bradford, the Plymouth Colony took firm hold. Weathering early difficulties, the colony eventually prospered. The Pilgrims were soon followed by other English settlers. The Dorchester Company founded a colony at Gloucester (1623)on Cape Ann and, after Gloucester's failure, at Naumkeag (Salem, 1626). In 1628 a party of Puritans led by John Endecott settled at Salem under the auspices of the New England Company.

In 1629 the New England Company was reorganized as the Massachusetts Bay Company after receiving a more secure patent from the crown. In 1630 John Winthrop led the first large Puritan migration from England (900 settlers on 11 ships). Boston supplanted Salem as capital of the colony, and Winthrop replaced Endecott as governor. Winthrop and, together with cleric John Cotton, dominated its affairs for the next two decades. Puritanism was the overriding religion political force in the Bay Colony, whose leaders sought to establish a Bible commonwealth.

Citizenship (called freemanship) was restricted (until 1664)to church members. Religious dissenters, most notably Anne Hutchinson, and Roger Williams, were banished from the colony. Within the framework of religious restriction, however, the colony early developed representative institutions.

In 1632 the freemen gained the right to elect the governor directly, and in 1634 the freemen of each town won the right to send deputies to the General Court. Throughout this early period new immigrants arrived, settling along the coast and a short distance inland. Farming, lumbering, and fishing were the principal occupations. Native American resentment of the Puritan presence and movement into the interior resulted in the Pequot War (see Pequot ) of 1637, after which the four Puritan colonies (Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven) formed the New England Confederation , the first voluntary union of American colonies. In 1675-76, the confederation broke the power of the Native Americans of southern New England in King Philip's War . In the course of the French and Indian Wars , however, frontier settlements such as Deerfield were devastated.

In 1643 the Bay Colony formed the New England Confederation with Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven colonies to coordinate defense. The confederation acted most effectively during King Philip's War (1675-76). Continual disagreements arose between the colonists and the English government, especially after the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660.

Finally, in 1684, the colony's charter was revoked, and in 1686 the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies were included in the Dominion of New England under Sir Edmund Andros. News of the Glorious Revolution in England prompted uprisings against Andros and the dissolution of the Dominion in 1689. Two years later a royal charter was issued that incorporated Plymouth Colony and the Province of Maine, within Massachusetts but placed the extended colony under a royal governor and removed the religious qualification for voting, although Congregationalism remained the established religion. Widespread anxiety over loss of the original charter contributed to the witchcraft panic that reached its climax in Salem in the summer of 1692. Nineteen persons were hanged and one crushed to death for refusing to confess to the practice of witchcraft. The Salem trials ended abruptly when colonial authorities, led by Cotton Mather , became alarmed at their excesses.

Massachusetts experienced accelerated growth in the early 18th century; settlements arose in the interior, and the Connecticut Valley was settled. Mills were built along the smaller rivers and streams to grind grain, saw logs, forge iron and process wool. Seaport towns grew and prospered as a lucrative overseas trade flourished. Ships carried timber and salt fish to the Caribbean and returned with molasses and sugar. Rum, distilled in Medford and Newburyport, was carried to West Africa along with cloth and simple utensils to be traded for slaves who were, in turn, carried to the Caribbean Islands and South America. These routes came to be known as the "Triangular Trade."

Massachusetts has played a significant role in American history since the Pilgrims, seeking religious freedom, founded Plymouth Colony in 1620.

Rich ship-owners and sea captains competed to build the grandest houses along the shore. From the Revolution to the Civil War. The various taxes put forth by the British after 1730 for replenishment of the British treasury were unpopular in thriving Massachusetts. As one of the most important of the 13 colonies, Massachusetts became a leader in resisting British oppression.

In 1761 James Otis opposed a Massachusetts superior court's issuance of writs of assistance (general search warrants to aid customs officers in enforcing collection of duties on imported sugar), arguing that this action violated the natural rights of Englishmen and was therefore void. He thus helped set the stage for the political controversy which, coupled with economic grievances, culminated in the American Revolution. In Massachusetts a bitter struggle developed between the governor, Thomas Hutchinson, and the anti-British party in the legislature led by Samuel Adams, John Adams, James Otis, and John Hancock. The Stamp Act (1765) and the Townshend Acts (1767) preceded the Boston Massacre (1770), and the Tea Act (1773) brought on the Boston Tea Party . The rebellious colonials were punished for this with the Intolerable Acts (1774), which troops under Gen. Thomas Gage were sent to enforce.

Through committees of correspondence Massachusetts and the other colonies had been sharing their grievances, and in 1774 they called the First Continental Congress at Philadelphia for united action. The mounting tension in Massachusetts exploded in Apr., 1775, when General Gage decided to make a show of force with a search-and-destroy mission. Warned by Paul Revere and William Dawes, the Massachusetts militia engaged the British force at Lexington and Concord (see Lexington and Concord, battles of ). Patriot militia from other colonies hurried to Massachusetts, where, after the battle of Bunker Hill (June 17, 1775), George Washington took command of the patriot forces.

In June 1775 the Battle of Bunker Hill proved to be a costly victory for the British. In 1776 they evacuated Boston, and fighting ended on Massachusetts soil.


Victorious in the Revolution, the colonies faced depressing economic conditions. Nowhere were those conditions worse than in W Massachusetts, where discontented Berkshire farmers erupted in Shays' Rebellion in 1786. The uprising was promptly quelled, but it frightened conservatives into support of a new national constitution that would displace the weak government created under the Articles of Confederation; this constitution was ratified by Massachusetts in 1788.
Independence had closed the old trade routes within the British Empire, but new ones were soon created, and trade with China became especially lucrative. Boston and lesser ports boomed, and the prosperous times were reflected politically in the commonwealth's unwavering adherence to the Federalist party, the party of the dominant commercial class. European wars at the beginning of the 19th cent. at first further stimulated maritime trade but then led to interference with American shipping. To avoid war Congress resorted to Jefferson's Embargo Act of 1807 , but its provisions dealt a severe blow to the economy of Massachusetts and the rest of the nation.

These men were leaders in the Revolution, and the state continued to provide leadership for the young American republic. Massachusetts had regained its economic momentum when the embargoes and trade restrictions of the early 19th century again curbed overseas trade. General opposition to the War of 1812 brought on talk of secession at the Hartford Convention (1814-15).

The war finally ended with minimal help from Massachusetts, however, and economic growth again accelerated. The decades before the Civil War were prosperous ones. Farming spread into the farthest valleys of the Berkshires, often into areas ill suited to cultivation. Canals, toll roads, and railroads were built connecting all of the principal cities. Economy for the next century, gained its initial momentum under capitalists like Francis Cabot Lowell.

Workers were first recruited from local farms and villages, but in the mid-1840s the first non-English, immigrants, the Irish, arrived. The long British cultural hegemony was over. The mills cities grew rapidly, sometimes doubling their population in less than a decade. As waterpower sites proved inadequate for large-scale factory expansion, steam engines powered by coal were used.

Nevertheless, mill workers expressed growing discontent over working conditions. The Civil War was entered with great enthusiasm, especially because Massachusetts had a long history of abolitionist sentiment. The state was a major arsenal for the war, with guns, blankets, tents, and shoes produced in vast quantities.

World War I, which caused a vast increase in industrial production, improved the lot of workers, but not of Boston policemen, who staged and lost their famous strike in 1919. For his part in breaking the strike, Gov. Calvin Coolidge won national fame and went on to become vice president and then president, the third Massachusetts citizen (after John Adams and John Quincy Adams) to hold the highest office in the land. The Sacco-Vanzetti Case , following the police strike, attracted international attention, as liberals raged over the seeming lack of regard for the spirit of the law in a state that had given the nation such an eminent jurist as Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935). Labor unions finally came into their own in the 1930s under the New Deal.

The late 19th century was the state's greatest industrial period. Massachusetts was a national leader in the production not only of textiles and shoes but also of textile and shoemaking machinery, silverware, machine tools, glass, paper, rubber products, locomotives, guns, and fire en gines. From 1900 to 1910, however, many factories, which had become increasingly obsolescent, closed. Textile companies established new mills and new corporate headquarters in the southern states. The tenements of the mill cities were aging and unable to meet the most modest health and building standards.

Service industries, however, were beginning to assume a new role in the Massachusetts economy. Banking and insurance, important in the era of industrial expansion and transportation growth, reached out for new markets in the West. Retailing and wholesaling expanded to serve the new urban populations. Many office and clerical jobs were created in cities like Boston, Worcester, and Springfield.

The Depression of the 1930s was especially severe in those communities already hard hit by the closing of textile and shoe factories. World War II temporarily reversed this trend as industry spurted forward again during World War II, and in the postwar era the state continued to develop.

In the post-World War II era Massachusetts has played a national leadership role in social and political activities.

Agriculture and fishing are in decline, but beginning in the 1950s, Massachusetts's economy generally has been revitalized, with electronics, non-electrical machinery, and computer-oriented industries stimulating growth. Service industries have continued to expand, especially in the areas of banking, insurance, health care, and higher education.

Politically, the state again assumed national importance with the 1960 election of Senator John F. Kennedy as the nation's 35th President. In 1974, Michael S. Dukakis, a Democrat, was elected governor. He lost to Edward King in 1978, but won again in 1982 and was reelected in 1986. In 1988 he ran for president, losing to George H. W. Bush. Dukakis decided not to run again for governor.

At the end of the decade effects of a nationwide recession and the burden of a huge state budget hit Massachusetts hard, but in the 1990s there was a substantial economic recovery, spearheaded by growth in small high-tech companies.

The principal problems facing the state, however, lie in its urban areas, where the incidence of violent crime, the distribution and use of illegal drugs, and the general deterioration of social services are on the increase.

Today, leaders are striving to improve air and water pollution, housing shortages, and racial issues.

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