A number of Native American tribes (notably the Pequot and the Mohegan, whose name for the river became the name of the state) were here when the first European explorers, primarily Dutch, appeared in the early 17th century. The first English settlement was at Old Saybrook in 1635, followed a year later by the Connecticut Colony, built by Massachusetts Puritans under Thomas Hooker. A third colony was founded in 1638 in New Haven. After the Pequot War (1637), the Native Americans were no longer a check to colonial expansion in New England, and Connecticut’s English population grew. In 1686, Connecticut was brought into the Dominion of New England.
The American Revolution swept through Connecticut, leaving scars with major battles at Stonington (1775), Danbury (1777), New Haven (1779) and Groton (1781). Connecticut became the fifth state in 1788. It embarked on a period of prosperity, propelled by its whaling, shipbuilding, farming and manufacturing industries (from firearms to bicycles to household tools), which lasted well into the 19th century.
The 20th century brought world wars and the depression but, thanks in no small part to Connecticut’s munitions industries, the state was able to fight back. Everything from planes to submarines was made in the state, and when the defense industry began to decline in the 1990s, the growth of other businesses (such as insurance) helped pick up the slack.
When the first European explorers arrived in the New World, they found a patchwork of diversity and abundance. Along the shore, tidal flats and salt marshes were rich with shellfish and waterfowl, while the cold waters just offshore teemed with ground fish, especially the mighty cod. In the interior, ice-age glaciers had worn down the mountains, leaving a rolling hilly terrain, dappled with ponds and lakes. The forests of pine, maple, birch and oak were home to moose, deer, bear and beaver. The rivers filled with spawning fish in early spring, while the riverbanks sprouted colorful berries in late summer.
The Europeans also found about 100,000 Native American inhabitants, mostly Algonquians, organized into small regional tribes. The feisty northern tribes were solely hunter-gatherers, while the more sociable southern tribes hunted and practiced primitive slash-and-burn agriculture, growing corn, squash and beans. Their subsistence economy involved seasonal migration, following food sources between the coast and the interior, and gift exchange between villages.
Before the English Pilgrims arrived, the Native Americans were already acquainted with Portuguese fishermen, French fur traders, English explorers, Dutch merchants and Jesuit missionaries. The Europeans were welcomed as a source of valued manufactured goods, but they were also feared; and for good reason – in the Great Sadness of 1617, a smallpox epidemic had devastated the Native American population in the southeast. The Pilgrims were notable as the first Europeans to make a successful settlement in New England. Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag tribe did not view this scrawny band of settlers as a threat and even hoped that they might be useful allies against his tribal rivals.
But the clash of cultures soon proved fatal to the Native American way of life. English coastal encampments spread as seemingly unoccupied lands were claimed for the King and commodity export – John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, declared ‘God hath hereby cleared our title to this place.’ In less than a hundred years, the indigenous population was reduced by 90% by disease, war and forced migration.
Seventeenth-century England was torn by religious strife. The Protestant Pilgrims were assailed by the Catholic-leaning King James I, who vowed to ‘harry them out of the country.’ In 1620, the Pilgrims – led by Separatist devotee William Bradford – crossed the Atlantic to establish a community dedicated to religious austerity.
Trouble arose when the badly off-course Mayflower weighed anchor in Cape Cod Bay. A group of nonreligious passengers had booked their fares expecting to strike out on their own in Virginia; they threatened a mutiny when they realized they would have to spend the winter with the Separatists. The resulting Mayflower Compact brokered a deal in which both parties would have an equal say in matters of governance. Under Bradford’s capable leadership, Plymouth Colony maintained a religious focus and grew modestly over the next decade. Today, you can visit a historically accurate re-creation of this first settlement at Plimoth Plantation.
In 1630, the merchant vessel Arbella delivered another group of Protestant separatists, the Puritans, 50 miles north of Plymouth. The Puritans were better prepared: they were well financed, well equipped and 1000 strong, and included those of high social rank. At the head of their party, John Winthrop stood atop the Shawmut peninsula of present-day Boston and proclaimed the founding of ‘a shining city on a hill.’
The Massachusetts Bay Colony was a product of the Puritan gentry ambition to build a Christian community of personal virtue and industriousness – a community purified of pompous ceremony and official corruption, and disdainful of tyranny. Theirs was a kind of legalistic Calvinism, enforced Old Testament style. Anyone who missed church without good cause was apt to catch a whipping. Governor Winthrop constructed centralized institutions to maintain unity among the settlers, who dispersed to choice locations around the harbor and along the rivers. The General Court, an assembly of propertied men, became the principal mechanism of government. Church membership was a prerequisite for political and property rights.
The Puritan theocracy did not go unchallenged. In Boston, Anne Hutchinson started a women’s Bible circle, promoting the idea of salvation through personal revelation. The popularity of this individualist-inspired view was threatening to the colony’s patriarchal elders, who arrested the heretic Hutchinson and banished her to an island. One of Hutchinson’s arch defenders was her brother-in-law, the Reverend John Wheelwright, who led a group to resettlement in New Hampshire. This was the beginning of a trend in which independent folk, exasperated by encroachments on individual liberty by the Massachusetts state, would found their own settlements.
From his pulpit in Salem, Roger Williams sermonized for religious tolerance, separation of church and state, and respect for Native American rights. In 1636, Williams and a small group of backers founded a new settlement, Providence, along Narragansett Bay. The Rhode Island Colony welcomed Anne Hutchinson, declared religious freedom and made peace with the Native Americans.
Meanwhile, Bay Colony officials exiled yet another ‘heretic’ parson, Thomas Hooker, who suggested that nonpropertied men should not be excluded from political affairs. Hooker relocated to Hartford, amid the growing farm communities of the Connecticut River Valley.
Over time, the Puritan gentry were less effective in compelling others to embrace their vision of an ideal Christian community. The incessant pull of individual interests and the rise of a secular commercial culture proved to be the undoing of Winthrop’s vision.
The Stuart kings were no friends of the Protestant separatists in New England. When the English Civil War ended, they attempted to impose a greater degree of imperial control, which was fiercely resisted by the free-spirited colonists.
In 1686, King James II reorganized the colonies into a Dominion of New England and appointed Sir Edmund Andros as royal governor. Andros acted quickly to curb colonial independence. He suspended the General Court, levied new taxes, forbade town meetings and Anglicized the church. When he tried to revoke the land-grant charters, the colonists openly defied the king’s agent.
When King James was deposed in the Glorious Revolution, the colonists rose in rebellion, seizing the obnoxious Andros and shipping him back to England. Although local autonomy was restored, New England from this time was effectively incorporated into the imperial administration.
In the late 18th century, New England and the British throne clashed over the issue of taxation, exposing the conflicting strains of royal subject and personal liberty.
In 1765, the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act to finance colonial defense. Massachusetts colonists were first to object. Local businessman Sam Adams, to safeguard colonial autonomy, formed the Sons of Liberty, which incited a mob to ransack the royal stamp office. The actions were defended in a treatise written by a local lawyer, Sam’s cousin John Adams, who cited the Magna Carta’s principal of no taxation without consent. Eastern Connecticut and Rhode Island joined the protest. When New England merchants threatened a boycott of British imports, the measure was repealed.
The British government devised new revenue-raising schemes. Again, they were met with hostile noncompliance, and Boston emerged as the center of conflict. Parliament closed the Massachusetts General Assembly and dispatched two armed regiments to the city, which only inflamed local passions.
Forced underground, the Sons of Liberty set up a covert correspondence system to agitate public sentiment and coordinate strategy with sympathizers. In December 1773, the Sons of Liberty disguised themselves as Mohawks and dumped a cargo of taxable tea into the harbor. The Boston Tea Party enraged King George, whose retribution was swift and vengeful. The port was blockaded and the city placed under direct military rule.
The conflict tested the region’s political loyalties. Tory sympathizers included influential merchants, manufacturers and financiers, while the rebels tended to be drawn from lesser merchants, artisans and yeoman farmers. The colonial cause was strongly supported in Rhode Island, Hartford and New Hampshire, where local assemblies voted to provide economic assistance to Boston. Aroused Providence residents even set fire to the British warship Gaspee when it ran aground in Narragansett Bay while chasing suspected smugglers. New Hampshire instigators seized Fort William & Mary when the panicky loyalist governor attempted to enlist more British reinforcements.
In April 1775, the British again attempted to break colonial resistance, this time arresting rebel ringleaders Sam Adams and John Hancock and seizing a secret store of gunpowder and arms. As the troops assembled, Paul Revere slipped across the river into Charlestown, where he mounted his famous steed Brown Beauty and galloped off into the night to spread the alarm. By next morning, armed local militias began converging on the area. The incident sparked a skirmish between imperial troops and local farmers on the Old North Bridge in Concord and the Lexington Green, leaving over a hundred dead. The inevitable had arrived: war for independence.
Other colonies soon joined ranks, heeding the advice of Boston-born Benjamin Franklin, who said ‘if we do not hang together, we will surely hang separately.’ New Hampshire, Connecticut and Maine (then part of Massachusetts) wholeheartedly supported the revolutionary cause. The Green Mountain Boys, led by Ethan Allen, were a bandit gang, resisting the advances of the New York colony into northwest New England. They used the colonial rebellion as an opportunity to declare Vermont’s independence.
The war did not go well at first for the feisty but ill-prepared colonists, but the tide turned when the French were finally persuaded to ally with the rebellion. In 1781, the American army and French navy cornered the main British army on the Yorktown peninsula in Virginia and forced their surrender. British rule had come to an end in the American colonies.
New England port cities flourished during the Age of Sail. In the 17th century, the infamous ‘triangular trade route’ was developed, involving West Indian sugar, New England rum and West African slaves. Merchants who chose not to traffic in human cargo could still make large profits by illicitly undercutting European trade monopolies.
In the 18th century, Britain’s stricter enforcement of trade monopolies and imposition of higher tariffs squeezed the merchants’ profits. But after the American Revolution, New England merchants amassed fortunes by opening up trade routes to the Far East. Shipbuilding thrived in Massachusetts, Maine and Connecticut, and cities such as Salem, Newburyport and Portsmouth were among the richest trading cities in the world. Visit the Salem Maritime National Historic Site or Newburyport’s Custom House Maritime Museum to see this history firsthand.
The whaling industry also thrived. Even today, the rich feeding grounds of Stellwagen Bank off Cape Cod attract whales to the region. In the preindustrial period, whales provided commodities such as oil for lamps, teeth and bone for decorative scrimshaw, and other material for hoop skirts, umbrellas and perfume.
The whalers in New England were strategically placed to pursue the highly sought-after sperm whales along Atlantic migratory routes. Buzzards Bay, Nantucket Island and New Bedford were all prominent whaling centers. In the mid-19th century, New Bedford hosted a whaling fleet of over 300 ships, employing over 10, 000 people directly and indirectly, and cashing in at over $12 million in profits. Today, visitors can relive the whaling heyday at the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park.
New England’s industrial revolution began in Rhode Island when Quaker merchant Moses Brown contracted English mechanic Samuel Slater to construct a water-powered cotton-spinning factory. The Brown-Slater partnership was a brilliant success. Their mills sprouted up along the Blackstone River, driving a vibrant Rhode Island textile industry.
Thirty miles northwest of Boston, along the Merrimack River, a group of wealthy merchants built one of the wonders of the industrial age: a mile-long planned city of five-story red-brick factories, lining the river for nearly a mile, driven by a network of power canals. Named for the project’s deceased visionary, Francis Cabot Lowell, the city counted over 40 mills and employed over 10, 000 workers; machines hummed 12 hours a day, six days a week.
This was not the grimy squalor of Manchester. Lowell was an orderly city. The workforce at first was drawn from the region’s young farm women, who lived in dormitories under paternalistic supervision. The ‘mill girls’ were gradually replaced by cheaper Irish immigrant labor. The Lowell National Historical Park recalls the city’s role as the instigator of the industrial revolution.
By the mid-19th century, steam power and metal machines had transformed New England. Railroads crisscrossed the region, hastening industrialization and urbanization. Brawny textile mills arose along rivers in Lawrence, Nashua, Concord and Fall River. Leather works and shoe-making factories appeared near Boston. Springfield and Worcester became centers for tool- and dye-making, southern Connecticut manufactured machinery, and the Maine woods furnished paper mills. Even Paul Revere abandoned his silversmith shop in the North End and set up a rolling copper mill and foundry 15 miles southwest along the Neponset River.
The rapid rise of industry led to social as well as economic changes. The second half of the 19th century brought a wave of immigrant laborers to New England, throwing the world of English-descended Whig Protestants into turmoil.
The first Irish immigrants arrived to work in the mills in the 1820s. Disparaged by native New Englanders, the Irish were considered an inferior race of delinquents, whose spoken brogue suggested that one had a ‘shoe in one’s mouth’. They undercut local workers in the job market and, worse yet, brought the dreaded papist religion from which the Puritans had fled. Tensions ran high, occasionally erupting in violence.
A potato famine back home spurred an upsurge in Irish immigration to Boston. Between 1846 and 1856, more than 1000 new immigrants stepped off the boat per month, a human floodtide that the city was not prepared to absorb. Anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiments were shrill. As a political expression of this rabid reaction, the Know Nothing Party swept into office in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, promising to reverse the flow of immigration, deny the newcomers political rights and mandate readings from the Protestant Bible in public school.
Subsequent groups of Italian, Portuguese, French Canadian and East European Jewish immigrants suffered similar prejudices and indignities. By the end of the 19th century, the urban landscape of New England resembled a mosaic of clannish ethnic enclaves. Sticking together became an immigrant survival strategy for finding work, housing and companionship. Neighborhoods took on the feel of the old country with familiar language, cuisine and customs. The New England melting pot was more like a stew than a puree.
In the early 20th century, when new southern and Eastern European immigrants began preaching class solidarity, they were met with renewed fury from New England’s ruling elite. Labor unrest in the factories mobilized a harsh political reaction against foreigners and socialism.
The legacy of race relations in New England is marred by contradictions. Abolitionists and segregationists, reformers and racists have all left their mark.
The first slaves were delivered to Massachusetts Bay Colony from the West Indies in 1638. By 1700, roughly 400 slaves lived in Boston. In the 18th century, Rhode Island merchants played a leading role in the Atlantic slave trade, financing over 1000 slave ventures and transporting more than 100,000 Africans.
A number of New England’s black slaves earned their freedom by fighting against the British in the Revolution. Crispus Attucks, a runaway slave of African and Native American descent, became a martyr by falling victim in the Boston Massacre. Salem Poor, an ex-slave who bought his freedom, was distinguished for heroism in the Battle of Bunker Hill.
In the early 19th century, New England became a center of the abolition movement. In Boston, William Lloyd Garrison, a newspaper publisher, Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister, and Wendell Phillips, an aristocratic lawyer, launched the Anti-Slavery Society to agitate public sentiment. New England provided numerous stops along the Underground Railroad, a network of safe-houses that helped runaway slaves reach freedom in Canada.
The New England states still maintained their own informal patterns of racial segregation with African Americans as an underclass. Although Massachusetts was the first state to elect an African American to the US Senate by popular vote in 1966, race relations were fraught. In the 1970s Boston was inflamed by racial conflict when a judge ordered the city to desegregate the schools through forced busing. The school year was marked by a series of violent incidents involving students and parents.
The fears of the Yankee old guard were finally realized in the early 20th century when ethnic-based political machines gained control of city governments in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut.
While the Democratic Party was originally associated with rural and radical interests, it became the political instrument of the recently arrived working poor in urban areas. Flamboyant city bosses pursued a populist and activist approach to city politics. Their administrations were steeped in public works and patronage. According to Providence boss Charlie Brayton, ‘An honest voter is one who stays bought.’
The Republican Party in New England was cobbled together in the mid-19th century from the Whigs, the Know Nothings and the antislavery movement. In the 20th century, it became the political vehicle for the old English-descended elite, which envisioned a paternalistic and frugal government and preached self-help and sobriety.
Economically, New England has experienced its share of booms and busts over the past century. The good times of the early 20th century crashed down in the Great Depression. After a brief recovery, the region began to lose its textile industry and manufacturing base to the south. With the mills shut down and the seaports quieted, the regional economy languished and its cities fell into disrepair.
But entrepreneurial spirit and technological imagination combined to revive the region, sustained by science, medicine and higher education. Boston, Providence and Hartford were buoyed by banking, finance and insurance. The biggest boost came from the technological revolution, which enabled local high-tech companies to make the ‘Massachusetts Miracle,’ an economic boom in the 1980s. Even with stock-market corrections and bubble bursts, technological developments continue to reinvigorate New England.
Economic change continues to affect social and political trends in the 21st century. Notably, the decline of manufacturing in the north and the advent of air-con in the south have lured people away from New England in the early 21st century. New waves of immigrants from East Asia, the Caribbean and Brazil have steadied population numbers, though its various factions are in flux.
After several generations of moving away, New Englanders are returning to the cities. Downtowns are being revitalized as mills, and warehouses are converted into living spaces, restaurants and retail spaces. Long-lost neighborhoods in Boston, Providence and Portsmouth are undergoing processes of gentrification as yuppies transform urban blight into urban chic.
Long-existing ethnic enclaves have begun to break up. Access to higher education has sent second and third generations into prestigious professions and posh suburbs, fostering assimilation and dilution of New England’s elite culture. Meanwhile, high real-estate values mean that property is sold to the highest bidder, no matter where they come from.
A lasting strain of independent politics is evident in New England’s northern states, sustained by a healthy suspicion of politics, fiscal conservatism and social libertarianism. New England continues to provide a supportive political climate for social reformers, carrying on a legacy that includes 19th-century abolitionists, 20th-century suffragettes and 21st-century gay-rights advocates.
In recent years, New England has been at the forefront of countless ‘progressive’ issues, including antismoking legislation (smoking in the workplace is illegal in all six states) and health care (as of 2007, health care is required of all Massachusetts residents and subsidized for low-income qualifiers). In 2008, New Hampshire became the fifth New England state to legalize and recognize same-sex unions.
The new century continues to bring changing circumstances and opportunities to New Englanders. The Vermont farmer has gone organic; the Gloucester fisherman is conducting whale-watching tours; the Mohegan Native American is a gaming executive; the Boston Irish order chardonnay with their sushi; and the New England Yankee is still voting Independent.
One person really can change history. It’s happening all around us in New England:
Ben & Jerry – Vermont hippies who popularized conscientious capitalism and Chunky Monkey
Jim Koch – successful Boston brewer (unlike his beer’s namesake, Sam Adams) who launched the microbrew revolution
JCR Licklidder – Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) computer scientist who first conceived of a ‘galactic network’ that would later spawn the internet
Theo Epstein – boy genius baseball executive who ended 80-plus years of grief by bringing the World Series championship to Boston