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Historical Background

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Historical Background

The British Colonials and Progenitors (continued)


The first serious conflict produced the colony of Rhode Island—founded by Roger Williams, champion of religious liberty and humanitarianism. Williams was a nonconforming Welsh minister who in 1631 migrated to Massachusetts. Almost immediately, he fell into disagreement with the authorities. He preached such heretical ideas as freedom of conscience in religious matters, a complete separation of civil and church laws, and Indian land ownership. He contended that the government should not compel any man to attend church services nor dictate the nature of these services, that church tithes and civil taxes were two entirely different matters, and that the King and the colonists would not have title to the land until they purchased it from the Indians.

Because of Williams' popularity, the Puritan oligarchy at first tried to quiet him by argument and reason, but finally decreed his banishment from the colony. To escape being sent back to England, in the winter of 1635 he fled to Narragansett Bay, where Indians befriended him. He purchased land from them and established the village of Providence as a haven for other dissenters from the Boston orthodoxy, some of whom arrived the following spring.

Fortifications at Oswego
Fortifications at Oswego, New York, in 1767. In the 18th century, Oswego was of strategic importance in controlling Lake Ontario. In 1756, during the French and Indian War, the French destroyed the British fort on the site, but after the war the British rebuilt it. From an engraving by Gavit & Duthie, published in 1767. (Courtesy, Chicago Historical Society.)

Subsequently, as religious unrest continued, many other dissenters emigrated from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Anne Hutchinson, wife of a wealthy Boston Puritan, voiced religious opinions disturbingly different than those emanating from most of the pulpits. A warm personality and an excellent conversationalist, she held weekly meetings in her home to discuss the sermons and the preachers. Advocating as she did the necessity of faith alone for salvation rather than moral behavior and "good works," she minimized the role of the clergy. Her views were heretical to Winthrop and the church elders, who were committed to the Bible, as interpreted by the clergy, as the sole source of religious inspiration. But many approved of her views, and she gained a substantial following. She finally clashed with the Puritan authorities, especially Winthrop, in a power struggle to control the General Court, but they emerged victorious. They convicted her of heresy and treason, imprisoned her for a short time, and finally excommunicated and banished her.

Anne Hutchinson and her family and a large number of followers moved to an island in Narragansett Bay, where in 1638 they established the town of Portsmouth. A year later one of her followers, William Coddington, founded Newport on the southern side of Aquidneck Island, or Rhode Island, as it was later renamed. In 1638, Samuel Gorton, who had been cast out of Massachusetts and Plymouth for blasphemous opinions, was likewise rejected by the Hutchinsonians at Portsmouth. He moved to the mainland below Providence, where he started the settlement of Warwick.

Fearing persecution from Massachusetts, Williams united the towns of Providence, Portsmouth, and Newport, and in 1643 carried their petition for a separate government to England. There the outcome of the civil war between the Roundheads and the Crown was yet undecided. In 1644, Wiliiams received from the Roundhead Parliament—what was left of it—a charter uniting the three towns into the colony of Rhode Island and authorizing self-government. Three years later, Warwick joined the union. After Charles II was restored to the throne, he issued, in 1663, a royal charter, based on the parliamentary grant. Until 1842, this document served as Rhode Island's constitution.

The government of Rhode Island was patterned after that of Massachusetts with two major exceptions: church and state were completely separated, and religious toleration was guaranteed. Rhode Island became, therefore, a haven for religious minorities and dissenters, including Jews and Quakers, although toleration of the latter strained even Roger Williams' beliefs.


The movement into the fertile Connecticut River Valley was motivated less by a desire to seek religious freedom than to escape the tyranny of unproductive and rocky farmlands. It began in 1633, when a small group from Plymouth moved west into Dutch territory and settled at Windsor, some 10 miles above Fort Good Hope, a Dutch post. In 1634, a number of farmers from Massachusetts founded Wethersfield. The following year, some 60 families moved from Newtown (Cambridge) and established Hanford adjacent to Fort Good Hope. Then, in 1636, virtually the entire Massachusetts villages of Dorchester, Watertown, and Newton made a mass exodus to the new locations in Connecticut.

Thomas Hooker, pastor of the Newtown congregation, did not disagree with Winthrop in theological matters, but he did object to the oligarchical government of Massachusetts. Insisting that "the foundation of authority is laide in the consent of the governed," he opposed the restricted suffrage in Massachusetts. Under his leadership, a movement to unify the Connecticut towns resulted in the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, devised and adopted in 1639 by representatives of the towns. This document, which has been called the first written constitution in the New World, set up a government similar to that in Massachusetts except that church membership was not required for voting and the franchise was much broader. With minor modifications, until 1818 it served as Connecticut's constitution. In 1662, Connecticut received a royal charter.

British 60th Foot Regiment
The British 60th Foot (Royal-American) Regiment, some of whose members are pictured here, was a regular British regiment consisting of about 4,000 men. Most of the personnel consisted of American colonists. From a drawing by Frederick E. Ray, Jr. (Courtesy, the artist, the Company of Military Historians, and the Chicago Historical Society.)


Theophilus Eaton, a wealthy merchant of London, and John Davenport, a radical nonconforming minister, in 1637 brought a shipload of Puritans to Massachusetts. There they found the controversy between Winthrop and the Hutchinsonians at its height. Feeling that the Massachusetts authorities had not been sufficiently strict, they moved on to Long Island Sound, west of the Connecticut River, where in 1638 they founded a Bible commonwealth, New Haven. The following year its residents established a theocracy even more autocratic than that in Massachusetts.

Within a few years, emigrants from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and England founded more than a dozen settlements in the vicinity, and by 1644 these had all federated with the town of New Haven to form a colony contiguous to Connecticut. New Haven was probably the most radical of the Puritan commonwealths. It had no charter from either Parliament or the Crown, and it was accused of harboring the men responsible for the beheading of Charles I. In 1662, the royal charter of Connecticut officially joined it to Connecticut. Only with much reluctance did New Haven acknowledge this union 2 years later.


The first attempts at colonizing Maine began with two ill-fated ventures, the French settlement at St. Croix Island in 1604-5 and the English Popham settlement on the Kennebec in 1607-8. Between 1622 and 1624, English colonists made permanent settlements at Monhegan, Saco, and York. During the large Puritan migration of the next decade, the Englishman Sir Ferdinando Gorges promoted colonization expeditions to Maine, and established several small, isolated farming and fishing communities along the southern coast. The English settlements were restricted primarily to the southern coastal area of Maine because of the French trading posts along the St. Croix River.

British colonies in present United States (with date of first permanent settlement). (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

In New Hampshire, as early as 1623, a group of colonists from England had settled at Odiorne's Point, near present Portsmouth. At about the same time, another group founded Dover. New Hampshire's largest early settlement, Exeter, was established as an unorthodox Puritan settlement in 1639 by John Wheelwright, the nonconformist brother-in-law of Anne Hutchinson, who had been banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Shortly thereafter, however, orthodox Puritans from the Bay Colony settled at nearby Hampton. Perhaps because of the lack of religious unanimity, but more likely because of quarrels and litigation over land ownership, the settlements in New Hampshire and Maine never formed any sort of political union as had those in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Haven.

The Maine-New Hampshire region had been granted in 1622 to Gorges and John Mason jointly by the Council for New England. In 1629, they agreed to split their grant, Mason taking the area of present New Hampshire; and Gorges, Maine. However, the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, issued the same year, included these areas. In 1641, the Bay Colony arbitrarily extended jurisdiction over the settlements in New Hampshire and Maine. The heirs of Mason and Gorges protested. After considerable legal maneuvering and delay, in 1677 the matter was finally decided against Massachusetts, which then bought Maine from the Gorges heirs. Two years later, in 1679, New Hampshire became a royal colony.


The need of the New England colonies for a common defense against the Indians resulted in the beginning of unity there. Throughout most of the colonial period, New England faced danger from hostile Indians. The first real trouble began in 1633, when settlers moved into Pequot country in Connecticut and alienated the Indians. Sporadic attacks occurred until 1637, when the Pequot War began with an attack on Wethersfield. Wreaking a terrible vengeance, Massachusetts and Connecticut militia burned the Pequot fort at Mystic and killed most of the 600 or so inhabitants. The militia pursued them, killed many, and captured others and made them slaves of the colonials or sold them into slavery in the West Indies. Others who later surrendered were distributed among the Mohegan, the Narragansett, and the Niantic—English allies. Thus the Pequots lost their identity as a separate tribe.

uniforms and equipment of the New England Independent Companies
Representative uniforms and equipment of the New England Independent Companies. For several decades, the English colonists were responsible for their own protection. Around 1675, because of increasing Indian hostility and Anglo-Dutch rivalry, England began sending Independent Companies, the first British regulars in America. From a drawing by Eric I. Manders (Courtesy, the artist, the Company of Military Historians, and the Chicago Historical Society.)

Fear of additional Indian attacks led in 1643 to the formation of the New England Confederation—the first attempt at intercolonial cooperation—consisting of Massachusetts, New Haven, Plymouth, and Connecticut. Each of the four had an equal voice in the council, although Massachusetts outnumbered the others three to one in population and furnished most of the funds. Nevertheless, the confederation was fairly active for about two decades, though theoretically it existed until 1684.

In 1645, the confederation conducted a victorious campaign against the Narragansett Indians; in 1650, negotiated the Hartford Treaty with Peter Stuyvesant of New Netherland; established a system of criminal extradition; insisted that member colonies regulate church membership and exclude Quakers from their jurisdictions; and, finally, led a stumbling but ultimately victorious defense in King Philip's War (1675-76). One of the bloodiest Indian uprisings in colonial history, this war was caused by the increasing encroachment of the Puritans on Indian lands. King Philip (Metacomet), chief of the Wampanoag tribe and son of Massasoit, who originally befriended the Pilgrims, led his allies in a series of raids on New England towns and settlements. They won numerous victories and destroyed 12 towns, but confederation-sponsored troops finally defeated them.

About this time, a movement developed among the disenfranchised in Massachusetts to convert it to a royal colony. This movement coincided with growing distrust in England over the virtual independence of Massachusetts and with hostility toward her disregard of the Navigation Acts. In 1677, Massachusetts lost her claim to Maine and bought it from the heirs of Gorges; in 1679, a royal commission separated New Hampshire from Massachusetts. In 1682, Edward Randolph, who had been appointed by the Crown as surveyor and collector of customs in New England, dispatched to authorities in England a series of reports hostile to Massachusetts. Consequently, the Lords of Trade filed a suit in chancery to cancel the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company. The charter was canceled in 1684, and Massachusetts became a royal colony.

Because of the fragmentation of New England into so many small colonies and the recalcitrant independence of the Puritans, in 1686 the Crown organized the Dominion of New England to centralize royal control over the northern colonies. The King appointed Sir Edmund Andros as Governor-General and established the capital at Boston. Within a couple of years, Andros was able to bring into the Dominion the colonies of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Plymouth, Connecticut (already united with New Haven), Rhode Island, New York, and East and West New Jersey. His task of controlling them was an impossible one, however, and he incurred the animosity of all classes. The year after the Glorious Revolution unseated James II in 1688, because of his Catholic leanings, insurgents in Boston, declaring for the newly crowned William and Mary, imprisoned Andros and the Dominion came to an end. A similar uprising in New York squelched Andros' deputy there.

In 1691, Massachusetts was granted a new charter, as a royal colony, and to it was attached not only Maine, as formerly, but also Plymouth. The charters of Rhode Island and Connecticut were restored, and separate royal governments were reestablished in New York and New Hampshire.

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Last Updated: 22-Mar-2005