Earliest New England

The Landing of the Pilgrims., by Henry A. Bacon, 1877

The seminal Puritan experience in the New World was more complex than is typically remembered. Indeed, not all New England colonists were Puritans.

The Puritan religious movement began around the time of the Reformation on the Continent — the early 16th century. Indeed, Martin Luther’s impatience with the corruption and excesses of the Catholic Church was shared by many in Britain. King Henry VIII’s Anglican Church was hardly a true Protestant movement, having been created to facilitate the King’s personal fancies. Many in England felt the need to emulate the early disciples, a notion known as “primitivism.” This idea began to catch on, and a movement to “purify” the church spread.

Puritan Protestantism

Elizabeth I was uncomfortable with what she saw as a radical religious movement and the lack of centralized control it could bring. Reformers were labeled “Puritans” by their critics, but they soon embraced the name as their own. The main Puritan tenet that put the ruling elite in a state of unease was that of having a personal relationship with the divine without the need of a priesthood to oversee the ritual life of the flock.

Puritans believed in Predestination; the idea that God had determined who was going to heaven and hell. One could discover one’s fate by whether or not they had a profound religious experience that moderns might call being “born again.” One of the most significant aspects of Puritanism in the long term was that it moved people to focus on their inner lives rather than outer rituals. In other words, it helped contribute to what I call “conscience as a historical force” in American history; not unlike Bartolome de las Casas and his efforts in Latin America.

Puritans themselves divided into sub-sects, some more radically primitivist than others. One group, led by William Bradford, became known as “Separatists.” They believed in separating themselves from the general population in order to prepare a “city on the hill” for the Second Coming of the Messiah.

Plymouth Colony

After attempting to relocate in The Netherlands, where they found some support but were still ostracized by the local Dutch, the Separatists elected to try their luck in the New World. They hired two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell and after long delays in England where the Speedwell was ruled to be not seaworthy, they sailed ostensibly for the Hudson River. They were blown off course by a storm and landed instead on Cape Cod, several hundred miles north. Finally, they found a sheltered bay – Massachusetts Bay – and began setting up their colony, which they named “Plymouth.”

The area had long been frequented by European traders and fishermen. The village of Patuxet, located in the same place as the Puritan’s Plymouth Colony, was known to Samuel de Champlain and other voyagers who noted it to be thriving as late as 1605. However, it is believed that an epidemic of leptospirosis, a disease transmitted by rats and other mammals, wiped out as much as 90% of the native population along the Massachusetts coast. By 1620, Patuxet was uninhabited.

On the voyage, 41 of the men aboard the ship signed an agreement known as the Mayflower Compact. Others, known by the Puritans as “strangers” because they were not part of the Separatists’ sect, did not sign. Like the House of Burgesses in Virginia, this represented an early form of self-governance in the English colonies, a developing phenomenon that would eventually conflict with the interests of King-in-Parliament in London.

Thomas Morton

The diversity of early colonization in New England is exemplified by the experience of Thomas Morton, an Anglican barrister who first ventured to the area in 1622. He returned with a group of 30 indentured men and Captain Wollaston in 1624. They made arrangements with the local Algonquin-speaking people to trade furs with them and live on their land. To the consternation of the Puritans, they also traded guns and alcohol to the Indians.

After a falling out, Wollaston and his followers left, leaving Morton as a sort of proprietor of what he playfully called “Ma-re Mount,” or simply Merrymount. Morton considered himself the “host” of the colony, and he and his followers set out to create a kind of utopian community, interacting with the local Indians and in general getting along quite well. Morton and his new friends erected an 80-foot Maypole, a pagan fertility symbol. Morton wrote a book describing his experience at Merrymount entitled New English Canaan. Unlike the “howling wilderness” of the “saints,” as the Puritan leaders were known by outsiders, this New World was a kind of unspoiled paradise untainted by European corruption.

Puritan Heavy-Handedness

The Puritans did not think much of Morton. On numerous occasions, Puritan soldiers were dispatched to arrest Morton and end his “drunken debauchery to Gracchus and Hymen.” After several arrests and trips to England to defend himself against Puritan charges of arming and debauching the Indians with liquor, Morton struck back. Being a well-connected barrister, he sued the Massachusetts Bay Company, a joint-stock company led by John Winthrop that had sent colonists to New England in 1630. Indeed, they helped immigrants to New England throughout the decade, a period known as the “Great Migration.” King Charles I was at odds with the Puritans and supported Morton in his lawsuit — support which no doubt helped Morton win the case in 1635.

The strictness with which leaders like John Endecott, John Mason, and others conducted affairs inspired migration to other areas such as the Connecticut River valley, New Hampshire, and Maine. In Massachusetts, the “saints” were interested in expanding into lands occupied by the Pequot Indians between Narragansett Bay and Massachusetts Bay. In the midst of a chaotic situation in southern New England, trader and slaver John Stone was killed by Pequot allies for ill deeds done by him and his Dutch trading partners. The English saw it as an opportunity and they moved against the Pequots.

The Path of War

The highlight of the four-year (1634-38) war between the English and Pequots and their allies was the “battle” of Fort Mystic. This was a major palisaded town holding up to 700 Pequot men, women, children, and elderly. Captain John Mason was the Puritan commander and he ordered the town set ablaze and the inhabitants slaughtered as they fled. The Narragansett allies of the British, hardened warriors, were reportedly so disgusted with the British behavior that they left the field. Reports of casualties, survivors and prisoners vary, but one source reports seven Pequot prisoners, seven who escaped – the rest killed. Prisoners were typically sold into slavery in the Caribbean: a death sentence.

Like the Powhatan War in Virginia in 1622, the Pequot War established a precedent. This precedent was followed-up in the mid-1670s when the Indians of New England were subjected to many of the same ethnic-cleansing laws the Irish had been, known as Blue Laws. At this time, “King Philip,” whose real name was Metacom, took over as headman of the Wampanoags – the Indians who had initially helped the Puritans survive the early period and with whom the Puritans had shared a feast of Thanksgiving.

In 1674, Metacom sent warnings to friends of his extended family that there was to be an attack on white settlements. They fled to Boston and the Indians attacked, killing many of the Puritans, some of whom had executed Indians for not praying, not obeying the sabbath, not being sufficiently devout. It looked grim for the Puritans for a time, but they soon counterattacked. As with the Powhatan War in Virginia, the Indian villages were destroyed along with their food stores. They were driven into the woods in the fall of the year to face the New England winter without their usual supplies. This was a pattern that would appear again with great frequency over the coming centuries.

It is ironic that the path of war would be chosen by the devout Puritans. The more secular Thomas Morton advocated for a multi-cultural colony that would enjoy the mutual benefits of trade and interaction. Morton, regrettably, represented the path not taken.


  1. Alfred Cave, The Pequot War (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996).
  2. Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! (New York: Norton, 2010).
  3. Jill Lepore, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (New York: Knopf, 1998)
  4. Thomas Morton, A New English Canaan, (Boston: The Prince Society, 1883).