The coast of what is now Massachusetts was probably skirted by Norsemen in the 11th cent., and Europeans of various nationalities (but mostly English) sailed offshore in the late 16th and early 17th cent. Settlement began when the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower and landed (1620) at a point they named Plymouth (for their port of embarkation in England). 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.
Other Englishmen soon established fishing and trading posts nearby—Andrew Weston (1622) at Wessagusset (now Weymouth) and Thomas Wollaston (1625) at Mt. Wollaston, which was renamed Merry Mount (now Quincy) when Thomas Morton took charge. The fishing post established (1623) on Cape Ann by Roger Conant failed, but in 1626 he founded Naumkeag (Salem), which in 1628 became the nucleus of a Puritan colony led by John Endecott of the New England Company and chartered by the private Council for New England.
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. After some initial adjustments to allow greater popular participation and the representation of outlying settlements in the General Court (consisting of a governor, deputy governor, assistants, and deputies), the "Bay Colony" continued to be governed as a private company for the next 50 years. It was also a thoroughgoing Puritan theocracy (see Puritanism), in which clergymen such as John Cotton enjoyed great political influence. The status of freeman was restricted (until 1664) to church members, and the state was regarded as an agency of God's will on earth. Due to a steady stream of newcomers from England, the South Shore (i.e., S of Boston), the North Shore, and the interior were soon dotted with firmly rooted communities.
The early Puritans were primarily agricultural people, although a merchant class soon formed. Most of the inhabitants lived in villages, beyond which lay their privately owned fields. The typical village was composed of houses (also individually owned) grouped around the common—a plot of land held in common by the community. The dominant structure on the common was the meetinghouse, where the pastor, the most important figure in the community, held long Sabbath services. The meetinghouse of the chief village of a town (in New England a town corresponds to what is usually called a township elsewhere in the United States) was also the site of the town meeting, traditionally regarded as a foundation of American democracy. In practice the town meeting served less to advance democracy than to enforce unanimity and conformity, and participation was as a rule restricted to male property holders who were also church members.
Because they were eager for everyone to have the ability to study scripture and always insisted on a learned ministry, the Puritans zealously promoted the development of educational facilities. The Boston Latin School was founded in 1635, one year before Harvard was established, and in 1647 a law was passed requiring elementary schools in towns of 50 or more families. These were not free schools, but they were open to all and are considered the beginning of popular education in the United States.
Native American resentment of the Puritan presence 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.
The population of the Massachusetts Bay Colony naturally rejoiced at the triumph of the Puritan Revolution in England, but with the restoration of Charles II in 1660 the colony's happy prospects faded. Its recently extended jurisdiction over Maine was for a time discounted by royal authority, and, worse still, its charter was revoked in 1684. The withdrawal of the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony had long been expected because the colony had consistently violated the terms of the charter and repeatedly evaded or ignored royal orders by operating an illegal mint, establishing religious rather than property qualifications for suffrage, and discriminating against Anglicans.
In 1691 a new charter united Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, and Maine into the single royal colony of Massachusetts. This charter abolished church membership as a test 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.
By the mid-18th cent. the Massachusetts colony had come a long way from its humble agricultural beginnings. Fish, lumber, and farm products were exported in a lively trade carried by ships built in Massachusetts and manned by local seamen. That the menace of French Canada was removed by 1763 was due in no small measure to the unstinting efforts of England, but the increasing British tendency to regulate colonial affairs, especially trade (see Navigation Acts), without colonial advice, was most unwelcome. Because of the colony's extensive shipping interests, e.g., the traffic in molasses, rum, and slaves (the "triangular trade"), it sorely felt these restrictions.
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. 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.
The British remained in Boston until Mar. 17, 1776, when Gen. William Howe evacuated the town, taking with him a considerable number of Tories. British troops never returned, but Massachusetts soldiers were kept busy elsewhere fighting for the independence of the colonies. In 1780 a new constitution, drafted by a constitutional convention under the leadership of John Adams, was ratified by direct vote of the citizenry.
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's 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.
War with Great Britain came anyway in 1812, and it was extremely unpopular in New England. There was talk of secession at the abortive Hartford Convention of New England Federalists, over which George Cabot presided. As it happened, however, the embargo and the War of 1812 had an unexpectedly favorable effect on the economy of Massachusetts. With English manufactured goods shut out, the United States had to begin manufacturing on its own, and the infant industries that sprang up after 1807 tended to concentrate in New England, and especially in Massachusetts. These industries, financed by money made in shipping and shielded from foreign competition by protective tariffs after 1816, grew rapidly, transforming the character of the commonwealth and its people.
Labor was plentiful and often ruthlessly exploited. The power loom, perfected by Francis Cabot Lowell, as well as English techniques for textile manufacturing (based on plans smuggled out of England) made Massachusetts an early center of the American textile industry. The water power of the Merrimack River became the basis for Lowell's cotton textile industry in the 1820s. The manufacture of shoes and leather goods also became important in the state. Agriculture, on the other hand, went into a sharp decline because Massachusetts could not compete with the new agricultural states of the West, a region more readily accessible after the opening of the Erie Canal (1825). Farms were abandoned by the score; some farmers turned to work in the new factories, others moved to the West.
In 1820 Maine was separated from Massachusetts and admitted to the Union as a separate state under the terms of the Missouri Compromise. In the same year the Massachusetts constitution was considerably liberalized by the adoption of amendments that abolished all property qualifications for voting, provided for the incorporation of cities, and removed religious tests for officeholders. (Massachusetts is the only one of the original 13 states that is still governed under its original constitution, the one of 1780, although this was extensively amended by the constitutional convention of 1917–19.)
In the 1830s and 40s the state became the center of religious and social reform movements, such as Unitarianism and transcendentalism. Of the transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau were quick to perceive and decry the evils of industrialization, while Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Emerson had some association with Brook Farm, an outgrowth of Utopian ideals. Horace Mann set about establishing an enduring system of public education in the 1830s. During this period Massachusetts gave to the nation the architect Charles Bulfinch; such writers and poets as Richard Henry Dana, Emily Dickinson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and John Greenleaf Whittier; the historians George Bancroft, John Lothrop Motley, Francis Parkman, and William Hickling Prescott; and the scientist Louis Agassiz.
In the 1830s reformers began to devote energy to the antislavery crusade (see abolitionists). This was regarded with great displeasure by the mill tycoons, who feared that an offended South would cut off their cotton supply. The Whig party split on the slavery issue, and Massachusetts turned to the new Republican party, voting for John C. Frémont in 1856 and Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Massachusetts was the first state to answer Lincoln's call for troops after the firing on Fort Sumter. Massachusetts soldiers were the first to die for the Union cause when the 6th Massachusetts Regiment was fired on by a secessionist mob in Baltimore. In the course of the war over 130,000 men from the state served in the Union forces.
After the Civil War Massachusetts, with other northern states, experienced rapid industrial expansion. Massachusetts capital financed many of the nation's new railroads, especially in the West. Although people continued to leave the state for the West, labor remained cheap and plentiful as European immigrants streamed into the state. The Irish, oppressed by both nature and the British, began arriving in droves even before the Civil War (beginning in the 1840s), and they continued to land in Boston for years to come. After them came French Canadians, arriving later in the 19th cent., and, in the early 20th cent., Portuguese, Italians, Poles, Slavs, Russian Jews, and Scandinavians. Also from the British Isles came the English, the Scots, and the Welsh. Of all the immigrant groups, English-speaking and non-English-speaking, the Irish came to be the most influential, especially in politics. Their religion (Roman Catholic) and their political faith (Democratic) definitely set them apart from the old native Yankee stock.
Practically all the immigrants went to work in the factories. The halcyon days of shipping were over. The maritime trade had bounded back triumphantly after the War of 1812, but the supplanting of sail by steam, the growth of railroads, and the destruction caused by Confederate cruisers in the Civil War helped reduce shipping to its present negligible state—a far cry from the colorful era of the clipper ships, which were perfected by Donald McKay of Boston. Whaling, once the glory of New Bedford and Nantucket, faded quickly with the introduction of petroleum.
The rise of industrialism was accompanied by a growth of cities, although the small mill town, where the factory hands lived in company houses and traded in the company store, remained important. Labor unions struggled for recognition in a long, weary battle marked by strikes, sometimes violent, as was the case in the Lawrence textile strike of 1912.
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.
Industry spurted forward again during World War II, and in the postwar era the state continued to develop. 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.
During the postwar period the decline of textile manufacturing was offset as the electronics industry, attracted by the skilled technicians available in the Boston area, boomed along Route 128. Growth in the computer and electronics sectors, much of it spurred by defense spending, helped Massachusetts prosper during much of the 1980s. 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.