John Smith’s Map of New England
As their situation worsened during the late 1620s, some leading members of the beleaguered Puritan community began to think about establishing a colony of their own in the New World. This idea didn’t come out of nowhere; they already had a couple of examples to follow.

The first example: in 1620, some English Separatists who hadn’t taken root in Holland returned to England and got permission from the London Company of Virginia to set up a colony in its territory. Through mishap they wound up north of their intended destination, in a region claimed by the Virginia Company that Captain John Smith, who explored the coast there, had named New England. Smith published a book in 1616 extolling the opportunities available in New England. It included the map at the right, which you can enlarge by clicking on it.

The various wanderings these Separatists undertook in search of religious freedom have given them, in later history books, the name Pilgrims. Their little colony of Plymouth (a name they found on Smith’s map) barely survived, but by the mid-1620’s it was beginning to look permanent.
The second example of escape by emigration involved non-seperatist Puritans. John White, a minister in the English city of Dorchester, had organized a company in 1624 to found a Puritan settlement on Cape Ann, at the site of present-day Gloucester. That settlement didn’t thrive and was later abandoned, but some of its inhabitants stayed in New England, moving a little way south of Cape Ann to a village they called Naumkeag after the local Indian tribe.

Following these examples, a group of Puritan leaders organized themselves early in 1628 as The New England Company for a Colony in Massachusetts Bay, and purchased from John White a grant of the “territory between the Charles and Merrimack Rivers, including a three mile … buffer to the north of the Merrimack and to the south of the Charles, that extended from ‘the Atlantick and westerne sea and ocean on the east parte, to the South sea on the west parte’” [Samuel Eliot Morison, Founders of the Bay Colony, 1930]. In other words, it extended (on paper, at least) from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

No sooner was this grant purchased than Puritans began organizing to emigrate, and before the year 1628 was out, 100 new settlers had joined the group at Naumkeag. 300 more came in 1629, and the settlement renamed itself Salem (“Peace” in Biblical Hebrew). Settlers weren’t hard to recruit—Puritans were increasingly uneasy at home, and a great many were becoming interested in emigration who wouldn’t have considered it before.

But other grantees (not Puritans) claimed that some of the Massachusetts territory specified in John White’s grant belonged to them. The leaders of the emigration project decided that it would be safest to incorporate as a trading company and seek a royal charter to the land in their own right. Unlike the Separatists, the Puritans had wealthy and even titled families in their community, and some of these still had influence in court. King Charles granted their petition in March, 1629—probably unaware that he was chartering a colony intended primarily to be a new homeland for Puritanism and only secondarily to increase the wealth and global reach of his kingdom.
First page of the Massachusetts Bay Company charter
The charter gave the “Massachusetts Bay Company” the same territory described in White’s grant (including its western boundary at the Pacific Ocean). Like the London and the East India Companies’ charters, it set up a commercial-style corporation, with a Governor (the CEO), a small body of Governor’s Assistants (the board of directors), and a quarterly General Court (a company meeting in which all freemen—the stockholders—would have a vote). The king and his councillors took it for granted that the company would maintain headquarters and hold meetings in London, but for whatever reason the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company did not specify the location, even though previous royal charters, like that of the Virginia Company, had done so.

Six days after approving the charter, King Charles dissolved Parliament, declaring that no king was obliged to account for his actions to anyone but God, and began ruling England without the assistance of a legislature.
Emmanuel College, Cambridge University
A few months later, in August, 1629, twelve leaders of the emigration project met in the university town of Cambridge, the intellectual home of English Puritanism. (The picture shows the chapel of Emmanuel College, which had educated many influential Puritan ministers laymen, but the exact meeting place, and whether or not it was in a university building, has not been recorded).

The twelve signed an agreement to cross the sea with their families and settle in New England—on this condition: “…provided always that before the last of September next [that is, by September 30, 1630], the whole government together with the Patent [charter] for the said plantation be first, by an order of Court, legally transferred and established to remain with us and others which shall inhabit the said plantation.” The court they were referring to was not an English law court, much less the court of King Charles: it was the Massachusetts Bay Company’s own General Court. In a meeting convened two days later, the motion to carry the charter to New England was passed by a show of hands. (Only 27 of the company’s 125 stockholders were present, so it can’t exactly be represented as a majority decision.)

The Cambridge Agreement, as it’s called, was motivated by the king’s recent suppression of Parliament, as well as the increasing pressure from the Church of England to conform to its authorized forms of worship. As we’ve seen, this pressure was not confined to hectoring and scolding. Not only were Puritan ministers being summarily dismissed from their churches and replaced with more compliant clerics, but Puritan scholars were also being tossed out of the English universities. Puritan congregations were forced to attend “Popish” Anglican services, and pay tithes to support the parsons who conducted them and the bishops who gave the orders. The men who insisted that the charter must accompany them to Massachusetts knew that the charter of the Virginian company, kept in London, had been confiscated in 1624. By taking their own to America, they clearly intended to protect their piece of the New World from royal and ecclesiastical interference.
Model of the Arbella
John Winthrop was appointed governor by the General Court’s last meeting in London, on October 29, 1629, and the charter sailed with him the next spring in the Arbella, flagship of a small fleet bringing Puritan settlers to Massachusetts under the charter’s authority. (Some had already arrived; others were being organized and would soon be on the way.) The first American meeting of the General Court took place under a tree in the brand-new settlement of Charlestown. It was held on August 23, 1630, beating the deadline by more than a month. Whatever King Charles may have thought, it’s clear that the emigrants intended to form not a trading company, but a government. The historian Samuel Eliot Morison summed up their action: “The transfer of the charter was completed; the trading company of the Massachusetts Bay was dead; the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was born.”

Whether or not King Charles knew that the Massachusetts Bay Company he chartered was no mere commercial enterprise, he was dismayed by the religious and political nature of the result. Later in his reign, responding to protests by the chartered proprietors of New Hampshire and Maine that Massachusetts was encroaching on their territory, his government began legal proceedings to force the charter’s return to England. But before that could be accomplished, the English Civil War began, and the King had bigger problems to deal with. As it turned out, the colony governed itself under the charter for the next 60 years, formally acknowledging the authority of England’s rulers, but essentially free to do as its governor and legislature willed.