From its small beginnings in 1629–30, Massachusetts Bay during the rest of the 1600s became the strongest and most prosperous of England’s colonies in the New World. One of the main reasons was the great number of settlers that arrived during its first decade. The cause of this had much to do with their religion, but it was as much a matter of Anglican antipathy as Puritan idealism: from the time of the king’s suspension of Parliament in 1629 to the parliamentary uprising in 1640 that turned into the English Civil War, the established church, with the royal government’s support, made life increasingly unpleasant for all nonconformists, and many who may not have thought at first about emigrating began to change their minds. The strongest, most convinced, and often most charismatic of Puritan ministers were being dismissed from their pulpits, and there were cases where an entire congregation chose to follow a beloved minister across the Atlantic rather than transfer their allegiance to the church that had dismissed him.
The Arbella, in 1630, led a small fleet of four ships, and seven more were in preparation. During that summer this flotilla, called the Winthrop Fleet, landed nearly a thousand people, and before 1630 was over, a total of 17 ships had brought perhaps 1800 settlers to establish the colony. (A partial list of ships made by John Winthrop puts the average number of passengers at a little more than 100.)
Propelled by oppression at home, the ships kept coming. William Laud’s appointment in 1633 from influential bishop to Archbishop of Canterbury, primate of the Anglican Church, increased enthusiasm for emigration to Massachusetts. Johnson reckons that, between 1630 and 1640, about 200 ships arrived. (His exact estimate was 198.) Not every settler stayed; some returned to England and—especially during the shaky first year that every colony seems to have gone through—a fair number died. Nevertheless, the rapid increase in population through immigration was unlike the experience of any other English colony on the North American continent. History books have called it the Great Migration. (The same title has been given to more than one American population movement: the settlement of the West, for example, and more recently the movement of black Americans during the 20th century from southern farms to Northern cities.)
Some estimates of the total immigration to Massachusetts during its first 10 years are much lower—I’ve seen suggested figures of 14,000 and 9,000. Not being in a position to judge, I’ve chosen to follow Fischer and Morison. But it was not just a large number of immigrants, whatever that number was, that caused Massachusetts to grow so fast. The Puritan settlers, to a much greater extent than those of other colonies, came as families. Fischer compares the ratio of women to men who came to settle in Virginia (4 to 100), New Spain (10 to 100) and Brazil (1 to 100) with Massachusetts Bay: 100 women and girls to 150 men and boys, or about 67 to 100. This circumstance not only ensured that the colonists would quickly take up the challenge of establishing secure and productive homesteads, but also ensured that the population, which from the beginning included many children, was on average a young and strong one. (Unfortunately, the large number of women in the population didn’t give rise to any discoverable doubt about the restriction of political rights to men. Social conscience still had a long road to travel.)
Although the settlers included a good number of English gentlefolk, most of them were, as Fischer says, “yeomen, husbandmen, artisans, craftsmen, merchants and traders—the sturdy middle class of England.” Their culture, reinforced by their Calvinist faith, frowned on vain display and the flaunting of wealth. A Puritan was expected to work hard, be productive, and shun idleness. If a family accumulated wealth, they were more likely to put it to work, with positive effects for the economy, than to squander it on conspicuous consumption. Some immigrants—less than a quarter—were servants, although the colony’s leaders had discouraged immigrants from bringing them. Fischer compares this with Virginia, of whose settlers fully three quarters arrived as servants.
Still, the population of the colony continued to grow vigorously. Even in its first decade, it spread west to the Connecticut River and down it to what later became a separate colony. The settlers, though thinly spread in the early days, followed God’s advice to Adam and Eve about being fruitful and multiplying, and towns grew bigger and closer together. Although New France to the north and the Iroquois nations to the west prevented the colony from extending its borders in either of those directions, there was still plenty of space to fill within or between the towns already laid out. It suited the colonists’ style to live close to their extended families. Land was there to be bought. Towns that were originally laid out to occupy an unnecessarily large share of the map could be, and were, divided.
Massachusetts lacked the conditions necessary to produce cash crops, but there was enough good soil to support family farms. Most of the colony’s farming was done for subsistence, but those farmers within oxcart range of Boston or other sizable towns could also find markets for their produce. Coastal fisheries, besides supplying local markets, produced a surplus of cod that when salted for preservation became an asset that could be traded abroad.
The cool climate proved invigorating, and visitors remarked on the energy with which everyone in New England seemed to move. Unlike the sultry weather that sometimes proved an affliction to colonies farther south, the brisk air of Massachusetts did nothing to discourage physical effort. The English settlers throve on it, and infant and childhood mortality (though shockingly high by modern standards) was low compared to that in their home country at the time. Over the years, the combination of hard work and bountiful harvests even made the inhabitants of Massachusetts a little taller, on average, than those who stayed in England.
The climate was also more responsible than Puritan virtue for minimizing the importation of slaves. Africans suffered severely from respiratory ailments during the cold winters, and the mortality rate was high for those who were brought to New England directly from Africa.
Still, many slaves did end up here, even though they were much fewer in proportion to the white population than in the southern colonies. New England’s slaves did work of all kinds, often skilled work, rather than being restricted to agricultural labor as they were farther south. This was due more to the type and scale of farming in New England, which didn’t demand a massive labor force, than to any guilty feelings about owning slaves. A few whites may have had such feelings, but most seemed morally at ease with the idea, and might have imported more slaves had the economic benefit been assured.
Nor were New Englanders generally inclined to turn their backs on the profits that might accrue from the slave trade. Even as early as the 1640s, Massachusetts ships were engaging in it. They were unable to make much of a dent in the market until the end of the 1600s, but it wasn’t for want of trying.
Another factor in the colony’s economic success was the relative ease with which families could rise through their own efforts to the status of landowners. The historian Robert E. Brown (Middle-class Democracy and the Revolution in Massachusetts, 1955) points to the causes: while all the land in England (and other parts of Europe) was already owned—if not by whoever lived on it, then by a wealthy or aristocratic or perhaps even royal landlord—unsold Massachusetts land belonged to the colony, or to one of its towns, either of which was ready to grant it free or sell it cheaply to those who would make it productive. The price of land was always lower on this side of the ocean, and the money to buy it was easier to earn because the colony never experienced the oversupply of labor that kept English and European wages low. On the contrary, labor was always in demand, and employers had to pay good wages (or perhaps buy slaves) to get it. Brown makes the argument that we should take these circumstances into account before concluding that the property requirement for freemen always kept the working and middle classes from having any share in political power.
Note: The previous paragraph, like the rest of this website, ignores the feelings and interests of the original inhabitants of Massachusetts. In this it follows the example of the Puritan settlers themselves, who were no more able to comprehend the Indians’ idea of land ownership and use than the Indians were able to comprehend theirs. The outcome was, by any objective measure, a tremendous injustice to the Indians, and I don’t think that should be glossed over. But a full account, even if I were capable of giving it, would take us too far from the subject of the economic and political development of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which is all there is room for here. If the leaders and settlers of Massachusetts had been more just or more perceptive than they were in their dealings with the Indians, I’d be glad to report it, but the truth seems to be that, with the honorable exceptions of the missionary John Eliot and a few others, they behaved no better than those of any other colony—and, in comparison with Roger Williams’ Rhode Island, perceptibly worse.