The New England Colonies Questions and Answers

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Why were the New England colonies founded?

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The colonies of New England were established in order to provide a home for English religious dissenters. The Pilgrims initially went to Holland but they soon realized that they wanted to retain their English culture but practice their religion the way they wished. In 1620 they arrived in Plymouth where, after months of hunger and attrition, they sought to create their own "city on a hill" which would serve as a model for the rest of the world. The Pilgrims sought to leave the Church of England as they thought it too similar to the Catholic Church. England was more than happy to see them go as it would later become English habit to allow troublemakers to leave rather than persecute them. Over time, the descendants of these Pilgrims became quite successful. They believed in the Elect meaning that God preordained some people to go to Heaven. In order to show that one was in this group, one was successful since it made sense to them that God would smile upon those called the Elect. Through hard work and thrift, the New England colonies thrived. England benefited from this as it got rid of potential problems as well as gained foodstuffs and timber from New England. As New England grew due to population growth, England could also claim a larger portion of North America and have a stronger claim to it than the Spanish or French who claimed large portions of land that were barely inhabited by Europeans.

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The New England Colonies of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, all founded in the early seventeenth century, were a product of the profound changes happening in Europe. In part, they arose from the growing imperial rivalry of the main European powers, which intensified after Spain’s successes in the Caribbean and South America. They were also, however, a product of the religious turmoil that followed the European Reformation as Protestant dissenters sought new places to live. Religious disagreements among the “Puritans,” as well as between these dissenters and the English crown, were also an important driving force in the settlement of the later New England colonies.

The first English attempts to colonize New England were precipitated by imperial rivalry. Envious of Spain’s wealth, and nervous of that country’s growing power, the other European rulers became interested in establishing their own imperial outposts. England’s attention quickly turned to the New England Coast which was well known to its fishermen and sailors. In 1607, King James I of England chartered two companies, the Plymouth Company and the London Company, to settle the area, hoping to counter the new French fort in Maine and the growing influence of the Dutch West India Company in Connecticut. The English founded a short-lived settlement on the coast of Maine and the more successful colony of Jamestown to the south, but were unable to claim control of New England. King James I, however, remained keen to plant a settlement in New England, and looked favorably on any subjects willing to attempt the endeavor.

The early seventeenth century was not only a time of growing imperial rivalry, but also a time of growing religious unrest. Numerous dissenting Protestant sects appeared in the British Isles. Some agitated for religious and political change, helping precipitate the English Civil War, while others, such as the Puritans, preferred to leave England altogether and find a new land where they could practice their religion freely. The Puritans believed the Church of England was still too ‘Catholic.’ They wanted to see a reformed church purified of ‘Catholic’ influence. At first, many moved to the Netherlands where the political climate was friendlier to Protestant dissent, but eventually decided to move to the ‘New World,’ attracted by the opportunity to practice their own brand of pure Christianity and to found a society that could be a model for the European lands they left behind. The English crown was happy to encourage this attempt at founding a New England settlement: it would bolster English claims to that part of North America, whilst also ridding England of a group of troublesome and noisy religious dissenters.

The settlement of Plymouth struggled at first, but grew strong in the later 1620s and 1630s. The hard work of the colonists, and the help they received from the friendly Wampanoag Indians, allowed the Puritans to flourish in the New World. Seeing this, more Puritans were recruited, and during the Great Migration of 1620-1640 about 20,000 Protestant dissenters travelled to the growing New England settlements.

The Puritans in the New World were, however, frequently unable to agree with one another. In the 1630s, dissenters appeared in Massachusetts who agitated for theological and political change. The authorities in the Massachusetts Bay Colony would not tolerate dissent, however, and banished those who refused to comply with their rulings. In 1636 two prominent dissenters, Roger Williams and Thomas Hooker, left Massachusetts. Williams founded what would eventually become Rhode Island, and Hooker planted a settlement in the area that would become the Connecticut Colony. The British crown was happy to accept these new settlements: they increased Britain’s territorial control of the New England area at no cost to the London government.