The founders of the New England colonies had an entirely different mission from the Jamestown settlers. Although economic prosperity was still a goal of the New England settlers, their true goal was spiritual. Fed up with the ceremonial Church of England, Pilgrims and Puritans sought to recreate society in the manner they believed God truly intended it to be designed. As the Puritan leader John Winthrop put it, they would be a “city upon a hill” that all the world would recognize as a model, and would so please God he would smile on their colony and shower them with success.

But was this so? Did they succeed in creating a model society? What do you think? Was the Massachusetts Bay colony a city up on a hill?


Religious strife reached a peak in England in the 1500s. When Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church of Rome, spiritual life in England was turned on its ear. The new church under the king’s leadership was approved by the English Parliament, but not all the people in England were willing to accept the Church of England. At first, the battles were waged between English Catholics and the followers of the new Church — the Anglicans. The rule of Queen Elizabeth brought an end to bloodshed, but the battle waged on in the hearts of the English people.

Pilgrims and Puritans both believed in the teachings of John Calvin of France. According to Calvin, neither the teachings of the Catholic nor the Anglican Churches addressed God’s will. By the end of Elizabeth’s reign, England was a nation of many different faiths.

The Stuart Family, who ascended to the throne after the demise of Elizabeth, made life worse for the followers of John Calvin. King James and his son Charles supported the Church of England, but secretly admired the ceremonies of the Catholic Church. To these kings, Calvin was a heretic, a man whose soul was doomed for his religious views.

Separatists in England wanted to separate from the Anglican Church and were persecuted by agents of the throne. The Puritans, so named for their desire to purify the Church of England from within rather than leave it entirely, experienced the same degree of harassment. By the second and third decades of the 1600s, each group decided that England was no place to put their controversial beliefs into practice.

Where else but in the New World could such a golden opportunity be found? The land was unspoiled. Children could be raised without the corruption of old English religious ideas. The chance to create a perfect society was there for the taking. The Stuart kings saw America a means to get rid of troublemakers. Furthermore, allowing English Puritans and Separatists to form colonies was a way to counter the power of France and Spain in America. Everything was falling into place.

By 1620, the seeds for a new society, quite different from the one already established at Jamestown, were planted deeply within the souls of a few brave pioneers. Their quest would form the basis of New England society.


Not all the English Separatists set out for the New World.

The first group to leave England actually headed for the Dutch Netherlands in 1608. They became uneasy in their new land as their children started speaking Dutch and abandoning English traditions. Even worse to the Separatists, the tolerance shown to them by the Dutch was shown to many different faiths. They became disgusted with the attention paid to worldly goods, and the presence of many “unholy” faiths.

The Separatist experiment in the Netherlands came to a quick end, as they began to look elsewhere for a purer place to build their society. Some headed for English islands in the Caribbean. Those who would be forever known to future Americans as the Pilgrims set their sights on the New World in late 1620.

Over a hundred travelers embarked on the voyage of the Mayflower in September 1620. Less than one third were Separatists. The rest were immigrants, adventurers, and speculators.

Secondary Source: Painting

A romanticized painting of the embarkation of the Pilgrims completed in 1843 by Robert Weir. It hangs in the rotunda of the Capitol building in Washington, DC and shows them asking for God’s blessing as they set sail for America. In reality, the scene looked nothing like this.

When the weather was good, the passengers could enjoy hot food cooked on deck. When there was high wind or storms, they lived on salted beef, a dried biscuit called hard tack, other dried vegetables, and beer. The nearest thing to resemble a bathroom was a bucket.

Their voyage took about two months, and the passengers enjoyed a happier experience than most trans-Atlantic trips. One death was suffered and one child was born. The child was named Oceanus after the watery depths beneath them.

One of the greatest twists of fate in human history occurred on that voyage. The Pilgrims were originally bound for Virginia to live north of Jamestown under the same charter granted to citizens of Jamestown. Fate charted a different course. Lost at sea, they happened upon Cape Cod, a long fishhook-shaped peninsula jutting out from Massachusetts that is instantly recognizable on any map of the United States. After surveying the land, they set up camp not too far from Plymouth Rock. Winter was fast approaching and they decided to settle where they had landed.

The Pilgrims had an important question to answer before they set ashore. Since they were not landing within the jurisdiction of the Virginia Company, they had no charter to govern them. Who would rule their society?

In the landmark Mayflower Compact of 1620, the Pilgrims decided that they would rule themselves, based on majority rule of the townsmen. This independent attitude set up a tradition of self-rule that would later lead to town meetings and elected legislatures in New England.

Like the Virginia House of Burgesses established the previous year, Plymouth colony began to lay the foundation for democracy in the American colonies.


The major similarity between the first Jamestown settlers and the first Plymouth settlers was great human suffering.

November was too late to plant crops. Many settlers died of scurvy and malnutrition during that horrible first winter. Of the 102 original Mayflower passengers, only 44 survived.

The Pilgrims’ remarkable courage was displayed the following spring. When the Mayflower returned to Europe, not a single Pilgrim deserted Plymouth.

By early 1621, the Pilgrims had built crude huts and a common house on the shores of Plymouth Bay. Soon neighboring Native Americans began to build relations with the Pilgrims. Tisquantum served as an interpreter with the local tribes. Called Squanto by the English, Tisquantum had been kidnapped and taken to England nearly a decade before. He taught the Pilgrims to fertilize the soil with dried fish to improve their corn yield.

Massasoit, the chief of the nearby Wampanoags, signed a treaty of alliance with the Pilgrims in the summer. Disease had swept through the Native American village of New English in the decade before the arrival of the Pilgrims. In fact, the open land the Pilgrims found when they landed had been abandoned just a few years before as the populations crashed.

The Wampanoags had suffered greatly and Massasoit was afraid of attack from their enemies, the Narragansett, further inland who had not yet experienced the outbreaks. In exchange for assistance with defense, Massasoit supplemented the food supply of the Pilgrims for the first few years.

Successful colonies require successful leadership. The man to step forward in Plymouth colony was William Bradford. After the first governor elected under the Mayflower Compact perished from the harsh winter, Bradford was elected governor for the next thirty years. In May of 1621, he performed the colony’s first marriage ceremony.

Under Bradford’s guidance, Plymouth suffered less hardship than their English compatriots in Virginia. Relations with the local natives remained relatively smooth in Plymouth and the food supply grew with each passing year.

By autumn of 1621, the Pilgrims had much for which to be thankful. After the harvest, Massasoit and about ninety other Indians joined the Pilgrims for a harvest festival (the first thanksgiving). The participants celebrated for several days, dining on venison, goose, duck, turkey, fish, and of course, cornbread, the result of a bountiful corn harvest. This tradition was repeated at harvest time in the following years.

242 years later, President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday. The Plymouth Pilgrims simply celebrated survival, as well as the hopes of good fortune in the years that lay ahead.


Students of history often confuse the Pilgrims and the Puritans, Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay. It is worth taking a moment to sort them out. Pilgrims were separatists. They first went to the Netherlands and then sailed on the Mayflower and created the Plymouth colony in 1620. There were few Pilgrims.

Puritans also left England in pursuit of religious freedom, but there were far more Puritans that Pilgrims. They arrived ten years after the Pilgrims in 1630 and their colony, Massachusetts Bay, was centered on the city of Boston. The two colonies were close together. It takes just over an hour to drive between them, and they are both in the modern state of Massachusetts. Eventually, the Pilgrims and their Plymouth Colony were absorbed into the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Compared to the Pilgrims who crossed the Atlantic in just one ship, the Puritans came in huge numbers. The Arbella was one of eleven ships carrying over a thousand Puritans to Massachusetts in 1630. It was the largest original venture ever attempted in the English New World.

The passengers of the Arbella who left England in 1630 with their new charter had a great vision. They were to be an example for the rest of the world in rightful living. The passengers were determined to be a beacon for the rest of Europe, “A Modell of Christian Charity,” in the words of the governor John Winthrop. He and his followers believed that they were chosen by God to build a pure, holy society and that the world would look up to them as an example. He stated their purpose quite clearly: “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”

Winthrop also articulated a core belief the Puritans had about their destiny. The warned that “if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us” the colony would surely fail. If however, the Puritans held firm to their beliefs, God would reward them and they would “live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may bless us in the land…” This was the Puritan covenant with God. They would be faithful, and God would bestow upon them his protection and blessing. The echoes of this belief are still present in American society. Many Americans continue to believe that this country is blessed, and that be living righteously, we will prosper, and conversely, if we allow evil to thrive, we will be beset with crisis. It is no wonder that a favorite patriotic song is “God Bless America.”

Primary Source: Painting

John Winthrop, minister and leader of the Puritans who made up the Great Migration and formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Puritans also believed in predestination. This doctrine holds that God is all-powerful and all-knowing; therefore, the fate of each individual soul is known to God at birth. Nothing an individual can do or say could change their ultimate fate. Puritans believed that they were chosen by God to be saved. They called themselves the Elect. This did not mean they did not have to be devout. Quite the opposite. They believed that by trying to create a heaven on earth, God would reveal His grace, and a person would know he or she was among the Elect.

The colony needed more than a fervent church to survive. Many dissenters, Christian men and women who were not converted, also lived within the ranks of Massachusetts Bay. Towns such as Marblehead were founded by non-Puritan settlers. The Puritans allowed this for the sake of commerce. Many skills were necessary for a vibrant economy.

An elected legislature was established, echoing the desire for self-government already seen in other English colonies. Although ministers were prohibited from holding political office, many of the most important decisions were made by the clergy.

By the end of the 1630s, the Great Migration of Puritans out of England, had brought over 14,000 Puritan settlers to Massachusetts, and the colony began to spread. In 1691, Plymouth colony was absorbed by their burgeoning neighbor to the West.

The great experiment seemed to be a smashing success for the first few decades. In the end however, worldly concerns led to a decline in religious fervor as the 1600s grew old.


New England life seemed to burst with possibilities. The life expectancy of its citizens became longer than that of Old England, and much longer than the Southern English colonies. Children were born at nearly twice the rate in Maryland and Virginia. It is often said that New England invented grandparents, for it was here that people in great numbers first grew old enough to see their children bear children.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was a man’s world. Women did not participate in town meetings and were excluded from decision making in the church. Puritan ministers furthered male supremacy in their writings and sermons. They preached that the soul had two parts, the immortal masculine half, and the mortal feminine half.

It was believed that women who were pregnant with a male child had a rosy complexion and that women carrying a female child were pale. Names of women found in census reports of Massachusetts Bay include Patience, Silence, Fear, Prudence, Comfort, Hopestill, and Be Fruitful. This list reflects Puritan views on women quite clearly.

Church attendance was mandatory. Those that missed church regularly were subject to a fine. The sermon became a means of addressing town problems or concerns. The church was sometimes patrolled by a man who held a long pole. On one end was a collection of feathers to tickle the chins of old men who fell asleep. On the other was a hard wooden knob to alert children who giggled or slept. Church was serious business indeed.

Secondary Source: Painting

Pilgrims walk to church. The emphasis on religion associated with the Pilgrims today in popular culture today is founded in historical reality.

The Puritans believed they were doing God’s work. Hence, there was little room for compromise. Puritans felt no remorse about administering punishment. They believed in Old Testament methods such as an “eye for an eye.” Surely, God’s correction would be far worse to the individual than any earthly penalty.

Harsh punishment was inflicted on those who were seen as straying from God’s work. There were cases when individuals of differing faiths were hanged in Boston Common. Adulterers might have been forced to wear a scarlet “A” if they were lucky. At least two known adulterers were executed in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Public whippings were commonplace. The stockade forced the humiliated guilty person to sit in the public square, while onlookers spat or laughed at them.

Contrary to myth, the Puritans did have fun. There were celebrations and festivals. People sang and told stories. Children were allowed to play games with their parents’ permission. Wine and beer drinking were common place. Puritans did not all dress in black as many believe. The fundamental rule was to follow God’s law. Those that did lived in peace in the Bible commonwealth.


The first public schools in America were established by the Puritans in New England during the 17th century. Boston Latin School was founded in 1635 and is the oldest public school in the United States. Lawrence Cremin writes that colonists tried at first to educate by the traditional English methods of family, church, community, and apprenticeship, with schools later becoming the key agent in socialization. At first, the rudiments of literacy and arithmetic were taught inside the family. By the mid-19th century, the role of the schools had expanded to such an extent that many of the educational tasks traditionally handled by parents became the responsibility of the schools.

All the New England colonies required towns to set up schools. In 1642, the Massachusetts Bay Colony made education compulsory, and other New England colonies followed. Similar statutes were adopted in other colonies in the 1640s and 1650s. The schools were all male, with few facilities for girls. Common schools appeared in the 18th century, where students of all ages were under the control of one teacher in one room. They were publicly supplied at the local town level. They were not free but were supported by tuition or rate bills.

The larger towns in New England opened grammar schools, the forerunner of the modern high school. The most famous was the Boston Latin School, which is still in operation as a public high school. Hopkins School in New Haven, Connecticut was another. By the 1780s, most had been replaced by private academies. By the early 19th century, New England operated a network of elite private high schools, now called prep schools. They became coeducational in the 1970s and remain highly prestigious private schools today.

The first universities in the British colonies were established in New England.

Harvard College was founded by the colonial legislature in 1636 and named in honor of benefactor John Harvard. Most of the funding came from the colony, but the college began to collect an endowment. Harvard was founded for the purpose of training young men for the ministry, and it won general support from the Puritan colonies. Yale College was founded in 1701. Dartmouth College was chartered in 1769 and Brown University was founded by Baptists in 1764.

No longer schools to train only new ministers for the church, these schools make up the Ivy League and are some of the most prestigious universities in the world, a testament to the enduring legacy of the Puritans’ belief in education.


Economically, New England fulfilled the expectations of its Puritan founders. The Puritan economy was based on the efforts of self-supporting farmsteads who traded only for goods that they could not produce themselves, unlike the cash crop-oriented plantations of the Chesapeake region. New England became an important mercantile and shipbuilding center, along with agriculture, fishing, and logging, serving as the hub for trading between the southern colonies and Europe.

The region’s economy grew steadily over the entire colonial era, despite the lack of a staple crop that could be exported. All the colonies fostered economic growth by subsidizing projects that improved the infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, inns, and ferries. They gave bounties and monopolies to sawmills, grist mills, iron mills, fulling mills (which treated cloth), salt works, and glassworks. Most important, colonial legislatures set up a legal system that was conducive to business enterprise by resolving disputes, enforcing contracts, and protecting property rights. Hard work and entrepreneurship characterized the region, as the Puritans and Yankees endorsed the Protestant Work Ethic which enjoined men to work hard as part of their divine calling.

Secondary Source: Illustration

Fishing was an important element of colonial New England’s economy.

New England conducted a robust trade within the English domain in the mid-18th century. They exported pickled beef and pork to the Caribbean, onions and potatoes from the Connecticut Valley, codfish to feed their slaves, northern pine and oak staves from which the planters constructed containers to ship their sugar and molasses, Narragansett Pacers from Rhode Island, and plugs to run sugar mills.

The benefits of growth were widely distributed, with even farm laborers better off at the end of the colonial period. The growing population led to shortages of good farm land on which young families could establish themselves. One result was to delay marriage, and another was expansion of English settlements to new lands farther west.

In the towns and cities, there was strong entrepreneurship and a steady increase in the specialization of labor. Wages for men went up steadily before 1775. New occupations were opening for women, including weaving, teaching, and tailoring. The region bordered New France, and in numerous wars the British poured money in to purchase supplies, build roads, and pay colonial soldiers.

The coastal ports began to specialize in fishing, international trade, shipbuilding, and whaling after 1780. These factors combined with growing urban markets for farm products and allowed the economy to flourish despite the lack of technological innovation.

Benjamin Franklin in 1772, after examining the wretched hovels in Scotland surrounding the opulent mansions of the land owners, said that in New England every man is a property owner, “has a Vote in public Affairs, lives in a tidy, warm House, has plenty of good Food and Fuel, with whole clothes from Head to Foot, the Manufacture perhaps of his own family.”


Both separatists Pilgrims and Puritans set out for America in search of religious freedom and a better life. After surviving tremendous hardships, their colonies thrived. But did they succeed in creating Winthrop’s city upon a hill? Were the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies examples of pure, godly places that deserved the admiration of the world? What do you think?



BIG IDEA: New England was settled by religious dissenters who wanted to create a new life for their families far from the control of the English church leaders. They created a society based on religion and towns rather than wealth and cash crop exports.

In England, everyone had to belong to the official Church of England which was led by the king or queen. Some did not like this. They either wanted to purify the church or separate from the church. Both groups caused problems for the government, so they were encouraged to leave.

Plymouth was founded by separatists called Pilgrims. They arrived on the Mayflower. They were a small group but set an important precedent in America by agreeing to the Mayflower Compact and holding elections for community leaders.

The Plymouth Colony would have failed if it were not for the help of local Native Americans. The tradition of holding a Thanksgiving feast comes from this colony.

A much larger group came to nearby Massachusetts Bay Colony. They were Puritans rather than separatists. They believed in a covenant with God. They thought that if they were good Christians, God would reward them and make their colony prosper. They also believed their colony would be an example of a pure society on earth that everyone else could copy. They referred to it as a city upon a hill. These are still important ideas in American myth. Many thousands of Puritans came over time and eventually the Plymouth Colony was absorbed into Massachusetts.

Puritans were strict. Everyone had to follow the colony’s rules, which included attending church. They believed strongly in education because they wanted people to be able to read the Bible. They founded Harvard and Yale Universities to train new ministers.

New England was not settled as a business like Jamestown. New England was made up of towns with families instead of plantations with single owners and slaves. New Englanders exported fish, lumber, built ships and traded.



City Upon a Hill: Phrase used by John Winthrop to describe the Massachusetts Bay Colony as an example for the world of a godly society.

Predestination: Puritan belief that God had chosen some people for heaven and some for hell before they were born. By doing good works on Earth, a person could come to know that he or she was among the Elect – the people bound for heaven.

Common Schools: Schools that were opened in New England in the 1700s. They were open to boys and were supported by tax money. They are an example of Puritan belief in collective sacrifice for the greater good and the value they placed on literacy.

Protestant Work Ethic: A belief common in New England that encouraged people to work hard as part of a godly life.


Cape Cod: Long, hook-shaped peninsula in Massachusetts. It was the first landing site of the Pilgrims and forms Massachusetts Bay.

Massachusetts Bay Colony: Colony created by Puritans in 1630. It was centered around the city of Boston and eventually absorbed Plymouth.

Harvard and Yale Universities: The first two universities established in what became the United States. They were set up by Puritans to train future ministers.


Anglican Church: The official Church of England. It is a protestant church created by Henry VIII when he wanted a divorce. In America, it is called the Episcopalian Church.

John Calvin: French protestant minister. The Pilgrim Separatists and Puritans in England followed his teachings. They were all known as Calvinists.

Separatists: English followers of John Calvin who wanted to leave the Anglican Church. They included the Pilgrims.

Puritans: English followers of John Calvin who wanted to fix problems with the Church of England. They founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony and were led by John Winthrop.

Pilgrims: English Separatists who founded the Plymouth Colony. They lived in the Netherlands briefly before coming to American on the Mayflower.

Tisquantum: Also called Squanto. He was a Native American who had learned English and helped the Pilgrims survive.

Massasoit: Native American leader of the Wampanoag Tribe who saw the Pilgrims as potential allies against the Wampanoag’s traditional enemies.
William Bradford: Leader of the Puritan colony of Plymouth.

John Winthrop: Puritan minister and leader who described the colony as a “city upon a hill.”


First Thanksgiving: Celebration held in the fall of 1621 in Plymouth to celebrate the harvest. It was attended by both Pilgrims and their Native American friends.

Great Migration: Nickname for the mass immigration of Puritans to Massachusetts beginning in 1630. Approximately 14,000 Puritans moved to America.


Mayflower Compact: 1620 agreement signed by the Pilgrims outlining the government for the new colony, including the right to vote for church members.


A Model of Christian Charity: Sermon given by John Winthrop on the Arbella on the way to America in which he described the Puritan’s covenant with God and described their colony as a “city upon a hill.”


Mayflower: The ship used by the Pilgrims to come to America.

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