Before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, European explorers roamed the coast of Massachusetts. They included the Viking Leif Erickson, Spanish and French fishermen, and John Smith, an English sea captain. His book, A Description of New England, influenced a group of English Protestants to make a pilgrimage to the shores of Massachusetts. They had separated from the Church of England and were seeking religious freedom.
These Pilgrims founded the Plymouth settlement in 1620. The colonists set up a democratic government under the terms of the "Mayflower Compact." The first year was very difficult. Their homes were only small shelters made of bark. There was little food. More than half of the 100 colonists died during that winter.
But by 1621, the colonists had befriended the local Wampanoag Indians. The Indians taught the settlers how to grow corn and beans. The colony began to prosper and later that year, the Pilgrims celebrated their first Thanksgiving. The colony soon grew to include eight towns and 2500 people.
King Charles I of England granted a charter to the Puritans in 1629. The Puritans, led by John Winthrop, were also seeking religious freedom in the Massachusetts Bay area. The charter gave them authority to establish a self-contained English colony in Massachusetts. They settled in Salem in 1630, joining a settlement that had been established three years earlier. Soon they relocated to the site of present-day Boston. The Puritans only permitted their own religion to be practiced within the settlement. As a result, some religious groups were not welcome in the colony. These groups eventually helped colonize the rest of New England, establishing settlements in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine, and New Hampshire.
During this early colonial period, the Massachusetts Bay Colony contributed many important "firsts" to the nation. The first American public secondary school, the Boston Latin Grammar School, was established in 1635. America's first university, Harvard, was founded in Cambridge in 1636. The first American printing press was put into service in Cambridge in 1638, and the first American public library was founded in Boston in 1653.
The Native Americans resented the presence of the Europeans. They were fearful that the colonists would take away their lands and destroy their civilization. In 1675, King Philip, the chief of the Wampanoag tribe, led a revolt against the colonists. It became known as King Philip's War. The conflict ended in 1678, but hundreds of men, women, and children on both sides died.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony was unhappy with trade restrictions imposed by England. The colony continued to trade with other countries but this angered King Charles II. He took away their charter in 1684. When King James II ascended the throne in 1685, he appointed Sir Edmund Andros governor of the colony. When King James II was overthrown in 1688, the colonists drove Andros out and set up a government of their own.
The joint rulers of England, William and Mary, granted a new charter to Massachusetts in 1691. It united the Plymouth and the Massachusetts Bay Colonies under the single royal colony of Massachusetts.
The town of Salem was rocked by a witchcraft panic that reached a climax in the summer of 1692. Several dozen citizens were accused of practicing witchcraft and were put to death. This practice continued until Sir William Phips was appointed Massachusetts' first royal governor later that year. One of his most important actions was to end this persecution.
Great Britain found itself in heavy debt after successfully fighting in the French and Indian wars between 1754 and 1763. It began imposing stiff taxes on the colonies. Citizens revolted. In 1770, British soldiers in Boston fired upon a group of angry colonists. Many were killed. This became known as the Boston Massacre. In 1773, Samuel Adams led a group of men dressed as Indians to a British ship loaded with tea in Boston Harbor. To protest the most recent tea tax, they dumped hundreds of cases of tea overboard.
On April 18, 1775, Paul Revere made his famous ride through the Massachusetts countryside, warning of the approaching British. On April 19, the Revolutionary War began in Concord, Massachusetts, with the "shot heard round the world." The first important victory of the Revolution occurred in Massachusetts at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. British troops left Massachusetts in March of 1776 and never returned to the colony.
The Massachusetts Constitution was ratified in 1780. The state is still governed under this original document. Written by John Adams, it is the oldest constitution in the nation still in use.
The Revolution ended in 1783 and Massachusetts became the sixth state to ratify the United States Constitution in 1788.
The years following the Revolution were prosperous ones for Massachusetts. But the War of 1812 forced President Thomas Jefferson to stop American trade with other countries. As a result, the colonies had to start manufacturing items that they had previously imported. Initial hardships soon disappeared as many infant industries grew rapidly throughout Massachusetts. The state became the center of the American textile industry. Shoes and leather goods were also mass-produced. Agriculture declined and many of the state's farmers moved to the West or found jobs in factories.
Massachusetts strongly supported the anti-slavery movement in America. It was the first state to send troops after the Civil War began in 1861 and Massachusetts soldiers were among the first to die in the conflict. More than 130,000 men from the state served in the Union army between 1861 and 1865.