Massachusetts Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Massachusetts was one of the original thirteen colonies, and its capital, Boston, is considered the cradle of the American Revolution.

History of Massachusetts

Massachusetts was one of the original thirteen colonies, and its capital, Boston, is considered the cradle of the American Revolution. The state was home to some of the greatest American leaders. Its reputation for excellent education is due to its many great universities and colleges, including the world-famous Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Geographically, the state forms a narrow rectangle. Relatively small, it is forty-fifth in area among the states, yet thirteenth in state population.

Native American History

The Algonquians were a large family of tribes, related by language and customs, who lived throughout the northeastern United States. Several of these tribes made their homes in the fertile farming and hunting grounds of the area. The Nauset lived on Cape Cod, while the Wampanoag, the Massachusetts (for whom the state is named), and the Patuxet fished and hunted along the coast. Women played a central role in Algonquian society. They owned the tribe’s land, which they cleared and farmed communally. When a young man married, he left home to become a member of his bride’s family.

Early Exploration and the Pilgrims

In 1602 English navigator Bartholomew Gosnold visited Massachusetts Bay and named it Cape Cod. Two years later explorer Samuel de Champlain explored the coast, followed by Captain John Smith in 1614.

In September of 1620, an English merchant ship called the Mayflower set sail from the port of Southhampton with 102 passengers bound for the Americas. Of these passengers, 41 were Separatists, members of a renegade congregation that had broken away from the Church of England. These people considered themselves religious pilgrims. Before the pilgrims and the others left England, the group leaders wrote and signed a document that became the foundation of American democracy, the Mayflower Compact. It decreed a representative government.

Despite legend, the ship did not land at Plymouth Rock, but rather at the tip of Cape Cod, the site of modern Provincetown. After a little exploring, Plymouth proved a better place to found a village. After the harsh winter of 1621, however, half the settlers were dead. Spring came, and the pilgrims met a Patuxet Indian named Squanto. Years earlier he had been captured by slave traders and sold in Spain. After escaping to England and becoming fluent in English, he made his way back to his homeland, only to find his tribe wiped out by disease. Squanto taught the pilgrims how to farm and served as an interpreter, making treaties with other tribes. After the first harvest in October, 1621, for three days the pilgrims hosted about ninety Native Americans in a feast. It became the first Thanksgiving, a tradition that would long be celebrated in the United States.

The colony began to prosper, and every year brought more colonists seeking religious freedom. In 1630 John Winthrop, with a charter for “The Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England,” landed at Salem with more than one thousand colonists. Winthrop and his followers did not want to separate from the church, but they believed it needed to be purified from within and thus were called Puritans. The Puritans felt the law must be strictly obeyed if the community were to be strong. A set of wooden stocks stood in the center of many towns, and wrongdoers were put in them for crimes as small as swearing.

The Witch Trials

Ironically, while Winthrop and his followers left England to seek religious freedom, they had little tolerance of others’ religious philosophies. In the 1660’s Puritan authorities hanged several Quakers as heretics. By 1692 this intolerance, mixed with superstition, turned into one of the New World’s most shameful chapters, the Salem witch trials. Tituba, a West Indian slave woman, told locals tales of African magic. When some of the girls began to have fainting spells, they accused Tituba of casting spells over them. When Salem reverend Samuel Parris demanded to know who else had been practicing the evil arts, the girls started falsely accusing neighbors of witchery, and soon everyone was accusing everyone else. Nineteen men and women were burned as witches, and nearly 150 more were awaiting trail when authorities in Boston stopped the proceedings. Although the Puritans initiated an atmosphere of intolerance and fear in their society, they must also be remembered for their dedication to hard work and their respect for education; they founded Harvard, the first institution of higher learning in North America.

The American Revolution

By the mid-1700’s Massachusetts was the center of shipbuilding and commerce in the British colonies. The people there were successful, well educated, and accustomed to managing their own affairs. The French and Indian War was won by the British, but at a great cost. To raise more money, Great Britain heavily taxed the colonies. The colonists were particularly upset about this because they were being taxed with no representation in Parliament: “No taxation without representation!” was the frequent cry of colonial protesters. The merchants of Boston led a boycott of British goods, and Britain responded by stationing troops in the city. One night in March of 1770, mounting tension exploded in a skirmish that became known as the Boston Massacre. Five were killed, the first being a young black man named Crispus Attucks.

On December 16, 1773, a group of Boston men crept aboard three British ships and dumped the tea cargoes in the harbor to protest the high taxes, in what became known as the Boston Tea Party. In April of 1775, the British, intent on quelling the patriots by force, planned to send armed men to Lexington, Concord, and then Boston. Paul Revere, among others, was able to warn the Minutemen, Massachusetts fighters. While the British were able to take Lexington and then Concord in small battles, the patriots were able to defend Boston for a while. Eventually, however, the city succumbed to British force. The Revolutionary War had begun.

The next year, General George Washington took Boston back, chasing the British out of Massachusetts forever. The Treaty of Paris of 1783 granted independence to the colonies. No other colony had contributed more men or money to the war for independence than Massachusetts.

War and Immigration

The United States went to war with Britain again in 1812 for interfering with American trade, pirating U.S. ships, and forcing Americans to fight the British war with France. Boston, the largest American city of the time, suffered greatly. Boston developed industries to maintain the economy.

In the 1840’s, the potato famine in Ireland sent more than one million Irish men and women to the United States, and hundreds of thousands settled in Massachusetts. They found work in the factories of Boston, Lawrence, Lowell, and Worcester. Many residents saw the flood of Irish Catholics as a threat to their Anglo-Protestant society. Discrimination against the Irish was prevalent, and it was not uncommon to see a Help Wanted sign include a No Irish Need Apply slogan. However, any labor was needed eventually as the state became a leader in the American Industrial Revolution. New mills producing textile, paper, boots, and shoes sprang up all over the state.

The Late 1800’s

The Civil War began in 1861, and Massachusetts was the first state to respond, with a regiment of fifteen hundred soldiers. Throughout the war, the state supplied guns, uniforms, and boots to the Union army. When the war was over, the Irish, many of whom served in the war, began climbing the social ladder. They founded businesses, saved money, and bought their own homes. Still, they were discriminated against, and they looked to politics as a way to fight back. In 1880 Hugh O’Brien became Boston’s first Irish mayor. In 1892 Patrick Joseph “P. J.” Kennedy, son of an East Boston barrel maker, was elected to the state senate. Yet discrimination against Irish, as well as all immigrants, continued.

In the 1880’s and 1890’s, fresh waves of immigrants poured in. In 1896, U.S. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, a descendant of Boston’s most elite families, sponsored a bill to restrict immigration. He claimed scientific evidence to prove that southern and eastern Europeans were racially inferior and prone to crime. It was vetoed by the U.S. president but signed into law in 1924.

Economic Hard Times

By 1900 Massachusetts was an industrial state, yet the large mills in the state would not always run smoothly. In 1912 more than twenty-two thousand textile workers staged a strike in Lawrence. There would be other labor problems, and men and women began to organize into unions to fight for better working conditions and higher wages.

After World War I, Massachusetts slipped into recession. When the country fell into the Depression of the 1930’s, Massachusetts was hit hard. By 1931 only 44 percent of the state’s workers were employed full-time. When World War II began in 1941, Massachusetts factories and shipyards rebounded. The state achieved almost full employment, and thousands of African Americans migrated from southern states to work in the war plants. After the war, the factories fell on hard times yet again. However, another industry, education, led by MIT and Harvard, proved to entice many great minds–and federal grants–to the state. Boston, meanwhile, emerged as a center for banking, insurance, and medicine.

The Kennedy Dynasty

The son of P. J. Kennedy, Joseph Kennedy graduated from Harvard in 1912 and entered the world of banking. At twenty-five, he became the youngest bank president in the nation. He rose in stature and was eventually named ambassador to England. His political career was ruined, however, when he supported appeasement with German leader Adolf Hitler. Three of his nine children would fulfill his ambitions by going into politics.

In 1960 his son and Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy became the first Irish Catholic president of the United States. He would not be allowed to finish out his term, however, and the nation grieved when the young president was assassinated in Dallas in 1963. His brother, Robert, was also killed when running for president in 1968. Joseph Kennedy’s youngest son, Edward “Ted” Kennedy, served in the U.S. Senate for many years, serving as the patriarch of the ill-fated family. Several of the next generation of Kennedys served in politics as well.

Great politicians and diversity continued to be a strength of the state. Michael S. Dukakis was the first Greek American to be elected governor, in 1972. He later won the Democratic nomination for U.S. president in 1988 but lost the election to George Bush.

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