Chronicles of America 

Early New England Life

The people who inhabited these little New England towns were from nearly every grade of English society, but the greater number were men and women of humble birth — laborers, artisans, and petty farmers — drawn from town and country, possessed of scanty education, little or no financial capital, and but slight experience with the larger world. Some were middle-class lawyers, merchants, and squires; a few, but very few, were of higher rank, while scores were of the soil, coarse in language and habits, and given to practices characteristic of the peasantry of England at that time. The fact that hardly a fifth of those in Massachusetts were professed Christians renders it doubtful how far religious convictions were the only driving motive that sent hundreds of these men to New England. The leaders were, in a majority of cases, university men familiar with good literature and possessed of good libraries, but more cognizant of theology and philosophy than of the law and order of nature. Some were professional soldiers, simple in thought as they were courageous in action, while others were men of affairs, who had acquired experience before the courts and in the counting houses of England and were often amazingly versatile, able to turn their hands to any business that confronted them. For the great majority there was little opportunity in these early years to practice a trade or a profession. Except for the clergy, who could preach in America with greater freedom than in England, and for the occasional practitioner in physic or the law who as time went on found occasion to apply his knowledge in the household and the courts, there was little else for any one to do than engage in farming, fishing, and trading with the Indians, or turn carpenter and cobbler according to demand. The artisan became a farmer, though still preserving his knack as a craftsman, and expended his skill and his muscle in subduing a tough and unbroken soil.

New England was probably overstocked with men of strong minds and assertive dispositions. It was settled by radicals who would never have left the mother country had they not possessed well-formed opinions regarding some of the most important aspects of religious and social life. We may call them all Puritans, but as to the details of their Puritanism they of ten differed as widely as did Roundheads and Cavaliers in England. Though representative of a common movement, they were far from united in their beliefs or consistent in their political practices. There was always something of the inquisitor at Boston and of the monk at Plymouth, and in all the Puritan colonies there prevailed a self-satisfied sense of importance as the chosen of God. The controversies that arose over jurisdictions and boundaries and the niceties of doctrine are not edifying, however honest may have been those who entered into them. Massachusetts and Connecticut always showed a disposition to stretch their demands for territory to the utmost and to take what they could, sometimes with little charity or forbearance. The dominance of the church over the organization and methods of government and the rigid scrutiny of individual lives and habits, of which the leaders, notably those of Massachusetts, approved, were hardly in accord with democracy or personal liberty. Of toleration, except in Rhode Island, there was none.

The unit of New England life was the town, a self-governing community, in large measure complete in itself, and if left alone capable of maintaining a separate existence. Within certain limits, it was independent of higher authority, and in this respect it was unlike anything to be found in England. At this period, it was at bottom a religious community which owned and distributed the lands set apart for its occupation, elected its own officials, and passed local ordinances for its own well-being. At first, church members, landholders, and inhabitants tended to be identical, but they gradually separated as time went on and as new comers appeared and old residents migrated elsewhere. Before the end of the century, the ecclesiastical society, the board of land proprietors, and the town proper, even when largely composed of the same members, acted as separate groups, though the line of separation was often vague and was sometimes not drawn at all. Town meetings continued to be held in the meeting-house, and land was distributed by the town in its collective capacity. Lands were parceled out as they were needed in proportion to contributions to a common purchase fund or to family need, and later according to the ratable value of a man's property. The fathers of Wallingford in Connecticut, "considering that even single persons industrious and laborious might through the blessing of God increase and grow into families," distributed to the meanest bachelor "such a quantity of land as might in an ordinary way serve for the comfortable maintenance of a family." Sometimes allotments were equal; often they varied greatly in size, from an acre to fifty acres and even more; but always they were determined by a desire to be fair and just. The land was granted in full right and could be sold or bequeathed, though at first only with the consent of the community. With the grant generally went rights in woodland and pasture; and even meadow land, after the hay was got in, was open to the use of the villagers. The early New England town took into consideration the welfare and contentment of the individual, but it rated as of even greater importance the interests of the whole body.

The settlements of New England inevitably presented great variations of local life and color, stretching as they did from the Plymouth trucking posts in Maine, through the fishing villages of Saco and York, and those on the Piscataqua, to the towns of Long Island and the frontier communities of western Connecticut — Stamford and Greenwich. The inhabitants to the number of more than thirty thousand in 1640 were not only in possession of the coast but were also pushing their way into the interior. To fishing and agriculture they added trading, lumbering, and commerce, and were constantly reaching out for new lands and wider opportunities. The Pilgrims had hardly weathered their first hard winter when they rebuilt one of their shallops and sent it northward on fishing and trading voyages; and later they sent one bark up the Connecticut and another to open up communication with the Dutch at New Amsterdam. Pynchon was making Springfield the centre of the fur trade of the interior, though an overcrowding of merchants there was reducing profits and compelling the settlers to resort to agriculture for a living. Of all the colonies, New Haven was the most distinctly commercial. Stephen Goodyear built a trucking house on an island below the great falls of the Housatonic in 1642; other New Haven colonists engaged in ventures on Delaware Bay; and in 1645, the colony endeavored to open a direct trade with England. But nearly every New Haven enterprise failed, and by 1660 the wealth of the colony had materially diminished and the settlement had become "little else than a colony of discouraged farmers." Among all the colonies in New England and elsewhere there was considerable coasting traffic, and vessels went to Newfoundland and Bermuda, and even to the distant West Indies, to Madeira, and to Bilboa across the ocean. Ever since Winthrop built the Blessing of the Bay in 1631, the first seagoing craft launched in New England, Massachusetts had been the leading commercial colony, and her vessels occasionally made the long triangular voyage to Jamaica, and England, and back to the Bay. The vessels carried planks, pipe staves, furs, fish, and provisions, and exchanged them for sugar, molasses, household goods, and other wares and commodities needed for the comfort and convenience of the colonists.

The older generation was passing away. By 1660, Winthrop, Cotton, Hooker, Haynes, Bradford, and Whiting were dead; Davenport and Roger Williams were growing old; some of the ablest men, Peter, Ludlow, Whitfield, Desborough, Hooke, had returned to England, and others less conspicuous had gone to the West Indies or to the adjacent colonies. The younger men were coming on, new arrivals were creeping in, and a loosening of the old rigidity was affecting the social order. The Cambridge platform of 1648, which embodied the orthodox features of the Congregational system as determined up to that time, gave place to the Half-Way Covenant of 1657 and 1662, which owed its rise to the coming to maturity of the second generation, the children of the first settlers, now admitted to membership but not to full communion — a wide departure from the original purpose of the founders. Rhode Island continued to be the colony of separatism and soul liberty, where Seeker, Generalist, Anabaptist, and religious anarchist of the William Harris type found place, though not always peace. Cotton Mather later said there had never been "such a variety of religions together on so small a spot as there have been in that colony."

The coming of the Quakers to Boston in 1656, bringing with them as they did some of the very religious ideas that had caused Mrs. Hutchinson and John Wheelwright to be driven into exile, revived anew the old issue and roused the orthodox colonies to deny admission to ranters, heretics, Quakers, and the like. Boston burned their books as "corrupt, heretical, and blasphemous," flung these people into prison with every mark of indignity, branded them as enemies of the established order in church and commonwealth, and tried to prove that they were witches and emissaries of Satan. The first-corners were sent back to Barbados whence they came; the next were returned to England; those of 1657 were scourged; those of 1658, under the Massachusetts law of the previous year, were mutilated and, when all these measures had no effect, under the harsher law of October, 1658, four were hanged. One of these, Mary Dyer, though reprieved and banished, persisted in returning to her death. The Quakers were scourged in Plymouth, branded in New Haven, flogged at the cart's tail on Long Island, and chained to a wheelbarrow at New Amsterdam. Upon Connecticut they made almost no impression; only in Piscataqua, Rhode Island, Nantucket, and Eastern Long Island did they find a resting place.

To the awe inspired by the covenant with God was added the terror aroused by the dread power of Satan; and witchcraft inevitably took its place in the annals of New England Puritanism as it had done for a century in the annals of the older world. Not one of the colonies, except Rhode Island, was free from its manifestations. Plymouth had two cases which came to trial, but no executions; Connecticut and New Haven had many trials and a number of executions, beginning with that of Alse Young in Windsor in 1647, the first execution for witchcraft in New England. The witch panic, a fearful exhibition of human terror, appeared in Massachusetts as early as 1648, and ran its sinister course for more than forty years, involving high and low alike and disclosing an amazing amount of credulity and superstition. To the Puritan the power of Satan was ever imminent, working through friend or foe, and using the human form as an instrument of injury to the chosen of God. The great epidemic of witchcraft at Salem in 1692, the climax and close of the delusion, resulted in the imprisonment of over two hundred persons and the execution of nineteen. Some of those who sat in the court of trial later came to their senses and were heartily ashamed of their share in the proceedings.

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