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Massachusetts Bay Colony

The Massachusetts Bay Colony (sometimes called by the name Massachusetts Bay Company, for the institution that founded it) was the direct predecessor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay and then the state of Massachusetts.

The colony was established under a charter issued to the Massachusetts Bay Company. There were actually two companies that preceded the Massachusetts Bay Company. The Dorchester Company planted a fishing colony on Cape Ann (at modern Gloucester) in 1624, but this did not succeed. Most colonists returned to England, but a few under Roger Conant moved to Salem where they set up a trading post. They were followed by the New England Company which received a land patent extending from the Merrimack River to the Charles River plus three miles on either side. John Endicott led a group of Puritan settlers to Salem, and served as governor from their arrival on September 6, 1628. The Massachusetts Bay Company replaced both of these when the Puritans were able to convert the patents into a royal charter on March 4, 1629.

A Puritan Colony

The first 400 settlers under this new charter departed in April 1629. Most, but not all of the members of the Company were Puritans, and events during the spring and summer of 1629 convinced them they could only remain non conformists in the Church of England by getting out of England. Charles I had dissolved the parliament, and William Laud, the Bishop of London, renewed the pressure on the separatist Puritans to conform with church practices. His harassment was a direct cause of the progressively larger emigration over the next few years.

Perhaps by oversight, the company's charter made no mention of the location of its headquarters. On August 29, the shareholders who wished to move to America reached an agreement (The Cambridge Agreement) and bought out those who wished to remain in England. So when John Winthrop set out with the next wave of 700 settlers in March of 1630 (The Winthrop Fleet of 1630) they carried their Charter with them, and Winthrop replaced Endicott as governor of the Colony.

When they settled at Boston, the leadership and headquarters of the Colony and the Company were united in America. The idea that this colony was a community with a special covenant with God was laid out in Winthrop's sermon, "A City upon a Hill." The idea that theirs was a holy community shaped life in the colony enormously, making it imperative that colonists legislate morality, enforcing marriage, church attendance, and education in the Word of God as well as relentlessly seeking out and punishing sin and sinners.

The colony celebrated its first Thanksgiving Day on July 8, 1630.

Massachusetts Bay continued its rapid growth, in spite of serious difficulties. During the first winter (1630-1631), over 200 died. When the next ships came, more chose to return to England. This was, in fact, the only tragic winter faced by the young colony. Since the pressures on the Puritan non-conformists at home continued, so did increasing and rapid immigration, and by the end of 1631 the colony numbered over 2,000. Over the next several years, as Archbishop Laud continued to add rigor to the Church hierarchy, the growth continued. Ministers rejected in England also made the trip with their flocks, so John Cotton, Roger Williams, Thomas Hooker, and others became leaders of Puritan congregations in Massachusetts.

The Seeds of Democracy

The colony's charter granted to the Massachusetts General Court the authority to elect officers and to make laws. Their first meeting in America was held October of 1630, but was attended by only eight freemen. They voted to grant all legislative, executive, and judicial power to a "Council" of the Governor's assistants (those same eight men). They then set up town boundaries, created taxes, and elected officers. To quell unrest caused by this limited franchise, they added 118 settlers to the court as freemen, but power remained with the council. The first murmers against the system arose when a tax was imposed on the entire colony in 1632, but Winthrop was able to quiet fears.

In 1634, the issue of governance arose again, and a group headed by Thomas Dudley demanded to see the charter. The learned of the provisions that the general court should make all laws, and that all freemen should be members. They demanded that it be enforced to the letter, but eventually reached a compromise with governor Winthrop. They agreed to a General Court made up of two delegates elected by each town, the Governor's council of advisors, and the Governor himself. This court was to have authority over "The raising up public stock" (taxes) and "what they shold agree upon should bind all." What Wintrop did not expect was that binding included the election of the governor, and Dudley was elected. The first revolution was complete, and a trading company had become a representative democracy. By 1641, they had added the first code of laws (the Massachusetts Body of Liberties), that specified required behavior and punishments.

Governors of the Massachusetts Bay Colony

(For a list sorted by date, see Governors of the Massachusetts Bay Colony)

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