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The History of Massachusetts:
Early Native Americans Through WWII

© 2006 Rickie Lazzerini

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Native Americans

          Archeologists have discovered that the first people to inhabit Massachusetts arrived over 10,000 years ago. These Paleo-Indians are the ancestors of the Native Americans of today. They lived in small nomadic bands that followed herds of large animals. The Paleo-Indian period was followed by the Archaic period and the Woodland period. During the Archaic and Woodland periods, Native Americans shifted from hunting large game to hunting smaller game, increasing their dependency on fishing and eventually learning to cultivate corn, beans, and squash. The natives of this period invented useful tools and devices, such as ceramics, canoes, textiles, baskets, and wigwams, and developed a social system based on close ties between religion, family, clan, and nature.

          By the time of early European colonization attempts, there were over 30,000 Native Americans in Massachusetts living amongst a variety of tribes belonging to the Algonquin language group. Some of the most well known tribes were the Wampanoag, Pennacook, Mahican, Pocumtuck, Nipmuck, and the Massachusett (for whom the state was named). Unfortunately, the Europeans would bring with them diseases for which the Native Americans had no immunity against, resulting in large, deadly epidemics. The first such epidemic hit the coastal region of Massachusetts between 1616 and 1617. The Native population continued to suffer from disease and warfare throughout the remainder of the 17th century. Nearly ninety percent of the Native population was killed during this period.

Early Explorers

          The first documented exploration of Massachusetts was conducted by John Cabot. In 1497 and 1498, Cabot sailed through Massachusetts's waters in search of a route to Asia. Before Cabot's exploration, a legend tells of Leif Ericson and other Norse explorers reaching the area in the year 1000, but there is no documented proof to support such tales. After Cabot's voyage, other explorers passed through in search of a passage to the east. In 1602, Bartholomew Gosnold explored the Massachusetts coastline and named Cape Cod after the plethora of fish that schooled there. In 1614, John Smith traveled through the area and wrote A Description of New England, in which he mused over the beautiful coastline. Smith's work, augmented by William Wood's New England Prospect, helped stir colonization interests in England.

Pilgrims, Puritans and other colonists

           Refugees in search of a place to enjoy religious freedom founded Massachusetts. The colonization efforts of the Pilgrims and the Puritans were voluntary movements of religious separatists in pursuit of a place they could live their lives according to their own beliefs without any disruption from outsiders.

        The Pilgrims were English Separatists who broke away from the Church of England in the early 17th century. Most of these Separatists were poorly educated farmers without social or political standing. William Brewster and the Reverend Richard Clifton led one of the Separatist congregations in the village of Scrooby in Nottinghamshire. These separatists immigrated to Amsterdam in 1608 to escape harassment. The following year, they moved to Leyden, Holland and set up a community where they enjoyed religious freedom for almost twelve years. A well-known separatist, William Bradford, organized and led the Pilgrim immigration to America. Although the separatists were not persecuted in their Leyden home, Bradford saw it necessary to create a Pilgrim colony in the New World in order to keep the movement alive. In Leyden, they began to assimilate into the larger society losing touch with their religion. By the time Bradford acquired land and organized passage to America, only 35 Pilgrims still wanted to make the voyage. (The term "Pilgrim" was first used by William Bradford to describe the separatists who were leaving Leyden.) The small party left Holland and stopped in England where more separatists would join them, increasing their group to 75 people. Other non-Pilgrim Englishmen, called Strangers, joined the voyage as well, departing for America on the legendary Mayflower on September 16, 1620, with about 102 passengers, less than half of them from Leyden.

         After a 65-day voyage, the group arrived in America. Two people died on the journey, and two people were born. The colonists were granted territory in Virginia, but they anchored in Provincetown on November 21. That day 41 men signed the Mayflower Compact to establish a temporary government. The Compact became the governmental basis of the Plymouth Colony. John Carver was elected as the first governor, and Stephen Hopkins as the assistant governor. After weeks of searching for a suitable settlement area, they finally landed at Plymouth on December 26, 1620. Nearly half of these settlers would die over the first winter, while the remaining settlers survived with the help of local Native American tribes.

         The Puritans arrived in Salem in 1630, with a royal charter that granted them governmental powers over the colonies and served as the foundation of the government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Colonization spread throughout the region, and by 1640, there were 16,000, mostly Puritan, settlers in Massachusetts. The Puritan's mission was to establish a godly society based on church membership and worship that was purified from the corruption of the Church of England. The religion of the Puritans came to be known as Congregationalism. Life in Puritan New England was extremely difficult, as frontier life required everyone to work long, hard days. Leisure time was nearly non-existent, amusement was frowned upon, laws prohibited stylish dress, and crimes were punished harshly. Church attendance was absolutely mandatory and anyone who opposed the church was unwelcome in the community. In the mid-1650s, some Quakers preached against the Puritan way of life, resulting in their banishment and the threat of death if they returned. These threats were substantiated, as one Quaker woman, Mary Dyer, found out when she was hanged for returning in 1660. Other banished dissenters left to found cities and colonies elsewhere. Thomas Hooker left the Puritans and founded Hartford, Connecticut while Ann Hutchinson founded Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Roger Williams who was exiled for preaching the separation of church and state later founded Providence.

The Witchcraft Craze and the Salem Witch Trials

         Punishment for practicing witchcraft was not unique to colonial Massachusetts. During the 15th century, witchcraft was taken very seriously in Europe. This was due in part to a number of books circulating at the time. In 1490, The Hammer of Witches, a book written by two German Dominicans, defined witches and explained how to punish them. During the Elizabethan reign in England, strict laws against witchcraft were passed, which resulted in a number of witchcraft-related executions. When James VI of Scotland took the throne, he extended these strict anti-witchcraft policies. He wrote a book, Demonology, which addressed witchcraft and other dark arts. His book being widely read, added to the heightened hostilities towards those suspected of practicing witchcraft. In 1681, Joseph Glanville published A Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions. Like Demonology, this book reached a widespread audience. These books and policies set the stage for the execution of witches, including the Salem Witch Trials.

         During the 16th through 19th centuries, before and after the Salem Witch Trials, there were documented cases of witch executions in Europe. Between 1610 and 1840, it is estimated that over 20,000 accused witches were burned at the stake in Germany. Between three and five thousand witches were executed in 16th and 17th century Scotland. England also witnessed the accusation and execution of witches prior the Salem Witch Trials. In 1664, Amy Duny and Rose Cullender were found guilty of practicing witchcraft and were executed. The anti-witchcraft sentiment that had been growing in England and Europe undoubtedly had an impact on the Puritans in America. Fear of witchcraft can be seen in the Puritan laws: "If any man or woman be a witch, that is, hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit, they shall be put to death."1 There were also instances of witch executions in New England prior to the Witch Trials of 1692. In 1647, Alse Young was hanged in Hartford, and in 1648, Margaret Jones was hanged in Charleston; both accused of being witches. Scattered cases continued throughout the colonies. Ann Hibbins was accused of being a witch by her neighbors and was hanged in 1656, and in 1662, the Greensmiths, husband and wife, were executed in Hartford. It bears to proof that suspicion and punishment for witchcraft existed long before the 1692 epidemic. These earlier cases convinced the people of Massachusetts that witches did exist.

         The witch craze and subsequent Salem Witch Trials began with the strange behavior and seizures of a group of girls. At the Reverend Samuel Paris' home in Salem Village, their slave, Tituba, entertained a gathering of his daughter and friends. The children took interest in the magic performed by Tituba and supposedly became afflicted by it. The girls later began to have fits and convulsions. They became known as the "afflicted children," and the town folk believed their behavior to be caused by witchcraft. Tituba was arrested, along with four other women, Sarah Good, Sarah Osburn, Martha Corey, and Rebecca Nurse. Tituba was released after she incriminated Good and Osburn, and all four women were executed based solely on testimony from the accusing girls. The testimonies were very convincing and dramatic, and the girls went into convulsions during the trial. This trial sparked a witch craze that spread throughout the town. During the spring and summer of 1692, 150 people were arrested and awaited trial. Thirteen women and seven men were hanged, and one man was pressed (stones were placed on his chest until his chest finally collapsed). The accused were hanged outside of Salem in a place that came to be known as Gallows Hill. After realizing the severity of the witch craze and the number of people involved, Governor Phips discharged the remaining men and women being held in jail. Some historians believe that Governor Phips allowed the witch craze to reach such an extent in order to earn the support of the people of Salem. Regardless of whether Phips let the event carry on for political reasons or not, the witch trials finally came to an end.

         To this day there has never been an episode like this in American history and the incident will likely stand out as an interesting and poignant example of the implications of mass hysteria. The cause of this frenzied occurrence has yet to be fully explained, but a multitude of theories exist. In the 19th century, historians believed that the girls faked the convulsions and falsely accused the so-called witches as part of a government conspiracy to take the property of the accused. This posed an interesting theory but has since been debunked. Other theories include the belief that the girls may have been affected from a reaction to a fungus called ergot, which could have caused them to experience convulsions and hallucinations. However, the witch craze was most likely a combination of events, culminating into an episode of mass hysteria. Puritans lived their lives according to a strict faith and a constant fear of Native American attacks. The devil was a part of Puritan theology, and many believed that the Native Americans worshiped the devil. War hysteria set the stage for a larger degree of hysteria and explains, at least in part, how an isolated case of "possession" turned into an extensive witch-hunt.

1 Albert Bushnell Hart, Commonwealth History of Massachusetts, Volume II (New York: Russell & Russell, 1966).
By Rickie Lazzerini

BA History
University of California, Santa Barbara

Index of Historical Reviews

2006 Rickie Lazzerini, All Rights Reserved
This page may be freely linked to but may not be reproduced
in any form without prior written consent from the author.

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