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Economy in New England Puritans & Pilgrims

Thrift and Godliness

Puritans expected that economic prosperity would result from piety and good works. Yet they were very ambivalent about the prospect of success; John Winthrop, the Governor of Massachusetts Bay, feared that his people would derive more satisfaction from wealth itself than from the piety that was supposed to bring about such financial rewards.

For most New Englanders, farming was the principal means of earning a living, and it was a hard one. They frequently had to work for two months just to clear the soil of all the rocks. There was a short growing season and mainly English crops were cultivated, such as barley, wheat, and oats. Surpluses did not really develop until the end of the seventeenth century.

Yet fisheries did provide a surplus product that could be sold in Europe. Mackerel, halibut, cod, and whales were all hunted in New England waters, in ships built from the lumber of the nearby forests. Lower quality fish were sold to Caribbean planters, who fed them to their slaves. New England dominated the ship-building industry throughout the colonial period; sawmills quickly arose in the region to take advantage of the abundant forests, for lumber provided an export commodity as well as the raw material for building a variety of items, from ships to furniture to fences. Shipyards had developed at Portsmouth, Dorchester, Gloucester, Boston, and Salem by the mid-seventeenth century. Yet all of this trading activity tied New England to a much wider Atlantic culture and economy that Puritan elders found threatening for its potential to foster materialism in place of simplicity and cosmopolitanism instead of pious introspection.


The Europeans also revolutionized Indian society through their conceptions of practices such as trade. Previously, Native Americans had exchanged items such as corn, venison (deer meat), fish, and skins among one another, in a practice related to gift giving and oftentimes as an exchange to balance disparate supplies of resources. Such forms of ritualized exchange also cemented alliances and served as forms of tribute. Yet after prolonged contact with the Europeans, trade came to signify an exclusively economic interaction, rather than a form of reciprocity. The shift in the meaning of trade was a significant development, as European commodities introduced Native Americans to a new culture of materialism and superficial adornment. Indians were also drawn into the Atlantic economy by, among other things, the demand for furs that necessitated the unlimited hunting of animals year-round, where before they had only hunted according to seasonal need and no more.

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