Study Guide

New England Puritans & Pilgrims Introduction

Advertisement - Guide continues below

New England Puritans & Pilgrims Introduction

When the Pilgrims bought passage to North America, they asked the Virginia Company if they could arrange to settle in America and make their own rules. (Pretty bold, eh?) Surprisingly, the Virginia Company agreed, and the Pilgrims set off on the Mayflower.

Since someone messed up in the navigation department, the Pilgrims ended up much further north than they had originally intended—so far north, in fact, that they were outside the land the Virginia Company controlled. This meant that the promise the Virginia Company made—the whole business about the Pilgrims creating their own Religious Funland, complete with their own rules and regulations—wasn't valid. 

At this point, while still on the ship, 41 of the men aboard created and signed the Mayflower Compact, which stated that once they landed, the men could work together to create laws that would work for the whole society. Seems pretty smart, right?

So, when they arrived on the new continent, it wasn't simply the vast forests or lack of densely-populated areas and developed commercial markets that made it a land of opportunity and rebirth. The New World represented a chance to start anew, to build a society from the ground up on firmly pious principles.

Native Americans' contact with these newcomers was a startling encounter across a vast cultural and spiritual divide. Not only did European settlement encroach upon their lands, but it brought devastating plagues of diseases never before encountered in North America, which soon decimated Native-American populations. Both the English and the Native Americans survived the setbacks and the ravages of disease and death, and in their first half century on the new continent, the English settlers learned from, interacted with, and of course, battled against the Native American nations of New England.

The Pilgrims also developed the institutions for which they would be forever remembered: the town meeting, the Congregational church, the hard-scrabble farming life of New Englanders, and the Protestant work ethic, which influenced the character and composition of subsequent American societies.

After the Pilgrims managed to not completely die, they inspired other religious groups in England to come over and sort of survive as well.

From 1630 to 1700, waves of settlers came to New England to escape religious persecution. These settlers were mostly from hardline Calvinist churches, derogatively called "Puritan churches" because people were upset at their "we're so pure and holy" attitude. 

The Puritans shared many beliefs with the Pilgrims—in fact, we could say that the Pilgrims were an extreme section of Puritanism—but the Puritans were a little more relaxed. That means their skirts could hit at the ankle instead of having to be one inch below. Scandalous. 

No, but seriously, the Puritans were a pretty strict bunch who were concerned with pleasing God, living according to his will, and working hard. They also weren't technically Separatists, because they didn't want to separate from the Church of England: they just wanted to make everyone within the church as pure as they were. They didn't succeed, probably because most people weren't quite as uh, dedicated as they were.

So, after the Pilgrims, the Puritans came to Massachusetts and settled in Boston. They called their colony by the ingenious name of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. With Plymouth Colony right down the road, Massachusetts basically became a Calvinist wonderland.

What is New England Puritans & Pilgrims About and Why Should I Care?

Big picture question: How have these earliest settlements influenced modern American society, culture, and politics?

Well for one, the story of America's earliest New England settlements can help debunk a few myths that are still floating around, including: 

  • there were no slaves in New England (few of them, yes, but slavery existed there and was permitted by law)
  • that this region was entirely consumed by religion (hey, people made some good money in the port towns, and just wait until you get a load of the section on sex crimes)
  • that the Puritans were stuffy, prudish, boring old fuddy-duddies (sure, they seem conservative by modern standards, but these people wouldn't have passed laws against intoxication if there wasn't some cause for it)

Second, and besides, we should respect these men and women for their courage and their commitment. They traveled for three months on stormy seas with undoubtedly awful food and plenty of seasickness (and other kinds of sickness). They fled persecution in their native England to another continent so far away and so foreign to Europeans that it was commonly referred to as "the New World." 

When they got here, half of them died of disease, cold, or starvation. Instead of freaking out and sailing back with the ship, the rest of them stayed on. All for the sake of starting anew and adhering to the tenets of their cherished faith. 

Even if you aren't religious, that's pretty impressive.

If you come from a Native American background, if that's part of your ancestry, or if you're smart enough to be curious about the people who were here when the Europeans arrived, then this is the chapter of history for you. The "United States" was still a long way off when the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth in 1620, but the origins of American society are here. 

It would be misleading to draw any direct lines from 1620 to 1776, but the point is, this country wasn't simply a transplanted version of Europe. There were important reasons why the New England settlers came across the Atlantic ocean. They had substantial differences with the church and government in their homeland.

And after their arrival, this society was inevitably formed not purely from their acts and beliefs alone, but as a result of their interactions—both violent and peaceful—with the indigenous people of the region as well as the dissenters and other groups that they would come across over time. 

Colonial America was, from its beginning, a complex mixture of widely different societies, and its history is the essence of their intertwining stories.

New England Puritans & Pilgrims Resources


David Jaffee, People of the Wachusett: Greater New England in History and Memory, 1630–1860 (1999)
A very focused history of a specific area (inland New England), but anice example of a regional history that charts the growth, conflict, and development of a certain area through time.

Michael Kaufmann, Institutional Individualism: Conversion, Exile and Nostalgia in Puritan New England (1998)
A more modern history and assessment of the Puritans, taking into account their sense of individual identity. Addresses the work of previous scholarship on the Puritans, including a useful reassessment of Anne Hutchinson.

Perry Miller, Errand Into the Wilderness (1956)
A classic if dated (and compact) history from one of the Puritans' most preeminent historians. Not really an easy read—a very complex, nuanced analysis of Puritan thought and doctrine.

Gary B. Nash, Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early America (1973)
An excellent balance of perspectives on the period, incorporating more Native American history and detail than most New England histories, particularly the older ones.

Daniel K. Richter, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (2001)
A valuable history from an indigenous perspective that reaffirms the central role Native Americans played in the period's history and in their extraordinary ability to adapt to the unprecedented elements introduced with the arrival of the Europeans. Specifically traces the stories of three figures relatively well known even in the standard European histories: Pocahontas, Blessed Catherine Tekakwitha, and the Algonquin warrior Metacom.

Laurel Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650–1750 (1983)
A wonderful work of history that debunks many Puritan stereotypes while reiterating the nonetheless strict codes and difficult circumstances under which these women labored and lived.


Various Artists, Colonial America (2003)
Hesperus Early Music Ensemble promises "spirited sounds from across the sea to the shores of the new land" and delivers just that. This collection of classic compositions reflects the diverse mix of settler communities in 17th-century America.

Hesperus, Early American Roots (1997)
Another fantastic offering from the Hesperus Early Music Ensemble, this disc includes 22 performances based on 18th-century ballads, hymns, and cotillion tunes. See if you can pick out the unique sounds of baroque violins, recorders, violas da gamba, and other period instruments.

George Fenton, The Crucible: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1996)
Composer George Fenton utilizes viols, sackbuts, and other obscure period instruments to carefully craft the soundtrack to this film based on Arthur Miller's play about the witch hunts in 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts.

John Barry, The Scarlet Letter: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1995)
Composer John Barry integrates Native American rhythms and period melodies to provide a dark and riveting soundtrack for this Hollywood film based on Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous novel.


The Colonists Map Their World
Map of New England by William Wood—the first printed map made by a colonist. 3,000 immigrants were coming into Massachusetts Bay and there were 13 English towns at the time, and three remaining Native American villages, represented by the triangles. This was the first time that the Merrimack River appeared on a map.

Native American Life Before and After English Settlement
Samuel de Champlain's map of Malle Barre (Nauset Harbor, Cape Cod, Massachusetts), from 1605. Champlain was a French explorer who traveled south from New France along the New England coast. This clearly indicates several Native American villages and corn fields with wigwams and smoke holes. (B) indicates a French and Native American conflict and (G) is a fish trap. These villages were soon wiped out by epidemics of disease.

The Pequot Massacre
An engraving from John Underhill's News From America, published in London in 1638, illustrates the soldiers from Massachusetts and Connecticut firing their guns as they surrounded the Pequot village on the Mystic River in 1637. Native American allies form the outer ring, armed with bows and arrows.

Your Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Great Grandmother's Textbook
The New England Primer (1683) was in use as a reading instruction text longer than any other book in American history.

Colonial Architecture
A modern attempt at re-creating what 17th-century New England houses might have looked like.

Teaching Protestant Martyrdom
The story and dying words of Protestant martyr John Rodgers, who was burned alive in England in 1555 on order of the Catholic Queen Mary. His advice to his children included, "Keep always God before your Eyes" and to "Abhor the arrant Whore of Rome, and all her Blasphemies." These words were reprinted for generations of New England school children in their school primers, and establishing a strong anti-Catholic sentiment in the region that lasted well into the 19th century.

Movies & TV

Salem Witch Trials (2003)
The Salem Witch Trials reflect 21st-century political tensions in this two-part made-for-television film.

Secrets of the Dead: The Witches Curse (2001)
A memorable episode in the PBS Secrets of the Dead documentary series, "The Witches Curse" explores the infamous Salem Witch Trials using historical documents, expert testimony, and even chemistry.

The Crucible (1996)
Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder star in this adaptation of Arthur Miller's play about a group of young girls in 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts, who trigger a witch hunt that leads to the persecution, incarceration, torture, and execution of dozens of men and women.

The Scarlet Letter (1995)
Based on Nathaniel Hawthorne's book, actress Demi Moore is Hester Prynne, the wife of an Englishman who arrives alone in the Massachusetts Bay colony to prepare their new home. Nearly a year passes, however, with no sign of her husband and in her despair, she seeks comfort from a young pastor.


The Plymouth Colony Archive
The Plymouth Colony Archive Project at the University of Virginia includes primary sources, maps, and undergraduate papers.

Connecticut Laws and Records
The Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, from 1636 to 1776, are all available online with a searchable index.

The Rules in 17th-Century Providence Colony
The laws passed by the First General Assembly of Providence Colony in 1647 have been scanned and posted online, including the provisions against "whoremongers" and "sodomy."

Rowlandson's Harrowing Tale
The Mary Rowlandson captivity narrative is available online through Project Gutenberg.

Crimes in Early Plymouth
The capital laws of Plymouth Colony from 1671 are scanned and available online.

Primary Sources on Colonial America
Yale Law School's Avalon Project is a fantastic resource for primary historical sources.

Historical Documents

Colonial Bequeathments
You can read the last will and testament of 17th-century English settlers online.

New England's Blueprint
The Mayflower Compact of 1620.

Native Americans in Colonial New England
An article on Native Americans in Plymouth Colony criminal cases, 1630–1675, which quotes and cites several primary sources.

Stories from Plymouth
Excerpts from William Bradford's "Of Plymouth Plantation: 1620–1647."

New England Government and Sexual Regulation
The proceedings from the First General Assembly of Providence Colony, in 1647, which include provisions against sodomy and buggery.

The Laws of Matrimony in Plymouth
The laws of Plymouth Colony in 1636, including policies on military impressments and marriage.

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...