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Was Massachusetts a British colony?

Yes, Massachusetts was a British colony from the early 1600s until the American Revolution. The area that would become Massachusetts was first settled by the Pilgrims, who established the Plymouth Colony in 1620. Over the next several decades, other English settlers arrived and established the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which would become part of the Dominion of New England under British colonial administration. Massachusetts was one of the key colonies involved in the American Revolution, with early protests and rebellions against British rule taking place there. In 1776, Massachusetts was one of the 13 colonies to declare independence from Great Britain. After the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, Massachusetts became one of the original 13 states of the newly formed United States of America.

Early Exploration and Settlement

The area now known as Massachusetts was originally inhabited by Native American tribes including the Massachusett, Wampanoag, Nauset, and Narragansett peoples. European exploration of the New England coast began in the early 1600s, with French, Dutch, and English sailors mapping the region.

In 1620, English Puritans known as the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower and established the Plymouth Colony along the coast of modern-day Massachusetts. This was the first permanent European settlement in New England. The Pilgrims had intended to settle in Virginia, but were blown off course. They made landfall at present-day Provincetown and eventually crossed Cape Cod Bay to found Plymouth.

Plymouth Colony

The Plymouth Colony started small, with around 100 settlers and a treaty of mutual aid with the Wampanoag tribe. Early years were difficult, with shortages of food and shelter as the Pilgrims learned to survive in the harsh New England winters. By 1630, the colony had around 300 settlers. The colony operated under the Mayflower Compact, a set of laws and governance instituted by the Pilgrims.

Key events in the early years of Plymouth Colony:

Year Event
1620 Mayflower arrives, Plymouth founded
1621 First Thanksgiving with Wampanoag tribe
1623 The Ann arrives with new settlers
1627 Settlers purchase cattle and saltworks from investors
1630 Population reaches 300

Plymouth remained an independent colony until 1691 when it was absorbed into the Province of Massachusetts Bay.

Massachusetts Bay Colony

In the 1620s and 1630s, Puritan migration from England to the New World increased. This led to the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 under a royal charter from King Charles I. The Massachusetts Bay Company organized groups of settlers to establish towns and villages around Massachusetts Bay.

By 1640, over 20,000 English Puritans had migrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Towns founded during this period included Boston, Cambridge, Watertown, Salem, Charlestown, Concord, and others. John Winthrop served as the first governor of the colony.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony practiced a Puritan style of governance that was closely tied to religious leadership. However, voting rights were expanded compared to England, with all male church members allowed to participate.

Massachusetts Bay grew rapidly in the 1630s and 1640s, absorbing nearby settlements like Plymouth and territories in modern-day New Hampshire and Maine. The expanding colony led to increased tensions with Native American tribes as more land was required to sustain the growing colonial population.

The Dominion of New England

In the late 1600s, the British government sought to exert more control over the semi-autonomous colonies in New England. In 1685, they established the Dominion of New England, which unified the colonies of Massachusetts, Plymouth, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Hampshire under one colonial administration headed by Sir Edmund Andros.

The Dominion was extremely unpopular in New England. It revoked existing colonial charters, imposed new taxes, limited town meetings, and enforced the unpopular Church of England. After the Glorious Revolution in England deposed the Catholic king James II in 1688, Boston colonists seized the opportunity to rebel against Andros and the Dominion. Andros was arrested and sent back to England in 1689, dissolving the short-lived Dominion.

However, the former colonies did not return exactly to their previous forms. Plymouth Colony was merged into the Province of Massachusetts Bay, which kept its royal charter with some modifications. This merged Massachusetts Bay-Plymouth colony would remain a British colony up until the American Revolutionary War.

Colonial Life in Massachusetts

As the Massachusetts Bay Colony grew rapidly in the 1600s, settlers spread out across the landscape and established new towns. Most colonists lived on small farms with their large families. Life revolved around an agricultural economy, fishing, shipbuilding, lumbering, and trade.

Puritan values shaped many aspects of colonial life in Massachusetts. Society was centered on church and Scripture. Laws enforced moral behavior and town meetings limited individual self-interest. However, colonists were relatively socially mobile compared to England at the time. Sons often pursued different occupations than their fathers. Gender roles adhered to a patriarchal structure, but women had more flexibility than in Europe.

Colonial Massachusetts had tense relations with Native tribes, especially as colonial expansion encroached on Native lands. Major conflicts included the Pequot War (1637) and King Philip’s War (1675-1676). These wars resulted in Native American loss of territory and population declines due to disease and warfare.

Slavery also existed in Massachusetts during the colonial era. The colony had both Indian and African slaves as early as the 1640s, though never as many as colonies in the South. By the 1750s, over 3,000 enslaved Blacks lived in Massachusetts, concentrated in larger towns like Boston. Both free Blacks and slaves were subject to racial prejudice.


The Puritans placed a strong emphasis on education so that people could read the Bible. The first public school opened in Boston in 1635 and Harvard College (now Harvard University) was founded in 1636. By 1647, most towns had established tax-supported grammar schools.


Colonial Massachusetts was primarily an agricultural economy. Common crops included maize, wheat, rye, peas, and livestock like cattle, sheep, and pigs. Fishing was another important industry, as Massachusetts had prime access to Atlantic cod banks. Massachusetts also traded lumber, rum, ships and cured fish for commodities like wine, tea, fruits and spices. Labor shortages importation of African slaves in the late 1600s.

Industry Examples
Agriculture Grains, vegetables, livestock
Fishing Cod, mackerel, herring
Lumber Pine, oak for shipbuilding
Trade Rum, fish, ships in exchange for wine, tea, etc.


As the colony grew, labor shortages led settlers to start importing slaves from Africa and the West Indies. Slavery was permitted under British law. By 1754, nearly 3,000 enslaved Blacks lived in Massachusetts, concentrated around Boston. Slaves worked as domestic servants, farmhands, apprentices, and laborers. Both slaves and free Blacks faced racial discrimination, unable to vote or serve in the militia. However, Massachusetts had a pocket of antislavery sentiment that eventually led to the abolition of slavery in 1783.

Growing Resistance to British Rule

In the early to mid-1700s, tensions grew between Massachusetts colonists and the British government. The expansion of British settlements into the Ohio River Valley led to conflict with French colonists and Native American tribes, starting the French and Indian War (1754-1763). Though Britain was victorious, the war was expensive and contributed to growing debt.

In 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act which taxed paper goods used by the colonists – newspapers, legal documents, playing cards, etc. The Massachusetts Assembly denounced taxation without representation. British troops were sent to Boston in 1768 to enforce laws, escalating tensions.

Over the next decade, protests and boycotts against British taxes and trade restrictions increased. In 1773, a group of Bostonians dressed as Mohawk Indians dumped 342 chests of British tea into Boston Harbor. Britain responded with punitive laws that colonial leaders called the “Intolerable Acts.” Massachusetts was put under military rule.

In September 1774, Massachusetts sent delegates to the First Continental Congress calling for civil disobedience against British rule. Massachusetts militias began training for armed resistance as British troops occupied Boston. After the first battles at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, the Revolutionary War had begun.

Key Events Leading to Revolution:

Year Event
1754-1763 French and Indian War
1765 Stamp Act imposed
1770 Boston Massacre
1773 Boston Tea Party
1774 Intolerable Acts passed
1775 Battles of Lexington & Concord

Revolution and Statehood

Massachusetts played a leading role in the American Revolutionary War. The Massachusetts militia harassed British troops stationed in Boston during the Siege of Boston in 1775-1776. Boston served as the headquarters for the Continental Army through much of the war.

Many key events and people of the Revolution came from Massachusetts:

– The Minutemen militias who fought the opening battles at Lexington and Concord in April 1775.

– The Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775 where the famous order “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” was given. The British won the battle but suffered heavy losses.

– Publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense in January 1776, which advocated independence from Britain.

– Declaration of Independence drafted and signed in July 1776 by John Adams and Samuel Adams of Massachusetts.

– Major military leaders like General Artemas Ward and Paul Revere.

After the war, Massachusetts was the 6th state to ratify the U.S. Constitution in 1788 and became one of the original 13 states of the new country. It adopted its own constitution in 1780. In the early decades of the U.S., Massachusetts was a center of progressivism and innovation:

– Abolition of slavery in 1783.

– America’s first subway system opened in Boston in 1897.

– Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) founded in 1861.

So in conclusion, yes, Massachusetts was a British colony from its first settlements in the early 1600s until the Revolutionary War ended in 1783. It started with the Pilgrim settlement at Plymouth Colony and later became part of the expanding Massachusetts Bay Colony, playing a pivotal role in Colonial America. Massachusetts was at the forefront of the American Revolution and became one of the first U.S. states.


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Zuckerman, Michael. “Pilgrims and Puritans: New England’s First Settlers.” National Geographic, 27 Nov. 2020,

“Massachusetts Bay Colonial History.”,

“Colonial and Pre-Federal Statistics.” United States Census Bureau,

“Slavery in Colonial Massachusetts.” Archiving Early America,

Archer, Richard. As If an Enemy’s Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution. Oxford University Press, 2010.