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New England Colonies: Important Facts That Everyone Should Know

At the time of the American Revolution, the New England Colonies consisted of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, but what were the Northern Colonies known for?

The New England Colonies consisted of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire. They were established in pursuit of settlers’ desire for religious freedom. The New England Colonies relied on fishing and subsistence farming to survive. They contributed significantly to the development of American education and constitutionalism.

New England now includes the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont. To learn how these regions developed, keep reading.

Origin and History of the New England Colonies

The New England Colonies originated with the European exploration and settlement of the American coast from Maine to Cape Cod.

Along the coast of New England, early Italian, French, and English explorers like John Cabot, Giovanni da Verrazzano, Samuel de Champlain, Bartholomew Gosnold, and George Weymouth encountered the Algonquian-speaking Eastern Woodlands Native American tribes.

Notable tribes included the Massachusett, Wampanoag, Nauset, Patuxet, Pequot, Narraganset, and Penobscot. Learning English from early fishing settlements in Maine, tribes like the Wampanoag would teach English settlers how to adapt to their new environments.

European Exploration of New England

Venetian explorer John Cabot established a fishing settlement in 1497, probably in Newfoundland (source). First, Verrazzano and then Gosnold explored the region from Maine to Cape Cod.

Later, Captain George Weymouth brought a group of primarily Penobscot Indians back to England in 1605. These captives caught the attention of a military man named Sir Ferdinando Gorges, who thus became enticed by the prospect of settling the New World (source).

Gorges became a shareholder in the Plymouth Company, which King James I granted a charter in 1606 to colonize what became New England. The following year, Gorges was involved in the unsuccessful attempt to establish the Popham Colony in Maine.

Meanwhile, Captain John Smith, one of the successful settlers of Jamestown, Virginia, explored a region he called “Northern Virginia” in 1614. However, by 1616, he had mapped and renamed the land “New England” (source).

The Council for New England

Still determined to settle New England, Sir Ferdinando Gorges and fellow aristocrats helped reorganize the defunct Plymouth Company into the Council for New England in 1620. 

Instead of merchants, landed gentry dominated the council, and Gorges sought to distribute the land as manors to fellow gentry. Additionally, Gorges sought to establish New England as an Anglican province.


Anglicanism is the observance of the doctrines of the Church of England, which recognizes the sovereign of England as the supreme governor of the church (source). In this respect, the Church of England is Erastian, allowing the state to have supremacy in matters of the church (source). 

Furthermore, Kings James I, Charles I, and Charles II adhered to the doctrine of the divine right of kings, asserting that they answered to no one but God for how they ruled their subjects. 

Regarding church government, the Anglican Church is episcopal, meaning bishops supervise clergy within their territorial jurisdiction (diocese).

New England Congregationalism

The successful colonization of New England awaited the arrival of religious dissenters who were Congregationalists, emphasizing the autonomy of the local congregation. These included Separatists, non-Separatists/Independents, and Baptists.

The Puritan movement sought purity in doctrine and opposed many practices of the Church of England. While many Puritans established congregations separate from the Anglican Church, they still sought to reform it.

In contrast, the Pilgrim Fathers were Separatist Puritans who sought complete separation from what they saw as a thoroughly corrupt church. Still, both groups saw some role for the civil magistrate in promoting religion, though the Pilgrims tended to grant greater religious freedom.

Meanwhile, Baptists like Roger Williams believed that the civil magistrate had no authority to punish infractions against the first table of the Ten Commandments, referring to laws against blasphemy, idolatry, and Sabbath-keeping.

List of the New England Colonies

Image by Debi Brady via Pixabay

By 1691, the New England Colonies comprised Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire. Maine remained as part of Massachusetts until 1820, and New York and New Hampshire laid claim on Vermont, which declared its independence in 1777.


MassachusettsMain SettlementStatus in 1775
Plymouth Colony, est. 1620Plymouth, est. 1620 Plymouth County, Massachusetts 
Massachusetts  Bay Colony, est. 1629Boston, est. 1629Royal Colony
Province of Maine, est. 1622York, est. 1624District of Maine, Massachusetts 

Massachusetts received its name from the Massachusett tribe. Massachusetts was the largest and most prosperous of the New England Colonies and eventually absorbed the earlier colonies of Plymouth and Maine.

Plymouth Colony

The Pilgrim Fathers had first fled to the Netherlands to escape religious persecution in England before settling in southeastern Massachusetts in 1620. About half of the more than 100 settlers who set out for the New World on the Mayflower died during the winter of 1620–1621.

Aided by the Wampanoag, the Pilgrims learned to plant corn and other local crops, and by late 1621, they celebrated a feast of thanksgiving with the Wampanoag.

Province of Maine

After early attempts by the French and English to colonize Maine, Gorges and John Mason obtained a patent from the Council for New England for the Province of Maine in 1622. 

The English established a settlement in 1624 on the site of what later became York in 1652. Eventually, Massachusetts bought the claims of Sir Fernando Gorges‘ heirs in 1677 (source).

Massachusetts Bay Colony

The Dorchester Company established the settlements of Cape Ann, Gloucester, and Salem before the New England Company purchased the company’s patents. 

This company soon morphed into the Massachusetts Bay Company when it received a royal charter from Charles I in 1629, bypassing the Council for New England. Thereafter, the Council for New England faded into the background.

John Winthrop

John White of the Dorchester and New England Companies envisioned a settlement based on a community of believers, and this vision enticed men like John Winthrop to join the Massachusetts Bay Company. 

Before departing to the New World, the patentees elected Winthrop as governor of the colony and agreed to move the management of the charter and company to the colony itself. 

Arriving in 1630, the Puritans would establish Boston as the center of Massachusetts Bay. However, unlike the Pilgrims, the settlers of Massachusetts Bay were primarily non-Separatists who sought to reform the Anglican Church.

Winthrop’s dream was to make Boston a “Shining city on a hill” and establish a Christian commonwealth. Thus, Congregationalism became the established religion of Massachusetts Bay, and the General Court used the magistrate’s authority to enforce a degree of religious conformity.

The establishment of Congregationalism led dissenters like Thomas Hooker, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and John Wheelwright to seek religious freedom elsewhere.


After successfully defending itself against the claims of the Council for New England, Massachusetts temporarily fell under the Dominion of New England (1686–1689), as did the other New England Colonies. 

Following the overthrow of Governor Edmund Andros and the Dominion in 1689, a new charter issued by King William and Queen Mary in 1691 made Massachusetts a royal colony, absorbed Plymouth Colony within it, and made Maine a district of Massachusetts.

Province of New Hampshire

New HampshireMain SettlementStatus in 1775
Province of New Hampshire, est. 1629Portsmouth, est. 1623Royal Colony
Vermont, est. 1777Brattleboro, est. 1724Cumberland & Gloucester Counties, New York

English fishermen established the settlements of Pannaway (Rye) and Strawbery Banke (Portsmouth) in New Hampshire in 1624 before New Hampshire became a separate province from Maine in 1629 under John Mason (source). Mason named the colony after his home county in England, Hampshire.

After 1641, Massachusetts Bay Colony administered New Hampshire, but King Charles II granted the colony a separate charter in 1679 (source).

Meanwhile, what would become the state of Vermont remained disputed territory between New Hampshire and New York during the Colonial Period. Samuel de Champlain explored Vermont in 1609, and Vermont is French for “green mountain.” Vermont established a breakaway republic in 1777.

Rhode Island

Rhode IslandMain SettlementStatus in 1775
Providence Plantations, est. 1644
Colony of Rhode Island, est. 1663
Providence, est. 1636Charter Colony

Roger Williams, minister of Salem, Massachusetts, established Providence in what is now Rhode Island in 1636 after the General Court of Massachusetts Bay banished him. Williams had challenged the court’s authority to punish individuals over religious matters and questioned their dealings with the Native Americans.

Welcomed by the Narangaset, Williams established what many consider the first Baptist church in America.

Later, another group led by William Coddington and Anne Hutchinson established Portsmouth in 1638. Anne Hutchinson held views similar to Quakerism, which taught a doctrine based on the concept of an inner light.

When tried by the General Court, Hutchinson claimed to have had a direct revelation from God telling her that her enemies would be destroyed, resulting in her banishment from Massachusetts.

In 1644, Providence, Newport, and Portsmouth combined under a charter from Parliament to form the colony of Providence Plantations. King Charles II did not recognize this charter, but he granted a new one for the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in 1663 (source).


ConnecticutMain SettlementStatus in 1775
Saybrook Colony, est. 1635Saybrook, est. 1635Hartford County
Connecticut Colony, est. 1636Hartford, est. 1636Charter Colony
New Haven Colony, est. 1643New Haven, est. 1638New Haven County

Connecticut is an Algonquian word that means “long tidal river,” and the Dutch were the first European settlers in the region. The English began to settle in Connecticut in 1633, eventually establishing the Saybrook, Connecticut, and New Haven Colonies (source). Connecticut Colony absorbed the others by 1665.

Connecticut Colony

The English began settling Windsor and Wethersfield before Massachusetts Bay appointed John Steele as a commissioner for new settlements on the Connecticut River in 1635. He explored the area that would become Hartford, Connecticut, before the arrival of settlers under ministers Thomas Hooker and Samuel Stone.

Hooker and Stone initially named the settlement Newtown after their place of departure but soon renamed it Hartford after Hertford in Hertfordshire, England, the birthplace of Samuel Stone.

Saybrook Colony

In 1635, Lord Saye, Lord Brook, and Sele hired John Winthrop Jr. of Massachusetts Bay to establish a colony on the Connecticut River. Shortly after, he founded Fort Saye-Brook or Saybrook and became the colony’s first governor.

However, the second governor, George Fenwick, sold Fort Saybrook to Connecticut Colony in 1644 (source).

New Haven Colony

John Davenport and Theophilus Eaton established the settlement of Quinnipiac in 1638, which they renamed New Haven in 1640. Davenport served as the settlement’s minister, while Eaton was its governor.

In 1643, New Haven combined with nearby settlements to form New Haven Colony, and Connecticut Colony absorbed New Haven Colony in 1665.


Based on the biblical concept of covenants, the New England Colonies contributed to the development of American constitutionalism. The Pilgrim Fathers found it necessary to establish such a covenant when winds blew them 200 miles off course to a land where their original charter did not apply.

The Mayflower Compact served as a form of government, providing for representative government and religious freedom of conscience (source). Similarly, Connecticut Colony formed the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut in 1639, modeled on church covenants (source).

New England colonial government consisted of governors, General Courts, and local Town Meetings. At Town Meetings, free citizens could vote on ordinances and taxes.

General Courts could pass legislation, impose taxes, and hold criminal trials. Members of the General Court included the governor, the governor’s council (Assistants), and the freemen or their representatives (Deputies).

General Courts in New England often punished citizens for infractions against the established religion. Massachusetts Bay Colony even hanged the Quaker Mary Dyer in 1660, a friend of Anne Hutchinson. Meanwhile, in Plymouth Colony, they limited the punishment of Quakers to fines, flogging, or banishment.

Religious toleration was greater in Rhode Island, where Williams argued against the role of the civil magistrate in enforcing religious conformity. William Penn’s Colony of Pennsylvania also promoted religious toleration, and the First Baptist Church in Philadelphia became a prominent Baptist institution in North America.


The climate of New England is primarily humid continental, which is a temperate climate experiencing significant contrasts in temperature from summer to winter.

New England experiences cold winters, with Maine averaging 20°F in winter and New Hampshire experiencing temperatures below 0 °F, while Vermont experiences -34°F or under. Meanwhile, January in Massachusetts and Connecticut is an average of 26°F and 29°F in Rhode Island.

Snowfall in winter can range from 35 inches in Connecticut to 100 inches in Maine and western New Hampshire. New England’s relatively short growing season meant the region focused less on agriculture than the Southern or Middle Colonies.


New England settlers grew crops like corn and wheat, but the short growing season and rocky soil led them to pursue forestry, fishing, whaling, trade, and shipbuilding.

The natives of New England lived primarily on fishing, hunting, and gathering, moving from one site to another depending on the season. Most tribes planted corn, beans, and squash. Natives often traded using strings of white shell beads or “wampum” as a form of currency.

Natural Resources

The primary natural resources of New England were fish, whales, furs, and lumber. The English first established fishing settlements in New England and began trading with the natives. The beaver fur trade was particularly profitable.

The primary market for New England lumber and fish was the West Indies, which traded molasses for these goods.

Since they could use molasses to produce rum, rum-making became a key industry in New England in the middle of the 17th century. Ties to the West Indies also drew New England into the Triangular Trade, which involved the African slave trade.

For more on the early New England Economy, read “Economic Activities of the New England Colonies.”


Slavery was not nearly as common in New England as in the Middle Colonies or the Southern Colonies, but it was present.

Slavery in New England typically involved one or two slaves attached to a household, business, or farm. Tradesmen, merchants, doctors, and even ministers might use slaves to help them focus on other tasks (source).

The New England slave trade probably began around 1638 with the arrival of slaves from the West Indies, and slavery gained legal sanction in 1641. John Winthrop helped draft the legal code, and he owned a Native American slave taken during the Pequot War (source).

Rhode Island initially banned slavery in 1652, but it was difficult to enforce this ban, and, tragically, the Rhode Island General Assembly repealed the ban in 1703 (source). Newport, Rhode Island, became heavily involved in the slave trade after 1700, and slavery did not completely end in New England until around 1853 (source).

For more on slavery in Colonial America, read “Southern Colonies: Important Facts That Everyone Should Know.”


Image by Jens Junge via Pixabay

In addition to religious devotion, the New England Puritans valued hard work, thrift, and resourcefulness while disliking displays of luxury.

The Puritan emphasis on the Scriptures as the authoritative word of God led them to value an educated clergy. As a result, they established public schools and founded America’s first colleges and universities, which began as seminaries.

Puritans founded Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Yale in New Haven, Connecticut. The distinguished scholar and minister Jonathan Edwards was a graduate of Yale.

Later, Puritans established Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, to help educate Native Americans. Meanwhile, Baptists established Rhode Island College, which became Brown University.

Cultural Regions in Colonial America

Despite numerous religious controversies, New England was far more uniform ethnically and religiously than the Middle or Southern Colonies. Anglicanism was also more prominent in the Middle and Southern Colonies but with large groups of dissenters like Scots-Irish Presbyterians and German Lutherans. 

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Check out “Economic Activities of the Middle Colonies” and “Economic Activities of the Southern Colonies.” for more. For an overview of all 13 Colonies, read “13 American Colonies Timeline: Dawn of the Colonial Era.”

Final Thoughts

The New England Colonies were critical for developing America’s tradition of representative government, education, and commitment to religious freedom.

The religious zeal of the Puritans, especially Jonathan Edwards, helped spark the Great Awakening, which contributed to the development of an American religious culture distinct from that of Europe.

Their noble, if sometimes misguided, idealism has also inspired many generations to seek to leave this world in a better state than when they entered it.