A Brief History of the Region
New England has long been the incubator for American ideas. Much of the region's mystique lies in its intricate and compelling history and its vital role in weaving the political, cultural, and intellectual fabric of American life. Visiting New England is truly akin to leaping inside the pages of a history textbook and meeting larger-than-life characters face-to-face on their own turf.
The “New” England
John Smith is credited with giving the region its Eurocentric nomenclature in 1614, but the land he called “New England” was home to native peoples long before European explorers and settlers arrived on the scene. Little is known, though, of New England's earliest inhabitants. Fossil evidence of human habitation found in Shawville, Vermont, places a date of 9000 B.C. on New England's earliest civilization, but no clear connection has been established between these early peoples and the thriving Algonkian civilization that arose during the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries and was firmly established by the time Europeans began to explore the area.
Though “related,” the Algonkians were splintered into many small tribes — the Narragansett in Rhode Island, the Abenaki in Maine, the Massachuset in, of course, Massachusetts, and many others. They were frequently engaged in intertribal wars, and their lack of unity eventually contributed to European domination.
English interest in the land that would later be known as New England picked up in the early 1600s, but it would be several decades before the establishment of a permanent settlement. Although profit seekers found little in the way of gold or diamonds to entice them to stick around, a group of Puritans, known today as the Pilgrims, discovered something of immeasurable value on New England's shores — religious freedom.
In mid-December 1620, after more than two months aboard the
Included on the menu for the Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving were lobster and beer! President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, three months after the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War. Lincoln designated the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt changed it to the fourth Thursday in 1939.
In 1628, another group of Puritans formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony, settling in the Boston area, and from there, religious leaders dispersed with followers to establish settlements in neighboring states. Oddly enough in light of their own desire for freedom from religious persecution, the Puritans were an intolerant bunch, and in 1636, upstart preacher Roger Williams, who asserted, “forced worship stinks in God's nostrils,” established the colony of Rhode Island after being banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Mother England pretty much left her colonies to toddle along on their own until the 1760s, when King George III, Prime Minister Lord North, and Parliament began imposing new taxes on colonial subjects. Needless to say, the Americans were not amused, primarily because they lacked representation in Parliament and had little recourse as new taxes and laws — the Sugar Act of 1764, the Stamp Act of 1765, the Townshend Acts of 1767 — were handed down. Tensions mounted, resistance reverberated, and in 1770, British troops opened fire on an angry crowd, killing five in the Boston Massacre.
Defiant patriots responded in 1773 by demanding that a ship loaded with tea leave Boston Harbor and return to England. When it did not, the rebels, including Sam Adams and John Hancock, disguised themselves as Native Americans, stormed the ship, and tossed its cargo of more than 300 crates of tea into the ocean.
You know what happened next. The American Revolution broke out in New England with Paul Revere warning of the coming of British troops on his famous midnight ride from Boston to Lexington and Minutemen standing in defense of freedom as the “shot heard round the world” was fired at Lexington. Massachusetts also saw the war's first major engagement, the Battle of Bunker Hill, where the Brits were victorious but suffered heavy losses. On July 4, 1776, fourteen New Englanders were among the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Post-Revolution New England
When the war was finally won in 1781, New Englanders returned to the business of building the economy of the Northeast. Some of the most prominent, including John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams, turned their attention to shaping the fledgling democracy. Much of New England's early prosperity was tied to its success in using the ocean, its key natural resource. The fishing, whaling, and shipbuilding industries and overseas trade bolstered the development of harbor towns.
The nineteenth century brought impediments to a maritime economy — wars and trade embargoes — but resilient New Englanders used their ingenuity to develop a new economic model: manufacturing. From the launch of Samuel Slater's cotton mill in Rhode Island in 1793 to the rise of mill towns in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts in the first half of the century, New England was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution in America.
RAINY DAY FUN
The Lowell National Historical Park in Lowell, Massachusetts, portrays life during America's early industrial period. At the Boott Cotton Mills Museum, children can don aprons, punch their time cards, see how raw cotton was transformed into cloth, and even hear the cacophonous roar of a re-created 1920s weave room within the restored textile mill.
New England also took the lead in social reform during this era. Abolitionists spoke out against slavery and sheltered escaped slaves, helping them achieve freedom through the Underground Railroad. In 1800, Rhode Island was the site of the nation's first labor strike. In the mid-1800s, Dorothea Dix crusaded on behalf of the mentally ill in Massachusetts.
Artistic, literary, and intellectual accomplishments had their epicenter here, too. The 1800s saw the creation of the nation's oldest continuously operating art museum, the Wadsworth Atheneum (1842), in Hartford, Connecticut; the opening of the first free municipal public library, the Boston Public Library (1854); and the debut of the Boston Symphony (1881) and the Boston Pops (1885). Writers who shaped the thinking of the nation and the world called New England home — Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
The nineteenth century also saw an influx of “new” New Englanders. During the Great Potato Famine of 1845–1850, Irish immigrants arrived in Boston at the rate of more than 1,000 per month. Others arrived from Italy, Portugal, Eastern Europe, and Canada. Digestion of the new mass of opportunity seekers led to a few hiccups and bellyaches as these groups forged their own political and cultural identity in New England's cities and towns.
The Twentieth Century and Beyond
By the twentieth century's dawn, New England was losing its grasp on economic leadership as new methods of manufacturing made it possible for factories to move to locations where labor was less expensive. The stock market crash of 1929, World War II, and the postwar recession contributed to wild fluctuations in the region's fortunes. But the latter half of the century marked a resurgence of prominence.
The election of John Fitzgerald Kennedy from Massachusetts in 1960 showed that the region and the country were coming to terms with their anti-immigrant sentiments. (Kennedy was the first Irish Catholic and the youngest person ever elected to the nation's top office.) The growth, too, of an information economy in the late 1900s and early part of the twenty-first century boded well for the region's current and future economic strength as it became home to distinguished universities and leading technology companies.
New Englanders are proud of their rich history and traditions, but they do not opt for stagnancy and complacency. The next “revolution” in American history may well be nurtured inside the fertile minds of imaginative, ingenious New Englanders.