Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Alternative Communities in Seventeenth Century Massachusetts

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Alternative Communities in Seventeenth Century Massachusetts

Article excerpt

From a distance, whether in time or space, most societies look more homogeneous than members perceive their societies to be. Distinctions that seem clear within the culture get blurred by outsiders who use the most general characteristics to describe the whole. We make broad generalizations because the intricacies of group identity can be overwhelming and too much information can obscure larger trends. Societies, however, are shaped not only by dominant groups, but also by the accommodations that these groups make to "others" in the society. Frequently, such adjustments are subtle, not rising to the level of diplomacy or public policy, yet over time may alter the society in visible ways. This article traces this process of change in seventeenth century Massachusetts, focusing on the influence of non-Puritan residents on the society of the Bay Colony.

The distant perception of early Massachusetts is a region of small, covenanted villages, modeled on traditional English communities and composed of people holding similar religious and social beliefs: in short, Puritans. While much about this description is accurate, it does not depict the situation for a small but significant proportion of the population of the colony ~ those people who arrived after the Great Migration and who came, voluntarily and involuntarily, for economic or political reasons. These residents, identified here as "non-Puritans," came from England, Scotland, Ireland, France and the Channel Islands and began arriving in discernable numbers in the late 1640s and early 1650s when economic problems stimulated the migration of laborers to the colony. After the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660, English attempts to regulate government and trade in the colonies more closely led to an influx of merchants and appointed officials. Thus from the 1650s, the colony had a small but growing number of residents who came to the region with no connection to the religious ideals of the founding generation.

These new immigrants created alternative community forms that linked together persons of Scottish, Irish and other non-Puritan backgrounds into multi-national networks that stretched beyond geographical town boundaries. The earliest communities consisted primarily of iron and agricultural workers, but by the end of the century, significant communities of merchants and royal officials also formed. Regardless of economic and social status, many of these residents retained their national identities while becoming settled inhabitants of Massachusetts and forming ties with their fellow colonists. They, like Puritan residents, participated in several communities based on religion, nationality, craft or trade, and place of residence, and identified themselves by these associations as the context warranted. Such overlapping community ties and multiple identities in Massachusetts helped bring stability to a colony in the midst of unsettling change after 1660 by providing a web of associations that kept society from fracturing along religious, national or class lines. This "social web" also fostered the growth of "Britishness" that helped transform the early homogeneous character of the colony into a more diverse, commercial society by the end of the century - one that began to resemble societies in other regions of the emerging British Atlantic world.1

Although the transition was slow, a combination of economic, political, and social pressures forged an Atlantic society by the end of the seventeenth century. But this transformation was not simply that second and third generation Puritans deviated from the ideals of the founders to develop a commercial society. The leaders of Massachusetts recognized the need for commerce and economic development from the earliest years of the colony. A fairly diverse population, drawn from the Atlantic world, developed out of economic and political changes in the colonies and in England that brought new ideas and mercantile connections to the colony. …

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