The Puritan colonies of North America

The first English colony in what is now the United States of America was that of the Virginia Company, founded in 1607 during the reign of King James I. The first township was called Jamestown, after the king.

The next American colony was of a very different character; it was formed by religious exiles from England. A few Puritans, mostly from Lincolnshire, were disgusted with their treatment in England under King James I and left England to seek refuge in Holland. After ten years there, some of them decided to emigrate to North America. Other Puritans joined them, and the exiles, who became known as the Pilgrim Fathers, left Plymouth in the Mayflower in September 1620. They landed just north of Cape Cod and founded the first township which they called Plymouth.

Eight years later a larger body of Puritans in England formed a company which they called the Massachusetts Bay Company. The following year King Charles I granted them a charter and the whole body of shareholders crossed the Atlantic in 1630 to form the colony of Massachusetts. A steady flow of English immigrants during the next eleven years meant that the colony prospered. By 1644 the total population was more than 20,000.

Despite the fact that these Puritans had left their home to escape from religious intolerance, their own government was no less intolerant. John Winthrop, the first governor, was a man of considerable ability but had narrow views. Political rights in Massachusetts, no less than in England, depended on conformity with the narrow religious creed. This creed was determined by a small circle of strict Puritans who supported the governor. Anyone who differed from their rulers on minor points of religion could be subject to harsh punishment. Roger Williams, a clergyman who was driven from Massachusetts by this persecution, founded a new colony, that of Rhode Island, in 1636.

Other colonies followed, namely Connecticut and New Hampshire, the whole group becoming known as new England. These Puritan colonies were on the whole very prosperous, continuing to receive emigrants from England. Although the New Englanders tend to be less aristocratic than the Virginians, narrow religious opinion prevented the growth of a real democracy. The severance from England was more marked that of Virginia, because they regarded themselves as exiles rather than colonists.

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