Northern Colonies

map of Boston

map of Boston

New England

Religion defined the colonies of New England as much as climate and geography.  Settlers in Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, and New Hampshire were Puritan.   Religion dictated everyday life and permeated the lives of northern colonials, exercising a pervasive influence over the people. In most colonies, the church and the state remained one, controlling many aspects of life and creating great social strains.

Towns anchored northern colonial life. Villages formed around the church and a central green area where all important business and community activities occurred. Houses clustered around the center, radiating out in concentric circles, with fields in the outlying areas. Community involvement and activity became a central feature of life in these colonies. The northern colonies included:

Life in the Northern Colonies

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Want to learn more about life in the colonies?  Martha Ballard began keeping a diary of her life in 1785.  For the next twenty-seven years she recorded the events of her life, including activities associated with her medical and midwifery practice (she delivered nearly a thousand babies).  Learn more about Martha Ballard.

Because the land was stony, sloped, or heavily forested (or often all three), most land owners held only small farms, which they worked with their families and perhaps one or two servants or slaves. Additionally the weather was too cold and harsh to support large-scale market crops, so northern colonial farmers sought to be self-sufficient, raising foodstuffs for their families and selling any extras locally for cash to purchase the goods they could not produce themselves. Typical crops grown in the North included barley, oats, and wheat. These hard-scrabble farmers also raised cattle, swine, and sheep. Those who did not farm the land turned to the seas, harvesting fish for themselves and to sell. Skilled artisans migrated to the northern colonies, creating home industries that eventually resulted in a manufacturing base. Ample water sources made the creation of mills possible, where grain, cloth, and lumber could be milled by water power. The manufacturing allowed a merchant class to form, enlarged by the shipping that sailed into northern ports. As shipping grew as an industry, ship-construction increased in importance, too. Eventually traders and bankers emerged to handle the manufacturing and shipping, and northern port cities like Boston became the central trading areas for the British in the Americas.

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game board


Want to play the colonial game Nine Men’s Morris?  You can play a virtual version of the strategy game.  Be Warned!  This game, which was a popular past time for colonial children, is addictive and difficult to master! 

The healthy northern climate encouraged far longer life spans than existed in the south; both men and women in the north expected to live, on average, into their seventies. Arranged marriages prevailed in the north, in part because there was a rough balance in the number of men and women living in the area. Once families formed, they worked together to prosper. Husbands and wives formed teams of production, with children adding to the number of workers.

Strains in the Northern Colonies

With the rising population and increasingly Atlantic economy in New England came social pressures that strained the religious piety envisioned by John Winthrop and the first Puritan settlers.  After 1640, the population grew faster than church membership, though everyone was forced to attend church, or suffer fines or punishment.  Worse, the children of Saints were not experiencing their own conversion moments and seeking membership in the church.  As the situation worsened over time, Puritan church leaders debated, deciding to allow the unconverted children of saints to become halfway church members (under the Halfway Covenant).  This way, saints could baptize their infants and insure the children protection against the terrors of death and hell. 

Salem Witchcraft Trials

Increasing worldliness added to the social strain, most apparent in the tragedy of the witchcraft trials at Salem Village, Massachusetts in 1692. Most people believed in witchcraft, and Europe experienced periodic witch hunts during the same period. Prior to the episode in Salem, almost three hundred New Englanders, mostly middle-aged women, had been accused of practicing witchcraft and more than thirty of them had been hanged.

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Watch the multi-media movie on the Salem Witch Trials

But the episode in Salem was far more intense than any other witch hunt in North America. During the winter of 1691-1692, several girls between the ages of 9 and 20 accused three local women of practicing witchcraft. The girls had violent fits and claimed to experience hearing and sight loss, as well as choking sensations and a loss of appetite, claiming it was because some of the local women were witches.

Prior to this the girls had been spending long evenings with a West Indian slave woman named Tituba, who often spoke of the supernatural and engaged the girls in fortune-telling games.  The girls eventually accused her of making an agreement with the devil and using witchcraft to harm them. Tituba went on to name other women in the community, arguing that they had caused her to harm the girls.

Soon the accusations spread and within a year nineteen people had been hanged, one man pressed to death by heavy stones, and more than one hundred others jailed (eventually more than 200 people were accused).  The hysteria snowballed into a crisis.  Courts pressured the accused to confess to witchcraft and implicate others. Suspects who pled their innocence did so to no avail because the supernatural “evidence” was stacked against them.  Even if some community members stood up for witnesses as to the good character of the accused, they were often ignored due to the witch paranoia that had overtaken the village.  The court ordered public hangings on Gallows Hill.  Finally, when accusations began to be made against richer, more influential families like that of the governor, the church and courts intervened and some accusations were withdrawn. Nearly everyone responsible for the Salem executions eventually recanted, and some blamed the Devil for their false accusations.

Why did the trials occur at Salem?

Historians originally thought that local feuds and property disputes between the town of Salem proper and Salem village caused the unrest.  More recently historians have questioned why the majority of the accused were women, and they have determined that these women had in some way defied the traditional roles assigned to females.  Some worked outside the home, some were poor or widowed without protection in the community, some did not attend church, while others were just old and unfriendly.  Some historians also believe that Salem Village’s close proximity to fighting against the Indians on the Maine frontier could have strained community relations to the breaking point.  Others suspect that rare food poisonings (like fungus on bread) or mosquito-borne diseases could have caused the mass hallucinations. Whatever the cause, no other outbreak of this nature occurred in New England. Have you ever been accused of being a witch? Click on the following activity to experience the Salem witch trials for yourself!