Massachusetts History

This article discusses the history of the people who inhabited the land that eventually became the modern Commonwealth, which is intertwined with the histories of the neighboring states and what would become the nation of the United States of America.

I shall enter on no encomium upon Massachusetts; she needs none. There she is. Behold her, and judge for yourselves. There is her history; the world knows it by heart. The past, at least, is secure. There is Boston and Concord and Lexington and Bunker Hill; and there they will remain forever.
– Daniel Webster , 1830

Early settlement

Various Algonquian tribes inhabited the area prior to European settlement. In the Massachusetts Bay area resided the Massachusett. Near the Vermont and New Hampshire borders and the Merrimack River valley was the traditional home of the Pennacook tribe. Cape Cod, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, and southeast Massachusetts were the home of the Wampanoag, whom the Pilgrims met. The extreme end of the Cape was inhabited by the closely related Nauset tribe. Much of the central portion and the Connecticut River valley was home to the loosely organized Nipmuc peoples. The Berkshires were the home of both the Pocomtuc and the Mahican tribes. Spillovers of Narragansett and Mohegan from Rhode Island and Connecticut, respectively, were also present.

All the Indians on the coast of New England, including the Massachusett, were heavily decimated by waves of smallpox both before and after the arrival of Captain John Smith in 1614. They had developed no immunity to the disease, a common story when Europeans visited parts of the world remote from Europe.

Europeans: , Puritans and Patriots: 1620–1629

The Pilgrims were from the Humber region of England. Before heading to the New World, they migrated to Holland to avoid persecution. Although they were allowed some religious liberties in Holland, the liberalism and openness of the Dutch to all styles of life horrified them. Once their children grew up Dutch and began adopting the local culture, the Pilgrims decided to leave for the New World.

In the fall of 1619, they sailed away on the Mayflower, first landing near the tip of Cape Cod (modern-day Provincetown, Massachusetts). Following exploration along the cape, they established their settlement at Plymouth in 1620. Since the area was not land that lay within their charter, they created the Mayflower compact, one of America’s first documents of self-governance, prior to landing. The first year was extremely difficult, with inadequate supplies. They also suffered grievously from smallpox and malaria. They were assisted, however, in their time of trouble by the Wampanoags’ under-chief Massasoit. In 1621, they celebrated their first Thanksgiving Day together to thank God for their survival. About half of the Mayflower company survived the first year.

The English settlers built small compact villages, leaving alone vast stretches of the Commonwealth. Their numbers swelled when the Puritans, suffering under harsh treatment by King Charles I, left England as part of the Great Migration and established the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the port of Boston.

Massachusetts Bay Colony period: 1629–1686

The Puritans were from the River Thames region of England and established the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This colony eclipsed Plymouth in population and economy, the chief factor being the good harbor at Boston. When the English Revolution began in 1642, Massachusetts Bay Colony became a Puritan stronghold.

In 1636 the colony went to war with the Indians in the Pequot War. In 1646 the Long Parliament gave the missionary John Eliot a commission and funds to preach to the Wampanoags. He succeeded in converting a large number. The colonial government placed the converted Indians (known as Praying Indians) in a ring of villages around Boston as a defensive strategy. The oldest such village, Natick, was built in 1651.

The Puritans came to Massachusetts for religious purification and would not tolerate other religions, although Anglicans, Quakers, and a handful of other denominations were grudgingly accepted in the Puritan communities for a time. Eventually Quakers were banned, and in 1660 four were hanged in Boston Common. Dissenters such as Anne Hutchinson, Roger Williams, and Thomas Hooker left Massachusetts because of the Puritans’ lack of religious tolerance. Williams ended up founding the colony of Rhode Island and Hooker founded Connecticut.

Racial tensions led to King Philip’s War 1675-76, the bloodiest Indian war of the early colonial period. There were major campaigns in the Pioneer Valley and Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts. Starting in the 1670s, Massachusetts followed the general colonial practice of adopting slave codes, which removed the limitation on the term of slavery for non-whites only. It became fashionable for respectable families to own one or more household slaves as cooks or butlers.

Dominion of New England: 1686–1692

In 1685, King James II of England, an outspoken Catholic, acceded to the throne and began to militate against Protestant rule, including the Protestant control of New England. In May 1686, the Massachusetts Bay Colony ended when its charter was annulled. The King appointed Joseph Dudley to the new post of President of New England. Dudley established his authority later in New Hampshire and the King’s Province (part of current Rhode Island), maintaining this position until Edmund Andros arrived to become the Royal Governor of the Dominion of New England.

After James II was overthrown by King William and Queen Mary, the colonials overthrew Andros and his officials. Andros’s post was given to Simon Bradstreet until 1692. During King William’s War, the colony launched an unsuccessful expedition against Quebec under William Phips in 1690, which had been financed by issuing paper bonds set against the gains expected from taking the city. Bradstreet merged Massachusetts Bay Colony and Plymouth Colony in 1691, and, the following year, Phips was appointed governor with a new colonial charter. He governed the colony by leaving it alone. Consequently, during the Salem Witch Trials, Phips only intervened when his own wife was accused.

Royal Colony of Massachusetts Bay: 1692–1774

The Province of Massachusetts Bay was formed in 1692 as the largest in New England, and one where many American institutions and traditions were formed. Unlike southern colonies, it was built around small towns rather than scattered farms. The Pilgrims settled the Plymouth Colony, and Puritan settlers traveled to Salem and later to Boston in the Province of Massachusetts Bay. As the Puritans gradually secularized and became known as Yankees, the Congregational Church they founded continued to dominate most small towns. Late in the colonial period Baptist and other dissenting churches emerged, and the elites in Boston and other large towns turned to the Anglican and Unitarian religions.

The colony, usually including present-day Maine, fought alongside British regulars in a series of French and Indian Wars that were characterized by brutal border raids and successful attacks on Canada. Many troops from Massachusetts participated in the successful Siege of Havana in 1762. Britain’s victory in the war led to them annexing New France, removing the immediate northern threat to Massachusetts that the French had posed.

Notable royal governors during this period were Thomas Hutchinson, Jonathan Belcher, Francis Bernard, and General Thomas Gage. Gage was the last British governor of Massachusetts.

The northern boundary of Massachusetts was the subject of a border dispute with New Hampshire, settled in 1740 by King George II.

Revolutionary Massachusetts: 1760s–1780s

Boston was the center of revolutionary activity in the decade before 1775, with Massachusetts natives Samuel Adams, John Adams, and John Hancock as leaders who would become important in the revolution. Boston had been under military occupation since 1768. When customs officials were attacked by mobs, two regiments of British regulars arrived. They had been housed in the city with increasing public outrage.

In Boston on March 5, 1770, what began as a rock-throwing incident against a few British soldiers ended in the shooting of five men by British soldiers in what became known as the Boston Massacre. The incident caused further anger against British authority in the commonwealth over taxes and the presence of the British soldiers.

One of the many taxes protested by the colonists was a tax on tea, imposed when Parliament passed the Tea Act, and laws that forbade the sale of non-East India Company tea. On December 16, 1773, when a tea ship of the East India Company was planning to land taxed tea in Boston, a group of local men known as the Sons of Liberty sneaked onto the boat the night before it was to be unloaded and dumped all the tea into the harbor, an act known as the Boston Tea Party.

The Boston Tea Party caused the British government to pass the Intolerable Acts in 1774 that brought stiff punishment on Massachusetts. They closed the port of Boston, the economic lifeblood of the Commonwealth, and reduced self-government. The Patriots formed the Massachusetts Provincial Congress after the provincial legislature was disbanded by British military governor Thomas Gage. The suffering of Boston and the tyranny of its rule caused great sympathy and stirred resentment throughout the colonies. On February 9, 1775, the British Parliament declared Massachusetts to be in rebellion, and sent additional troops to restore order to the colony. With the local population largely opposing British authority, troops moved from Boston on April 18, 1775, to destroy the military supplies of local resisters in Concord. Paul Revere made his famous ride to warn the locals in response to this march. On the 19th, in the Battles of Lexington and Concord, where the famous “shot heard ’round the world” was fired, British troops, after running over the Lexington militia, were forced back into the city by local resistors. The city was quickly brought under siege. Fighting broke out again in June when the British took the Charlestown Peninsula in the Battle of Bunker Hill after the colonial militia fortified Breed’s Hill. The British won the battle, but at a very large cost, and were unable to break the siege. Soon afterwards General George Washington took charge, and when he acquired heavy cannon in March 1776, the British were forced to leave, marking the first great American victory of the war. This was the last fighting in the Commonwealth.

The fighting brought to a head what had been brewing throughout the colonies, and on July 4, 1776, the United States Declaration of Independence was adopted in Philadelphia. It was signed first by Massachusetts resident John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress. Soon afterward the Declaration of Independence was read to the people of Boston from the balcony of the Old State House.

Federalist Era: 1780–1815

A Constitutional Convention drew up a state Constitution, which was drafted primarily by John Adams, and ratified by the people on June 15, 1780. Adams, along with Samuel Adams and James Bowdoin, wrote in the Preamble to the Constitution of the Commonwealth:

We, therefore, the people of Massachusetts, acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the goodness of the Great Legislator of the Universe, in affording us, in the course of His Providence, an opportunity, deliberately and peaceably, without fraud, violence or surprise, on entering into an Original, explicit, and Solemn Compact with each other; and of forming a new Constitution of Civil Government, for Ourselves and Posterity, and devoutly imploring His direction in so interesting a design, Do agree upon, ordain and establish, the following Declaration of Rights, and Frame of Government, as the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Massachusetts was the first state to abolish slavery. The new Constitution also dropped any religious tests for political office, though local tax money had to be paid to support local churches. People who belonged to non-Congregational churches paid their tax money to their own church, and the churchless paid to the Congregationalists. Baptist leader Isaac Backus vigorously fought these provisions, arguing people should have freedom of choice regarding financial support of religion.

On August 29, 1786, a farmer in western Massachusetts named Daniel Shays and a group of local formers started Shays’ Rebellion. The rebels, also called Shaysites or “Regulators”, were upset over high levels of debt and taxes, which, when not paid, often resulted in the delinquent being thrown into debtor’s prison. A private Massachusetts militia that was raised to oppose the rebels defeated the main Shaysite force on February 3, 1787. There was a lack of a formal government response to the uprising, which energized calls to reevaluate the Articles of Confederation and gave strong impetus to the Constitutional Convention, which began in May 1787.

Early Industrial Period: 1815–1860

Industrial development

Massachusetts became a leader in industrial innovation and development during the 19th century. Since colonial times, there had been a successful iron making industry in New England. The first successful ironworks in America was established at Saugus in 1646, utilizing bog iron from swamps to produce plows, nails, firearms, hoops for barrels and other items necessary for the development of the Colony. Other industries would be established during this period, such as shipbuilding, lumber, paper and furniture making. These small-scale shops and factories often utilized the State’s many rivers and streams to power their machinery.

While Samuel Slater had established the first successful textile mill at Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1793, there remained no way to efficiently mass-produce cloth from the spun yarn produced by the early mills. The yarn was still outsourced to small weaving shops where it was woven into cloth on hand looms. The first woolen mill, and the second textile mill in the Blackstone Valley, was a “wool carding mill”, established in 1810 by Daniel Day, near the West River (Massachusetts) and Blackstone River at Uxbridge, Massachusetts. Then, in 1813, a group of wealthy Boston merchants led by Francis Cabot Lowell, known as the Boston Associates, established the first successful integrated textile mill in North America at Waltham. Lowell had visited England in 1810 and studied the Lancashire textile industry. Because the British government prohibited the export of this new technology, Lowell memorized plans for the power looms on his return trip to Boston. With the skill of master mechanic Paul Moody, the first successful power looms were produced, harnessing the power of the Charles River. For the first time, all phases of textile production could now be performed under one roof, greatly increasing production, and profits. This was the real beginning of the Industrial Revolution in America.

With the early success of Waltham, the Boston Associates would also later establish several other textile towns, including Lowell in 1823, Lawrence in 1845, Chicopee in 1848 and Holyoke in 1850.

Lowell grew quickly to a city of 33,000 people by 1850. Its mills were highly integrated and centrally controlled. An ingenious canal system provided the water power that drove the machinery. Steam power would be introduced beginning in the 1850s. The mill owners initially employed local farm women, often recruited from poor, remote parts of New England, and attempted to create a Utopian industrial society by providing housing, churches, schools and parks for their workers, unlike their English counterparts. Eventually, as the mills grew larger and larger, the owners turned to newly arrived Irish immigrants to fill their factories.

Industrial cities, especially Worcester and Springfield, became important centers in machinery and precision tool production and innovation. While Boston did not have many large factories, it became increasingly important as the business and transportation hub of all of New England, as well as a national leader in finance, law, medicine, education, arts and publishing.

In 1826, the Granite Railway became the first commercial railroad in the nation. In 1830 the legislature chartered three new railroads–the Boston and Lowell, the Boston and Providence, and most important of all, the Boston and Worcester. In 1833 it chartered the Western Railroad to connect Worcester with Albany and the Erie Canal. The system flourished and western grain began flowing to the port of Boston for export to Europe, thereby breaking New York City’s virtual monopoly on trade from the Erie Canal system.

Political and social

On March 15, 1820, the District of Maine was separated from Massachusetts and entered the Union as the 23rd State as a result of the enactment of the Missouri Compromise.

Horace Mann made the state system of schools the national model. The Commonwealth made its mark in Washington with such political leaders as Daniel Webster and Charles Sumner. Building on the many activist Congregational churches, abolitionism flourished. William Lloyd Garrison was the outstanding spokesperson, though many “cotton Whig” mill owners complained that the agitation was bad for their strong business ties to southern cotton planters.

The Congregationalists remained dominant in rural areas, but, in the cities, a new religious sensibility had replaced their strait-laced Calvinism. By 1826, reported Harriet Beecher Stowe:

All the literary men of Massachusetts were Unitarians. All the trustees and professors of Harvard College were Unitarians. All the élite of wealth and fashion crowded Unitarian churches. The judges on the bench were Unitarian, giving decisions by which the peculiar features of church organization, so carefully ordained by the Pilgrim fathers, had been nullified.

Some of the most important writers and thinkers of this time came from Massachusetts. Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson are well known today for their contributions to American thought. Part of an intellectual movement known as Trancendentalism, they emphasized the importance of the natural world to humanity and were also part of the abolitionist call.

Civil War and Gilded Age: 1860–1900

In the years leading up to the Civil War, Massachusetts was a center of abolitionist activity within the United States. Two prominent abolitionists from the Commonwealth were William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips. Garrison founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1832, and helped changed perceptions on slavery. The movement increased antagonism over the issues of slavery, resulting in anti-abolitionist riots in Massachusetts between 1835 and 1837. The works of abolitionists contributed to the eventual actions of the Commonwealth during the Civil War.

Massachusetts was among the first states to respond to President Lincoln’s call for troops. Massachusetts was the first state to recruit, train and arm a black regiment with white officers, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

Following the Civil War, thousands of immigrants from Canada and Europe continued to settle in the major cities of Massachusetts, attracted by employment in the State’s ever-expanding factories. The State also became a leader in education and innovation through this period, particularly in the Boston area.

Prosperity decades: 1900–1929

Massachusetts entered the twentieth century with a strong industrial economy. Despite a lack of agricultural progress, the economy prospered between 1900 and 1919. Factories throughout the Commonwealth produced goods varying from paper to metals. Boston, in the year 1900, was still the second most important port within the United States, as well as the most valuable U.S. port in terms of its fish market. By 1908, however, the value of the port dropped considerably due to competition. Population growth during this period, which was aided by immigration from abroad, helped in urbanization and forced a change in the ethnic make-up of the Commonwealth.

The largely industrial economy of Massachusetts began to falter, however, due to the dependence of factory communities upon the production of one or two goods. External low-wage competition, coupled with other factors of the Great Depression in later years, led to the collapse of Massachusetts’s two main industries: shoes and textiles. Between 1921 and 1949 the failure of those industries resulted in rampant unemployment and the urban decay of once-prosperous industrial centers which would persist for several decades.

Depression and war: 1929–1945

Even before the Great Depression struck the United States, Massachusetts was experiencing economic problems. The crash of the Commonwealth’s major industries led to declining population in factory towns. The Boston Metropolitan area became one of the slowest growing areas in the United States between 1920 and 1950. Internal migration within the Commonwealth, however, was altered by the Great Depression. In the wake of economic woes, people moved to the metropolitan area of Boston looking for jobs, only to find high unemployment and dismal conditions. In the depressed situation that predominated in Boston during this era, racial tension manifested itself in gang warfare at times, notably with clashes between the Irish and Italians.

Massachusetts also endured class conflict during this period. In the 1912 general strike of Lawrence, Massachusetts, almost all of the town’s mills were forced to shut down as a result of strife over wages that sustained only poverty. The Commonwealth was confronted with issues of worker conditions and wages. For example, when the legislature decreed that women and children could work only 50 hours per week, employers cut wages proportionally. Eventually, the demands of the Lawrence strikers were heeded, and a pay increase was made.

The economic and social turmoil in Massachusetts marked the beginning of a change in the Commonwealth’s way of functioning. Politics helped to encourage stability among social groups by elevating members of various ranks in society, as well as ethnic groups, to influential posts. The two major industries of Massachusetts, shoes and textiles, had declined in a way that even the post-World War II economic boom could not reverse. Thus, the Commonwealth’s economy was ripe for change as the post-war years dawned.

Economic changes: decline of manufacturing 1945–1985

World War II precipitated great changes in the economy of Massachusetts, which in turn led to changes in society. The aftermath of WWII created a global economy that was focused upon the interests of the United States, both militarily and in relation to business. The domestic economy in the United States was altered by government procurement policies focused on defense. In the years following WWII, Massachusetts was transformed from a factory system to a largely service and high-tech based economy. During WWII, the U.S. government had built facilities that they leased, and in the post-war years sold, to defense contractors. Such facilities contributed to an economy focused on creating specialized defense goods. That form of economy prospered as a result of the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the Korean War.

In the ensuing years, government contracts, private investment, and research facilities helped to create a modern industry, which reduced unemployment and increased per capita income. All of these economic changes encouraged suburbanization and the formation of a new generation of well-assimilated and educated middle-class workers. At the same time, suburbanization and urban decay made the differences between various social groups evident, leading to a renewal of racial tension. Boston, a paragon of the problems in Massachusetts cities, experienced numerous challenges that led to racial problems. The problems facing urban centers included declining population, middle-class flight, departure of industry, high unemployment, rising taxes, low property values, and competition among ethnic groups.

Modern economy and society: 1985–2009

Over the past 20-30 years, Massachusetts has cemented its place in the Republic as a center of education (especially higher education) and high-tech industry, including the biotechnology and information technology sectors. With better-than-average schools overall and many elite universities, the area was well placed to take advantage of the technology-based economy of the 1990s.

The Commonwealth had several notable citizens in federal government in the 1980s, including almost presidential hopeful and Senator Ted Kennedy and House Speaker Tip O’Neill. This legislative influence allowed the Commonwealth to receive federal highway funding for the $14.6 billion Central Artery/Tunnel Project. Known colloquially as the “the Big Dig”, it was the biggest federal highway project ever at the time approved. Designed to relieve some of the traffic problems of the poorly planned city, it was approved in 1987. Major construction lasted until 2005, and as of 2007, landscaping is still ongoing. The project has been controversial due to massive budget overruns, repeated construction delays, water leaks in the new tunnels which sprouted in 2004, and a ceiling collapse in 2006 that killed a city resident.

Several Massachusetts Democratic Party politicians have run for the office of President of the United States in this time period, won the primary elections, and gone on to contest the national elections. These include Michael Dukakis, who was defeated by George H. W. Bush in 1988, as well as John Kerry, who was defeated by George W. Bush in 2004.

In 2002 the Roman Catholic Church sex abuse scandal among local priests became public. The diocese was found to have knowingly moved priests who sexually molested children from parish to parish and to have covered up abuse. The revelations caused the resignation of the archbishop, Cardinal Law, and resulted in a $85 million dollar settlement with the victims. With the large Irish and Italian Catholic populations in Boston, this was a big concern. The diocese, under financial pressure, closed many of its churches. In some churches, parishioners camped out in the churches to protest and block closure.

On November 18, 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) deemed that the Commonwealth could not deny marriage rights to gay couples under the Constitution of Massachusetts, the oldest written constitution in the world still in force, having entered into effect in 1780. On February 4, 2004, the SJC followed that ruling with a statement saying that allegedly separate but equal civil unions, implemented as of late in Vermont, would not pass constitutional muster and that only full gay marriage rights met constitutional guarantees. On May 17, 2004, the ruling took effect and thousands of gay and lesbian couples across the Commonwealth entered into marriage. Opponents of gay marriage subsequently pushed for an amendment to the Constitution of Massachusetts that would allow the state to deny marriage rights to gay couples. It was necessary for the amendment to be approved by at least 1/4 of the members present in two consecutive legislative sessions of the Massachusetts legislature, and to receive majority support in a popular referendum. It passed the first legislative session, but was defeated in the second session, receiving less than 1/4 of the votes of the legislators present. As public opinion polls currently indicate majority support for gay marriage among the people of the Commonwealth, it is likely that the issue is settled in Massachusetts.

Increased white-collar jobs have driven suburban sprawl, but the consequent effects of sprawl have been lessened by regulations on land use and zoning, as well as an emphasis on “smart growth”. In recent years, the Commonwealth has lost population as skyrocketing housing costs have driven many away from Massachusetts. The Boston area is the third-most expensive housing market in the country. Over the last several years there has been about a 19,000 person net outflow from the Commonwealth.

In 2006, the Massachusetts legislature enacted the first plan in the United States to provide all Commonwealth citizens with universal health insurance coverage, using a variety of private insurance providers. Insurance coverage for low-income individuals is paid for with tax revenues, and higher income people who don’t have health insurance are required to purchase it. (The health insurance market is publicly regulated, so, at least in Massachusetts, no one can be denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions or be forced to pay exorbitant rates.) The implementation of Commonwealth Care, the new universal coverage law, is proceeding, as of 2007.

On October 27, 2004, the Boston Red Sox baseball team won their first World Series in 86 years, after defeating their hated historical rivals, the New York Yankees, in one of the most epic American League Championship Series ever played.


The history of the boundaries of Massachusetts is somewhat complex and covers several centuries. Land grants made to various groups of early colonists, mergers and secessions, and settlements of various boundary disputes all had a major influence on the modern definition of the Commonwealth. Disputes arose due to both overlapping grants, inaccurate surveys (creating a difference between where the border “should” be and where markers are placed on the ground). Having loyal settlers actually on the ground also partially determined which portions of their vast claims early groups held on to.

Founding grants

In 1607, the Plymouth Company was granted a coastal charter for all coastal territory up to a certain distance from the eastern shoreline of North America, from 38°N to 45°N. The northern boundary was thus slightly farther north than the current Maine-New Brunswick border, and the southern border intentionally overlapped with the Virginia Company of London (“London Company”) from the 38th parallel (near the current Maryland-Virginia border) to the 41st (near the current Connecticut-New York border in Long Island Sound). Neither colony was allowed to settle within 100 miles of the other. The Plymouth Company’s patent fell into disuse after the failure of the Popham Colony in what is now Maine. In the meantime, the Plymouth Colony had settled outside the territory of the London ompany due to navigational difficulties. The Plymouth Company was reorganized as the Plymouth Council for New England, and given a new royal sea-to-sea charter for all North American territory from 40° North (just east between present-day Philadelphia and Trenton, New Jersey) and 48° N (thus including all of modern-day New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island). The Plymouth Colony was granted land patents between 1621 and 1630 from the Council to legitimize its settlement, though it maintained political independence under the Mayflower Compact.

The Plymouth Council for New England made subgrants to various entities before it was surrendered to the crown in 1635 and ceased to operate as a corporate entity.

The Sheffield Patent granted the use of Cape Ann to members of the Plymouth Colony and the Dorchester Company. The fishing colony there failed, but led to the foundation of Salem, Massachusetts. The bankrupt Dorchester Company’s lands were reissued as part of a larger grant to the Massachusetts Bay Company. Massachusetts Bay obtained in 1628/29 a sea-to-sea patent for all lands and island from three miles north of the Merrimack River (at the current Massachusetts-New Hampshire border), to three miles south of the extents of the Charles River and Massachusetts Bay. The Charles river starts near Boston (in the middle of the territory) but flows in a circuitous path southeast to near present-day Bellingham, Massachusetts, which is on the modern Rhode Island border. Land belonging to any other colonies as of November 3, 1629, was excluded from the grant.

The boundary between the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Plymouth Colony was settled in 1639, and today forms most of the border between Norfolk County, Plymouth County, and Bristol County.

In 1622, the Province of Maine obtained a patent for lands north of Massachusetts Bay border near the Merrimack River, up to the Kennebec River. This was soon split at the Piscataqua River, with the southern portion becoming the Province of New Hampshire. In 1664, Maine obtained an enlarged charter containing land out to the St. Croix River, and control of parts Maine changed hands several times, including at times unification with the Province of New York. New Hampshire was joined with Massachusetts Bay from 1641-1679 and 1688-1691.

The 1629 charter of Massachusetts Bay was canceled by a judgement of the high court of chancery of England, June 18, 1684.

The Province of Massachusetts Bay was formed in 1691-92 by the British monarchs William and Mary. It included the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Plymouth Colony, the Province of Maine (including the eastern territories that had been lost to the Province of New York), and Nova Scotia (which included present-day New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island). Dukes County, Massachusetts (Martha’s Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands) and Nantucket were transferred from the Province of New York.

In 1696, Nova Scotia was granted its independence, but the boundary with Maine would be disputed in various ways until the 1840s.

New Hampshire boundary

The Province of New Hampshire was granted its independence at the foundation of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, but the language defining the southern border with Massachusetts Bay referenced the Merrimack River in an ambiguous way

all that parte of New England in America lying and extending from the greate River comonly called Monomack als Merrimack on the northpart and from three Miles Northward of the said River to the Atlantick or Western Sea or Ocean on the South part [Pacific Ocean]

The resulting was a decades-long disagreement over the northern boundary of Massachusetts. Massachusetts claimed land west of the Merrimack as calculated from the headwaters of the river (in modern-day Franklin, New Hampshire), but New Hampshire claimed that its southern boundary was the line of latitude three miles north of the river’s mouth. The parties appealed to King George II of England, who ordered the dispute be settled by agreement between the parties. Commissioners from both colonies met at Hampton in 1737 and sent their agreement to the King.

In 1740, the King settled the dispute in a surprising manner, by declaring “that the northern boundary of Massachusetts be a similar curve line pursuing the course of the Merrimack River at three miles distance on the north side thereof, beginning at the Atlantic Ocean and ending at a point due north of a place called Pautucket Falls (now called Lowell, Massachusetts), and by a straight line drawn from thence west till it meets his Majesty’s other governments.” This ruling favored New Hampshire and actually gave it a strip of land 50 miles beyond its claim. Massachusetts declined to do a physical survey, so New Hampshire laid markers on its own.

Rhode Island eastern border

In 1641, the Plymouth Colony (at the time separate from the Massachusetts Bay Colony) purchased from the Indians a large tract of land which today includes the northern half of East Providence (from Watchemoket to Rumford), Rehoboth, Massachusetts, Seekonk, Massachusetts, and part of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. In 1645, John Brown of Plymouth bought a considerably smaller piece of land from the Indians, which today comprises the southern part of East Providence (Riverside), Barrington, Rhode Island, and a small part of Swansea, Massachusetts. Finally, in 1661, Plymouth completed the “North Purchase”, from which Cumberland, Rhode Island, Attleboro, Massachusetts and North Attleborough, Massachusetts were later to be formed. The whole territory, which also included parts of modern Somerset, Massachusetts, and Warren, Bristol, and Woonsocket in Rhode Island, was at the time called “Rehoboth”. The center of “Old Rehoboth” was within the borders of modern East Providence, Rhode Island.

By the 1650s, Massachusetts Bay, the Colony of Rhode Island (not yet unified with Providence) the Connecticut Colony, and two different land companies all claimed what is now Washington County, Rhode Island, what was referred to as Narragansett Country. Massachusetts Bay had conquered Block Island in 1636 in retaliation for the murder of a trader, and Massachusetts families settled there in 1661. The Plymouth Colony’s land grant specified its western boundary as the Narragansett River; it is unclear whether this referred to the Pawcatuck River (on the current Connecticut-Rhode Island Border) or Narragansett Bay (much farther east, near the modern-day Rhode Island-Massachusetts border).

In 1663, Rhode Island obtained a patent extending its territory in certain places three miles east of Narragansett Bay. In 1664, a royal commission appointed by King Charles II of England denied the claims of Massachusetts and Plymouth to land west of Narragansett Bay, granting jurisdiction to the newly unified Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (pending resolution of the claims of Connecticut). However, the claims of Plymouth to all lands east of Narragansett Bay were upheld, and so the border was set in practice.

The 1691 charter unified Massachusetts Bay with Plymouth Colony (including Rehoboth) and said that the combined territory would extend as far south as “Our Collonyes of Rhode Island Connecticut and the Marragansett Countrey” (Narragansett Country).

In 1693 the throne of William and Mary issued a patent extending Rhode Island’s territory to three miles “east and northeast” of Narragansett Bay, conflicting with the claims of Plymouth Colony. This enlarged the area of conflict between Rhode Island and the Province of Massachusetts.

The issue was not addressed until 1740, when Rhode Island appealed to King George II of England. Royal commissioners from both colonies were appointed in 1741, and decided in favor of Rhode Island. The King affirmed the settlement in 1746 after appeals from both colonies. The royally approved three-mile boundary moved several towns on the eastern shore of Narragansett Bay (east of the mouth of the Blackstone River) from Massachusetts to Rhode Island.

This included what is now Bristol County, Rhode Island (the towns of Barrington, Bristol, and Warren), along with Tiverton, Little Compton, and Cumberland, Rhode Island (which was carved out of Attleborough, Massachusetts). East Freetown, which was left on the Massachusetts side of the border, was officially purchased by Freetown, Massachusetts, from Tiverton in 1747.

Commissioners from Rhode Island had the new boundary surveyed in 1746 (without consulting Massachusetts), based on six reference points, from each of which a distance was measured 3 miles inland. Massachusetts accepted this border until 1791, when its own surveyors found that the Rhode Island surveyors had “encroached” on Massachusetts territory by a few hundred feet in certain places. (Rhode Island disagreed.) Of particular concern was the boundary near Fall River, Massachusetts, which would later fall in the middle of a thickly settled area of high taxable value.

In 1812, after a court case involving the Massachusetts border, the western half of Old Rehoboth was set off as a separate township called Seekonk, Massachusetts, leaving the eastern part as Rehoboth, Massachusetts. Old Rehoboth’s town center now became the heart of Old Seekonk.

In 1832, Rhode Island filed a case with the U.S. Supreme Court, but after six years of deliberations, it was dismissed. The court decided it did not have the jurisdiction to rule on the matter.

In 1844 and 1845, commissioners were once again authorized to survey and mark the boundary from Wrentham to the Atlantic Ocean, to address the inaccuracies of the 1746 survey. A report was issued in 1848, but the Massachusetts legislature refused to agree to the proposed solution, after being petitioned by residents of Fall River.

Both states filed bills of equity with the Supreme Court in 1852, and after more surveying and negotiation, a decree was issued on December 16, 1861. On March 1, 1862, when the Supreme Court ruling became effective, the western part of Old Seekonk (all of which was on the eastern shore of the Blackstone River) was ceded by Massachusetts and incorporated as East Providence, Rhode Island. Part of North Providence, Rhode Island was also combined with the former Pawtucket, Massachusetts and a sliver of Seekonk to form the modern Pawtucket, Rhode Island. A small amount of land was also added to Westport, Massachusetts.] The southern boundary of Fall River, Massachusetts was moved from Columbia Street to State Avenue, expanding its territory. The Supreme Court made these adjustments not in conformance with King George’s instructions, but to unify the thickly settled areas of Pawtucket and Fall River under the jurisdiction of a single state.

The 1861-2 boundary was slightly redefined in 1897, using stone markers instead of high-water levels. The physical survey was performed in 1898, and ratified by both states.

Rhode Island northern border

In 1710-11, commissioners from the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations and the Province of Massachusetts Bay agreed that the stake planted in 1642 by Nathaniel Woodward and Solomon Saffrey at Burnt Swamp Corner on the plains of Wrentham, Massachusetts, said to be at 41°55’N and thought to be three miles south of the southernmost part of the Charles River, would represent the starting point for the border.

The line extending west from the stake was surveyed in 1719, but inaccurately.

In 1748, Rhode Island appointed a commission to survey the line from the stake to the Connecticut border, but Massachusetts failed to send a delegation. The surveyors could not find the 1642 stake, and so marked a line from three miles south, by their reckoning, of “Poppatolish Pond” (presumably Populatic Pond, near Norfolk Airpark in Norfolk, Massachusetts). It was discovered that the Woodward and Saffrey stake was considerably farther south than three miles from the Charles River.

Rhode Island claimed that its commissioners had made a mistake in basing the border on the 1642 stake, and in 1832 filed a case with the Supreme Court of the United States. In 1846, the Court ruled in favor of Massachusetts. The same surveyors that marked the eastern boundary the previous year then marked the northern boundary, filing their report in 1848. Rhode Island accepted the markings as the legal boundary on the condition that Massachusetts do the same, but the Commonwealth failed to do so until 1865. But by that time, Rhode Island claimed that the 1861 Supreme Court case had changed matters so much as to render the “line of 1848” unacceptable.

Connecticut border

The town of Springfield was settled in 1636 by William Pynchon (as Agawam Plantation), covering the modern towns of Westfield, Southwick, West Springfield, Agawam, Chicopee, Wilbraham, Ludlow and Longmeadow in Massachusetts, and Enfield and Somers in Connecticut. It was connected to the Atlantic and major avenues of trade by the Connecticut River, which ran past Hartford and through the territory of the Connecticut Colony. After relations with Connecticut soured in 1637, Pynchon’s settlers voted to affiliate with Massachusetts (though Springfield had been settled by permission of the Massachusetts General Court).

In 1641, Connecticut founded a trading post at Woronoke, which was in what was strongly considered to be Massachusetts territory (now Westfield). Massachusetts complained, and Connecticut demanded that Springfield pay taxes to support the upkeep of the fort at the mouth of the river, in the Saybrook Colony. The tax demand was withdrawn after Massachusetts threatened to start charging Connecticut traders for the use of the port of Boston, Massachusetts.

To assert its sovereignty on the northern Connecticut River, the Massachusetts Bay Colony sent Nathaniel Woodward and Solomon Saffrey to survey and mark the boundary. They accidentally marked the boundary with Rhode Island significantly farther than the royally decreed three miles south of the southernmost part of the Charles River. Instead of traversing the territory of Massachusetts by land, they sailed around and up the Connecticut River, calculating the same latitude at which they had misplaced the stake on the Rhode Island border. This compounded the error even further, resulting in a four to seven mile discrepancy between where the border should have been and where it was marked, and awarding more territory to Massachusetts Bay than it had been granted by its charter. Though it was suspicious of this survey, Connecticut would not even receive a charter until 1662, and so the dispute would lie dormant for several decades.

The towns of Woodstock, Suffield, Enfield, and Somers were incorporated by Massachusetts, and mainly settled by migrants from the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth Colonies. In 1686, Suffield and Enfield (incorporated in Massachusetts) were in a dispute over town territory with Windsor and Simsbury (incorporated in Connecticut, and which then included Granby). Massachusetts did not agree to a re-survey, so Connecticut hired John Butler and William Whitney to do the job. They found the southernmost part of the Charles River, and then traveled by land westward. Their 1695 report found that the 1642 line had been drawn too far south.

Consternation ensued. Abortive pleas to the King of England were made in 1702. In 1713 a joint commission awarded control of Springfield-area towns to Massachusetts (without consulting the residents of those towns), compensating Connecticut with an equal amount of land elsewhere. But the inhabitants of the Connecticut River border towns petitioned to be part of Connecticut in 1724, perhaps due to high taxes in Massachusetts or the greater civil liberties granted in the Connecticut charter.

In 1747, Woodstock petitioned the General Assembly of Connecticut to be admitted to the colony, on the grounds that the transfer of lands from Massachusetts in 1713 had not been authorized by the King. Suffield and Enfield soon followed, and the legislature accepted them in May, 1749, and declared the 1713 compromise null and void. Massachusetts continued to assert sovereignty in practice.

In 1770, Southwick, Massachusetts was granted independence from Westfield, Massachusetts. In May, 1774, residents in southern Southwick also petitioned Connecticut for entry and secession from northern Southwick, on the grounds they were south of the royally approved border of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (three miles south of the Charles River). The part west of Congamond Lake joined Simsbury, and the part east of the lake joined Suffield.

In 1791 and 1793, commissioners were sent from both states to survey the boundary line yet again, but were unable to agree until a compromise was reached in 1803-4. Massachusetts accepted the nullification of the 1713 compromise and the loss of the border towns, but regained the portion of southern Southwick west of the lake. This resulted in the modern boundary with Connecticut, which is a relatively straight east-west line, except for the “Southwick jog”, a small, mostly rectangular piece of Massachusetts surrounded by Connecticut on three sides.

New York border

Massachusetts claimed all territory to the Pacific Ocean, based on its 1629 charter, but the Province of New York claimed the west bank of the Connecticut River (passing through Springfield, Massachusetts) as its eastern boundary, based on 1664 and 1674 grants to the Duke of York.

In 1773, the western boundary of Massachusetts was settled with the New York in its present location, and surveyed in 1787, following the line of magnetic north at the time. The starting point was a 1731 marker at the Connecticut-New York border, 20 miles inland from the Hudson River.

Massachusetts relinquished sovereignty over its western lands (east of the Great Lakes) to New York in the Treaty of Hartford in 1786, but retained the economic right to buy the Boston Ten Townships from Native Americans before any other party. These purchase rights were sold to private individuals in 1788. The Commonwealth also ceded its claim to far western lands (Michigan and all other land to the Pacific Ocean) to Congress in 1785.

In 1853, a small triangle of land in the southwest corner of the Commonwealth, known as Boston Corners, was ceded from Mount Washington, Massachusetts to Ancram, New York. The mountainous terrain prevented Massachusetts authorities from enforcing the law there, making the neighborhood a haven for outlaws and prize-fighters. Local residents had petitioned for the transfer to allow New York authorities to clean up the hamlet.


In 1820, Maine was admitted into the Union as an independent state, as part of the Missouri Compromise. (See the History of Maine for information about its boundaries, including disputes with New Hampshire and Canadian provinces.)