Puritan New England on the Edge: 1637

In part 2 of my series on the Pequot War, we look at the condition of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the settlements in Connecticut and New Haven on the eve of war.

The MBC was founded in 1630 by Puritans led by John Winthrop. They had left England because persecution of Puritans was being stepped up by King Charles I’s new Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. The Puritans who founded the MBC were determined to be self-ruling. But they faced many threats to their security.

To the north, in today’s Maine, were the Catholic French, stretching out from Canada. To the west, in Manhattan and western Connecticut, were the Dutch, whose government claimed the land the Puritans settled on. In Europe, the Thirty Years’ War was being fought against the Spanish; if the Spanish won, Catholicism would triumph in Europe, and the Dutch possessions in New York would become Spanish (since Spain was fighting in part to resume control over Holland). And at home in England, Laud was urging King Charles to take direct control of Massachusetts and bring it in line by outlawing its Puritanism.

These threats were immediate and real. You notice there is no mention of Native Americans. To most Puritans, Native Americans were the least of the threats facing the colony. The Native Americans were few, and unarmed, and frankly, off the radar for the Puritans, whose focus was completely on fellow Europeans, both in Europe and in America.

As early as 1633, just three years after settlement, the MBC found out that a group of English men, some former American settlers, had presented a petition to the king saying the Puritans in America were traitors, and ought to be destroyed. Friends of the colony still in England stepped in to deny this claim, and the king was persuaded not to act. But the next year, news came that the Commission for Regulating Plantations run by Archbishop (and Puritan-hater) Laud had been granted authority over the colony. Months later, the commission demanded that the Puritans send back their patent to England for “revisions.”

The patent was the grant signed by the king that allowed the Puritans to settle in Massachusetts and to govern themselves as they saw fit, so long as they did not make laws contrary to English law. If it was sent back to Laud, it would be destroyed, and Laud would write a new patent making Massachusetts a royal colony, under the king’s control.

Several times over the next few years the colony refused to surrender its patent. It began arming itself for war with England, fortifying Castle Island and other positions. During this stressful time, the French attacked and destroyed a trading post set up in Maine by Plymouth Colony, and the Dutch refused to abandon a trading post they set up on the Connecticut River.

So the Massachusetts Bay Colony was alarmed and preparing for war well before trouble with the Pequots arose in late 1634. When it did, the Pequots were seen as just one more threat to the colony. Contemporary historians often describe the Puritans as chomping at the bit to have an Indian war, but in reality, the Puritans were certain that at least one war was coming to them, and when it turned out to be an Indian war, they must have been a little surprised.

Next time: What caused the Pequot War?

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