Hard on the heels of the last glaciers retreating northwards, humans began to move into the area now known as New England about 10,000 years ago. By the time European settlers began to poke around the coasts, there were already anywhere from 25,000 to 100,000 Native Americans inhabiting the region. Unlike the Iroquois Confederacy in upstate New York  or the mighty Algonquin tribes of Quebec, however, most New England tribes were small and unaffiliated with larger governments, making them both extremely mobile and vulnerable to manipulation and extermination by European settlers.
Romantic images of a dense wilderness inhabited by primitive savages are somewhat off the mark. Especially in southern New England, tribes such as Wampanoags, Narragansetts, and Pequots were quite civilized, growing corn, beans, squash, tobacco, and other crops to supplement their hunting and fishing. These tribes even cultivated the forest itself, burning wide swaths to get rid of the undergrowth and allow park-like land that was ideal for hunting game and harvesting berries.
North of the Saco River in Maine , tribes such as the Micmacs, Abenakis, Penobscots, and Passamaquoddys were more nomadic by nature, subsisting entirely on hunting, fishing, and gathering. In the spring, they made use of fishing grounds on the coast for shellfish and birds; then in the summer they moved inland to ply the rivers with birch-bark canoes in search of larger game like elk and moose.
Viking longships might have sailed the rivers of New England as early as the 11th century; if they did, however, they left no traces to definitively prove it. Instead, legends of Norse visitors from Iceland and Greenland remain just that—legends—supplemented only by highly dubious reports of “discoveries” of Viking rune stones in areas of the Maine  and Massachusetts  coast. As late as 50 years ago, however, historians also doubted that Vikings had colonized Newfoundland—until a settlement was unearthed there in 1960. This settlement was thought by many to be Vinland, a land mentioned in the Viking sagas as founded by Eric the Red west of Greenland. Others, however, have noted that grapes don’t grow that far north and instead surmise that the actual location of Vinland is farther south in New England, perhaps on Cape Cod  or in the area of Popham Beach, Maine.
The first documented European mariner to spy the New England coast was Giovanni da Verrazano, who sailed up from New York  in 1524 and explored Block Island  and Narragansett Bay, and rounded Cape Cod to Maine before returning to France. The first settlements in the region, however, didn’t come until a half-century later, when Bartholomew Gosnold formed a small outpost southeast of Cape Cod (which he named) on what is now Cuttyhunk Island  in 1602. That settlement was abandoned, however, when the explorers returned home in the winter.
To the north, French captain Samuel de Champlain sailed along the coast of Maine  and New Hampshire , gave his name to Lake Champlain in 1609, and founded several small fur-trading settlements north of New England along the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. Other settlements followed down the coast, mostly small French and English fishing villages on the islands and peninsulas of the Maine coast, which were also abandoned when holds were filled with enough salt cod or beaver pelts to make a profitable crossing back to Europe.
In the end, it was spiritual rather than commercial desires that made the settlement of New England possible. After years of fighting between Catholics and Protestants in England, Queen Elizabeth I passed the Act of Uniformity in 1559, making it illegal not to attend official Church of England services. Throughout the next few decades, an increasingly persecuted minority of separatists advocated a break with the official church. After several of their leaders were executed, the separatists fled to Holland in 1608. But the Netherlands’ alliance with England against Spain meant that persecutions continued there, and the separatists eventually hatched a plan to journey beyond the reach of the Queen by founding a colony in the New World. They received backing from the Virginia Company to set sail aboard the Mayflower in 1620.
The Pilgrims, as they called themselves, originally intended to set sail for the nascent colony of Jamestown  in Virginia. Blown off course, however, they landed in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts , outside of the jurisdiction of their backers. Before disembarking, they drafted the Mayflower Compact, a hastily arranged document that established the government of their new Plymouth Bay Colony. The primary author of the document, Rev. William Bradford, became governor. Of the 102 passengers aboard ship, almost half of them were not Pilgrims at all, but adventurers who hitched a ride to the New World, including the capable Captain Myles Standish, hired to be military commander for the colony. His skills were not initially needed, since Wampanoag people under their chief Massasoit were friendly to the new colonists, helping them plant corn and hunt. The cold and scarcity of resources took a harsh toll on the colonists, however, causing more than half of them to die in the first year. By the time Bradford called for celebration of the first Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621, he was thanking God not only for the bountiful harvest, but also for the colony’s very survival.
The real settlement of New England didn’t begin until the arrival a decade later of another band of religious seekers, the Puritans. Unlike the Pilgrims, the Puritans did not advocate a complete break from the Church of England. Rather, they believed the church could be reformed from within by returning to a stricter interpretation of the Bible and dispensing with many of the trappings and rituals that the Church of England had picked up from Catholicism. An increasingly dictatorial King Charles I, however, abolished parliament and began cracking down on any religion that didn’t subscribe to the official tenets of the Church of England. In 1629, settlers under minister and orator John Winthrop decided to leave England altogether to found a new “shining city on a hill” that would serve as a paragon of morality to the rest of the world.
The following year, 1630, a full complement of eleven ships carrying more than 1,000 passengers landed on the tip of Cape Cod  near Provincetown . Finding scarce resources, they moved on to land on another small peninsula that the Native Americans called Shawmut, or “Land of Living Waters,” due to the teeming schools of fish in its harbor. There they resolved to found their city, which they named Boston , after the city in East Anglia where many of them had originated.
Boston wasn’t exactly uninhabited—the first English settler of the peninsula was the Reverend William Blackstone, a hermit who came there alone around 1623 and built a house by a freshwater spring beneath three hills he called the “trimountain.” But he was happy to sell the land to the new arrivals, and Winthrop and his crew declared Boston the new capital of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1632. Immediately, they proceeded to enforce a strict moral code that imposed death as punishment for crimes ranging from taking the Lord’s name in vain to talking back to your parents. From that center, colonists quickly spread out north and west to form dozens of new cities and towns, fueled by waves of thousands of new immigrants over the next decade. The settlement of New England had officially begun.
At the same time that the Pilgrims and Puritans were settling Massachusetts , a hardier band of hunters and woodsmen finally established beachheads in northern New England. English aristocrat Sir Ferdinando Gorges established the Council of New England in 1621 and began making land grants and sending groups to hunt and fish the area. An early grant called the Laconia Company spanned the Merrimack and Kennebec Rivers north of Massachusetts Bay. While the company was disbanded a few years later, many of the settlers remained, forming a loose confederation of parishes in what would later become New Hampshire  and Maine . In 1624, they sent the first shipment of white pine to England, starting what would later become a rich trade in lumber for ships’ masts.
Meanwhile, as the persecuted Puritans became themselves persecutors, religious “heretics” left Massachusetts Bay in search of new colonies where they could themselves worship in peace. A Salem  minister named Roger Williams, an early proponent of the separation of church and state, was found guilty of heresy and banished in 1636. Traveling southwest, Williams and a few followers settled on Narragansett Bay and founded the city of Providence . A few years later, the English crown dispensed an official charter for the Colony of Rhode Island . From the beginning, this colony proved infinitely more tolerant than others in New England, recognizing freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and other rights we recognize today. Williams also enjoyed friendly relations with Narragansett people, who were proving more hostile to the Puritans.
Soon after Williams founded Providence, another group led by Anne Hutchinson, a teacher who believed that inspiration came directly from God without need of a Church, came to Rhode Island  to found the city of Portsmouth  in 1638. Some of these settlers later moved further south to found the city of Newport . At the same time, Hutchinson’s fellow iconoclast, the Rev. John Wheelwright, took his congregation north to settle in what would later become New Hampshire . Originally founding the town of Strawbery Banke  (which would later become Portsmouth), Wheelwright was kept moving by the expanding boundaries of Massachusetts Bay Colony, founding the towns of Exeter, New Hampshire , and eventually Wells, Maine .
Finally, several factions within the Puritan sect split off to form their own colonies. Discouraged with the strictures on government participation in Boston , the Rev. Thomas Hooker set out to found Hartford  along the Connecticut River in 1636, and set up a more inclusive form of government in which every male member of the church could vote. Farther south, a pair of English merchants formed the colony of New Haven  in 1638. The two colonies merged to form the colony of Connecticut  in 1662.
Unlike in Rhode Island , however, the new inhabitants of Connecticut  didn’t enjoy friendly relations with the native inhabitants. Soon after Europeans made incursions into the area, a pair of British merchants were found killed by Pequots on the Connecticut River. That incident set off an escalation that led to raids and reprisals on both sides and eventually a plan by the settlers to wipe out their native enemies. The Pequot War of 1637 was in reality a quick business, in which 130 settlers together with Narragansett  and Monhegan  allies wiped out the entire Pequot tribe.
That war was only a skirmish in the upcoming Indian Wars that would completely alter the colonies in the next few decades. After the deaths of Plymouth Colony’s Governor Bradford and his Native American ally Massasoit, tensions between settlers and the Wampanoag people along the Massachusetts –Rhode Island  border began to simmer. They eventually boiled over in 1675 in what would become known as King Philip’s War. The conflict began when colonists arrested Massasoit’s son Alexander on spurious charges. During the march he was forced to make to Plymouth , he sickened and died. Seeing the writing on the wall, Massasoit’s younger son Metacomet (whom the colonists called Philip) launched a preemptive raid on the Massachusetts town of Swansea. The colonists counter-attacked by invading the Wampanoag camp at Mount Hope in Bristol , forcing 1,500 of the Wampanoag to escape by floating rafts across the river.
The war that followed drew together many of the Native American tribes in New England in a last-gasp attempt to push back English expansion. Despite burning Providence  and many other towns in the year-long campaign, the Native Americans were defeated by their lack of supplies and treachery among warring tribes as much by the English force of arms. By the time peace was signed in 1676, Philip and more than 5,000 Native Americans had been killed, with many more sold into slavery; on the English side, 500 colonists had been killed. After the war, many area tribes were permanently relocated to Rhode Island’s South County , near the town of Charlestown , effectively spelling an end to Native American presence in Southern New England in all but the far western frontier of Massachusetts.
Following King Philip’s War, the residents of New England continued to expand and prosper. At the same time, England’s Puritan-friendly regent Oliver Cromwell was replaced by the restoration of the monarchy under James II, who saw an opportunity to bring greater control over the bustling colonies. The ill-fated Dominion of New England, as the new government was called, only lasted two years—in some sense, however, it began the conflict between England and its colonies that would end in war a century later. In 1685, James named Sir Edmund Andros as viceroy over Massachusetts , Plymouth , Rhode Island , Connecticut , New Hampshire , and New York . After he levied taxes on the colonists, however, there were widespread protests against the arrangement. When William and Mary overthrew James in England’s “Glorious Revolution,” New Englanders also overthrew Andros, returning the colonies to direct rule by governors (including a united Massachusetts colony when Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth merged in 1691).
For the next century, New England’s seemingly limitless supply of natural resources ensured that the region soon became a major player in the world’s economy. In Massachusetts , religious zealotry gave way to a new dominion—not of God, but of cod. The “almighty codfish” was full of meat, could be salted and dried for long voyages by sea, and filled the waters around Massachusetts Bay by the schoolful. Based on the rich trade in the fish, along with lumber, furs, and rum, Boston  became the third-busiest port in the entire British Empire by the early 1700s (after London and Bristol). By mid-century, Boston and other New England ports, including Portsmouth , Salem , Newport , and New Haven  bustled with ships bringing in coffee, tea, textiles, and luxury goods imported from England.
Along with the benefits of being a colony, however, New Englanders had to shoulder the responsibilities. In 1754, when the mother country became embroiled in a dispute with France over trading rights in the Ohio Valley they were drawn into the fray. The resulting conflict, known as the French and Indian Wars, was fought in New York , Pennsylvania, and Quebec and eventually spelled the end of French claims to North America when it was resolved by the Treaty of Paris in 1763. However, many New Englanders fought in the conflict, and its aftermath was strongly felt in the region. The war directly benefited traders in Maine , New Hampshire , and the burgeoning territory of Vermont  by eliminating competition from the French in the fur and lumber trade. Because the Native Americans allied with the French, the war also caused the defeat of the Algonquin and Mohawk tribes who badgered inhabitants in western and northern New England with periodic raids. The most important effect of the war, however, was economic. Saddled with debt from its mammoth military undertakings, England decided to levy taxes on the colonies to pay for the war. After all, the crown reasoned, hadn’t the colonies been the ones who benefited the most from the defeat of the French and Native Americans tribes? Unfortunately for England, the colonists saw things differently.