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First Americans

The Pilgrims, seeking religious freedom, were the first English colonists to permanently settle in New England. In November 1620, after 65 days at sea, they anchored off the tip of Cape Cod, in an area that is now known as Massachusetts. They had no legal right to settle in the region, so they drew up the Mayflower Compact, creating their own government. The Pilgrims explored the area on land and foot, and in December 1620 settled in a location near Plymouth Harbor.

The new settlers were met by New England’s earliest inhabitants, Algonquian-speaking Native Americans including the Abenaki, the Penobscot, and the Wampanoag. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Western Abenakis occupied New Hampshire and Vermont, and parts of Québec and western Maine. The Penobscot settled along the Penobscot River in Maine, and the Wampanoag settled in southeastern Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

Though there was much co-operation and peace among the new settlers and Native Americans, there were also skirmishes and major battles. One of the bloodiest battles occurred in 1637 when the colonists and local tribes mounted a devastating attack on the Pequots. In 1675, the peace that had existed between the colonists and the local native tribes ended in a bloody war known as King Phillip’s War.

In 1623, two groups of English settlers arrived in what is now called New Hampshire and established a fishing village near the mouth of the Piscataqua River. In 1628 the Puritans came to Massachusetts and settled Naumkeag (later called Salem). John Winthrop, carrying the Massachusetts Bay Charter, arrived in 1630 and founded Boston. In 1635 Roger Williams was driven from Salem, Massachusetts for promoting religious and political freedom. He bought land from the Narragansett Indians and settled in what is now called Providence, Rhode Island. The same year, the Connecticut Colony established its own government. New Hampshire and Maine were governed by Massachusetts, and Vermont was still unsettled.


1497 John Cabot explores the coast of North America.

1602 The English explorer ­ Bartholomew Gosnold , sailing south along the New England coast, names Cape Cod, the Elizabeth Islands and Martha’s Vineyard.

1604 The Frenchmen Samuel de Champlain and Pierre de Gua , Sieur de Monts , explore the Maine coast.

1607 Virginia Colony, the first permanent English settlement in North America, is established at Jamestown.

1613 The Jesuits establish a mission on Mt. Desert Island, Maine.

1614 Captain John Smith returns to England with a cargo of fish and furs. The term “New England” is used for the first time in his account of the voyage.


1620 The Pilgrims arrive on the Mayflower and establish Plymouth Colony.

1630 Boston is founded by Puritans led by John Winthrop .

1635 Thomas Hooker leads a group of settlers from Massachusetts Bay Colony to the Connecticut Valley and founds Hartford Colony.

1636 Harvard College established. Roger Williams flees the intolerance of Massachusetts Bay Colony and establishes Providence, Rhode Island.

1638 Anne Hutchinson settles on an island near present-day Portsmouth, Rhode Island.

1639 The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut , the governing document drawn up by members of Hartford Colony, is regarded as the New World’s first constitution.

1701 Yale University is founded.

1763 The Treaty of Paris ends the French and Indian War (1756-63). France cedes Canada and territories east of the Mississippi to Britain.

American Revolution

Tensions between the colonists and the Crown escalated during the 1760s. Britain‘s decision to maintain troops in the colonies after the end of the French and Indian War (1754-63) infuriated many settlers. A further alienating factor was the British Parliament‘s decision in 1763 to forbid settlement beyond the Appalachian Mountains. The final straw was the passage of a series of taxes—including a tax on tea—levied on the colonists, who lacked directly elected representation in Parliament. In late 1773 a group of Patriots boarded cargo ships in Boston Harbor and tossed cases of tea overboard. The incident, today known as the Boston Tea Party, prompted the English to clamp down even harder on the rebellious citizens. Sixteen months later, in April 1775, colonists clashed with English soldiers at Lexington, Massachusetts in the first battle of the American Revolution.

Couriers riding horses spread the news of the battle, telling stories of savage British soldiers attacking innocent farmers. It prompted more colonists to join the fight, and militia from the other New England colonies poured in to join the Massachusetts men.

During the first months of the war, the English held the advantage, winning most of the battles and laying siege to Boston. Still, the colonists persevered, meeting in Philadelphia in July 1776 to adopt the Declaration of Independence , formally severing ties with England.

In December of 1776, the war‘s tide turned when Gen. George Washington repelled British general William Howe at Trenton, New Jersey. Although Howe returned to take Philadelphia the following summer, Washington‘s triumph galvanized the colonists. Their cause was further bolstered in 1778 when Britain‘s old enemy France came to the aid of the Colonial army.

In 1781 Revolutionary and French forces managed to trap Gen. Charles Cornwallis on the narrow peninsula at Yorktown, Virginia. Cut off from the British Navy, Cornwallis surrendered. The 1783 Peace of Paris granted the young nation independence from Britain.

1765 The Stamp Act , a direct tax levied by Britain on the American colonies, is passed.

1766 The Stamp Act is repealed.

1767 Parliament passes the Towns­hend Acts .

1770 The majority of the Town- shend Acts are repealed, but the tax on tea remains.

1773 Colonists stage the Boston Tea Party at Boston Harbor.

1774 Parliament passes the four Coercive Acts —called the Intolerable Acts by the colonists. Colonists who oppose Britain’s policies hold the First Continental Congress .

1775 Outbreak of the American Revolution :

April 18 – Ride of Paul Revere.

April 19 – Battles of Lexington and Concord .

May 10 – Siege of Fort Ticonderoga by Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys, along with Benedict Arnold and his men.

June 17 – Battle of Bunker Hill .

1776 British troops evacuate Boston on March 17. The Declaration of Independence is adopted on July 4.

1777 Vermont declares its independence and adopts its own state constitution.

1781 Colonists defeat British troops led by General Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia.

1783 End of the American Revolution.

1788 The US Constitution is ratified. Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire are admitted to the Union as the fifth, sixth and ninth states, respectively.

1789 George Washington is chosen as the first president of the US.

1790 Rhode Island becomes the 13th state.

1791 Vermont, the last New England colony to join the Union, is admitted as the 14th state in the US.

1812 Britain declares war on the US.

1814 The Treaty of Ghent ends the War of 1812 on Christmas Eve.

1820 Maine enters the Union as the 23rd state.

Civil War

America expanded westward; the booming industrial age brought massive strides in technology and transportation, and the population increased. But by the mid-1800s, the North and South, roughly equal in population, were two separate and radically different societies. The North was dominated by trade and manufacturing, the South by agriculture. By 1861, the separate regions became separate nations. On April 12, the Civil War began when Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, in Charleston, South Carolina‘s harbor. The New England states joined the ranks of the North and sent volunteer regiments into conflict.

Many famous authors and orators, who spoke out against slavery, were from New England, including Harriet Beecher Stowe . Stowe, who lived in Maine, was the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin , a famous anti-slavery novel that is often linked to the Civil War. Boston, which had the largest area of pre-Civil War black owned structures in the US, became a center for the abolitionist movement. Abolitionists such as Maria Stewart , Wendell Phillips , Frederick Douglass , and others spoke out against slavery at the African Meeting House and the Charles Street Meeting House in Boston.

The war lasted four long years and claimed more than 600,000 lives, in what remains the highest casualty rate for any war ever fought by Americans. Although Lincoln‘s Emancipation ­Proclamation had technically granted slaves their freedom in 1863, the passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments furthered their cause by banning slavery (1865) and guaranteeing civil rights (1868).

19C and 20C

After the Civil War, industrialization spread rapidly and oil, coal, copper, and steel production soared. New England led the way from an agrarian to an industrial economy. It became the hub of the textile industry, boasting some of the largest mills in the country. Lowell, Massachusetts, the first planned industrial city in the nation, became the world‘s leading producer of textiles.

The exodus of the textile factories to the South after World War II, led to an emphasis on diversified manufacturing, including the manufacturing of electronics, machine tools, and electrical equipment.

New England remained a hotbed of ideas and political clout throughout the 20C. In 1961, at the age of 43, John F. Kennedy from Massachusetts, became the youngest man ever to be elected U.S. president. In 1966, Massachusetts Attorney General Edward Brooke became the first African American elected to the US Senate since Reconstruction.

Education continued to play an important role in New England. The region was home to some of the oldest and best educational institutions in the country, including Harvard in Massachusetts, Yale University in Connecticut, Brown University in Rhode Island, and Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. New England is also home to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

1861-65 Civil War

1905 The Treaty of Portsmouth, ending the Russo-Japanese War, is signed at the Portsmouth Naval Base in Kittery, Maine.

1914-18 World War I

1929 Stock market crash signals the start of the Great Depression.

1939-45 World War II

1944 Bretton WoodsConference is held in New Hampshire .

1954 World’s first nuclear-powered submarine is constructed in Groton, Connecticut.

1961 At age 43, John F. Kennedy from Massachusetts becomes the youngest man ever to be elected US president.

1963 On November 22, President Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

1966 Massachusetts attorney general Edward W. Brooke is the first African American elected to the US Senate since Reconstruction.

1976 The Liberian tanker Argo Merchant runs aground near Nantucket Island and spills 7.5 million gallons of crude oil into the North Atlantic.

1980 Boston celebrates its 350th anniversary.

1985 Vermont voters elect the nation’s first foreign-born woman governor, Madeleine M. Kunin.

1988 Democratic candidate, Michael Dukakis, former governor of Massachusetts, loses the US presidential election to George H. W. Bush (took office 1989).

1990 Twelve works of art, valued at $100 million, are stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

1992 Mashantucket Pequot Indians open Foxwoods, a resort casino in Connecticut.

1993 The Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge opens in Massachusetts.

1994 Harvard University , the most generously endowed of private universities ($6 billion), launches largest fund-raising drive in the history of higher education.

1995 Boston Garden , one of the oldest sports arenas in the nation, is torn down and replaced by a new sports and entertainment complex.

Part of the largest public works project in the US (the “Big Dig”), Boston’s new Ted Williams Tunnel opens, connecting the city to Logan Airport.

1997 From its Charlestown berth, the USS Constitution , America’s oldest commissioned warship afloat, sails under its own power for the first time in 116 years.

1998 The worst ice storm of the century hits the Northeast, killing trees and causing power outages in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

1999 The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) opens in a renovated factory in North Adams.

The second major milestone of the Big Dig project—the Leverett Circle Connector Bridge—opens, connecting downtown Boston to I-93 in Charlestown.

The New Millennium

New England is ethnically more and more diverse, welcoming immigrants from Ireland, Asia, Italy, South America, Portugal, and beyond. Yet it maintains its regional character, and reverence for its historic places and past.

The region is also economically diverse, with a thriving service industry, including tourism, education, financial and insurance services, plus architectural, building, and construction services. It boasts one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. Boston remains the region‘s cultural and economic hub; it‘s also home to about 700 research and development firms. Its universities are training grounds for scientists and research specialists.

New England continues to attract visitors, new business and residents, drawn to the region for its strong economy, renowned educational systems, historic charm, beautiful landscapes, and quality of life.

2000 The first US census of the new century is conducted, revealing the growth patterns of the towns and cities of New England as well as the nation.

Nearly 5,000 workers are employed in the $14 billion Big Dig project.

2001 On September 11, two Boeing 767s departing from Boston’s Logan Airport are hijacked by terrorists and crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. George W. Bush took office as president of US, January 2001.

2002 New England Patriots win the Super Bowl.

Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge , part of the Big Dig project, is completed.

2003 New Hampshire’s Old Man in the Mountain rock formation collapses.

100 people killed in Rhode Island night club fire.

Anglicans elect first openly gay bishop in New Hampshire.

2004 New England Patriots win the Super Bowl.

Massachusetts is first in the nation to recognize gay marriages.

Massachusetts senator John Kerry accepts the Democratic presidential candidate nomination.

Boston Red Sox win the World Series, the team’s first title in 86 years.

George W. Bush defeats Kerry in presidential election.

2005 New England Patriots win the Super Bowl.

2006 A ceiling panel in Boston’s Ted Williams Connector Tunnel collapses, killing one woman and forcing Logan airport traffic to be rerouted until repairs on this section of the Big Dig are completed.

Democrat Deval L. Patrick won a landslide victory to become the first African-American elected governor of Massachusetts.

2007 New Hampshire sets Jan. 9, 2008 state primary date, the earliest it’s ever been held, preserving its status as “First in the Nation.”

Boston Red Sox win the World Series.

New England and the Sea

New England has been closely related to the sea ever since the colonists turned from the rocky soil to the offshore waters for their food. At first the colonists erected weirs, similar to those used to this day by the Indians in Maine to snare fish near the shore. Not until the mid-17C did Yankee vessels sail in large numbers to the Grand Banks, the fishing grounds off the southern coast of Newfoundland, which teemed with cod, haddock and pollack. The Sacred Cod, hanging in the Massachusetts State House in Boston, symbolizes the important role played by the cod fisheries in the history of Massachusetts. New England’s fisheries became the backbone of the region’s trade with Europe, and boat yards sprang up along the coast from Connecticut to Maine to construct fishing and cargo vessels.

Fisheries, trade and shipbuilding prospered, reaching their zenith in the mid-19C. The south (Connecticut, Rhode Island, and southeastern Massachusetts) was home to the Yankee whaling fleet; ports along the northern coast of Massachusetts and New Hampshire led the trade with the Orient (the China trade) and the shipbuilding industry. With its protected inlets and thick forests, the Maine coast focused on wooden shipbuilding. Between 1830 and 1860, nearly one-third of the boats launched in the US were built in Maine.

Small coastal villages grew into sophisticated urban centers, as merchants, ship masters, and sea captains accumulated great wealth and built the handsome Federal and Greek Revival homes that still stand in Salem, Nantucket, Portsmouth, Newburyport, New Bedford, Providence, and other seaport cities.

Several large museums preserve New England’s seafaring past. Mystic Seaport and the whaling museums in New Bedford, Nantucket and Sharon recall the Yankee whaling tradition. In Salem the Peabody Essex Museum presents the story of New England’s trade with the Orient, and the Maine Maritime Museum (Bath) and the Penobscot Marine Museum (Searsport) portray the history of shipbuilding in Maine.


During the 19C whale oil was used to light homes and streets across America and Europe. New Bedford and Nantucket, leading whaling centers, were busy day and night with vessels arriving, departing or preparing for whaling voyages. Herman Melville’s novel, Moby Dick (1851) vividly re-creates New England’s whaling days.

A Prized Catch

The sperm whale, averaging 63 tons, was hunted in large numbers; it was the species on which New England’s whaling industry depended for candles, fuel, and perfumes.

A Meteoric Industry

Indians were hunting whales long before the first settlements were established. The colonists learned how to hunt inshore whales by observing the Indians. They built tall watchtowers and set up large black cauldrons, called try-pots, in which the whale fat was melted down, on the beaches. In the 18C the discovery of sperm whales in deep ocean waters led to the construction of larger vessels that were outfitted for long ocean voyages. By 1730 Yankee whalemen had moved the tryworks from the beaches to the decks of whaling vessels so they could process whales at sea.

In the late 18C Nantucket boasted a fleet of 150 whaling vessels; in its heyday, New Bedford was the home port of nearly 400. New London, Provincetown, Fairhaven, Mystic, Stonington and Edgartown also launched fleets. Shipyards turned out sturdier oceangoing vessels, factories manufactured spermaceti candles, tons of baleen were dried in the fields and thousands of barrels of whale oil were stored along the wharves. Whaling ships built, owned and commandeered in New England sailed the oceans from Greenland to the North Pacific, from the Azores to Brazil, and from Polynesia to Japan. Many languages could be heard as seamen from international ports of call walked the streets of New England’s waterfront districts.

The decline of the whaling industry in New England was precipitated by the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1859 and the loss of nearly half of New England’s whaling fleet during the Civil War years. In 1861 the Union Navy purchased 39 whaling ships to form the “Stone Fleet,” a group of vessels that were loaded with blocks of granite and sunk in the harbors of Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, to prevent blockade runners from entering those channels. The Confederate ship Shenandoah destroyedan additional 21 whaling vessels in the north Pacific Oceanin 1865. After the war New England sent out fewer and fewer whalers. In 1971, whale hunting was finally outlawed in the US.

Maritime commerce

New England’s maritime commerce with Africa, Europe and the West Indies brought prosperity to many of its coastal ports in the early 18C, but not until after the Revolution, when Americans were free to trade with the Orient, did Boston, Providence, Portsmouth, Salem, and other cities develop into rich centers of the China trade.

China Trade

Boats sailing to the Far East rounded Cape Horn, then generally made detours to ports along the way to obtain returns—goods that could be traded in China for silk, porcelain, and tea. Furs were acquired along the northwest Pacific coast, sandalwood from the Sandwich Islands, and the delicacy bêche-de-mer (sea grub) from the Polynesian Islands. Later, when opium replaced furs, boats called at ports in India and Turkey to barter for the illicit drug before continuing to China.

Other exotic products obtained along the route were pepper purchased in Sumatra, sugar and coffee from Java, cotton from Bombay and Madras, ivory from Zanzibar, spices from Indonesia, and gum arabic from Oman.

Until 1842 Canton was the only Chinese port open to foreign trade. Vessels anchored about 10 miles outside the city at Whampoa Reach . Several weeks or even months could be spent visiting shops and factories and bartering with Chinese merchants before the foreign vessel, filled with a cargo of luxury items, set sail for home.

The museums and historical houses of New England exhibit countless examples of Chinese decorative arts and furnishings brought back to America from the Orient during the years of the China trade.

Ice: A New England Industry

The ice trade developed in the 19C when ice was harvested north of Boston and in Maine, and shipped to the southern states, the West Indies and as far away as Calcutta to be used for refrigeration. Ice was harvested in the winter, when the rivers, lakes and ponds were frozen over. Snow was cleared with the aid of oxen or horses. The ice field, marked off into squares, was cut into blocks weighing up to 200lbs each. Packed in sawdust and stored in nearby icehouses until the first thaw, the ice was then transported by boat to its destination. Boats with specially constructed airtight hulls were used to prevent the ice from melting. The ice business prospered until the introduction of mechanical refrigeration in the late 19C.


The wooden sailing vessel has been the basis of New England’s shipbuilding tradition since 1607, when the pinnace, Virginia, was built by the short-lived Popham colony on the banks of the Kennebec River in Maine.

Early Days

As the colonists established their first settlements, shipyards began to dot the coast. At first they built small, one-masted ketches and fishing sloops, followed in the early 18C by two- and three-masted schooners capable of crossing the Atlantic. The schooner enjoyed a long and glamorous career in the waters off the New England coast. When English dominance of American trade led to widespread smuggling by the colonists, it was the schooner, with its simple rigging, ease of handling, and ability to evade British revenue ships, that carried many an illicit cargo safely into port. During the American Revolution, armed, privately owned schooners (privateers) were authorized by the Continental Congress to capture enemy vessels. The schooner remained in service as a cargo carrier until the end of World War I.

Age of the Clipper Ship

With the opening of Chinese ports in the 1840s, Americans clamored for Chinese goods. Knowing that American customers would pay high prices for the freshest teas from the Orient, shrewd shippers demanded faster vessels to transport this perishable commodity in the shortest possible time. The clipper—derived from the word clipper, which was used to describe any person or thing that traveled quickly—was designed to meet their needs. Between the mid-1840s and the mid-1850s, these three-masted vessels, with their lean hulls, narrow bows and acres of canvas sails, became famous for the great speeds they could attain. During the California Gold Rush, clippers with names such as Lightning, Flying Cloud and Eagle Wing carried miners and supplies from the Atlantic coast, around Cape Horn, to San Francisco, and sailed the long ocean routes to the Orient.

The major boat yards working to turn out these ships were located in New York, Boston, and Bath, Maine, and the master designer was Donald McKay of East Boston. Of the approximately 100 vessels that made the voyage around Cape Horn in less than four months, 19 of them, including the Flying Cloud , were built by McKay. The first ship to round the Cape to San Francisco in under 90 days, the Flying Cloud set a record of 89 days on her maiden voyage in 1851, and repeated it three years later. The record has since surpassed.

Last Sailing Ships

From the 1850s to the early 1900s, the ports of Maine specialized in the production of commercial wooden sailing vessels: The down-easter and the great schooner . The down-easter, a three-masted square-rigger, had the long, clean lines of a clipper, and could attain comparable speeds. Unlike the clipper, the down-easter had a large, deep hull that offered greater carrying space.

The down-easters and two- and three-masted schooners were used in shipping until the 1880s, when boat builders discovered that four-masted schooners, though larger, cost little more to operate. The construction of the great schooners—four-, five- and six-masted vessels—followed. These ships hauled large bulk cargoes (coal, lumber, granite, grain) from the East Coast, around Cape Horn and up to the West Coast. Striving to compete with the steamboat, Maine shipyards turned to the production of a small fleet of steel four-, five- and six-masters. The profitable days of sailing were numbered, however: the efficient, regularly scheduled steamer triumphed.

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