In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section New England in the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Source Collections
  • Early Encounters

Atlantic History New England in the Atlantic World
Jared Ross Hardesty
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0292


New England, permanently colonized by the English beginning in 1620, was an important region in the early modern Atlantic system. Originally inhabited by Coastal Algonquins, these groups encountered Europeans in the late 15th century. A mix of explorers and fishermen, the Europeans who traveled to New England found a region with rich fishing banks, dense forests, and native peoples willing to trade. Full-scale colonization began in the 1620s and 1630s when thousands of English Puritans migrated to the region. Centering their new society around agricultural towns and strict adherence to congregationalism, these colonizers sought to recreate an England they believed lost to arbitrary government and the market economy. Instead, they created a vibrant, commercially sophisticated society. New Englanders built this success on the exploitation of local natural resources, namely timber and fish. Using their Puritan connections, they tapped into the burgeoning sugar plantations of the West Indies to sell agricultural products, livestock, dried fish, and manufactured goods from England, usually using New England–built ships. These trade connections created a lasting economic symbiosis between the two regions. Commercial success also allowed for the creation of new settlements. The expansion, both economically and demographically, of New England brought colonists into conflict with their Indian neighbors. After the defeat of a pan-Indian alliance in 1676, however, New Englanders had largely conquered southern New England. The region continued to experience rapid economic development from the 1680s onward. Political crises following the Glorious Revolution caused the region to become more entrenched in British and Atlantic commercial and intellectual networks. New Englanders also became loyal servants of empire, participating in many of the imperial conflicts against France. Integration was not all positive, however, as the French attacked New England’s frontiers and, despite general economic growth, the region’s economy stagnated following the cessation of every conflict. Economic insecurity, a belief that Britain did not respect the region’s sacrifices for empire, and treatment as second-class subjects made New England into a hotbed of resistance to imperial authority in the 1760s. By the early 1770s, that resistance became full-scale rebellion, with many of the opening salvos of the American Revolution—such as the Boston Tea Party—taking place in New England. After leading a new nation to independence, New England continued to be a commercial hub, fostering new overseas markets for the United States and using the capital generated over the previous two centuries to invest in manufacturing.

General Overviews

There are relatively few general overviews of the history of early New England, especially works that examine both before and after the American Revolution. Even fewer explore that history in a transnational context, which is surprising given the region’s deep connections to the Atlantic economy. This older, parochial perspective can be found in Bremer 1995. Vickers 1992, Conforti 2005, and Levy 2009, however, place New England in transnational and comparative perspectives. While Vickers 1992 is one of the few to explore the colonial, revolutionary, and early republic periods, the book only discusses Essex County, Massachusetts. Newell 1999 is an economic history of the region from English settlement until the American Revolution. Natural resources fueled the region’s economic development, and some general overviews explore the ecological ramifications of that exploitation. Merchant 2010 provides an overview of the region’s environmental history from the earliest days of colonization until the American Civil War. Bolster 2012 is a revolutionary study of the history of fishing and marine ecology in the Gulf of Maine from the 16th until the early 20th century.

  • Bolster, Jeffrey. The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674067219

    An environmental history of the Gulf of Maine and the rich marine ecosystem encountered by Europeans upon their arrival in the area. Fishing became a staple of New England’s Atlantic economy, and Bolster provides a good overview of the industry and its impact on the environment.

  • Bremer, Francis. The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards. 2d ed. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 1995.

    A general history of Puritan thought, culture, and colonization from the mid-16th century until the mid-18th century.

  • Conforti, Joseph A. Saints and Strangers: New England in British North America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

    A general overview of New England’s colonial history and a synthesis of the literature up to the time of publication. Part of a series meant to explore the British North American colonies in a greater Atlantic world.

  • Levy, Barry. Town Born: The Political Economy of New England from Its Founding to the Revolution. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.9783/9780812202618

    Study of the political economy in New England’s basic unit of political organization: the town. Pays close attention to how towns organized, structured, and disciplined labor to be productive. Barry’s study concerns the entire colonial period from settlement until the beginning of the American Revolution and places the town into conversation with other models of colonization in the British Atlantic.

  • Merchant, Carolyn. Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender, and Science in New England. 2d ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

    Longue durée environmental history of New England spanning from the pre-settlement period until the American Civil War. A largely synthetic work, Merchant links environmental change to cultural transformation, paying close attention to gender.

  • Newell, Margaret Ellen. From Dependency to Independence: Economic Revolution in Colonial New England. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999.

    An overview of the economic development of New England from the early settlement period until the American Revolution. Newell reinterprets the New England economy, focusing on how colonists used Atlantic trade to generate capital that they invested at home.

  • Vickers, Daniel. Farmers and Fishermen: Two Centuries of Work in Essex County, Massachusetts, 1630–1850. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

    This book is a classic study of labor and work in Massachusetts’s Essex County. It covers two centuries of development from the 1630s until the 1830s, paying close attention to how labor strategies changed over time. It is especially important for its comparative insights, demonstrating, for example, how New Englanders, starved for capital, relied upon children as workers whereas other English regions relied upon bound labor.

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