What Was the Economy of Massachusetts Based on During the 1600s?

Homes in a Plimoth plantation.
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Massachusetts began as two separate colonies: The first was Plimoth, which was established in 1620 by a group of religious separatists -- known as Pilgrims -- under a joint-stock charter from the same company that established Jamestown, Virginia. The second was Massachusetts Bay, which was established in 1629 by a group of Puritans who were granted a charter by the British King Charles I.

Both colonies were established largely by their founders' desire to escape religious persecution and establish model religious communities, but their colonists also needed to survive and establish profitable colonies. Spurred on by their serious, religiously motivated work ethic, both colonies quickly grew and became economically prosperous.

Although the two colonies were not legally unified until 1691, they shared not only cultural and religious ties, but intertwined economies based on small farms and industry, fishing and maritime trade.

1 Small Farms

Corn stalks growing.
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Massachusetts' rocky soil and cold climate, with its long, harsh, winters made large-scale plantation farming -- as seen in the Virginia Colony -- impossible. Rather, the majority of Massachusetts colonists worked small, subsistence-level farms. In every Massachusetts town, families retained individual plots of land where they farmed basic crops.

From the local Native Americans, they learned the "Three Sisters'," method of planting beans, corn, and squash together, so the plants could flourish in the hard soil. Families also kept animals such as sheep, pigs, cows and oxen, which they allowed to graze in their town's common fields.

Animals provided food and clothing, such as wool from the sheep and leather from the cattle. These small farms were enough to provide families with essentials, but they rarely turned a profit.

2 Fishing and Small Industries

Fresh cod with salt, pepper and rosemary.
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To make a profit, Massachusetts colonists had to develop a diverse economy. Some developed needed small industries, working as tanners, porters, metalworkers and shopkeepers. Most, however, looked toward the sea.

Fish, especially cod, were abundant in the coastal waters. Fishing alone was not very profitable, but fishing required ships and a shipbuilding industry quickly emerged, supported by Massachusetts' abundant supplies of timber, tar, and pitch. With the availability of ships and so many natural resources, including the furs so desired in much of Europe, trade quickly became the obvious pursuit for ambitious colonists.

3 Maritime Trade

Brown sugar molasses on a wood table.
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The ocean quickly revealed itself as the most profitable economic venture for colonists, not only because of fishing and shipbuilding, but also because of trade. Massachusetts’ merchants built and bought ships that carried goods and natural resources across the Atlantic, employing dozens of colonists on every ship. They also built local stores and warehouses to sell and hold their products.

Maritime commerce soon developed into the bustling "Triangular Trade." New England merchants carried raw materials such as furs, timber, and the tar and pitch needed for shipbuilding, as well as the much-beloved rum, not only to England but to all of Europe.

In exchange, the merchants picked up slaves in Africa and brought them to the Caribbean plantations, where they picked sugar and molasses. This sugar and molasses was turned into rum and the entire cycle began again. Trade also went on directly between the English colonists and the European Caribbean islands, much to the dismay of Great Britain.

4 Conflict Over Economic Prosperity

A small church surrounded by trees.
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The economic prosperity of maritime commerce caused both internal conflict among Massachusetts colonists and external conflict with the mother country, Britain. Within Massachusetts, social class stratification emerged rapidly.

Wealthy merchants were chastised for being too ostentatious in their displays of wealth and in stepping away from the piety of the Puritan faith. Indeed, members of the older generation of migrants were troubled that younger colonists and new migrants were more concerned with making money than with creating an exemplary religious community. They concerns were well-founded, as evidenced by declining church membership beginning in the late 1600s.

Britain, following mercantilist principles, always wanted the balance of trade to be in its favor. By producing so many goods and trading with other European countries and their colonists, the Massachusetts colonists had tipped the balance in their favor.

By 1650, British Parliament took steps to regulate colonial trade: the Navigation Acts required that all trade to and from the colonies must be conducted on British ships, that European goods destined for the English colonies must first stop in England to be inspected, and that certain colonial products must be sold only in England. Fortunately for the colonists, these acts were rarely enforced. It would not be until the mid-1700s that Great Britain attempted to truly tighten its economic hold on its colonies -- an effort that would precipitate the American Revolution.

Based in Dallas, Exa von Alt has been working in education and the social sciences for nearly 10 years. Her lesson plans are published on the University of Oklahoma's K20ALT website and she has written several entries in "American Centuries: The Ideas, Issues, and Trends that Made U.S. History"(MTM Publishing). Exa von Alt holds a Master of Arts in history from the University of Illinois at Chicago.