One of the original 13 colonies and one of the six New England states, Massachusetts (officially called a commonwealth) is perhaps best known for being the landing place of the Mayflower and the Pilgrims. English explorer and colonist John Smith named the state for the Massachusett tribe. Boston, the state capital, was a hotbed of activity during the American Revolution; Massachusetts became the sixth state to join the union.
In addition to its revolutionary spirit, the state is known for sparking the American Industrial Revolution with the growth of textile mills in Lowell, as well as its large Irish-American population.
Massachusetts’ Early Colonial History
The first settlers in the state now known as Massachusetts were the Pilgrims. They arrived in Plymouth on the Mayflower in 1620 after separating from the Anglican church and fleeing England, creating the Mayflower compact as the foundational set of rules for self-government in the New World. They were the second group of British settlers to arrive in the New World, after the first colony was founded in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607.
While they may not have been the first settlers to arrive in Massachusetts, the Puritans founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritans left England in 1630 to reform the Anglican church, establishing their colony in the city of Boston to serve as a model for Protestantism. John Winthrop was the first governor of this Puritan “City Upon a Hill.” He believed the state was responsible for enforcing religious laws and is known for banishing fellow Puritan Anne Hutchinson for holding theological meetings that challenged local Puritan ministers.
Native Americans in Massachusetts
Indigenous people have been farming, fishing, hunting and gathering in the land now known as Massachusetts for at least 10,000 years. The Massachusett tribe at Ponkapoag—for whom the state was named—were the area’s first residents. Members of the Wampanoag tribe once lived in more than 67 communities across southeastern Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island. The Nipmuc tribe occupied the interior parts of what is now Massachusetts, as well as parts of Rhode Island and Connecticut.
When the first English settlers arrived in Massachusetts in the early 1600s, many lived and traded peacefully with Indigenous peoples. They also brought diseases that wiped out up to 80 percent of the Indigenous population from Rhode Island to Maine. Throughout the 1600s, tens of thousands of English-speaking immigrants arrived in the New World and imposed their government, culture and religion on Indigenous people. “Praying plantations” were established, where native people were moved and converted to Christianity.
In 1675, European settlers and Indigenous people began fighting King Philip's War. At least 500—and likely many more—native people were incarcerated on the Boston harbor islands. Many died of starvation and disease. At the end of the war, the colonial government sold some surviving Indigenous people into slavery; others who had converted to Christianity settled in native communities throughout New England and beyond.
Today, there are two federally-recognized tribes in Massachusetts: the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, based in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), based on Martha’s Vineyard. The Nipmuc Nation is a state-recognized tribal group that has not yet received federal recognition. A few other visible tribes exist today that are not officially recognized by the federal government.
The First Thanksgiving
After a harsh winter that claimed the lives of half of the Mayflower’s original immigrants from England in 1620, the Wampanoag tribe taught the Pilgrims to plant corn and survive in the wilderness. In November of 1621, the Pilgrims organized a harvest feast in Plymouth to celebrate their first successful crop—an event widely regarded as America’s “first Thanksgiving.”
Contrary to popular belief, the Wampanoag people weren’t invited, say Indigenous historians. Instead, they arrived after hearing gunfire and fearing war. After being told it was a harvest celebration, the Wampanoags brought deer to share. Because the feast kicked off nearly a century of disease and war, the Wampanoags and many other native populations consider it as a day of mourning.
The Revolutionary War
One of the first colonies in the New World, Massachusetts was also grounds for the first protests against British rule and battles of the Revolutionary War. Citizens of Boston protested the Stamp Act of 1765, the first tax levied on Americans by the British, and the 1767 Townshend Acts, which taxed goods coming into the colonies, culminating in the 1770 Boston Massacre. The 1773 Boston Tea Party, when colonists dumped hundreds of chests of tea imported from England into the Boston harbor, was perhaps the most famous of these political protests. The British retaliated with the 1774 Intolerable (Coercive) Acts, which was mainly intended to punish the Massachusetts colony.
The Revolutionary War began in April 1775 with battles in Lexington—where the arrival of the British was famously announced by Paul Revere—and Concord, Massachusetts. These were soon followed by the Battle of Bunker Hill, perhaps the most prominent of the war, in Boston. Although the colonists lost, the battle resulted in massive casualties for the British. Several famous colonists who signed the Declaration of Independence hailed from Massachusetts, including John Adams, Samuel Adams and John Hancock.
Irish and Italian Immigration
In 1650, Irish-Catholic peasants began immigrating to Boston as indentured servants, working essentially as enslaved people for the ability to make the voyage. More Scottish-Irish immigrants docked in Boston in 1718, fleeing Anglicanism to practice Protestantism.
Throughout the 19th century, Boston grew into a thriving industrial and port city. The city’s many shoe and textile factories attracted immigrants, mainly from Ireland and then Italy. Many were impoverished and illiterate and lived in crowded slums, and faced discrimination from their native-born neighbors.
Waves of Irish immigrants arrived between 1815 to 1845, then from 1845 to 1855 to survive the Irish Potato Famine, and again from 1855 to 1921. Today, more than one in five residents of Massachusetts is of Irish descent—with Boston claiming most Irish descendants of any city in the country.
A flood of immigrants from southern Italy and Sicily arrived in Massachusetts from 1880 to 1921. Descendants of Italian immigrants make up 14 percent of the Massachusetts population today, making it the state with the fourth most Italian descendants in the country.
A State of Invention
Massachusetts has been home to many creative figures, including poets Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Emily Dickinson, and authors Louisa May Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Politicians Horace Mann and John F. Kennedy also hailed from Massachusetts.
Many important innovations took place in the state. In 1636, Harvard University was the first institution of higher education established in the United States in Cambridge by a vote of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The typewriter was patented in 1843 by Charles Thurber in Worcester, Massachusetts, while the first telephone was created in Boston by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876. Boston was also the home of the first subway in the United States, which opened in 1897.
Date of Statehood: February 6, 1788
Population: 7,029,917 (2020)
Size: 10,554 square miles
Nickname(s): Bay State
Motto: Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem (“By the sword we seek peace, but peace only underliberty”)
Tree: American Elm
- After a harsh winter that claimed the lives of half of the Mayflower’s original immigrants from England in 1620, the Pilgrims were taught to plant corn and survive in the wilderness by Native American Indians. In November of the following year, the Pilgrims organized a harvest feast in Plymouth to celebrate their new crop—an event widely regarded as America’s “first Thanksgiving.”
- Nineteen people were hanged at Gallows Hill in 1692 for worshipping the devil and practicing witchcraft, and close to 200 others were similarly accused. In 1711, after judge Samuel Sewall and others involved in the Salem witch trials had admitted wrongdoing, the colony restored the good names of all accused and granted restitution to their heirs.
- Massachusetts observes a legal holiday called Patriots’ Day on the third Monday of April each year, commemorating the first battles of the American Revolution at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775.
- Following the American Revolutionary War, many people struggled to support their families under the heavy tax burdens levied to pay off war debt. Faced with losing their property, a group of insurgents led by Daniel Shays—a farmer and veteran of the war—forced the closure of several debtors’ courts and attempted to occupy a federal arsenal in Springfield on January 25, 1787. Although repelled, Shays’ Rebellion highlighted the need for a stronger national government and influenced the creation of the U.S. Constitution.
- Dr. James Naismith, a physical education teacher at the International YMCA in Springfield, invented the game of basketball in December 1891 to occupy his students indoors during the cold winter months. The first game was played with a soccer ball and two peach baskets nailed to railings 10 feet above the floor.
- Volleyball was invented in Holyoke, Massachusetts, in 1895 by William G. Morgan, the director of a local Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Originally known as mintonette, the game was intended as a less intense version of basketball mixed with baseball, handball, and tennis. The rules of the sport were refined over the years, and it debuted at the Tokyo summer Olympic games in 1964.
- The state of Maine was once part of Massachusetts. In 1819, Massachusetts allowed Maine to petition for statehood; Maine became the 23rd state in the union in 1820.