The Pilgrims are the most famous of America’s early settlers, but they came nearly a generation after the English built Jamestown in the Chesapeake. In 1602, Virginia Company explorer Bartholomew Gosnold named the spit that juts off Massachusetts Cape Cod and the island of Martha’s Vineyard for his daughter, and Virginia’s John Smith coined the term New England on a 1614 whaling expedition. Prior to that, Scandinavian Vikings fished off these shores in the Middle Ages and French explored the region looking for the Northwest Passage. Enslaved French inadvertently brought hepatitis to New England, wiping out most of their Native American captors before the English arrived. Smith also enslaved a Wampanoag Indian named Tisquantum, aka “Squanto,” who already knew English when Pilgrims arrived in 1620. Two English primary sources record that Tisquantum walked out of the woods with his companion Samoset and said, “Welcome! Do you have some beer?” A smattering of other English settlers already lived in the area where the Mayflower made landfall in 1620 and Smith had already named it Plymouth. Pilgrims also found graves with Europeans and Indians buried together.
Suffice it to say, the Pilgrims weren’t the first Europeans to hit America or even New England, or even the first English to settle New England. But they were important nonetheless, especially if we define their group more broadly to include a bigger wave of Reformed (Calvinist) Protestant Christians that followed in their wake called Puritans. Unlike the Vikings, French, and Virginians who came to New England before them, 17th-century Pilgrims and Puritans left a lasting mark on the region and on American history.
After Queen Elizabeth’s death in 1603, Stuart kings James I and Charles I oversaw what Protestants viewed as “Catholic drift” in the (Anglican) Church of England, as hardcore Protestant dissenters were harassed. James disallowed private religious gatherings to discourage rebellion. Surrounded by Catholic-leaning Anglicans was one group of Calvinists from Scrooby, England (East Midlands) who separated from the Anglican Church entirely — thus their name Separatists, though they were also called Brownists after Separatist Robert Browne. Future leader William Bradford took solace in Jesus’ assurance that, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). In other words, there was no need for any established church, whether it be King James’ Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church from which it broke away under Henry VIII.
The “Saints,” as they then called themselves, fled to Leiden, Holland in 1608 where they worked long hours as weavers and practiced their faith in peace. Europe was on the verge of the Thirty Years’ War, though — its most destructive conflict prior to WWI and WWII — and the Separatists worried that Catholic Spain was about to invade the Netherlands again. Many people feared or hoped for the Second Coming or an apocalypse. The Separatists left Leiden but couldn’t return to England so they set their sights on America. They abandoned the leaky Speedwell they left Holland in and joined other settlers and adventurers they called “Strangers” on the more seaworthy Mayflower. One repeat colonizer, Stephen Hopkins, helped found Bermuda after the Sea Venture shipwrecked there in 1609, then helped build boats that sailed to Jamestown, where he contributed to starting Virginia, then returned to England, boarded the Mayflower, and helped establish New England after that iconic vessel veered north on its way to Virginia. The Separatist/Saint portion of the passenger list bade farewell to the Old World with no intention of coming back.
Leaving too late in the year, the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth, England in September 1620 toward the mouth of the Hudson River by what is now New York City but was then considered the northern boundary of the Virginia Colony (see map). They veered north due to “roaring breakers” and landed at Provincetown on Cape Cod, then relocated to Plymouth Rock. William Bradford was pleased with the effects of the aforementioned hepatitis epidemic, declaring that God had conveniently cleared most of the natives from the area around Plymouth Colony. Sadly for Bradford, his young wife Dorothy either fell overboard or jumped from the Mayflower as it lay at anchor. Bradford remarried and his descendants include TV chef Julia Child, author Thomas Pynchon, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, lexicographer Noah Webster, actors Clint Eastwood, Sally Field, George Reeves (Superman), John Lithgow, and the Baldwin brothers, along with dozens of prominent politicians (Clay), judges (Rehnquist), generals (McClellan), and painters (Church). Wiki
Rather than Saints or Separatists, we know the Plymouth settlers more commonly as the Pilgrims. Though they separated from the Anglican Church, Pilgrims still considered themselves English. Their Mayflower Compact, signed before they disembarked at Provincetown, leads off by declaring their allegiance to King James. While the Compact is often cited as the beginning of self-rule in America, it was really a temporary agreement or contract binding the Pilgrims together until they transferred authority over to their joint-stock company, the Plymouth Council of New England. While it sounds like a political body, the Council was really a corporation analogous to the Virginia Co. of London or the Massachusetts Bay Co. that superseded it. Still, the Pilgrims were more or less on their own at Plymouth and the Compact and Council were based on “corporate” or representative government — enough so that, centuries later, grade-school textbooks could cite the compact as a founding document of American democracy. It predates the Enlightenment-era social contract theories of Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Locke.
At first, they tried a communal economic experiment whereby everyone shared and shared alike. Everything Pilgrims made or grew went into a common warehouse to be divided equally. But they suffered from scarcity. Arriving at the onset of winter, around half died of exposure, dysentery, pneumonia, or tuberculosis. Like Jamestown, about half of the first hundred survived. As chronicled in one 1622 primary source, “Mourt’s Relation” (A Relation or Journal of the Beginning & Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plimoth, in New England), some dug up Indian graves in desperation searching for food (later they made reparations). Though they revised it in early histories, they couldn’t bury all their dead so they propped the male corpses up against trees in the woods so that spying Indians would think there were sentinels guarding Plymouth.
Eventually, Massasoit and Tisquantum (Squanto) served similar intermediary roles as Powhatan in the Chesapeake, befriending the English to get guns that the Wampanoags could use against neighboring tribes like the Narragansetts and Massachusetts. Tisquantum helped the Pilgrims plant corn the following spring and they supplemented their diets fishing the bay for cod and bass. Just as the tenuous truce in Virginia came down to us in the form of the Pocahontas myth, so too the Pilgrims’ brief alliance with the Wampanoags morphed into the story of the first Thanksgiving. Edward Winslow , the true co-author of Mourt’s Relation along with Bradford, wrote that “nintie men” (Wampanoags) joined the English for three days that fall to hunt deer, play games, and “celebrate the fruits of our labours” (Plymouth Archaeological Rediscovery Project). Pilgrims only prayed and fasted for religious purposes, but they held traditional Harvest Home celebrations and the two rituals seemingly combined to form the Thanksgiving stories.
Future Americans selected these Pilgrims as their foundational origin myth because their pursuit of religious freedom resonated with how Americans liked to view themselves. Their story isn’t mythological in terms of being false; it’s just that subconsciously and collectively, Americans choose to embellish and emphasize it at the expense of other parts of colonial history, like the histories of the Southern or Middle English colonies, or New France or New Spain. Europeans held earlier Thanksgiving celebrations in El Paso (1598) and Jamestown (1619) prior to the Pilgrims’ first celebration in 1621. By the early 20th century, nearly three-hundred years later, we begin to see our modern view of the First Thanksgiving taking shape among American painters:
When Abraham Lincoln declared a national Thanksgiving holiday during the Civil War to commemorate the country’s purportedly common origins, he naturally wouldn’t have wanted to draw attention to the fact that the first English settlers were gold-seeking, slave-holding, Southern tobacco growers. He wasn’t presiding over the Confederacy, after all. Nor would generations of elementary students have wanted to reenact Virginia’s Bacon’s Rebellion once a year, or at least their teachers wouldn’t have wanted them to. Earlier presidents had tried unsuccessfully to draw Americans’ attention to such a holiday, but Lincoln revived the idea and Ulysses S. Grant signed it into law in 1870. Lincoln got the idea of trying again from Sarah Josepha Hale (right), who’d suggested it in her Godey’s Lady’s Book. Hale also penned the nursery rhyme “Mary Had A Little Lamb.”
As the sectional struggle between North and South intensified in the 1850s, scholars rediscovered William Bradford’s Of Plimoth Plantation. A beautifully scribed, luminous history aimed at posterity, the book described to future Americans how Pilgrims seeded their culture.
Bradford’s journal touched off a Pilgrim craze in the 19th-century North no doubt fueled by their escalating rivalry with the South. Beyond that, there’s no sound historical reason for the Mayflower to be any more famous than the ships that sailed into the Chesapeake Bay in 1607. Yet, no one brags about having ancestors that came over on the Susan Constant or Sea Venture. Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1982, President Ronald Reagan said, “Our Forebears came not for gold, but mainly in search of God.” As we’ll see in the conclusion, this spin derives from New England’s outsized influence on American identity.
In 1624, Dutch settlers from the same city the Pilgrims had lived in, Leiden, settled in New Netherland, not far west of their colony (previous chapter). Then, in 1629-30, a larger group of English Calvinist Christians called Puritans washed over the Plymouth Plantation, subsuming the Pilgrims. Plymouth investors in London were disappointed with the return on Pilgrims at first but, by the late 1620s, they were profiting from beaver pelts and sent over a larger group to capitalize. Nearly 10k migrated that year, some to the West Indies, New Amsterdam, and Virginia, but the majority to New England as another joint-stock company, the Massachusetts Bay Company. The Puritans didn’t sever ties or turn their back on England like the Pilgrims; they hoped to set up an exemplary Protestant society in the New World for the Old to see and emulate. In keeping with their name, they stayed in the Anglican Church to purify it rather than separate from it. As seen from their seal on the right, they also started off, at least, presumptuous toward local inhabitants.
Puritan leader John Winthrop told passengers on the Arbella that the “eyes of the world are upon us.” It was their self-defined historical mission to erect a “city upon a hill” inspired by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden” (KJV Matthew 5:14). Boston would serve as a “beacon of light” to Europe, the source of modern Boston’s Beacon Hill and Beacon Street. In an updating of the Jewish Exodus out of Egypt through the Red Sea to the borders of Canaan (the Promised Land of Israel), Puritans saw themselves as a “chosen people” both blessed and obligated by a special covenant with God to carry out their mission. In the Puritans’ case, a “New Jerusalem” in New England would prove to Europeans the superiority of a genuine Protestant society. This would not be the watered-down Protestantism of the (Anglican) Church of England, with its vestiges of Catholicism. Puritans segregated themselves to maintain homogeneity just as John Calvin’s followers tried in Geneva, Switzerland a century before. In the 19th century, Mormons updated this same Promised Land narrative on their trek west to Utah behind the “Mormon Moses” Brigham Young, and the Exodus theme played a big role in both the abolitionist movement against slavery in the mid-19th century and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s version of the civil rights movement in the mid-20th century, with King updating the “city on the hill.’
Puritans were Calvinist in their belief that God chose a “special elect” for salvation even before birth. They, of course, were that special group, identified as such by born-again experiences they called regenerations. Rather than taking orders from any top-down religious administration, including the Anglican Church, they congregated on their own, hiring and firing their own ministers in democratic fashion. Thus, they called their denomination Congregationalist. Congregational Churches later evolved into various conservative Calvinist and liberal branches in ensuing centuries, including traditional “Old Light” and more emotional “New Light” during the First Great Awakening, more intellectual Unitarianism/Deism/Transcendentalism in the 19th century and, as of 1957, the mainline United Church of Christ. Modern UCC members include(d) politician Barack Obama, author Marilynne Robinson (Gilead), baseball player Jackie Robinson, and Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
Puritanism developed a grim reputation for strictness and righteousness among its detractors and some descendants of early immigrants. Bostonian Ben Franklin ran away to cosmopolitan Philadelphia at age seventeen for these reasons. In the Scarlett Letter (1850), Puritan descendant Nathaniel Hawthorne depicted townspeople shaming protagonist Hester Prynne by forcing her to wear a sweater with an “A” for adultery embroidered on the front. In the Victorian Era, Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud attributed many neuroses to the puritanical belief that sex was sinful outside of marriage, or even within marriage for reasons other than procreation. Harsh Puritan legal codes made blasphemy, bestiality and even disrespecting one’s parent punishable by death. Still, the Puritans didn’t actually carry through with these capital punishments as far as we know and they dressed colorfully and drank alcohol, even the kids. The Arbella alone brought “42 tonnes of beere.” Puritan strictness was partly a natural reaction to the difficulties inherent in settling a colony in forbidding wilderness thousands of miles from home. As for their belief that non-procreative sex was sinful within marriage, we should note that Puritans averaged around a dozen kids per family.
Puritans had an interesting technique of allowing their teenagers to get to know one another in the bedroom without sex. They tied them together on the bed with a device called a bundling board that separated them but left them near enough to talk to each other. As they conversed, the adults often listened through a long hollow instrument bored through the wall to see if they were bonding properly. Bundling boards were common in the Netherlands and England and made their way to colonial America via the Puritans and Quakers who settled Pennsylvania. They were also used when strangers had to share a close space because there weren’t enough beds. If these boards sound strange, we should humbly remind ourselves that no civilization thus far has mastered the art of rearing teenagers. Despite the Puritan adults’ efforts, premarital pregnancy rates were higher throughout the colonies than in modern America, probably because of the lack of birth control. Puritans didn’t really hope to prevent all teenagers from having sex; they just expected them to marry in the event of pregnancy.
Despite the rocky soil, Puritans chose an opportune spot to settle, with none of the Chesapeake’s malaria and humidity. New England lent itself to a diverse economy of farming, fishing, logging and exporting rum made from molasses they illegally smuggled from the French West Indies. While slavery was legal, no plantation-based economy ever took hold. Enslaved females were usually unpaid servants while males worked as dock-hands and manual laborers. Puritans were unusually healthy by 17th-century standards, with life expectancy around 70 compared to 35-40 in England or Virginia (stats that include high rates of infant mortality). That allowed for the (then) unusual phenomenon of grandparents, who added an additional layer of moral authority in homes they shared with their grandchildren.
New England’s demography was not dispersed like the Chesapeake but rather centered on clustered communities of farmers whose fields fanned out around the town, sometimes like spokes on a wheel, and whose livestock grazed in commons or village greens in the middle of town (above). New England towns featured the typical European pattern of villagers protecting each other by “circling the wagons” (to use a later 19th-century phrase) and were amenable to the Puritans’ notorious habit of keeping an eye on each other to ensure that everyone was upholding the covenant. This commons in Cambridge, Massachusetts also features Harvard College and Christ Church.
Puritans emphasized education for Bible reading and to keep their children focused and disciplined. They also promoted science and saw it as compatible with religion. Their 1647 Old Deluder Satan Law stated: “It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of Scripture, it is therefore ordered…that everie Township [of 100 households or more]” provide a school. Harvard started as a seminary to train the next generation of ministers in 1636 and Yale followed soon after in nearby Connecticut, one of the colonies carved out of Massachusetts. Congregationalists started colleges at Dartmouth, Williams, Bowdoin, Middlebury, and Amherst in New England and Oberlin, Carleton, Grinnell, Beloit, Pomona, Rollins, and Colorado College as their religion spread across the continent.
Naturally, maybe inevitably, the Puritans’ cohesion and homogeneity began to break down over the generations. The first group on the boat was naturally on the same page; otherwise, they would not have been making the journey in the first place. But the next generations didn’t necessarily feel likewise and many began to stray from the Congregational Church. This was partly due to the church’s strict requirements, that mandated being regenerated (born again) for inclusion. When too many people could not meet this lofty standard they drew up the Half-Way Covenant, bestowing membership on anyone whose parents were members, but still, attendance dwindled.
Complicating matters, “dissenters” challenged the authority of Puritans’ pseudo-theocracy or church-run government. The simplicity of Protestant churches, embodied in the so-called Plain Style of New England, made it easy to transition their churches into town halls on other nights of the week and, in most cases, church elders served on town councils. Church membership conferred freeman status on adult males, giving them the right to vote. Puritan architecture blurred the lines between church and state but also helped seed American democracy because these town halls encouraged local participation.
Puritans valued religious freedom when it came to their own freedom from the Church of England, but they tolerated no diversity or difference of opinion within their own society. In that regard, they were no more revolutionary than the Catholics or Anglicans whose persecution they escaped from. They at least allowed freedom to exit the group. But between 1659-61, Puritans executed four people for practicing Quakerism, including Mary Dyer. Dyer converted from Puritanism to Quakerism and returned to Massachusetts several times after being asked to leave. Dissenter Anne Hutchinson took Protestantism a step further on its natural trajectory and questioned not just the need for the Catholic or Anglican church but rather the need for any church. Her heresy threatened the establishment in a society run by the church, just as radical Protestants had threatened King James’ authority in the mother country by not honoring the (Anglican) Church of England. Thomas Hooker broke with the Puritan establishment and founded a more democratic colony west of Massachusetts, Connecticut, that advocated toleration of all Christian denominations. Dissenter Roger Williams objected to the mistreatment of, and theft of land from, local Indians and was one of colonial America’s first abolitionists. He argued for a truer separation of church and state, opining that “forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.” Puritans cast both Hutchinson and Williams into a special area cordoned off for misfits named Rhode Island, sometimes jokingly referred to as “Rogue Island” given its status as a refuge for the unorthodox.
In Rhode Island, Williams started the first American chapter of the Baptist Church, a denomination that began in England but boomed throughout America, especially in the South. Of the Mainline Protestant faiths, it had the strongest influence on evangelical denominations that eventually outnumbered them in modern times (mainline is now used synonymously with oldline). Then, after fending off Massachusetts for control of Rhode Island and Providence Plantation by winning a charter from England, Roger Williams established one of the first true experiments in democracy and religious freedom in the Western world — other candidates being Hooker’s Connecticut and the nearby Dutch New Netherland. Williams also coined a phrase James Madison and Thomas Jefferson later adopted in reference to the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment when he described a “wall, or hedge of separation” between the “wilderness of the world” and “garden of the church.” (More in chapters 7 and 10.)
As he sailed from London in 1644 with the Rhode Island colony’s charter in hand, Williams left a firestorm in his wake by publishing The Bloody Tenant. Belying its title, the book used the Bible as a basis for toleration of various denominations, including not only Catholics but also “paganish, Jewish, Turkish (Muslim) or anti-Christian consciences and worships.” While England was in the midst of a civil war at the time between Protestants and Catholic-leaning Anglicans, one thing that all parties there and in America shared in common was intolerance toward people of other faiths, so Williams was a renegade. In the 17th century, it was an insult to accuse someone of being tolerant.
Williams didn’t stop with his endorsement of Soul Competency. Politically, he built Rhode Island’s foundation on the more republican part of the English tradition: “I infer that the sovereign, original and foundation of civil power lies in the people…the governments they establish have no more power nor for no longer time, than the civil power or people consenting and agreeing shall betrust them with.” Along with William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania we’ll read about in the next chapter and Adriaen van der Donck of New Netherland in the previous chapter, Connecticut’s Hooker and Rhode Island’s Williams were true forebears of the religious and political freedom ensconced in the U.S. Constitution the following century. A straight line ran from them to John Locke, to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who penned the First Amendment right to freedom of religion a century-and-a-half later.
Sense of Decline
Roger Williams’ religious libertarianism was ahead of its time, though, and many New Englanders were looking backward rather than forward. Just as many modern Americans lament a seeming decline, most societies are in a perpetual state of feeling like they are slipping morally (and usually economically) and that their better days have passed them. Politicians can’t run for office arguing that things are mostly alright, so I’m going to keep up the good work. They have to frame themselves as saviors who will revive former glory. What person anywhere, or at any time, has ever looked around and remarked, “We seem to be going uphill!” Yet, on average over time, that wouldn’t be any more ridiculous than the opposite, which happens daily all around us. It’s not that things stay steady all the time either — democracy in the U.S. really has degenerated in some ways with cable TV and the Internet, for instance — but if we had been going constantly downhill for all of history…well, do the math. Paleolithic humans would’ve had to have been really great. Why this declinism constantly plagues (or sustains) us is an interesting question, if you allow me to digress.
When you break things down more – into certain types of morality or certain parts of the economy – you can see that many things are going uphill and downhill simultaneously. For instance, most of our ancestors didn’t indulge in drugs, sex and rock & roll on the scale of recent generations. I say most because bacchanalia wasn’t invented yesterday. On the other hand, when thousands of people gather in Waco, Texas on a fall Saturday in the 21st century, they’re likely coming to watch Baylor play football, not to stand around cheering on as a vigilante mob drags, mutilates, lynches, and burns an African-American murder suspect (e.g. Jesse Washington) before selling the photos as postcards, as they did a century ago. Nearly all of us would argue that we’ve gone uphill on that score.
Another theory to explain chronic declinism is that moral summons serve a functional purpose, which is to prevent us from actually declining. In other words, if declinists all went silent, except to say “everyone do what you want,” then maybe we really would go downhill. To foretell is to forestall as the saying goes. Then, there’s our own aging process. As people get less naïve they easily slip into the notion that whatever debauchery is new to them is also new to history. However, that’s just another phase of naïveté based on their ignorance of people doing the same bad things back in the “good ole’ days.” Carly Simon sang, “these are the good ole’ days” in her 1971 song “Anticipation,” but she was exceptional; most people are more pessimistic because they don’t understand history. Finally, some people just get grouchier as they age, giving them a dimmer view of where history is headed.
All these contributing factors to pessimism are complicated in the West by an ongoing sense that the apocalypse is imminent. Apocalyptic thinking is shared by a wide part of the population, including fundamentalists, environmentalists, and revolutionaries alike. In contrast, the concept was virtually unknown in East Asia until recent centuries. When is the world going to end? In the West, the answer is always soon. After all one of the signs of the end times is that many bad things are going to happen, and the rate of bad things seems to always go up as the population and media coverage expand.
Why did we veer off on this tangent? Because the Puritans’ sense of decline was especially acute due to their sense of historical purpose. They had the nagging feeling that their collective mission had derailed. They called it declension, an old-fashioned word for decline. Consequently, ministers began preaching a growing number of Jeremiad sermons that, like the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, warned of the punishments that await those that stray from the path. Again, Jeremiads, serve a useful function – people and societies can benefit from wake-up calls – but the Puritans’ sense of their place in the world grew gloomy over the course of the 17th century. Had Ronald Reagan gone back in time and announced that 1690 was “morning in America” as he did in the 1984 presidential election, the Puritans would’ve replied, “No, sir, this is evening.”
Adding to the Puritans’ angst was their failure to become a “city on a hill” for European eyes. Most Protestants had stayed behind in England where they formed an army, fought the English Civil War, beheaded King Charles I in 1649 and took over the country, forming the Puritan Commonwealth. Colonial Puritans missed out on all the action. The inescapable truth was that nobody noticed their beacon of light and they left England too early. Ironically, they “missed the boat” by getting on a boat. Why had God betrayed them? Were they ever even on a special mission or was that just their own imaginations?
Indian Wars & Salem Witch Trials
Such worries form part of the backdrop to one of the most notorious and darkest chapters in Puritan history, the Salem Witch Trials. In one way, the trials were an anomaly in colonial America. Witchcraft and witch persecution were never as prominent in colonial America as in Europe, where ~ 40k died during the Religious Wars, mostly women. In the 1590s, when King James VI of Scotland was hoping to become King James I of England, he proved his chops as a strong Protestant leader by instigating a witch hunt in North Berwick, Scotland. Backed by theologian John Knox, founder of Scotland’s Presbyterian Church, James scapegoated folk healers for bad weather he’d experienced sailing in the North Sea, leading to their execution by strangulation and burning. Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General of Cambridgeshire, in the heart of Puritan England, executed hundreds of accused witches in the 1640s. Crucially, he was paid by quantity. Catholic popes also ordered the slaughtering of supposed witches in reaction to bad weather. For insight into European witchcraft, see the guide one misogynistic German Catholic inquisitor wrote in 1486 called the Malleus Maleficarum (translation: “Hammer of the Witches”).
Witch trials were rare in New England despite the availability of that book and Hopkins’ pamphlet on how to spot witches, usually with periods of twenty or thirty years separating the occasional farmer who, say, blamed his cow’s death on a neighboring widow having sex with the devil. One prominent trial was that of Mary (Bliss) Parsons in 1675. We know from her diary that some people fancied themselves as witches and practiced witchcraft, despite the lack of evidence that they actually had supernatural powers. Colonial America had a tradition of magic, superstition, and (pagan) cunning folk that thrived alongside Christianity, and New England Protestants believed in persecuting witches.
These traditions fused tragically in Essex County, north of Boston, when over 150 were accused across several villages and nineteen “witches and wizards” were sentenced to death for witchcraft in 1692. Why then? Why there? Freudian, feminist, and Marxist historians have all taken a stab at it, with the latest trend examining over-parenting: paying too much attention to children and, in this case, lending too much credence to their fantasies. Historians have wrestled with the Salem Witch Trials for centuries, but it’s best to explain it as a perfect storm or rare combination of factors — declinism, inexperienced judges interpreting Scripture, Indian wars, denominational strife, socioeconomic tension, pre-scientific superstition, petty jealousy, and paranoia — rather than reducing it to one interpretation. The different interpretations aren’t mutually exclusive, but rather emphasize various things that were happening simultaneously and may have all contributed to a combustible mixture. Collectively, these factors form the context of the Salem Witch Trials. In 1691-92, panic and ignorance intersected that surrounding context with tragic results.
It started in the home of Minister Samuel Parris. When his daughter Betty (9) and her cousin Abigail Williams (11) heard tales from the Malleus Maleficarum read by their family’s slave Tituba, they went into convulsions and accused other townspeople of witchcraft. Over the centuries, the Latin American Tituba has shape-shifted from Indian voodoo practitioner to half-Indian to half-black to black to “negro slave,” depending on the agenda of the historian or author describing her. The girls were ill and, on one occasion, tried to run into the fireplace. Their symptoms mirrored those described in Puritan minister Cotton Mather’s Memorable Provinces (1689), written just a couple of years earlier. Puritans were also aware of a purported witch outbreak in Sweden a few years earlier.
The Salem cases weren’t tossed out of court the way they normally would have been because the regular magistrates were in England for training and/or to petition on behalf of the colony, leaving amateurs behind on the bench. Doing their best to protect the community, the courts sentenced suspected witches to death based on their literal interpretations of the Old Testament (Exodus 22:18). In exchange for the relatively light sentence of a year in prison, Tituba confessed to having been visited by “the dark man” and casting spells. Later she retracted her sensational testimony, claiming that her master (Parris) bullied her into the plea bargain. Given the fact that England had just restructured New England’s governance four years earlier calling for greater religious toleration, the witch trials have often been cast as a reactionary stance against modernity, toleration or reason. However, most “enlightened” people in the Western world at the time believed in witches, including scientist Isaac Newton and physician/philosopher John Locke.
Heightening the tension, there’d been a series of conflicts with Indians in previous years. The Puritans fought wars against smallpox-afflicted Wampanoags, the Pilgrims’ old friends from Thanksgiving, starting in the 1630s. There were brutal battles throughout the 17th century against Wampanoags, Narragansetts, Nipmucks, and the Wabanaki Confederacy. The last and biggest starting in 1675 was known variously as Metacom’s Rebellion or King Philip’s War (Metacom was Massasoit’s son). Though not directly related, this violence coincided with the Pueblo Revolt in New Mexico and Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia (previous chapters), all instigated by conflict between Indians and European settlers. Though small by the standards of later centuries, the per capita destruction and casualties caused by King Philip’s War was the most in American history.
Puritans saw Indians as agents of Satan. In 1623, Pilgrim Myles Standish returned from a battle with an Indian’s head that he displayed on a mantel alongside a flag soaked in the Indian’s blood. Pilgrims mounted the head atop the entrance gate to Plymouth Colony and Puritans did likewise with Metacom’s head, declaring a day of thanksgiving. Indians, in turn, sometimes roasted and ate European captives and displayed limbs as trophies. It’s no surprise that Pulitzer-prize winning historian Bernard Bailyn titled his history of the 17th-century colonies The Barbarous Years (2012).
In 1688, English settlers spreading west came into conflict with French-supported Wabanakis in King William’s War, part of the imperial wars that led up to the French & Indian War of the 18th century (Chapter 3). King Philip’s War (Metacom’s Rebellion) and King William’s War, known to Puritans as the First and Second Indian Wars, had everyone on edge, and scared people tend to point fingers at one another. Indian conflicts devastated the New England frontier, especially along the Maine coast, where Whites abandoned villages. Both sides committed burnings, beheadings, and mutilations. Some of the soldiers who served in those battles were now sitting on the bench presiding over the witch trials in Essex County. They thought that Indians were devils or devil worshippers and might be casting spells on the village. Wabanakis’ affiliation with French Catholics only underscored their Satanic link. Some of the apparitions people reported seeing were Indians (aka “black men”) and Tituba might have been part indigenous American herself. This angle of interpretation led historian Mary Beth Norton to title her Salem book In the Devil’s Snare (2003).
The late summer of 1691 might also have been rainy, meaning that the colonists stored their grain wet over the winter, causing ergot fungus to grow on it and making some of their bread hallucinatory. LSD is a synthetic version of ergot. Convulsive ergotism causes gyrations of the sort reported by some victims. Wet summers were common in New England, though, and never led to other outbreaks. At most, ergot probably made only a small contribution. Some historians/scientists argue that 1691 was a dry year anyway.
Other historians tend, instead, to focus on Minister Parris, in whose home one of the afflicted girls (Betty) and Tituba lived. Samuel Parris needed to boost sagging attendance in his congregation and seems to have jumpstarted the hysteria. Many of the townspeople divided over the trials were also on either side of a schism over Parris within the church. That divide corresponded to class tension, as well. At first, many of the condemned were relatively defenseless, poor women. But demographic analysis of the plaintiffs and defendants shows that most of the subsequent accusers came from families in economic decline, especially those outlivers who were cast out of Salem Town into Salem Village (now Danvers), and most of the accused were richer, from Salem Town. Given the way Puritans clustered their towns with fields fanning out, towns filled up and a new group had to start a new cluster. Generally, the better off ejected the poor as outlivers to start a new town. In this case, the poor outlivers may have used the accusations to settle old scores, taking advantage of the judges’ inexperience. It’s a near-universal truth that, when law breaks down, people seize the opportunity to settle scores and vendettas.
In Salem, plaintiffs or even the court itself often collected property from the executed, in an obvious conflict of interest. Accusations spread to surrounding areas as well. The problem here wasn’t really law breaking down in the libertarian direction, but rather the law being over-applied too loosely.
The superstitious way the girls and court went about accusing and interrogating others complicated matters. In the English white magic tradition, they baked witch cakes from rye meal and victim’s urine, then fed the cake to dogs, which according to the Doctrine of Effluvia would cause a true witch to scream in pain. In the ensuing trials, judges and juries searched for the infamous witch’s mark — any sort of spot or pimple indicating that the devil had suckled (had sex with) the suspected witch. They relied on spectral evidence, taking accusers at their word that they’d been attacked by defendants’ specters (or ghosts) without demanding any higher standard of evidence.
Seventy-one-year-old Rebecca Nurse was acquitted of being a witch after friends and neighbors petitioned the court, testifying to her pious character. But the inexperienced magistrates asked the jury to reconsider their verdict when they saw young girls writhing on the courtroom floor claiming to be attacked by Nurse’s invisible specter as she sat befuddled on the witness stand. There was no way to disprove charges and women accused of witchcraft weren’t allowed legal counsel. The jury returned a guilty verdict and hung Nurse. The girls then turned on the 39 people who’d signed the petition on Nurse’s behalf, setting off another round of accusations riddled with crosstown denominational and class rivalries. One lesson of the Salem Witch Trials is that kids aren’t reliable witnesses.
In the end, between 144 and 185 people were charged and 19 people and two dogs were either lynched or pressed to death before sane people put a stop to the madness. Giles Corey endured the French punishment known as peine forte et dure, gradually being pressed to death with additional rocks added each day (he expired after two days). Corey’s torture failed to elicit a confession. Another woman died based on the testimony of her 4-year-old daughter. When the accused Corey was asked whether he agreed to submit to a jury of his peers he “stood mute,” simply refusing to talk. Who could blame him?
Boston theologian Increase Mather wrote and distributed a pamphlet denouncing the use of spectral evidence in court. Then the colonial government intervened after Salem’s court accused Governor William Phips’ own wife of being a witch. They set up a new court system that didn’t require jurors to be church members. Once non-Puritans got on the juries they quickly tried and released the hundreds of remaining suspects. A jury in 1693 exonerated Tituba, whom they believed Samuel Parris goaded into false testimony. The regular judges returning from England also helped quell the hysteria.
In coming years, many of the young girls changed their minds and decided that they’d made the accusations up. One, Anne Putnam, formally confessed as such to her congregation in 1706. She apologized “for the accusing of several persons of a grievous crime, whereby their lives were taken away from them, whom, now I have just grounds and good reason to believe they were innocent persons.” She said she “did it not out of any anger, malice, or ill will to any person, but what [she] did was ignorant, being deluded by Satan.” If you’re interested, see this site for further documentary evidence regarding the Salem Witch Trials.
Among future generations, the term witch hunt came to describe any sort of interrogation deemed unfair or based on group hysteria rather than solid evidence. Historian Stacy Schiff wrote that “we dust it off whenever we overreach ideologically or prosecute overhastily, when prejudice rears its head or decency slips down the drain, when absolutism threatens to envelop us.” During the Cold War of the late 1940s and early 1950s, many Americans were paranoid of communist infiltrators amongst them. That fear wasn’t entirely unwarranted, since both the Americans and Soviets had spies in each others’ countries, but the magnitude and hysteria of the Red Scare were irrational an brought out an ugly, fearful side of human nature. In Hollywood, dozens of actors, writers, and directors were blacklisted from working in the industry. The House Un-American Activities Committee interrogated one of those victims, Arthur Miller, and found him “in contempt of Congress” for refusing to rat out other leftists. They later overturned his sentence, but not before he wrote a metaphoric play about the Hollywood hearings and Red Scare called The Crucible (1953). He set the play amidst the Salem Witch Trials because, if he had written a play about the Cold War directly, his accusers might have taken that as an admission of guilt or prosecuted him. Today The Crucible is the most famous account of the trials and the most widely performed play in the world. Schiff finds the trials relevant in today’s fractious Internet media landscape, too because the judges were educated and had plenty of books to reference; they just didn’t have the capacity to think critically about that information. Likewise, our own ignorance often results from too much information to process rather than too little.
Conclusion: The Legacy of American Exceptionalism
Like Virginia in the previous chapter, Massachusetts exerted an enormous influence on American history. American Christianity, though now associated with the Bible Belt South even more than elsewhere, originated in the Northeast. Protestant missionaries from Boston were among the first Americans to ever step foot in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The idea of compulsory public education came from New England. Of the few hundred high schools in existence around the time of the Civil War, most were in Massachusetts.
The American Revolution started in New England, where a tradition of local self-rule developed over the previous century-and-a-half. Virginian Thomas Jefferson, who generally disliked New England, called their local town meetings “the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government.” The Puritans’ sense of independence sprang partly from a loophole in the Massachusetts Bay Company’s charter allowing its shareholders to meet anywhere, which proved to be Boston rather than London. After a century of mostly salutary neglect, it was impossible for the British to reassert control over the northeastern colonies with the Navigation Acts and post-French & Indian War taxes in the mid-18th century. Spun out of Massachusetts, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut was even more republican and considered by some the first written constitution in Western history. It’s no surprise that New England was where Revolutionary War events like the Liberty Affair, Pine Tree Riot, Burning of the HMS Gaspée, Boston Massacre, Tea Party, Lexington, and Concord, and Bunker Hill took place.
New England also influenced the Civil War. New Englanders’ sense of democracy and free labor was very different than what emerged out of the slaveholding South. New Englanders prided themselves on doing their own work, not having it done for them, and they thought that all people had the right to work for whom they pleased. It wasn’t that they were racially progressive. Southern Anglos intermingling with Blacks, Spanish, French, Indians, etc. put off the mostly Anglo New Englanders. But neither did they believe in slavery after it was outlawed there following the Revolution. The two regional views proved incompatible and clashed in the Civil War of the 1860s.
Finally, New Englanders’ ideas of historical purpose and religious nationalism informed America’s identity, even among Southerners who don’t think much of “Yankees” and intellectuals skeptical that God likes some nations best. The Pilgrims and Puritans provided the foundation for one aspect of American Exceptionalism: the idea that the U.S. has a unique role to play in world history. The idea resonates through American history, appearing in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s stance in the Civil War (American democracy was the “last, best hope on Earth” not just North America), U.S. interventions abroad since WWI, John F. Kennedy’s “City on a Hill,” and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream.” While John Winthrop’s original sermon aboard the Arbella, “A Model of Christian Charity,” wasn’t famous at the time and had nothing to do with their hopes for the future (Puritans, after all, couldn’t envision the United States), politicians and historians picked up on its “city on a hill” theme in the 19th and 20th centuries, when America’s international role expanded. Ronald Reagan quoted from the sermon in the 1980s and few modern presidential speeches, whether by George W. Bush or Barack Obama, miss the opportunity to underscore that America is a special place with an important role to play among nations. Today, American Exceptionalism is an idea that most Americans take for granted in one form or another, and it originated in Puritan New England.
Philip Deloria, “The Invention of Thanksgiving” (New Yorker, 11.18.19)
Alexander Medlicott, Jr., “Return to This Land of Light: A Plea to an Unredeemed Captive” (JSTOR, New England Quarterly 38 2, 1965)
“When Governments Go After Witches” [In Modern Times], Ryan Jacobs (Atlantic, 10.13)
Book Review of Stacy Schiff’s The Witches: Salem, 1692: “How Satan Came to Salem: The Real Story of the Witch Trials,” Goodheart (Atlantic, 11.15)
Steven Conn, “As a City On the Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon,” (Origins, 3.19)
Edward Countryman, “The War That Made Us All” (NYT Book Review of Jill Lepore’s King Philip’s War & the Origins of American Identity)