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Zakim Bridge reflection on the Charles River in Boston

Culture and history of New England

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Despite its name, there’s nothing “new” about New England - this historic northeastern region has a human history that predates the United States and even the British colonies, and its importance in the founding and growth of the U.S. is a storied tapestry of unique and fascinating cultures. 

Indigenous Groups of New England
Long before European settlers ever set their gaze to the New World, the area that is currently known as New England was home to between 70,000 to 100,000 Native Americans of the Algonquian people. The small villages that made up the Algonquian communities grew corn, beans, squash, and also hunted, fished, and gathered. In the northern reaches of New England where the frigid winters prevented the establishment of stable farming communities, the Native communities relied more heavily on fishing.

When Europeans did arrive in the area in the early 17th century, the indigenous people traded textiles with the settlers, but the disease that the Europeans brought with them wrought havoc on the Native peoples, whose immune systems were not able to fight the Old World sicknesses. Tens of thousands of Native people died due to disease, and although there were interludes of peace and cooperation between native tribes and colonists, their relationship was always marked by tension and intermittent conflict that took more native lives throughout the early European settlement. 

Conflicts between Native people and the European settlers due to disagreements about land - European traditions favored clearly established land rights, while indigenous American Indians had semi-nomadic societies that depended on communal use of the land. The establishment of permanent settlements in New England (and the rest of the United States) would be a consistent point of contention between Native people and settlers - one that has persisted even into modern-day politics.

Colonization of the New World
The first British pilgrims arrived in New England via Cape Cod aboard the Mayflower in 1620, seeking religious freedom from the Church of England. Notably, this was not the first settlement of the North American continent by Europeans, following other settlements further south in Florida and Virginia and some to the north in Quebec. Weakened by the 66-day journey across the Atlantic, many of the first pilgrims succumbed to the rough conditions as they built their settlement at Plymouth. 

While only 52 people survived the first year, the Plymouth Colony grew stronger in the following years, becoming a stable and comfortable settlement by 1627, as more and more newcomers arrived. In that first year of life in the New World, disagreements escalated and implored some political solution, ultimately resulting in the signing of the Mayflower Compact - an agreement that established the first tenets of self-governance in the region.

The Seeds of Revolution & Independence
Just as the earliest pilgrims to New England sought independence from the Church of England, the seeds of political independence from the Crown were also sown in New England. As the northeastern cities grew and developed largely autonomous societies, the taxing control and power of the British government became a heavy burden to the young colonies. By the late 18th century, the desire for independence had reached a tipping point, and in 1773, a group known as the Sons of Liberty hurled tea into the Boston Harbor in an act of defiance known as the Boston Tea Party. 

The Revolutionary War
Not long after, at a lonely bridge in Concord, Massachusetts, a single shot was notoriously “heard round the world” as it marked the start of a revolution against British rule and the consequent Revolutionary War that followed. By July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence had been adopted by Congress, thus establishing the United States not as colonies but as a sovereign nation. 

Liberty and Justice for All
Upon the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, New England played an important role in the establishment of the new United States government. True to their earliest roots, the people of New England always fought for true freedom and were always active opponents of slavery and proponents of the abolition of slavery in the United States. While the battles of the Civil War never quite reached as far north as New England, the region’s role in securing a stable postbellum country was prominent. 

Modernization of New England
New England was always a bastion of progressivism with an eye towards the future. Although the traces of the region’s colonial past can be seen in every major city and port town throughout New England, it has always been a sanctuary for modern thought. 

Like many of the Atlantic regions of the United States, New England was fertile ground for the industrial revolution, and the mansions of the industrialist families who made their fortune throughout the late 19th century stand proudly in Newport, Rhode Island.

Even today, while the countryside and quiet harbor towns of New England preserve their old town charm, the big cities like Boston and New York are contemporary metropolises that capture the hearts and minds of artists, residents, dreamers, and visitors alike. 

New England Culture at a Glance
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