Some 15,000 years ago, when the last of the glaciers receded from the land we call Massachusetts, what remained was a rocky surface scoured of most of its topsoil. In time, however, forests grew to support a rich variety of wildlife. When the first Indians arrived from the south, game abounded and fish were plentiful in streams and along the coast. These first Indians were hunter-gatherers; their successors not only foraged for food but also cleared fields for planting corn (maize) and squash. Periodically they burned away the woodland underbrush, a technique of forest management that stimulated the vegetation that supported game. When English settlers arrived, they encountered five main Algonkian tribes: the Nauset, a fishing people on Cape Cod; the Wampanoag in the southeast; the Massachusetts in the northeast; the Nipmuc in the central hills; and the Pocumtuc in the west.
The earliest European explorers—including the Norsemen, who may have reached Cape Cod—made no apparent impact on these Algonkian groups, but in the wake of John and Sebastian Cabot's voyages (1497 and following), fishermen from England, France, Portugal, and Spain began fishing off the Massachusetts coast. By the mid-16th century, they were regularly going ashore to process and pack their catch. Within 50 years, fur trading with the Indians was established.
Permanent English settlement, which would ultimately destroy the Algonkian peoples, began in 1620 when a small band of Puritans left their haven at Leiden in the Netherlands to start a colony in the northern part of Virginia lands, near the Hudson River. Their ship, the Mayflower, was blown off course by an Atlantic storm, and they landed on Cape Cod before settling in an abandoned Wampanoag village they called Plymouth. Ten years later, a much larger Puritan group settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony, some miles to the north in Salem. Between 1630 and 1640, about 20,000 English people, chiefly Puritans, settled in Massachusetts with offshoots moving to Connecticut and Rhode Island.
The leaders of the Massachusetts settlement, most notably John Winthrop, a country gentleman with some legal training, intended to make their colony an exemplary Christian society. Though church and state were legally separate, they were mutually reinforcing agencies; thus, when Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson were separately found guilty of heresy in the 1630s, they were banished by the state. All male church members had a voice in both church and state leadership, though both institutions were led by college-educated men. In order to provide for future leaders, Harvard College (now Harvard University) was founded in 1636.
After the beginning of the English revolution in 1640, migration to Massachusetts declined abruptly. Farming soon overtook fishing and fur trading in economic importance; after the trade in beaver skins was exhausted, the remaining Indian tribes were decimated in King Philip's War (1675–76). Shipbuilding and Atlantic commerce also brought prosperity to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which was granted a new charter by King William and Queen Mary in 1692, merging Massachusetts and the colony of Plymouth. In that year, 19 people were executed for witchcraft on the gallows at Salem before Massachusetts authorities put a stop to the proceedings.
During the 18th century, settlement spread across the entire colony. Boston, the capital, had attained a population of 15,000 by 1730; it was an urbane community of brick as well as wooden buildings, with nearly a dozen church spires distinguishing its skyline by the 1750s. Religious revivals, also occurring elsewhere in America, swept Massachusetts in the 1730s and 1740s, rekindling piety and dividing the inhabitants into competing camps. Although the conflicts had ebbed by the 1750s, Massachusetts did not achieve unity again until the resistance to British imperial actions during the next two decades.
Up to this time, imperial government had rested lightly on Massachusetts, providing more advantages than drawbacks for commerce. The colony had actively supported British expeditions against French Canada, and supply contracts during the French and Indian War had enriched the economy. But the postwar recession after 1763 was accompanied by a new imperial policy that put pressure on Massachusetts as well as other colonies. None of the crown's three objectives—tight regulation of trade, the raising of revenue, and elimination of key areas of colonial political autonomy—were popular among the merchants, tradespeople, and farmers of Massachusetts. From 1765, when Bostonians violently protested the Stamp Act, Massachusetts was in the vanguard of the resistance.
At first, opposition was largely confined to Boston and surrounding towns, although the legislature, representing the entire colony, was active in opposing British measures. By December 1773, when East India Company tea was dumped into Boston harbor to prevent its taxation, most of the colony was committed to resistance. Newspaper polemics composed by Samuel Adams and his cousin John, among others, combined with the persuasive activities of the Boston Committee of Correspondence, helped convince a majority of Massachusetts residents that the slogan "no taxation without representation" stood for the preservation of their communities. When Parliament retaliated for the Tea Party by closing the port of Boston in 1774, rescinding the colony's 1692 charter, and remaking the government to put it under London's control, Massachusetts was ready to rebel. Military preparations began immediately on both sides. After almost a year of confrontation, battle began at Lexington and Concord on 19 April 1775. By this time, Massachusetts had the backing of the Continental Congress.
For Massachusetts, the battlefield experience of the Revolution was largely confined to 1775, the climaxes being the Battle of Bunker Hill and the British evacuation of Boston the following year. Thereafter, Massachusetts soldiers were active throughout the colonies, but the theater of action shifted southward. A new republican constitution, adopted in 1780, was the first state constitution to be submitted to the electorate for ratification.
Social and economic conditions in post-Revolutionary Massachusetts were much like those of the colonial era. Although the Shays Rebellion, an uprising of central and western farmers led by Daniel Shays in 1786–87, challenged the political hegemony of commercially oriented eastern leaders, the latter succeeded in maintaining their hold on the state. Massachusetts, which entered the Union on 6 February 1788, was the center of Federalism from 1790 until the mid-1820s. Although Jeffersonian Republicans and Jacksonian Democrats achieved substantial followings, Federalist policies, embodied in the Whigs in the 1830s and the Republicans from the late 1850s, were dominant. This political continuity was based on the importance of national commercial and industrial development to the state.
Even before 1800, it was clear that Massachusetts could not sustain growth in agriculture. Its soil had never been excellent, and the best lands were tired, having been worked for generations with little regard for conservation. Much of the state's population departed for New York, Ohio, and beyond during the first decades of the 19th century. Those who stayed maintained productive agriculture, concentrating more and more on fruits and dairying, but they also developed commerce and industry. At Waltham, Lowell, and Lawrence the first large-scale factories in the US were erected, and smaller textile mills throughout the state helped to make Massachusetts a leader in the cloth industry. At Springfield and Watertown, US armories led the way in metalworking, while shoes and leather goods brought prosperity to Lynn, and whale products and shipbuilding to New Bedford. By the 1850s, steam engines and clipper ships were both Bay State products.
The industrial development of Massachusetts was accompanied by a literary and intellectual flowering that was partly in reaction to the materialism and worldliness associated with urban and industrial growth. Concord, the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and a cluster of others, became the center of the transcendentalist movement in philosophy. Social reform also represented an assertion of moral values, whether in the field of education, health care, temperance, or penology. Abolitionism, the greatest of the moral reform efforts, found some of its chief leaders in Massachusetts, among them William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, as well as a host of supporters.
In the years following the Civil War, Massachusetts emerged as an urban industrial state. Its population, fed by immigrants from England, Scotland, Germany, and especially Ireland, grew rapidly in the middle decades of the century. Later, between 1880 and 1920, another wave of immigrants came from French Canada, Italy, Russia, Poland, Scandinavia, Portugal, Greece, and Syria. Still later, between 1950 and 1970, black southerners and Puerto Ricans settled in the cities.
From the election of Lincoln in 1860 through the 1920s, Massachusetts was led by Protestant Yankee Republicans; most Democrats were Catholics. Class, ethnic, and religious tensions were endemic, occasionally erupting into open conflict. Three such episodes gained national attention. In 1912, immigrant textile workers in Lawrence were pitted against Yankee capitalists. A highly publicized strike of 1919 had the largely Irish-American police force rebelling against Yankees in city and state government, and brought Governor Calvin Coolidge—who suppressed the strike and refused to reinstate the striking policemen—to national prominence. In 1921, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian immigrant anarchists, were convicted for a payroll robbery and murder, though there was bitter controversy regarding the quality of the evidence against them. Before they were executed in 1927, their case and the issues it raised polarized political opinion throughout the US. Subsequently, electoral competition between Democrats and Republicans emerged as a less divisive outlet for class and ethnic tensions. Since 1959, the Democrats have enjoyed ascendance statewide, and Republicans have won only when their candidates stood close to the Democrats on the issues. Party loyalties as such have waned, however.
The Massachusetts economy, relatively stagnant between 1920 and 1950, revived in the second half of the 20th century through a combination of an educated and skilled workforce, capital resources, and political clout. As the old industries and the mill cities declined, new high-technology manufacturing developed in Boston's suburban perimeter, centering on start-up manufacturing firms along Route 128 outside Boston. Electronics, computers, and defense-oriented industries led the way, stimulating a general prosperity in which service activities such as banking, insurance, health care, and higher education were especially prominent. As a result, white-collar employment and middle-class suburbs flourished, though run-down mill towns and Yankee dairy farms and orchards still dotted the landscape.
In this respect, as in its politics, Massachusetts resembled many other areas of the Northeast. It was a multiracial state in which the general welfare was defined by shifting coalitions of ethnic groups and special interests. From a national perspective, Massachusetts voters appeared liberal; the Bay State was the only one to choose Democrat George McGovern over President Richard M. Nixon in 1972, and, since the 1970s, has been a perennially secure base for Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Yet Boston was also the site of some of the most extreme anti-integration tension during the same era; Massachusetts was simultaneously a center of efforts in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment and against abortion.
Massachusetts's defiance of political categories continued into the 1990s. In 1990, blaming the current governor, Democrat Michael Dukakis, for the economy's decline, Massachusetts voters elected a Republican, William Weld, as governor. Yet Weld in fact espoused a blend of liberal and conservative positions. A fiscal conservative who called for cutting taxes and reducing programs such as Medicaid and state employee pension plans, Weld took a liberal stance on social issues, supporting gay rights, abortion rights, and strict protection of the environment. In August 1997, Weld resigned as governor to pursue an appointment as ambassador to Mexico.
Beginning in 1989, the Massachusetts economy declined dramatically, losing 14% of its total jobs in three years. Like other parts of New England, Massachusetts was hit hard by the recession of the early 1990s, and the state's economic woes were aggravated by the collapse in the late 1980s of speculative real estate ventures. The saturation of the real estate market forced retrenchments not only of that industry but of construction as well. By 1992, a number of indications suggested that a recovery had begun to take hold, aided in part by the privatization of highway maintenance, prison health care, and some other state-run operations.
By the mid-1990s, the Massachusetts economy was in the midst of a vigorous upturn, credited largely to the strength of its leading local industries, including software and mutual funds, and the health of the US economy as a whole. In 1996 the state's unemployment level fell to 4%, the lowest it had been since 1989. By 1999 the unemployment rate had dropped further, to 3.2%. Its 1998 per capita income of $32,902 was the 3rd highest in the nation and had grown at the 2nd-fastest rate (2nd only to that of Wyoming).
The thriving economy came to an abrupt halt in 2001, as the US entered a recession marked by a large increase in job losses. As of mid-2003, Massachusetts had a $3 billion budget deficit. Issues facing the legislature in 2003 included Medicaid spending and a prescription drug program for senior citizens. The state Senate had approved a measure calling for a ban on smoking in the workplace, which was being considered by the House of Representatives. In addition, the state was considering the legality of same-sex marriages. Republican Governor Mitt Romney, a business executive and fiscal conservative elected in 2002, took a liberal stand on some social issues, such as supporting abortion choice and gay rights, but he also advocated reinstatement of the death penalty.
Balancing development with environmental conservation was among the issues the state grappled with at the dawn of the 21st century. In 2000 the legislature approved a statewide initiative to preserve open space through local land-acquisition funds. The funds were to come from a $20 surcharge on all transactions at the Registry of Deeds and Land Court; communities would also be given the option to allow voters to approve a property tax increase of up to 3% to support the measure.
The state was the setting of a national controversy in April 2000: in a report condemning lax oversight of the largest public works project in US history, a federal task force charged that managers of Boston's multibillion-dollar highway project intentionally concealed cost overruns. Known as "Big Dig," the massive project includes building a 10-lane expressway under Boston and extending the Massachusetts Turnpike beneath Boston Harbor to Logan International Airport. State officials had revealed in February that the project, which began in 1991, was $1.4 billion over its $10.8 billion budget, making it more expensive than the Boston Harbor clean-up. The project to restore the harbor, considered the nation's filthiest in 1990, was drawing to a successful close in 2000, in spite of cost overruns. Portions of the highway project, including the extention of I-90 through the Ted Williams Tunnel to Logan Airport were completed in January 2003. The entire project was expected to be completed by 2004.
Massachusetts was at the center of the sexual abuse scandals plaguing the Catholic Church in the early 2000s. Cardinal Bernard F. Law stepped down as Archbishop of Boston in December 2002 after widespread criticism of his handling of charges that priests sexually abused children, and of allegations of cover-ups. The Vatican replaced Law with Sean Patrick O'Malley as Archbishop of Boston in 2003.