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Massachusetts State: US Encyclopedia For Students

Massachusetts State is a small state in the northeastern United States that has made contributions to the nation far greater than its size might suggest. The state, roughly rectangular in shape, is the seventh smallest in area. It lies at the center of New England, with Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine to the north and Rhode Island and Connecticut to the south. New York is to the west, and the Atlantic Ocean to the east.

Massachusetts State StampMassachusetts State, known legally as a commonwealth, was explored in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and was first permanently settled at PLYMOUTH in 1620. One of the thirteen original states, it was the sixth to ratify the Constitution. BOSTON, the capital of Massachusetts State, is the de facto capital of New England.

The name Massachusetts is thought to be of Algonquian origin and means “near the great hill.” The state has made many contributions to the nation in its cultural growth, its political activities, and its concern for social welfare. Like many of its neighboring states Massachusetts is working hard to maintain progress in the face of recent economic difficulties.

Massachusetts State: Land & Resources

Massachusetts State MapMassachusetts State displays a wide variety of topography within its small area, exhibiting on a small scale the landscapes found along the Atlantic Coastal Plain and the Appalachian mountain system. The western border of the state lies along the crest of the Taconic Mountains. Immediately to the east are the BERKSHIRE HILLS and the deep, narrow, north-south trending Berkshire Valley, eroded from soft limestones. Farther to the east is a high, rolling plateau of ancient crystalline rocks, deeply carved by Connecticut River tributaries.

The plateau gives way abruptly to the Connecticut River valley, which is nearly flat and up to 16-32 km (10-20 mi) wide. Its soils–a deep reddish brown derived from Triassic-age sandstones–are the state’s most fertile. Between the valley and the Atlantic Ocean is a hilly region of forests, lakes, and a few low mountains. Elevations decrease from west to east. Near the shoreline the topography displays little relief.

Southeastern Massachusetts is a low, sandy plain, interrupted by occasional moraines and other glacial debris. CAPE COD is an extension of glacial materials that reaches far into the open ocean. It is composed entirely of sand and gravel; bedrock lies far below sea level. The coast of Massachusetts varies from an occasional rocky headland, such as Cape Ann, to long sandy beaches, most of which are made up of glacial materials. MARTHA’s VINEYARD, NANTUCKET ISLAND, and the Elizabeth Islands lie offshore to the south.

Massachusetts is underlain with Paleozoic or pre-Paleozoic rocks. Igneous and metamorphic rocks, such as granites, gneisses, and schists, are common. Only the major river valleys contain sedimentary rocks on a large scale. Fossils are rare, and minerals of industrial value almost nonexistent.

Massachusetts State: Historical Sites

The state’s 350 years of continuous settlement have left Massachusetts with many historical houses, forts, factories, and battlegrounds. Remnants of earlier transportation systems include the nation’s first railroad, primitive canals, and extensive early turnpikes. Entire villages have been re-created with scrupulous care.

Boston’s historic sites are linked by a Freedom Trail, supervised by the National Park Service. Along the trail are the Old North Church, Paul Revere’s house, FANEUIL HALL, and the Old State House. A Black Heritage Trail and a Women’s History Trail recently have been established. The early Plymouth settlement is memorialized by several monuments and a re-creation of the original primitive settlement.

The battle areas associated with Lexington and Concord have been designated a National Historic Park. Many cities and towns have established historic districts. Several private organizations such as the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities serve as caretakers of important historic buildings. Homes of famous authors open to the public include those of Herman MELVILLE, Louisa May ALCOTT, Ralph Waldo EMERSON, and John Greenleaf WHITTIER. The site of the Walden Pond cabin where Henry David THOREAU lived has been found and excavated.


Tourism has grown in economic importance in Massachusetts since World War II. The state offers both a rich history and recreational opportunities. Many cities and towns have historic sites and exhibits for tourists.

Massachusetts State: History

Four themes dominate the history of this small but influential state: the importance of the individual and personal freedom and liberty; mercantile activity and entrepreneurship; inventiveness and industrial genius; and pioneering social action.

The pre-European population of Massachusetts was a small number of relatively independent native American tribes. In the late 16th century, European ships explored the New England coast, led by Giovanni da VERRAZANO in 1524 and Bartholomew GOSNOLD in 1602. Their explorations were based in part upon the information of Europeans on fishing voyages who had reached North America during the 16th century.

The Colonial Period

Interest in the commercial exploitation of New England grew in Europe, especially in England. The first permanent settlers in Massachusetts, however, were not fortune hunters but the religious group known as the PILGRIMS, whose first landfall was Cape Cod rather than their original Virginia destination. In December 1620 they landed at Plymouth, where they established a colony according to terms drawn up in the Mayflower Compact before debarking.

The Pilgrims were soon followed by other English settlers. The Dorchester Company founded a colony at Gloucester (1623) on Cape Ann and, after Gloucester’s failure, at Naumkeag (SALEM, 1626). In 1628 a party of Puritans led by John ENDECOTT settled at Salem under the auspices of the New England Company. The following year the MASSACHUSETTS BAY COMPANY was chartered as a successor to the New England Company; its first large group of Puritan settlers arrived in 1630 under the leadership of John Winthrop (see WINTHROP family). Winthrop established Boston as the capital of the colony and, together with cleric John COTTON, dominated its affairs for the next two decades.

PURITANISM was the overriding religiopolitical force in the Bay Colony, whose leaders sought to establish a Bible commonwealth. Citizenship (called freemanship) was restricted (until 1664) to church members. Religious dissenters, most notably Anne HUTCHINSON and Roger WILLIAMS, were banished from the colony. Within the framework of religious restriction, however, the colony early developed representative institutions. In 1632 the freemen gained the right to elect the governor directly, and in 1634 the freemen of each town won the right to send deputies to the General Court.

Throughout this early period new immigrants arrived, settling along the coast and a short distance inland. Farming, lumbering, and fishing were the principal occupations. Movement into the interior brought conflict with the Indians, as in the PEQUOT WAR (1637). In 1643 the Bay Colony formed the New England Confederation with Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven colonies to coordinate defense. The confederation acted most effectively during KING PHILIP’s WAR (1675-76).

Continual disagreements arose between the colonists and the English government, especially after the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660. Finally, in 1684 the colony’s charter was revoked, and in 1686 the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies were included in the Dominion of New England under Sir Edmund ANDROS. News of the GLORIOUS REVOLUTION in England prompted uprisings against Andros and the dissolution of the Dominion in 1689. Two years later a royal charter was issued that incorporated Plymouth Colony and the Province of Maine within Massachusetts but placed the extended colony under a royal governor and removed the religious qualification for voting. The authority of the Puritan clergy, already much weakened, was further diminished as a result of the SALEM WITCH TRIALS of 1692. The clergy, notably Increase and Cotton Mather (see MATHER family), were blamed for fanning the hysteria that led to the execution of 20 people.

Massachusetts experienced accelerated growth in the early 18th century; settlements arose in the interior, and the Connecticut Valley was settled. Mills were built along the smaller rivers and streams to grind grain, saw logs, forge iron, and process wool. Seaport towns grew and prospered as a lucrative overseas trade flourished. Ships carried timber and salt fish to the Caribbean and returned with molasses and sugar. Rum, distilled in Medford and Newburyport, was carried to West Africa along with cloth and simple utensils to be traded for slaves who were, in turn, carried to the Caribbean Islands and South America. These routes came to be known as the “Triangular Trade.” Rich shipowners and sea captains competed to build the grandest houses along the shore.

From the Revolution to the Civil War

The various taxes put forth by the British after 1730 for replenishment of the British treasury were unpopular in thriving Massachusetts. The so-called Molasses Act, Sugar Act, and STAMP ACT, followed by the TOWNSHEND ACTS, stimulated colonial opposition that led to the BOSTON MASSACRE of 1770 and the BOSTON TEA PARTY in 1773. The British closed the port of Boston, and two years later, a search-and-destroy mission by British troops precipitated the Battles of LEXINGTON AND CONCORD.

Massachusetts was briefly the focus of attention at the start of the AMERICAN REVOLUTION. In June 1775 the Battle of BUNKER HILL proved to be a costly victory for the British. In 1776 they evacuated Boston, and fighting ended on Massachusetts soil.

Massachusetts patriots, including John ADAMS, Samuel ADAMS, and John HANCOCK, were leaders in the Revolution, and the state continued to provide leadership for the young American republic. Massachusetts had regained its economic momentum when the embargoes and trade restrictions of the early 19th century again curbed overseas trade. General opposition to the WAR OF 1812 brought on talk of secession at the HARTFORD CONVENTION (1814-15). The war finally ended with minimal help from Massachusetts, however, and economic growth again accelerated.

The decades before the Civil War were prosperous ones. Farming spread into the farthest valleys of the Berkshires, often into areas ill suited to cultivation. Canals, toll roads, and railroads were built connecting all of the principal cities. Factories were built along the rivers. The textile industry, which was to dominate the state’s economy for the next century, gained its initial momentum under capitalists like Francis Cabot LOWELL. Workers were first recruited from local farms and villages, but in the mid-1840s the first non-English immigrants, the Irish, arrived. The long British cultural hegemony was over.

The mill cities grew rapidly, sometimes doubling their population in less than a decade. As waterpower sites proved inadequate for large-scale factory expansion, steam engines powered by coal were used. Nevertheless, mill workers expressed growing discontent over working conditions.

The Civil War was entered with great enthusiasm, especially because Massachusetts had a long history of ABOLITIONIST sentiment. The state was a major arsenal for the war, with guns, blankets, tents, and shoes produced in vast quantities.

Economic Change

The late 19th century was the state’s greatest industrial period. Massachusetts was a national leader in the production not only of textiles and shoes but also of textile and shoemaking machinery, silverware, machine tools, glass, paper, rubber products, locomotives, guns, and fire engines. From 1900 to 1910, however, many factories, which had become increasingly obsolescent, closed. Textile companies established new mills and new corporate headquarters in the southern states. The tenements of the mill cities were aging and unable to meet the most modest health and building standards.

Service industries, however, were beginning to assume a new role in the Massachusetts economy. Banking and insurance, important in the era of industrial expansion and transportation growth, reached out for new markets in the West. Retailing and wholesaling expanded to serve the new urban populations. Many office and clerical jobs were created in cities like Boston, Worcester, and Springfield.

The Depression of the 1930s was especially severe in those communities already hard hit by the closing of textile and shoe factories. World War II temporarily reversed this trend as the state became a leading producer of war materiel. The traditional industries of shipbuilding and machinery were greatly expanded, along with local development of new products such as radar, sonar, and jet engines.

In the post-World War II era Massachusetts has played a national leadership role in social and political activities. The presidency of John F. KENNEDY recalled the long political tradition of the state. Agriculture and fishing are in decline, but beginning in the 1950s, Massachusetts’s economy generally was revitalized, with electronics, nonelectrical machinery, and computer-oriented industries stimulating growth. Service industries have continued to expand, especially in the areas of banking, insurance, health care, and higher education. The early 1990s have found Massachusetts coping with substantial job losses in its manufacturing sector, especially in its important electronics industry. The principal problems facing the state, however, lie in its urban areas, where the incidence of violent crime, the distribution and use of illegal drugs, and the general deterioration of social services are on the increase.

Massachusetts State: Land

  • Area: 27,337 sq km (10,555 sq mi); rank: 44th.
  • Capital and largest city: Boston (1990 pop., 574,283).
  • Counties: 14.
  • Elevations: highest–1,063 m (3,487 ft), at Mount Greylock; lowest–sea level, at the Atlantic coast.

Massachusetts State: Symbols

Massachusetts State Flag
Feb. 6, 1788; the 6th state.
Bay State
Massachusetts State Bird
American elm
Massachusetts State Flower
Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem (“By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty”)
“Hail, Massachusetts.”


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