Winthrop fleet ships

PTSD in the Massachusetts Bay Colony

In June, 1630 the Arbella sailed for New England with 300 English Puritans determined to establish “a Model of Christian Charity.” During the ten week passage across the Atlantic, passengers were confined to narrow quarters for ten weeks, living on short rations and without comfort. During the following decade, the Great Migration brought nearly 14,000 Puritan settlers, successful, mostly highly educated persons unprepared for the hardships that awaited them. Building a new society in the wilderness while surrounded by wild animals and hostile Indians induced transgenerational trauma and psychological symptoms that we now recognize as post-traumatic stress and mass conversion disorder, culminating in the Salem Witch Trials.

Death, Disease, Wolves and the Strangers Among Us

One of the first laws instituted by the Massachusetts Bay Colony was a bounty on wolves, and in early Ipswich, a rather disconcerting aspect of entering the Meeting House was the site of wolf heads nailed to the door. Even in 1723, wolves were so abundant and so near the meeting house, that parents would not allow their children to go and come without adult accompaniment.

Puritans warned out
“Warned out”

The prospect of raising a family in the New England wilderness was accompanied by hope and dread, with infectious diseases such as smallpox, measles, and diphtheria causing perhaps a fifth of the infants born to never see their first birthday, if indeed they and their mothers survived the rigors of childbirth. By September, 1630 Governor Winthrop wrote to his wife of “much mortality, sickness, and trouble,” and within a year, 200 of the settlers had died.

Martha Fones, the wife of John Winthrop Jr. died with an infant in the summer of 1634, the first of the Ipswich settlers to be buried. Winthrop sailed for England and returned with a new bride, but in 1636 the town was panic-struck when he accepted a commission to begin a plantation in Saybrook Connecticut. Deserted in the wilderness by their leader, their anxiety was relieved after a young man named Daniel Denison assumed the role.

Smallpox is exogenous to Africa, but Colonial expansion and the slavery trade spread the disease throughout the Americas. It was already a familiar enemy, killing up to 60% of those infected, and over 80% of infected children, and leaving the survivors seriously disfigured. From 1636 to 1698, Boston endured six epidemics of smallpox. Towns throughout the colony ordered that all persons infected with smallpox be removed to some isolated place, and be provided nurses or attendants, and food and clothing.. The most severe epidemic came in 1721 in which the population of Boston fled the city to other locations, infecting people throughout Massachusetts and the other colonies.

From the founding of the colony, the Puritans were highly selective of who they allowed to live with them. In the first year of its settlement, the Freemen of the Ipswich established “for our own peace and comfort” the exclusive right to determine the privileges of citizenship in the new community, and gave formal notice that “no stranger coming among us” could have place or standing without their permission. Beginning in 1656, laws forbade any captain to land Quakers, and any individual of that sect was to be severely whipped on his or her entrance, and none were allowed to speak with them. Newcomers who were unable to support themselves and their families were “warned out.”

King Phillip’s War (1675-1678)

Attack on Brookfield
King Philip’s assault on Brookfield

The collapse of traditional indigenous tribes and the genocidal loss of life led to a collective stress and anxiety among the Native American population as well. In May, 1660, a group of colonists moved from Ipswich to the Indian town Quaboag in Western Massachusetts, which they renamed Brookfield. Indian attacks known as “King Philips War” resulted in the destruction of Brookfield and the deaths of a dozen settlers on August 2, 1675. Metacomet, the leader of the Indian attacks known by the English as King Philip, led a bloody uprising of Wampanoag, Nipmuck, Pocumtuck and Narragansett tribes that lasted over a year and destroyed twelve frontier towns, the bloodiest war per capita in North American history.

Many of the Indians who had been scattered by the eventual success against King Phillip made their way to the tribes in Casco Bay, and incited them to rise against the white men in a two-year conflict known as the Eastern War. Hostilities began there in September, 1676. Men, women and little children were killed and scalped, houses and barns burned, and cattle driven away. A vigorous march by Massachusetts soldiers to confront a great gathering of Indians began a series of battles in Maine known as the Eastern War. On October 12, 1676 about 100 Indian warriors made an assault on an English settlement at Black Point near Portland, Maine and took a number of captives, including the son of Rev. Thomas Cobbett of Ipswich. At Black Point, Captain Lovett’s company was led into an ambush where he and about forty of his command were slain. The Arosagunticook chief Mugg Hegonwas was killed at the re-established garrison at Black Point on May 16, 1677.

Mason’s Claim

In 1620, Capt. John Mason had obtained title to all land between the Naumkeag and Merrimack Rivers (Salem to Newburyport) as a principal partner in a stock company known as the Plymouth Council for New England. When the Crown was restored in 1660 the old claim was revived by Captain Mason’s grandson Robert Tufton, who had his surname changed to Mason. King Charles II saw this as an opportunity to reclaim control of Massachusetts, “a prejudicial plantation” that was flaunting tariff and navigation laws.

Mason’s Claim threatened to invalidate every land title. On January 4, 1681, John T. Mason presented the King’s letter to the General Court, which ordered “all said tenants” to appear in Ipswich. At this hearing, which was held on Wednesday, February 14, 1681, residents protested that they had owned their lands for fifty years and defended them against the Indians without a penny from Robert Mason. The next year the General Court was allowed to hear the case in Boston, where the lawyers were instructed to consent to nothing that would infringe on the Charter. Mason turned his sights to New Hampshire, and Massachusetts was never turned into the personal fiefdom that Mason planned to call “Mariana.”

1684: The Massachusetts Bay Colony Charter is Revoked

The Ipswich Post Office Mural portrays the events of 1687 for which Ipswich is known as the Birthplace of American independence.

In 1684, King Charles II of England revoked the Colony’s charter. On August 23, 1687, the citizens of Ipswich, led by the Reverend John Wise, denounced the levy of taxes by the arbitrary government of Sir Edmund Andros. On April 18, 1689 leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony reclaimed control of the government from the crown-appointed governor, Sir Edmund Andros. Major Samuel Appleton of Ipswich was given the honor of handing Andros into the boat which conveyed him to prison on Castle Island in Boston Harbor, and was appointed to serve on the new ruling council.

1688-97: King William’s War (aka 2nd Indian War)

In 1689, Comte de Frontenac, governor general of New France sent a large force of French and Indians to drive the English from the settlements east of Falmouth, Maine which was then part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In September of that year, 200 Norridgewock, Penobscot, and Canada Indians attacked the settlements at Back Cove, now part of Portland. Major Benjamin Church arrived by sloop at sunrise at Fort Loyal, and After a fierce battle, Major Benjamin Church, who had already played an important part in King Phillip’s War, drove the Indians from the area. Over the next 9 years, Church led four raids against the ethnic French Acadians and Abenaki.

In 1693 the Abenaki offered to negotiate for peace, but the English refused their terms, and the war continued. The English at Fort William Henry fell to the Abenaki in August 1696, and the English were forced out of lower Kennebec. Forces from Massachusetts attacked the French-Indian coalition in Port Royal, Quebec and along Kennebec and Penobscot Rivers with little effect. France and England concluded a peace agreement in 1697, and in 1699 the Wabanaki followed. The upper Kennebec River became the southern boundary of New France.

Apparitions, Accusation, Witchcraft and Mass Hysteria

The strain, financial burden of the wars and the loss of young life had been so intense that the superstitious Puritans assumed the Devil to be the reason for their misery. In 1692, Gloucester was invaded by the apparitions of Indians and French known as the Spectral Leaguers. Their speech was in an unknown tongue, and the bullets of soldiers had no effect. Cotton Mather wrote that many believed “this whole matter to have been a Prodigious Piece of the Strange Descent from the Invisible World, then Made Upon Other Parts of the Country.”

In Salem Village in February 1692, two prepubescent girls Betty Parris (age nine) and her cousin Abigail Williams (age 11) began to have fits, complained of being pricked with pins and accused their neighbors of witchcraft. Some of the afflicted girls had been traumatized after losing one or both parents in King William’s War. The afflicted girls routinely described the Devil as a “dark man.”George Burroughs, the unpopular predecessor to Rev. Parris in Salem Village, had come from Maine, and returned there when the parish refused to pay him. Only five weeks before the accusations began, Indians had burned York Maine, 80 miles north of Salem, killing 48 people and taking 73 captives. When one of the accused confessed that the Devil had tempted her in Maine, Reverend Burroughs was arrested, charged with witchcraft and encouraging the Indians, and was hanged on Gallows Hill.

Enlightenment and Disease

The Rev. George Whitefield
The Rev. George Whitefield

Salem was the final gasp of the rigid Puritan theocracy, as the old leadership, no longer able to maintain control and obedience, succumbed to the Age of Reason. The minds of succeeding generations moved from godly pursuits in the period following the witch trials. It was not until the Rev. George Whitefield arrived in New England during the Great Awakening of the 1740’s that religious fervor would be revived.

Although the new century would bring scientific and medical advances, an epidemic of “throat distemper” raged in New England between 1735 and 1740. In 1736, scarlet fever was spreading out from Boston while the diphtheria epidemic was descending from the north. The contagion struck first in New Hampshire, killing almost 1% of the population. The epidemic spread south through the Massachusetts Bay Colonies, and eventually into Connecticut. By the time it had run its course, 5000 people had died, with more than 75 percent of the deaths being children.

War with the French

The Second Siege of Louisburg

Establishment of a border between French-speaking Acadia and New England was still unresolved following King William’s War.

Queen Anne’s War (1701–1713) broke out in Europe over who should succeed King Charles II to the Spanish Throne following the death in 1701. This set in motion the second in a series of French and Indian Wars in the Colonies. English Colonists in Northern Massachusetts were unable to mount an effective defense against raids by the French and Wabanaki Confederacy between the French and Wabanaki tribes. After a dozen years of fighting, Britain and France declared an armistice, and The Treaty of Portsmouth was ratified on July 13, 1713.

King George’s War erupted in 1744 primarily in the British provinces of New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Nova Scotia. The French fortress of Louisbourg, on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia was captured in 1745. The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle ended the war in 1748 and restored Louisbourg to France.

The French and Indian war (1754–1763) became the American theater of the Seven Years’ War of 1756–63. Defeated, France ceded its territory east of the Mississippi to Great Britain, which then remained the dominant colonial power in America.

Patriots vs Loyalists

A mob harassing British loyalists.

The French and Indian Wars created a massive national debt for Great Britain. Attempts to raise money by consolidating colonial administration and imposition of new taxes on the colonies met stiff resistance to subjection by the parent country and led to the American Revolution. Yet, historians have estimated that somewhat less than half of the colonists supported the rebellion, with 15 to 20 percent professing loyalty to the Crown, and at least 25,000 Loyalists fighting on the side of the British. Loyalists were paraded by mobs through towns on fence rails, and some were tarred and feathered, often the victims of politically-motivated violence by residents of their own communities. The American Revolution was the nation’s first civil war, resulting in permanent expulsion of 100,000 Tories from the newly-created United States. Many Loyalists fled to England and Canada.

As the harsh realities of yet another war set in, enthusiasm diminished and the colonies were forced to fill the ranks by inscription. Continental soldiers, many of whom were young, single, poor and devoid of property, were paid in worthless Continental currency known as “script.” Over 20,000 Colonists were killed or died as a result of disease and imprisonment by the British. After the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783 General Washington, addressed a gathering of soldiers at West Point, promising that the victory “enlarged prospects of happiness and personal independence.” In lieu of payment, soldiers were rewarded with land grants in the newly acquired Ohio territory, where they would endure hardships in the wilderness experienced by their ancestors a century before.

There was no mention in Washington’s exuberance of the emancipation of slaves, who constituted over 10% of the population. It was not until the 19th Century that the nation would end slavery at the cost of 620,000 lives.

A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience

References and further reading:

4 thoughts on “PTSD in the Massachusetts Bay Colony”

  1. The concept that the Puritans suffered from PTSD is very plausible and might even be an understatement based on all the evidence you presented in this article.

  2. Gordon, thanks for the thumbnail review of the vicissitudes suffered by our ancestors is founding this great country. Food for thought…

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