Viewed from a distance, New England's history mirrors that of its namesake, England. The region rose from nowhere to gain tremendous historical prominence, captured a good deal of overseas trade, and became an industrial powerhouse and center for creative thought. And then the party ended relatively abruptly, as commerce and culture sought more fertile grounds to the west and south.
To this day, New England remains linked to its past. Walking through Boston, layers of history are evident at every turn, from the church steeples of Colonial times (dwarfed by glass-sided skyscrapers) to verdant parklands that bespeak the refined sensibility of the late Victorian era.
History is even more inescapable in off-the-beaten-track New England. Travelers in Down East Maine, northern New Hampshire, Connecticut's Litchfield Hills, the Berkshires, and much of Vermont will find clues to what Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called "the irrevocable past" every way they turn, from stone walls running through woods to Federal-style homes.
Here's a brief overview of some historical episodes and trends that shaped New England:
Native Americans have inhabited New England since about 7000 B.C. While New York's Iroquois Indians had a presence in Vermont, New England was inhabited chiefly by Algonquins who lived a nomadic life. Connecticut was home to some 16 Algonquin tribes, who dubbed the region Quinnetukut.
After the arrival of Europeans, French Catholic missionaries succeeded in converting many Native Americans, and most tribes sided with the French in the French and Indian Wars of the 17th and 18th centuries. Afterward, the Indians fared poorly at the hands of the British and were quickly pushed to the margins. Today, they live in greatest concentrations at several reservations in Maine. The Pequot and Mohegan have established a thriving gaming industry in Connecticut. Several museums in the region, including Connecticut’s world-class Mashantucket Pequot Museum preserve the history and culture of New England’s First Peoples.
Viking explorers from Newfoundland may or may not have sailed southward into New England -- stories abound -- but what's certain is that the European colonists arrived in the very early 17th century and eventually displaced entirely the native American culture that existed in the region.
It began in 1604, when some 80 French colonists spent a winter on a small island on what today is the Maine-New Brunswick border. They did not care for the harsh weather of their new home and left in spring to resettle in present-day Nova Scotia. In 1607, 3 months after the celebrated Jamestown, Virginia, colony was founded, another group of 100 settlers (this time from England) established a community at Popham Beach, in present-day Phippsburg, Maine. The Maine winter demoralized these would-be colonists as well, and they returned to England the following year.
The colonization of the region began in earnest with the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock in 1620. The Pilgrims -- a religious group that had split from the Church of England -- established the first permanent colony, although it came at a hefty price: Half the group perished during the first winter. But the colony began to thrive over the years, in part thanks to helpful Native Americans.
The success of the Pilgrims lured other settlers from England, who established a constellation of small towns outside of Boston that became the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Roger Williams was expelled from the colony for his religious beliefs; he founded the city of Providence, Rhode Island. Other restless colonists expanded their horizons in search of lands for settlement. Throughout the 17th century, colonists from Massachusetts pushed northward into what are now New Hampshire and Maine, and southward into Connecticut. The first areas to be settled were lands near protected harbors along the coast and on navigable waterways.
The more remote settlements came under attack in the 17th and early 18th centuries in a series of raids by Indians conducted both independently and in concert with the French. These proved temporary setbacks; colonization continued throughout New England into the 18th century.
The American Revolution
Starting around 1765, Great Britain launched a series of ham-fisted economic policies to reign in the increasingly feisty colonies. These included a direct tax—the Stamp Act—to pay for a standing army. The oppressive move provoked strong resistance. Under the banner of “No taxation without representation,” disgruntled colonists engaged in a series of riots, resulting in the Boston Massacre of 1770, when British soldiers fired upon a mob of protesters, killing five.
In 1773, the most infamous protest took place in Boston. The British had imposed the Tea Act (giving the East India Company an advantage in the colonial market), which prompted a group of colonists disguised as Mohawk tribesmen to board three British ships and dump 342 chests of tea into the harbor. This incident was dubbed the Boston Tea Party.
Hostilities heightened in 1775, when the British sought to quell unrest in Massachusetts. A contingent of British soldiers was sent to Lexington to seize military supplies and arrest high-profile rebels John Hancock and Samuel Adams. The militia formed by the colonists exchanged gunfire with the British at Concord, thereby igniting the Revolution (“the shot heard round the world").
Notable battles in New England included the Battle of Bunker Hill outside Boston, which the British won but at tremendous cost; and the Battle of Bennington in Vermont, in which the colonists prevailed. Hostilities ended following the British surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, and in 1783, Britain recognized the United States as a sovereign nation.
Farming & Trade
As the new republic matured, economic growth in New England followed two tracks. Residents of inland communities survived by farming and trading in furs. Vermont, in particular, has always been an agrarian state, and remains a prominent dairy producer to this day.
On the coast, boatyards sprang up from Connecticut to Maine, and ship captains made tidy fortunes trading lumber for sugar and rum in the Caribbean. Trade was dealt a severe blow following the Embargo Act of 1807, but commerce eventually recovered, and New England ships could be encountered everywhere around the globe.
The growth of the railroad in the mid-19th century was another boon. The train opened up much of the interior and led to towns springing up overnight, such as White River Junction, Vermont. The rail lines allowed local resources -- such as the fine marbles and granites from Vermont -- to be easily shipped to markets to the south.
An Industrial Revolution
New England's Industrial Revolution found seed around the time of the embargo of 1807. Barred from importing English fabrics, Americans built their own textile mills. Other common household products were also manufactured domestically, especially shoes. Towns like Lowell, Massachusetts; Lewiston, Maine; and Manchester, New Hampshire, became centers of textile and shoe production. In Connecticut, the manufacture of arms and clocks emerged as major industries. Today industry no longer plays the prominent role it once did -- manufacturing first moved to the South, then overseas.
Tourism Boom, Economic Bust
In the mid- and late 19th century, New Englanders discovered a new cash cow: the tourist. All along the Eastern Seaboard, it became fashionable for the affluent and eventually the working class to set out for excursions to the mountains and the shore. Regions such as the Berkshires, the White Mountains, and Block Island were lifted by the tide of summer visitors. The tourism wave crested in the 1890s in Newport, Rhode Island, and Bar Harbor, Maine, both of which attracted society’s biggest names. Several grand resort hotels from tourism’s golden era still host travelers in the region.
But this economic rebirth would not last long. While railways allowed New England to thrive in the mid–19th century, the trains also eventually played a pivotal role in undermining the region’s prosperity. The driving of the Golden Spike in 1869 in Utah, linking America’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts by rail, was heard loud and clear in New England, and it had a discordant ring. Transcontinental rail meant farmers and manufacturers could ship goods from the fertile Great Plains and California to faraway markets, making it harder for New Englanders to compete. Likewise, the coastal shipping trade was dealt a fatal blow by this new transportation network. And the tourists set their sights on the Rockies and other stirring destinations in the West.
Beginning in the late 19th century, New England lapsed into an extended economic slumber. Families walked away from their farmhouses (there was no resale market) and set off for regions with more opportunities. The abandoned, decaying farmhouse almost became an icon for New England, and vast tracts of farmland were reclaimed by forest. With the rise of the automobile, many grand resorts closed their doors as inexpensive motels siphoned off their business.
Tourism & Tech: A Second Wind
During the last 2 decades of the 20th century, much of New England rode an unexpected wave of prosperity. A massive real-estate boom shook the region in the 1980s, driving land prices sky-high as prosperous buyers from New York and Boston acquired vacation homes or retired to the most alluring areas. In the 1990s, the sudden rise of high-tech companies in the Boston area, riding the Internet wave, sent ripples from Boston out into the hinterlands of Maine and New Hampshire. New York City's rebound as a world-class tourism destination brought fresh jobs, money, and homeowners pouring into Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Tourism also rebounded as the newly harried urbanites of the Eastern Seaboard opted for shorter, more frequent vacations closer to home during economic dips.
As the 400th anniversary of the Virginia-bound Pilgrims’ fateful landing approaches in 2020, New England continues to embrace those seeking to chart a new course. Yankee ingenuity—in the form of 21st-century “inventions” like Harvard-born Facebook—are making our world smaller, more connected, and easier to discover. Yet, there’s more joy than ever in ignoring your GPS’s instructions and heeding Robert Frost’s instead. Take “the road less traveled by” whenever you can.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.