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Puritan farmers or farming puritans : physical geography and agricultural practices in New England community formation Maroc, Donald E.

Abstract

A large number of Englishmen, predominantly from the West Country and East Anglia, began the settlement of New England in 1630. In the sparsely populated North American wilderness they established a new society. The foundation for their New England community lay in the English experience which they brought to the New World. When a group of men consciously agree to form a new community it is essential that they share certain aspirations, needs and experiences. The form of this new society results from an effort to fulfill and satisfy their common characteristics. An agricultural occupation was the experience shared by the Englishmen who settled the town of Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1630. Their common needs included finding an environment in which the physical geography fit their accustomed agricultural practices. A large majority of the settlers of Dorchester came from the three West Country counties of Somerset, Dorset, and Devon. The Somerset and Dorset emigrants were from regions known for their dairy products since the Middle Ages. The Devonshiremen, in contrast, had lived in that county's grain and fruit producing sections. At the time the Dorchester settlers left their English homes economic conditions in the West Country pressed hard on individual farming families. Increased demand for agricultural products in emerging urban areas caused rents and the cost of good land to multiply rapidly. Price increases outran incomes and many people, in trying to escape the rural hard times, found themselves among the urban unemployed in cities such as Dorchester, in Dorset, and Exeter, in Devon. In an effort to understand the motivation for both the impulse to emigrate from England and the formation of a new community at Dorchester in Massachusetts Bay, a crisis situation was selected for study. During 1635 and 1636 one-third of Dorchester's population moved to the Connecticut River Valley. As with all of New England's history this event has been interpreted on the basis of either its religious or political significance. The people of Dorchester have been portrayed as fleeing from an increasingly rigid and narrow religious orthodoxy in the Bay Colony, or as democractically inclined frontiersmen escaping the oppressive, feudal oligarchy of the Massachusetts leaders. The people of Dorchester who established Windsor, Connecticut in 1636 did not fit either of these categories. They were dairy farmers and cattle raisers from Somerset and Dorset, together with a few east county men, whose Dorchester lands were not compatible with their agricultural practices. The Connecticut Valley, particularly at Windsor where they settled, provided the meadowlands and pasturage absolutely necessary to the successful maintenance of their cattle. The native grasses in the river-bottom meadows and higher pastures grew in red sandstone-based loams, reminiscent of the best soils in Somerset and Dorset. It is concluded that it was cattle, not religious doctrine or politics, which split the Dorchester community and resulted in the foundation of Windsor, Connecticut. It is suggested that while religion and politics were important to seventeenth-century New England husbandmen, as social determinants these were decidedly subordinate to the soil and the agricultural use of that soil.

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