As these Puritans from the east of England sailed slowly across the western sea, every family among them was ordered by the Massachusetts Bay Company to keep a journal, which became a running record of their hopes and apprehensions for the New World. Francis Higginson’s advance party sailed in the ships Talbot and Lion’s Whelp. Their first sight of America was not encouraging. In the month of June 1629, when England was all in bloom, these weary travelers reached the Grand Bank of Newfoundland. Suddenly the wind turned bitter cold, and they passed an enormous iceberg hard aground in forty fathoms of frigid water, with the green Atlantic surf roaring against it. It seemed to be “a mountain of ice, shining as white as snow, like to a great rock or cliff,” towering above their little ships. In great fear they sailed onward through a foggy night, while drift ice scraped dangerously against fragile hulls, and the ships’ drums beat mournfully in the darkness.
A few days later the weather moderated and spirits revived. As these weary travelers approached New England, the ocean teemed with “infinite multitudes” of mackerel and “great whales puffing up water.” The surface of the sea was covered with what Francis Higginson took to be brilliant yellow flowers. Rounding Cape Ann into Massachusetts Bay, they saw “every island full of gay woods and high trees,” and the Higginsons suddenly felt very good about their new home:
What with fine woods and green trees by land, and these yellow flowers painting the sea, made us all desirous to see our new paradise of New England, whence we saw such forerunning signals of fertility.1
Not many people would have seen that stormy, cold and rock-bound coast as a “new paradise.” But the Puritans looked upon the world through very special lenses. “Geography,” wrote Cotton Mather, “must now find work for a Christianography.”2
The New England location of this Bible Commonwealth was not an accident; its site was carefully chosen by the Puritans with an eye to their special requirements. It proved to be a perfect
choice for a Calvinist utopia. Even the defects of the place were blessings in disguise for the builders of the Bay colony.
The first and most important environmental fact about New England is that it was cold—much colder in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries than today. The Puritans arrived in a period of the earth’s history which climatologists call the “little ice age.” Ocean temperatures off the coast of New England were three degrees centigrade colder in the eighteenth century than the mid-twentieth. In the coldest years of the seventeenth century, the water temperature off New England approached that near southern Labrador today.3The Puritans complained of “piercing cold,” and salt rivers frozen solid through the winter. One wrote that many lost the use of fingers and feet, and “some have had their overgrown beards so frozen together that they could not get their strong-water bottles into their mouths.”4
But after the first few years, this cold climate proved to be a blessing. It created an exceptionally healthy environment for settlers from northern Europe. Insect-born diseases such as malaria and yellow fever were less dangerous than in southern settlements. Water-borne infections including typhoid fever and dysentery were much diminished by the cold temperatures of Massachusetts Bay. Summer diseases such as enteritis, which were the great killers of children in the seventeenth century, tended to be comparatively mild in the Puritan colonies. These New England advantages were only relative; terrible epidemics would develop throughout this region. But average rates of mortality in Massachusetts fell far below most other places in the Western world.5
At the same time, the cold climate also had other cultural consequences. It proved to be exceptionally dangerous to immigrants from tropical Africa, who suffered severely from pulmonary infections in New England winters. Black death rates in colonial Massachusetts were twice as high as whites’—a pattern very different from Virginia where mortality rates for the two races were not so far apart, and still more different from South Carolina where white death rates were higher than those of blacks. So high was mortality among African immigrants in New England that race slavery was not viable on a large scale, despite many attempts to introduce it. Slavery was not impossible in this region, but the human and material costs were higher than many wished to pay. A labor system which was fundamentally hostile to the Puritan ethos of New England was kept at bay partly by the climate.6
The climate also had its impact on the growing season, which was shorter in the seventeenth century than today. There were only about five months between killing frosts. This period, from late May to early October, was two months shorter than in tidewater Virginia. Family farms flourished in New England, but large-scale staple agriculture was not as profitable as in warmer climes.
Another environmental factor was the land. New England’s terrain was immensely varied, with pockets of highly fertile soil. “At Charles River,” wrote Francis Higginson, “is as fat black earth as can be seen anywhere.” Concord, Sudbury and Dedham also had excellent soil, as did many other towns in Essex and Middlesex County. But most of the land was very poor—thin sandy scrub on the south shore of Massachusetts, and stony loams to the north. Much of the coast consisted of rocky shoals or marshes, and the rivers were not navigable for more than a few miles into the interior. By comparison with the Chesapeake estuary, there were comparatively few points of access for ocean shipping. Both of these factors—the distribution of pockets of good soil and the configuration of the coastline—encouraged settlement in nucleated towns.7
The climate of New England was wet and stormy—with forty inches of precipitation a year, compared with twenty-five inches in East Anglia. The weather in the seventeenth century was even more variable than in the twentieth. It was kept in constant turmoil by the continuing collision of warm dry air from the west, cold dry air from the north, cold wet air from the east, and warm wet air from the south. When these air masses met above New England, the meteorological effects were apt to be spectacular. The countryside was lashed by violent blizzards, drenched by thunderstorms, raked by tornadoes, and attacked by dangerous three-day nor’easters which churned the coastal waters of New England into a seaman’s hell.8
But there were no dry and rainy seasons in New England. The average distribution of precipitation through the year was remarkably even; no month averaged more than four inches of moisture or less than three. As a consequence, the water supply in New England was abundant and stable, with little need for hydraulic projects or public regulation.9
Cool temperatures and a variable climate created an immensely stimulating environment for an active population. European travelers repeatedly observed with astonishment the energy of the inhabitants. One visitor noted that New England children seem normally to move at a full run. Another remarked that their elders invented the rocking chair so they could keep moving even while sitting still. These impressions have been empirically confirmed by the new science of biometeorology which measures the animating effect of variability in atmospheric pressure and ozone levels. It finds that the New England climate was in fact immensely stimulating to human enterprise.10
Altogether, the environment of Massachusetts proved to be perfectly suited for a Puritan experiment. The climate was rigorous but healthy and invigorating. The land was challenging but rewarding. For historian Arnold Toynbee, New England was the classical example of a “hard country” which stimulated its inhabitants to high achievements through a process of “challenge and response.” The vitality of this regional culture owed much to its physical setting.11