[ Coming to America ]


During the Age of Discovery, European nations used their maritime prowess, backed by naval might, to create colonies all around the globe. Refinements in navigation, cartography, shipbuilding and metallurgy, as well as control of the seas, were integral parts of the colonization of the New World. Many “Old World” empires like Great Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands, relied on maritime dominance to maintain power over their colonies. Once sea power was lost, colonies as political entities often collapsed.

Based largely on Gosnold’s assessment of the quality of the harbors in Buzzards Bay along with their adjacent natural resources, and John Smith’s pronouncement that “Heaven & earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation,” English “gentlemen, ignorant of toyle and labour” were enticed to colonize the New World.

One has to ask, when explorers “discovered” land where native peoples were already living, did they have a right to claim those lands?


“We have this hope as an anchor of the soul, firm and secure”
–Hebrews 6:19


Engraving by Theodor Galle after a drawing by Jan van der Straet, The Discovery of America, 1630.Engraving by Theodor Galle after a drawing by Jan van der Straet, The Discovery of America, 1630.

In this image, Amerigo Vespucci stands before an allegorical figure of America reclining in a hammock, a Native American invention fascinating to 16th century Europeans.

Vespucci represents the European justification for settlement and conquest. He is fully clothed (“civilized”) and holds navigational tools in one hand and a staff with the Christian cross in the other, symbolizing that he brings enlightenment and knowledge to the “New World.”

In contrast, America has been caught napping, is mostly nude (“uncivilized”) and lives amongst slothful wild beasts. Her cannibalistic companions roast a gruesome feast over a fire in the background. She does not reach for her weapon that leans against the tree, but is open and receptive to the arrival of Europeans.


Were colonists immigrants?

How do these terms apply to the English settlement of Southeastern Massachusetts? It is all about intention, and to some extent, timing.

What is a Colony?

Colonies are land masses sometimes seized by force, or otherwise occupied by citizens of one nation who retain strong political and social relations with their country of origin.  Commercially motivated, the role of the colony is to produce either commodities or raw materials for the manufacturers of the mother country.  Colonies are deliberate attempts by a nation to claim land by exerting commercial, political, and social influence through systematic settlement.

What is a Settlement?

A settlement is a permanent or temporary community of people that is not defined by specific populations, size or legal boundaries.  Not all settlements evolve into colonies.  For instance, when whalers from the Basque country settled their whaling station at Red Bay, Labrador in the mid-to-late 1500s, the station was never intended to become a colonial outpost.  It was merely a hunting camp conveniently located near large populations of whales.

What is a Colonist?

A colonist enters a land to expand, acquire, modify, and settle according to the systems of their sovereign nation.  Many Europeans emigrated to the English American colonies including Germans, Dutch, Scots, Irish, Swedes, Finns, French Huguenots and Jews.  Those who were Protestant were welcomed by the King as naturalized subjects.  Catholics, Jews, Quakers, Baptists and Moravians, and of course slaves, were exempt from naturalization for many years.

What is an Immigrant?

An immigrant is a person who leaves their native land by choice, in order to settle in a new country with an established State already in place.  Typically an immigrant is not looking to expand their mother country, but to become part of a new one.

Were the Pilgrims Colonists?

In 1620, the settles of the Plimouth Colony, a group of 102 English religious Separatists, commonly called the Pilgrims, arrived on the shores of Massachusetts aboard the Mayflower.

Backed largely by English commercial interest, the Pilgrims were bent on exploiting available resources for monetary gain.  The Pilgrims wanted to remain English subjects, but they wanted to worship as they pleased.  Early on, they crafted a document, the famed “Mayflower Compact,” that served to establish the colony as a political entity under the Crown.

The Pilgrims were colonists, but arguably, persons emigrating from England to Massachusetts after the arrival and establishment of the Pilgrim’s colony could effectively be described as immigrants since they were planning to join an established area with clearly developed governance.

Were the Puritans Colonists?

The Puritans were indeed colonists.  They were a non-Separatist group of religious extremists funded by the Massachusetts Bay Company, a company of investors chartered by the Crown of England in 1629 to formally colonize Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire.  The Massachusetts Bay Colony was expected to provide a supply of raw materials, mostly timber, fish and furs to England and to the English colonies in the West Indies.  Over the next ten years their numbers swelled to 20,000 people, almost all Puritans.

There was no separation of church and state in the original Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Governance was based upon the religious organization.  As religious and political turmoil in England between 1630 and 1680 distracted the Crown from its management of the colony, Puritanical ideology took strong hold in Massachusetts.  By the mid-1680s, however, King James II took a harder look at the emerging theocracy in Massachusetts and revoked the company’s charter.  Massachusetts had been a colony in a state of revolution almost from its inception.


Double Portrait of Captain and Mrs. Caleb Kempton, ca. 1829. Oil on Canvas, #2001.100.4394
Double Portrait of Captain and Mrs. Caleb Kempton
, ca. 1829. Oil on Canvas,  #2001.100.4394


Slocum House at Barney’s Joy, date unknown Pencil drawing on Paper, #00.36Slocum House at Barney’s Joy, date unknown
Pencil drawing on Paper, #00.36

This house at Barney’s Joy in South Dartmouth stood until the 1880s. Slocum was a farmer, but supplemented his income with smuggling and slave trading. “There has always clung about the old farm at Barney’s Joy a flavor of slaves and smuggling,” Henry H. Crapo wrote in 1912. Kofi Slocum, Captain Paul Cuffe’s father, was a slave on this farm for twenty years before being freed in the 1740s. During the War of 1812, in fear of British encroachments, the Slocum family packed their silver inside their grandfather’s clock (on view in the exhibition) and buried the lot in a local swamp.


Major support for this exhibition comes from the William M. Wood Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Last modified: August 19, 2016