The question of 'what was life like in the New England colonies?' can best be answered by examining the important role of family and family values. The colonists who first arrived in New England faced harsh conditions and challenges that are hard to imagine in today's world. Yet, with the dream of what the new world could be and the strength of the family unit, they managed to settle in the new world and lay the foundation for what would one day become the United States and the prototype of the American family.
Reasons for Coming to America
The New England colonies were settled by Pilgrim families who landed at Plymouth Rock after separating from the Anglican church over differences in theology. Their goal was to settle in a new land where they could practice their religion as they wished without pressure to conform. The Puritans arrived about a decade later. They remained loyal to the Church of England but advocated for significant religious reform. Unlike previous attempts at colonization by the British, which consisted of companies of men seeking resources and a passage to the Northwest, the New England colonists brought over entire families to establish permanent homes and congregations. Women and children followed the men of the family across the ocean, working, sacrificing, suffering and risking their lives in pursuit of religious freedom and new opportunity.
Life in the New England Colonies
Men made the decisions in church and government matters. Women were obedient, quiet and deeply devout. Fathers served as the uncontested head of the household, with mothers acting in a subordinate role. Under the father's authority, the mother oversaw the upkeep of the home and the raising of the children. A typical colonial family included parents, seven children and extended relatives. People were not permitted to live alone so grandparents, uncles, aunts, or cousins often lived with the nuclear family. Any servants the family may have had living with them were also considered a part of the family. A large family unit was able to accomplish a lot by working as a team.
Family Structure in the Colonies
Members of the colonial family formed a tight-knit, God-fearing household. Survival in the new world required everyone to pitch in and help one another. Family life was centered around religion and hard work. Unquestioned obedience was expected of children, and punishment for improper behavior at home could include paddling or whipping with birch rods. Children were often reminded of the fires of hell that awaited sinners. Government-run free education had not been established, so colonial children were taught at home. Education revolved around learning scripture, and the necessary skills to provide and care for the family.
New England Colonies: Food Provisions
Men of the family were responsible largely for tending livestock, hunting wild game, and working at various trades that supported the family. A mid-day meal might consist of ox tongue, mince meat pie, roast pigeons, cucumbers and sweet potato pudding. Fresh caught fish also made for a tasty meal. To prevent spoiling, the colonists smoked their meat or used salt as a preservative. Women took care of the children, prepared foods, tended the family garden, and making necessary items such as soap, candles, clothing and blankets. Children were given chores from a very young age. Growing boys would work with their fathers raise crops in the fields, while young girls were trained by their mothers to help with the domestic work.
Influence on the Modern Family
The structure for the traditional American family as it is defined in modern times was built by the New England colonists. Colonial families developed the structure of the essentially nuclear, child-centered, loving, close-knit family that works as a unit for the benefit of all. The family bonded together by their efforts to work cooperatively, protect and shelter each other, and celebrate life together, sharing and passing on their morals and values to each new generation. However, disciplinary techniques have changed substantially. Corporal punishment used in the colonies would be considered child abuse by today's standards and child rearing practices.