Why Puritans Built Cities on Short Rivers

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If you could pick one geographic trait that defines the location of a large city, it might be the presence of a great river. This is often true in Europe, where London, Paris, and Rome all sit on some of the longest rivers within their respective countries. And while New York, St. Louis, Cincinnati, New Orleans and Philadelphia are located on long rivers, many larger American cities, including Boston, Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, and Seattle, are not.

Boston is a particularly interesting case because of its age and history. While it has a great harbor, the Charles River on which it sits makes it no further west than the town of Hopkinton, the same place where the Boston Marathon now starts and hardly a rival to the Mississippi, the Ohio, or even the Hudson.

Boston was the largest town in colonial Massachusetts, and nearby Salem was the second largest. Salem sits on the Crane River, which is more estuary than actual river, and barely makes it past neighboring Danvers. Like Boston, Salem was founded was Puritans. As was New Haven, Connecticut, which sits on the very short Quinnipiac, a small tidal brook compared to the nearby Connecticut River, which empties into Long Island Sound at Old Saybrook, the original home of Yale University, though that college moved to New Haven not long after its founding. And in spite of its site on a much longer river, Old Saybrook has always remained a fraction of the size of New Haven.

Puritans from New Haven Colony also founded Newark, New Jersey, which sits on the modest Passaic River, which like the Charles near Boston, barely makes it out of its own metro area. And it’s far shorter than the Hudson, on which the Dutch built New Amsterdam and Fort Orange/Albany, and the Connecticut where the Dutch founded (though couldn’t settle) Hartford. While they shared some of the Puritans’ Calvinist theology, and were also among the first urban Americans, the Dutch had no interest in putting cities on short rivers like the Puritans did.

The Puritans came from all over England, but primarily from East Anglia. And if you ever travel to that part of England, you’ll run across towns that sound very similar to those that sit along I-93 and the eastern part of the Mass Pike today. Haverhill, Braintree, Boston, Cambridge, Chelmsford, Newton, Walpole, Framingham, Ipswich, Needham, Billerica (y), Sudbury, Malden (Maldon), (King’s) Lynn, and others. Norfolk, Essex, and Suffolk Counties, which comprise East Anglia, are also the counties in which Boston and many of its adjacent suburbs sit in today.

The later-to-develop interior of Massachusetts, west of I–495 today, was settled by less dogmatic farming Puritans, many of whom came from areas in and around the West Midlands. Many of its towns are named after areas in the west of England between Birmingham and the Welsh border, including Stow(e), Dudley, Ludlow, Shrewsbury, Leominster, St(o)urbridge, and Worcester.

East Anglia was a fairly wealthy place when the Puritans came over in the 17th century. And its largest town, Norwich, was among the largest in England after London, yet it sat on the fairly inconsequential Wensum River. The Puritans were international traders, and relied on their close sea connection to Holland and Northern Europe, not a link to a farming interior along some great river. And when they came to America, they were attracted to harbors, not rivers. The same was not true for the Dutch.

The Dutch preferred rivers which reached into the interior and could be used as nodes in trading networks, particularly fur trading networks. While they did not make a great effort to keep the area around the Connecticut River, the Dutch were the original founders of Hartford, a river city 40 miles from Long Island Sound, and which became one of the Puritan villages focused on farming, not fishing.

One reason the Puritans didn’t need long rivers is that unlike the Anglican English, the Scots, the French, and the Dutch, they had no interest in trading furs with Native Americans. Just as they traded across the sea when in East Anglia, they traded across the ocean when they got to the colonies. Fur trading required two things Puritans had no inclination for: hauling product across the interior, and working for a crown or government-chartered company. So how exactly did the Puritans finance themselves?

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded by investors in the Massachusetts Bay Company, who were wealthy individuals, not government entities. The objective was to settle the location and create trade, not find the location near the fur trade where commerce was likely to happen. This was great for untethering the Puritans to long rivers, but created a challenge of having to finance long boat journeys back across the ocean, while returning cash to investors.

The Puritans solved this dilemma by using growth to finance growth. Once they arrived in New England, the Puritans went forth and multiplied like no other group. Their migration mostly stopped in the early 1640s when the English Civil War began, but being in Massachusetts, their mortality rates were much lower than in places further south due to the colder climate killing off mosquitoes and in turn creating much lower rates of yellow fever and malaria. Additionally they migrated as families, not as individuals, which created a better gender balance than was found in many areas to the south, and led to some of the fastest natural growth rates in the colonies.

By increasing consumption of goods locally, the Puritans were able to finance growth globally. As more people in Massachusetts demanded goods, more cash was available to finance sea voyages, which in turn, brought back more goods for local consumption. Yes, it was a bit of a Ponzi scheme, but it led to Massachusetts becoming the largest and fastest growing colony throughout the 17th century. It was also a blueprint for future American cities that would be established around business innovation, not river transportation.

While the Puritans farmed like everyone else, they fished like no other. And not just any fish, but saltwater fish. This made long rivers a disadvantage because there was little international demand for freshwater fish like trout that hang out in those rivers, but strong demand for saltwater fish like cod. Some Puritans abandoned Saybrook Colony at the mouth of the 410 mile long Connecticut River, and founded Norwich, Connecticut at the end of the 15 mile long Thames River estuary, which provided great access to both farm land and saltwater fish.

The Puritans, in spite of their intolerance of outside religions, traded heavily with the outside world, and sustained their colonies by creating commerce in not very obvious ways, while most other European settlers were seeking more obvious opportunities in farming or fur trading. The Dutch were highly educated like the Puritans, but they were also trying to deliver profits to a corporation, the Dutch West India Company, and weren’t about to take the risk of bankrolling little fishing villages with no clear path to profitability. The Puritans were sort of the 1630s version of venture capitalists, while the Dutch were more like a colonial Bank of America.

The Puritan success in Massachusetts was even more evident when compared to the lagging colony to its south, Plymouth. The Pilgrims main philosophical difference with the Puritans was that they wanted to leave the Church of England altogether. But they were also less educated and less innovative, and fell back on basic fur and fishing trades, as well as growing corn. Plymouth Colony was left out of the global trading networks the Puritans to their north were creating, and Massachusetts Bay grew to nearly 10x its size, in spite of Plymouth having a head start. By the end of the 17th century, the land of the Pilgrims was too small to survive on its own, and was forced to merge with Massachusetts.

More than lakes, rivers, or boats, the Puritans built their economies around their brains. They didn’t just start Harvard and Yale, they set up towns and villages in places where it was nearly impossible to live off of the land.

Unlike the Puritans, the Dutch didn’t have restless, persecuted Calvinists to recruit from their home country because it was already run by Calvinists. As a result, they couldn’t settle New York and it fell into English hands. But while running New York, the Dutch let various faiths come in, including Anglicans (Episcopalians) and Jews, who were very unwelcome in Puritan New England. Yet under English rule, New York carried on this legacy, and became far more diverse than New England, which even after the 1692 Act of Tolerance loosened some restrictions on who could live there, and was still more than 80% English ancestry at the time of the revolution. New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, meanwhile, were less than 50% English and attracted large numbers of German immigrants, very few of whom made it to New England. New York, however, was still hostile to Catholics and would not have a sizable Catholic population until large waves of Irish immigration began in the 1840s.

French settlers, like the Dutch, preferred long rivers, as they too were trading furs with Native Americans. Much like Paris on the Seine, Montréal and Québec City were founded at points where the St. Lawrence could be crossed most easily. As they headed down the continent, the French founded St. Louis, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans along the Mississippi, and Detroit and Sault Ste. Marie on rivers in between two Great Lakes. They also founded Gulf ports at Biloxi and Mobile, both at locations with long river connections to the interior.

In Europe, Amsterdam, Barcelona, and Marseille are all situated close to the ocean, but along or near long waterways that connect them to the interior. The same is not true for the Puritans’ Boston, or even Spanish-founded Los Angeles. Los Angeles, which was not initially imagined to be a big city, used its river in the same way its Spanish peer 800 miles away in Santa Fe did — for irrigation, not transportation. The little LA river, which is now runs on top of a concrete bed, would never have supported the 2nd largest metropolis in the U.S. on its own. Human made technologies like aqueducts, refrigerated boxcars, ocean liners, highways, and airplanes would ultimately be required to connect it to the interior.

The Puritan model of clinging to the ocean along short rivers ultimately became a distinctly American way of building large cities, one that centered on developing business in sometimes not very obvious ways. Unhinged from mighty rivers, America developed Gold Rush ports in Seattle and San Francisco. Not to mention a tourist and international finance hub in Miami. And today, many of the country’s largest interior metros, including Dallas/Ft. Worth, Atlanta, Charlotte, Orlando, Denver, and Phoenix, were established as places for overland crossings with little dependence on nearby rivers.

Without the backing of a crown or large corporation, the Puritans took risks the Dutch, French, or Anglican English would never have dreamed of. And unlike the situation faced by those other groups, there was a hostile government in the mother country that forced the Puritans to succeed or die. Calvin Coolidge once said “The Business of America is Business”. And if you look at our urban locations today, many reflect the Puritan tradition of business innovations overcoming geographic limitations.

Writing about urban economic history, regional economic development, and the bioeconomy. Blog at biotechonomics.com.

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