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In the early 16th century, many English Protestants were dissatisfied with the Church of England. One group of religious dissenters, the Separatists (who later became known as the Pilgrims) decided to settle in North America, where they hoped to live and worship in peace. In September 1620, about 100 Separatists left England aboard the ship Mayflower, which was originally a cargo ship and not designed to carry people. It was a square-rigged ship, 27 m long. Problems with a second vessel delayed their departure; the consequent overcrowding and bad weather prompted one death and severe discomfort for the 102 passengers. Intending to land in Virginia, they instead arrived at the coast of New England after a stormy voyage of 66 days. Before they landed, the Pilgrims drew up an agreement, the Mayflower Compact, establishing a government for their colony, which they named the Plymouth Plantation. Half of the settlers did not survive their first winter in America, and the colony might have failed without help from some nearby Native Americans, the Wampanoag Indians, who gave advice on farming and fishing. But Plymouth survived and eventually prospered. In 1621 the Pilgrim settlers in Massachusetts prepared a thanksgiving feast to celebrate their first harvest. The Wampanoag Indians joined in.

The letters patent issued in 1621 by King James I gave the Mayflower Pilgrims the right to own the land where they had settled. A letters patent is a public document in which a king or queen confers certain rights on the holder.

Ten years after the Pilgrims landed, English Puritans started arriving in New England in large numbers. The city of Salem was founded in 1626, and in 1692 witchcraft trials held there led to the execution of 20 townsfolk, most of them women.

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