John Winthrop’s “History of New England”

by Laura Williams, Visitor Services Coordinator

If the first half of 2020 has shown us anything thus far, it is that there are countless sources of media, voices, opinions, and channels to connect with one another and tell the story of the times. How will historians look back on these days in our history? What will make up our archives and serve as a source for insight?

With the state of the world constantly changing, we are given the opportunity to think back and reflect on those significant days in history that have also shaped our civilization. As members of our community acknowledge present day experiences and their importance on the MHS’s Witness to History: What Are Your COVID-19 Experiences?  website, there still remains boundless opportunities to connect with the past. Throughout the summer, I will highlight historical events and feature relevant pieces from the MHS collections. By looking back on these moments of adversity, progress, and pertinence, (and their remnants), we can discover that our present perspective may still be influenced.

We begin this series with John Winthrop’s History of New England. The surviving volumes of this journal are housed at the MHS among the Winthrop family papers and contain Winthrop’s personal writings surrounding the “history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony from the sailing of the Arbella in March 1630 until shortly before his death.” [1] A Puritan lawyer who was selected to lead English immigrants and form a colony in Massachusetts, Winthrop served as governor for the Massachusetts Bay Colony and is known as “the chief figure among the Puritan founders of New England.” [2] The journal begins with his recording of the journey from England to America, but as time went on it also served as a way of documenting civic and social details for the colony. His observations included daily occurrences of early New England life, as well as a look into his political standings and religious ideologies.

John Winthrop portrait
This portrait depicts John Winthrop (1588-1649) and is attributed to Paul Moschowitz, [19–]
Since the late colonial period, historians have used Winthrop’s journal, first as a manuscript, and since 1790 in a variety of editions, for the study of the founding of Massachusetts. [3] Having been reelected as governor over a dozen times, Winthrop’s historical account of his views and experiences in early colonial life are extremely valuable as a source for the study and understanding of American history. His narration of Puritan life offers a much more in depth account of the political affairs within a desired utopia for the New World. The journal also includes references to many other prominent figures of early New England history, including William Bradford of Plymouth, John Cotton, Anne Hutchinson, and Roger Williams. Though a completely biased account of the goals and principles for the colony, the public nature of the document gives us clear insight into Puritan ideals in a time of growth.

John Winthrop journal
John Winthrop journal, History of New England (manuscript), volume 1

This manuscript is only a small part of the total Winthrop family papers collection, which includes personal journals, manuscripts, diaries, deeds, etc. from generations of family members. Even today, documenting our own personal experiences, opinions, and reactions to historical events will play an important role in the preservation of history. As we understand such writings to be a personal or one-sided account of events, the unique perspective that a manuscript such as this brings to evaluating history is irreplaceable. As “witnesses” to history, it is imperative that subjective documentation of events continues to contribute to the world’s archives. Whether it be a blog, Tweet, traditional diary entry or a handwritten letter to a loved one, historical accounts may now take many forms.

I encourage you all to visit our Witness to History website and contribute your story. View Winthrop’s History of New England  journal, volume 1 on our website and read a detailed account of how the volumes made their way into the MHS collections.

[1] MHS Collections Online, John Winthrop journal, History of New England (manuscript), volume 1, accessed May 13, 2020,

[2] “John Winthrop, American Colonial Governor,” Richard S. Dunn, accessed May 7, 2020,

[3] MHS Collections Online, Witness to America’s Past, accessed May 19, 2020,