Jobs in the Massachusetts Bay Colony

The North American continent was largely a question mark to those who left their European homelands behind to seek their fortunes, or, in the case of those immigrating to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, religious freedom. The immigrants may have heard great success stories about others who had crossed the vast Atlantic to find fertile land, endless opportunities, and perhaps even gold. These stories prompted many to leave behind everyone and everything they knew to take their chances in the unknown.

Often when we think of life in Colonial America we think of farmers going about their business planting and cultivating crops. While that was true in the Southern Colonies, settlers in the New England Colonies were not blessed with such fertile land. As a result, they needed other means to earn a livelihood.

The original 13 American Colonies.

The American Colonies were divided into three regional areas—the New England Colonies (Massachusetts Bay, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut), the Middle Colonies (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware), and the Southern Colonies (Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Caroline, and Georgia). The climate and natural resources available in each of the three regions determined the type of work available to those who lived there. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, with its lack of fertile farming land, the fishing, timber, livestock, and shipping industries became the focus. There was still some subsistence farming to be had in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Even though the land was rocky and not as rich as it was in the southern region, colonists in New England were still able to grow crops such as squash, corn, and beans.

The Fishing Industry

With its location along the shore of the Atlantic ocean, Massachusetts was (and is) in a prime location to take advantage of the sea life there, and fishermen often found mackerel, herring, halibut, bass, and cod for their troubles. Whaling was also a popular job in the Massachusetts Bay Colony since whale oil was used in lamps and soaps. As Captain Ahab would tell you, whaling could be a dangerous endeavor; however, it was a money maker, so sailors took their chances.

The Timber Industry

The rich forests in the New England region provided great opportunities for settlers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Homes were built from the hard woods. Timbermen could find oak, maple, beech, birch, hickory, and ash trees. Saw mills were used to produce wooden planks for export to England, which were then manufactured into finished goods such as furniture. Wood was also a necessity for the shipbuilding industry, another money maker in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Wood was used to make barrels, and other products gathered from the plentiful trees included resin for varnishing, tar for coating and preserving timber, pitch for water proofing, turpentine for cleaning, and potash for soap, bleach, and fertilizers.

The Livestock Industry

Horse breeding was one way to make use of the hilly, rocky, often infertile land. Many breeds of horses were brought to North America by the colonists, and horse breeding used various breeds of horses including the jennet, the Andalusian, the Friesian, and Arabians.


The Ship Building Industry

Ship building was particularly important in the Massachusetts Bay Colony with its emphasis on fishing and whaling. The easy availability of timber made ship building cheap in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In fact, many found work related to the ship building industry—including carpenters, joiners, sail makers, barrel makers, painters, caulkers, and blacksmiths. Ship building was also important for the merchants who sold or traded their wares overseas since the ships and the barrels gave them the means through which they could reach across the Atlantic as part of the Triangle Trade. Items included in the Triangle Trade from the three regions of the American Colonies were timber, sugar, fur, cotton, flour, tobacco, rice, indigo, fish, guns, ammunition. wool, and rum. Sadly, slaves were imported into the colonies as a result of the Triangle Trade.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony, as in any of the American Colonies, could provide opportunities for those with the gumption and the heartiness to learn new skills and grab opportunites when they arose. Some settlers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were subsistence farmers, eeking out a living from the less than fertile land. Others became successful fishermen, ship builders, or merchants. Adolescents played an important role in the growth of the Massachusetts Bay Colony since a 15 year old was an adult in the eyes of the law (Enright, Lapsley, & Olson, 1985). Subsistence farming, mercantilism, and the wars with Native Americans provided the backdrop for all work in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Despite the hardships settlers faced, the Massachusetts Bay Colony provided possibilities, which is why so many immigrants left their homelands behind.


Dow, G. F. (2012). Every Day Life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Courier Corporation.

Enright, R. D., Lapsley, D. K., & Olson, L. M. (1985). Early adolescent labor in colonial Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay. The Journal of Early Adolescence5(4), 393-410.

Jernegan, M. W. (1929). The American colonies, 1492-1750: A study of their political, economic and social development (Vol. 1). Longmans Green.

The Land of the Brave. The thirteen colonies. Retrieved from