Building the Bay Colony

Local Economy and Culture in Early Massachusetts

Historians often consider transatlantic trade and the export of staples to have been the driving forces behind economic development in virtually all of colonial America. In From the Ground Up: How the Massachusetts Bay Colony Achieved Economic Success, James E. McWilliams challenges this assumption, showing how internal economic development, rather than exports that shareholders hoped would provide a handsome return on their investments, actually served as the backbone of the Massachusetts economy.

Starting with the basics – the building of farms, fences, stables, roads, and bridges – McWilliams demonstrates through careful analyses of farmer and merchant account books how these small infrastructure improvements established the foundation for more ambitious, overseas adventures. Using an intensely local lens, McWilliams explores the century-long process whereby the Massachusetts Bay Colony went from a distant outpost of the incipient British Empire to a stable society integrated into the transatlantic economy.

An inspiring story of men and women overcoming adversity to build their own society, Building the Bay Colony reconceptualizes how we have normally thought about New England’s economic development.


“McWilliams has crafted a wonderful book. Through extensive research and lively prose he has constructed a complex and captivating picture of daily life in early New England. He has shown us why minute details about fish, grain, timber, and cloth are not just fun to read but important to understanding the broader historical developments in early American settlement.” (Phyllis Whitman Hunter – author of Purchasing Identity in the Atlantic World)

“Even as Atlantic and transnational approaches have reshaped the field of early American history, this compelling book reminds us that a local perspective can lead to fresh insights, especially when it comes to the nature of colonial economic development. The conclusions James E. McWilliams draws from town records and a handful of surviving seveteeth-century account books challenges many common assumptions about the trajectory of economic change in Massachusetts… Although the paucity of evidence has complicated efforts to reconstruct the nature of the internal economy of early America, McWilliams shows that it can be done.” (Margaret Ellen Newell – Ohio State University American Historical Review)