New England History & Heritage
When it comes to the story of America, New England is a history book come to life. Americans come to see this region to see “where it happened.” For those from abroad, a visit provides insights into the American character. And for all travelers — a history-themed vacation in this region is a lot of fun! Also see: Living History Museums.
The past lives in the present
From the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers onwards, major events of US history happened in New England. Nowhere else in the US is more dense with things to see and do. Visit charming villages, whose British names and architecture recall Old England – yet they are considered “traditionally American.” Stand where the Colonials did as they challenged British soldiers and started the American Revolution. See where America’s Industrial Revolution – and the Literary Revolution – began. Discover how Yankee ingenuity developed everyday essentials from the telephone to the safety razor.
Pilgrim Fathers (And Mothers!)
New England was founded when the Pilgrim Fathers stepped ashore in November, 1620. After their voyage from Plymouth, England, they first landed near Provincetown, on Cape Cod. They settled in Plymouth, where Plymouth Rock commemorates their arrival. Go aboard Mayflower II, a full-scale reproduction of their tiny ship. Built in Brixham, England, 50 years ago, the vessel was a gift of the British people. Tour Plimoth Plantation. One of the country’s best living history attractions, this time machine takes you back to 1627, complete with Pilgrims and Native Americans.
In Boston, walk the Freedom Trail to find out why the Colonists wanted independence. Then visit nearby Lexington and Concord, where the first shots of the Revolution were fired on April 19, 1775. Learn who did what, when, where and why at the excellent Minute Man National Historical Park.
But, the Revolution affected lives throughout New England. Up in Vermont, Bennington has a tall monument commemorating a battle fought in 1777. In Rhode Island, the annual Gaspée Days in Warwick recall the burning of a British schooner. In Maine, York had its own version of the Boston Tea Party, while in New Hampshire, Portsmouth honors Scottish-born John Paul Jones, the “Father of the American Navy.”
In 375-year-old Wethersfield, “The most Ancient Town in Connecticut”, the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum includes four 18th-century houses. One, the Joseph Webb House, served as General George Washington’s headquarters in 1781. During the Revolutionary era, Lebanon was a hotbed of patriotic fervor. Many meetings about the war effort were held at the Revolutionary War Office, just one of several historic sites that, along with the local museum, tell the story.
New England life…
See what New England rural life was like in 1830s’ Massachusetts at Old Sturbridge Village. Watch the blacksmith and the miller at work; tour furnished homes and learn about cooking on a hearth. One of the country’s oldest cities is Portsmouth in New Hampshire. Here, Strawbery Banke Museum is a living history museum covering four centuries of local life, with interpreters to explain it all. And for one of the country’s best collections of Americana visit the superb Shelburne Museum. South of Burlington, in Vermont, it boasts quilts and toys, Impressionist art and the steamship Ticonderoga.
In Conventry, Connecticut, visit the Nathan Hale Homestead, home of the patriot known for saying “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country” moments before the British hanged him as a spy in 1776. The site provides insight into the life of the colonial elite at that time. In contrast, the Dudley Farm in Guildford lets you tour a working farm as it might have been in 1900.
New England boomed on the back of its maritime skills. Learn more at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath. Take a cruise to see nearby lighthouses, or a trolley tour of the Bath Iron Works. Vermont has no seacoast, but it does have Lake Champlain, over 120 miles (193km) long. Discover what happened on its waters, and why gunboats were needed, at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vergennes. As for America’s Industrial Revolution, it started in the Blackstone River Valley, where the Slater Mill, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, rumbles away as it did in 1793: the first successful water-powered, cotton spinning mill in North America.
The Gilded Age
The Industrial Revolution generated huge wealth. See the grand mansions of the Vanderbilts and their affluent friends, now open to all in Newport. Although furnished with fabulous art and antiques, these “summer cottages” were only used for a few weeks each year. See an example of 20th-century wealth at Rough Point with its antiques and European art. This was the home of the heiress Doris Duke, who lived here until 1993. In Western Massachusetts in the lovely town of Lenox, visit Ventfort Hall, a mansion and home to the Museum of the Gilded Age. In Connecticut, the Mark Twain House in Hartford and the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum in Norwalk also reflect this period.
VERMONT’S GREEN MOUNTAIN BOYS
One of the most charismatic Revolutionary leaders was Ethan Allen. With a militia group called the Green Mountain Boys, he captured Fort Ticonderoga from the British in 1775 – an early victory for the Colonists. Allen’s home overlooking the Winooski River in Burlington still stands. As well as grand scenery, the 1787 Ethan Allen Homestead presents hands-on history, separating fact from fiction, and telling the story of the early days of the state of Vermont. (Open seasonally.)
Native American Heritage
In Connecticut, the award-winning Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center not only reflects 18,000 years of the rich history of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, but also the histories and cultures of other North American tribes. The largest museum of its kind in the world, this attraction lets visitors see a recreated 1550 Pequot village and learn about the encounters with Dutch and English settlers. There is also a garden with America’s gift to the world: corn (maize). In the town of Washington, Connecticut, the Institute for American Indian Studies is a museum and research center with a replica Algonkian village outdoors, as well as indoor exhibits, including Quinnetukut: Our Homeland, Our Story, tracing the 10,000 year story of Connecticut’s Native American Peoples.
In Rhode Island, the Tomaquag Museum highlights the Narragansett Tribe, with music and crafts as well as history. In Massachusetts, learn about the Wampanoag people at Plimoth Plantation’s Wampanoag Homesite. Talk to members of the tribe; watch their centuries-old boat building techniques; visit their traditional wetu (house). In Warner, New Hampshire, the Mount Kearsarge Indian Museum is dedicated to connecting people of today with 20,000 years of ongoing Native American cultural expression. Further north, in Bar Harbor, Maine, near Acadia National Park, the lively contemporary Abbe Museum reflects Maine’s Wabanaki culture and heritage.
The Simple Life
Learn about the Shaker sect, their classic furniture design and quiet lifestyle, in Canterbury, New Hampshire and Hancock, Massachusetts, and in Sabbathday Lake, Maine, where the last surviving community still lives. (Open seasonally.)
Villages & Towns
It is not just houses that are preserved. There are whole streets and towns that look unchanged for centuries. Stop by Stonington Borough or Kent, Connecticut; Hancock, New Hampshire; Historic Deerfield Massachusetts; Paris Hill, Maine; Providence, Rhode Island; Salem, Massachusetts and Newfane, Vermont.
Other useful New England history travel links:
- Historic New England: Historic homes throughout the region
- New England Museums & Current Exhibits
- New England Historic Genealogical Society
- Mapping Revolutionary Boston (iPhone app or desktop)
For more information on history & heritage sites in each state: