John Winthrop and the Puritans who followed him across the Atlantic in 1630 were not the first English colonists in Massachusetts. In 1626 a small group of Englishmen had abandoned a short-lived settlement on Cape Ann and moved south to an area they called Naumkeag, after the Native American people who had farmed there.
Two years later, they renamed Naumkeag "Salem," which means peaceful in Hebrew. They chose John Endecott governor of the new settlement, which was formed to provide a place where those who did not conform to Church of England doctrine could worship in peace. (Unlike the Pilgrims in Plymouth Colony, who chose to separate from the Church of England, the Puritans wished to remain within its fold.)
The following year, a charter from Charles I made it official that, as far as the King of England was concerned, "the Governor and Company of Massachusetts Bay in New England" had rights to a large area of land stretching from three miles south of the Charles River to three miles north of the Merrimack.
Under this charter, the Massachusetts Bay Colony enjoyed a remarkable degree of independence; the governor was to be "chosen out of the freemen of the saide Company," rather than appointed in England under the watchful eye of the king. Hoping to secure these advantages, Puritans in England bought control of the company and selected 41-year-old John Winthrop to replace Endecott as governor.
The son of a well-respected lawyer, John Winthrop had attended Trinity College Cambridge for two years. He at one time seriously considered becoming a minister but established a lucrative law practice instead. He remained deeply religious, and like other English Puritans, desired to reform the Church of England. When he concluded that reform was not possible, he chose to make the long journey to the New World.
By early 1630, a fleet of 12 ships was ready to take roughly 1,000 people to New England. The largest vessel, the 350-ton Arabella, carried passengers, many heads of cattle, and provisions. Bad weather delayed the ship's departure several times; after several false starts, on April 10, 1630 the Arabella sailed into the open waters of the Atlantic.
It is not known exactly where or when John Winthrop delivered his famous "Model of Christian Charity" speech, but the intended audience was clearly his fellow emigrants. "It is by mutual consent [that we] seek out a place of cohabitation and consortship under a due form of government both civil and ecclesiastical. In such cases as this, the care of the public must oversway all private respects. . . . " he told them. We go "to improve our lives, to do more service to the Lord. . . . We have entered a covenant with [God] for this work." He continued: "For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us."
Winthrop's ship reached Salem on June 12th; two days later, the passengers stepped ashore as the ship's captain fired a five-gun salute. The rest of the fleet arrived in the next few weeks. It was the beginning of what became known as the Great Migration (16301642), during which thousands of English families immigrated to Massachusetts.
After only a few weeks in Salem, Winthrop and his followers moved to the north side of the Charles River to what they called Charles Town. However, because of the scarcity of fresh water there, in September they crossed the river again, this time establishing a new town, which they named Boston.
Life in early Boston was brutal. In a September letter to his wife, Winthrop wrote of "much mortality, sickness, and trouble." Before the first year was out, 200 of the settlers had died. Yet Winthrop never gave up hope, "putting his hand to any ordinary labor," and trusting in God. He served as governor of the struggling colony for more than a decade and was active in government until his death in 1649, almost exactly 19 years to the day after his ship sailed out of English waters.
The Massachusetts Bay Charter remained in place until Charles II revoked it in 1684. In 1691, a new charter folded Plymouth Colony into a royal colony the Province of Massachusetts with a governor appointed by the Crown.
History of Salem, Massachusetts, Volume 1, 1626163, by Sidney Perley (Salem, 1924).
John Winthrop: America's Forgotten Founding Father, by Francis J. Bremer (Oxford University Press, 2003).
The Winthrop Society website