Born from humble beginnings, the National Guard celebrates its 378th birthday.
By Bill Boehm
National Guard Bureau
The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded in 1630. Over 5,000 men, women, and children made the two-month voyage to the New World, leaving the relative comfort and safety of England behind in an effort to break free of religious intolerance, and to manage their communities the way they saw fit. In doing so, their actions tread new ground in the country that would become the United States of America.
The military organization we know today as the National Guard came into existence with a direct declaration on December 13, 1636. On this date, the Massachusetts General Court in Salem, for the first time in the history of the North American continent, established that all able-bodied men between the ages of 16 and 60 were required to join the militia. The North, South, and East Regiments were established with this order. The decree excluded ministers and judges. Simply stated, citizen-soldiers who mustered for military training could be and would be called upon to fight when needed.
Laws often evolve from well-intentioned actions, yet sometimes prove themselves to be ineffective. Given such odds, how could this possibly work?
Owing to many failures in the time that English settlers had attempted colonization in the Massachusetts frontier and elsewhere in North America, leaders decided that a proactive and ready state of mind must be kept by all citizens, particularly those training in military tactics. Being part of citizenry in the small villages meant that a price must be paid for the freedoms that could potentially be enjoyed, were the colony to ultimately succeed. That price exacted meant taking responsibility for defending the settlements of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
The settlers of the new outposts experienced austere surroundings. With no established or familiar conventions upon which to rely, the colony relied upon male pioneers to provide food, shelter, and defensive protection for the women and children present, as well for themselves. Even with all available hands working, this was a difficult task. Worse, the nearby Pequot Indian tribe proved a restless and unpredictable neighbor, leaving the Massachusetts colonists vulnerable to guerilla-style attacks that could decimate the fledgling settlements. In an environment rife with disease, poor sanitation, and harsh weather conditions, all able-bodied members of the Massachusetts colony pulled together out of necessity.
Self-sufficiency proved instrumental. In a new land, hiring mercenary fighters in the European tradition to ward off Indian attacks would be impossible. For one thing, the colonists had no money. Other foreign interests in the New World such as the French or Spanish, even if they were available for defensive purposes, did not share English views on religion and political matters. They would have seriously undermined the stability of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Governing and policing the settlement would have to be left to the colonists themselves. Therefore, the militia system of self-defense brought from England had the best chance of succeeding for the colonists.
And it did succeed. Soon after the establishment of the militia in Massachusetts, the entire New England region defended itself against the aggression of the Pequot nation. Other colonies such as Connecticut and Rhode Island mustered militia units to fight the Indian tribe, and succeeded in forcing the Pequots to capitulate in 1638. Ultimately, the militia enlisted from the many small villages proved a strong component in building confidence for the settlement as a whole.
Although other colonial settlements in North America such as those in Florida, Virginia, and New Mexico that would become part of the United States utilized military protection in order to allow settlers safe passage and to defend against aggressors, Massachusetts proved to be the first entity to have its government establish and raise a militia. Nor did these other colonies’ militia service remain continuous. The tie to legal precedent in this manner remains to this day. That record of service has remained continuous and unbroken, no matter the change in each unit’s function as a part of the militia or the National Guard.
This distinction qualifies it as the birthplace of the militia in the United States. With the North, South, and East Regiments established, its exemplary military tradition continues through this day with four Massachusetts National Guard units – the 101st Engineer Battalion, the 101st Field Artillery, the 181st Infantry Regiment, and the 182nd Infantry Regiment. The tradition born in Salem continues today.
Much has changed since 1636, but one thing has not: the National Guard still consists of Citizen-Soldiers and Airmen providing protection from natural disaster, training regularly to uphold high standards of readiness, and also deploying to far-away countries to protect the United States’ national interests abroad. Although the country’s growth and expansion has made it a large military force around the world, the National Guard still remains a community cornerstone – just as it did when it was given birth on December 13, 1636.