National Guard Marks its 375th Birthday

ARLINGTON, Va., Dec. 12, 2011 — The ori­gin of the nation’s state Nation­al Guard orga­ni­za­tions sprang from the form­ing of mili­tia in the Mass­a­chu­setts Bay Colony in the ear­ly 17th cen­tu­ry.

 National Guard Bureau Illustration
This illus­tra­tion depicts the first muster of Mass­a­chu­setts Bay Colony mili­tia in the spring of 1637. This event took place after the Mass­a­chu­setts Gen­er­al Court on Dec. 13, 1636 estab­lished three reg­i­ments with­in the colony to defend against ene­my attack and pre­serve set­tle­ments.
Nation­al Guard Bureau Illus­tra­tion
Click to enlarge

The Mass­a­chu­setts colony was found­ed in 1630. At that time, more than 5,000 men, women, and chil­dren had 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 Dec. 13, 1636 when the Mass­a­chu­setts Gen­er­al Court in Salem 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, which exclud­ed min­is­ters and judges, stat­ed that cit­i­zen-sol­diers who mus­tered for mil­i­tary train­ing could be and would be called upon to defend the colony when needed.

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 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 meant tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for defend­ing the set­tle­ments of the Mass­a­chu­setts colony.

The out­posts were aus­tere, and the colony relied upon male pio­neers to pro­vide food, shel­ter, and defen­sive pro­tec­tion. Even with all avail­able hands work­ing, this was dif­fi­cult. 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 the New World, 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 and 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 colony. Gov­ern­ing and polic­ing the set­tle­ment would have to be left to the colonists themselves.

The mili­tia sys­tem of self defense proved suc­cess­ful. Soon after the mili­tia was estab­lished 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, 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.

Oth­er colo­nial set­tle­ments in North Amer­i­ca such as those in Flori­da, Vir­ginia, and New Mex­i­co uti­lized mil­i­tary pro­tec­tion to allow set­tlers safe pas­sage and defend against aggres­sors, but Mass­a­chu­setts proved to be the first to have its gov­ern­ment estab­lish and raise a mili­tia of con­tin­u­ous ser­vice. That legal prece­dent and record of ser­vice has remained con­tin­u­ous and unbro­ken, no mat­ter the change in each unit’s func­tion as a part of the mili­tia or 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.

Today, Mass­a­chu­setts’ pop­u­la­tion num­bers 6.5 mil­lion peo­ple, and the com­mon­wealth fig­ures promi­nent­ly as a cen­ter of man­u­fac­tur­ing, electronics/technology, and finance. Much has changed since 1636, but one thing has not: the Nation­al Guard still con­sists of cit­i­zen-sol­diers and air­men pro­vid­ing assis­tance dur­ing nat­ur­al dis­as­ters, train­ing reg­u­lar­ly to uphold high stan­dards of readi­ness, and deploy­ing to far-away coun­tries to pro­tect the Unit­ed States’ nation­al interests.

Although America’s growth and expan­sion has made it a large mil­i­tary force around the world, the Nation­al Guard remains a com­mu­ni­ty cor­ner­stone — just as it did when it was born on Dec. 13, 1636. 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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