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Born from humble beginnings, the National Guard celebrates its 376th birthday

By Bill Boehm
National Guard Bureau

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded in 1630. More than 5,000 men, women, and children made the two-month voyage to the New World. 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. 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 and past failures on the continent, would this work?

Colony leaders decided that a proactive and ready state of mind must be kept by all citizens, owing to many earlier failures in the time that English settlers had attempted. Military tactics must be taught and exercised. Being part of citizenry in the small villages required that a price must be paid for the freedoms that could potentially be enjoyed. To enjoy that desired freedom, the price exacted meant taking responsibility for defending the settlements of the Massachusetts Bay.

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. 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. The colonists 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.

Massachusetts proved to be the first entity among the nation’s first colonies to maintain continuous service. The North, South and East Regiments established encompass part of the Commonwealth’s exemplary military tradition of today. The four lineal descendants of the Massachusetts National Guard that continue in active service include the 101st Engineer Battalion, the 101st Field Artillery, the 181st Infantry Regiment and the 182nd Infantry Regiment. In addition, the legal precedent first establishing the first three units remains intact.

The National Guard still consists of Citizen-Soldiers and Airmen providing protection from natural disaster and training regularly to sharpen readiness skills to benefit local communities. It has also developed into an active, ready force deploying to faraway countries to protect the national interests of the United States abroad.

The National Guard has grown into a worldwide military force, yet it still retains the core characteristics that came into being on December 13, 1636. It is a community cornerstone rooted in the rule of law across the land. It enabled the early colonial settlers to meet the challenges of an uncertain world then as it does now. The National Guard will continue to be always ready and always there for the citizens that it serves.