Colonial America

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For colonies not among the 13 colonies see European colonization of the Americas or British colonization of the Americas.
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Colonial America
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Starting in the late 16th century, the English began to colonize North America. The first attempts, notably the Colony of Jamestown, resulted in failure, but successful colonies were soon established. The colonists who came to the New World were by no means a homogeneous band, but rather a variety of different social and religious groups which settled in different locations on the seaboard. The Quakers of Pennsylvania, the Puritans of New England, the gold-hungry settlers of Jamestown, and the convicts of Georgia each came to the new continent for vastly different reasons, and they created colonies with very different social, religious, political, and economic structures.

To summarize the areas of development in colonial America, historians typically recognize four regions in the lands that later became the eastern United States. Listed from north to south, they are: New England, the Middle Colonies, the Chesapeake Bay Colonies and the Southern Colonies. Some historians add a fifth region, the frontier, which had certain unifying features no matter what sort of colony it sprang from. By the late 18th century, these different colonies found themselves more closely united than ever before, at odds with the British government on issues of taxation and representation.


Motives for exploration and colonization


During the 15th and 16th centuries, Europe emerged from the Middle Ages and entered the Renaissance, a development that encouraged exploration and colonization in many ways. Excuse me, but what is the European Renossance? Thanks a lot Bye! A revival in classical learning sparked an interest in geography and an intellectual curiosity about the world that had subsided during the Middle Ages. At the same time, the intellectual growth of the Renaissance led to the development of seafaring technologies needed to make long voyages across open water.

As the "New Monarchs" began to forge nations, they acquired the degree of centralized wealth and power necessary to begin systematic attempts at exploration. Also, as the economy of Europe began to revive, it became clear that the first nation to find a direct trade route to the "Indies" would benefit immensely. It was in this atmosphere that Christopher Columbus left Spain on his famous westward voyage. He sought for Asia, but the lands he came upon were found to belong to an entirely different landmass. Spain and Portugal quickly mounted an effort of colonization and conquest. Within a few years, they had divided up lucrative South and Central America.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, a new generation of colonial powers arose: Britain, France, and the Netherlands. The lands that now make up the eastern United States presented themselves as an attractive place for these new powers to establish colonies. Though these northerly lands were relatively close to Europe, Spain and Portugal had taken little interest in them, so as far as the Europeans were concerned, they were still free for the taking.


England made its first successful efforts at the start of the 17th century for several reasons. During this era, English proto-nationalism and national assertiveness blossomed under the threat of Spanish invasion, assisted by a degree of Protestant militarism and adoration of Queen Elizabeth. At this time, however, there was no official attempt by the English government to create a colonial empire. Rather, the motivation behind the founding of colonies was piecemeal and variable. Practical considerations such as commercial enterprise, over-population and the desire for religious freedom played their respective parts.

Early colonial failure

1584 map of Chesapeake Bay by John White
1584 map of Chesapeake Bay by John White

The English made a number of failed ventures in the closing decades of the sixteenth century. One of the more nearly successful of these was the Lost Colony, established in 1586 on the outer banks of modern day North Carolina, then part of Virginia, with the finances of Sir Walter Raleigh. A resupply ship, the second to be sent and after being delayed for several years by circumstances in England, found only a deserted settlement and the mysterious word "Croatoan" carved on a tree. Though previous attempts to colonize the area had involved conflict with neighboring tribes, no evidence of a struggle was found. John White (surveyor), Colonial Governor, grandfather of Virginia Dare and leader of the resupply party, was unable to search the nearby Croatoan Island due to a hurricane, and so returned to England.

The Chesapeake

The first truly successful English colony was established in 1607, in a region called Virginia (named in honor of Queen Elizabeth I, the "Virgin Queen"). It lay on an island in the James River, near its Chesapeake Bay estuary. Jamestown - named after the recently enthroned James I - very nearly became the next in the string of failed colonies.

The venture was financed and coordinated by a joint stock company - the London Virginia Company. The company hoped to follow in the footsteps of the Spanish conquistadores by finding gold. With that in mind, the company sent jewelers, goldsmiths, aristocrats, and the like - but not a single farmer. The colonists behaved as the company had expected them to. Hoping to obtain all of their food by trading with the nearby Powhatan tribes, they spent their time searching for gold. This meant that their settlement was highly socially unstable as well as unprofitable, since individual colonists felt little attachment to their community but instead were seeking individual wealth. A lack of social bonds in the community was further exacerbated by the fact that all the initial colonists, and most of the additional colonists, were male. Without wives or children to protect, the colonists had little incentive to protect their settlement or work towards its long-term growth.

Archaeological findings have indicated that the entire region was, at the time, struck by the most severe drought in centuries. American Indians were not very willing to give away their corn, and the colonists, without a harvest, named the winter the Starving Times. Only a third of the colonists survived the first winter. In fact, source documents indicate that some turned to cannibalism. However, the colony survived, in large part due to the efforts of an enigmatic figure named John Smith. Smith made himself the benevolent, if uncompromising, autocrat of the colony. His motto was "No work, no food," and his strict martial attitude was enough to bring the independent-minded settlers into line. He put the colonists to work, and befriended Pocahontas, daughter of Chief Powhatan, who was able to supply the colony with more food.

John Smith had saved the colony, but it had yet to turn a profit. Gold was nowhere to be found. Finally, in 1612, John Rolfe hit upon the cultivation of tobacco as a cash crop. The new product earned fabulously high profits in the first year, and substantially lower but still extraordinary ones in the second year. This state of economic affairs did not last, but tobacco continued to be the mainstay of the region's economy for two centuries. Tobacco cultivation is labor-intensive. To provide this labor, the colonists first relied on white indentured servants, but starting in 1619 tapped into the slave trade, which was already bringing large numbers of Africans to the sugar-producing islands of the Caribbean. 1619 also marked the year in which the first females arrived in Jamestown.

The Virginia Colony was strongly informed by the cultivation of tobacco and the ownership of slaves. Plantation agriculture came early to this region. At first, plantation owners employed white indentured servants, who would sign on as laborers for a period of time. However, there were few other choices available for a poor laborer, so most indentured servants renewed their contracts for as long as they could. This led to the creation of the plantation owners' greatest fear: a permanent class of poor, unhappy, and armed laborers. After their fears were realized with Bacon's Rebellion, a class revolt led by the gentryman Nathaniel Bacon that succeeded in burning Jamestown to the ground, plantation owners sought a less rebellious form of labor - African slaves.

As cash crop producers, these plantations were heavily dependent on trade. Without the ability to construct roads, and with irrigation needs, the planters were confined to the banks of rivers. However, because rivers and creeks were abundant, this allowed the plantations to spread out. Thus, individual workers on the plantation fields were usually without family and separated from their nearest neighbors by miles. This meant that little social infrastructure developed for the commoners of Virginia society, in contrast with the highly developed social infrastructure of colonial New England.

Another cause of social decentralization in the Chesapeake region was that Virginia society was predominantly secular. The lucrative tobacco business attracted unmarried men eager to make a living - not the sort of audience that is usually receptive to the call of religion. It did not attract many ministers, and even if it had, they would have had a difficult time building their congregations out of the far-flung tobacco planters. Thus, unlike in Puritan New England, there were few churches to serve as social and religious centers.

The colonial assembly that had governed the colony since its establishment was dissolved, but reinstated in 1630. It shared power with a royally appointed governor. On a more local level, governmental power was invested in county courts, also not elected.

New England

For details on each specific colony, see Connecticut Colony, Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts Bay Colony, Province of New Hampshire, and Colony of Rhode Island.

The next successful English colonial venture was of an entirely different sort than the Chesapeake settlements. It was founded by two separate groups of religious dissenters. Both demanded greater church reform and elimination of Catholic elements remaining in the Church of England. But whereas the Pilgrims sought to leave the Church of England, the Puritans wanted to reform it by setting an example of a holy community through the society they were to build in the New World.

The Pilgrims

The first and smaller of these two groups, called the Pilgrims, originated from a small Protestant congregation in Scrooby Manor, England, whose members sailed in 1605 for the Netherlands. At this time the Netherlands were gaining a reputation as a safe haven for those facing persecution. The emigrants grew dissatisfied with the heavy Dutch influence on their children and with poor economic conditions. They also experienced some persecution, motivated by the Dutch government's alliance with James I. As a result, some of them joined a larger group of Separatists who had remained in England, and sailed for the New World, taking the name Pilgrims.

Finally these men and women, sailed to America on the Mayflower, intending to arrive in the northern parts of what was known as Virginia - somewhere in the area of today's New York. Blown off course, they came instead to what is now Massachusetts, and landed on the west side of Lower Cape Cod. Before disembarking, they drew up the Mayflower Compact, by which they gave themselves broad powers of self-governance. They later relocated to Plymouth Colony on the mainland, establishing that settlement on December 21, 1620. (The first settlement there is the site of present-day Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Like the settlers at Jamestown, the Pilgrims had a difficult first winter, having had no time to plant crops. Most of the settlers died of starvation, including the leader, John Carver. William Bradford (1590-1657) was chosen to replace him in the spring of 1621. Later that year, the colonists enlisted the aid of Squanto and Samoset, two American Indians who had learned to speak some English. That fall brought a bountiful harvest, and the first Thanksgiving was held.

The Puritans

A second group of colonists established the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629. This group was the Puritans, who sought to reform the Anglican Church by creating a new, pure church in the New World. This expedition consisted of 400 Puritans organized by the Massachusetts Bay Company. Within two years, an additional 2,000 had arrived in America in waves of emigration known as the "Great Migration." In the New World the Puritans created a deeply religious, socially tight-knit and politically innovative culture that still lingers on in the modern United States.

Although it is a common myth in modern American society that the Puritans came to America seeking religious freedom, perhaps a more accurate term would be "religious domination." They hoped that America would be a "redeemer nation" (see exceptionalism). Though they fled from religious repression in England, they did not seek to establish toleration in America. The Puritan social ideal was that of the "nation of saints" or the "City upon a Hill," an intensely religious, thoroughly righteous community that would serve as an example for all of Europe and stimulate mass conversion to Puritanism. For example, Roger Williams came to Massachusetts preaching religious toleration, separation of Church and State, and complete break with the Anglican Church and was banished from the colony for his "crimes." He left and founded Rhode Island Colony, which was soon to become a haven for other religious refugees from the Puritan community. Another important example is Anne Hutchinson (1595 - 1643), an intelligent and charismatic woman who preached Antinomianism, her conviction that everyone's interpretation of the word of God was equally correct. Like Roger Williams she believed in religious toleration and freedom of thought. She, too, was exiled to Rhode Island.

As with its religious nature, the political structure of the Puritan colonies is often misunderstood. Officials were elected by the community, but only white males who were members of a Congregationalist church could vote. From a modern American standpoint, Puritan society was by no means a democracy. Officials had no responsibility to "the people"--their function was to serve God by best overseeing the moral and physical improvement of the community. However, it was not a theocracy either--Congregationalist ministers had no special powers in the government. On the other hand, by contemporary European standards, it was quite politically liberal--arguably more so than that of any European power of the day. Thus, in the political structure of Puritan society could be seen both the democratic form and the emphasis on civic virtue that was to characterize post-Revolutionary American society.

Socially, the Puritan society was tightly knit. No one was allowed to live alone for fear that their temptation would lead to the moral corruption of all of Puritan society. Because marriage generally took place within the geographic location of the family, within several generations many "towns" were more like clans, composed of several large, intermarried families. The strength of Puritan society was reflected through its institutions--specifically, its churches, town halls, and militias. All members of the Puritan community were expected to be active in all three of these organizations, ensuring the moral, political, and military safety of their community. Although some characterize the strength of Puritan society as repressively communal, others point to it as the basis of the later American values of civic virtues and education, essential foundations for the development of democracy.

Economically, Puritan New England fulfilled the expectations of its founders. Unlike the cash-crop oriented Chesapeake region, the Puritan economy was based on the efforts of individual farmers, who harvested enough crops to feed themselves and their families and to trade for goods they could not produce themselves. There was a generally higher economic standing and standard of living in New England than in the Chesapeake. On the other hand, town leaders in New England could literally rent out the town's impoverished families for a year to anyone who could afford to board them, as a form of alms and as a form of cheap labor. Along with farming growth, New England became an important mercantile and shipbuilding center, often serving as the hub for trading between the South and Europe.

The Middle Colonies

For details on each specific colony, see Delaware Colony, Province of New Jersey, Province of New York, and Province of Pennsylvania.

The Middle Colonies, consisting of the present-day states of New York, Pennsylvania, the three counties of Delaware, and Maryland were characterized by a large degree of diversity - religious, political, economic, and ethnic. Many Dutch and Irish immigrants settled in these areas (also moving into Long Island and Connecticut); the Pennsylvania Dutch would stand out as a unique ethnic group.

The South

For details on each specific colony, see Province of Georgia, Province of Maryland, Province of North Carolina, Province of South Carolina, and Virginia Colony.

The Southern Colonies are Georgia, the two Carolinas and Virginia, with the sometime inclusion of Maryland (always a borderland), which is sometimes grouped with the Middle Colonies.

The Carolinas

The first attempted settlement of the South by England was the Province of Carolina. A group of English Lords Proprietors, hoping that a new colony in the south would become profitable like that of Jamestown, obtained a royal charter to the Carolinas in 1663, but not settled until 1670. Their venture was initially a failure for the simple reason that there was no incentive for emigration to the south. However, eventually the lords combined their remaining capital and financed a settlement mission to the area led by John West. The expedition located fertile and defensible ground at what was to become Charleston (originally Charles Town for Charles II of England), thus beginning the British colonization of the southern mainland. The original settlers in South Carolina established a lucrative trade in provisions, deerskins and Indian captives with the Caribbean islands. The cultivation of rice was introduced during the 1690s. North Carolina remained a frontier backwater through the early colonial period.

At first, South Carolinas was politically divided. Its ethnic makeup included the original settlers, a group of rich, slave-owning British settlers from the island of Barbados, and a French-speaking community. Nearly continuous frontier warfare during the era of King William's War and Queen Anne's War drove economic and political wedges between merchants and planters. The disaster of the Yamasee War in 1715 set off a decade of political turmoil. By 1729, the proprietary government had collapsed, and the Proprietors sold both colonies back to the crown.


James Oglethorpe is often viewed as the founder of Georgia Colony. An 18th century British Member of Parliament, he laid the groundwork for the colonization of the state. At that time, tension between Spain and England was high, and there was a fear among the English that Spanish Florida was threatening the British Carolinas. Georgia was a key contested area, lying in between the two colonies. It was standard practice at the time to imprison debtors, but Oglethorpe decided to send them to a colony instead. This would both rid England of its undesirable elements and provide her with a base from which to attack Florida. The first colonists arrived in 1733.

Georgia was established on strict moralistic principles. Slavery was forbidden, as was alcohol and other forms of supposed immorality. However, the reality of the colony was far from ideal. The colonists were unhappy about the puritanical lifestyle, and complained that their colony could not compete economically with the Carolina rice plantations. Georgia initially failed to prosper, but once the restrictions were lifted it became as prosperous as the Carolinas.

Unification of the British colonies

Although each of the British colonies was strikingly different from the others, throughout the 17th and 18th centuries several events and trends took place that brought them together in various ways and to various degrees. Some of these sprung from their common roots as part of the British Empire - others served to distance them from Britain and led to the American Revolution.

In 1754, these trends were manifested in the Albany Congress, where Benjamin Franklin proposed that the colonies be united by a Grand Council overseeing a common policy for defense, expansion, and Indian affairs. While the plan was thwarted by colonial legislatures and King George II, it was an early indication that the British colonies of North America were headed towards unification.

The Great Awakening

One event that began to unify the religious background of the colonies was the Great Awakening, a Protestant revival movement that took place in the 1730s and 1740s. It began with Jonathan Edwards, a Massachusetts preacher who sought to return to the Pilgrims' strict Calvinist roots and to reawaken the fear of God. "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is perhaps his most famous sermon. Edwards was a powerful speaker and attracted a large following. The English preacher George Whitefield continued the movement, traveling across the colonies and preaching in a dramatic and emotional style, accepting Christians as his audience.

Those attracted to his message and that of the itinerant preachers who sprang up across the colonies called themselves the "New Lights," and those who did not were called the "Old Lights." One manifestation of the conflict between the two sides was the establishment of a number of universities, now counted among the Ivy League, including Kings College (now Columbia University) and Princeton University. The Great Awakening was perhaps the first truly "American" event, and as such represented at least a small step towards the unification of the colonies.

The Great Awakening may also be interpreted as the last major expression of the religious ideals on which the New England colonies were founded. Religiosity had been declining for decades, in part due to the negative publicity resulting from the Salem witch trials. After the Great Awakening, it subsided again, although later American history abounds with revival movements (most notably the Second Great Awakening). The forces driving the colonies' history for the next eighty years would be overwhelmingly secular, although America would remain (and many parts of the nation remain to this day) a deeply religious nation.

The French and Indian War

The French and Indian War (1754-1763) was the American extension of the general European conflict known as the Seven Years' War. It began, however, two years before any fighting broke out in Europe, and lasted for nine years. The war in the European theater was motivated primarily by Austria's desire to reclaim land lost to Prussia in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748). (That earlier conflict also spilled over into the colonies, where it was known as King George's War, in reference to George III of the United Kingdom.)

The war is called the French and Indian because the Iroquois confederacy, which had been playing the British and the French against each other successfully for decades, saw that Britain was getting the upper hand and threw itself decisively into the French camp. The move did not succeed, and the French were defeated anyway. In the Treaty of Paris (1763), France surrendered its vast North American empire to Britain.

The French and Indian war took on a new significance for the North American colonists in Britain when William Pitt the elder decided that it was necessary to win the war against France at all costs. For the first time North America was one of the main theatres of what could be termed a "world war". During the war the thirteen colonies's identity as part of the British Empire was made truly apparent, as British military and civilian officials took on an increased presence in the lives of Americans. The war also increased a sense of American unity in other ways. It caused men, who might normally have never left their colonies, to travel across the continent, fighting alongside men from decidedly different, yet still "American," backgrounds. Throughout the course of the war British officers trained American ones (most notably George Washington) for battle, which would later benefit the Revolution to come. Also, state legislatures and officials had to cooperate intensively for what was arguably the same time, participating a continent-wide military effort.

The British and colonists triumphed jointly over a common foe. The colonies' loyalty to the mother country was stronger than ever before. However, the seeds of trans-Atlantic disunity had been sown. The British Prime Minister of the time (William Pitt the elder) decided to wage the war in the colonies with the use of troops from the colonies and tax funds from Britain itself. This was a successful wartime strategy, but after the war was over, each side believed that it had borne a greater burden than the other. The British populace, the most heavily taxed of any in Europe, pointed out angrily that the colonies paid little to the royal coffers. The colonists replied that their sons had fought and died in a war that served European interests more than their own. The British answered that the colonists' poor discipline made them inferior soldiers anyway. This dispute was to set off the chain of events that brought about the American Revolution.

Ties to the British Empire

Although the colonies were very different from one another, they were still a part of the British empire in more than just name.

Socially, the colonial elite of Boston, New York, Charleston, and Philadelphia saw its identity as British. Although many had never been to England, they imitated British styles of dress, dance, and etiquette. This social upper crust built its mansions in the Georgian style, copied the furniture designs of Thomas Chippendale, and participated in the intellectual currents of Europe, such as the Enlightenment. To many of their inhabitants, the seaport cities of colonial America were truly British cities.

Many of the political structures of the colonies drew upon various English political traditions, most notably the Commonwealthmen and the Whig traditions (see also colonial government in America). Many Americans at the time saw the colonies' systems of governance as modeled after the British constitution of the time - with the king corresponding to the governor, the House of Commons to the colonial assembly, and the House of Lords to the Governor's council. The codes of law of the colonies were often drawn directly from British law; British common law survives even in the modern United States. Eventually, it was a dispute over the meaning of some of these political ideals, especially political representation, that led to the American Revolution.

Another point on which the colonies found themselves more similar than different was the booming import British goods. The British economy had begun to grow rapidly at the end of the seventeenth century, and by the mid-eighteenth century, small factories in Britain were producing much more than the island nation could consume. Finding a market for their goods in the British colonies of North America, Britain increased her exports to that region by 360% between 1740 and 1770. Because British merchants offered generous credit to their customers, Americans began buying staggering amounts of English goods. From New England to Georgia, all British subjects bought similar products, creating and Anglicanizing a sort of common identity.

From unity to revolution

The Royal Proclamation

The general sentiment of inequity that arose soon after the Treaty of Paris was solidified by the Royal Proclamation of 1763. This was a prohibition against settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains, on land which had been recently captured from France. In issuing this decree, the government was no doubt influenced by disgruntled taxpayers (see "The French and Indian War," above) who did not wish to bankroll the subjugation of the native people of the area to make room for colonists. In fact, there was still land available east of the mountains; for instance, the valley of the Mohawk River in western New York would not be fully settled until decades later.

The colonists resented the measure. To many Americans, it seemed unnecessary and draconian, an unproductive piece of legislation mandated by a far-away government that cared little for their needs. The latter was a reasonable assertion, since none of the MP's were elected by colonists. Parliament had generally been preoccupied with affairs in Europe, and let the colonies govern themselves. It was no longer willing to do so. A series of measures resulting from this policy change would continue to arouse opposition in the colonies over the next thirteen years.

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