Life in Colonial America (1492-1763)

Colonial America, in the United States, covers the history of European settlements, starting at the beginning of colonization and continuing until the incorporation of the United States. In the late 16th century, England, France, Spain and the Netherlands launched the major colonization programs in the eastern part of North America. Early on, small attempts would often disappear, such as the Lost Colony of Roanoke from England. The death rate was very high among the first arrivals all over North America. Nevertheless, the successful colonies were established over several decades.

European settlers came from a variety of social and religious groups as well. There were few aristocrats that permanently settled, but a number of adventurers, soldiers, farmers and tradesmen arrived. Diversity became an American characteristic, as settlers came to a new continent. Including the Dutch of New Netherland, the Swedes and Finns of New Sweden, the English Quakers of Pennsylvania, English Puritans of New England, English settlers of Jamestown, and the “worthy poor” of Georgia. They would build colonies with distinctive social, religious, political and economic styles.

The non-British colonies were overtaken and most of the inhabitants were assimilated, unlike in Nova Scotia, where the British expelled French Acadian inhabitants. There were no major civil wars among the thirteen colonies up to this time, and two chief and armed rebellions were short-lived failures. The first was in Virginia in 1676 and in New York in 1689-1691. The colonies developed legalized systems of slavery, based largely in the Atlantic slave trade, from Africa or by way of the Caribbean. Wars were recurrent between the French and the British. The French and Indian Wars had especially involved French support for Native American attacks on the British frontiers. By 1760, France would be defeated and the British regions were New England, the Middle Colonies, the Chesapeake Bay Colonies in the upper south, and the Lower South. Some historians would add a fifth region of the Frontier, which was never separately organized. By the time that European settlers arrived around 1660. A significant percentage of Native Americans living in the eastern United States had been ravaged by new diseases, possibly introduced to them decades before, by explorers and sailors.

What were the Goals of Colonization?

Colonizers came from European kingdoms that had highly developed military, naval, governmental and entrepreneurial capabilities. The Spanish and the Portuguese had a century old experience of conquest and colonization during the Reconquista, coupled with new oceanic ship navigation skills, provided tools, ability and desire to colonize the New World. These efforts were managed respectively by the Casa de Contractacion and Casa da India.

England, France and the Netherlands had also started colonies in both the West Indies and North America. They had the ability to build ocean-worthy ships as well, but they didn’t have a strong history of colonization in foreign lands, as Portugal and Spain did. However, the English entrepreneurs had given their colonies a foundation of merchant-based investment, which seemed to need much less government support.

Initially, matters concerning the colonies were dealt with primarily by the Privy Council and its committees. The Commission of Trade was set up in 1625, as the first special body convened to advise on colonial (plantation) questions. From 1696 until the end of the revolution, colonial affairs were the responsibility of the Board of Trade, in partnership with the relevant secretaries of state, which had changed from the Secretary of State for the Southern Department to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1768.


Mercantilism was a basic policy imposed on the colonies by Britain from the 1660s. This meant that the government and merchants that were based in England had become partners, with their goal being to increase political power and private wealth. It would exclude other empires and even the merchants that were based in its own colonies. The government protected its London-based merchants, but kept out others by trade barriers, regulations and subsidies to domestic industries, so that it could keep order and maximize exports from the realm and minimize imports. It also had to fight smuggling, especially by American merchants. Some of the American merchants activities were classified as smuggling by the Navigation Acts, which included direct trade with the French, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese. The goal of mercantilism was to run trade surpluses, so that gold and silver would pour into London. The government took its share through duties and taxes, with the remainder going to other merchants in Britain. It spent much of its revenue on a superb Royal Navy that protected the British colonies and also threatened the colonies of other empires, sometimes even seizing them. Thus, the British Navy having captured New Amsterdam, which later became New York City, in 1664. The colonies were captive markets for the British industry, whose goal was to enrich the mother country.

New Amsterdam

Example of New Amsterdam (now New York City)


Freedom From Religious Persecution

With the prospect of religious persecution by authorities of the crown and the Church of England many were prompted to make colonization efforts in the New World. People who fled persecution by King Charles I were responsible for settling most of the New England colonies. The Province of Maryland was founded, in part, to be a haven for Roman Catholics.

Early Colonial Failures

Even within the many successes of colonizing the New World, like any early stage business, the colonies also had their failures. A group of anonymous Portuguese explorers were the first Europeans to map the future eastern seaboard of the United States, from New York to Florida, as documented in the Cantino Planisphere of

Cantino Planisphere

Cantino Planisphere


1502. However, they kept their discoveries a secret and would try to settle in North America, as the Inter Caetera issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493 had granted these lands to Spain. Other countries also tried to found colonies in what would later become the United States over the following century, most of their attempts ended in failure as well. The colonists had faced high death rates as well. Many colonial deaths were due to disease, starvation, inefficient resupply, conflict with Native Americans and attacks by rival European powers.

Spain had numerous failed attempts at colonization, including San Miguel de Gualdape in Georgia in 1526; Panfilo de Narvaez’s expedition to Florida’s Gulf Coast in 1528 through 1536; Pensacola in West Florida in 1559 through 1561; Fort San Juan in North Carolina from 1567 to 1568 and the Ajacan Mission in Virginia from 1570 through 1571.

France too had failed attempts including Parris Island in South Carolina from 1562 through 1563; Fort Caroline on Florida’s Atlantic Coast from 1564 through 1565; Saint Croix Island in Maine from 1604 to 1605; and Fort Saint Louis in Texas from 1685 to 1689.

The English had notable failures including “The Lost Colony of Roanoke” from 1587 through 1590 in North Carolina. It was here that Virginia Dare had became the first English child born in the Americas, her fate is unknown. Another notable failure at colonization was at Popham Colony in Maine from 1607 to 1608.

Colonization of Florida

From 1765 to 1803, Spain claimed North America, from the west of the Mississippi River and south of British Canada. Additionally, they claimed east of the Mississippi River and claimed what is now the state of Florida, and parts of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi. Spain had actual control over New Orleans and a few of the other towns scattered across its vast domain.

The Spaniards established several small outposts in Florida in the early 16th century. The most important of these was at St. Augustine, which was founded in 1565. However it was repeatedly attacked and burned by pirates, privateers and English forces. Its buildings had survived even as most of the colonists left. St. Augustine claims to be the oldest European settlement in the United States.

The British would attack Spanish Florida during numerous wars. In as early as 1687, the Spanish government had started offering asylum to slaves from the British colonies. In 1693, the Spanish Crown had officially proclaimed that runaways would find freedom in Florida, in return for converting to Catholicism and men serving four years in military service to the crown. In effect, Spain created a maroon settlement in Florida, as a front line defense against English attacks from the north. Spain had also intended to destabilize the plantation economy of the British colonies. They would create a free black community to attract slaves who were seeking to escape, providing refuge from British slavery. During 1763, Spain traded Florida to Great Britain in exchange for control of Havana, Cuba. Havana had been captured by the British during the Seven Years’ War. Florida was home to about 3,000 Spaniards at this time and almost all of them quickly left when the British took over. Britain would occupy Florida, but didn’t send many settlers to the area. Control was restored to Spain in 1783 by the Peace of Paris, which ended the American Revolutionary War. Spain would send no more settlers or missionaries to Florida during the second colonial period. Inhabitants of West Florida would revolt against the Spanish in 1810 and formed the Republic of West Florida. West Florida was quickly annexed by the United States. It would take possession of East Florida in 1821, according to the terms of the Adams-Onis Treaty.

Colonization of New Mexico

Throughout the 16th Century, Spain would explore through the American southwest from Mexico. The most

Francisco Coronado

Francisco Coronodo


notable exploration was by Francisco Coronado, whose expedition rode throughout what is today New Mexico and Arizona, including much of the western half of today’s state of New Mexico. The areas capital was then Santa Fe. Local Indians expelled the Spanish for twelve years after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. They had returned in 1692 during the bloodless reoccupation of Santa Fe. Control was kept by Spain and Mexico until 1846 when the American Army of the west took over in the Mexican-American War. Today about a third of the population in these areas is descended from the Spanish settlers.

Colonization of California

Spanish explorers would sail along the coast of what is today California from the early 16th through the mid-18th century. However, no settlements would be established through these centuries in the area. From 1769 until the independence of Mexico in 1820, Spain sent missionaries and soldiers to Alta California. They would create a series of missions that were operated by Franciscan priests. They would also operate presidios (forts), pueblos (settlements) and ranchos (land grant ranches) along the southern and central coast of California. Father Junipero Serra founded the first missions in the Spanish upper Las Californias, starting with the Mission San Diego de Alcala in 1769.

Through the Spanish and Mexican eras they eventually comprised a series of twenty-one missions to spread Roman Catholicism among local Native Americans, linked by El Camino Real (“The Royal Road”). They were established to convert the indigenous peoples of California, while protecting the historic Spanish claims to the area. The missions would also introduce European technology, livestock and crops to the area. At this time the indigenous Native American population was around 150,000 people and the Californios (Mexican era Californians) population was around 10,000, with the rest being immigrant Americans and other nationalities involved in trade and business in California.

Colonization of New France

New France was a vast area centered on the Mississippi River and explored and claimed by France, beginning in the mid 17th century. The area would compromise of several colonies including Acadia, Canada, Newfoundland, Louisiana, Ile-Royale (present day Cape Breton Island), and Ile Saint Jean (present day Prince Edward Island). All of these territories came under British control in the 18th century, but only portions of Canada, Acadia and Louisiana became parts of the United States.

Pays d’en Haut

In 1660, French fur trappers, missionaries and military detachments that were based in Montreal pushed towards the west along the Great Lakes and upriver into Pays d’en Haut. They would found outposts at Green Bay, Fort de Buade and Saint Ignace (both at Michilimackinac), Sault Sainte Marie, Vinceness, and Detroit in 1701. During the French and Indian War from 1754 to 1763, many of these settlements became occupied by the British. By 1773, the population of Detroit was 1,400. At the end of the War of Independence in 1783, this area, south of the Great Lakes, became part of the United States.

Illinois Country

By 1752, Illinois county had a French population of 2,500. It was located to the west of the Ohio Country and was concentrated around Kaskaskia, Cahokira, and Sainte Genevieve. According to one scholar, “The Illinois Habitat was a gay soul he seemed carefree to later, self-righteous Puritans from the American colonies”.Colonial America


French claims to French Louisiana stretched thousands of miles from today’s Louisiana, north to the largely unexplored Midwest, and west to the Rocky Mountains. The area was generally divided into Upper and Lower Louisiana. The vast tract was first settled at Mobile and Biloxi around 1700, and continued to grow when 7,000 French immigrants founded New Orleans in 1718. Settlement would proceed very slowly. New Orleans became an important port, as it was a gateway to the Mississippi River. In the 1780s, the western border of the newly independent United States stretched to the Mississippi River. The United States came to an agreement with Spain for the navigation rights on the river and was content to let “feeble” colonial power stay in control over the area. This would change, however, when Napoleon forced Spain to return Louisiana to France in 1802. This threatened to close the river to American vessels. Alarmed, the United States offered to buy New Orleans.

Napoleon needed the funds to wage another war with Great Britain and doubted that France could defend such a huge and distant territory. Therefore, he offered to sell all of Louisiana for $15 million. The United States completed the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and doubled the size of the nation.

Colonization of New Netherland

Nieuw-Nederland also known as New Netherland in English, was a colonial province of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands. It was chartered in 1614 in what would later become New York state, New Jersey and parts of other neighboring states. The peak population of New Netherland was less than 10,000. The Dutch established a patroon system with feudal-like rights given to a few powerful landholders. They also established religious tolerance and free trade. The capital of the colony was New Amsterdam and was founded in 1625 and was located at the southern tip of the island of Manhattan. Later this area would become a major world city.

During 1664, the city was captured by the English, who would take complete control of the colony in 1674 and renamed it New York. However, the Dutch landholdings remained and the Hudson River Valley kept a traditional Dutch character until the 1820s. Today, there are still traces of Dutch influence in New Jersey and southeastern New York state, such as homes, family surnames and names of roads and whole towns.

Colonization of New Sweden

Along the Delaware River Valley in 1638 to 1655 there was a Swedish colony known as New Sweden. It encompassed the land of present-day Delaware, southern New Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania. The several hundred settlers were centered around the capital of Fort Christina. Which today is the city of Wilmington, Delaware. The colony also had settlements near present-day Salem, New Jersey (Fort Nya Elfsborg) and on Trinicum Island in Pennsylvania. The colony was captured by the Dutch in 1655 and merged into New Netherland with most of the colonists remaining. A year later, the entire New Netherland colony was incorporated into England’s colonial holdings.

Nothnagle Log Cabin today

Nothnagle Log House in Gibbstown, New Jersey as it is today


The colony of New Sweden introduced Lutheranism to America in the form of some of the continent’s oldest European churches. These colonists also introduced the log cabin to America. Numerous rivers, towns and families in the lower Delaware River Valley region get their names from the Swedes. The Nothnagle Log House in present-day Gibbstown, New Jersey was constructed in the late 1630s, during the time of the New Sweden colony. It remains the oldest European-built house in New Jersey and is believed to be one of the oldest surviving log houses in the United States.

Russian Colonies

Russia explored the area that would become Alaska, beginning with the Second Kamchatka Expedition in the 1730s and early 1740s. Their first settlement was founded in 1784 by Grigory Shelikhov. The Russian-American Company would be formed in 1799 with the influence of Nokolay Rezanov, for the purpose of buying sea otters for their fur from native hunters. In 1867, the United States purchased Alaska and nearly all Russians abandoned the area. A few missionaries from the Russian Orthodox Church remained to work among the natives.

The English Colonies

The English would make their first successful efforts at colonization at the start of the 17th century. During this era, English protonationalism and national assertiveness blossomed under the threat of a Spanish invasion. It was assisted by a degree of Protestant militarism and energy of Queen Elizabeth I. At this time though there was no official attempt by the English government to create a colonial empire, rather, the motivation behind founding of the colonies was piecemeal and variable. Practical considerations played their parts, such as commercial enterprise, overcrowding and desire for freedom of religion. The main waves of settlement came in the 17th century. After 1700, most immigrants to Colonial America arrived as indentured servants, young unmarried men and women, and those seeking a new life in a much richer environment. The consensus view among economic historians and economists is that indentured servitude occurred largely as “an institutional response to a capital market imperfection”, but that it “enabled prospective migrants to borrow against their future earnings in order to pay the high cost of passage to America”. Between the late 1610s and the American Revolution, the British shipped an estimated 50,000 convicts to its American colonies as well. The first of which arrived before the Mayflower arrived.

Colonization of the Chesapeake Bay Area and Virginia

Jamestown, Virginia was the first successful English colony and was established on the 14th of May 1607 near Chesapeake Bay. The business venture was financed and coordinated by the London Virginia Company, a joint stock company that was looking for gold in the New World. The first years of the colony were extremely difficult. It suffered very high death rates from disease and starvation, as well as wars with the local Indians. They would end up finding very little gold either. The colony would survive though and flourished by turning to tobacco as a cash crop. By the later 17th century, Virginia’s export economy was largely based on the crop. New and richer settlers came in to take up large portions of land. On these lands they would build large plantations and imported indentured servants and slaves to run them. In 1676, Bacon’s Rebellion occurred, but was suppressed by royal officials. After the rebellion, African slaves quickly replaced indentured servants and became Virginia’s main labor force.

Jamestown Virginia
Part of Jamestown Colony as it stands today

The colonial assembly shared power with a royally appointed governor. On a more local level, governmental power was invested in county courts. These courts were self-perpetuating and the incumbents filled any vacancies, there were never any popular elections. As cash crop producers, the Chesapeake plantations were heavily dependent on their trade with England. There were only few towns and cities in the area as navigation by river was pretty easy. The planters of Virginia would ship directly to Britain.

Colonization of New England

The Puritans

A subset of the Puritans were the Separatists. The Puritans felt that they needed to separate themselves from the Church of England. It was these people that would travel in 1620 aboard the Mayflower to escape religious persecution in England. Today, these people are better known as the Pilgrims. They would establish the first New England Colony in Plymouth, today in Massachusetts. Others would come from England to Plymouth in the following years, establishing a community, which today is referred to as the Pilgrim Fathers.

Plymouth Colony
Example of houses being built in the Plymouth Colony

Non-separatist Puritans constituted a much larger group than the Pilgrims. They established the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629 with four hundred settlers, seeking to reform the Church of England by creating a new, pure church in the New World. By 1640, twenty thousand settlers had arrived, but many died soon after their arrival. Those that did survive found a healthy climate and ample food supply. The Plymouth and the Massachusetts Bay colonies would together spawn other Puritan colonies in New England, including New Haven, Saybrook and Connecticut colonies. Throughout the 17th century, New Haven and Saybrook colonies were absorbed by Connecticut.

The Puritans would create deep religious, socially tight-knit, and a politically innovative culture that still influences the modern day United States. They had hoped that this new land would serve as a “redeemer nation”, and fled England and tried to create a “nation of saints” or a “city upon a hill” in America. This was an intensely religious, thoroughly righteous community designed to be an example for all of Europe.

Roger Williams was a Puritan who had preached religious toleration, separation of church and state, and a

Roger Williams
Roger Williams

complex break with the Church of England. He would be banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and founded the Providence Plantation, which became a haven for other refugees. Anne Hutchinson and others, shortly after established new settlements on an island in Narragansett Bay and called it Rhode Island, later it would become Newport, Rhode Island.

Economically, Puritan New England fulfilled the expectations of its founders. The Puritan economy was based on efforts of self-supporting farmsteads who traded only for goods, which they couldn’t produce themselves, unlike the cash crop-oriented plantations of the Chesapeake region. There was a generally higher economic standing and standard of living in New England that there was in Chesapeake. New England became an important mercantile and shipbuilding center, along with agriculture, fishing and logging. It served as a hub for trading between the southern colonies and Europe.

In other areas of New England, the Pilgrims were a small group of Puritan separatists that were based in England and the Netherlands. An initial group had sailed on the Mayflower and settled in Plymouth in 1620. They drew up the Mayflower Compact, by which they bound themselves together as a united community, thus establishing the small Plymouth Colony. William Bradford was their main leader.

Providence Plantation was founded in 1636 by Roger Williams on land that was provided by Narragansett sachem Canonicus. Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony over theological disagreements and agreed with his fellow settlers on an egalitarian constitution. This would provide for a majority rule “in civil things” and “liberty of conscience” in religious matters.

Other colonists would settle to the north, mingling with adventurers and profit-oriented settlers to establish more religiously diverse colonies in New Hampshire and Maine. These small settlements were absorbed by Massachusetts, when it made significant land claims in the 1640s and 1650s. However, New Hampshire was eventually given a separate charter in 1679. Maine would remain part of Massachusetts until it achieved statehood in 1820.

The Dominion of New England

Under King James II of England, the New England colonies, New York and the Jerseys were, for a time, united as the Dominion of New England. The administration was eventually led by Governor Sir Edmund Andros and seized colonial charters, revoked land titles, and ruled without local assemblies. This caused anger among many in the population. In 1689, the Boston Revolt was inspired by England’s Glorious Revolution against King James II and led to the arrest of Andros, Boston Anglicans, and senior dominion officials by the Massachusetts militia. Andros was jailed for several months and then returned to England. The Dominion of New England was dissolved and governments resumed under earlier charters.

However, the Massachusetts charter had been revoked in 1684 and a new one was issued in 1691. Together the Massachusetts and Plymouth colonies were combined into the Province of Massachusetts Bay. King William III had sought to unite New England colonies militarily by appointing the Earl of Bellomont to three simultaneous governorships and military command over Connecticut and Rhode Island. However, these attempts failed at unified control.

The Middle Colonies

The middle colonies consisted of what is today the states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. They were characterized by a large degree of diversity, including those of religious, political, economic and ethnics. The Dutch colony of New Netherland was taken over by the British and they renamed it New York. However, a large number of Dutch would remain in the colony, dominating rural areas between New York City and Albany. Meanwhile, the Yankees from New England would start moving in, as did immigrants from Germany. New York City attracted a large polyglot population, including a large black slave population.

New Jersey began as a division of New York and was then divided into proprietary colonies of East and West

William Penn
William Penn

Jersey for a time. Pennsylvania was founded in 1681 as one of these proprietary colonies of the Quaker William Penn. The main population elements included the Quakers based in Philadelphia. A Scotch-Irish population of the western frontier and numerous German colonies in between. Philadelphia became the largest city in the colonies, due to its central location, excellent port and population of about 30,000 people.

By the mid-18th century, Pennsylvania was basically a middle-class colony. It had limited deference to a small upper-class. One writer of the “Pennsylvania Journal” summed it up in 1756 as: “The People of this Province are generally of the middling Sort, and at present pretty much upon a Level. They are chiefly industrious Farmers, Artificers or Men in Trade; they enjoy in [are fond of] Freedom, and the meanest among them thinks he has a right to Civility from the greatest.”

The South

The predominant culture of the South was rooted in the settlement of the region by British colonists. In the 17th century, most voluntary immigrants had English origins who had settled chiefly along the coastal regions of the Eastern seaboard. The majority of early British settlers were indentured servants who had gained their freedom after enough work to pay off their passage. The wealthier men who had paid their way to the colonies received land grants known as head-rights to encourage settlement.

The French and the Spanish would establish colonies in Florida, Louisiana and Texas. In the 16th century, the Spanish colonized Florida with their communities reaching a peak in the late 17th century. In the British and French colonies, most immigrants had arrived after 1700. They cleared land, built homes and outbuildings and worked on large plantations that dominated agricultural exports. Many were involved in intense labor cultivation of tobacco, the first cash crop of Virginia. With the decrease in the number of British who were willing to go to the colonies in the 18th century, planters began importing more enslaved Africans, who would became the predominant labor force on the plantations. Tobacco exhausted the soil quickly though and required new fields to be cleared on a regular basis. Old fields would be used as pastures and for crops like corn and wheat. The old fields would also be transformed into woodlots.

As stated before, in the 17th century, the colonists began importing African laborers. In the coastal regions and other settlements in the area, early workers lived closely together in a multiracial society. Europeans married and made unions with Africans and Native Americans. The colonies slowly passed laws that hardened the early conditions of indenture servants into lifelong racial slavery attached to African descent. Africans would contribute to the economy of rice and indigo cultivation with their skilled knowledge, technology and labor, as well as to all commodity crops. They’d also contribute to every aspect of culture including food, music, stories and religion.

17th century Virginia Tobacco Plantation
Example of a 17th Century Tobacco Plantation

Rice cultivation in South Carolina became another major commodity crop. Some historians have argued that slaves from the lowlands of western Africa, where rice was a basic crop, provided key skills, knowledge and technology for the irrigation and construction of earthworks to support the cultivation of rice. Early methods and tools that were used in South Carolina were congruent with those in Africa. British immigrants would have had little or no familiarity with the complex process of growing rice in fields flooded by irrigation works. Africans were instrumental in the development of major earthworks for cultivating these commodities, as well as in the knowledge of technology and techniques for processing. The earthworks would include extensive, elaborate systems of dams and irrigation for rice.

During the late 18th century, large groups of Scots and Ulster-Scots, later known as Scots-Irish, had immigrated and settled in the back country of Appalachia and the Piedmont. They were the largest group of immigrants from the British Isles before the American Revolution. In a census taken in 2000 of American and self-reported ancestries, areas where people had reported “American” ancestry were the places where, historically, many Scottish, Scots-Irish, and English Border Protestants settled in America. The population with some Scots and Scots-Irish ancestry may number forty-seven million, as most people have multiple heritages, some of which they may not know.

The early colonists, especially the Scots-Irish in the back-country engaged in warfare, trade and cultural exchanges. Those that were living in the back-country were more likely to join the Creek Indians, Cherokee, and Choctaws and other regional native groups.

The College of William & Mary is the oldest university in the South and was founded in 1693 in Virginia. It was a pioneer in the teaching of political economy and had educated future United States Presidents Jefferson, Monroe and Tyler, all from Virginia. The entire region had, indeed, dominated politics in the First Party System era. For example, four of the first five Presidents; Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe were all from Virginia. The two oldest public universities are also in the South and are the University of North Carolina founded in 1795, and the University of Georgia founded in 1785.

The colonial South included plantation colonies of the Chesapeake region in Virginia, Maryland and by some classifications Delaware, and also the lower south including Carolina which would eventually split into North and South Carolina and Georgia.

The Chesapeake Society

The top five percent or so of the white population of Virginia and Maryland in the mid-18th century were planters who had possessed growing wealth and increased political power and social prestige. They would control the local Anglican church, chose ministers, handled church property and disbursed local charity. They’d also seek elections to the House of Purchases or the appointment as Justice of the Peace.

Around sixty percent of white Virginians were part of a broad middle class that had owned substantial farms. By the second generation of those that came to America, death rates from malaria and other local diseases had declined so much that a stable family structure was possible.

The bottom third of the population had owned no land and were on the verge poverty. Many were recent arrivals and recently released from indentured servitude. In some districts near present-day Washington D.C., seventy percent of the land was owned by a handful of families and three-fourths of whites had no land at all. Large numbers of Irish and German Protestants had settled into the frontier districts and often moved down from Pennsylvania. In this area, tobacco wasn’t important, farmers instead focused on hemp, grain, cattle and horses. Entrepreneurs had started to mine and smelt the local iron ore as well.

Sports also occupied a great deal of attention at every social level, starting at the top. In England, hunting was restricted sharply to those that owned land and was enforced by gamekeepers. However, in America, game was more plentiful. Everyone could and did hunt, including servants and slaves. Poor men with good rifle skills would win praise. Rich gentlemen who were off target won ridicule. In 1691, Governor Sir Francis Nicholson had organized competitions for the “Better sort of Virginians onely who are Batchelors” and offered prizes “to be shot for, wrastled, played at backswords, & Run for by Horse and foott”.

Horse racing was a main event. The typical farmer didn’t own a horse in the first place, but racing was a matter of gentlemen only, but ordinary farmers would spectate and gamble. Select slaves would often become skilled horse trainers. Horse racing was very important for knitting together the gentry. The race was a major public event that was designed to demonstrate to the world the superior social status of the gentry through expensive breeding, training, boasting and gambling, especially when they won the race themselves. Timothy Breen, a historian, explains that horse racing and high-stakes gambling were essential to maintaining the status of gentry. When they had publicly bet large sums on their favorite horse, it would tell the world that competitiveness, individualism and materialism were core elements of gentry values.

Edmund Morgan, another historian, argues that Virginians in the 1650s and for the next centuries had turned to slavery and a racial divide as an alternative to class conflict. “Racism made it possible for white Virginians to develop a devotion to the equality that English republicans had declared to be the soul of liberty”. That is, white men had become, politically, much more equal than what was possible without the population of low-status slaves.

By 1700, the Virginia population had reached 70,000 and continued to grow quickly from high birth rates, low death rates, the importation of slaves from the Caribbean, and immigration from Britain, Germany, and Pennsylvania. The climate in the area was mild and farm lands were cheap and fertile.

The Carolinas

The Providence of Carolina was the first English attempt at a settlement south of Virginia. It was a private venture, financed by a group of English Lords Proprietors who had obtained a Royal Charter to the Carolinas in 1663. They hoped that the new colony in the south would become profitable like Jamestown was. Carolina was not settled until 1670 and even then the first attempt had failed because there was no incentive for emigration to the area. Eventually though, the Lords combined their remaining capital and financed a settlement mission to the area that was led by Sir John Colleton. The expedition would locate a fertile and defensible ground at what would later become Charleston, originally Charles Town, named for Charles II of England. The original settlers in South Carolina had established a lucrative trade in food for slave plantations in the Caribbean. The settlers to the area had mainly been from the English colony of Barbados and brought African slaves with them. Barbados was a wealthy sugarcane plantation island, one of the early English colonies to use large numbers of Africans in plantation-style agriculture. The cultivation of rice was introduced during the 1690s and became an important export crop.

At first, South Carolina was politically divided. Its ethnic makeup had included original settlers and a group of rich, slave owning English settlers from the island of Barbados. The Huguenots also came to South Carolina and were a French-speaking community of Protestants. The area was a nearly continuous frontier of warfare during the era of King William’s War and Queen Anne’s War. It drove economic and political wedges between merchants and planters. The disaster of the 1715 Yamasee War threatened the colony’s viability and set off a decade of political turmoil. By 1729, the proprietary government collapsed and proprietors sold the colonies back to the British Crown.

North Carolina had the smallest upper-class. Only ten percent of the population were considered rich and owned about forty percent of all the land in comparison to the fifty to sixty percent in neighboring Virginia and South Carolina. There were no cities of any size and only very few towns, so there was scarcely an urban middle class at all. Heavily rural North Carolina was dominated by subsistence farmers with small operations, in addition, a third of whites had no land at all.


James Oglethorpe, British Member of Parliament, had established the Georgia Colony in 1733, as a solution to two problems. At the time, tension was high between Spain and Great Britain and the British were in fear of Spanish Florida threatening the British Carolinas. Oglethorpe chose to establish the colony in the contested border region of Georgia and to populate it with debtors who otherwise would have been imprisoned according to standard British practice. This plan would rid Great Britain of its undesirable elements and provided it with a base from which to attack Florida. The first colonists of Georgia arrived in 1733.

James Oglethorpe
Sir James Oglethorpe

The colony was established on strict moralistic principles. Slavery was officially forbidden, as was alcohol and other forms of immorality. However, the reality of the colony was far different. The colonists rejected a moralistic lifestyle and complained that the colony couldn’t compete economically with the Carolina rice plantations. Georgia had initially failed to prosper but it eventually lifted its restrictions and slavery was allowed and the colony ended up becoming as prosperous as the Carolinas. It also never established a religion and was filled with people from various faiths.

East and West Florida

Spain would cede Florida to Great Britain in 1763 and established the colonies of East and West Florida. The Floridas remained loyal to Great Britain during the American Revolution, but were returned to Spain in 1783 in exchange for the Bahamas. At this time most of the British would leave the area and then the Spanish neglected the Floridas. Few Spaniards even lived there when the United States had bought the area in 1819.

The British Colonial Government

Each colony had a paid colonial agent in London to represent their interests. The three forms of colonial government in 1776 were provincial (royal colony), proprietary and charter. These were all subordinate to the King of England and had no explicit relationship with the British Parliament. Starting in the late 17th century, the administration of all of the British colonies was overseen by the Board of Trade in London.

The Crown Colonies

New Hampshire, New York, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia were the Crown Colonies. Later Massachusetts would also become one as well.

The Provincial colony was governed by commissioners who were created at the pleasure of the king. A governor was invested with general executive powers and was authorized to call a locally elected assembly. The governor’s council would sit as the upper house when assembly was in session and also had a role in advising the governor. Assemblies were made up of representatives that were elected by freeholders and planters (landowners) of the province. The governor had the power of an absolute veto and could prorogue (delay) and dissolve the assembly.

The Assembly’s role was to make all local laws and ordinances, ensuring that they weren’t inconsistent with the laws of England. This didn’t always occur since many of the provincial assemblies sought to expand their powers and limit those of the governor and the crown. Laws could be examined by the British Privy Council or the Board of Trade which also held the power to veto legislation.

The Proprietary Colonies

Pennsylvania, which also included Delaware at the time, New Jersey and Maryland were proprietary colonies. They were governed much the same as the royal colonies, except they were governed by lord proprietors, instead of the king and had an appointed governor. These colonies were set up after the Restoration of 1660 and typically enjoyed greater civil religious liberties.

The Charter Colonies

Massachusetts, Providence Plantation, Rhode Island, Warwick and Connecticut were charter colonies.  The Massachusetts charter was revoked in 1684 and was replaced by a provincial charter that was issued in 1691. The Charter governments were political corporations that were created by patent letters. It gave grantees control over the land and the powers of a legislative government. Charters provided a fundamental constitution and divided powers among the legislative, executive and judicial functions. These powers were vested in officials.

The Political Culture

The political culture of the United States has its origins in the colonial period. Most theories of the political culture identify New England, the Mid-Atlantic and the South as having formed separate and distinct political cultures.

As Bonomi shows, the most distinctive feature of colonial society was its vibrant political culture, which attracted the most talented and ambitious young men into politics. First, suffrage was the most generous in the world, with every man being allowed to vote who owned a certain amount of property. Fewer than one percent of British men could even vote, whereas, the majority of American freemen were ineligible. The roots of democracy are present then too. Although deference was typically shown to the social elites in colonial elections.

Secondly, a very wide range of public and private business was decided by elected bodies in the colonies. Especially in the assemblies and county governments in each colony. They handled land grants, commercial subsidies, and taxation, as well as the oversight of roads, poor relief, taverns and schools. Americans would sue one another at a very high rate, with binding decisions not being made by a great lord, but by local judges and juries. This promoted rapid expansion of legal possession, so the intense involvement of lawyers in politics becoming an American characteristic by the 1770s.

Thirdly, the American colonies was an exceptional world because of the representation of many different interest groups in political decision-making. The American political culture was open to economic, social, religious, ethnic and geographical interests with merchants, landlords, petty farmers, artisans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Quakers, Germans, the Scots-Irish, Yankees, Yorkers and many other identifiable groups taking part. Elected representatives would learn to listen to these interests because ninety percent of the men in lower class houses lived in their districts, unlike in England where it was common to have an absentee member of Parliament. All of this was very unlike Europe, where aristocratic families and established churches were in control.

Finally, and most dramatically, Americans were fascinated by and increasingly would adopt the political values of Republicanism, which stressed equal rights, the need for virtuous citizens, and evils of corruption, luxury and the aristocracy. Republicanism provided the framework for colonial resistance to British schemes of taxation after 1763, which escalated into the American Revolution.

None of the colonies had stable political parties of any sort that would form in the 1790s, but they did each have shifting factions that fought for power, especially in the perennial battles between the appointed governor and elected assembly. There were often “country” factions that represented those opposed to the governor’s agenda, and then there were “court” factions as well that favored the governor’s agenda. Massachusetts had particularly low requirements for voting eligibility and strong rural representation in its assembly from its 1691 charter. Consequently, it also had a strong populist faction that represented the province’s lower classes.

Throughout the colonies, non-English ethnic groups had clusters of settlements. The most numerous were Scots-Irish and the Germans. Each group assimilated into dominant English, Protestant, commercial, and political culture, except with local variations. They did tend to vote in blocs and politicians negotiated with group leaders for votes. Generally, they also retained their historic languages and cultural traditions, even as they merged into the developing American culture.

Ethnocultural factors were most visible in the colony of Pennsylvania. Between 1756 and 1776, Quakers were the largest faction in legislature, but were losing dominance to the growing Presbyterian faction based on Scot-Irish votes and supported by Germans.

The Unification of the British Colonies

Efforts would begin building a common defense of the colonies in as early as the 1640s. They would defend against their shared threats from Indians, the French and the Dutch. The Puritan colonies of New England formed a confederation to coordinate military and judicial matters. Sir Edmund Andros, notably governed New York, New England and Virginia at various times. Francis Nicholson governed Maryland, Virginia, Nova Scotia and Carolina. After King Phillip’s War, Andros had successfully negotiated the Covenant Chain. The Covenant Chain was a series of Indian treaties, which brought a relative calm to the frontiers of the middle colonies for many years.

The Northern colonies experienced numerous assaults from the Wabanaki Confederacy and the French from Acadia during four French and Indian Wars, particularly present-day Maine and New Hampshire. They also fought Father Rale’s War and Father Le Loutre’s War.

One event that would remind colonists of their shared identity as British subjects was the War of the Austrian Succession in Europe from 1740 to 1748. The conflict had spilled over into the colonies, where it was known as “King George’s War”. The major battles of the war would take place in Europe, but the American colonial troops fought the French and their Indian allies in New York, New England, and Nova Scotia with the Siege of Louisbourg in 1745.

Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin

In 1754, at the Albany Congress, a man named Benjamin Franklin proposed that the colonies be united by a Grand Council. They would oversee the common policy for defense, expansion and Indian affairs. The plan was thwarted by colonial legislatures and King George II, but had been an early indication that the British colonies of North America were headed towards a unification.

The French and Indian War

The French and Indian War from 1754 to 1763 was the American extension of the general European conflict known as the Seven Years’ War. From Europe it spread to the colonies. However, the war is notable for having started in North America and spread to Europe, especially in the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley.

The war took on a new significance for the British North American colonists in order to win the war against France. For the first time the continent became one of the main theaters of what could be termed as a “world war”, as the British military and civilian officials took on an increased presence in the lives of Americans.

It had also increased the sense of American unity in other ways, which had caused men to travel across the

George Washington
George Washington

continent who might have otherwise never left their own colony. They’d fight alongside men from significantly different backgrounds who were nonetheless still “American”. Throughout the course of the war, British officers trained American ones for battle. The most notable of these officers was George Washington. The training would later benefit the American cause during the American Revolution. Colonial legislatures and officials also had to cooperate intensively for the first time, in pursuit of the continent-wide military effort. Relations between the British military were established, but the colonists were not always positive, which set the stage for their later distrust and dislike of the British troops.

In 1763, with the Treaty of Paris, France ceded to Britain, and turned over the eastern part of its vast North American empire to them as well. France had secretly given Spain the territory of Louisiana west to the Mississippi River in the previous year. Before the war, Britain had thirteen American colonies, most of present-day Nova Scotia and most of the Hudson Bay watershed. During 1764, Britain would gain all of the French territory that was east of the Mississippi River, including Quebec, the Great Lakes and the Ohio River Valley. They also gained Spanish Florida, of which would form the colonies of East and West Florida. This removed a major foreign threat to the thirteen colonies and the war also largely removed the colonists’ need for colonial protection.

British and colonials triumphed together over their common foe. The colonists’ loyalty to the mother country was stronger than it ever was before. However, disunity was beginning to form. The British Prime Minister, William Pitt the Elder decided to wage war in the colonies with the use of troops from colonies and tax funds from Britain itself. This was a successful wartime strategy, but when the war was over, each side believed it had born a greater burden than the other. The British elite, the most heavily taxed of any in Europe, angrily pointed out that the colonists paid little to royal coffers. The colonists replied that their sons had fought and died in a war that served the European interests more than it had their own. The dispute was a link in a chain of events that would soon bring about the American Revolution.

Colonial Ties to the British Empire

Even though the colonies were quite different from one another, they still were a part of the British Empire in more than just name. Socially, the colonial elite of Boston, New York, Charleston and Philadelphia saw their identity as British. Many people had never even been to Britain by this time, but yet they imitated the British styles of dress, dance and etiquette. The elite would build their mansions in the Georgian style and copied the furniture designs of Thomas Chippendale. They also participated in the intellectual currents of Europe, such as the Enlightenment. Seaport cities were truly British in the eyes of many inhabitants.

A lot of the political structures drew upon republicanism, expressed by the opposition leaders in Britain, most notably the Commonwealth men and the Whig traditions. Many Americans at the time saw the systems of government in the colonies as being modeled after the British constitution of the time. The position of king corresponded to governor, the House of Commons to the colonial assembly and the House of Lords to the governor’s council. The colonial codes of law were often drawn directly from English law. English common law still can be found, not only in Canada but also throughout the United States. Eventually, there was a dispute over the meaning of some of these political ideals, especially among political representation and republicanism and would lead to the American Revolution.

Another point that the colonies found themselves more similar to Britain was with their booming import of British goods. The British economy began to grow quickly at the end of the 17th century, and by the mid-18th small factories in Britain were producing much more than the nation could consume. Britain would find a market for their goods in the colonies, increasing exports to the region by 360% between 1740 and 1770. British merchants would even offer credit to their customers, allowing the Americans to buy large amounts of British goods, from Nova Scotia to Georgia. All British subjects bought similar products, which anglicized a sort of common identity.

The Atlantic World

Recent historians have enlarged their perspective to cover the entire Atlantic world in a sub-field now known as Atlantic history. Themes of special interest include inter-nation migration, trade, colonization, comparative military and governmental institutions, the transmission of religions and missionary work and the slave trade. It was an Age of Enlightenment and ideas flowed back and forth across the Atlantic, with the Philadelphian Benjamin Franklin playing a major role.

Francois Furstenberg offers a different perspective on this historical period. He suggests that warfare was critical among the major imperial players. Britain, the American colonies, Spain, France and the First Nations (Indians), had fought a series of conflicts from 1754 to 1815.

Women also played a role in the emergence of a capitalist economy in the Atlantic world. Types of local commercial exchange in which they participated independently were well integrated with trade, especially the markets in dairy and produce commodities. For example, local female merchants were important suppliers of foodstuffs to transatlantic shipping concerns.

Tax Protests Lead to a Revolution

During the colonial era, Americans insisted on their rights as Englishmen, to have their own legislature raise all taxes. Tax loads, in practice, were very light and far lower than what it was in England. Starting in 1765, the British Parliament asserted its supreme authority to lay taxes, and a series of American protests began, which would lead directly to the American Revolution. The first wave of protests were to attack the Stamp Act of 1765 and marked the first time that Americans met together from each of the thirteen colonies. Together, those that were involved in the meeting planned a common front against British taxation. During the Boston Tea Party of 1773 the colonists dumped all British tea into Boston Harbor because it contained a hidden tax as well, and the Americans refused to pay it. The British responded by trying to crush the traditional liberties in Massachusetts, which then contributed to the start of the American Revolution in 1775.

The Boston Tea Party

The idea of independence quickly became more widespread, after being first proposed and advocated by a number of public figures and commentators throughout the colonies. One of the most prominent voices on behalf of independence was a man by the name of Thomas Paine. He would speak out through his pamphlet called “Common Sense” which was published in 1776. Another group which called out for independence was the Sons of Liberty. They were founded in 1765 in Boston, Massachusetts by a man named Samuel Adams. The movement towards independence was now becoming even more strident and numerous.

Parliament would go on to try out a new series of taxes and punishments, which as before, were met with more and more resistance. These would include the First Quartering Act of 1765; the Declaratory Act of 1766; the Townshend Revenue Act of 1767 and the Tea Act of 1773. In response, the Boston Tea Party occurred. Parliament then passed the Intolerable Acts which included the Second Quartering Act of 1774; the Quebec Act of 1774; the Massachusetts Government Act of 1774; the Administration of Justice Act of 1774; the Boston Port Act of 1774; and the Prohibitory Act of 1775. By this time the thirteen colonies had organized themselves into the Continental Congress and began setting up shadow governments and drilling their militia in preparation for war.

Daily Life of the Colonists

As I have stated before, mortality rates were very high for new arrivals and for children during this time. Malaria was deadly to many of the new arrivals in the southern colonies. For an example, for the newly arrived, able-bodied young man, over one-fourth of the Anglican missionaries had died within five years of their arrival in the Carolinas.

Children and infants were more susceptible to diphtheria, yellow fever, and malaria. Most sick people would turn to local healers and also used folk remedies. Others would rely on minister-physicians, barber-surgeons, apothecaries, midwives and ministers to stay healthy. A few also used colonial physicians that trained either in Britain or in an apprenticeship in the colonies. There was little government control, regulation of medical care, or attention to public health during this time though. Colonial physicians would introduce modern medicine to cities in the 18th century. They would follow models in England and Scotland and then made some advances in vaccinations, pathology, anatomy and pharmacology.

The religious history of the United States started with the first Pilgrim settlers that had came here on the Mayflower in 1620, as their Protestant faith would motivate their move from Europe. The Spanish also set up religious networks of Catholic missions in California. All of the missions had closed before 1848 when California became part of the United States. There were only a few important French Catholic churches and institutions in New Orleans as well.

Most of the settlers came from Protestant backgrounds in Britain and Europe. There were only a small portion of Catholics, mainly in Maryland, and a few Jews in port cities. Several of the colonies had an “established” church, which meant that the local tax money went to an established denomination. Freedom of religion became a basic American principle and numerous new movements also emerged. Many of the movements became established denominations in their own right.

The Puritans of New England would keep in close touch with nonconformists in England, as did the Quakers and Methodists. The Anglican Church was officially established in the southern colonies, meaning that their local taxes paid the salary of the minister. The parish also had civic responsibilities, such as poor relief. The local gentry, not the minister, controlled the budget. Anglicans never established a bishop in the American colonies because of the resistance from other churches. In America, the Anglicans were controlled by the Bishop of London, who sent out missionaries.

Today, historians still debate on how influential Christianity was in the time of the American Revolution. Many of the founding fathers were active in their local church, but some of them had Deist sentiments, such as Jefferson, Franklin and Washington.

Catholicism was a controversial issue at this time. Anti-Catholicism motivated many Protestants. There were a few Catholics outside of Maryland, but they played a Patriot role during the Revolution. Leaders such as George Washington, had strongly endorsed tolerance for them and indeed for all denominations.

The Great Awakening

The first Great Awakening was the nation’s first major religious revival, occurring in the middle of the 18th century. It injected a new vigor into the Christian faith, and was a wave of religious enthusiasm among Protestants that swept through the colonies. It would leave a permanent impact on American religion. Jonathan Edwards was a key leader and powerful intellectual in colonial America. George Whitefield came over from England and would make many converts.

The Great Awakening emphasized the traditional Reformed virtues of Godly preaching, rudimentary liturgy, and deep awareness of personal sin and redemption in Christ Jesus, spurred on by powerful preaching that had deeply affected those that listened. Pulling away from ritual and ceremony, the Great Awakening made religion personal to the average person. It would have a major impact in reshaping Congregational, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, and German Reformed denominations and strengthened small Baptist and Methodist denominations as well. Christianity was brought to the slaves and was a powerful event in New England that challenged the established authority. Rancor and division between new revivalists and old traditionalists who insisted on ritual and liturgy were incited. However, the Awakening had very little impact on the Anglicans and the Quakers.

The first Great Awakening focused on those that were already church members, whereas, the second Great Awakening that began around 1800 did not. Instead, it reached out to the un-churched, changing their rituals, their piety and their self-awareness. The new style of sermons and the way that people practiced their faith breathed new life into religion in America. People would become passionately and emotionally involved in their religion, rather than passively listening to the intellectual discourse in a detached manner. Ministers who used the new style of preaching were generally called “new lights,” while traditional-style preachers were called “old lights”.

People began to study the Bible at home, which effectively decentralized the means of informing the public on religious manners and was akin to individualistic trends that were present in Europe during the Protestant Reformation.

Women’s Roles in Colonial America

A woman’s life experience varied greatly from one colony to the next during this era. In New England, Puritan settlers brought their strong religious values with them to the New World. Puritan religion would dictate that a woman be submissive to her husband and dedicate herself to rearing God-fearing children to the best of her ability.

There were ethnic differences in treatment of women as well. Among the Puritan settlers of New England, wives almost never worked in the fields with their husbands. Whereas in German communities in Pennsylvania, many women worked in the fields and stables. German and Dutch immigrants granted women more control over property, which was not permitted in local English law. Unlike English colonial wives, the German and Dutch wives were allowed to own their own clothing and other items and were also given the ability to write wills disposing of property brought into their marriage.

By the middle of the 18th century, values of the American Enlightenment became established and had weakened the view that husbands were natural “rulers” over their wives. There was a new sense of a shared marriage. Legally, husbands took control of their wife’s property when they married, and divorce was almost impossible until late in the 18th century.


There were many slaves imported to the American colonies from 1620 until 1865, amounting to nearly 600,000 people. This was only 5% of the 12 million slaves that were taken from Africa. The great majority went to sugarcane-growing colonies in the Caribbean and to Brazil where life expectancy was short and numbers had to be continually replenished. The life expectancy was much greater in the North American colonies as the food they ate was better, there was less disease, lighter work loads and better medical care. Therefore, the numbers grew rapidly by excesses of births over deaths. By the 1860 Census there were four million people in slavery. From 1770 until 1860, the rate of natural growth of North American slaves was much greater than for the population of any nation in Europe, and was nearly twice as rapid as that of England.

The Africans are commonly referred to as African slaves, although they were not considered slaves until they were officially purchased by a planter or plantation owner. Those who had worked in indigo, tobacco, and rice fields in the south had mainly come from western and central Africa. Slavery, at the time, was very oppressive, as it passed on from generation to generation. The slaves had no legal rights in the colonies.

Colonies that mostly specialized in agricultural production such as sugar and coffee, relied the most on slaves. They had the highest per capita income, including slaves, in the New World. However, slaves didn’t get wages or had any rights, they provided free labor to those who purchased them, receiving just enough to live. They were also considered to be in chattel slavery.

In 1700, there were about 9,600 slaves in the Chesapeake region and a few hundred in the Carolinas. About 170,000 more Africans were forcibly brought over during the next five decades. By 1750, there were more than 250,000 slaves in British America, making up about 60% of the total population of the Carolinas.

Life in New England

The Puritans had created self-governing communities of religious congregations of farmers (yeomen) and their families during the colonial period. There was a high level of politicians that gave out plots of land to settlers (or proprietors), who had then divided the land among themselves. Large portions were usually given to men of higher social standing, but every man who wasn’t indentured or criminally bonded had enough land to support a family. Every male citizen had a voice in town meetings. These meetings levied taxes, built roads, and elected officials who would manage the town’s affairs. The towns didn’t have courts that were ran by the county, the officials were instead, appointed by the state government.

The Congregational Church that the Puritans had founded wasn’t automatically joined by all New England residents. This was due to the Puritan beliefs that God singled out specific people for salvation. Instead of automatically joining, membership was limited to those who could convincingly “test” before members of the church that they had been saved. These people were known as “the elect” or “Saints”.

Farm and Family Life

In New England, the majority of residents were small farmers. A man had complete power over his property within the small farm families. When married, an English woman gave up her maiden name and her role was to raise and nurture healthy children and support their husbands. Most women would carry out these duties. During the 18th century, couples would usually marry between the ages of 20-24 and typically had six to eight children, on average, only three of these children would actually survive to adulthood. Farm women provided most of the materials that were needed by the rest of the family by spinning yarn from wool and knitting sweaters and stockings. They also made candles and soap from ashes and churned milk into butter.

Most of New England parents had tried to help their sons establish their farms as well. When a son married, his father gave him and his new bride a gift of land, livestock, or farming equipment. Daughters would receive household goods, farm animals, or cash. Having an arranged marriage was very unusual. Normally, children would choose their own spouses from within a circle of suitable acquaintances who shared their race, religion and social standing. Parents would retain veto power over their child’s marriage, meaning that if they did not like a chosen spouse then the couple would not be married.

Farming families in New England had generally lived in wooden houses due to the abundance of trees around them. A typical New England farmhouse was one and a half stories tall. They had a strong frame, usually made of large square timbers and was covered by a wooden clapboard siding. A large chimney stood in the middle of the house and provided both warmth during the winter and cooking facilities. One side of the ground floor contained a general-purpose room where family would work and eat meals, which was known as a hall. Adjacent to the hall was the parlor, which was used to entertain guests and contained the family’s best furnishings and the parents’ bed. Children would sleep in a loft above the parlor. A kitchen was either part of the hall or it was located in a shed along the back of the house. Colonial families were large and these dwellings would have had a lot of activity going on, as well as little privacy.

The Coffin House Newbury Mass 1678
The Coffin House in Newbury, Massachusetts built in 1678

By the middle of the 18th century, New England’s population had dramatically grown, going from about 100,000 people in 1700 to 250,000 in 1725 and then 375,000 in 1750, due to high birth rates and a relatively high overall life expectancy. A fifteen year old boy in 1700 was expected to live to about sixty three years of age. Colonists in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island would continue to subdivide their land between farmers. These farms became too small to support a single family, which then threatened the New England ideal of a society of independent yeoman farmers.

Some farmers got their land by grants so that they could make a farm in undeveloped land in Massachusetts and Connecticut. They also bought plots of land from speculators in New Hampshire and what would later become Vermont. Other farmers became agricultural innovators. They would plant nutritious English grass like red clover and timothy-grass, which would provide more feed for livestock. They’d also plant potatoes, which provided a high production rate, which was an advantage for small farms. Families increased their productivity by exchanging goods and labor with one another. They had also lent livestock and grazing land to each other and worked together to spin yarn, sew quilts and shuck corn. Migration, agricultural innovation and economic cooperation were creative measures that preserved New England’s yeoman society until the 19th century.

Life in Town

By the middle of the 18th century in New England, shipbuilding was a staple, particularly as the North American wilderness offered a seemingly endless supply of timber. To compare, Europe’s forests had been depleted and most timber had to be purchased from Scandinavia. The British Crown had often turned to the inexpensive, yet strongly built American ships. There was a shipyard at the mouth of almost every river in New England.

As of 1750, a variety of artisans, shopkeepers, and merchants provided services to the growing farming population. Blacksmiths, wheelwrights and furniture makers set up shops in rural villages. It was there that they would build and repair goods that were needed by farm families. Stores were set up by traders that sold English manufactured goods such as cloth, iron utensils, and window glass. They’d also sell West Indian products such as sugar and molasses. The storekeepers of these shops would sell their imported goods in exchange for crops and other local products, including roof shingles, potash, and barrel staves. These local goods were also shipped to towns and cities all along the Atlantic coast. Enterprising men set up stables and taverns along the wagon roads so as to serve the transportation system.

The products were delivered to port towns like Boston and Salem in Massachusetts, New Haven in Connecticut and Newport and Providence in Rhode Island. Merchants would then export them to the West Indies where they were then traded for molasses, sugar, gold coins and bills of exchange (credit slips). They would then in turn transport West Indian products to New England factories where raw sugar was turned into granulated sugar and molasses was distilled into rum. Gold and credit slips were sent to England where they were exchanged for manufactured goods.

Other New England merchants took advantage of rich fishing areas along the Atlantic coast and financed a large fishing fleet. The fleet would transport its catch of mackerel and cod to the West Indies and Europe. Some merchants exploited vast amounts of timber along the coast and rivers of northern New England. They would fund sawmills that had supplied cheap wood for houses and shipbuilding. Hundreds of New England shipwrights built oceangoing ships which they sold to British and American merchants.

Many merchants became very wealthy by providing their goods to the agricultural population and would end up dominating the society of sea ports. Unlike yeoman farmhouses, these merchants would live in elegant two and a half story homes that were designed in the new Georgian Style, imitating the lifestyle of the upper class of England. These houses had a symmetrical facade with equal numbers of windows on both sides of the central door. The interior consisted of a passageway down the middle of the house, with specialized rooms off to the sides. The separate rooms consisted of a library, dining room, formal parlor and master bedroom. Unlike the multi-purpose yeoman houses, each of these rooms served separate purposes. The Gregorian houses contained bedrooms on the second floor that provided privacy for the parents and their children.

Culture and Education

A child’s education was primarily the responsibility of the family in colonial America. However, numerous religious groups would establish tax-supported elementary schools, especially the Puritans of New England, who wanted their children to be able to read the Bible. Nearly all religions set up their own schools and colleges to train ministers. Each city and most towns had private academies for the affluent family’s children.

A great interest of colonial Americans who engaged in the process of taming and settling a wild frontier country, was the practical sciences. The mainstream of intellectual activity was on technological and engineering developments, rather than on more abstract subjects such as politics or metaphysics. American scientific activity was pursued by such people as David Rittenhouse who constructed the first planetarium in the western hemisphere; Cadwallader Colden who was the lieutenant governor of New York, as well as a botanist and anthropologist; Dr. Benjamin Rush who was a physician, social reformer, and member of the American Philosophical Society; and Benjamin Franklin, founder of the American Philosophical Society and contributor of important discoveries to physics, such as electricity, but was even more successful in practical inventions such as stoves and lightning rods.

The arts in colonial America were not as successful as the sciences. Literature in the European sense was nearly nonexistent, with histories being far more noteworthy. These would include “The History and Present State of Virginia” of 1705 by Robert Beverly and the “History of the Dividing Line” of 1728-1729 by William Byrd, but was not published until a century later. Instead, the newspaper was the main form of reading material in the colonies. Printing was expensive and most publications had focused purely on practical matters such as major news, advertisements and business reports. Almanacs were also very popular, including Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac”, which was the most famous. Literary magazines would appear during the middle of the century, but few were profitable. Most magazines went out of business after just a few years. American publications had never approached the intellectual quality of European writers, but they were much more widespread and achieved a greater readership than anything that was produced by Voltaire, Locke, or Rousseau.

New Englanders would write journals, pamphlets, books and sermons more than any of the other colonies combined. Cotton Mather, a Boston minister, published “Magnalia Christi Americana (The Great Works of Christ in America, 1702)”. The Revivalist, Jonathan Edwards wrote his philosophical work “A Careful and Strict Inquiry Into…Notions of…Freedom of Will” in 1754. Most of the music at the time had a religious theme as well. The majority of it would involve the singing of Psalms. Since New England had deep religious beliefs, artistic works that were insufficiently religious or too “worldly” were banned, especially the theater. A leading Theologian and Philosopher of the colonial era was Jonathan Edwards of Massachusetts, an interpreter of Calvinism and a leader of the first Great Awakening.

Art and drama were both more successful than was literature. Benjamin West was a noteworthy painter of

Benjamin West Painting
A painting by Benjamin West

historical subjects. Two first-rate portrait painters would also emerge during this time, there names being John Copley and Gilbert Stuart. Even though colonial artists, the three men spent most of their lives in London. The theater was a bit more developed in the southern colonies, especially in South Carolina. However, the stage works attained by the colonists did not compare to the European level. Puritans in New England and the Quakers of Pennsylvania opposed any theatrical performance and considered it immoral and ungodly.

Elementary education could be found all over New England. Early Puritan settlers believed that it was necessary to study the Bible, so their children were taught to read at an early age. It was also required that each town pay for a primary school. About 10% of elementary students would be able to go on and enjoy secondary schooling. Most boys had learned skills from their fathers on the farm or as an apprentice to artisans. There were also a few girls that would attend formal schools, but most were able to get some education at home or at a so-called “Dame school”. A woman would teach basic reading and writing skills in their own homes.

By the 1750s, nearly ninety percent of New England’s women and almost all men could read and write. Puritans would also found Harvard College in 1636 and Yale College in 1701. Rhode Island College, now Brown University, was founded in 1764 by Baptists. The Congregationalists established Dartmouth College in 1769. Virginia founded the College of William and Mary in 1693, which was primarily Anglican. These colleges were designed for aspiring ministers, lawyers and doctors. There were no departments or majors in the colleges during these times, as every student had a shared curriculum, which focused on Latin and Greek. They would also learn mathematics, history, philosophy, logic, ethics, rhetoric, oratory and a little bit of basic science. There were also no sports or fraternities, apart from the literary societies. The first medical schools were founded late in the colonial era in Philadelphia and New York. There was also no separate seminaries, law schools or divinity schools either.


Many emigrants who came to Colonial America were in search for religious freedom. London wouldn’t make the Church of England official in the colonies and it never sent a bishop either, so religious practice became diverse.

The Great Awakening, as said before, was a major religious revival movement that had taken place in most of the colonies in the 1730s and 1740s. The movement started with Jonathan Edwards, a Massachusetts preacher who sought to return to the Pilgrims’ Calvinist roots and reawaken the “Fear of God”. Another English preacher, George Whitefield and other itinerant preachers would continue the movement by traveling throughout the colonies, preaching in dramatic and emotional style. Edward’s followers and other preachers would call themselves “New Lights”. The “Old Lights” would disapprove of the movement. To promote their views, the two sides established academies and colleges, including Princeton and William’s College.

A smaller pietistic revival movement would take place among some of the German and Dutch settlers, leading to even more divisions. By the 1770s, Baptists were growing rapidly both in the north, where they founded Brown University, and in the South, where they challenged the previously unquestioned moral authority of the Anglican establishment.

The Mid-Atlantic Region

Unlike New England, the Mid-Atlantic region would gain much of its population from new immigration. By 1750, the combined population of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania reached almost 300,000 people. About 60,000 Irish and 50,000 Germans came to live in British North America, many of them in this region. William Penn founded the colony of Pennsylvania in 1682, and attracted an influx of British Quakers with his new policies of religious liberty and freehold ownership. Freehold meant that when one owned land it was free and clear. They also had the right to resell it to anyone of their choosing.

The first major influx of settlers were Scotch-Irish and they would head for the frontier. Many Germans came to escape religious conflicts and the declining economic opportunities in Germany and Switzerland. Thousands of poor German farmers, mainly from the Palatine region of Germany, would attend Lutheran churches and retained their own customs and foods. They placed an emphasis on farm ownership. Some also mastered English so that they could be conversant with local legal and business opportunities. They simply ignored the Indians and tolerated slavery, though few were even rich enough to own a slave.

Ways of Life

A lot of architecture of the Middle Colonies reflects the diversity of its people, which can be seen in the different pictures of homes from different parts of the colonies that I’ve posted here. The majority of buildings were of the Dutch style in Albany and New York City, New York. Buildings had brick exteriors and high gables at each end of them, while many Dutch churches were octagonal. The German and the Welsh settlers of Pennsylvania used cut stone to build their homes, following the ways of their homeland. They completely ignored the vast amount of timber in the area. For instance, in Germantown, Pennsylvania, eighty percent of the buildings in town were made totally from stone. On the other hand, the Irish settlers took advantage of America’s ample supply of timber and would construct sturdy log cabins.

Ethnic cultures also reflected styles of furniture. The rural Quakers preferred a simple design in their furniture, such as tables, chairs and chests. They would shun the elaborate decorations of other backgrounds. Some urban Quakers had much more elaborate furniture than the rural Quakers. The city of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, became a major center for furniture-making because of its massive wealth from Quaker and British merchants. The cabinet makers built elegant desks and highboys. German artisans made intricate carved designs on their chests and other furniture. They’d paint scenes of flowers and birds on them. The German potters also crafted a large array of jugs, pots and plates of elegant and traditional designs.

By the start of the Revolutionary War, about eighty-five percent of white Americans were of English, Irish, Welsh, or Scottish descent. Nearly nine percent of whites were of German ancestry and three and a half percent were of Dutch origin.

Different ethnic groups made a difference in agricultural practices as well. German farmers generally preferred oxen, instead of horses, to pull their plows. The Scots-Irish made their farming economy on hogs and corn. Eventually cows were brought with horses. They were more useful than were horses for many reasons. Almost all farms had cows on their land. In Ireland, people would farm intensively and worked small pieces of land trying to get the largest possible production-rate from their crops. In the American colonies, settlers from Northern Ireland had focused on mixed-farming. Using this technique, they’d grow their corn for human consumption and as feed for their hogs and other livestock. Many improvement-minded farmers were of different backgrounds and started to use new agricultural practices to raise their

Cradle Scythe
Example of a cradle scythe

output. During the 1750s, these agricultural innovators replaced hand sickles and scythes that were used to harvest hay, wheat and barley, with the cradle scythe. This was a tool with wooden fingers that arranged stalks of grain for easy collection. The tool was also able to triple the amount of work done by farmers in one day. Farmers would also start fertilizing their fields with dung and lime, and rotated their crops to keep the soil fertile.

By 1700, Philadelphia was exporting 350,000 bushels of wheat and 18,000 tons of flour annually. The southern colonies in particular relied on their cash crops, such as tobacco and cotton. In South Carolina these crops consisted of rice and indigo, however in North Carolina they were somewhat less involved in the plantation economy. North Carolina ended up being a major producer of naval stores instead. The colonies of Virginia and Maryland were almost totally dependent on tobacco, which ultimately proved to be fata at the end of the 18th century, thanks to the exhausted soil and collapsing prices. However, for most of the century, the soil remained good and the single-crop economy was profitable.

Before 1720, most of the colonies in the Mid-Atlantic region worked with small-scale farming and paid for imported manufactures by supplying the West Indies with corn and flour. In New York, the fur-pelt export trade to Europe flourished, adding additional wealth to the region. After 1720, the regional farmers were stimulated with international demand for wheat. A huge population explosion in Europe brought the wheat prices up. By 1720, a bushel of wheat had cost twice as much as it did in 1720. Farmers expanded their production of flax seed and corn. Since flax was a high demand in the Irish linen industry and a demand for corn had existed in the West Indies, thus by mid-century, most colonial farming was a commercial venture. Although the subsistence agriculture continued to exist in New England and the Middle Colonies.

Some immigrants that just arrived purchased farms and shared in the export wealth, but many German and Irish immigrants were forced to work as agricultural wage laborers. Merchants and artisans also hired the homeless workers for the domestic system for manufacture of clothing and other goods. They’d often bring wool and flax from other farmers and employed newly arrived immigrants who’d been textile workers in Ireland and Germany to work in their houses spinning materials into yarn and cloth. Large farmers and merchants would become wealthy, while farmers with smaller farms and artisans made just enough to survive. By 1750, the Mid-Atlantic region was divided by both ethnic background and wealth.

Seaports that had expanded from the wheat trade would have more social classes than anywhere else in the Middle Colonies. The population of Philadelphia had reached 40,000 people by 1773, New York’s was at 25,000 and Baltimore was at 6,000. Merchants would dominate the seaport society. About forty merchants in Philadelphia and New York, like their counterparts in New England would build elegant Georgian-style mansions.

Shopkeepers, artisans, shipwrights, butchers, coopers; seamstresses, cobblers, bakers, carpenters, masons and many others had specialized professions that made up the middle class of the seaport society. Wives and husbands would work as a team and taught their children their crafts so as to pass it down through family. Many artisans and traders made enough money to create a more modest life.

Laborers would stand at the bottom of the seaport society. These poor people worked on the docks unloading incoming vessels and loading the outgoing vessels with wheat, corn and flax seed. Many of the laborers were African American, some were free, while others were enslaved. In 1750, Africans made up about ten percent of the population of New York and Philadelphia. Hundreds of seamen were working as sailors on merchant ships, some of them were also African Americans.

The southern colonies were mainly dominated by the wealthy planters in Maryland, Virginia and South Carolina. They owned increasingly large plantations that were worked by African slaves. Of the 650,000 inhabitants of the South in 1750, about 250,000 or about forty percent of the population were slaves. Tobacco, indigo and rice were grown on these plantations and then were exported. The plantations would produce most of their own food supplies. In addition, many of the small subsistence farms were family owned and were operated by yeomen. Most white men had owned land and therefore they were also able to vote.

Historians have paid special attention to the role of women, family and gender in the colonial south since the social history revolution in the 1970s. Very few women were present in the early Chesapeake colonies. Estimations have put Maryland’s total population near six hundred in 1650. A lot of the population consisted of young, single, white indentured servants, and as such, the colonies lacked social cohesiveness to a large degree. African women entered the colony in as early as 1619, though their status remains a historical debate. These women were free, slaves or indentured servants.

In the 17th century, there was high mortality rates for newcomers and a very high ratio of men to women made family life either impossible or unstable for most colonists. These factors made families and communities greatly different from their counterparts in Europe and in New England and the Virginia-Maryland region before 1700. People lived in dispersed settlements and were reluctant to live in villages. There was also a growing immigration population of white indentured servants and black slaves. These extreme conditions both demeaned and empowered women of the time.

Women were often vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, especially teenage girls who were indentured servants and lacked male protectors. On the other hand, young women had a lot more freedom in choosing who they were to marry, without parental oversight. The shortage of eligible women enabled them to use marriage as an avenue to upward mobility. The high death rates meant that Chesapeake wives would generally become widows who would inherit their husband’s property. Many of these widows increased their property by remarrying as soon as they could. The population would begin stabilizing around 1700, with the 1704 census listing 30,437 white people present in the area with 7,163 of them being women. Women also married at a younger age than they do now. They’d remain married longer, bore more children and also lost influence within the family polity.


Though this covers a large amount of time, we can see how life was a lot different than it had been in Europe for many of the first settlers to the American colonies, and how different life was compared to today. Again, life was difficult and it was harder to survive to the ages people live to be today. As in the European countries, society was pretty strict, and we do have a lot more freedom than we used to. The major difference that drove colonial American society, I think anyhow, is the different religions. People were more free to live the way that they wanted to live in the colonies, but yet they still carried some of their own more traditional values with them to this new world. Due to this freedom though great changes were still to come.


22 thoughts on “Life in Colonial America (1492-1763)”

  1. You have excelled yourself with an incredibly detailed, well-researched, and rich history here, Christina. I have learned a great deal that I didn’t know before, and it was an illuminating read indeed.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wonder that too. My next post is actually going to be about Henry, as it seems as though he was a major part of this time period. I was going to continue on down my line from my post prior to the life in…posts, but then was reading some about the upcoming people and figured ehh I better write something about Henry. So far he’s an interesting character.


      1. He certainly is. I just finished reading a historical fiction novel on Henry VII, his father. I think Henry VIII was in part the way he was because the father devoted so much time to preparing Arthur for the throne, while Henry was left to grow up largely on his own.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Henry VIII is one of my favorite people to read about in history. I think he was a pretty tough guy to deal with, but he had a softer side as well, but only the bad things are is remembered. I don’t know much about his father though one of these days I’ll get around to reading about him too, OH I just had an idea! And it comes from what you shared about how he could have been tough and mean cause of being left alone stay tuned lol. Thank you for sharing and giving me a thought. 🙂


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