The People of the New World

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The People of the New World

Although English exploration of the North American continent began at the turn of the sixteenth century, the English did not establish permanent settlements in the vast New World territory until much later. (The New World is a European term for North and South America.)

Those who chiseled out new lives for themselves in the wilderness of North America did so for various reasons—to gain religious freedom, to obtain jobs, to take advantage of new farming opportunities, to enjoy a better standard of living than the overpopulated country of England could offer, even to try their hand at "get rich quick" schemes in the bountiful New World.

As word of the New World's ample resources got back to Great Britain, colonizing companies were established with money from British investors. (Colonialism is the extension of the power of a nation beyond its own borders.) By 1588 England had become the dominant power in Europe, and the island nation's colonial interests began to expand. In 1606 King James I of England (1566–1625; reigned 1603–1625)

approved a charter for an agricultural and trade company to be set up in North America along the Atlantic coastline. The first permanent English colony was founded at Virginia the next year; its center, the Jamestown settlement, was located on a small peninsula surrounded by a marsh. The colony's economy grew around tobacco farming and export.

About a dozen years later, a group of Christian reformers known as Pilgrims were beginning a new life north of Virginia, in what would later be known as the New England colonies. Disillusioned with the Church of England (which was formed by King Henry VIII when he could not obtain an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon from the Roman Catholic Church; an annulment is an official declaration that a marriage is invalid), the Pilgrims had called for religious reform. They advocated simplicity and purity in religion and sought to free the church from corruption and political influence. But the reformists soon became the targets of religious persecution in their own country. Their strong desire to worship in an atmosphere of religious tolerance prompted them to leave England and head for the New World.

The Pilgrims landed in Cape Cod harbor in the fall of 1620. Guided by the democratic (government by the people) principles of their Mayflower Compact (named for the ship on which they sailed from England), they established their own government and formed a new religious society.

The earliest signs of colonial unrest—still considered mild unrest at this point—began to show in 1651, following the passage of the Navigation Acts by the British government. The Navigation Acts dictated that the colonies existed for the benefit of the Mother Country (England) and that the colonies' trade should be restricted to the Mother Country. Only British-owned ships with a British crew could import goods from Asia, Africa, and America into Great Britain, Ireland, or other British colonies. These acts hampered the colonies' overseas trade, prompted a rash of smuggling, and foreshadowed England's attempts to increase its control over the colonies.

Tensions mount

Meanwhile, the issue of Native American tribal rights to New World land became more and more volatile. Native American resistance to English settlement reached a fever pitch by the mid-1670s. Relations between the colonists and the Native Americans had been uneasy for years because of colonial expansionism: land-grabbing colonists pushed the Native tribes out of their homeland all along the eastern seaboard, leading to a bloody two-year-long conflict known as King Philip's War (1675–76).

Over the following decades, tensions arose between the French and English colonists in the New World. The French and Indian War (1754–63) broke out when French forces from Canada tried to take over the Ohio Valley. The French and their Indian allies fought against the English—a combined force of American colonists and British soldiers—for control of the area. (In 1756 the fighting spread to the European continent, where the conflict came to be known as the Seven Years' War.) Although the American/English troops suffered serious setbacks in the mid-to late 1750s, by war's end the French had lost Canada and their holdings in the Ohio Valley.

King George of England on top of the world

On February 10, 1763, twenty-four-year-old King George III (1738–1820; reigned 1760–1820), barely three years on the British throne, was feeling on top of the world. His representatives were in Paris, France, signing the peace treaty that ended the brutal Seven Years' War. At this point, England's flag flew in North America and in parts of the Caribbean, Africa, and India. It was a glorious time for the British Empire. Great Britain was the most powerful nation in the world. The population of her vast North American possessions had grown to1.5 million people, and many of them remained loyal to King George. With America's western frontier free of threats from the French, American colonists saw a great continent open to them for exploration and settlement. They hoped to expand westward—on their own terms.

Immigration to the New World just before the Revolution

The population of the thirteen American colonies grew enormously from 1700 to 1776. Black Africans made up more than one-half of the immigrants to the colonies, though they did not come willingly. They were captured from their native Africa, shackled, loaded by the thousands onto filthy ships, and sent across the ocean to perform slave labor for wealthy white landowners.

A majority of the other immigrants arrived from Great Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales) and Ireland (one of the British Isles; see box titled "Immigration by Country, 1700–1775"). Most people journeyed to the New World to escape the endless wars and conflicts in their homelands (in some countries, men were actually seized off the streets and forced to serve in armies) or to find honest work and create better lives for themselves and their children. Some were looking for a place where they could worship God in their own way. All had an uncommon sense of drive and adventure—qualities lacking in many of their neighbors who stayed behind.

Settlement patterns in the New World

About 40 percent of the New World settlers from Germany established homes in Pennsylvania, while others scattered throughout the Middle and Southern colonies. The Germans were known as hardworking and thrifty farmers. The Scots and Scots-Irish (Scots who moved to Ireland in the 1600s) settled in the backcountry (away from cities) of North and South Carolina and along the Hudson River Valley of New York. The Irish settled in the backcountry extending from South Carolina northward to Maine.

The backcountry was a remote and unsettled wilderness. People who set up lodgings there were tough and independent-minded and wanted nothing to do with the burgeoning colonial government. They lived ruggedly and survived by hunting, fishing, and picking wild fruits and greens.

The land and the homes of colonial Americans

The whole of European society was rooted in a tradition of unequal distribution of land, and one of the great attractions of the American colonies was the opportunity they offered for land and home ownership. Such opportunities varied from colony to colony, however, with the best being available in New England. As a London newswriter observed in 1767: "Every one in the New England colonies is a freeholder, and enjoys more liberty than any other people in Europe and America." In this passage, the word "every one" does not include women and blacks—only white males. (Freeholders generally hold their land for life, but in New England, settlers could subdivide their land to their children or sell it.)

The situation in the Middle and Southern colonies was less equitable. A small number of individuals in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia were awarded huge parcels of land by the British government, and great castles and plantation homes were constructed there. Farmers and frontier settlers made do with smaller plots of land and far more modest homes.

People in the New England colonies designed their homes to be practical rather than beautiful. The design took into account the local weather conditions and building materials available. New England houses were built out of the plentiful wood, with small, low-ceilinged rooms that were easy to keep warm in winter. The look of some of the houses had a decidedly European flavor.

In New York along the Hudson River, a region originally settled by the Dutch, houses were often constructed in the narrow style similar to that of Dutch towns. New York dwellings were usually built out of wood and stone rather than the traditional Dutch brick and tile. Brick, however, was the favorite building material in the Middle and Southern colonies. After suffering a great fire in 1740, Charleston, South Carolina, was rebuilt almost entirely in brick and Spanish concrete, made from oyster shells, sand, and water.

As Northern merchants, Southern planters, and government officials grew wealthy in the mid-eighteenth century, they sought to display their wealth through their houses and the other luxury items they owned. Americans with a knowledge of European architecture—and plenty of money—built many impressive and elegant houses. The best known was future American president Thomas Jefferson's (1743–1826) Virginia home, Monticello. A scholar, author, statesman, and naturalist, the multitalented Jefferson counted among his gifts a knowledge of architecture. He began the building of Monticello in 1771 and perfected the home over the next forty years.

Lifestyles of wealthy colonials before the Revolution

Class structure was very much alive in the colonial period. Compared to London society, living conditions in the colonies were crude, but this did not stop wealthy colonists from aspiring to a high standard of living. The wealthy spent their time and money imitating European habits and tastes, especially those popular in the court of French King Louis XV.

Acquiring an air of good manners and breeding took years. Among the less wealthy, etiquette (pronounced ETT-uhkitt) books, which explained codes of behavior and courtesy, were popular reading. Those who wished to fit in among the wealthy went to tutors to learn proper speech, to acquire information on art and music, and to practice fencing (fighting with swords) and dancing.

After the French and Indian War ended in 1763, more luxury goods were produced and consumed in America than ever before. These included the latest in clothing styles, ornate carriages with uniformed drivers, and fine houses furnished in mahogany wood and fine china. The colonists were not shy about displaying their wealth for all to see.

While many wealthy women spent most of their time confined to the house, wealthy men spent their days conducting business and moving about town. Many men exhibited their wealth through their manner of dress. They wore close-fitting coats and knee breeches (trousers that extended to or just below the knee) woven from brightly colored silks and velvets. Collars and cuffs were trimmed with lace, and stockings were made of white silk.

The most important sign of a true gentleman was his powdered wig, usually made from women's hair, smeared with animal fat, curled with a hot iron, rolled, and dusted with plaster of paris (a type of cement powder) or flour. Middle-class lawyers, doctors, and shopkeepers who could not afford the expense of such a wig had theirs made of horse or goat hair. The wigs were hot, heavy, and uncomfortable, and they often released small showers of white powder when the wearers moved. Men had to take lessons to learn how to keep the wigs on and walk at the same time.

Women wore French corsets—a type of close-fitting undergarment that molds and shapes the upper body—and low-cut gowns. Before the style changed in the 1770s, women kept their hair covered with hoods or caps. Later, they sported large, powdered hairdos given height and fullness with "rats" or hairpieces that were glued on. Arranging such a hairdo took so much time that it was done only once a month or so. In between, women slept with their necks resting on wooden blocks to avoid ruining the look.

Dancing was the most important element in the social life of the wealthy. Balls were held quite frequently, and a person's level of refinement and sophistication was closely tied to his or her ability to dance with style and grace. In the New World, unlike the Old, a humble man who could dance well could sometimes rise above his station by catching the eye and heart of a wealthy young maiden and marrying her.

Occupations of pre-Revolutionary-era slaves

In sharp contrast to the extravagant lives of wealthy whites in early colonial America, the situation for black African slaves was appalling. In the seventy-five years prior to the American Revolution, 278,400 Africans were brought by force to the American colonies to serve as slaves. They made up more than one-half of the immigrants to the New World in that period. The rapidly growing economy was in need of a labor force, and black Africans were chosen to fill a huge part of that need. At the start of the war, black slaves made up the second-largest occupational group in America—second only to white farmers.

Slave women performed the worst of the tasks. They toiled in the fields on Maryland and Virginia tobacco plantations and on small Pennsylvania farms. They performed the difficult jobs of cultivating rice and indigo (a plant that yields a substance for making blue dye) in the Carolinas and Georgia. They spun and wove wool and flax, washed, ironed, cooked, and milked cows in Northern towns. In the rural North, the women performed all the household tasks and also preserved fruit, made maple sugar, and worked in the fields when needed.

In the South, the children of black slave women helped build up a servant class, so slave women of childbearing age were especially prized by slaveholders. In addition to their work for their owners, the women tried to maintain their own family lives and cultural traditions, all in the face of overwhelming odds. Family members could be sold off on a master's whim, and tensions often arose in black families when women were cruelly used or otherwise violated by their white owners.

In the North, black slave women who could perform a variety of different housekeeping tasks, such as cooking and sewing, were considered the most valuable. The demand for the labor of women and their children who could not perform such household tasks was low in the North, so marriage and childbearing among blacks were discouraged there.

Slave men performed skilled agricultural work. They sowed seeds and plowed fields. They also fished, processed and manufactured flour and grain in mills, and worked on sailing ships. Those trained as blacksmiths made, repaired, and fitted horseshoes; those trained as coopers constructed wooden tubs, casks, and barrels. Male slaves also worked as carpenters, cooks, and gardeners.

The life of a slave was a hard one, and after the American Revolution broke out in 1775, many slaves took advantage of wartime confusion to escape from bondage. Even some of American leader George Washington's slaves fled, including Deborah Squash and her husband, Harry, who sailed away from the so-called land of liberty on a British ship rather than continue to live in slavery.

How the working class got by

Class divisions became more pronounced in the colonies in the second half of the eighteenth century. The French and Indian War (1754–63) created a class of wealthy colonial merchants and planters. Suddenly, the British government was spending considerable sums of money in the colonies to outfit ships and to feed and clothe soldiers. As demand for goods soared, so did the demand for labor, and people flocked from various parts of the world to live and work in the colonies.

Many of the poor laborers who journeyed to the New World to work for the newly rich had a hard time of it. Finding year-round work was not guaranteed, and much time was spent moving from city to city, looking for seasonal work. The men worked on the docks, loading and unloading trade ships when they were in port. They cut down and processed lumber, fished, and hunted whales. They also worked as wagon drivers, construction workers, tailors, and shoemakers.

Although America's resources were vast, they were not fairly distributed between the rich and the poor. During times of unemployment, the working poor dug for oysters or sought charity from religious relief agencies. Sometimes there were so many poor people seeking help, especially in the larger cities, that city officials declared them ineligible for assistance and ordered them out of town. The children of the poor were periodically removed from their families and forced to become apprentices to skilled tradespeople; this way, they could learn an occupation that would take them off the charitable lists.

Colonial population centers just before the Revolution

By 1760 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a port city, was the major point of entry for immigrants to the New World. It was by far the largest city in the colonies, with a population of about 18,000. The city had been settled in 1681 by Englishman William Penn (1644–1718), a Quaker (member of the Society of Friends, a Christian sect that promotes justice, peace, and simplicity in living).

During the 1760s fine new buildings were constructed in Philadelphia, including Carpenters Hall and the Old State House, where independence would be declared in 1776. People flocked to this sophisticated and cultured city, and many decided to stay; by 1774 the population had grown to 40,000, making Philadelphia the second-largest city in the British Empire next to London. Revolutionary-era heroes Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) and Betsy Ross (1752–1836) called Philadelphia home.

New York, New York, another bustling port city, ranked second in 1774, with a population of between 25,000 and 30,000. It had been settled by the Dutch in 1624 but was surrendered to the English in 1664. The city would serve as British army headquarters throughout most of the Revolutionary War.

Boston, Massachusetts, was the third-largest city in the colonies on the eve of the Revolution. Settled by English clergyman William Blackstone (1723–1780) in the 1620s, Boston was a thriving port city, a center of learning, and home to great future Revolutionary leaders such as John Adams, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock. In 1774 Boston's population was 20,000.

Newport, Rhode Island, was the fourth-largest city in 1774, with a population of 12,000. It was settled in 1639 by people who had been expelled from (thrown out of) Massachusetts for their religious beliefs. Ignored by the other colonies because of this dispute over religion, Newport looked to the sea for its livelihood, and by 1690 it was one of North America's major ports. Some of the trade there was legal, but much was not. Pirates—those who robbed ships at sea—were a common sight in Newport. Throughout the 1760s the city served as a major slave-trading port for the British Empire.

In 1774, Charleston, South Carolina, ranked fifth in size in the colonies, with a population of about 10,000. It was named for King Charles II of England (1630–1685; reigned 1660–1685) and was first settled by people from England; by 1760 it was a thriving port city, home to people from the Caribbean Islands, French Protestants, Quakers, Scots, Irish, and Belgians. Charleston was known for its religious tolerance and its friendly relations with neighboring Native American tribes.

The first colonial settlers were undeniably hardy, spirited, and self-reliant. But the very qualities that contributed to the successful English settlement of eastern North America— the thirst for independence that fueled and defined colonial civilization—would later lead to troubled relations with the Mother Country and, ultimately, a revolution for American independence.

For More Information


Commager, Henry Steele, and Richard B. Morris, eds. The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants. Originally published in 1958. Reprinted. New York: Da Capo Press, 1995, pp. 1–9, 38–58.

Johnson, Paul. A History of the American People. New York: HarperCollins, 1997, pp. 121–77.

Web Sites

"American Revolution Timeline: Early Colonial Era." The History Place. [Online] Available (accessed on December 6, 1999).

"American Revolution Timeline: English Colonial Era." The History Place. [Online] Available (accessed on December 6, 1999).

"Liberty Perspectives." [Online] Available (accessed on December 6, 1999).

"The Story of the Pilgrims." [Online] Available (accessed on December 6, 1999).

Additional links can be accessed through "Yahooligans! Around the World: Countries: United States: History: Colonial Life (1585–1783): American Revolutionary War." [Online] Available… (accessed on April 16, 1999).


Allison, Robert J. American Eras: The Revolutionary Era. Detroit: Gale, 1998.

Dolan, Edward F. The American Revolution: How We Fought the War of Independence. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1995.

Horton, James Oliver and Lois E. Horton. In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community, and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks: 1700–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Jones, Jacqueline. "Race, Sex, and Self-Evident Truths: The Status of Slave Women during the Era of the American Revolution." In Women in the Age of the American Revolution. Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert, eds. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989, pp. 293–337.

Lecky, William E. Hartpole. History of England in the Eighteenth Century. 7 vols. New York: AMS Press, 1968. Vol. 3, p. 379.

Lloyd, Alan. The King Who Lost America: A Portrait of the Life and Times of George III. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971, pp. 190–91.

Miller, John C. Origins of the American Revolution. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1959.

Schouler, James. Americans of 1776: Daily Life during the Revolutionary Period. Williamstown, MA: Corner House, 1984.

Immigration by Country, 1700–17751

Except for African slaves, who were kidnaped and sent to the Americas against their will, newcomers to the New World in the seventy-five years before the American Revolution came mainly from Germany, England, Scotland, and Ireland.

DecadeAfricansGermansN. Irish 2S. IrishScotsEnglishWelshOtherTotal
1All figures are approximate.
2The Northern Irish, sometimes called Scots-Irish, were Scots who were sent in the 1600s by the British to settle in Northern Ireland and help dominate the Catholic Irish who lived there.
Source: Aaron S. Fogleman, Hopeful Journeys: German Immigration, Settlement, and Political Culture in Colonial America, 1717–1775. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1996. In American Eras: The Revolutionary Era, by Robert J. Allison. Detroit: Gale, 1998, p. 235.

Slaves' Petition for Freedom

In 1773 a new nation was on the brink of being born. Its people demanded freedom and a voice in their government—rights that were denied to African Americans, both slave and free. A small but active movement to end slavery was beginning to take shape, though, especially in the North. Members of the free black community did not remain silent as talk of liberty swirled around them. The petition below was presented to the Boston legislature on April 20, 1773.

Sir, The efforts made by the legislature of this province in their last sessions to free themselves from slavery, gave us, who are in that deplorable state, a high degree of satisfaction. We expect great things from men who have made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow-men to enslave them. We cannot but wish and hope Sir, that you will have the same grand object, we mean civil and religious liberty, in view in your next session. The divine spirit of freedom, seems to fire every humane breast on this continent….

We are very sensible that it would be highly detrimental [it would cause harm] to our present masters, if we were allowed to demand all that of right belongs to us for past services; this we disclaim [give up our rights to]. Even the Spaniards, who have not those sublime ideas of freedom that English men have, are conscious that they have no right to all the services of their fellow-men, we mean the Africans, who they have purchased with their money; therefore they allow them one day in a week to work for themselves, to enable them to earn money to purchase the [remainder] of their time…

In behalf of our fellow slaves in this province, and by order of their Committee.

Peter Bestes
Sambo Freeman
Felix Holbrook
Chester Joie

Source: From a printed leaflet quoted in A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States. Vol. 1. Edited by Herbert Aptheker. New York: Citadel Press, 1951, pp. 7–8. In In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community, and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks: 1700–1860, by James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

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The People of the New World

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The People of the New World