Colonies, Distribution of Wealth in (Issue)

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By studying the way wealth was distributed in the American colonies, we can learn a great deal about their economy, like the relationship of the social structure to economic opportunity. The diversity of the regional economies and the uneven quality of statistical information from the period make broad generalizations difficult, but there are some general trends that can be identified, and it is possible to characterize the distribution of wealth in different colonies and the colonies as a whole.

After an initial period of extreme difficulty, known in the Chesapeake as the starving time, each of the colonies offered their settlers relatively high incomes and more opportunity to become wealthy than was the case in England or continental Europe. The accumulation of wealth was generally more rapid in the seventeenth century than in the eighteenth and in newer areas rather than those settled initially, reflecting the maturing of the colonial economy and the greater opportunity available to early arrivals.

It is important to distinguish between the colonial regions since there were sharp differences in climates and economies as well as in the composition of wealth. Among the mainland colonies, the white southerners were the richest, on average, with about twice the wealth of New England or the Middle Atlantic region. If we include the West Indies as one of the colonial areas, then its thriving sugar industry made it the wealthiest. Slavery was not the only reason for this difference. Confining our scope to the mainland colonies, we find that Southerners owned twice as much land as the average inhabitant of the other areas. The other regions were not poor, however, both income and the standard of living were generally higher in North America than in England by the end of the colonial period.

In New England, land was the most important component of wealth from first settlement through the American Revolution (17751783). In nearly all of New England, large-scale commercial agriculture was not possible because of climate, topography, and the quality of the soil. In the interior farming predominated (supplemented, early on, by trapping) but most of these farms were engaged in subsistence agriculture that provided, at most, a small surplus for their owners. The distribution of land was fairly egalitarian in nearly all of New England because of the custom of dividing land among heirs. Over time, however, there was social stratification as a result of land speculation.

But the quality of life in New England, especially in the early period, was good, compared to the Chesapeake and, even more, to England. The first European New Englanders were healthy and lived a long time. In contrast to the predominantly male Chesapeake colonies (which tended to be marked by a high level of violence), there were roughly equal numbers of men and women in New England. Their society was based on farm families and on a common Puritan religion. In the coastal communities of New England the economy was much more complex, for in addition to farming there was mercantile trade, shipbuilding, and a variety of service industries related to shipping. As a result New England developed substantial numbers of propertyless adult men and a wide range of incomes and wealth holdings. The income gap between merchants and master craftsmen and laborers increased throughout the colonial period.

The Middle Colonies, specifically New York and Pennsylvania, were similar to New England in that they had commercial communities with diverse economies and a broad range of incomes and wealth and a large number of farming communities with a higher degree of property ownership. These trends were most pronounced in New York City and Philadelphia. In New York there were large farms in the lower Hudson Valley. These were extensive tracts of land, some dating back to the holdings of the Dutch patroons (wealthy landholders). Tenants farmed these vast tracts of land.

Since William Penn offered land to all comers on generous terms, Pennsylvania had perhaps the easiest access to ownership of land for those who could afford their own passage to America. It also had the largest number of indentured servants whose passage from England was paid for and who worked off the debt with up to seven years of labor. Indentured servants were severely exploited, but the custom was to grant them money or land after they completed their period of service. As the price of land in the settled portions of Pennsylvania increased, however, they found themselves forced to the fringes of the settlement.

In the Southern colonies land was also an important component of wealth, but after 1660, slaves also contributed greatly to the income of their white masters. The climate and soil of the South were well suited to the cultivation of staple cropstobacco in Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina and rice in coastal South Carolina and Georgia. Success was linked both to the ownership of land and control of labor in the form first of indentured servants and later of African slaves. Slave owners possessed the majority of wealth in the Southern colonies; those who could not afford slaves or land found themselves pushed into the interior, where lack of access to transportation made commercial farming less profitable.

See also: New Netherlands, New Sweden, Slavery, Subsistance Agriculture


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Jones, Alice Hanson. American Colonial Wealth: Documents and Methods, 3 vols. New York: Arno Press, 1977.

Lemon, James T. The Best Poor Man's Country: A Geographical Study of Early Southeastern Pennsylvania. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972.

Main, Jackson Turner. The Social Structure of Revolutionary America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965.

Walton, Gary M. and James F. Shepherd. The Economic Rise of Early America. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

McCusker, John J. and Russell R. Menard. The Economy of British America: (16071789). Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.