Community Life

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Community Life

When the first European colonists arrived in North America, they brought with them their own cultural values and traditions. Confronted with a strange new world, they poured their energies into re-creating familiar ways of life. Inevitably, they found it necessary to adapt their lifestyles to their new environment. In addition, they came into contact with settlers from different parts of Europe and Native Americans. These experiences led to a gradual process of adaptation and exchange among very different cultures.

One way early European colonists sought to feel more at home was to attach familiar words to their strange surroundings. They exchanged exotic Native American place names for English, German, Dutch, or Spanish ones. They gave their towns familiar names such as Plymouth, Boston, and Ipswich. Settlers displayed loyalty to their kings by giving important towns names such as Jamestown, Charlestown, and Williamsburg. They clustered their homes in European village patterns, and they worked hard to duplicate the life they had known in the Old World.

Yet life in the colonies was very different from life in Europe, especially in the early colonial period. North America had climates, crops, and sources of food that the settlers had never before encountered. There was an unfamiliar abundance of land and materials. In addition, interaction with Native Americans demanded a variety of adaptations. The colonists not only learned from Native Americans but also had to learn about them. As time went on, great changes in European commerce, philosophical and scientific inquiry, technology, and warfare reached across the Atlantic to shape the new American society. All of these factors, plus the daily needs of the settlers, resulted in a wide range of changes. The colonies gradually evolved from struggling outposts in the early seventeenth century to productive farming communities and bustling cities by the middle of the eighteenth century.

New England and the middle colonies societies

As successive waves of European immigrants arrived in the colonies, the combination of old and new ways of life produced strikingly different regional societies (see Chapter 4). New England became a remarkably stable society of small family farms and villages distributed among the colonies that eventually became Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. In the process of settlement, colonists spread slowly and methodically across the countryside, establishing towns in which families remained for generations. The middle colonies—New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware—were home to a diverse population and different cultural patterns.

Although the English took New Netherland from the Dutch in 1664 and renamed it New York, the Dutch population continued to shape the colony. The Swedes were the first Europeans to settle along the mouth of the Delaware River. Later settlers from Scotland, Northern Ireland, England, and the Netherlands created ethnic and religious diversity in the colony that became New Jersey. When William Penn (1644–1718) established Pennsylvania in 1681, he welcomed settlers from all over Europe as well as Quakers from England; this colony, too, became quite diverse (see Chapter 4). During the eighteenth century the population of this region became increasingly mobile, each year pressing farther west toward the backcountry and south along the Appalachian Mountains.

The Chesapeake and the Carolinas societies

In the Chesapeake region, society was shaped largely by the cultivation of tobacco, the main export crop of Virginia and Maryland. Chesapeake planters established their farms along navigable rivers where ships could easily dock and take on each year's crop. Those who wanted to grow rich through tobacco cultivation needed large tracts of land and a substantial labor force. A comparatively small group of wealthy planting families came to occupy the top positions in society and to control the bulk of Chesapeake wealth and property. The bottom rungs of the social ladder were occupied by unfree laborers: English indentured servants for much of the seventeenth century, and African slaves after the 1680s.

North Carolina remained largely undeveloped until late in the colonial period, but South Carolina emerged as a second plantation society. Planters in this region specialized in rice and indigo, which produced a deep blue dye. By 1760 slaves of African descent made up 60 percent of the total population of South Carolina. As in the Chesapeake region, the large number of unfree laborers had a profound effect on the evolving society.

The Spanish colonies of the American Southwest and Southeast were organized fairly systematically to advance Spain's interests and control (see Chapter 2). The encomienda system created a society of Spanish soldier-settlers whose conquest of Native American populations gained them vast land grants from the Spanish Crown. These colonists also had the right to collect tribute from the Native Americans in the form of food, products, and labor. Spanish colonial society came to be organized as a racial hierarchy, which included members with Spanish, Native American, African, or mixed blood.

Settlers on the haciendas (large estates) of the Spanish borderlands used the encomienda system to control the land and the native people. French settlers along the Mississippi and Saint Lawrence River valleys created entirely new cultures to suit their environment, their small numbers, and the constant interaction with a large Native American population.

Social classes

European colonists had been accustomed to a distinct system of social ranks and roles. Their ideas of a class system came with them to the colonies, but, especially during the early 1600s, class lines and divisions were more easily changed than in Europe. In certain respects the American colonies provided greater opportunities for settlers who wanted to improve their social and economic status.

Life in the English colonies disrupted the traditional class system for several reasons. Neither the highest classes of English society nor the lowest came to America in large numbers. Many immigrants came from the ranks of urban artisans (skilled craftspeople) and shopkeepers, while others were farmers. So instead of a mix of classes, there was essentially a majority of midlevel citizens with a few people at the bottom or the top. In addition, the widespread availability of land made it theoretically possible for many ordinary people to become landowners; in Europe, this opportunity was virtually nonexistent. Land ownership raised social rank, wealth, and status.

Loss of social rank was also possible—just as the opportunities were greater in the colonies, so was the potential for failure. Settlement in the Americas was risky, and some members of established families were financially ruined. The fortunes of many were rising while others' were falling.

Yet the composition of the classes was more unstable than it had been in Europe. In Virginia, families such as the Byrds, Madisons, Randolphs, Washingtons, Lees, and Carters were not well known in the seventeenth century, but after a few generations they had become the leaders of their province. Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), who began life as a poor , candle-maker's son in Boston Massachusetts made a fortune in publishing and assumed the place of a gentleman in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He spent his life pursuing philanthropy, governmental service, and scientific investigation (see Chapter 14). Ambitious young men were not content, as their fathers had been, to remain in the station to which they were born. They insisted on their right to make their own place in the world according to their character and abilities.

The Spanish borderlands and New France likewise experienced some shifting of social ranks. The encomienda system in the Spanish Southwest rewarded enterprising soldiers with land and the right to collect tribute from conquered peoples. This made it possible for some men to rise in status to a position similar to that of a feudal lord. New France emerged as a trading society along the Saint Lawrence and Mississippi River valleys, loosely organized at first but beginning to reproduce the social hierarchy of France as towns such as Quebec, Montreal, and New Orleans grew (see Chapter 3). The rank of seigneur was granted to many colonial families that had achieved wealth through trading or other enterprises.

Titles Reflect Status

In English colonial society, social rank was important. People wished to have their rank acknowledged in the way others addressed them. Members of a provincial council had the title "honorable," while judges were called "esquire." An esquire's wife was referred to as "madam." Town officials of lower rank, as well as male property owners, were addressed as "mister" and their wives as "mistress." Especially in New England, a farmer was known as "goodman," and a farmer's wife was "goodwife" or "goody."

Social classes stay in place

Although the lines separating the classes had blurred, the class structure itself did not disappear. The inequalities the colonists saw around them seemed natural, and many people accepted differences in status as God's will. Massachusetts Bay leader John Winthrop (1588–1649) probably expressed a common view in 1630 when he said, "God Almighty, in his most holy and wise providence, has so disposed the condition of Mankind . . . [that] some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity, others mean and in subjection." Consequently, few European colonists in North America challenged the social structures that originated in their homelands. Indeed, most of them regarded a class system as a mark of civilization. They wanted not to destroy the structure but to move up within it. In America, many saw their first opportunity to do so.

Labor needs shape society

The shortage of labor had a significant impact on the structure of colonial societies, especially in the early period. Settlers filled their needs for labor in various ways (see Chapter 7). In New England and the middle colonies and along the western frontier, families—usually with six or more members—supplied most of the labor on farms. The need for large families produced a steady increase in the population. These colonies also experienced a growing population density as farmers divided their lands among their male heirs, who themselves had families, and the settlements steadily expanded.

In contrast, early Chesapeake planters relied on the labor of indentured workers. Young, single Englishmen who could not find work in England would sign a contract called an "indenture" that committed them to work for up to seven years for a colonist in exchange for paid passage to the New World (an European term used for North and South America). Often the men worked on tobacco plantations. During the early colonial period few women came to the Chesapeake region, so indentured men did not often marry or start families. Once they had served their terms, the free immigrants, who lacked the resources to establish their own plantations, eventually formed a large, unstable class of landless poor.

Northern colonists largely relied on indentured servants to meet the demand for skilled labor in the growing cities, domestic help in wealthy households, field hands on farms, and manual labor in such enterprises as iron foundries. Some northern colonists met these needs with African American slaves, but the north never came to depend upon slavery as did the Chesapeake and lower south, and the slave population in the middle colonies and New England remained relatively small. In New France, early colonists imported contract laborers (similar to English indentured servants), who worked for a stated number of years and then returned home. The Spanish, on the other hand, generally harnessed the labor of Native Americans. Slavery was technically illegal, but many Spanish settlers found ways around the law by using the encomienda system to exploit the labor of Native American farmers and cattle herders.

The necessities of life

Early after their arrival in the New World, many of the colonists realized that they lacked the skills vital to surviving in a land. Necessities were not as easily obtainable as they had been in Europe. As a result, the earliest settlers had to quickly learn to farm, make clothes, and build shelters in order to make the colonies livable places.


The availability of food varied dramatically among the earliest colonists in North America: some found plenty to eat, while others starved to death. Depending upon their agricultural skills and attitudes, where they landed, and their relations with the Native Americans, early settlers experienced feast or famine. While in most areas there were abundant sources of wild food, some colonists lacked the skills necessary to catch or harvest it. In addition, most settlers arrived in the Northeast weakened by the long sea voyage and the poor rations onboard ship. Depending upon when they reached the American shore, they might have had to begin building houses immediately to protect themselves from the winter cold. Frequently they could spare little time or energy on hunting, gathering, or planting gardens and fields. Sometimes supplies of food brought over on ships were ruined by rats or spoilage. Colonists who depended on these supplies to feed themselves through the winter suffered greatly.

English Suspicions of Water

The English of the early colonial period believed that water was unhealthy. Of course, contaminated water was dangerous to drink, and they were probably justified in avoiding water as a beverage. But they also believed that bathing was usually unnecessary or even dangerous to the health. Washing was limited to a few parts of the body, and taking a real bath was virtually unknown. These prejudices were brought over to the New World. In 1630, for example, an English ship was readied for the trip to Massachusetts with three months' worth of provisions. Beverages for the passengers included 2 casks of Malaga and Canary wine, 20 gallons of "aqua vitae" (strong liquor), and 45 tuns of beer. (A tun is a large cask that equals 252 gallons.) In contrast, only 6 tuns of fresh water were placed onboard. This supply would have had to serve for cooking, drinking, washing, and bathing during the entire journey. While seawater might have been used for some purposes, this supply of freshwater seems completely inadequate by today's standards. With space a precious commodity onboard, alcohol was deemed more of a necessity.

Some colonists were lucky enough to receive assistance from Native Americans. In the earliest days of settlement, native people brought gifts of food and taught settlers how to grow crops and harvest wild foods. The colonists sampled many new foods as a result of contact with Native Americans. Some of the foods that were staples of the Native American diet—corn, for example—became indispensable additions to colonists' meals. Indeed, many of the first colonists would not have survived without the aid of Native Americans. The stories of Jamestown and Plymouth provide vivid examples of the settlers' dependence on native agricultural methods for survival.

Jamestown colonists ill-prepared The original settlers of the Virginia Colony at Jamestown died from starvation in great numbers (see Chapter 4). They had heard about the abundant natural resources of North America, which promoters in England had described as a "paradise," so they thought food would be readily available. Besides, many of the settlers were gentlemen who disliked farmwork and lacked the skills necessary for survival. So they were not prepared for the task of building a settlement. In History of the Dividing Line (1728), William Byrd II (1674–1744) of Virginia described the colonists as "idle and extravagant," adding that those who were not constantly quarreling "detested Work more than Famine." Captain John Smith (c. 1580–1631), Byrd wrote, "took some pains to persuade the men to plant Indian corn, but they lookt upon all Labor as a Curse. They chose rather to depend upon the Musty Provisions that were sent from England: and when [these] fail'd they were forct to take more pains to Seek for Wild Fruits in the Woods, than they would have taken in tilling Ground."

Before long, many of the men at Jamestown were too sick and weak to do much work anyway. In The Generall Historie of Virginia (1624), Smith explained the difficulty of killing animals for food: "Though there be fish in the seas, fowles in the ayre and Beasts in the woods, their bounds are so large, they so wild and we so weake and ignorant, we cannot much trouble them." By the end of 1607, only 38 of the 105 original colonists were alive. They were saved by Pocahontas (c. 1595–1617), daughter of Chief Powhatan (1550–1618), who brought corn, fish, venison (deer meat), squash, and other provisions (see Chapter 9). But just a few years later the English colony would once again face famine.

Hardships of the Pilgrims A few years later, in 1620, the Pilgrims (a Puritan group; also called Nonconformists) landed in Massachusetts, where they found conditions as grim as Jamestown (see Chapter 4). They had spent ninety-seven days onboard their ship, the Mayflower, eating a monotonous diet consisting mostly of "salt horse" (dried beef), smoked bacon, dried fish, cheese, and "ship's biscuit," which was made by mixing flour and water and allowing it to dry into something like a cracker. On the deck of the ship was a fire pit over which a large stew pot hung. The stew they ate every day was made of dried meat or fish and ship's biscuit. For drinking the passengers had beer, gin, and brandy. This diet was not very nutritious, and the lack of fresh vegetables and fruits caused many to suffer from scurvy (a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C). The hardships of the crossing itself further weakened them.

The "starving time" at Jamestown

Most of the settlers of Jamestown starved to death during the winter of 1609 to 1610. John Smith had been wounded and had returned to England, and the Native Americans seemed to have decided to eliminate the colony. They stopped trading with the settlers and used armed warriors to keep them inside their stockade. The English became so afraid of the Native Americans that they would not venture out to hunt or fish. They had also run out of the corn the Powhatans had provided them. After every bit of food inside the stockade had been consumed, colonists ate rats, mice, snakes, and even shoes. Some colonists resorted to digging up corpses to feed themselves. They also had to burn most of their buildings to keep warm. The famine wiped out most of the colony: its numbers fell from almost five hundred people down to sixty. In May 1610 two English ships arrived to bring help to the colony. What they found was more like a ghost town peopled by skeletons.

The Pilgrims reached Massachusetts in November, so the weather was extremely cold. They faced a winter filled with hardship. In Of Plymouth Plantation (1630), William Bradford (1590–1657), the future governor of the Plymouth Colony, described their arrival on the cold shores: There were "no friends to wellcome them, nor inns to entertaine or refresh their weatherbeaten bodys, no houses or much less townes to repaire too, to seeke for succoure [comfort]." The houses they hastily put up could not keep them warm. Many settlers died from a combination of illness, cold, and poor diet. Fortunately for the Pilgrims, during the following spring a Native American named Squanto (d. 1622?) arrived and gave them help. Squanto spoke English because he had been kidnaped by an Englishman when he was a teenager and had lived for a few years in England. He knew how to raise crops and gather food from the wilderness, and he taught the Pilgrims many skills they needed. They regarded him as a blessing sent by God.

Land of plenty Ironically, both colonies—Jamestown in Virginia and Plymouth in Massachusetts—were located in regions filled with food. There were all sorts of game birds, deer, rabbits, and other animals in the forests. Fish, lobsters, and mollusks could be plucked from the sea, and fish filled the rivers and streams. The land itself also proved fertile for growing crops, and berries, nuts, and other wild foods could be collected in the forest. After the first few years of adjustment, the colonists of these regions did not have to worry about famine. Their food may often have been simple and dull, but they did not go hungry.

As early as 1607, John Smith found fish teeming in the James River. He wrote in The Generall Historie of Virginia that the river had "an abundance of fish, lying so thick with their heads above the water, as for want of nets we attempted to catch them with a frying pan . . . neither better fish, more plentie; nor more variety, had any of us ever seene so swimming in the water.... We tooke more in one houre than we could eate in a day." Other members of Smith's colony described finding mussels and oysters, "which lay on the ground as thick as stones," and of eating oysters "very large and delicate in taste" that had been roasted by the Native Americans. The Virginia explorers saw the vigorous cornfields planted by the Native Americans, who entertained the Englishmen with dances and feasts at which they served corn bread, berries, fish, "and other Countrie Provisions." The Native Americans also gave them tobacco and held dances in their honor. These observations were made in the year 1607, just a few years before the English colonists at Jamestown began dying of hunger.

In Massachusetts, likewise, the land was rich with things to eat. John Winthrop (1588–1649), the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, reported that there were great numbers of eels and lobsters in the bay. Francis Higginson, who became the first minister of Salem, wrote in New England Plantation (1630): "Fowles of the Aire are plentifull here, and all sorts as we have in England. . . . Here are likewise abundance of Turkies, exceeding fat, sweet and fleshy.... in Summer all places are full of [strawberries] and all maner of berries and fruits. This Country doth abound with Wild Geese, wild Duckes and other Sea Fowle. . . . Here is good living."

Colonial food and cooking As the colonists adapted to their environment and established their fields, they began to eat better. They had learned methods for farming and cooking unfamiliar foods. Native Americans introduced them to the staples of their own diet, such as beans, pumpkins and other squashes, and corn, which was ground into cornmeal. Soon the settlers were using the corn every day to make bread. Native Americans also showed the colonists wild foods, such as ground nuts, wild rice, cranberries, black walnuts, pecans, and the syrup of the maple tree. They introduced new ways to cook fish and shellfish. They showed settlers how to cook beans in clay pots and to make a stew of beans and corn called succotash.

Deprivation became uncommon, and the colonial diet settled into a predictable cycle that mirrored the seasons of various foods. Wealthier colonists had more variety in their diets, but the average family probably ate the same foods again and again until something new became available. In most households, a large stew pot hung over the fire. Whatever available foods were cooked together in the pot. Salt-cured meat or fish, beans, vegetables—the combination and taste were not as important as feeding everyone adequately and efficiently. Some kind of bread, often corn bread, was served with the stew. If there was fresh meat, it could be roasted on a spit over the fire. The drippings of roasting meat, collected in a pan, were an important addition to gravy or bread.

"Pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon"

Native Americans introduced English colonists to pumpkins, a healthful food that could be grown easily and abundantly. Apparently this vegetable became a familiar sight on colonial tables. A wistful rhyme conveys the colonists' thankfulness for this food but also their desire for something else to eat:

For pottage [stew], and puddings, and custards, and pies,

Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies.

We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon;

If it were not for pumpkins, we should be undoon.

Source: Thomas, Gertrude Ida. Food of Our Forefathers. Philadelphia: Davis Company, 1941, pp. 169–70.

Many colonists drank alcohol with meals whenever it was available. "Grog," a mixture of rum and water, was a popular beverage. Colonists also drank wine, beer, ale, whiskey, hard cider, or whatever kind of alcohol they could manufacture. Children might be given a small amount of wine to drink on special occasions, and some colonists believed that warm beer was a healthful beverage for children.

Native American Cooking Methods

Colonists recorded and sometimes adopted the cooking methods they saw Native Americans using. Lacking metal utensils and pots, the Native Americans had developed different ways to cook. They knew how to roast many types of seafood, such as eels and oysters, using an open fire. Native Americans taught the colonists a simple way to bake a gutted fish in the ashes of a fire. After the fish was cooked, its skin was slipped off and discarded before the flesh was eaten. Native Americans also introduced colonists to the clambake. Secotan women made huge clay stew pots that were designed to be partly buried in the ground. A fire was then built around the pot, and a stew of corn, meat, and fish was cooked by the heat of the surrounding fire. With this method, the Secotans did not need a hearth.

Native and imported foods As the colonies grew, so did the variety in their diet. Livestock was brought over from Europe, as well as the seeds to grow familiar garden vegetables and fruits. Trade with England also began to bring more variety to the colonists' diet. Sugar, rum, spices, sweets, and other imported foods slowly became available. As more land was cleared and successive generations built upon the work of earlier farmers, growing and preserving a greater variety of foods became possible.

But foods that were native to America retained their place in the colonists' diet. Corn, for example, remained a vital food that was used to make many dishes the colonists depended upon. Cornmeal mush (also called "samp," from the Algonquian word nasaump) was made from cornmeal that was boiled with milk or water until thick and then served with maple syrup, molasses, gravy, or meat drippings. Native Americans made baked cakes of cornmeal called appone or ponop, and the English soon began to make their own varieties of corn bread. One kind, called ashcake, was made of corn-bread batter wrapped in corn husks or cabbage leaves and baked in the hot ashes of the cooking fire. Corn puddings, cooked in a bag or in the dripping pan, were often served to accompany or follow a stew. In the summer, colonists ate corn on the cob. Other foods made from corn were hominy, grits, parched corn, and popcorn.

Colonists at the table Everyday meals in colonial America were simple and hearty. The food was not elegant, and neither were the manners and table settings of the settlers. They took most of their meals from the iron pot that always hung over the fire. It might contain a stew of beans, turnips, carrots, parsnips, pumpkin, onions, or corn, all cooked together, along with meat, if it was available. Often the pot was simply lifted onto the middle of the table at mealtime. Diners might eat directly from the pot, or they might spoon out a portion onto a wooden dish called a trencher. Individual dishes were rare; usually two diners shared a trencher.

Forks were extremely uncommon in the colonies until late in the period, but everyone had spoons, since stews and porridges were their constant meals. Spoons were made of wood or pewter. Dishes, even those made of wood, were so valued that they were often mentioned in wills and other formal lists of possessions. Individual drinking cups were also unusual. Two diners might share a cup, or one large vessel would be passed around the entire table for everyone to drink from. This practice was common even in inns, where strangers ate together.

In the homes of the gentry (upper class), meals were often more elaborate and might consist of several separate dishes. Travelers who described the diet of the colonists often reported what sounds like a delicious variety of foods, such as poultry, pork, venison, fish, oysters, vegetables, and fruits, among the dishes served by their hosts. Yet these meals were special ones intended to impress and satisfy visitors. Except among the wealthier colonists, the primary purpose of eating was to sustain the body, not to please the palate.

Fashions in clothing

Clothing served several purposes in the colonial period, as it does today: it provided warmth, preserved modesty, adorned the wearer, and reflected one's social station. The first generation of European settlers brought with them the fashions of their day. Portraits of early English colonists depict men and women in fashionable garments adorned with showy lace collars and cuffs. These pictures reveal that the wealthier colonists of Massachusetts Bay had a taste for fashionable clothing, as did some early settlers in Virginia. Puritan ministers urged people to give up the vanity of fashionable dress for the inner beauty of a pious (holy) life. New England magistrates (judges) tried to enforce their ministers' teachings through laws that regulated dress. In 1634, for example, the General Court of Massachusetts made it illegal to wear high fashion. The fact that such laws were considered necessary suggests that Puritan men and women were fond of fashion and sometimes wore fancy styles. Puritans were not limited to somber clothing in black or gray, however. The laws were mainly a way to prevent ordinary farmers or artisans from dressing "above their station" in clothing regarded as appropriate only for the wealthy. In general, Puritans were free to dress in a range of colors and styles regarded as suitable for their individual rank in society.

Mingling of styles The availability of materials and the requirements of environment influenced colonial fashions in the middle and late seventeenth century. In some regions, elements of Native American dress crept into colonists' clothing. For example, French settlers in New France often dressed in buckskin (soft, tanned deerskin). In winter men commonly wore hooded wool coats known as capotes to shield themselves from the icy winds. Native Americans, too, adopted some elements of dress from the Europeans. Sometimes they traded for European items; other times they added European touches to their own designs. For example, in the Denver Art Museum in Colorado, there is a coat made by the Cree Indians of Canada about 1750. The design of the coat is distinctly European, but the material is buckskin and the decorations are made from porcupine quills. Europeans were not always tolerant of Native American influences in clothing, however. In New Spain, a law passed in 1582 prohibited mestizo women (those of mixed Spanish and Indian heritage) from wearing Native American dresses. Instead, these women began to wear a shawl known as a rebozo, which over time came to be finely crafted and decorated.

English colonists brought with them a knowledge of spinning and weaving, but they never developed a large textile (fabric) industry. Imported cloth was scarce and expensive, so homespun woolens and linens became the common materials for ordinary citizens' clothing. Yet portraits of prominent colonists of the time, including Puritan ministers such as Cotton Mather (1663–1728), continued to imitate the fashionable styles in England. In spite of obstacles, many colonists maintained links to their European roots through the clothing they wore.

Eighteenth-century changes After 1700 a growing variety of textiles imported from England began flowing into colonial ports. Prices for imported fabrics dropped so low that colonial producers could not compete, and some households no longer found it worthwhile to invest the time and labor needed to make homespun cloth. A wide variety of English and Dutch fabrics, including silks, linens, velvets, and laces, were advertised in newspapers. Accessories such as gloves, stockings, and buttons were also available. Tailors placed their own advertisements, enticing customers with their ability to cut and sew the latest London fashions.

European fashion popular Writers of the time commented on the widespread imitation of European fashion in America. In 1740 the Anglican preacher George Whitefield (1714–1770) remarked on the fashionable dress of audiences he spoke to from Massachusetts to Georgia. He declared that the people who came to hear him in Charleston, South Carolina, dressed more extravagantly than gentry from the most fashionable districts of London. Again, portraits from this period demonstrate that European styles were widely worn. Even ordinary colonists began to buy fancy items, and many colonial leaders worried that class distinctions were being erased as more and more people added fashionable wigs, fancy dresses, handsome waistcoats, silk stockings, and silver buckles to their wardrobes. From newspaper notices describing runaways, we learn that even slaves and indentured servants often wore fashionable cast-off clothing.

Clothing on the frontier On the frontier, however, fashion was influenced by factors other than the latest European fads. Traders and settlers in the backcountry adopted certain elements of Native American clothing, such as buckskin garments, moccasins, and snowshoes, because these items were better adapted to the environment. Dressing this way also helped to establish cultural ties with the native people, whom colonists in the backcountry encountered more frequently. In fact, the Indian commissioner William Johnson (1715–1774) adopted Iroquois dress to help him gain their trust and understanding as he pursued diplomacy (skill dealing with people) among the Six Nations of upstate New York.

Fancy Dress for Young Colonists

Colonial-era portraits depict the children of wealthy colonists wearing amazingly elaborate and expensive outfits, at least on special occasions. Young boys also wore wigs when they became fashionable. In 1750, a father in Portland, Maine, recorded among his expenses the cost of shaving his three sons' heads several times during the year so that they could wear wigs. He also recorded the considerable expense of the wigs he bought for his boys, who were aged eleven, nine, and seven years. Despite the cost of such items, wealthy families ordered wigs and fancy clothes from England for their children. Sometimes detailed orders for what seem to be entire wardrobes for children were sent to London or other European cities. Clothing made of silk, satin, and other fine fabrics was sent across the ocean, along with dress shoes, stockings, ribbons, gloves, hats, and fans.

Farther south in the Carolina backcountry, the Anglican missionary Charles Woodmason expressed shock at European women who went barefoot and wore thin, tight-fitting garments that exposed their lower legs. This was considered immodest dress for women at the time. Such clothing was partly the result of poverty and partly an adaptation to the hot southern climate. Gradually, as eastern fashions became affordable, frontier colonists also began to wear them.


The size and structure of colonial houses varied widely throughout North America and changed over the course of the colonial period (see "Architecture" in Chapter 13). The first settlers brought the construction methods they had known in Europe and adapted them to the materials and conditions of the land in which they settled.

Early two-room houses Homes of the first few generations of English settlers followed the pattern of houses in England. These consisted of two equal-sized main rooms separated by a wall containing a single fireplace, which heated both rooms. These rooms were called the hall and the parlor, and both had to serve multiple purposes. The parlor usually served as a bedroom. In English and French households the hall was for cooking, eating, and work. It was usually the core of the home and was used for entertaining guests as well as for cooking and working. English, Dutch, and French farmhouses shared this same basic form, although the houses of each group differed in external appearance according to custom. In Dutch houses, the parlor was called a groot kamer, or "best room," and served for social occasions as well as for sleeping. Often colonists would add lofts to their rooms for storage or sleeping space, and as a family grew, they might add rooms for a separate kitchen, bedroom, or storeroom.

The floor plan of the English colonial dwelling kept family members close to one another. Whole families commonly slept in the same room, with the parents in a large bed and the children in a smaller one or on mats by the hearth. Infants slept with their parents or in cradles. Even when family members slept in separate rooms, they had to pass through one room to reach another. There was little privacy, and all daily activities in the home were carried out in close quarters. When overnight guests came, they often shared the family bed with their hosts.

Average Wardrobe, 1740

Like most aspects of colonial life, dress varied according to social class. Slaves received only one or two changes of clothing per year, while wealthy colonists possessed large wardrobes tailored for every occasion in a variety of fine imported textiles. But what about the average family? According to one historian, a man might have one good suit, two fine shirts, three coarse shirts, two pairs of work pants, two pairs of breeches, one waistcoat, one coat, and one hat. A woman might have one good gown, one petticoat, one good cloak, two bodices or short gowns, two aprons, two shifts [nightgowns], and a coarse cloak.

Source: Hawke, David Freeman. Everyday Life in Early America. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Adapting to local conditions In the southeastern colonies, builders placed fireplaces at the ends of houses, rather than in the center, so that heat would be more easily carried away. Summers in the South were so hot that some houses had separate "summer kitchens" so that daily cooking would not make the main house intolerably warm.

Sharing Rooms and Beds

People staying overnight in colonial inns or private houses often found themselves sharing their rooms and even their beds with total strangers. A traveling doctor, Alexander Hamilton, spent one night in a New York country inn. When he woke up in the morning he found "two beds in the room, besides that in which I lay, in one of which lay two great hulking fellows, with long black beards, having their own hair, and not so much as half a nightcap betwixt both of them. I took them for weavers, not only from their greasy appearance, but because I observed a weaver's loom at each side of the room. In the other bed was a raw-boned boy, who, with the two lubbers, huddled on his clothes, and went reeling downstairs, making as much noise as three horses."

Source: Hamilton, Alexander. Itinerarium, edited by Robert M. Goldwyn. New York: Arno, 1971.

Houses in the Spanish borderlands varied considerably from region to region, depending upon available building materials and the climate. In Saint Augustine, Florida, for instance, a distinctive long, rectangular style of house emerged, and in New Mexico, colonists constructed long adobe (a sun-dried brick of clay and straw) houses only one room deep.

Building materials Timber, which had been scarce in England, was plentiful in the colonies. Builders took advantage of this by siding homes entirely in wood and roofing them with wooden shingles rather than with thatch (reeds) or slate (a type of rock). The log-cabin design was introduced to America by Swedish settlers, and by 1700 colonists in frontier New Hampshire and in the middle colonies were building homes in this style. Dwellings in the Spanish Southwest were built of adobe (or stone, where available). These houses had to be constructed to provide protection from attack by hostile neighboring tribes. People who lived in towns commonly built their homes close together around a central plaza so that the outer walls of the houses could double as the walls of a fort. Haciendas were structured the same way, with dwellings and outbuildings arranged in a square around a central patio.

More spacious houses By 1700 wealthy English colonists began to build reproductions of larger houses in Europe. The gentry wanted to display their wealth and taste by constructing larger, more formal houses made of brick. Some of these elegant homes were even designed by professional architects. Built in the symmetrical

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style fashionable in Europe, houses of well-to-do colonists included ornamental exterior woodwork and beautifully finished interiors. The new floor plans included many rooms, each with specialized uses and separated by corridors for greater privacy. Children and parents began to sleep in separate rooms, and bedchambers were often located on the second floor, away from the parlors and halls where guests were entertained.

Gradually, less privileged colonists began to build homes with some of the same features, not only in external style but also in interior layout. These homes reflected a newfound desire for privacy, with multiple rooms designed for distinct purposes and separated by corridors or partitions. As farmers became more prosperous, they not only built larger houses, but they also located them farther away from barns. A separate laundry might be added, as well as a smokehouse for curing meats.

Imported goods

In the seventeenth century, most colonists depended to some degree on goods imported from Europe (see Chapter 7). In fact, English settlement followed the paths blazed by traders who acquired furs from Native Americans in exchange for European manufactured goods, which rapidly transformed Native American ways of life. Early colonists in New England and the Chesapeake sustained a steady trade by introducing items such as metal goods, firearms, and woolen fabrics. Established settlers relied on obtaining materials from new immigrants, who brought such goods as nails, gunpowder, lead shot, glass, cooking utensils, books, and cloth to trade for lumber and food. A modest flow of English products arrived in colonial ports throughout the century. Some of the items were purchased by wealthier colonists for resale to their neighbors. For instance, seventeenth-century farmers traded tobacco to Dutch and English merchants for European-made products, while farmers in Massachusetts traded grain and salt pork for West Indian sugar, molasses, and rum.

In the early eighteenth century, the flow of European goods began to increase, and by the 1740s colonists were experiencing a consumer revolution. In Britain, artisans were producing goods at lower prices, making it possible for more people to buy them. In addition, merchants learned how to create demand for their products with appealing newspaper advertisements, shop-window displays, and other techniques. By 1740 ceramics, glass products, textiles, paper, metal items, and teas were becoming available at lower prices than American producers could match—and their quality was often superior.


Colonists could obtain imported products in several ways. Northern port cities boasted specialty shops where colonists could buy items such as fabrics, pins, tools, and building supplies. Elsewhere people sold consumer goods mainly to supplement their primary incomes as farmers or artisans. Some colonists, such as Long Island whale-oil exporter Samuel Mumford, kept small stores of English goods that he could sell for cash or barter for products such as grain or tobacco, which he might in turn sell on the international market. Many southern planters kept supplies of imported materials to sell to their neighbors. Virginian Ralph Wormeley, for example, kept a trunk full of trade items under his bed. Throughout the colonies traveling peddlers carried wares to smaller communities and isolated farmhouses, where imported goods were harder to come by.

As the volume of imported goods increased in the eighteenth century, retail shops began springing up throughout the colonies. Many were locally owned, but in the South there were some that were virtually chain stores, owned by merchants based in Glasgow, Scotland. Shopkeepers learned to arrange their goods in attractive displays, encouraging shoppers to browse and compare.

"Unnecessary" Finery in a Colonial Cottage

Many colonial families adorned their homes with imported goods if they could afford them. Members of the upper classes often found such decoration to be pretentious. The Scottish physician and traveler Alexander Hamilton illustrated this attitude in an account of his visit to a household in New York. Hamilton's companion on the visit was a man named "Mr. M—s," who was quite critical of items owned by their host: "This cottage was very clean and neat, but poorly furnished, yet Mr. M—s observed several superfluous things which showed an inclination to finery in these poor people; such as a looking-glass with a painted frame, half a dozen pewter spoons, and as many plates, old and wore out, but bright and clean, a set of stone tea dishes and a teapot. These Mr. M—s said were superfluous, and too splendid for such a cottage, and therefore they ought to be sold to buy wool to make yarn; that a little water in a wooden pail might serve for a looking-glass, and wooden plates and spoons would be as good for use, and when clean would be almost as ornamental. As for the tea equippage it was quite unnecessary."

Source: Hamilton, Alexander. Itinerarium, edited by Robert M. Goldwyn. New York: Arno, 1971.

Buying tastes and habits

The new abundance of imported products meant significant changes in the self-perceptions, tastes, and habits of American colonists. By the middle of the eighteenth century, items that were once luxuries enjoyed only by the upper class became expected needs of everyday life. In 1700, for example, tea was rarely seen outside the homes of the wealthiest colonists, whose servants poured the drink as refreshment for honored guests. Teapots, teacups, and even sugar to sweeten the drink were expensive luxuries. By 1750, however, many ordinary families of farmers and artisans enjoyed tea every day. It was served from inexpensive delftware (Dutch ceramic tableware), and adding a lump or two of sugar was not uncommon.

Imported items were changing table manners as well. Family members no longer shared meals from a single pot that sat in the middle of the table. Now people ate from individual ceramic plates or bowls and used forks and knives as well as spoons and fingers. Women and men adorned their clothes with English lace and buttons, brightened their parlors with brass-ware, and covered their beds with linen. Wealthy families decorated their homes with fine rugs imported from Turkey, rich Oriental tapestries, and elegant Dutch fabrics.

Expanding awareness

As the colonies gradually changed from isolated outposts to prosperous provinces, travel, communication, and trade enabled colonists to keep abreast of the dramatic developments that were transforming life on both sides of the Atlantic (see "Communications" in Chapter 7). These forces enabled people in once-isolated colonies to learn more about events in America as well as in Europe. Ships sailed along the coast and across the Atlantic with increasing frequency, distributing news from Europe and from other colonies. News spread from colonial ports inland along trade routes to the increasingly interconnected settlements. Educated colonists bought European books and journals to keep up with the latest advances in scientific knowledge, theology (the study of religion), law, and politics. Colonial newspapers began appearing, keeping readers informed of the latest developments in European affairs as well as matters of interest from other colonies. Wealthy families cultivated transatlantic friendships with persons of influence in European society, and the richest sent their sons to Europe for education in the liberal arts and law (see Chapter 12). As 1750 approached, colonists exhibited an increasing awareness of their place in a world of exciting possibilities.

Colonial identity

Colonists gradually came to think of themselves as inhabitants of civilized provinces rather than rustic colonies. As British Americans, they shared with the people in England a common identity, an enjoyment of finery, and loyalty to their king. The growing availability of English imported goods during the eighteenth century, along with the desire of colonists to attain a lifestyle modeled on English customs, resulted in an increased similarity among colonial societies that had been strikingly diverse in 1700. Earlier settlers could not have imagined uniting with other American colonies to form a nation independent of Britain. They still regarded themselves as part of the most independent and enlightened empire the world had ever known. They looked to Britain as the source of products that they believed would make their lives decent, respectable, and civilized.

African slaves

In the late seventeenth century fewer and fewer indentured servants arrived from England to supply labor to the southern colonies. As a result, Virginia and Maryland planters began to purchase large numbers of African slaves (see "Slave laborers" in Chapter 7). South Carolinians likewise relied on slave labor beginning in the 1670s. Many planters from Barbados brought their African slaves with them to South Carolina to carve out new settlements there. By 1700 the Chesapeake and South Carolina had become slave societies, where the economy depended almost completely on forced labor and the great numbers of slaves shaped the social system.

Strive to preserve identity

The variety of societies and conditions in colonial America resulted in diverse experiences for people of African descent. African captives brought with them a range of languages, beliefs, and practices. They had to adapt their traditions to the new environment and to other African cultures they encountered, combining them with selected European elements to produce the first African American cultures. These emerged in several different patterns.

In the South Carolina and Georgia rice-growing country, slaves worked on a "task system": completion of their assigned tasks freed them to devote time to other pursuits. In these regions, plantation owners preferred to spend the hot summers on the seacoast, away from their plantations. In addition, slaves outnumbered Europeans. Because of these factors, the slaves in South Carolina and Georgia were able to form communities and shape a culture with a rich mixture of African customs.

In contrast, the lives and work of slaves in the Chesapeake region were much more regulated and supervised. Slaves worked in a "gang system" that kept them in the tobacco fields all day. Planter families outnumbered slaves and remained on their plantations year-round. Nevertheless, Chesapeake slaves formed supportive communities with a distinctive African American culture they passed down to later generations.

Farther north the conditions of slavery were often milder, but the much smaller slave population made it difficult to create the kind of communities that could preserve African traditions. In the eighteenth century, free African American communities began to emerge in parts of New England, the middle colonies, and South Carolina. People living in these communities often faced discrimination from whites, finding themselves pushed into separate neighborhoods and onto poorer lands. In addition, they were denied rights that their English neighbors enjoyed. Yet African Americans developed tightly knit communities held together by culture, kinship, and faith.

Freed Slaves

By 1720 a majority of slaves in the Chesapeake region were American-born. Some had even gained their freedom. In 1760, for instance, there were two thousand freed slaves (2 percent to 3 percent of the African American population) in Virginia, and in the North about 10 percent of the total African American population were freedmen. Many former slaves owned farms. For instance, freedman Anthony Johnson began acquiring his own plantation in Virginia during the 1640s. By 1651 he owned 250 acres of land, and he became known as the "black patriarch" of Pungoteague Creek, the area of Virginia where his estate was located. Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose was founded as a town for freed blacks in 1738. Located in Spanish Florida 2 miles north of Saint Augustine, Mose was the only town of its kind in what would become the United States. The earliest settlers were escaped slaves from South Carolina. English attacks forced evacuation of the town from 1740 to 1752, and its inhabitants moved to Saint Augustine.

African American dwellings

The vast majority of African Americans were slaves, and their dwellings were nothing like the great houses of the gentry. In the eighteenth century many slaves built their houses from materials provided by their masters. Whether they used English or African construction methods, slaves often organized their buildings in patterns that supported the communal ways of life of Africa. Single-room houses were often built around a common central area where the residents could interact, share household work, and hold social gatherings when time and tasks permitted. Free African Americans tended to adopt European designs, and their homes were probably similar to those of poorer whites.

Native Americans

Native Americans in all regions of colonial America lived in tribes or clans, forming societies based on agriculture and hunting. They generally grew corn, squash, beans, and tobacco. Women tended to the crops while men hunted and fished, and communities produced only enough food for their own needs. Living in stockaded (fenced) villages, Native Americans built houses made of saplings (small trees) that were often occupied by several people. Later in the colonial period these dwellings were replaced by log cabins. Many native groups had a strong warrior class and established alliances with neighboring native groups to protect their towns and land from European colonists and hostile tribes. Most Native American societies were matrilineal (headed by a woman), but this tradition began to change after increasing encounters with European colonists (see Chapter 9). The fur trade in particular had a profound impact on native culture, producing a dependence on European-made goods that gradually brought an end to the native way of life. Equally disruptive were European diseases, wars, and the reservations system.

Native American hunting techniques

Native Americans used ingenious techniques for hunting animals. For instance, they drove deer or other animals into fenced areas where they could be kept alive until meat was needed. Others drove huge buffalo, which might otherwise be difficult to kill, over cliffs. Native Americans also had interesting ways of deceiving their prey when they hunted. Hunters in some tribes could imitate the calls of the animals very accurately. They also used disguise. For example, the Timucua dressed in whole deerskins when they were hunting deer in order to blend in with the herd when they crept up on their prey. Native Americans hunting turkeys used masks of feathers to hide their faces. (See Chapter 1 for a more detailed description of Native American life during the colonial period.)

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