Economy and Communications

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Economy and Communications

Native Americans had an extensive economic and trading system for at least 2,500 years before Europeans reached North America in the mid-1500s (see Chapter 1). Native peoples in the Southwest (present-day New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas) irrigated (watered) their land to grow maize (corn), beans, and squash. Native Americans who lived in the eastern part of the continent (the Eastern Woodlands) burned forests and prairies to stimulate crop production and wild berry growth. They grew maize, potatoes, beans, squash, sunflowers, and tobacco. Archaeologists (scientists who study ancient cultures) have found pottery fragments, baskets, stone weapons, and shells, which reveal that a vast trade network flourished among the 7,000,000 to 10,000,000 Native Americans who inhabited North America. But Europeans disrupted these productive enterprises when they seized native lands, introduced deadly diseases, and gained dominance with their sophisticated weapons. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, 90 percent of the Native American population north of the Rio Grande (the river that forms part of the border between Mexico and Texas) was wiped out. The continent was now open for European settlement and trade. Yet European economic development in North America would have been impossible without the contributions of the surviving Native Americans. They offered food to starving settlers, provided pelts (animal skins) for the profitable European fur trade, and taught struggling colonists how to grow crops.

Spanish and French retreat to borders

The first Europeans to cross the Atlantic to the New World (the European term for North and South America) were the Spanish, who conquered fabulously rich Native American empires in South America and Mexico and took the treasures back to Spain. In the 1560s they moved into the Southwest and present-day Florida, Alabama, and South Carolina, hoping to find more gold and other precious metals. During the early seventeenth century the French occupied the upper northeastern part of the continent, founding fur-trading posts in present-day Canada around the Great Lakes. Then they sent explorers south through the Mississippi River valley to the Gulf of Mexico in search of more trade routes. Ultimately, however, the Spanish and French failed to gain a permanent foothold in the territory that became the United States. Colonizing attempts by both nations were defeated by poor planning, natural disasters, long distances between settlements, and fierce competition from the English. Although the Spanish and French did not have a direct impact on the colonial economy, Spanish involvement in the Caribbean slave trade and French efforts to expand their fur-trading networks helped shape colonial American history.

English use natural resources

A major factor in France and Spain's failure were the English, who were founding or taking over successful colonies along the Atlantic coast (see Chapter 4). The English far outnumbered other immigrants in the New World: during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, more than 155,000 English men and women made the journey across the Atlantic to settle in North America. Many were seeking social, political, and religious freedom, but nearly all—rich and poor alike—were drawn by promises of prosperity in a fertile and abundant land. Advertisements promoted the continent as "one of the goodlyst [goodliest], best and frutfullest cultures that ever was sene, and where nothing lacketh." Members of the gentry (upper or ruling class) were lured by the prospect of quick wealth. Farmers, tradesmen, and servants were often forced onto the Atlantic shores by overpopulation and lack of jobs in England.

The English government actively encouraged settlement ventures in North America as a way to expand its empire. Rather than searching for gold and silver as Spain did, England sought natural resources for its factories. Another incentive was an American market for English-manufactured goods, which England could then tax to increase revenues. Like the Spanish and French, the English at first encountered serious obstacles and made several false starts. Yet they persevered, and within a few decades they had created a thriving economy. As the English were putting down roots in the New World, they were joined by other Europeans motivated by the same desires for freedom, wealth, and economic security. Soon America had a highly diverse population that included the Dutch, Germans, Jews, Africans, Swiss, Swedes, Finns, French Huguenots (members of a Protestant religious group), Italians, Welsh, and Scots-Irish.

Settlers Seize Land

From the earliest years of colonial settlement, land was an important and relatively inexpensive commodity. European colonists acquired land primarily by driving out Native Americans. Initially the two groups engaged in trade, and in many cases native leaders helped the immigrants in their feeble attempts at settlement. Soon, however, Native Americans realized that the colonists were more interested in claiming land than in establishing commercial relations. Native resistance to European expansion resulted in more than a century of violence throughout the colonial period. Pennsylvania was the only colony that maintained peaceful relations with Native Americans because of a treaty written by William Penn in 1682, requiring colonists to purchase land. Yet even that agreement broke down in 1729 when settlers made false claims and then sold the land to speculators. Eventually many native groups moved farther west. Those who stayed behind became economically dependent on the European settlers.

Land is basis of economy

From the earliest years of colonial settlement, land was an important and relatively inexpensive commodity. By offering land at reasonable rates and under flexible terms, colonial governments hoped to stimulate settlement and economic development. Wealthy investors bought huge tracts of land, often in parcels of 10,000 acres, to develop farms, estates, and plantations. Low land prices and high wages meant that even people who were less well-off could become landowners. In some colonies the first step in acquiring land was a head right, a grant from the colony to a settler who paid his own way to North America. For instance, Virginia awarded a head right of 50 acres, and Carolina granted 50 to 100 acres. An enterprising settler could increase his head right by paying the travel costs of other people, such as family members, indentured servants, and slaves. After receiving a head right, a colonist could purchase additional land. Indentured servants (laborers who worked for a specific number of years) could also buy land at the end of their contract. Other settlers, called squatters, simply claimed land for their own, claims that were often honored once an area had been cleared and developed. In New England communities the colonists divided land among themselves.

Agriculture is first industry

European settlers from a wide array of social backgrounds became prosperous in the New World. Some immigrants had enough money to finance their own ventures, while others needed assistance. At first they relied on investors, who provided capital (money used for business purposes) for developing North America's abundant resources. Eventually the settlers established local credit markets so they could borrow money from neighbors. During the early colonial period, most capital was invested in small farms in the northern colonies and plantations in the Chesapeake region (Maryland and Virginia). Regardless of their occupations in England and Europe, the majority of American settlers turned to farming for a livelihood. This situation continued throughout the colonial era, with 90 percent of the economy being agricultural. Crops varied from one geographic region to another. Fertile riverbanks, rocky terrain, grassy pastures, sandy hills, and fruitful forests determined what could best grow in a particular area. Agricultural experimentation led to an aggressive program of cultivating profitable crops in colonies that needed an economic base. Other colonists were satisfied with a subsistence culture that sustained their families.

Tenant farmers Settlers who could not afford to buy land became tenant farmers—that is, they paid rent for farmland with cash or with a share of the crops they produced. This arrangement was common in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, where market crops (crops sold to others) were the basis of the economy. Tenant farming suited both immigrants who needed work and colonial leaders who needed settlers. Frequently landowners provided food, supplies, farming equipment, and livestock. In addition to paying rent, some tenant farmers were required to build a house, plant an orchard, or put up a fence. This was a particularly efficient way for landowners to improve their property. Tenant farmers knew their rents could go up or they could be forced off the farm at the whim of the owner. Therefore tenant farming could become simply another form of servitude (servant status) or poverty. Because tenants remained poor, they often had little cash to pay rent and could not improve their economic status by entering nonagricultural occupations or resettling on distant frontiers. By the end of the colonial period tenants in long-settled areas like Maryland and Pennsylvania made up nearly half of the men who did not own land.

Farmers form community network Contrary to popular myth, colonial American farmers were not totally self-sufficient. Settlers placed a high value on independence, but they also developed close-knit communities. Even farmers living in remote areas needed the support of distant neighbors. The household was the fundamental unit of production in American agriculture. Farmers produced crops for consumption and sale, and their families provided most of the labor. Although servants, hired hands, and slaves performed some tasks, this workforce was generally not sufficient to sustain a colonial family. Neighbors depended on one another to build homes and churches, harvest crops, break sod, cut timber, raise barns, build fences, establish herds of livestock, and deliver babies. Neighbors exchanged soap, candles, butchered meat, spun thread, or woven fabric on a daily basis. One family could not consume an entire butchered sow (an adult female swine) before the meat spoiled, so they preserved some and traded the rest for such items as clothing or shoes. A family might also trade the meat for a service, such as help in weaving a blanket or harvesting a crop. This barter (trade) economy allowed families to specialize in particular crafts or to maintain a minimum of tools. The ways in which settlers relied on one another also determined the nature of the economies in the four colonial regions: New England, the mid-Atlantic, the upper South, and the lower South.

New England The New England colonies were founded by Puritans who wanted to create a community where they could pray and practice their beliefs without interference. They envisioned family farms that would support these self-contained communities. Condemning excessive profits, which they felt promoted greed, Puritan farmers planted wheat, oats, and barley on just enough land to sustain their families. For example, officials in Dedham, Massachusetts, allotted each family 65 acres outside of town and a 1-acre house lot in town. Cattle, sheep, and hogs ranged freely in community fields and woodlands. After disease destroyed the wheat crop in 1660, New England farmers relied on maize to sustain their families. Relatively short growing seasons and rocky soil prevented the development of a staple crop for export. Farmers had not yet copied the Native American practice of rotating crops (planting different crops to replenish the soil), so New Englanders found that their soil was depleted after five or six years. While some families moved away, many turned to raising cattle for meat and dairy products. Several others became fishermen, eventually producing the first large-scale commodity to be exported from New England.

Mid-Atlantic With a combination of industrious families and rich soil, Pennsylvania and New Jersey thrived in the early days of settlement. English, Dutch, and German farmers used European agricultural practices on farms from 100 to 300 acres in size. In the 1720s Pennsylvania began exporting wheat, flour, and bread, which were in high demand in Ireland and southern Europe. In American Eras: The Colonial Era, a merchant described the numerous exports flowing from the region two decades later:

We make our Remittances [payment for trade items] a great many ways, sometimes to the West Indies in Bread, flour, Pork, Indian Corn, and hogshead Staves, sometimes to Carrolina and New-foundland in Bread and Flour sometimes to Portugall in Wheat, Flour and Pipe Staves [tubs] sometimes to Ireland in Flax seed Flour, Oak and Walnut Planks and Barrel Staves and to England in Skinns, Tobacco, Beeswax, staves of all Kinds, Oak and Walnut Planks, Boat Boards, Pigg Iron, Tarr, Pitch, Turpentine, Ships, and Bills of Exchange.

In New York, which was the Dutch colony of New Netherland until 1664, Dutch and Swedish settlers had developed a thriving fur trade with various Native American tribes. By the early eighteenth century wheat exports were replacing the fur trade. One reason for the slow agricultural development in New York was the preference of Dutch patroons (proprietors of large estates) for holding on to their land rather than developing it for the commercial market. They were more inclined to lease the land to tenants who raised only enough to feed their families and pay their rent.

Upper South Virginia Company investors financed the founding of the Virginia colony. They were primarily interested in making money when Jamestown was settled in 1607. Therefore they pressured the settlers to find a profitable crop or other commodity that could be traded in Europe. By 1612 John Rolfe (1585–1622) had developed a marketable strain of tobacco, and Virginia and neighboring Maryland soon became the first colonies to rely on a single export crop. In 1619 planters exported 20,000 pounds of tobacco, and by 1700 they were exporting 38,000,000 pounds. Because tobacco initially fetched such a high price, Chesapeake planters mainly grew tobacco and imported all necessities except food and timber. The tobacco boom ended a mere ten years later, in 1629. During the 1630s the price of tobacco fell from sixteen to five pennies per pound as a result of overproduction, and by 1670 it brought only a penny per pound. Although tobacco remained profitable, it would never again command the high prices of the first quarter-century. During the eighteenth century exports of tobacco fluctuated between 25,000,000 and 160,000,000 pounds per year. To maintain a profitable venture, planters needed to continually grow and export more tobacco, but the crop was hard on the soil. The yield declined after only three or four years, so planters moved farther inland or switched to growing wheat.

Lower South Carolina was settled by Englishmen who needed land to grow food for their sugar plantations in the West Indies. They were joined by cavaliers (gentlemen trained as cavalry soldiers) who had been given land by King Charles II (1630–1685). Before finding a marketable crop, English settlers relied on trading deerskins with neighboring Native Americans. Between 1699 and 1715, two hundred traders sent an average of fifty-three thousand skins a year to England. In addition to the flourishing deerskin trade, Carolina produced bowsprits (a large pole projecting from the front of a ship), masts, pitch, resin (a natural substance used in varnishes and medicine), tar, and turpentine. Although these commodities supported the colony, they did not produce the huge profits envisioned by the proprietors. Therefore planters began experimenting to find a crop that could be traded on the world market. Quickly eliminating silk, sugarcane, ginger, tobacco, and grapes, in the 1720s they found that rice would thrive best in the lowlying Carolina terrain.

In 1698 Carolina exported its first shipment of rice, which weighed 12,000 pounds, an amount dwarfed by the 18,000,000 pounds they sent out in 1730. To accommodate the demand for more rice, planters expanded their plantations and acquired more slaves. Planters in the Caribbean supplied capital to develop the plantations and slaves to work the crop. The production of rice increased with the advanced knowledge of African slaves from Senegambia, who had harvested rice in their homeland. Crop yields were also improved with the development of irrigation, better seed, and an innovative cleaning process. In the 1740s Carolina also began exporting indigo (a blue dye), which became the fifth most valuable commodity exported from the mainland colonies, after grain, tobacco, rice, and fish.

Industries slowly emerge

Manufacturing in the American colonies remained limited during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Low population, poor roads, and scarce labor discouraged investors from starting full-scale manufacturing enterprises. Colonists preferred instead to invest their energy and money in agricultural endeavors. The most common form of manufacturing were small industries run by craftsmen in workshops attached to their homes. The family was the primary unit of production, with the master craftsman assisted by his wife, children, and an occasional apprentice (one who learns by practical experience under skilled workers). These shops were located primarily in New England and Pennsylvania, where staple crops did not dominate the export economy.

Eliza Pinckney

Elizabeth (Eliza) Lucas Pinckney (c. 1722–1793) is credited with perfecting a strain of indigo, a blue dye that became a staple crop in South Carolina in the 1740s. Encouraged by her father, a British military officer, she began her experiments when she was only sixteen years old. During this time Pinckney also ran Wappoo, the family plantation, while her father was in the West Indies. At first she tested a variety of crops, such as ginger, cotton, indigo, and figs, in an attempt to develop a profitable commodity for the colony. After consulting experts, in 1738 she decided to concentrate on indigo. Finally, in 1744, she produced a strain that would grow well in South Carolina soil. That year she married Charles Pinckney, who helped her distribute indigo seeds to local planters. Within a few years, the Carolinas were shipping thousands of pounds of indigo to England for use in the textile (cloth) industry.

Shipbuilding is major industry

There were exceptions, however, especially in larger cities along the Atlantic coast from New England to the South. In the early 1600s shipbuilding began developing to meet transportation and communication needs. The first European settlers in America founded towns along navigable rivers and next to deep Atlantic harbors. Out of necessity colonists used boats as their principal means of travel and trade. Soon shipbuilding became a prosperous business. After the Navigation Act of 1651 limited American commerce to English and colonial vessels, Massachusetts grew into a major shipbuilding center. Pennsylvania also had a thriving industry that made ships known for their speed and beauty.

Colonial shipyards produced five different classes of vessels: the sharop (a single-masted boat without a deck), the bark and the ketch (both of which had decks and two masts), the pinnace (a vessel designed to sail along the coast), and the ship. As the largest of all the vessels, the ship had a cargo capacity of well over 100 tons. During the 1700s the types of vessels changed, and four new classes of boats appeared. The sloop (a single-masted boat) was in widespread use along the coast but was not as popular as the schooner (a boat with two or more masts), a more maneuverable boat. The brigantine was much larger than the schooner, and the snow larger than the brigantine. Colonial vessels usually had square sails in the fore and main masts (front and center of vessel) and a lateen (triangular) sail on the mizzenmast (at the stern). Shipbuilding involved the work of many craftsmen such as glassblowers, pewter makers, silversmiths, wheelwrights, cobblers, weavers, wainwrights, gunsmiths, tanners, millers, and coopers. They supplied goods for domestic and foreign trade as well as for the use of the captains, mates, and sailors.

Distilleries and tanneries

A range of small industries in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and New England produced such goods as alcoholic beverages and leather. With increased access to West Indian molasses in 1717, sixty-three distilleries ran full-time in Massachusetts. Beer was the favorite beverage of colonists until the Scots-Irish introduced whiskey. By 1721 Pennsylvania brewers were shipping beer as far south as Charleston, South Carolina. Eventually the production of rum surpassed that of beer and cider in New England. Nearly every farmer on the frontier operated a still (a shortened term for distillery). Tanning proved to be another profitable venture, providing leather to shoemakers, saddlers, and harness makers in larger towns and villages. Pennsylvania was first among colonies in leather production, supplying most of the tanned leather and shoes for southern trade.

Textile manufacturing

Textile (fabrics) manufacturing was another important part of the colonial economy, especially in Pennsylvania. By 1750 inhabitants of the colony were making nine-tenths of their cloth from materials produced on their own farms. Although wool was the major product, textile makers also worked with flax (a type of plant) to weave linen. Their industry affected the larger economy by giving employment to dyers, fullers, card makers, comb makers, spinners, and weavers. On a much smaller scale, artisans produced bricks and tiles, pottery, clocks, silver, pewter, and gold artifacts.

Colonial Ironworks

Iron-making was another industry that started during the colonial period. America was the perfect place for iron production because bogs contained rich ore deposits and plentiful forests offered resources for making charcoal, which was used to melt the ore. Iron was produced mainly for use in the colonies, and any surplus was exported directly to Britain, where it was processed into steel. Colonial ironworks were small operations, and few were a financial success. One of the most famous was the Saugus Ironworks in Massachusetts. Opened in 1648, it produced about a ton of iron a day. In spite of high production, however, the company went bankrupt in 1652.

Gristmills (mills for grinding grain) and sawmills (mills for sawing logs) emerged as the first industries that required separate facilities. Mill operators employed a larger workforce, required a more substantial investment in buildings and equipment, and depended in large part on water power. The mills supplied flour and lumber for local and foreign trade. Other such structures housed ironworks, glassworks, paper mills, and powder mills. Small iron forges and furnaces multiplied in Pennsylvania because of abundant ore (a mineral containing a valuable substance for which it is mined and worked) and water power. By 1750 Pennsylvania had taken the lead in the manufacture of iron.

Fishing and whaling

New England exports consisted almost equally of foodstuffs (the raw material of food before and after processing), fish, and wood products. Yet fishing was considered the backbone of the New England economy. In 1669 citizens in the town of Marblehead, Massachusetts, protested an export tax on fish because it was "the only great stapple which the Country Produceth for forraine [foreign] parts and is so benefitiall [beneficial] for making returns for what wee need." Fishing was indeed a main source of livelihood for New England colonists, who exported their catches south to the West Indies and across the Atlantic to the Mediterranean countries. Codfish from the icy North Atlantic waters were unsurpassed for salting and drying. New Englanders produced three grades of fish for export. The highest grade was dun fish, which was buried and allowed to dry and mellow before being shipped to Spain, Portugal, and France. The middle grade, which was easy to process and transport, was the favorite winter food of colonial farmers. Merchants exported the lowest grade to the West Indies along with pickled mackerel and bass. In fact, the highest profits were made by merchants who distributed dried fish and other New England-manufactured goods rather than selling them at home.

Whales were another valuable New England commodity that provided raw materials—ambergris (a waxy substance found floating in tropical waters, believed to originate in the intestines of the sperm whale) for perfume, whalebone for stays and stiffeners (used in clothing) and oil for lamps—that colonies processed and sold to domestic and overseas markets. Ships sailing out of Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Martha's Vineyard sought whales that swam freely in the northern waters of the Atlantic.

Currency takes many forms

As commerce and trade continued to grow, colonists relied on several kinds of currency (money or other forms of payment). At first wampum (woven belts of seashells) was used for trade with Native Americans. Whenever possible colonists exchanged English currency, such as the sterling pound and the shilling, for European trade. But English money was in short supply because colonists usually sent it back to England when they bought manufactured goods. Some colonies issued paper money (notes) based on the English pound, but exchanging money across borders caused problems because the value of notes differed from colony to colony. Innovative colonists relied on other means of exchange. In the Chesapeake region, for instance, planters used tobacco to pay taxes, court fees, and even clergymen's salaries. Many planters exchanged their tobacco at warehouses that issued receipts, which could be used as money. Other colonists purchased items on credit, with the agreement that they would pay their debts when they harvested their crops.

Capital market brings prosperity

During the first half of the eighteenth century, the American colonies developed a new capital market. The two primary forms of capital were bonds and mortgages. A bond was a legal loan agreement drawn up between a lender and a borrower. The person taking out the loan did not have to provide collateral (a guarantee of his ability to pay, usually in the form of property) and made payments for a specified period of time, usually six months or a year. A mortgage was also a legal loan agreement, but it required collateral worth twice the value of the mortgage. Slaves and personal goods were the most common forms of collateral put up for such loans. Colonists could earn substantial amounts of money by investing in bonds and mortgages.

Women Invest in Market

According to English common law, when a woman got married all of her property was transferred to her husband. Therefore only unmarried or widowed women were property owners. Colonial American women often took advantage of this status. Many single and widowed women made profits in the booming bond and mortgage market during the first half of the eighteenth century. Wealthy investors were able to live off the interest; even women with limited means could receive a good income by investing in only a few bonds or a single mortgage. One successful investor was Elizabeth Buretel, a French Huguenot widow in Charleston, South Carolina. From 1703 to 1727 she lent money to 110 South Carolina settlers for the purchase of land and slaves. Buretel was the most active female investor in the colony at the beginning of the eighteenth century.

Mercantilism protects England

During the 1600s and 1700s European nations relied on an economic policy called mercantilism (a system that advocated government intervention in the economy to increase the power of the state) to develop trade with colonies and make huge profits. Initially this strategy benefitted both England and the American colonies. The demand for labor to process the abundant natural resources of North America provided opportunities for English workers who could not find employment in England. In turn, laborers in the colonies produced the raw materials England needed to avoid relying on other nations. The growing population in America increased the flow of consumer goods (items sold on the market) from England to the colonies, which in turn stimulated the English economy.

The American colonies exported a variety of foodstuffs and raw materials for English consumption and manufacture. England then traded the finished products, such as tobacco or fur hats, on the international free market. Under the ideal trading situation, a colony would export commodities it did not need and import commodities it could not produce. The southern American colonies came closest to the ideal, since they produced rice and tobacco for export and imported consumer goods from England and the other colonies. Eventually all of the American colonies were involved in a thriving export trade in fish, furs and pelts, grain, indigo, livestock, lumber, naval stores (masts, pitch, tar, turpentine), rice, and rum. At the same time the colonies had become England's primary market. Half of the copperware, ironware, glassware, earthenware, silk goods, printed cotton, and flannel produced in England went to the colonies. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of cordage, iron nails, beaver hats, and linen were also sent to America.

Navigation Acts limit free market

Although American colonial trade was financed by private investors, the English government soon stepped in to protect England's economic interests. Between 1651 and 1733 Parliament (the lawmaking body in England) enacted a series of laws known as the Navigation Acts that controlled shipping and markets. In 1651 Parliament specified that commodities produced in English colonies could be carried only on ships owned by Englishmen. In 1660 it ruled that certain goods such as furs, indigo, naval supplies, rice, sugar, and tobacco could be sold only to England or to other English colonies. A 1663 law stipulated that goods imported into the colonies must first pass through English ports. Finally, Parliament prohibited the colonies from manufacturing goods that would directly compete with English products. The Navigation Acts were supplemented with the Woolen Act of 1699, the Hat Act of 1732, and the Iron Act of 1750, which limited the mass production of those goods for export. This intentional effort to control trade for the benefit of England prevented the development of a competitive free market in the American colonies—ultimately triggering the American Revolution.

Economy expands, workers needed

The emerging economy of the American colonies was directly linked to the labor supply. Reliable, able-bodied workers were needed by farmers, plantation owners, estate managers, housewives, merchants, fishermen, shippers, mill owners, and a host of other settlers who were making their way in the New World. This was certainly not a unique situation, as every society requires a labor force for its economic survival. Yet a colony was different from an established nation; settlers were confronted with physical and organizational challenges—clearing land, laying out towns, building houses, planting crops, operating farms and households, running businesses—that required large numbers of skilled people.

Especially in the early years, colonists had to rely heavily on servants and other laborers to avoid disaster. For instance, the first group of settlers at Jamestown were nearly all gentlemen who had never done any physical labor. They did not know how to plant crops, hunt for food, or even meet their own daily needs. Although the Powhatans, the local Native Americans, assisted them, most of the original settlers died or returned to England. Jamestown leaders soon realized they had to bring over more servants and workers, including women, or the settlement would end in failure (see Chapter 4).

Shipbuilding: A Complex System of Workers

Shipbuilding was a major industry in colonial America that involved the efforts of various kinds of workers. Master shipwrights drew up the plans and then directed the building of vessels. Noise and activity filled the shipyards. Dozens of craftsmen worked for more than a year to build one vessel on elaborate scaffolding at a site near the water. Workers included journeymen, apprentices, indentured servants, and slaves. The journeyman was a former apprentice who worked for the shipwright, learning the master's craft. Apprenticeship was a widespread colonial program of providing vocational education for boys under the age of twenty-one. Parents bound their sons to a master craftsman in return for room and board, education, and sometimes a small wage. The master shipwright's apprentices did odd jobs and various chores around the shipyard, slowly learning the craft until their contract ended. Servants worked up to seven years for no pay. English convicts transported to the colonies worked up to fourteen years. Southern shipyards also frequently used black slaves for manual labor, although some slaves were skilled workmen. For instance, one Maryland merchant in 1754 used slave shipwrights to design and construct his ship.

Even more workers were needed as the colonies continued to grow, and employers used various strategies to entice immigrants. Eventually laborers made up the majority of new arrivals in America. Apprentices, indentured servants, redemptioners, wage laborers, and slave laborers all helped establish the American colonies.


During the early colonial period a common way to acquire workers was to train children through an apprentice system (a legal and contractual arrangement for occupational training; also called indenture), which settlers brought from Europe. Both boys and girls received their occupational training at home. Most would remain there, being taught farming or domestic skills as they grew into adulthood. Others lived with relatives or friends and acquired the same instruction. Under the apprentice system, boys, usually between ten and fourteen years of age, were sent by their parents to be trained by a master craftsman or merchant in a particular trade or profession. A boy frequently remained an apprentice until he was twenty-one. A young man who had completed his apprenticeship could then work as a journeyman for wages. After serving for a specific length of time as a journeyman, he could then apply for master-craftsman status. Girls were sometimes apprenticed by their parents to become seamstresses or housemaids, serving until they turned eighteen or got married. The apprentice system was also used to train lawyers and doctors, since there were no professional schools in America during the colonial period. Frequently church or government officials used apprenticing as a way to place orphaned children in decent homes.

Indentured servants

Most workers in the American colonies were indentured servants. An indentured servant (also called a bound laborer) was an immigrant who signed a contract to work for an employer for a specified period of time, usually four to seven years. In return, the servant's passage to the colonies was paid for. Employers also provided shelter, food, clothing, and a Sunday free of hard labor. Upon completion of the contract, a servant typically received a suit of clothing or a dress with some additional "assets" such as land. Often the "freedom dues" (items given to a servant at the end of service) were determined according to gender. For instance, a man received a horse, a gun, or tools, and a woman was awarded a cow or a spinning wheel. High mortality (death) rates in some areas meant that many indentured servants—40 percent in the Chesapeake region—died before they could reap the final benefits of their contracts.

Rural Pennsylvania farmers and Chesapeake plantation owners relied most heavily on indentured laborers to plant and harvest their crops. For instance, three-quarters of English migrants to the Chesapeake arrived as bound laborers. According to some estimates, one-half to two-thirds of all Europeans who traveled to the American colonies were committed to some form of labor contract in exchange for their transatlantic passage. As many as fifty thousand convicts served out sentences of seven to fourteen years as indentured servants. Servants worked for farmers, bakers, blacksmiths, bricklayers, butchers, chair makers, coopers, masons, plasterers, potters, tailors, weavers, and wheelwrights.

In the seventeenth century indentured servants could capitalize on economic opportunities and rise in society. But the road to success was not easy. Abusive conditions and harsh punishments plagued the lives of many servants. Contracts could be sold, thus obligating the servant to a different master for the rest of his or her term. A master could extend the contract if a servant ran away or became pregnant. Opportunities for social and economic advancement had decreased by the eighteenth century. By the end of the colonial period Pennsylvania farmers had turned to day laborers, and Chesapeake planters had shifted to African slaves.

"I have nothing to Comfort me"

In 1623 Richard Frethorne, an indentured servant in Virginia, wrote a letter to his parents in England about his miserable experience. The following excerpt details his lack of proper food and clothing. (The Virginia legislature later passed a law requiring masters to furnish servants with adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and other protections.)

.... I have nothing to Comfort me, nor is there nothing to be gotten here but sickness, and death, except that one had money to lay out in some things for profit; But I have nothing at all, no not a shirt to my backe, but two Rags nor no Clothes, but one poor suit, nor but one pair of shoes, but one pair of stockings, but one Cap, but two [collar] bands, my Cloak is stolen by one of my own fellows. . . . I am not half a quarter so strong as I was in England, and all is for want of victuals [food], for I do protest unto you, that I have eaten more in a day at home than I have allowed here for a Week. You have given more than my day's allowance to a beggar at the door....

Reprinted in: Kupperman, Karen Ordahl, ed. Major Problems in American Colonial History. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1993, pp. 93–94.


Redemptioners were similar to indentured servants in that they agreed to work for a specific period in return for transatlantic passage. The difference was that they arranged a contract once they arrived in the colonies rather than agreeing to terms for labor in England or Europe before beginning the trip. These bound laborers could not leave the ships until they found a colonist who was willing to pay for their voyage in return for labor. Whereas most indentured servants were unmarried men and women from England, redemptioners were usually families from Germany. In some cases an entire family would commit to a labor contract, or parents would obligate a child or children to a contract that would pay for the family's passage. These terms were also for four to seven years.

Wage laborers

Wage laborers (also called day laborers) made up the smallest group of workers in the colonies. During the seventeenth century they tended to be young, unmarried men and women who worked for a daily wage. Some wage laborers were former indentured servants who had completed their contract but were not yet self-sufficient. They were rarely available in rural areas, however, because most had purchased land or had moved to urban centers where the demand for labor was higher. For these workers wage labor was a lifelong condition. For example, in 1762 a laborer would have needed fifty pounds (British money) a year for food, rent, fuel, and clothing for his family. That amount would not cover additional outlays for soap, candles, taxes, or medical expenses. Since worker demand depended on the seasons and employers' business needs, a wage laborer could hope to bring home no more than sixty pounds a year. Even if his wife also earned an income, it would be only about half that amount, so the family would constantly live in poverty. Injury or pregnancy could doom them to dependence on the community.

Slave laborers

By 1750 slaves lived in all thirteen colonies, but most were concentrated on southern plantations, which required a large labor force. The first slaves in North America arrived in Virginia in 1619 when a Dutch trader exchanged twenty slaves for provisions (a stock of food). Because slaves were more expensive than indentured servants, who were readily available, planters initially preferred short-term contracts with English servants. In 1670, for instance, a slave cost three times as much as an indentured servant. Twenty years later slaves were less than twice as expensive and could be purchased for a lifetime rather than seven years. By 1703 slaves outnumbered indentured servants in the Chesapeake and in Carolina. This change had taken place primarily because West Indian planters had successfully promoted the benefits of slave labor for producing such staple crops as tobacco in the Chesapeake and rice in Carolina. Soon enslaved blacks and Native Americans made up 47 percent of the population of Carolina. Slaves in the southern colonies typically worked in the fields, although some worked as domestics (household servants) or artisans. Farming in the northern colonies depended on family labor, so the need for large-scale enslaved labor never developed. Slaves in the northern colonies more frequently worked as domestic servants and craftsmen rather than farmhands.

The slave trade

The demand for slave laborers grew into a thriving trade in the American colonies, not only in the South but also at busy ports in the North. By the latter half of the seventeenth century England had taken control of the Atlantic Ocean away from Holland. In 1672 the English Crown reorganized and rechartered a trading company, calling it the Royal African Company. For the next twenty-six years this group maintained a monopoly (an exclusive ownership through legal privilege, command of supply, or action) over the sale of African slaves. With the termination of the monopoly, New England merchants became active in the colonial slave trade. They sent goods to West Africa, where they traded for slaves, whom they then sold in the West Indies or Carolina. New England slavers sailed primarily from Massachusetts until 1750, when the center of trade shifted to Rhode Island.

Slaves in Virginia

In 1705 wealthy Virginia planter Robert Beverley described the duties and status of slaves and servants in The History and Present State of Virginia. He hoped to encourage immigrants to come to Virginia as indentured servants. Critics in England had accused Southern planters of mistreating servants and slaves, so Beverley made an effort to put the situation—especially the treatment of white women—in a positive light.

Their Servants, they distinguish by the Names of Slaves for Life, and Servants for a time. . . . Slaves are the Negroes, and their Posterity [children], following the condition of the Mother, according to the Maxim [wise saying], partus sequitur ventrem [Latin: status proceeds from the womb; that is, if the mother is a slave the child will be a slave]. They are call'd Slaves, in respect of the time of their Servitude, because it is for Life. . . .

The Male-Servants, and Slaves of both Sexes, are imployed together in Tilling [plowing] and Manuring [fertilizing] the Ground, in Sowing and Planting Tobacco, Corn. . . . Some Distinction indeed is made between them in their Cloaths, and Food; but the Work of both, is no other than what the Overseers, the Freemen [freed servants], and the Planters themselves do.

Sufficient Distinction is also made between the Female-Servants, and Slaves; for a White Woman is rarely or never put to work in the Ground [in the field], if she be good for any thing else: And to Discourage all Planters from using any Women so, their Law imposes the heaviest Taxes upon Female-Servants working in the Ground, while it suffers all other white Women to be absolutely exempted: Whereas on the other hand, it is a common thing to work a Woman Slave out of Doors; nor does the Law make any distinction in her Taxes, whether her Work be Abroad [in other places], or at Home. . . .

Reprinted in: Kupperman, Karen Ordahl, ed. Major Problems in American Colonial History. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1993, pp. 98–99.

Millions of slaves sold

Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, 10,000,000 to 11,000,000 African slaves crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Most (85 percent) went to Brazil and the British, French, Spanish, Danish, or Dutch colonies in the Caribbean. Nine percent of the slaves were sent to the Spanish mainland. Only 6 percent, or 600,000 to 650,000 Africans, went to the American colonies. Most of the slaves were from the coast of West Africa or from the Congo/Angola area farther south. At best a trip between Senegambia and Barbados lasted three weeks. Storms or still waters could delay a ship so that the transatlantic voyage took three months and exhausted food and water supplies. During the seventeenth century, between 5 and 20 percent of the slaves died in transit, but the mortality rate declined in the eighteenth century. Merchants made money only if the slaves arrived alive, so they sought captains who could deliver healthy slaves.

Africans packed into ships

Sailors referred to the shipboard experience of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean as "the middle passage." During the voyage men were usually chained, while women and children were allowed some freedom of movement on the ship deck. Captains chose one of two methods for transporting slaves: tight packing or loose packing. Tight packing squeezed as many slaves into a space as possible. Male slaves lay in spaces six feet long, sixteen inches wide, and two and one-half feet high. Female slaves lay in spaces five feet long, fourteen inches wide, and two and one-half feet high. Such tight spaces prevented the slaves from moving about or even sitting up. Captains who chose this style of storage did not want to waste space. They believed their net receipts were higher from the larger cargo even if a higher percentage of slaves died. Other captains chose loose packing. They believed that more room, better food, and a degree of freedom reduced the death rate of slaves. Healthy slaves increased their profit. Some captains insured their stock of slaves against drowning. Because insurance did not cover slaves who died aboard a ship, some captains dumped dying slaves overboard and claimed they drowned in order to collect insurance benefits.

Slaves auctioned in marketplace

Once slave ships had docked, the goal of slave merchants was to make a profit from a quick sale. In some cases an entire cargo might be reserved for a planter or a group of planters, thus closing the sale to anyone else. A more common practice was to sell slaves in an auction where buyers would place bids. Prior to bidding, slaves were exhibited before prospective buyers, who poked and prodded them. After the slaves had been examined, an auctioneer would sell them to the highest bidder. Another method involved merchants setting a price beforehand and then selling the slaves in groups as buyers scrambled into a holding pen to pick out the choicest slaves. Olaudah Equiano, a freed slave, described the chaotic scene of such a sale in his autobiography: "On a signal given, the buyers rush at once into the yard where the slaves are confined, and make choice of that parcel they like best. The noise and clamor with which this is attended, and the eagerness visible on the countenances of the buyers, serve not a little to increase the apprehensions of terrified Africans."

Commercial and private transportation

During the sixteenth century Spain established regular routes across the Atlantic to North and South America. As travel and trade between Europe and the American colonies steadily increased in the seventeenth century, shipwrights learned how to make their vessels larger, faster, and more seaworthy. By 1740 a traveler embarking for London, England, from Boston, Massachusetts, could expect to reach his or her destination within eight weeks, a good speed by the standards of the day. Yet conditions on the ship were poor. Except for the few who could afford private quarters, passengers had to stay with the crew. Quarters were cramped, unsanitary, poorly ventilated, and hot in summer and cold in winter. Food—usually hard biscuits, salt pork, and peas—was often worm-eaten by journey's end. Drinking water was often scarce and contaminated.


Travel from colony to colony was accomplished most quickly and easily by boat. In the early seventeenth century vast tracts of virgin forest separated the small centers of English settlement in New England, New York, and the Chesapeake. Only the hardiest souls could make the trip between them by land. Everywhere in colonial America settlements sprang up first near navigable rivers. As population and commerce grew, a bustling trade was carried on through inlets and along coastal waters in single-masted pinnaces or schooners. Travel up the rivers was more difficult, and colonists built a variety of canoes, barges, and rafts to manage it. In the Southeast two types of river vessel were most common: dugout canoes called pirogues carried small cargoes, while long (up to forty feet), flat-bottomed boats known as bateaux handled larger loads. Farther north in New England the birchbark canoe was most efficient vessel. River travel everywhere in America was slow and fraught with danger. To travel inland a boat crew had to paddle or pole upstream. Floating debris could tip a boat, submerged rocks could sink it, and sandbars could catch and hold it. Ice in northern rivers made travel impossible during the winter.

Travel by land

Land travel between colonies could also be difficult. The number and condition of roads depended on the size of the population and the support provided by colonial legislatures. By the 1700s a system of short roads was developing from New England to the Chesapeake region. The roads extended farther inland each year as more extensive commerce and communication were required by new towns along the frontier. Wealthy colonists traveled the roads in elegant carriages, which they imported from Europe or purchased from colonial craftsmen. A horse could take a traveler to areas a carriage could not, but horses were usually expensive. Farming families often used their plow oxen to pull wagons. Poorer colonists who needed to travel often had to make their journeys on foot.

In many places roads were poor and bridges few. During the rainy seasons shallow fords (part of a body of water that may be crossed by wading) became deep and treacherous, and roads became impassable tracks of mud. Even at other times of the year, the going was rough, and it became rougher the farther inland one traveled. For instance, in the winter of 1738 to 1739 English evangelist George Whitefield took more than a month to journey 660 miles from Philadelphia to Charleston by horseback (an eleven-hour automobile trip today). His route took him through almost trackless forests and treacherous swamps and across flooded rivers.

Some of the most treacherous colonial roads could be traveled by sturdy Conestoga wagons drawn by oxen or horses. These wagons were built by German immigrants living in the Conestoga region of Pennsylvania, near Lancaster. Each year Conestoga wagons made longer trips as roads extended farther into the backcountry. By the 1760s one of the longest roads, the Great Wagon Road, stretched nearly 800 miles along old Native American trails from western Pennsylvania through the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia to Georgia.


Throughout the colonial period travel and commerce across the Atlantic intensified the need for quick and accurate information on both sides of the ocean. In Europe, investors were anxious to know whether a settlement was turning a profit and people longed for word from family members 3,000 miles across the ocean. In the colonies planters and traders awaited news from European merchants about market prices and shipment schedules. The fate of the colonies depended on the English government maintaining regular communication with colonial officials.

Sarah Knight's Famous Trip

In 1704 Sarah Kemble Knight (1666–1727), a Boston businesswoman, made a trip through New England. She kept a diary that was later published as The Journal of Madame Knight (1825). The trip through the wilderness from Boston to New Haven, Connecticut, was extremely difficult and hazardous. (Knight followed the route now used by the Pennsylvania Central Railroad.) For a woman to undertake such a journey alone—and on horseback—was considered unthinkable at the time. Since there were very few roads or bridges en route, Knight had to seek the help of guides. Despite encountering hardships, she gave a lighthearted and sometimes humorous account of the trip in her diary. She recorded all the "Bugbears to a fearful female travailer," such as "Bridges which were . . . very tottering and of vast Length." When bridges were lacking Knight crossed rivers in canoes or on horseback. After traveling for five days, she arrived at New Haven. Along the way she had recorded a vivid portrait of colonial America, which enlightens and entertains readers even today.

Informal information networks

At first colonists devised informal ways of staying abreast of personal matters and public affairs. Ships arriving from Europe carried business documents and private letters. Special couriers and traveling government officials delivered notices of orders from the king or recent acts of Parliament. Information made its way along the Atlantic coast from dockside taverns, where sailors gathered to exchange news and gossip. For instance, black sailors used this method to help African Americans stay in touch with slave communities in the Caribbean. Information moved inland from the coast in similar ways. Travelers stopped at taverns to leave letters and catch up on local events. People discussed news and delivered letters at church gatherings. From the pulpit ministers read royal proclamations or governor's orders, made announcements of important public matters, and read aloud correspondence from fellow ministers in the British Isles.

Postal service

Postal services began emerging in the colonies during the early seventeenth century. For instance, in 1639 Boston officials designated the tavern kept by Richard Fairbanks as the site for depositing and receiving letters carried by ships from Europe. Other colonies set up similar sites, but postal service to inland towns or even overland between major cities was not established until much later. Finally, in the 1690s, a postal route linked New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Mailmen riding on horseback initially followed a monthly schedule; then they began making weekly deliveries and pickups to handle the increasing volume of mail. Colonies followed England in passing special postal acts that set rates, specified procedures for appointing postmasters, and authorized private postal services. Rates varied widely from colony to colony. Massachusetts, for example, set the charge for an overseas letter at two pence (pennies), while New York set it at nine. A letter from Rhode Island to Boston cost six pence, the equivalent of a half-day's pay for a sailor. Postal routes played an important part in stimulating the colonial economy. For instance, craftsmen and merchants were able to move to smaller ports and market towns, where the cost of living was lower, and still stay in touch with customers and suppliers in larger cities. During the eighteenth century, prominent printers such as Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia served as postmasters. Printers also published newspapers, and they often expanded postal routes to deliver their newspapers to readers throughout the colonies.

Franklin Builds Fortune as Publisher

In 1728 Philadelphia printer Benjamin Franklin purchased a struggling newspaper and renamed it the Pennsylvania Gazette. He acquired a fortune through witty writing and shrewd competition with a rival newspaper, the American Weekly Mercury. Franklin also printed books, government documents, and the popular Poor Richard's Almanack. He built a network of publishers throughout the colonies, extending his influence as far away as Charleston. Franklin's own paper benefitted greatly from this because contacts in other colonies gave him access to even more news.


Between 1660 and 1695 newspapers were rare even in England. Publication was tightly controlled by the king through legislation known as the Licensing Act because royal officials feared that newspapers could be used to spread rebellious ideas. Consequently, when Boston printer Benjamin Harris published Publick Occurrences, the first newspaper in America, in 1690, colonial officials quickly suppressed it. Within five years, however, the Licensing Act had expired, and English printers responded with a variety of publications designed to meet the demand for news. Many of these "publick prints," as they were called, made their way to the colonies. In 1704 Boston postmaster and printer John Campbell (1653–1728) borrowed freely from the format and articles of English newspapers to publish one of the first successful newspapers in America, the Boston News-Letter. Over the next three decades eighteen additional papers appeared in the colonies, seventeen in English and one in German. Six were published in Boston, where rival printers competed for readers with interesting essays and news stories. Writers took opposing positions on issues of the day, carrying on fierce debates that increased sales.

Advertising emerges

Early colonial newspapers were published for well-to-do merchants, planters, and government officials who needed to know what was happening in England and Europe. For this reason the papers usually focused on European news, often reprinting articles directly from London newspapers or publishing excerpts about European affairs from private letters. News from Europe was often two to three months old, but in most cases it was still useful for scheduling the next shipment of goods to Europe, keeping up with English fashions, or catching the latest gossip from London. Colonial newspapers also provided a forum for public debate, carrying essays on controversial issues of the day. News from the colonies rarely occupied much space, since business and politics depended more on happenings overseas. Nevertheless newspapers became an important tool for advertising and public notices, or for masters to track down runaway servants or slaves. By 1740 atleast two pages of an ordinary four-page newspaper consisted of lost-and-found items and ads for imported British goods, colonial services, local real estate, printed materials, and public notices.