Thirteen Colonies, British North America

views updated

Thirteen Colonies, British North America

The thirteen colonies of British North America that eventually formed the United States of America can be loosely grouped into four regions: New England, the Middle Colonies, the Chesapeake, and the Lower South. Each of these regions started differently, and they followed divergent paths of development over the course of more than a century of British settlement; yet they shared enough in common to join together against British rule in 1776.

New England was characterized from its earliest days by the religious motivation of most settlers. The Pilgrims who settled at Plymouth in 1620 were followed by a large group of Puritans in 1630. While religiously distinct from each other, the Pilgrims and Puritans had each left England because of religious persecution from conservative Anglicans, and each hoped to find a safe haven where they could worship without restrictions. The strictly moral societies founded in New England were intended to shine as beacons to the rest of the world, showing how life should be lived. The everyday lives of settlers revolved around religious worship and moral behavior, and while normal economic activities were understood to be necessary they were not intended to be the main focus of settlers' lives.

A majority of the settlers who arrived in New England before 1642 came in family groups, and many came as community groups as well. The communities they reformed in America were immediately demographically self-sustaining, and were often modeled on villages and towns left behind in England. Consequently, New England settlements often closely resembled English ones in ways that settlements elsewhere in the thirteen colonies did not. Migration during the English Civil War almost dried up completely, and when migration restarted after 1660, the increase in more commercially minded settlers began to alter the fundamental structure of New England society.

The Middle Colonies of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania were all "Restoration Colonies," so-called because they came under English control after the Restoration of Charles II (1630–1685). New York was conquered from the Dutch in 1664, and although many Dutch settlers remained, large numbers of English and Scottish migrants arrived to alter the ethnic makeup of the colony. Pennsylvania probably bore more resemblance to the New England colonies than the rest of the Middle Colonies because it was founded by Quaker William Penn (1644–1718) as a religious haven. However, in contrast to most New England colonies, Penn adopted a policy of religious toleration, and his colony quickly attracted migrants from all over western Europe, particularly from Germany. The climate of Pennsylvania made it ideal farming country, and corn became its main staple product.

The Chesapeake was the earliest region colonized by the English. From the initial settlement at Jamestown the English spread very slowly around the tidewater of Chesapeake Bay, partly because of hostile local Native-American tribes, but also because the young men who constituted most of the settlers in Virginia before 1618 were not interested in forming stable communities. Instead, from 1612 onward they grew tobacco, which they knew would bring riches, but which also brought instability. The tobacco plant exhausted the soil and therefore virgin land was constantly needed to continue production. The quest for more land to bring under cultivation brought the English into further conflict with local tribes, and it was partly responsible for provoking the devastating Indian attacks of 1622 and 1644.

Although the English appetite for tobacco remained undiminished, oversupply of the crop meant that prices after 1620 were not high enough to sustain the get-rich-quick mentality that had pervaded between 1615 and 1620. As the Virginia Company began to transport more women to the colony after 1618, the society became more demographically stable, though still heavily reliant on inward migration to maintain its population levels.

In 1632 Maryland was created out of northern Virginia, and although the colonists shared with those farther south a desire to make money from tobacco, many were Catholic. The proprietor of Maryland, Lord Baltimore (Cecil Calvert, 1605?–1675), was a leading English Catholic and saw Maryland, like the Puritans saw New England and Penn saw Pennsylvania, as a religious refuge for those who shared his faith. Consequently, many of those in positions of authority and influence in Maryland were Catholic, something that caused friction among residents who were not Catholic. As a result, Lord Baltimore approved the passage of the Toleration Act of 1649, guaranteeing religious freedoms to the population.

The popularity of tobacco cultivation in the Chesapeake necessitated a regular supply of labor. Initially this demand was met by indentured servants who served for a period of seven years in return for passage to the New World and a promise of free land once the indenture was complete. Although the system of indentured labor was not perfect it served the colony well enough and was generally preferred to the alternative—slave labor—until the 1680s. This was mainly an economic decision; slaves were more expensive than indentured servants. And because significant numbers of servants did not live to see their freedom, the additional investment required for slave labor was simply not worth it. However, as death rates fell in Virginia and the ready supply of white indentured servants to the Chesapeake began to decline, slave labor became a more attractive alternative.

While there had been Africans in Virginia since before 1620, their status as slaves was not fixed and at least some Africans obtained their freedom and began farming. However, by 1660 discriminatory laws began to appear on the Virginia statute book, and after 1680, when the number of enslaved Africans began to rise quickly, they entered a full-fledged slave society that increasingly defined the Chesapeake colonies.

The Lower South colonies consisted of the Carolinas, first settled in 1670, and Georgia, not settled until 1733. Since the climate of the Carolinas was known to be conducive to plantation-style agriculture and many of the proprietors were also directors of the Royal African Company, slaves followed hard on the heels of the first white settlers. Finding large numbers of white settlers proved difficult, and the earliest migrants to Carolina were English and Scottish dissenters and a large group of Barbadian Anglicans who brought their slaves with them. The tidal waters around Charles-Town were ideally suited to rice cultivation, the techniques of which were most likely taught to planters by Africans, and large plantations growing the staple quickly became the norm. The numbers of workers required for rice cultivation were large, and as early as 1708 the coastal regions of Carolina had a black majority population.

The trustees of Georgia initially intended their colony to be both a buffer between South Carolina and Spanish Florida and a haven for persecuted European Protestants, and believing that slavery would not be conducive to either of these aims, they prohibited it in 1735. However, the colony languished economically, failing to keep settlers who could see the wealth on offer in neighboring South Carolina, and eventually the trustees were forced to back down and permit slavery from 1750. Georgia quickly became a plantation colony like South Carolina.

The significant differences that existed between these four regions lessened during the eighteenth century but never entirely disappeared. The society of New England became more heterogeneous and less moralistic due to increased migration of non-Puritans. Chesapeake society gradually stabilized as death rates fell, and by 1700 the population was demographically self-sustaining. Significant events began to have an impact throughout the colonies, creating a shared American colonial history. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 affected New England, New York, Maryland, and South Carolina as colonials successfully struggled against what they believed were the pro-French absolutist tendencies of James II (1633–1701) and his followers in America. In the eighteenth century the pan colonial religious revivals collectively known as the Great Awakening made household names of evangelists such as George Whitefield (1714–1770). Continued migration brought hundreds of thousands of new settlers to the colonies, not only from England but increasingly from Ireland, Scotland, France, and Germany. The dispersal of these settlers in America, together with half a million enslaved Africans, made the colonial population a truly diverse one.

While it is difficult to speak of a common colonial culture, given the diverse experiences of Boston merchants, Pennsylvanian farmers, and Georgian planters, most shared a belief in traditional English freedoms, such as the rule of law and constitutional government. When these freedoms were thought to be threatened by actions of the British Parliament in the 1760s and 1770s, most colonists were quick to find common cause as Americans against British tyranny, though significant loyalist sentiment lingered in New York, South Carolina, and Georgia.

see also Caribbean; Empire, British; New Spain, The Viceroyalty of; Peru Under Spanish Rule.


Fischer, David Hackett. Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Geiter, Mary, and W. A. Speck. Colonial America: From Jamestown to Yorktown. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Greene, Jack P. Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Simmons, R. C. The American Colonies from Settlement to Independence. New York: McKay, 1976; reprint, Norton, 1981.

About this article

Thirteen Colonies, British North America

Updated About content Print Article