1600-1754: Colonial Americans: Overview
1600-1754: Colonial Americans: Overview
Old Worlds and New. The settlement and peopling of what would become the United States cannot be understood without some knowledge of what was happening in the Old Worlds of Europe and Africa. The Crusades of the late Middle Ages introduced Europeans to the learning of the Moslems in the Middle East and the luxury goods such as silks and spices that came from the Far East. This knowledge enabled Europeans to use more-accurate maps of the known world, build more maneuver-able ships, and find out where they were by observing the sun at noon. The availability of new goods offered those willing to take risks large profits. The emergence of the nation-states of Portugal and Spain ended civil wars and allowed the monarchies to concentrate energies and look for further revenues. Spain also took it upon itself to be Europe’s great defender of and proselytizer for Roman Catholicism. France and England lagged behind but would in time also follow in the footsteps of the Iberian states. Portugal was the first to explore. Merchants, with the blessing of the Crown, inched their way down the African coast finding gold, ivory, and slaves. There was a small slave trade to Europe largely through Muslim traders even before Europeans encountered the Americas. Christopher Columbus’s discovery of a continent previously unknown to Europeans opened the way for European expansion and exploitation, but both were continuously impacted by the ongoing affairs of the European states. Within Europe were large rivalries based on religion, economics, and emerging nationalism and ethnicity. The years 1600–1754 were marked by wars whose victories and defeats shaped New World boundaries. Domestic turmoil within European states also affected migration. European and African settlement of the New World was part of the restlessness and acquisitiveness of Old Worlds. Who settled where and what happened to them cannot be grasped by looking only at America.
Europe and Africa. The Spanish were the first to settle in the Americas, but most of Spain’s energy went into her Latin American holdings. The riches extracted from Mexico and Peru were enormous. Spanish settlements to the north—what have been called borderlands—in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Florida had two goals: Christianizing the Indians and protecting the wealth Spain had already found. Other Europeans’ entry into the New World was a response to Spain’s great discoveries. Unfortunately, by the time anybody else could get mobilized, Spain and later Portugal had secured South America. The first explorers of the North looked for gold and silver, but even more important, they searched for a way through the continent for a shorter route to the wealth of the East Indies and China. France found fish and furs, which brought some limited prosperity, and the great rivers—the Saint Lawrence and the Mississippi—were gateways to a continent, but the French lost both to the British in 1763. The Netherlanders set out to find the Northwest Passage through America and then settled in as a fur- and grain-producing outpost of the Dutch West India Company. In the process they created a multiethnic, multireligious, and multiracial society. Dutch political hopes ended in 1664 when the English took New Netherland without firing a shot. Many of those living there remained and prospered under the English. England—and after 1707, Great Britain—came to dominate North America. Divided into several different colonies and able to recruit from home, the English established viable settlements. They brought with them prejudices against Roman Catholics, Jews, Indians, and Africans but also a willingness to work and to take economic and political risks. They exploited the various environmental niches opened to them: fishing for cod in New England, growing wheat and cattle in the Middle Colonies, raising tobacco in the Chesapeake, and growing rice and indigo in South Carolina and Georgia. Throughout the period of colonization they thought of themselves as Englishmen, endowed with all the rights of the people back in the mother country. Among those rights was the sanctity of private property—a right that included the ownership of other people. Africa might well have sent more people to the New World than Europe did. These settlers were unwilling migrants, enslaved in Africa and sold to hard labor in America. They came from many different nations, spoke different languages, and worshiped different gods. They were settled by every European nation in almost every colony from the outset.
False Starts. The settlement and peopling of America is a story of trial and error, false starts, and early failures. Most of colonial settlement was left to private individuals, not the various European monarchs. Private money and initiative rather than the state underwrote colonization. Because the earliest venturers had little idea of what American conditions were actually like, they could imagine whatever they wanted. Since most of North America lay in moderate or semitropic latitudes, they speculated that New York would have a warm climate like southern Spain. They could visit Maine in the summer and decide that it must be more or less like that in winter. They could hope to find gold and precious stones just lying around or conclude that those landing in late summer or even autumn would have time to plant and harvest. They seemed to believe that they could mistreat the Native Americans without possibility of retaliation and even be aided by them when colonists’ supplies ran out. Most important, and most consistently, they grossly underestimated how much it cost to set up a colony. Underfinanced, whether as “gentlemen adventurers” or joint-stock companies, colonizers could not raise enough money to keep a settlement going for the years it would take before it made a profit. Even the colonies that succeeded rarely made any money for their investors.
Economic Motives. People came to America for many reasons, and even single individuals might have had mixed motives. John Winthrop, whose Puritan principles in the end led him to America, also looked at his diminishing fortune when it came to thinking about what was best for his family. Most of those who financed colonies or settled in them came for economic reasons. They might have faced brutal conditions at home such as periodic famines, plagues, and wars. Crop failures created large migrations within Europe, and leaving for someplace overseas was just another step. Disease disrupted markets and trade as states quarantined areas and pestilence killed off populations that were both producers and consumers. Wars dislocated people: men left the labor force to fight and die in armies, and many never returned or were disabled when they came home. Civil strife also disrupted markets, closing off communication and trade. Moreover, wars changed the topography of an area, ruining fields and pastures, leveling forests, or destroying villages. Monarchs increased taxes to pay for their armies. Even if conditions were not as dire because of famine, plague, or war, economies moved in cycles with better times, when wages were high and rents and foodstuffs were low, alternating with hard times, when there were few jobs, low wages, high rents, and loaves of bread were costly. Many feared for their children’s futures and felt that someplace new might hold out a brighter future. English men and women of the early seventeenth century and Germans, Scots, and Scotch-Irish in the eighteenth century thought so.
Religious Motives. The dictates of religion were also a powerful motive in bringing people to America. For Spanish friars, saving souls was the primary reason to settle in a lonely outpost far from home. French missionaries undoubtedly felt the same way. Dissidents came because they were persecuted in Europe, where nations usually supported only one religion and forced their citizens to belong or face dire consequences. Spain and Portugal permitted only Roman Catholics to settle in the New World as did France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. German principalities were often Protestant but could revert to Roman Catholicism if the ruler changed, as in the case of Salzburg. Since church and state often supported one another, a threat to the church was seen as a threat to the state. Catholics, Quakers, and Puritans in England were persecuted during the seventeenth century. In Germany exotic sects such as the Mennonites and the Moravians faced problems. America, with its seemingly empty land where religious communities could find a place away from the corrupting influences of others, beckoned.
Religious Pluralism. Those who came to America to establish their own version of the godly life did not necessarily want that freedom granted to others. Pilgrims in Plymouth and Puritans in Massachusetts felt that their way was the only way and that God would punish them if they allowed other religious ideas into the colony. While forced by the English government to be more open by the end of the seventeenth century, Massachusetts and Connecticut never attracted many with different religious views. But some colonies, especially those originally owned by private individuals (proprietors), became havens for many different religious beliefs. Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the Carolinas all were open to settlers with different religious views. A major reason for this was that the proprietors needed settlers in order to make money, and restricting colonies to one religious denomination would have made profits less likely. Most of those who came to British North America were Protestants, with a sprinkling of Roman Catholics and Jews. The French and the Spanish settlements were Roman Catholic. Even from the beginning, then, colonial America was a jumble of religious beliefs. In most places Jews and Catholics were not given political rights, but the freedom to practice their religion at all was a major step forward. Later, when the Bill of Rights promised freedom of religion, it was building on a long tradition of religious toleration and the presence of many different religious groups.
Ethnic Pluralism. Colonial America was also a place with many different ethnic groups. The Illinois country and Louisiana were settled by the French. Various outposts in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Florida were inhabited by Spaniards, and in the case of San Antonio, Texas, people from the Canary Islands. New Netherland was a colony of not only Dutch settlers but also Germans, Swedes, Finns, Norwegians, English, Scots, Jews, Walloons (French-speaking Protestants from Belgium), and even a Croatian; eighteen different languages were spoken in the province. Swedes and Finns settled on the Delaware. The English colonies attracted not only the English, Scots, Scotch-Irish, and Welsh but also Germans, Jews, French Huguenots, and the occasional Italian. In the Middle Colonies large numbers of Dutch colonists remained after the conquest of 1664. The larger migrations of European people tried to settle with others like themselves and thus created ethnic enclaves in the countryside that spoke the language, wore the clothing, built the homes, and cooked the food of the old country. Those who settled in cities such as New York and Philadelphia had to adapt more to the dominant culture. But from the outset, except in New England, the colonies were ethnically diverse and managed for the most part to live together peacefully and be outwardly tolerant of one another.
Racial Pluralism. Almost all of the colonies, regardless of nationality, used slave labor. Africans, like Europeans, came from many different nations. They had a variety of religious beliefs including Moslem, Roman Catholic, and animist (belief in the existence of spirits). Africans in America had the most difficult time of any of those who came over. Whether slavery caused racism or racism caused slavery might never be fully disentangled, but early in each colony’s history Africans were considered unequal to white people. No attempt was made to keep family members, if there were any, together or to settle people in ethnic enclaves. Indeed, some effort was made to keep them apart since that way they were considered less dangerous. The number of slaves in any given colony depended upon economic factors. Where slavery was most profitable, there were more slaves. The North needed fewer slaves, the South more. South Carolina had a slave majority by 1708. In the North the slaves lived in the cellars and attics of their masters; in the South they had separate slave quarters. Indians also made up a small part of the slave force in the seventeenth century, but few Indians chose to live among the whites. By the eighteenth century many European colonists interacted with Africans on a daily basis.
Settlement Patterns. The North American colonies drew various ethnic and religious groups to settle in what seemed a place far away from home. Their reaction to this perception was to band together. Moving usually as groups of families, rarely as isolated individuals, the colonists looked for fertile lands, good water, meadows for cattle, and woods for lumber to build houses and fences. In New England and the Middle Colonies (New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania) they often established towns, elected local officials, and organized church congregations. In the Chesapeake (Virginia and Maryland) the first settlements were overwhelmingly male, as young men were sent over to serve as indentured (contract) laborers, especially after tobacco was found to be profitable after 1618. Still these work gangs were kept together on the plantations, partly because that was where their labor was needed and partly because the Native Americans quickly became hostile to Europeans. A few female indentured servants might serve as cooks, house cleaners, and laundresses. French settlements usually had more men than women and were situated near forts that colonists supplied with foodstuffs. Like many of the English, the French sought stability and tried to establish the trappings of civilization. In the Illinois country the villages established parish meetings of household heads to run internal affairs and chose a Jesuit priest to be their spiritual leader. The Spanish tried to settle families in El Paso and Santa Fe. The first colonists in present-day New York were thirty Walloon families sponsored by the Dutch government. Germans and Scotch-Irish moving into the piedmont regions of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas came as families, often with other families whom they already knew.
A Moving Frontier. When John Smith of Virginia, William Bradford of Plymouth, and John Winthrop of Massachusetts Bay first stepped ashore in America, the lands before them were the frontier. As coastal areas filled up, settlers needed to look farther inland for farmlands. The easiest way to move was by water, so they looked to rivers—the Hudson, Connecticut, James, Ashley, Cooper, Savannah, and Mississippi, as well as the Rio Grande. During the eighteenth century English, German, Scots, and Scotch-Irish settlers began to look farther west, beyond the first rows of mountains. Again they tried to find the shortest and least difficult path. The great Shenandoah Valley, which stretched from Pennsylvania to the Carolinas, provided colonists with a broad, fertile, relatively flat landscape that lent itself to horse and wagon. By 1756 the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road, which began at the Schuylkill River Ferry opposite Philadelphia, reached Salisbury, North Carolina, opening up trade in cattle and goods and bearing settler families. French settlers from Canada looked south and found good lands in the middle Mississippi valley where they grew wheat. Spanish settlers moved north from Mexico into what is now New Mexico and Texas, where they found fertile soils and grazing lands for cattle and sheep. As lands filled and each new acre became more expensive, people looked farther away. This expansion brought them into conflict with Native Americans who never acknowledged that Europeans had rights to these lands which superseded Indian claims. By 1754 the colonials claimed vast acreage, much of it as yet undeveloped. One of the reasons they would fight a revolution against Great Britain was to preserve those claims.
"1600-1754: Colonial Americans: Overview." American Eras. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 18, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/1600-1754-colonial-americans-overview
"1600-1754: Colonial Americans: Overview." American Eras. . Retrieved November 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/1600-1754-colonial-americans-overview
Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.
Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
- Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
- In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.