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1600-1754: Lifestyles, Social Trends, and Fashion: Overview

1600-1754: Lifestyles, Social Trends, and Fashion: Overview

Old World Customs. European colonists came to America with assumptions about what constituted a good house, family, farm, community, food, and entertainment. They drew these ideas from what they had known in the Old World, and they poured all of their energy into re-creating that manner of living in their new surroundings. Colonists exchanged exotic Algonquian names of rivers, hills, and places for familiar English, German, Dutch, or Spanish ones. They clustered traditional houses in the village patterns they had known in Europe, giving them familiar names such as Plymouth, Boston, and Ipswich. European settlers displayed loyalty to their monarchs by giving important towns names such as Jamestown, Charlestown, and Williamsburg. They sought to establish traditional European families and to eat, drink, dress, live, and be buried at death in European ways.

Adaptation. Yet for all their efforts to re-create Old World patterns in the New World, those who came to North America found it necessary to adapt to the different environment. The New World had climates they had not known, introduced them to unfamiliar but attractive new crops, and everywhere seemed to provide them an unlimited abundance of land. Interaction with Native Americans also demanded a variety of adaptations by incorporating native practices and products. The varying purposes and ways of living in different colonies resulted in a wide range of adaptations. Community-minded farmers in Massachusetts organized networks of remarkably orderly, stable towns and villages, while ambitious planters in Virginia scattered their settlements across the countryside in search of ever-larger landholdings. Settlers on the haciendas of the Spanish borderlands found themselves separated both from each other and from the Indian population. French settlers along the Mississippi and Saint Lawrence River valleys created entirely new cultures adapted to suit their environments, small numbers, and the proximity of large Native American populations. Great changes in European commerce, philosophical and scientific inquiry, technology, and warfare also reached across the Atlantic to shape the colonies.

Regional Societies. As successive waves of European settlers arrived in each region, the various patterns of adaptation produced strikingly different regional societies. The Spanish borderlands of the American Southwest and Florida were organized more or less systematically to advance Spains control over that region of North America. The encomienda system created a society of Spanish soldier-settlers whose conquest of Native American populations gained them vast land grants from the Crown along with rights to extract tribute in foodstuffs, clothing, and labor from Native Americans of the region.

New France and the Chesapeake. As a result Spanish colonial society came to be organized as a racial hierarchy determined by biological intermixing of Europeans, Indians, and Africans. New France emerged as a trading society along the Saint Lawrence and Mississippi River valleys, loosely organized at first but reproducing the social hierarchy of France as towns such as Quebec, Montreal, and New Orleans emerged. Chesapeake society was profoundly shaped by the cultivation of tobacco, the main export crop of Virginia and Maryland. Those who wanted to grow wealthy through tobacco cultivation needed large tracts of land and a substantial labor force. A comparatively small group of great planting families came to occupy the peak positions in society and to control the bulk of Chesapeake wealth and property. The bottom rungs of the social ladder came to be occupied by unfree laborers: English indentured servants for much of the seventeenth century and African slaves after the 1680s.

New England and the Middle Colonies. New England, by contrast, 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. The Middle Colonies of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware reflected great diversity in their origins and population. England captured New Amsterdam from Holland in 1664 and renamed it New York, but the Dutch population continued to shape the colony. The Swedes were the first Europeans to settle along the mouth of the Delaware River between what is now Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Later settlers from Scotland, Northern Ireland, England, and the Netherlands created ethnic and religious diversity among the settlements that became New Jersey. When William Penn established Pennsylvania in 1681, he welcomed settlers from all over the European continent as well as Quakers from England, and the colony became quite diverse.

The Carolinas. North Carolina remained largely undeveloped until late in the colonial period, but South Carolina emerged as a second plantation society specializing in the cultivation of rice and indigo, which produced a deep blue dye. By 1760 slaves of African descent comprised 60 percent of South Carolinas total population.

Social Ranks. The process of colonization was enormously disruptive to Old World ways of life, especially the manner in which Europeans sorted themselves into social ranks and roles. The first generations of Englishmen to settle in America tried to preserve a traditional belief that only a few persons inherited the capacity to rule. Persons born below the lofty station of gentlemen sorted themselves into lesser ranks according to their landholding and occupation, designating their relative importance with titles such as Mr., Mrs., goodman, and goodwife. Persons in higher social ranks termed themselves the better sort or the gentry. They expected deference from the middling sort and lower orders, and ordinary people usually gave their betters their due. Farmers, artisans, and laborers took off their hats and bowed or curtsied to important people when meeting them in the street. They yielded the best seats in churches and public meetings to their betters, consistently elected gentlemen to the higher public offices, and dutifully accepted the elites judgment in matters both public and private. Yet these traditional ranks were unstable in America. For one thing neither the highest orders of English society nor the lowest came to America in great numbers. Many immigrants, including most indentured servants, came from the ranks of urban artisans and shopkeepers along with a smaller number of farmers.

Upward Mobility. All were anxious to preserve or improve their lot in life, and widespread availability of land made it possible for a great majority to do so by becoming freeholders, designating them as outright property owners which was far less common as an achievement in England. While new opportunities in America made it possible for enterprising colonists to amass greater landholdings, wealth, and status than would have been possible in England, the perils of New World settlement also exposed some people from established families to financial ruin. Many new family names appeared in the ranks of the colonial elite. In Virginia families such as the Byrds, Madisons, Randolphs, Washingtons, Lees, and Carters rose from seventeenth-century obscurity to leadership of their eighteenth-century province. In Philadelphia a poor Boston chandlers son by the name of Benjamin Franklin amassed a fortune in publishing and assumed the place of a gentleman who could pursue philanthropy, governmental service, and scientific investigation. 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 Spanish North America rewarded enterprising soldiers with land grants and rights to collect tribute from conquered peoples. This made it possible for some men to rise to the status in many ways comparable to a feudal lord. Similarly in New France the rank of seigneur was granted to many colonial families that had achieved wealth through trading or other colonial enterprises. Few European colonists anywhere in North America openly challenged the social structure of the homelands. Most instead regarded it as a mark of civilization and stability and sought to preserve it even while moving up within it.

Labor. Throughout the colonial period a scarcity of laborers profoundly shaped early American societies. Settlers turned to various options to fill their labor needs. In New England, the Middle Colonies, and the backcountry large families commonly consisting of six or more members provided most of the labor on the farms. This in turn produced a steady increase in the population, a growing density of settlement in coastal New England as farmers divided their lands among their male heirs, and a steady expansion of settlement throughout these regions. By contrast early Chesapeake planters relied on the unfree labor of single young men driven by hard economic times in England to sign indentures committing them to several years of servitude. Far more men than women came to cultivate Chesapeake tobacco. The population languished, and Virginia freedmen who had served out their terms eventually formed a large, volatile class of landless poor with insufficient resources to establish their own plantations.

Slaves. In the later seventeenth century a dwindling supply of English indentured servants prompted planters to meet their needs for labor by purchasing large numbers of African slaves. South Carolinians likewise relied on slave labor from the 1670s as many planters from Barbados brought their African slaves with them to carve out new settlements. By 1700 the Chesapeake and South Carolina had become slave societies, ones in which the economy depended almost exclusively on forced labor, and the great numbers of slaves shaped the entire social system. Northern colonists continued to rely on indentured servitude to meet the demand for skilled labor in the growing cities, domestic labor in wealthy households, field hands on farms, and manual labor in such enterprises as iron foundries. Some northern colonists also met this need with African American slaves, which was legal everywhere in colonial America. Yet the slave population in the Middle Colonies and New England remained relatively small, and the northern economy and society never came to depend on slavery as did the Chesapeake and Lower South. The French initially imported contract laborers similar to English indentured servants who worked for a stated number of years and then returned home. The Spanish generally harnessed the labor of Native Americans through a variety of devices. Slavery was technically illegal, but many Spanish settlers found ways around the law by using the encomienda to exploit the labor of Indian farmers and cattle herders.

African Americans. The variety of societies and conditions that existed in colonial America resulted in diverse experiences for people of African descent. African captives brought with them a range of languages, beliefs, and practices that they had to adapt both to their new environment and to each other, combining them with selected European elements to produce true African American cultures. In the South Carolina and Georgia rice country slaves worked on a task system that permitted them to devote time to other pursuits after daily completion of an assigned task. Slaves outnumbered Europeans in the Lower South, and plantation owners spent the hot summers on the seacoast away from their plantations. In this environment the slaves were able to form communities and shape a culture with a rich mixture of African customs. The lives and work of slaves in the Chesapeake were much more regulated in a gang system of labor that kept them in tobacco fields all day. Planter families outnumbered slaves in the Chesapeake and remained on the plantations year-round, bringing Africans into constant contact with their English masters. Nevertheless, Chesapeake slaves were able to form nurturing communities bound by a distinctive African American culture that they passed down to later generations. Further 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 sustain the survival of African traditions. In the eighteenth century free African American communities began to emerge in parts of New England, in the Middle Colonies, and in Charleston, South Carolina. People living in these communities often faced discrimination from their white neighbors, finding themselves shunted into separate neighborhoods and onto poorer lands. In addition they were often denied rights enjoyed by the English inhabitants of their colonies. Nevertheless, they developed tightly knit communities held by bonds of culture, kinship, and faith.

Commerce, Culture, and Communication. The great European powers that settled North America did so for other reasons besides commerce, but trade became the engine that fueled settlement, population growth, communications, and cultural ties with Europe. French settlements along the Saint Lawrence River began to draw colonists and establish strong cultural links with France only after the fur trade became firmly established. New Orleans, however, was settled initially to secure French military and political control of territory. French inhabitants there and in sparse settlements along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers struggled throughout the colonial period to establish viable commerce. Spain likewise settled the borderlands of North America for geopolitical reasons. Trade and communications networks followed far-flung military and mission supply lines, serving a small, scattered population. These networks remained inefficient for most of the colonial period. English and Dutch colonization, by contrast, served commercial purposes from the beginning. Commerce in both strengthened the ties the colonies had with the mother countries. Even the Plymouth settlers, religiously motivated as they were, traded avidly with Native Americans for furs during the colonys first years. Early Massachusetts Bay colonists made money selling lumber and agricultural goods to those who settled later, and their governor, John Winthrop, established an important export market for Massachusetts grain and meat in the British West Indies. The fur trade fueled New Netherlands early growth, and the colony formed a crucial link in a larger Dutch Atlantic trading network. As a result the colony became a valuable commercial prize for the English in 1664. Virginia planters prospered with tobacco, and the sugar trade made many West Indian planters fabulously wealthy. Nevertheless, Englands colonial trade policy was haphazard, and until the 1660s Dutch shippers and merchants profited most from the plantation goods grown in English colonies. The British Navigation Acts, passed in part to wrest control of the colonial trade from the Dutch, laid the foundations for a more coherent commercial policy. By 1700 a system of colonial administration was in place to enforce British colonial trade policies, and it did so quite effectively. Trade flourished throughout the British North Atlantic, providing the colonists as well as England with a host of benefits. Travel became quicker and more reliable as English ship makers improved sailing technology and the number of ships sailing the Atlantic increased. Because American-built ships, captains, and crews were protected under the Navigation Acts, colonial shipping flourished, and transatlantic communication improved dramatically. Colonial exports also increased steadily year by year. Most significantly the burgeoning colonial population provided a ready market for English manufactured goods. Over time all these developments exerted a powerful impact on colonial society and culture.

Expanding Awareness. As the colonies grew from isolated seventeenth-century outposts to prosperous eighteenth-century provinces, travel, communication, and trade enabled colonists to learn more about each other as well as keep abreast of dramatic developments that were transforming life throughout the Atlantic world. Ships sailed along the coast and across the ocean with increasing frequency, distributing news from Europe and other colonies throughout colonial ports where it could make its way inland. Educated colonists purchased European books and journals to keep up with the latest advances in scientific knowledge, theology, law, and politics. Colonial newspapers began appearing to keep readers informed of the latest developments in European affairs as well as selected matters of interest from other colonies. Wealthy gentry families cultivated transatlantic friendships with persons of influence in European society, and the richest sent their sons to Europe for genteel educations in the liberal arts and law. As 1750 approached, colonists exhibited an increasing awareness of their place in a vast Atlantic world of exciting possibilities and daunting challenges.

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