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Colonial America

 This article is part of the
History of the United States series.
 Colonial America
 History of the United States (1776-1865)
 The coming of the Civil War
 The Civil War
 History of the United States (1865-1918)
 History of the United States (1918-1945)
 History of the United States (1945-1964)
 History of the United States (1964-1980)
 History of the United States (1980-present)
 Demographic history of the United States
 Military history of the United States

From 1493, when Christopher Columbus brought the lands of the Western Hemisphere to Europe's attention, throughout the 16th century, North America was a backwater of colonialism. Spain, the main colonial power of the day, focused its efforts on the exploitation of the gold-rich empires of southern Mexico (the Aztec) and of the Andes (the Inca). Portugal, which had begun charting the far shores of the Atlantic Ocean before Spain began, was limited by the Treaty of Tordesillas to the lands east of Brazil. John Cabot reached southeastern Canada (possibly Maine) in 1497, and was followed by many other explorers. However, no serious colonization efforts were made for decades, until England, France, and Spain began to claim and expand their territory in the New World.

Table of contents
1 Motives for Exploration and Colonization
2 The Appeal of North America
3 Early Colonial Failure
4 The Chesapeake
5 New England
6 The Middle Colonies
7 The South
8 Unification of the British Colonies
9 From Unity to Revolution
10 See also

Motives for Exploration and Colonization

During the 15th and 16th centuries, Europe emerged from the Middle Ages and entered the Renaissance, a development that encouraged exploration and colonization in many ways. A revival in classical learning sparked an interest in geography and an intellectual curiosity about the world lost during the Dark Ages. As the "New Monarchs" began to forge nations, they acquired the degree of centralized wealth and power necessary to begin systematic attempts at exploration. Also, as the economy of Europe began to revive, it became clear that the nation to first find a direct trade route to the East would benefit immensely.

The Appeal of North America

The lands that now make up the United States presented themselves as an attractive place for these new powers to establish colonies. They were closer to Europe than any of Spain's or Portugal's mainland holdings, and offered the same allure of the unknown and the potential for gold.

Historians typically recognize four regions in lands that became the eastern United States: from north to south, New England, the Middle Colonies, the Chesapeake, and the South. Some historians add a fifth region: the frontier, which had certain common features no matter what sort of colony it sprang from.

Early Colonial Failure

The English made a number of failed ventures in the closing decades of the century. One of the more nearly successful of these was the "Lost" Colony of Roanoke, established in 1586 off the coast of today's North Carolina by Sir Walter Raleigh. The second resupply ship, delayed for several years by circumstances in England, found no trace of the colonists, and the mysterious word "CROATOAN" carved on a tree. Over a hundred men, women, and children had apparently disappeared in the middle of their daily tasks.

The Chesapeake

The first truly successful English colony was established in 1607, in a region called Virginia (named in honor of Elizabeth I of England, the "Virgin Queen"). It lay on an island in the James River, near the place where it empties into Chesapeake Bay. Jamestown - named after the recently enthroned James I of England - very nearly became the next in the string of colonial failures.

The venture was financed and coordinated by a joint stock company - the London Virginia Company. The company hoped to follow in the footsteps of the Spanish conquistadores by finding gold. With that in mind, it sent jewelers, goldsmiths, aristocrats, and the like - but not a single farmer. The colonists behaved as the company had expected them to. Hoping to obtain all of their food by trading with the nearby Powhatan tribes, they spent their time searching for gold. This meant that their settlement was highly socially unstable as well as unprofitable, since individual colonists felt little attachment to their community but instead were seeking individual wealth. A lack of social bonds in the community was further excabarated by the fact that all the initial colonists, and most of the additional colonists, were male. Without wives or children to protect, the colonists had little incentive to protect their settlement or work towards its long-term growth.

Archaeological findings have indicated that the entire region was, at the time, struck by the most severe drought in centuries. American Indians were not very willing to give away their corn, and the colonists, without a harvest, named the winter the Starving Times. Only a third of the colonists survived the first winter. In fact, source documents indicate that some turned to cannibalism. However, the colony survived, in large part due to the efforts of an engimatic figure named John Smith. Smith made himself the benevolent, if uncompromising, autocrat of the colony. His motto was "No work, no food," and his strict martial attitude was enough to bring the independent-minded settlers into line. He put the colonists to work, and befriended Pocahontas, daughter of Chief Powhatan, who was able to supply the colony with more food.

John Smith had saved the colony, but it had yet to turn a profit. Gold was nowhere to be found. Finally, in 1612, John Rolfe hit upon the cultivation of tobacco as a cash crop. The new product earned fabulously high profits in the first year, and substantially lower but still extraordinary ones in the second year. This state of economic affairs did not last, but tobacco continued to be the mainstay of the region's economy for two centuries. Tobacco cultivation is labor-intensive. To provide this labor, the colonists first relied on white indentured servants, but starting in 1619 tapped into the slave trade, which was already bringing large numbers of Africans to the sugar-producing islands of the Caribbean.

The colony of Virginia was heavily influenced by the cultivation of tobacco and the ownership of slaves. Plantation agriculture came early to this region. At first, plantation owners employed white indentured servants, who would sign on as a laborer for a period of time. However, there were few other choices available for a poor laborer, so most indentured servants renewed their contracts for as long as they could. This led to the creation of the plantation owners' greatest fear: a permanent class of poor, unhappy, and armed laborers. After their fears were realized with Bacon's Rebellion, a class revolt led by the gentryman Nathaniel Bacon that succeeded in burning Jamestown to the ground, planation owners sought a less rebellious form of labor - slaves. As cash-crop producers, these plantations were heavily dependent on trade. Without the ability to construct roads, and with irrigation needs, the planters were confined to the banks of rivers. However, because rivers and creeks were abundant, this tended to spread the plantations out. Thus, individual workers on the plantation fields were usually without family and separated from their nearest neighbors by miles. This meant that little social infrastructure developed for the commoners of Virigina society, in contrast with the highly developed social infrastructure of colonial New England.

Another cause of social decentralization in the Chesapeake region was that Virginia society was predominantly secular. The lucrative tobacco business attracted unmarried men eager to make a living - not the sort of audience that is usually receptive to the call of religion. It did not attract many ministers, and even if it had, they would have had a difficult time building their congregations out of the far-flung tobacco planters. Thus, unlike in Puritan New England, there were few churches to serve as social as well as religious centers.

The colonial assembly that had governeded the colony since its establishment was dissolved, but reinstated in 1630. It shared power with a royally appointed governor. On a more local level, governmental power was invested in county courts, also not elected.

New England

The next successful English colonial venture was of an entirely different sort than the Chesapeake settlements. It was founded by two separate groups of religious dissenters. Both demanded greater church reform and elimination of Catholic elements remaining in the Church of England. But whereas the Pilgrims sought to leave the Church of England, the Puritans wanted to reform it by setting an example of a holy community through the society they were to build in the New World.

The first and smallest of these two groups was called the Pilgrims, originally a small Protestant congregation in Scrooby Manor, England. Some of them had sailed in 1605 for the Netherlands, which was establishing itself as a haven for the persecuted. Dissatisfied with the heavy Dutch influence on their children and with poor economic conditions, some of these emigrants joined a larger group of Separatists who had remained in England and sailed for the New World, taking the name Pilgrims.

The Pilgrims

The men and women who sailed to America on the Mayflower intended to arrive in the northern parts of what was known as Virginia - somewhere in the area of today's New York. Blown off course, they came instead to what is now called Massachusetts, and landed on the west side of Lower Cape Cod. They later relocated to Plymouth Colony on the mainland, establishing that settlement on December 21, 1620.

Like the settlers at Jamestown, the Pilgrims had a difficult first winter, having had no time to plant crops. However, in 1621 they enlisted the aid of Squanto and Samoset, two American Indians. That fall brought a bountiful harvest, and the first Thanksgiving feast was held.

The Puritans

A second group of colonists established the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629. This group was the Puritans, who sought to reform the Anglican Church by creating a new, pure church in the New World. This expedition consisted of 400 Puritans organized by the Massachusetts Bay Company. Within two years, an additional 2,000 had arrived in America in waves of emigration known as the "Great Migration." In the New World the Puritans created a deeply religious, socially tight-night, and politically innovative culture that still lingers on in the modern United States.

Although it is a common myth in modern American society that the Puritans came to America seeking religious freedom, perhaps a more accurate term would be "religious domination." Though they fled from religious repression in England, they did not seek to establish toleration in America. The Puritan social ideal was that of the "nation of saints" or the "City upon a Hill," an intensely religious, thoroughly righteous community that would serve as an example for all of Europe and stimulate mass conversion to Puritanism. For example, Roger Williams came to Massachusetts preaching religious toleration, separation of Church and State, and complete break with the Anglican Church and was banished from the colony for his "crimes." He left the colony and founded Rhode Island, which was soon to become a haven for other religious refugees from the Puritan community. Another important example is Anne Hutchinson 1595 - 1643), an intelligent and charismatic woman who preached Antinomianism, her conviction that everyone's interpretation of the word of God was equally correct. Like Roger Williams she believed in religious toleration and freedom of thought. She, too, was exliled to Rhode Island.

As with its religious nature, the political structure of the Puritan colonies is often misunderstood. Officials were elected by the community, but only white males who were members of a Congregationalist church could vote. From a modern American standpoint, Puritan society was by no means a democracy. Officials had no responsibility to "the people" - their function was to serve God by best oberseeing the moral and physical improvement of the community. However, it was not a theocracy either - Congregationalist ministers had no special powers in the government. On the other hand, by contemporary European standards, it was quite politically liberal - arguably more so than that of any European power of the day. Thus, in the political structure of Puritan society could be seen both the democratic form and the emphasis on civic virtue that was to characterize post-Revolutionary American society.

Socially, the Puritan society was tightly knit. No one was allowed to live alone for fear that their temptation would lead to the moral corruption of all of Puritan society. Because marriage generally took place within the geographic location of the family, within several generations many "towns" were more like clans, composed of several large, intermarried families. The strengh of Puritan society was reflected through its intitutions - specifically, its churches, town halls, and militias. All members of the Puritan community were expected to be active in all three of these organizations, ensuring the moral, political, and military safety of their community. Although some characterize the strengh of Puritan society as repressively communal, others point to it as the basis of the later American value on civic virtue, and an essential foundation for the development of democracy.

Economically, Puritan New England fufilled the expections of its founders. Unlike the cash-crop oriented Chesapeake region, the Puritan economy had its base in individual farmers, who harvested enough crops to feed themselves and their families and to trade for goods they could not produce themselves. Unlike in the Cheapeake, there was very little poverty in New England. Along with farming growth, New England became an important mercantile center, often serving as the hub for trading between the South and Europe.

The Middle Colonies

The Middle Colonies, consisting of New York, Pennsylvania, the three counties of Delaware, and Maryland were characterized by a large degree of diversity, both religious, political, economic, and ethnic.

The South

The Carolinas

The first attempted settlement of the South by England was the Carolinas. A group of English Lords, hoping that a new colony in the south would become profitable like that of the Chesapeake, obtained a royal charter to the Carolinas. Their venture was initially a failure for the simple reason that there was no incentive for emigration to the south. However, eventually the lords combined their remaining capital and financed a settlement mission to the area led by John West. The expedition located fertile and defensible ground at what was to become Charleston (originally Charles Town for Charles II of England), thus beginning the European history of the southern United States.

At first, the Carolinas were politically divided. It's ethnic makeup included the original settlers, a group of rich, slave-owning British settlers from the island of Barbados, and a French-speaking community. Trying to control all of these factions was the colonial governor appointed by the lords of the Carolinas. Eventually, these factions rose up against the governor and the Carolinas became a royal colony.


James Oglethorpe is often viewed as the founder of Georgia. An 18th century British Member of Parliament, he laid the groundwork for the colonization of the state. At that time, tension between Spain and England was high, and there was a fear among the English that the Spanish colony of Florida was threatening the British Carolinas. Georgia was a key contested area, lying in between the two colonies. It was standard practice at the time to imprison debtors, but Oglethorpe decided to send them to a colony instead. This would both rid England of its undesireable elements and provide her with a base from which to attack Florida. The first colonists arrived in 1733.

Georgia was established on strict moralistic principles. Slavery was forbidden, as was alcohol and other forms of "immorality." However, the reality of the colony was far from ideal. The colonists were unhappy about the puritanical lifestyle, and compained that their colony could not compete economically with the Carolina rice plantations. Georgia initially failed to prosper, but once the restrictions were lifted it became as prosperous as the Carolinas.

Unification of the British Colonies

Although each of the British colonies were strikingly different in all of their aspects, throughout the 17th and 18th centuries several events and trends took place that brought them together in various ways and to various degrees. Some of these sprung from their common roots as part of the British Empire - others served to distance them from Britain and led up to the American Revolution.

The Great Awakening

One event that began to unify the religious background of the colonies was the Great Awakening, a Protestant revival movment that took place in the 1730s and 1740s. It began with Jonathan Edwards, a Massachusetts preacher who sought to return to the Pilgrims' strict Calvinist roots and to reawaken the fear of God. "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is perhaps his most famous sermon. Edwards was a powerful speaker and attracted a large following. The English preacher George Whitefield continued the movement, travelling across the colonies and preaching in a dramatic and emotional style, accepting Christians as his audience.

Those attracted to his message and that of the itinerant preachers who sprang up across the colonies called themselves the "New Lights," and those who did not were called the "Old Lights." One manifestation of the conflict between the two sides was the establishment of a number of universities, now counted among the Ivy League, including Kings College (now Columbia University) and Princeton University. The Great Awakening was perhaps the first truly "American" event, and as such represented at least a small step towards the unification of the colonies.

The Great Awakening may also be interpreted as the last major expression of the religious ideals on which the New England colonies were founded. Religiosity had been declining for decades, in part due to the negative publicity resulting from the Salem witch trials. After the Great Awakening, it subsided again, although later American history abounds with revival movements (most notably the Second Great Awakening. The forces driving the colonies' history for the next eighty years would be overwhelmingly secular, although America would remain (and many parts of the nation remain to this day) a deeply religious nation.

The French and Indian War

The French and Indian War was the American extension of the general European conflict known as the Seven Years' War. The French and Indian War, however, lasted for nine years (1754-1763), since fighting in Europe did not begin until 1756. The war in the European theater was motivated primarily by Austria's desire to reclaim land lost to Prussia in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748). (That conflict also spilled over into the colonies, where it was known as King George's War, in reference to George III of the United Kingdom.)

The war is called the French and Indian because the Iroquois confederacy, which had been playing the British and the French against each other successfully for decades, saw that Britain was getting the upper hand and threw itself decisively into the French camp. The move did not succeed, and the French were defeated anyway. In the Treaty of Paris (1763), France surrendered its vast North American empire to Britain.

The French and Indian war took on a new signifigance for the North American colonists in Britain when William Pitt decided that it was nessecary to win the war against France at all costs. For the first time North America was one of the main theatres of what could be termed a "world war". During the war the thirteen colonies's identity as part of the British Empire was made truly apparent, as British military and civilian officials took on an increased presence in the lives of Americans. The war also increased a sense of American unity in other ways. It caused men who might normally have never left their colonies to travel across the continent, fighting alongside men from decidedly different, yet still "American," backgrounds. Throughout the course of the war British officers trained American ones (most notably George Washington) for battle, which would later benefit the Revolution to come. Also, state legislatures and officials had to cooperate intensively for what was arguably the same time, participating a continent-wide military effort.

The British and colonists triumphed jointly over a common foe. The colonies' loyalty to the mother country was stronger than ever before. However, the seeds of trans-Atlantic disunity had been sown. William Pitt the Younger, who was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at the time, decided to wage the war in the colonies with the use of troops from the colonies and tax funds from Britain itself. This was a successful wartime strategy, but after the war was over, each side believed that it had borne a greater burden than the other. The British populace, the most heavily taxed of any in Europe, pointed out angrily that the colonies paid little to the royal coffers. The colonists replied that their sons had fought and died in a war that served European interests more than their own. The British answered that the colonists' poor discipline made them inferior soldiers anyway. This dispute was to set off the chain of events that brought about the American Revolution.

Unification under the British Empire

From Unity to Revolution

The Royal Proclamation

The general sentiment of inequity that arose soon after the Treaty of Paris was solidified by the Royal Proclamation of 1763. This was a prohibition against settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains, on land which had been recently captured from France. In issuing this decree, the government was no doubt influenced by disgruntled taxpayers (see "The French and Indian War," above) who did not wish to bankroll the subjugation of the native people of the area to make room for colonists. In fact, there was still land available east of the mountains; for instance, the valley of the Mohawk River in western New York would not be fully settled until decades later.

The colonists resented the measure. To many Americans, it seemed unnesecary and draconian, an unproductive piece of legislation mandated by a far-away government that cared little for their needs. The latter was a reasonable assertion, since none of the MP's were elected by colonists. Parliament had generally been preoccupied with affairs in Europe, and let the colonies govern themselves. It was no longer willing to do so. The policy change would continue to arouse opposition in the colonies over the next thirteen years and through a series of measures.

See also