This article is an overview of the history of the colonial period of the present-day USA. Another articles covers the history of the colonial period in Canada.
The history of colonial America is, to a large extent, the story of the expansion of European – and in the south, enslaved African – settlement. Starting from tiny colonies situated along the Atlantic coast, it grows to occupy a huge area of land stretching inland to the long chain of the Appalachian mountains.
The rise of colonial America forms a key chapter in the rise of Western civilization, and indeed an important development in world history. It was the first time that Europeans had established what was, in effect, an extension of their home continent beyond the ocean (in South America and the Caribbean, Europeans formed only a tiny elite over conquered or captive peoples).
The Spanish had long been in control of Mexico, and claimed a huge swathe of territory reaching from high into what is now the USA, by the time the first English colonies were being planted on the eastern seaboard of North America. At the same time, the French were installed along the banks of the St Lawrence river, and in Nova Scotia, in present-day Canada.
The first English attempt to plant a colony in North American was a mysterious failure. Under the auspices of Sir Walter Raleigh, a scholar, sailor and courtier at the court of Elizabeth I, queen of England (reigned 1558-1603), a settlement was established at Roanoke, in present-day Virginia, in 1587. The ship bringing the colonists offloaded them and then returned to England; when the next ship visited the colony, two years later, the colonists had all vanished. No one knows for sure what became of them.
The first successful colony to be established was at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. It was founded as a commercial venture by the London Virginia Company, an early joint-stock company whose members were London merchants and aristocrats. It was hoped that the colonists would find gold or silver, which of course they failed to do.
Indeed, the colony of 500 people almost failed completely through drought and the laxity of the settlers, and a huge number of them died of disease and starvation in the first few years. It was not until severe discipline was imposed on the colonists by a new governor appointed by the Company, in 1611, that things began to improve; and the colony did not become properly viable until after 1614, when tobacco began to be grown.
Tobacco is a crop which lends itself to being grown on large farms worked by gangs of labourers. These were called “plantations”. From this early date in colonial history the plantation system (see below), based on African slavery, began to become established in Virginia, and then other southern colonies. An elite of wealthy plantation owners soon dominated society here.
The colony of Virginia, as it was called, passed into royal control in 1624, with a governor appointed by the king. It continued to expand, despite some deadly attacks from the local Native American Powhatan Confederacy, and outpost settlements grew up around Jamestown. From 1634 the colony’s territory began to be divided into counties on the English model – a system of local government that would be replicated throughout the future USA.
Seven years after Jamestown was established, the Dutch East India Company (from 1621 superseded in the area by the Dutch West India Company) began to establish several forts and trading posts in present-day New York State and New Jersey. They called the area the New Netherlands. They founded the fort and trading post of New Amsterdam at the mouth of the Hudson river in 1624, and this slowly grew as a port.
A second English colony was established in 1632, by an English aristocrat, Lord Baltimore, on land granted him by the king, Charles I. He called it Maryland, in honour of Charles’ wife, Queen Henriette Maria of France. This was in effect Lord Baltimore’s private domain, and being a Catholic, he made it a haven for Catholics escaping pressure in England.
In 1638 Sweden established a permanent settlement at Fort Christina, now Wilmington, in present-day Delaware. This became the centre of the small colony of New Sweden.
Meanwhile, in the same year that Jamestown was founded, a settlement, Popham colony, was founded hundreds of miles up the coast from Jamestown, in present-day Maine. This failed, and the settlers returned to England the next year.
In 1620, the first permanent colony in the north east was founded. This was Plymouth, in present-day Massachusetts, and its founders were a group of Puritan families known to history as the “Pilgrim Fathers”.
The Puritans were a large group in England who practised a strict form of Protestantism. They were seeking to escape religious pressures from the dominant Anglican establishment at home, and to build a new, purer Christian community in the New World. The legal basis for the colony, so far as the English authorities were concerned, was a licence from the London Virginia Company. Financial backing was secured with funding from the Merchant Adventurers of London.
In the first year, half the Pilgrims died, but with the help of the local natives, the colony survived. The next five years saw the colony become self-sufficient. By 1630, though, the colony still only numbered some 300 people, despite several groups arriving on different ships at different times.
While Plymouth was struggling to become established, permanent settlements were coming into existence on the New Hampshire coast, and in 1620s and 30s, some settlements were planted on the coast of Maine. These were sponsored by wealthy individuals (“proprietors”) in England, and remained under their distant control for several years.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony
Up the coast from Plymouth, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded 1628. The colony was organized and financed by the Massachusetts Bay Company. The territory it claimed covered a large chunk of present-day New England, but it initially only established two small settlements, at Salem and Boston.
Like Plymouth, Massachusetts was settled predominantly by Puritans. The governors were elected by the male members of the Puritan congregations. The colony was soon flourishing, and in the 1630s 20,000 new settlers arrived. Most of the families were engaged in farming, which was based on small, independent, family-owned holdings rather than large plantations. The crops grown were both for consumption by the colonists themselves, and for export. The towns of Boston and Salem were soon busy little ports, exporting foodstuffs and other goods to Virginia and the Caribbean.
The Puritan leadership of the colony was intolerant of other religious groups, such as Anglicans, Baptists and Quakers. Like many strict religious communities, dissensions soon arose on matters of belief and practice. As a result, dissenters from the colony moved out to settle nearby New Haven (later the nucleus of the colony of Connecticut) and Rhode Island, both founded in 1636 (although a scattering of small communities had previously grown up in these areas).
By 1640, perhaps 30,000 people of European descent, plus a much smaller but unknown number of African descent, lived in England’s North American colonies.
The struggles between the crown and parliament in far-away England which occurred in the 1640s impacted on the colonies. In New England, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, supporting the parliamentary side, annexed the settlements in Maine and New Hampshire (1641), all of whose proprietors were royalists (it was because they were courtiers, and close to the king, that they had been able to obtain the royal grants in the first place).
The triumph of parliament in England brought about the execution of king Charles (1649) and the rise to power of Oliver Cromwell and the English republic (or Commonwealth, as it was called). This was much more assertive in its foreign policy than earlier governments in England had been, particularly in its support of English overseas trade. It inaugurated attempts by successive English governments to actively increase the wealth of the country by following a policy of mercantilism.
So far as the colonies were concerned, mercantilists in England regarded overseas colonies as valuable sources of raw materials for English manufacturing, and as ready markets for English goods. This in turn required English governments to control the trade of their colonial subjects more tightly. This they did by a series of acts called the Navigation Acts. These aimed at directing colonial trade to England alone, and restricting it to raw materials such as timber and agricultural products. Unsurprisingly, these were resisted by the colonials.
Mercantilism placed a premium on the holding of overseas territory as a source of a nation’s economic strength, and from now on English (and, after the 1707 Union with Scotland, British) governments became more active in expanding territory abroad, regularly leading them into wars with other European powers such as Holland, France and Spain.
The Dutch were also motivated by mercantilist ideas, and in the 1650s embarked on an aggressive policy of expansion in the East Indies, the Caribbean and North America, where they captured Delaware from the Swedes in 1655. They also waged a fierce but inconclusive war with England (mainly fought as a naval war in waters around the British Isles).
This led on to a second war in the 1660s, after the monarchy had been restored to England in the person of Charles II (reigned 1660-85). As part of this war, New Netherlands was occupied by the English in 1664. King Charles granted this new acquisition to his brother, the Duke of York, and it was therefore called the colony of New York (it also included the territories of present-day New Jersey and Delaware). Its chief town, New Amsterdam, was also renamed New York.
By 1670, the total population of the English-ruled North American colonies was about 112,000, including perhaps 5,000 African slaves.
The triumph of the monarchy in England was reflected in further grants of North American territory to courtiers – the Carolinas began being settled under wealthy landowners from 1668, and William Penn, a wealthy and well-connected Quaker, was granted a huge amount of land just north of Delaware in 1681, allowing him to found the new colony of Pennsylvania (Delaware itself was attached to this grant the following year).
In 1685 King Charles died, and was succeeded on the English throne by his brother, James II (reigned 1685-88). He had formerly been the duke of York, and the new king’s private estate, the colony of New York, thus became a royal colony.
The Dominion of New England
James also set about bringing the northern colonies under more direct royal control be establishing the Dominion of New England in 1686. The main aim of this move was to tighten control over the trade of New England colonies, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Plymouth and New Hampshire (which had become an autonomous crown colony in 1679; Maine was still a part of Massachusetts). The colony of New York was also included. These colonies were to be made to fit more tightly into the mercantilist scheme of things as envisaged by James and his ministers in London.
By this time, the merchants of New England had developed their maritime trade to the point where they posed a challenge to English merchants. New England business interests were also beginning to develop a manufacturing base in the colonies, rather than being content to import manufactured goods from the mother country. According to the mercantilist view, however, the colonists should instead be focussing on developing a trade in raw materials produced in the colonies, to support the commerce and industry of the mother country. They had no business (the English government thought) to be developing a manufacturing base or engaging in trade with other colonies such as the Caribbean islands, let alone with other countries.
To this end, the government of the Dominion of New England attempted to enforce the Navigation Acts more forcefully than before. From the start, this was deeply resented by the colonials.
Luckily for them, James lasted no more than three years on the English throne before he was ousted by parliament in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688-9. As soon as news of this arrived in New England, unrest broke out in Boston. The Dominion’s English officials were arrested and sent back to England, and government reverted to the old colonies.
In the wake of these development, the colonies of Plymouth and Massachusetts were merged. The charter establishing the new colony undercut Puritan rule by making eligibility for voting based on a property qualification rather than membership of a Puritan congregation. It also increased the power of royal officials.
The end of the 17th century and the opening years of the 18th century saw all the remaining colonies come under royal governors, except Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland, and therefore under tighter royal control. With the separation of the Carolinas into North and South Carolina in 1729, and the establishment of Georgia as a bulwark against Spanish encroachments from Florida, in 1733, the number of colonies was brought up to thirteen.
The end of the 17th century saw the colonial population standing at an estimated 250,000, including almost 30,000 slaves of African descent.
During the later 17th century and throughout the 18th century, two quite different kinds of society emerged in the northern and southern colonies.
In the south, tobacco became the major crop. This was grown best in plantation conditions, with teams of labourers working in groups. The workforce was made up initially either of criminals from England, convicted of petty offences, or of poor English immigrants, working as indentured servants in exchange for their passage out. These were obligated to work for a master for several years before they were free to set up on their own.
The demand for labourers always outstripped supply, and the situation became worse as economic conditions in England improved and fewer poor people migrated to the colonies. However, by then another source of labour had appeared. The first African slaves arrived in Virginia as early as 1619, but it was in the second half of the 17th century that African slavery became a dominant institution in the south. From that time, the southern economy depended more and more on slavery, with tobacco as the predominant crop.
This crop was sold for export, in exchange for cash. As a result, the southern colonies imported much of their food, as well as most of the manufactured goods they needed, from outside – from England, and increasingly, from the northern colonies. Socially and politically, the souther colonies came to be dominated by the plantation owners, who came to form a social elite which adopted the lifestyle of the English aristocracy.
By contrast, the colonies of New England, plus New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania probably developed the most egalitarian society in the world at that time. Small family-owned farms characterized the countryside, and the towns and cities were centres of thriving trade and manufacturing. This was an open society with high levels of social mobility, which encouraged people to believe that enterprise and ambition would be rewarded by material wealth. The inhabitants of all stations on life developed a secure sense of their own worth, and expected to be treated as equals by others. Political life was competitive and democratic, which the British colonial authorities often found hard to deal with.
At the top of colonial government stood the governor, representing the authority of the king and government back in England. This official was usually a British aristocrat who was appointed to his post by the crown and held office for several years.
He had a council of advisors to aid him with decision-making, and a hierarchy of government employees – customs officers, soldiers and so on – to carry out the executive tasks of government.
All the colonies also had assemblies of local men, mostly elected by the freeholders of their colonies. The first locally-elected assembly in North America was founded in Virginia in 1619, and this democratic institution spread to all the colonies.
The colonies were divided into counties and parishes, each with their own elected councils. Local magistrates called justices of the peace carried out the routine work of administration and justice.
This set-up meant that the American colonies consisted of hundreds of self-governing communities, in which elected bodies and officials were responsible for a wide range of public affairs. The electorate was much wider than in other parts of the world, being made up of all male free holders – that is, men who owned their own property. Most other countries in the world at that time had no electors, and in those that did, even in England, the electorate was restricted to a tiny portion of the population.
As a result of all this, American colonial politics was far more democratic than elsewhere. Everyone (except slaves) felt that they had a right to have their voice heard, and politics was characterised by vigorous debate on public matters. All this bred a self-confident, assertive political leadership which was impatient of the outside supervision embodied by the representatives of the king in far-away Britain. Much colonial politics revolved around a tussle for power between the governor and his men, on the one hand, and the colonial assemblies, on the other.
As we have seen, several of the American colonies (Plymouth, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island) were originally settled by Puritans seeking to practice their form of Christianity undisturbed by hostile authorities.
Similarly, Maryland was founded as a haven for Catholics; and later Pennsylvania was established as a Quaker colony. In colonies which did not owe their foundation to religion, especially in the south, Anglicanism, the official religion in England, became the established church. In the later 17th century attempts were made by the British authorities to impose Anglicanism on all the colonies, but these only met with partial success.
The Great Awakening
The vast majority of colonial Americans, as the above suggests, were Protestants. The nature of American Christianity became significantly more evangelical with the “Great Awakening” of the 1730s, in which preachers, most notably George Whitfield, one of the founders of Methodism, travelled the colonies and instigated a widespread religious revival. The preaching emphasised the importance of an individual’s personal relationship with God, made possible by the salvation offered through Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.
Scholars have claimed that the revival helped form a distinctively American mindset. By emphasising the role of the individual in his or her own spiritual destiny, it made religious life more personal and participatory. In consequence, it encouraged a more egalitarian and democratic spirit amongst the people. No one was better than another before God.
One important product of this movement was that large numbers of slaves of African descent were converted to Christianity for the first time.
The first Great Awakening was to be followed by other mass religious revivals, and these have imbued American evangelical Christianity with a vigour which has never left it.
In many states, elementary schools were established by the local authorities or religious groups. Above all, the Puritans of New England believed that children should be taught to read the Bible, and they were therefore taught to read at an early age. Each town was required to support an elementary school. As a result of these factors, elementary education was very widespread in New England.
In all the colonies, private academies or publicly-funded grammar schools provided secondary education for the children of better-off families in the towns and cities. Boys from poorer families learned a trade as apprentices, or, in rural communities, farming skills from their parents.
For girls, education was less formal, but most learnt to read and write, either from their mothers or at schools run by local women. Literacy for both men and women was almost certainly higher in the American colonies than anywhere else in the world at that time.
For higher education, all religious denominations set up colleges to train ministers. The Puritans founded Harvard College (1636) and Yale College (1701); the Baptists founded Rhode Island Collage (later Brown University) (1764); and the Congregationalists founded Dartmouth College in 1769. In the south, the College of William and Mary, which provided a secular education, was established in 1693, in Virginia, primarily to train Anglican ministers. All these colleges were soon educating, not only ministers of religion, but lawyers and doctors as well. They taught a liberal arts curriculum including Latin and Greek, mathematics, history, philosophy, rhetoric and some science.
Specialist medical schools did not start to appear until after the mid-18th century.
The British North American colonies were all originally located on the Atlantic coast, but almost immediately their frontiers began to move westward into the interior. By the start of the 18th century the central colonies reached inland to the Appalachian mountains, a long chain of mountain ranges stretching from north to south several hundred miles inland from the coast.
At that time, as noted above, the population of Britain’s North American colonies stood at a quarter of a million. This number kept on rising during the 18th century, so that by mid-century it stood at just over a million, and in 1780 it was at almost 3 million. Even at this figure the territories of the colonies were very underpopulated, by the standards of contemporary Europe; however, the colonials were accustomed to a spacious landscape, and were always hungry for new lands.
The Appalachian mountains formed a major barrier to westward expansion. For example, although the Blue Ridge Mountains, one of the central Appalachian ranges, were being settled by Virginians by 1670, it was not until after the discovery of Cumberland Gap (like other routes into the interior, a trail long used by Native Americans) in the 1750s that settlements began to appear on the western flank of the mountains, in Tennessee and Kentucky. It was only in the 1770s that substantial settlement began to occur here.
By this time the Appalachians had also been breached in Pennsylvania, with settlements beginning to spring up to the west after the mid-18th century.
In New England, with the way west blocked by French territory along the St Lawrence valley, the movement of settlement was steadily northward. Here again they encountered the French in the northern parts of Maine and most of Vermont.
In some of the south, where navigable rivers allowed good transport by boat, rich men would establish plantations worked by slaves, duplicating the elite-dominated society of the coast.
In the northern colonies, and in the mountainous areas of the south (such as the Blue Ridge Mountains), transport to frontier areas was slow and hard. Small and isolated farming communities grew up here, self-reliant and self-sufficient. They housed egalitarian societies, composed mostly of farmers who owned and worked their own small farms. The only non-farmers might be a doctor, a minister, and a storekeeper.
Colonial society as a whole was scattered with clusters of non-English settlement – Scots, Scots-Irish, Germans, Swedes, Dutch – but this was particularly so in frontier areas.
Conflict with the local Native Americans, on whose land the incomers of European stock were settling, was a regular feature of frontier life. From time to time, this conflict merged with wider wars between the colonial powers, particularly France and Britain.
Britain and France had been rivals for colonial territory since the late 17th century. In the north, in northern Maine and Vermont, the British colonists came up against the French presence in New France, in the form of forts to keep the British settlers at bay. Westward, the huge expanse of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys was claimed by France. In reality, though, apart from a thin scattering of French forts and settlements, all located along the banks of the great rivers of the region, the land was inhabited by Native American tribes.
In the south, however, an area of comparatively dense French settlement had grown up along the southern Mississippi and in present-day Alabama. There was a thriving port at New Orleans, near the mouth of the huge river.
The four colonial wars of the period were King William’s War (a part of the War of the Grand Alliance), 1688-97; Queen Anne’s War (War of Spanish Succession), 1702-13; King George’s War (War of Austrian Succession), 1744-48; and the French and Indian War 1754-63 (Seven Years’ War, 1756-63).
The first three of these started in Europe and then spread to North America. Here, they were largely fought between colonial militias (part-time troops raised in the colonies). They were also fought using native American allies.
By the late 17th century the British settlers greatly outnumbered the French settlers – an imbalance that would only grow in the 18th century. This theoretically put the French in North America at a military disadvantage. They therefore forged alliances with native American tribes, notably the Huron, Abenaki, Mi’kmaq, Algonquin and Shawnee, and used them as effective allies, usually in guerrilla warfare. In response, the British also recruited their own native allies, especially the Iroquois and Cherokee.
The last of the four wars was different from the others, in that it began in North America and then spread to Europe and other parts of the world. As well as the usual use of colonial militias and Native American allies, it saw the deployment of many more regular troops from Europe on both the British and French sides than previously.
The French and Indian War was a defining moment for the American frontier in colonial times, and indeed for the whole balance of power within North America. In effect, the war and its aftermath set the scene for the War of Independence.
By the middle of the 18th century the inhabitants of the British colonies were feeling under significant threat from the French presence in North America. From Canada in the north to Louisiana in the southwest, the French had been constructing a chain of forts which looked like hemming in the British colonials in their eastern seaboard territory, and provided bases for attacks.
Fighting took place along the frontiers between the French and British spheres, from Virginia northwards. There were notable victories and defeats for both sides, but the war ended in complete victory for the British. By the terms of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the war (1763), the British took over all French possessions east of the Mississippi river. They found, though, that the previous year the French had secretly handed over its claims to a vast region west of Mississippi, right up to the Dakotas, to Spain.
The years following the end of the war saw tensions rise between Britain and her colonial subjects in North America.
The complete removal of France as a colonial power in North America freed the American colonists from the need to look to Britain for their defence. This set the scene for a more confident and confrontational approach to the questions of imperial defence which now arose.
Britain had committed vast sums of money to defending its North American colonies against French invasion. After the war, King George III’s government felt that the colonists should contribute their share towards the cost, and instituted the notorious Stamp Act of 1765, which required that duty should be paid of a wide range of printed materials.
The Americans responded by saying that they had born the higher cost, in blood; and done so largely for British imperial interests rather their own more local interests. Furthermore, with the British parliament insisting on its authority to tax the colonies, the Americans reposted with the cry, “No taxation without Representation”: why should they obey an institution in whose decisions they had no say?
Another bone of contention was the British government’s prohibition on settlement west of the Appalachian mountains. This was to be kept for the Native Americans. The land-hungry colonials were angered by the policy.
These elements came together in a growing quarrel between the British and the Americans, with both sides taking increasingly intransigent positions. This would lead to the Declaration of American Independence in 1776.