Colonial America refers to the area now known as the eastern United States and parts of Canada from the time of European settlement to the time of the American Revolution. Spain and France made some early attempts at colonizing Florida in the 16th century, and England had one settlement in 1587, but concerted British, French, Spanish, and Dutch attempts at colonization of eastern North America did not begin until the early seventeenth century. Many early attempts collapsed in failure, but successful colonies were established by the 1620s.
The colonists came from a variety of different social and religious groups who settled in different locations on the seaboard. The Dutch of New Netherland, the French inhabitants of Quebec, the Swedes and Finns of New Sweden, the Quakers of Pennsylvania, the Puritans of New England, the English at Jamestown, Virginia, and others—each group came to the new continent for different reasons and created colonies with distinct social, religious, political and economic structures.
Historians typically recognize five distinct regions: Canada (Quebec, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland), New England, the Middle Colonies, the Chesapeake Bay Colonies (or "Upper South") and the Lower South. In addition, Spanish and French colonies were established in an arc from Florida through Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico and California.
Motives for colonization
The main colonizing regions of Europe were those where ocean-worthy ship building innovations and navigational technology and skills were developing, as well as an expanding population willing and able to establish themselves in foreign lands. The Spanish and Portugueses' long experience of conquest and colonization, coupled with new oceanic ship navigation skills, provided the tools, ability, and desire to colonize the New World. The English, French, and Dutch of northwest Europe were slower to start colonies in America. They had the ability to build ocean-worthy ships but did not have as strong a history of colonization in foreign lands as did Spain, although the English conquest and colonization of parts of Ireland played a role in the development of larger scale colonization efforts.
As the "New Monarchs" began to forge nations, they acquired the degree of centralized wealth and power necessary to begin systematic attempts at exploration. Not all exploratory undertakings, however, were done by central governments. Charter companies and joint stock companies played a crucial role in exploration. Spain's experience during the Reconquista gave their American colonization efforts qualities of centralized governmental control, military conquest, and religious missionary efforts. In contrast, northwest Europe's experience with early capitalism (mercantilism) gave their colonization of America qualities of merchant-based investment and less government control.
England made its first successful efforts at the start of the 17th century for several reasons. During this era, English nationalism and national assertiveness blossomed under the threat of Spanish invasion, assisted by Protestant militancy and aggressive monarchs such as Queen Elizabeth I. At this time, however, there was no official attempt by the English government to create a colonial empire. Rather, the motivation behind the founding of colonies was piecemeal and variable. Practical considerations such as commercial enterprise, over-population and the desire for freedom of religion played their parts.
Spain established a few small settlements in Florida, most of which were soon abandoned. The most important settlement was at St. Augustine, Florida, founded in 1565. It was never more than a fortress, and was repeatedly attacked and burned, with most residents killed or fled. Missionaries converted 26.000 natives by 1655, but a revolt in 1656 and an epidemic in 1659 proved devastating. Pirate attacks were unrelenting against small outposts and even St Augustine. The British and their colonies made war repeatedly. South Carolina launched large scale invasions in 1702 and 1704, which effectively destroyed the Spanish mission system. St Augustine survived, but English-allied Indians such as the Yamasee conducted slave raids throughout Florida, killing or enslaving most of the region's natives. St Augustine itself was captured in 1740. The British and Spanish had been enemies for many decades. The conflicts in Spanish Florida were one part of a larger, global struggle. In the mid-1700s, invading Seminoles killed off most of the remaining local Indians. Florida had about 3000 Spaniards when Britain took control 1763. Nearly all quickly left. Even though in 1783 control was restored to Spain, Spain sent no more settlers or missionaries. The US took control in 1819.
Spanish explorers sailed along the coast of California from the early 1500s to the mid-1700s, but no settlements were established.
During the last quarter of the 18th century, the first European settlements were established in California. Reacting to interest by Russia and Britain in the fur-bearing animals of the Pacific coast, Spain created a series of Catholic missions, accompanied by troops and ranches, along the southern and central coast of California. These missions were intended to demonstrate the claim of the Spanish Crown to modern-day California.
The first quarter of the 19th century continued the slow colonization of the southern and central California coast by Spanish missionaries, ranchers, and troops. By 1820, Spanish influence was marked by the chain of missions reaching from San Diego to just north of today's San Francisco Bay area, and extended inland approximately 25 to 50 miles from the missions. Outside of this zone, perhaps 200,000 to 250,000 Native Americans were continuing to lead traditional lives. The Adams-Onís Treaty, signed in 1819 set the northern boundary of the Spanish claims at the 42nd parallel, effectively creating today's northern boundary of California.
Father Junípero Serra, a Franciscan missionary, founded the mission chain, starting with San Diego de Alcalá in 1769. The California Missions comprised a series of outposts established to spread the Christianity among the local Native Americans, with the added benefit of confirming historic Spanish claims to the area. The missions introduced European technology, livestock and crops. The highway and missions have become for many a romantic symbol of an idyllic and peaceful past. The "Mission Revival Style" was an architectural movement that drew its inspiration from this idealized view of California's past. The Spanish encouraged settlement of California with large land grants which were turned into ranchos, where cattle and sheep were raised. The Hispanic population reached about 10,000 in the 1840s.
New France was the area colonized by France from the exploration of the Saint Lawrence River, by Jacques Cartier in 1534, to the cession of New France to the Britain in 1763. At its peak in 1712, the territory of New France extended from Newfoundland to Lake Superior and from the Hudson Bay to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. The territory was then divided in five colonies, each with its own administration: Canada, Acadia, Hudson Bay, Newfoundland and Louisiana. About 16,000 French settlers came, and concentrated in villages along the St. Lawrence River. The area around New Orleans and west of the Mississippi passed to Spain, which ceded it to France in 1803, allowing France to sell it as the Louisiana Purchase to the United States.
Chesapeake Bay area
The first successful English colony was Jamestown, established in 1607, on a small river near Chesapeake Bay. The venture was financed and coordinated by the London Virginia Company, a joint stock company looking for gold. Its first years were extremely difficult, with very high death rates from disease and starvation, wars with local Indians, and little gold. The colony barely survived, by turning to tobacco as a cash crop. By the late 17th century Virginia's export economy was largely based on tobacco, and new, richer settlers came in to take up large portions of land, build large plantations and import indentured servants and slaves. In 1676 Bacon's Rebellion occurred, but was suppressed by royal officials. After Bacon's Rebellion, African slaves were rapidly replacing English indentured servants as Virginia's main labor force.
The colonial assembly that had governed the colony since its establishment was dissolved but was 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. As cash crop producers, Chesapeake plantations were heavily dependent on trade. With easy navigation by river, few towns and no cities developed; planters shipped directly to Britain. High death rates and a very young population profile characterized the colony during its first decades.
The Pilgrims were a small Protestant sect based in England and the Netherlands. One group sailed on the Mayflower and briefly landed in New York before their eventual settling in Massachusetts. After drawing up the Mayflower Compact by which they gave themselves broad powers of self-governance. They established the small Plymouth Colony in 1620 and later merged with the Massachusetts Bay colony. William Bradford was the main leader.
The Puritans, a much larger group than the Pilgrims, established the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629 with 400 settlers. This group was the Puritans who sought to reform the Church of England by creating a new, pure church in the New World. Within two years, an additional 2,000 arrived. The Puritans created a deeply religious, socially tight-knit and politically innovative culture that still lingers on in the modern United States. They hoped this new land would serve as a "redeemer nation." Seeking the true religion, they fled England and in America created a "nation of saints" or the "City upon a Hill," an intensely religious, thoroughly righteous community designed to be an example for all of Europe. Roger Williams, who preached religious toleration, separation of Church and State, and a complete break with the Church of England, was banished and founded Rhode Island Colony, which became a haven for other religious refugees from the Puritan community. Anne Hutchinson, a preacher of Antinomianism likewise was exiled to Rhode Island.
Economically, Puritan New England fulfilled the expectations of its founders. Unlike the cash-crop oriented plantations of the Chesapeake region, the Puritan economy was based on the efforts of individual farmers, who harvested enough crops to feed themselves and their families and to trade for goods they could not produce themselves. There was a generally higher economic standing and standard of living in New England than in the Chesapeake. On the other hand, town leaders in New England could literally rent out the town's impoverished families for a year to anyone who could afford to board them, as a form of alms and as a form of cheap labor. Along with farming growth, New England became an important mercantile and shipbuilding center, often serving as the hub for trading between the South and Europe.
The Middle Colonies, consisting of the present-day states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, were characterized by a large degree of diversity—religious, political, economic, and ethnic. Many Dutch and Irish immigrants settled in these areas, as well as in Long Island and Connecticut. The Pennsylvania Dutch were included in this emigration.
The colonial South included the plantation colonies of the Chesapeake region (Virginia, Maryland, and, by some classifications, Delaware) and the lower South (Carolina, which eventually split into North and South Carolina, and Georgia).
The first attempted English settlement south of Virginia was the Province of Carolina. It was a private venture, financed by a group of English Lords Proprietors, who obtained a Royal Charter to the Carolinas in 1663, hoping that a new colony in the south would become profitable like that of Jamestown. Carolina was not settled until 1670, and even then the first attempt failed because 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 English colonization of the mainland. The original settlers in South Carolina established a lucrative trade in provisions, deerskins and Indian captives with the Caribbean islands. They came mainly from the English colony of Barbados and brought African slaves with them. Barbados, as a wealthy sugarcane plantation island, was one of the early English colonies to large numbers of Africans in plantation style agriculture. The cultivation of rice was introduced during the 1690s via Africans from the rice-growing regions of West Africa. North Carolina remained a frontier through the early colonial period.
At first, South Carolina was politically divided. Its ethnic makeup included the original settlers, a group of rich, slave-owning English settlers from the island of Barbados; and Huguenots, a French-speaking community of Protestants. Nearly continuous frontier warfare during the era of King William's War and Queen Anne's War drove economic and political wedges between merchants and planters. The disaster of the Yamasee War, in 1715, set off a decade of political turmoil. By 1729, the proprietary government had collapsed, and the Proprietors sold both colonies back to the British crown.
James Oglethorpe, an 18th century British Member of Parliament, established Georgia Colony as a common solution to two problems. At that time, tension between Spain and Great Britain was high, and the British feared that Spanish Florida was threatening the British Carolinas. Oglethorpe decided to establish a colony in the contested border region of Georgia and populate it with debtors who would otherwise have been imprisoned according to standard British practice. This plan would both rid Great Britain of its undesirable 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 supposed immorality. However, the reality of the colony was far from ideal. The colonists were unhappy about the puritanical lifestyle and complained that their colony could not compete economically with the Carolina rice plantations. Georgia initially failed to prosper, but eventually the restrictions were lifted, slavery was allowed, and it became as prosperous as the Carolinas.
East and West Florida
Following the Treaty of Paris (1763), Great Britain received East and West Florida from the Spanish. The Floridas remained Loyal to Great Britain during the war of the American Rebellion. The were returned to Spain in 1783 (in exchange for Havana), at which time most Englishmen left. The Spanish neglected the Floridas; few Spaniards lived there when the U.S. bought the area in 1819.
Unification of the British colonies
A common defense
One event that reminded colonists of their shared identity as British subjects was the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) in Europe. This conflict spilled over into the colonies, where it was known as "King George's War"; most of the fighting took place in Europe, British colonial troops attacked French Canada.
At the Albany Congress of 1754, Benjamin Franklin proposed that the colonies be united by a Grand Council overseeing a common policy for defense, expansion, and Indian affairs. While the plan was thwarted by colonial legislatures and King George II, it was an early indication that the British colonies of North America were headed towards unification. This enabled former Whigs in Britain to become Tories and former Tories in the colonies to become Whigs.
One event that began to unify the religious background of the colonies was the Great Awakening, a Protestant revival movement 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". Edwards was a powerful speaker and attracted a large following with sermons such as "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God". English preacher George Whitefield and other itinerant preachers continued the movement, traveling across the colonies and preaching in a dramatic and emotional style.
Followers of Edwards and other preachers of similar religiosity called themselves the "New Lights," as contrasted with the "Old Lights", who disapproved of their movement. To promote their viewpoints, the two sides established academies and colleges including Princeton and Williams College. The Great Awakening has been called the first truly "American" event, and as such represented at least a small step towards the unification of the colonies.
A similar pietistic movement took place among some of the German and Dutch Lutherans, leading to internal divisions. By the 1770s the Baptists were growing rapidly both in the north (where they founded Brown University, and in the South where they challenged the previously unquestioned moral authority of the Anglican establishment.
French and Indian War
Ties to the British Empire
Although the colonies were very different from one another, they were still a part of the British Empire in more than just name.
Socially, the colonial elite of Boston, New York, Charleston, and Philadelphia saw their identity as British. Although many had never been to England, they imitated British styles of dress, dance, and etiquette. This social upper echelon built its mansions in the Georgian style, copied the furniture designs of Thomas Chippendale, and participated in the intellectual currents of Europe, such as Enlightenment. To many of their inhabitants, the seaport cities of colonial America were truly British cities.
Many of the political structures of the colonies drew upon various English political traditions, most notably the Commonwealthmen and the Whig traditions. Many Americans at the time saw the colonies' systems of governance as modeled after the British constitution of the time, with the king corresponding to the governor, the House of Commons to the colonial assembly, and the House of Lords to the Governor's council. The codes of law of the colonies were often drawn directly from English law; indeed, English common law survives not only in Canada, but even in the modern United States. Eventually, it was a dispute over the meaning of some of these political ideals, especially political representation, and a growing unity among the new generations that led to the American Revolution.
Another point on which the colonies found themselves more similar than different was the booming import of British goods. The British economy had begun to grow rapidly at the end of the 17th century, and by the mid-18th century, small factories in Britain were producing much more than the nation could consume. Finding a market for their goods in the British colonies of North America, Britain increased her exports to that region by 360% between 1740 and 1770. Because British merchants offered generous credit to their customers, Americans began buying staggering amounts of English goods. From Nova Scotia to Florida, all British subjects bought similar products, creating and Anglicanizing a sort of common identity.
From unity to revolution
The general sentiment of inequity that arose soon after the Treaty of Paris was solidified by the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which temporarily prohibited settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains . Colonists resented the measure.
Acts of Parliament
Parliament had generally been preoccupied with affairs in Europe and let the colonies govern themselves. It was no longer willing to do so. A series of measures resulting from this policy change, while affecting the New England colonies most directly would continue to arouse opposition in the 'thirteen colonies' over the next thirteen years:
- Sugar Act (1764)
- Stamp Act 1765
- First Quartering Act (1765)
- Declaratory Act (1766)
- Townshend Revenue Act (1767)
- Tea Act (1773)
- The Intolerable Acts, also called the Coercive or Punitive Acts
- Prohibitory Act (1776)
Life in Colonial America
When settling New England, the Puritans created self-governing communities of religious congregations of farmers, or yeoman, and their families. High-level politicians gave out plots of land to male settlers, or proprietors, who then divided the land amongst themselves. Large portions were usually given to men of higher social standing, but every white man had enough land to support a family. Also important was the fact that every white man had a voice in the town meeting. The town meeting levied taxes, built roads, and elected officials to manage town affairs.
The Congregational Church, the church the Puritans founded, was not automatically joined by all New England residents because of Puritan beliefs that God singled out only a few specific people for salvation. Instead, membership was limited to those who could convincingly "test" before members of the church that they had been saved. They were known as "the elect" or "Saints" and made up less than 40% of the population of New England.
A majority of New England residents were small farmers. Within these small farm families, and English families as well, men had complete power over the property and his wife. When married, English women lost their maiden name and personal identity, meaning they could not own property, file lawsuits, or participate in political life, even when widowed. The role of wives was to raise and nurture healthy children and support their husbands. Most women carried out these duties. In the mid-18th century, women usually married in their early 20s and had 6 to 8 children, most of whom survived to adulthood. Farm women provided most of the materials needed by the rest of the family which includes spinning yarn from wool and knitting sweaters and stockings, making candles and soap, and churning milk into butter.
Most New England parents tried to help their sons establish farms of their own. When sons married, fathers gave them gifts of land, livestock, or farming equipment; daughters received household goods, farm animals, and/or cash. Arranged marriages were very unusual; normally, children chose their own spouses from within a circle of suitable acquaintances who shared their religion and social standing. Parents retained veto power over their children's marriages.
New England farming families generally lived in wooden houses because of the abundance of trees. A typical New England farmhouse was one-and-a-half stories tall and had a strong frame (usually made of large square timbers) that was covered by wooden clapboard siding. A large chimney stood in the middle of the house that provided cooking facilities and warmth during the winter. One side of the ground floor contained a hall, a general-purpose room where the family worked and ate meals. Adjacent to the hall was the parlor, a room used to entertain guests that contained the family's best furnishings and the parent's bed. Children slept in a loft above, while the kitchen was either part of the hall or was located in a shed along the back of the house. Because colonial families were large, these small dwellings had much activity and there was little privacy.
By the middle of the 18th century, this way of life was facing a crisis as the region's population had nearly doubled each generation—from 100,000 in 1700 to 200,000 in 1725, to 350,000 by 1750—because farm households had many children, and most people lived until they were 60 years old. As colonists in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island continued to subdivide their land between farmers, the farms became too small to support single families. This overpopulation threatened the New England ideal of a society of independent yeoman farmers.
Some farmers obtained land grants to create farms in undeveloped land in Massachusetts and Connecticut or bought plots of land from speculators in New Hampshire and what later became Vermont. Other farmers became agricultural innovators. They planted nutritious English grass such as red clover and timothy-grass, which provided more feed for livestock, and potatoes, which provided a high production rate that was an advantage for small farms. Families increased their productivity by exchanging goods and labors with each other. They loaned livestock and grazing land to one another and worked together to spin yarn, sew quilts, and shuck corn. Migration, agricultural innovation, and economic cooperation were creative measures that preserved New England's yeoman society until the 19th century.
By 1750, a variety of artisans, shopkeepers, and merchants provided services to the growing farming population. Blacksmiths, wheelwrights, and furniture makers set up shops in rural villages. There they built and repaired goods needed by farm families. Stores selling English manufactures such as cloth, iron utensils, and window glass as well as West Indian products like sugar and molasses were set up by traders. The storekeepers of these shops sold their imported goods in exchange for crops and other local products including shingles, potash, and barrel staves. These local goods were shipped to towns and cities all along the Atlantic Coast. Enterprising men set up stables and taverns along wagon roads to service this transportation system.
After these products had been delivered to port towns such as Boston and Salem in Massachusetts, New Haven in Connecticut, and Newport and Providence in Rhode Island, merchants then exported them to the West Indies where they were traded for molasses, sugar, gold coins, and bills of exchange (credit slips). They carried the West Indian products to New England factories where the raw sugar was turned into granulated and sugar and the molasses distilled into rum. The gold and credit slips were sent to England where they were exchanged for manufactures, which were shipped back to the colonies and sold along with the sugar and rum to farmers.
Other New England merchants took advantage of the rich fishing areas along the Atlantic Coast and financed a large fishing fleet, transporting its catch of mackerel and cod to the West Indies and Europe. Some merchants exploited the vast amounts of timber along the coasts and rivers of northern New England. They funded sawmills that supplied cheap wood for houses and shipbuilding. Hundreds of New England shipwrights built oceangoing ships, which they sold to British and American merchants.
Many merchants became very wealthy by providing their goods to the agricultural population and ended up dominating the society of sea port cities. Unlike yeoman farmhouses, these merchants resembled the lifestyle of that of the upper class of England living in elegant two-and-a-half story houses designed the new Georgian style. These Georgian houses had a symmetrical façade with equal numbers of windows on both sides of the central door. The interior consisted of a passageway down the middle of the house with specialized rooms such as a library, dining room, formal parlour, and master bedroom off the sides. Unlike the multi-purpose halls and parlours of the yeoman houses, each of these rooms served a separate purpose. In a Georgian house, men mainly used certain rooms, such as the library, while women mostly used the kitchen. These houses contained bedrooms on the second floor that provided privacy to parents and children.
Culture and education
Elementary education was widespread in New England. Early Puritan settlers believed it was necessary to study the Bible, so children were taught to read at an early age. It was also required that each town pay for a primary school. Most boys in England had some form of formal education on account of this law. About 10 percent enjoyed secondary schooling and funded grammar schools in larger towns. Most boys learned skills from their fathers on the farm or as apprentices to artisans. Few girls attended formal schools, but most were able to get some education at home or at so-called "Dame schools" where women taught basic reading and writing skills in their own houses. By 1750, nearly 90% of New England's women and almost all of its men could read and write. Many churches in New England established colleges to train ministers while Puritans founded many places of higher learning such as Harvard College in 1636 and Yale College in 1701. Later, Baptists founded Rhode Island College (now Brown University) in 1764 and a Congregationalist minister established Dartmouth College in 1769. Few men (and no women) attended colleges, which were for prospective ministers and sons of wealthy families.
New England produced many great literary works. In fact, more works were created in New England than all of the colonies combined. Most of these works were histories, sermons, and personal journals and were written by ministers or inspired by religious beliefs. Cotton Mather, a Boston minister published Magnalia Christi Americana (The Great Works of Christ in America, 1702), while revivalist Jonathan Edwards wrote his philosophical work, A Careful and Strict Enquiry Into...Notions of...Freedom of Will... (1754). Most music had a religious theme as well and was mainly the singing of Psalms. Because of New England's deep religious beliefs, artistic works that were not very religious or too "worldly" were banned. These endeavors included drama and other types of plays.
Unlike New England, the Mid-Atlantic Region gained much of its population from new immigration, and by 1750, the combined populations of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania had reached nearly 300,000 people. By 1750, about 60,000 Scots-Irish and 50,000 Germans came to live in British North America, many of them settling in the Mid-Atlantic Region. William Penn, the man who founded the colony of Pennsylvania in 1682, attracted an influx of Quakers and other immigrants with his policies of religious liberty and freehold ownership. "Freehold" meant that farmers owned their land free and clear of leases. The first major influx of immigrants came mainly from Ireland]] and consisted of Scots-Irish Presbyterians. The second major immigration came with Germans trying to escape the religious conflicts and declining economic opportunities in Germany and Switzerland.
Ways of life
Much of the architecture of the Middle Colonies reflects the diversity of its peoples. In Albany and New York City, a majority of the buildings were Dutch style with brick exteriors and high gables at each end while many Dutch churches were shaped liked an octagon. Using cut stone to build their houses, German and Welsh settlers in Pennsylvania followed the way of their homeland and completely ignored the plethora of timber in the area. Thus in Germantown, Pennsylvania, 80% of the buildings in the town were made entirely of stone. On the other hand, the Scots-Irish took advantage of America's ample supply of timber and constructed sturdy log cabins.
Ethnic cultures also effected the styles of furniture. Rural Quakers preferred simple designs in furnishings such as tables, chairs, chests and shunned elaborate decorations. However, some urban Quakers had much more elaborate furniture. The city of Philadelphia became a major center of furniture-making because of its massive wealth from Quaker and British merchants. Philadelphian cabinet makers built elegant desks and highboys. German artisans created intricate carved designs on their chests and other furniture with painted scenes of flowers and birds. German potters also crafted a large array of jugs, pots, and plates, of both elegant and traditional design.
There were ethnic differences in the treatment of women. Among Puritan settlers in New England, wives almost never worked in the fields with their husbands. In German communities in Pennsylvania, however, many women worked in fields and stables. German and Dutch immigrants granted women more control over property, which was not permitted in the local English law. Unlike English colonial wives, German and Dutch wives owned their own clothes and other items and were also given the ability to write wills disposing of the property brought into the marriage.
The Europeans brought entirely new animals, which transformed the landscape, such as hogs, cattle, horses, sheep and poultry. (The Indians already had dogs.) Ethnicity made a difference in agricultural practice. As an example, German farmers generally preferred oxen rather than horses to pull their plows and Scots-Irish made a farming economy based on hogs and corn. In Ireland, Scots-Irish farmed intensively, working small pieces of land trying to get the largest possible production-rate from their crops. In the American colonies, Scots-Irish focused on mixed-farming. Using this technique, they grew corn for human consumption and as feed for hogs and other livestock. Many improvement-minded farmers of all different backgrounds began using new agricultural practices to raise their output. During the 1750s, these agricultural innovators replaced the hand sickles and scythes used to harvest hay, wheat, and barley with the cradle scythe, a tool with wooden fingers that arranged the stalks of grain for easy collection. This tool was able to triple the amount of work down by farmers in one day. Farmers also began fertilizing their fields with dung and lime and rotating their crops to keep the soil fertile.
Before 1720, most colonists in the mid-Atlantic region worked with small-scale farming and paid for imported manufactures by supplying the West Indies with corn and flour. In New York, a fur-pelt export trade to Europe flourished adding additional wealth to the region. After 1720, mid-Atlantic farming stimulated with the international demand for wheat. A massive population explosion in Europe brought wheat prices up. By 1770, a bushel of wheat cost twice as much as it did in 1720. Farmers also expanded their production of flaxseed and corn since flax was a high demand in the Irish linen industry and a demand for corn existed in the West Indies.
Some immigrants who just arrived purchased farms and shared in this export wealth, but many poor German and Scots-Irish immigrants were forced to work as agricultural wage laborers. Merchants and artisans also hired these homeless workers for a domestic system for the manufacture of cloth and other goods. Merchants often bought wool and flax from farmers and employed newly-arrived immigrants, who had been textile workers in Ireland and Germany, to work in their homes spinning the materials into yarn and cloth. Large farmers and merchants became wealthy, while farmers with smaller farms and artisans only made enough for subsistence. The Mid-Atlantic region, by 1750, was divided by both ethnic background and wealth.
Seaports, which expanded from wheat trade, had more social classes than anywhere else in the Middle Colonies. By 1750, the population of Philadelphia had reached 25,000, New York 15,000, and the port of Baltimore 7,000. Merchants dominated seaport society and about 40 merchants controlled half of Philadelphia's trade. Wealthy merchants in Philadelphia and New York, like their counterparts in New England, built elegant Georgian-style mansions.
Shopkeepers, artisans, shipwrights, butchers, coopers (barrel makers), seamstresses, cobblers, bakers, carpenters, stonemasons, and many other specialized professions, made up the middle class of seaport society. Wives and husbands often worked as a team and taught their children their crafts to pass it on through the family. Many of these artisans and traders made enough money to create a modest life.
Laborers stood at the bottom of seaport society. These poor people worked on the docks unloading inbound vessels and loading outbound vessels with wheat, corn, and flaxseed. Many of these were African American; some were free while others were enslaved. In 1750, blacks made up about 10 percent of the population of New York and Philadelphia. Hundreds of seamen, some who were African American, worked as sailors on merchant ships.
The Southern Colonies were mainly dominated by the wealthy slave-owning planters in Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina. These planters owned massive estates that were worked by African slaves. Of the 650,000 inhabitants of the South in 1750, about 250,000 or 40 percent, were slaves. Planters used their wealth to dominate the local tenants and yeoman farmers. At election time, they gave these farmers gifts of rum and promised to lower taxes to take control of colonial legislatures.
Beginning in the 1720s, after many years being poorly educated, hunting deer on foot, getting drunk, and gambling, the next generation of planters began to construct large Georgian-style mansions, wear bright red attire, and hunt deer from horseback. Wealthy women in the Southern colonies shared in the British culture. They read British magazines, wore fashionable clothing of British design, and served an elaborate afternoon tea.
Once women were married, they supervised the household slaves and put on elaborate dinners and festive balls. These efforts were the most successful in South Carolina, where wealthy rice planters lived in townhouses in Charleston, a busy port city. Active social seasons also existed in towns, such as Annapolis, Maryland, and on tobacco plantations along the James River in Virginia.
The African slaves who worked on the indigo, tobacco, and rice fields in the South came mostly from the Caribbean sugar islands (plus a few who came directly from Africa). In 1700, there were about 9,600 slaves in the Chesapeake region and a few hundred in the Carolinas. About 170,000 more Africans arrived over the next five decades. By 1750, there were more than 250,000 slaves in British America and in the Carolinas; they made up about 60 percent of the total population. Most slaves in South Carolina were born in Africa, while half the slaves in Virginia and Maryland were born in the colonies.
Colonial American literature is perhaps the most vibrant field in American literary studies today. In the last decade an explosion of anthologies designed to make widely available a broad range of non-canonical writings produced in and about Great Britain's colonies in the Western hemisphere has provided teachers and scholars with important new tools. The explosion has been driven partly by the identity-based recuperation movements of the 1970s and 1980s, partly by a new awareness of the importance of texts circulated in manuscript or newspapers rather than in book form, and partly by dissatisfaction with the predominant Puritan origins narrative and a swelling interest in transnationalism. New anthologies include Myra Jehlen and Michael Warner's The English Literatures of America, 1580–1800 (Routledge, 1996), Vincent Carretta's Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century (Lexington, Ky., 1996), Sharon M. Harris's Early American Women Writers to 1800 (Oxford, 1996), and Thomas W. Krise's Caribbeana: An Anthology of English Literature of the West Indies, 1657–1777 (Chicago, 1999), Susan Castillo and Ivy Schweitzer, The Literatures of Colonial America: An Anthology (Oxford, 2001) Carla Muford's Early American Writings (Oxford 2002), and Susan Castillo's, Colonial Encounters in New World Writing, 1500–1786: Performing America (Routledge, 2006). Add in the University of Massachusetts Press series on native writers and scholars have made readily available a vast array of once obscure English-language works. Some of these new volumes represent an effort by colonialists to catch up to the rest of the field of Americanist scholarship, providing the pre-literary history to contemporary Caribbean or African American literature. In an important sense, however, colonialists occupy a unique position among Americanists. At a moment when many scholars are rejecting nationalist narratives of literary history, which they view as the intellectual equivalent of isolationism in a world increasingly committed to globalization, students of colonial American literature rightly claim a pre-national vantage point. A transnational approach to colonial literature has the attractive features of being both intellectually sound and trendy.
- Sandra M. Gustafson, "The Americas in Writing," William and Mary Quarterly 2003 60(1): 207-213. ISSN: 0043-5597 Fulltext: History Cooperative