Life in Colonial America
Life in Colonial America
By 1700, more than 250,000 people of European origin or descent lived within what is now the United States. These settlers covered much of the eastern seaboard. Each region of colonization was economically and socially distinct, as each area developed differently based on geography, immigration trends, and other factors.
The New England Colonies
The New England colonies spanned modern-day Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. New England’s economy centered on small farming, fishing, and home manufactures, as well as sea trade and shipbuilding. The region quickly expanded as immigrants streamed in and families grew.
New England economy was based on small-scale agriculture, fishing, home manufactures, shipbuilding, and trading.
Life was fairly stable for New Englanders. They often lived 15–25 years longer than their British counterparts or colonists in other regions, due in part to a better diet. Puritan communities were close-knit, and because all followers of God were expected to read the Bible, they placed great emphasis on education. New England was likely the most literate community in the world.
Religion dominated all aspects of life in New England. In order to vote or hold office, a person had to be a member in good standing of the church. Religious dissenters were subjected to public spectacle or banishment. Fervent religious superstition also fueled New England’s most notorious scandal: the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and 1693.
Beginning with the Mayflower compact, and continuing with the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter, the New England Colonies quickly established a tradition of self-government. By 1641, 55 percent of males in Massachusetts could vote—a much higher percentage than in England. Connecticut developed a similar government with even more voting rights: all male landowners were granted suffrage under the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, which in 1639 became the first written constitution in the New World.
The increase in self-government in New England went hand in hand with increased resistance against British authority. In an effort to create a united defense against Dutch encroachment and aggressive Native American tribes, colonists organized the New England Confederation in 1643. England viewed this attempt to unite the colonies as potentially dangerous, but the confederation persisted and even helped to crush a Native American uprising during King Phillip’s War (1675–1676). In the end, infighting among the colonies doomed the confederation.
Then in 1655, four royal commissioners inspecting Massachusetts were treated rudely and urged King Charles II to revoke the colony’s charter. Charles did not comply, but the incident solidified a tradition of antagonism between New England and the mother country. After years of increasing acrimony, Charles’ successor, James II, revoked the Massachusetts Bay charter in 1685 and established the Dominion of New England, which unified all of New England under one royal governor. However, when the 1688 Glorious Revolution in England replaced James II with the Protestants William and Mary, angry colonists forced the royal governor to return to England. By 1691, the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter was reinstated.
The Middle Colonies
The Middle Colonies included New York and New Jersey, and later Pennsylvania. England took control of New York and New Jersey (then called New Amsterdam and New Sweden, respectively) from the Dutch in 1664. New York was made a royal province in 1685, and New Jersey in 1702. Both colonies were governed by a royal governor and a general assembly. Economically, the colonies relied on grain production, shipping, and fur trading with the local Native Americans.
In 1681, Charles II granted the last unclaimed tract of American land to William Penn. Penn, a Quaker, launched a “holy experiment” by founding a colony based on religious tolerance. The Quakers had long been discriminated against in the Americas and England for their religious beliefs and their refusal to bear arms. Seeking religious freedom, Quakers, Mennonites, Amish, Moravians, Baptists, and others flocked to the new colony. Pennsylvania soon became economically prosperous, in part because of the industrious Quaker work ethic. By the 1750s, Pennsylvania’s capital, Philadelphia, had become the largest city of the colonies with a population of 20,000.
The Southern Colonies
Virginia, centered in Jamestown, dominated the Southern colonies, which included the Chesapeake colonies, Maryland, and the Carolinas. The region was more religiously and ethnically diverse than the Middle or New England colonies, harboring immigrants from all over Europe, many Roman Catholics (especially in Maryland), and a large number of African slaves. In the South, families were smaller than in other regions because adult men far outnumbered women. Men, after all, were needed to work on the region’s massive plantations.
Plantations, which produced tobacco, rice, and indigo, influenced all aspects of life in the South. The size of plantations limited the development of cities and a merchant class, which had brought such wealth to New England. Plantations drew many immigrants to the Chesapeake region during the seventeenth century through the institution of indentured servitude. Indentured servants were adult men, mostly white, who bound themselves to labor on plantations for a fixed number of years until they earned their freedom and, with it, a small plot of land. However, once free, indentured servants still had to struggle to survive, and conflict arose between the freed servants and the increasingly powerful plantation owners. These tensions flared in Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676. Nathaniel Bacon, an impoverished nobleman, accused the royal governor of Virginia of failing to protect the less wealthy farmers from Native American raids. Bacon led a group of about 300 farmers and indiscriminately attacked the Native Americans. The royal governor branded him a rebel, and Bacon led his men to Jamestown, where he occupied, looted, and burned the city while demanding political reforms. Bacon died suddenly the same year, abruptly terminating the rebellion, but tensions between rich and poor remained.
As tobacco plantations grew in size and demand for workers increased, slavery became the preferred source of labor: it proved economically profitable and eased the class struggles. Slavery was officially sanctioned by law in 1660. At this time, fewer than 1,000 slaves lived in Maryland and Virginia. Over the next forty years, that number grew to nearly 20,000. Slavery later spread to the Carolinas, and by the early eighteenth century it was so entrenched in these areas that slaves outnumbered free whites.
Black slaves were increasingly brought to the Southern colonies during the late 1600s to support an economy based on massive cash crops like tobacco, rice, and eventually cotton. By 1660, slavery was officially recognized by law.
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