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
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.