Saturday, 6 January 2018

The Thirteen Colonies

The Spanish explorations

The Spaniards were the first Europeans to reach the New World, and by the sixteenth century they were exploring the territory that became the United States. The earliest known exploration of Florida was made in 1513 by Juan Ponce de Léon, the governor of Puerto Rico. In 1539 Hernando de Soto  landed on the west coast of Florida with 620 men and 220 horses. His expedition travelled north into Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee. In 1541 they reached the Mississippi River, crossed it and travelled westward through modern day Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. 

Discovery of the Mississippi by William Henry Powell (1823–1879)
 This fanciful depiction hangs in the United States Capitol rotunda.

De Soto died on the expedition, which failed in its objective to acquire gold and establish colonies. But in 1565 the Spaniards founded St Augustine, Florida, the first European town in the present-day United States. The colony included a fort, church, hospital fish market and over a hundred shops and houses, built decades before the first English settlements. 

In 1609 they founded Santa Fe in New Mexico. This became the first centre of mission activity in the south-west.  Missionaries, particularly Franciscans and Jesuits, established mission settlements in which the Indians were persuaded to live and to convert to Catholicism. By 1630 there were fifty Catholic churches and friaries in New Mexico and some 3,000 Spaniards. 

Other European powers

While the Spaniards were establishing their missions, other European powers arrived on the American Continent, notably the French, the Dutch, and the English. 

The eventual dominance of British settlements was not inevitable and did not initially seem likely.  The Dutch were the first northern European settlers. In 1609 Henry Hudson, an English navigator employed by the Dutch East India Company sailed up what became the Hudson river, and in 1625 the Dutch East India Company established Niew Amsterdam on Manhattan Island, purchased from the local Lenape Indians.

New France

Initially it was France rather than England that challenged the power of Spain.  In 1608 Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec. Until his death in 1635 he governed New France under a trading company that won a profitable monopoly of the fur trade. About 40,000 French colonials came to the New World in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. However the French were more interested in trade than settlement and they established trading outposts rather than farms. They were predominantly male and much smaller in number than the English and Spanish settlers.  

In 1663 Louis XIV changed New France into a royal colony, and his minister Colbert sent out new settlers including young women. Following this new policy, French explorers moved south from the Great Lakes.  In 1673 Louis Jolliet and the Jesuit missionary Jacques Marquette reached the Arkansas River and discovered that the Mississippi flowed south into the Gulf of Mexico. In 1682 René-Robert Cavelier, de La Salle reached the Gulf of Mexico, and claimed the entire Mississippi River basin for France, naming the area Louisiana after the King.  In 1718 Jean Baptiste le Moyne, sieur de Bienville founded New Orleans, though its sweltering mosquito-infected climate attracted few settlers. 

One historian has written: 
'France in America had two heads, one amid the snows of Canada, the other amid the canebrakes of Louisiana.’ (Quoted Tindall and Shi, America: A Narrative History, p. 167)
In the territory, between priests established missions at places like Terre Haute and Des Moines, and scattered settlers established farms. But the vast territory of New France was largely unpopulated. It was a land of wilderness, missionaries and fur traders.
Map of New France, c. 1750


In 1606 James I chartered the London Company (renamed the Virginia Company in 1609) with the aim of enticing settlers to pool their resources and set up a colony.  The company made shares available to ‘adventurers’ and paid their passage – or else it gave shares to those who could pay their own way. The long-term plan was that the resultant profit would fund future settlers, who would work for the Virginia Company for seven years and then be free to make their own fortunes.

In April 1607 104 men and boys arrived in three ships, the Susan Constant, the Godspeed and the Discovery, at the southern headland of Chesapeake Bay

Modern map of Chesapeake Bay, showing
the watershed

Meeting with an unfriendly reaction from the locals, they sailed sixty miles inland on the newly named James River and called the settlement Jamestown. There they began trading with Powhatan, the ruler of over 10,000 Algonquians, who realized too late that the newcomers intended to take over his land and subjugate his people. 

The colonists suffered great hardships. Of the original 104 settlers only 38 survived the first nine months. The rest were only saved from starvation by the efforts of Captain John Smith, one of the colony’s original councillors appointed by the King. The story of his rescue by Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, has become a legend. In 1614 she married another of the colonists, John Rolfe. 

Far from being the earthly paradise advertised in the promotional literature, Jamestown turned out to be disease-ridden. There were none of the gold deposits that had been expected and the settlers had arrived with insufficient provisions; moreover their relationship with the Powhatan Confederacy deteriorated. 

From the start the pattern of English colonisation differed significantly from the Spanish.  The Spaniards had conquered highly sophisticated peoples and had subdued two great empires, the Aztecs and the Incas. The English settled in a sparsely populated area and brought with them the model they had learned in Ireland of  ‘plantations’, fortified settlements surrounded by potentially hostile natives.  They brought with them as well their laws and institutions and tried to make their new communities as much like England as possible. The Virginia House of Burgesses, the first European-style legislative assembly in America, held its first meeting on 30 July 1619. 

The economy of Virginia came to rest on two valuable commodities: tobacco and slaves. By 1616 tobacco had become a profitable export, and it was tobacco that was to pay for the wives (the bride price starting at 120 lbs) after the first women came over in 1619. In 1619 the first Africans were brought to the Chesapeake. New settlers began to arrive, including Slovaks, Poles and Germans. 

In spite of this the colony never managed to become self-sufficient and it faced growing threats from the Indians. In 350 they killed a quarter of the settlers, some 350, including John Rolfe.  In 1624 the Virginia Company was declared bankrupt and, Virginia became a royal colony, ruled by a governor appointed by the monarch. The Crown now had a direct stake in America.


Maryland, the other Chesapeake colony, had very different origins
It was set up in 1634 as a proprietary colony, the land having been granted to a single governor rather than a joint-stock company. Its founder George Calvert, 1st Baron Baltimore, a Catholic convert, applied to Charles I for a royal charter. After he died in April 1632 the charter was granted to his son, the 2nd Baron, who named the colony after Charles I’s Catholic queen, Henrietta Maria. It was intended to be primarily a haven for persecuted Catholics, but also a place where Catholics and Protestants could live peacefully side-by-side. The first legislative assembly met in 1635. Like Virginia, the economy depended on tobacco. 

By 1700 the white population on the Chesapeake had reached some 90,000. The great majority of the immigrants were indentured servants who had to work off the cost of their package. Their life-expectancy was in the mid-thirties. The population contained an unusually high number of single men, widows and orphaned children.

New England

The foundation of New England in the early seventeenth century, symbolised by the landing of the Mayflower at Cape Cod in November 1620, and the founding of the Plymouth settlement, is the most emotionally charged episode in the narrative of the English colonisation of North America. 

The Pilgrim Fathers, as they were later named, were Puritan separatists who had despaired of bringing about reform in the Church of England. Their initial destination was Virginia but a winter storm landed them much further north. Finding themselves in a territory outside the jurisdiction of the Virginia Company they devised a contract known as the Mayflower Compact, binding themselves 
togeather into a civill body politick, for our better ordering & preservation & furtherance of [the] ends aforesaid; and by virtue herof to enacte, constitute, and frame such just & equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, & offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meete & convenient for [the] general good of [the] Colonie. 
This is the first written document establishing a ‘just and equal’ form of government in America.

The native population of New England was in no fit state to offer resistance to the settlers as their population had been catastrophically depleted by an outbreak of what might have been the bubonic plague. Those that survived enabled the newcomers survive the rigours of the first winter by aiding them in planting. In the following year, natives and newcomers celebrated the success of the first crop by holding a harvest feast shared with the local Wampanoag Indiansand in 1863 Thanksgiving was made a national holiday.

In 1629 a new merchant company the Massachusetts Bay Company was established, and a great Puritan exodus from England, known as the Great Migration, began. More than 20,000 migrated to America and arranged themselves over five main areas of settlement, out of which three colonies emerged: Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. 

From the start New England was different from Virginia. For the early Chesapeake settlers, the motivation had been almost entirely economic, and they had been lured there by misleading prospectuses about the fertility of the land and the mildness of the climate. But the Puritans responded to the idea of America as a harsh untamed wilderness, where they could create a godly community. 

Another difference from Virginia was that from the start the settlers brought their families with them. There was no need to import wives, and women were considered the equals of men – at least spiritually. 

John Winthrop, governor of
In April 1630 the ship Arbella, left the Isle of Wight for Massachusetts, carrying the lawyer John Winthroand his two sons. On board the ship, Winthrop wrote a sermon that was either preached then or delivered later, which has been seen as the founding text of American exceptionalism
For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word throughout the world.

New England was not a crown colony like Virginia, nor a proprietary colony like Maryland.  It was run by a General Court, which elected the governor and his assistants. In 1644 Massachusetts set up a two-chamber legislature, with all decisions requiring a majority in both houses. A trading corporation had evolved into the governing body of a commonwealth. 

However, Massachusetts was a theocracy rather than a democracy and it is ironical that people who had come to America to escape from persecution were very soon engaged in persecuting religious dissidents. This intolerance enraged the minister, Roger Williams, who arrived in Boston in 1631. Williams argued for religious liberty and for what was to become an important American principle - the complete separation of church and state. In 1635 the General Court of Salem convicted him of sedition and heresy. In the spring of 1636 he and his followers began a new settlement, which he called Providence, which became the colony of Rhode Island. It became a haven for religious dissidents of all denominations.

By the middle of the seventeenth century, the original settlement patterns of townships comprising some 50 to 100 square miles of settlement structured round a central meeting house, with common land surrounding it for grazing livestock and growing crops, had given way to individual family holdings of between 100 to 200 acres.  With increasing individualism came a more secular outlook.

In both New England and the Chesapeake the distinction between white and native society was increasing. American identity was white, and predicated on the existence of non-white peoples, both ‘Indian’ and African.

The Middle Colonies

By the late seventeenth century Britain’s colonial presence had extended far beyond the Chesapeake and Massachusetts Bay.  Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Connecticut were Puritan foundations, established by those who had clashed with the Massachusetts hierarchy. In 1643 the New England Confederation (which excluded Rhode Island) was formed to provide for defence against both the Indians and the French and Dutch. A separate New England identity was coming into being.

With the restoration of the monarchy in the 1660s, new colonies were founded, all of them proprietary arrangements. The Carolinas and New Jersey were founded by a group of Charles II’s courtiers. In 1664 the English gained control of New Amsterdam, which was renamed New York after the Duke of York, the brother of Charles II. When James assumed the throne in 1685 he made it a royal colony, by which time it had a white population of 20,000. It was an ethnically diverse colony, with a commercial centre and a fertile agricultural hinterland in the Hudson Valley.

The courtiers who founded these colonies saw them simply as investments, and had no intention of settling there. Parts of them could be sold, and in 1682 the eastern part of New Jersey was bought by a Quaker syndicate, headed by William Penn. In the previous year Charles II granted Penn the land that would become known as Pennsylvania. With its settlement of Philadelphia (‘brotherly love’), Pennsylvania was a ‘holy experiment’, where land would be bought legally from the Indians, and people of all religions could live together in peace. Under Penn’s leadership the colony welcomed persecuted English Quakers, as well as European religious dissenters, including Swiss and German Mennonites. Penn later expanded the territory by purchasing the Swedish fur-trading settlements on the Delaware River, which in 1703 became a separate colony.


The final settlement was Georgia, founded in 1732 by the philanthropist, General James Oglethorpe, as a refuge for debtors. In 1733 a group of colonists founded Savannah near the mouth of the Savannah River. It was laid out according to a geometrical pattern, with numerous little parks. In 1734 German Protestants arrived, fleeing persecution in the Holy Roman Empire. With the settlement of Georgia, the British colonies stretched from French Canada down to Spanish Florida. 
View of Savannah, 1734

 The native peoples

As the colonial population grew, it came under increasing attack from the native peoples. One of the bones of contention was that the Europeans and the Indians had different views of property rights. To native peoples the land was for use and to be shared, while Europeans viewed land ownership as contractual and exclusive. What followed was a tragic history of war and displacement. By 1800 the native US population was 600,000. In 1500 it had stood at an estimated 2.2 million.


The era of colonisation also saw the introduction of slavery. The first slave ship arrived in Jamestown in 1619.  In 1641 Massachusetts formally recognised slavery in its legal code. Yet it was in Virginia that the institution of slavery became more firmly established, as a solution to the colony’s growing labour needs. In 1622 Virginia established the precedent that slavery would be a matrilineal institution: the children would take the legal status of the mother. In 1667 it was decreed that baptism into the Christian faith would not alter a slave’s legal status.  In 1670 it became illegal for any black to purchase a Christian or a white servant.

Over the next hundred years, slavery would come to be the economic bedrock of large parts of British colonial America. In 1705 the Virginia House of Burgesses ruled that slavery was a perpetual condition, transmitted through the mother, and ‘all negro, mulatto, and Indian slaves’ comprised a form of ‘real estate’ that could be bought and sold like any other.


North America had a thriving, overwhelmingly Protestant, religious culture. It was a diverse culture and there was no single denomination. Anglicans were in a majority in Virginia but not elsewhere. Puritan congregationalism was largely confined to New England. Quakerism was dominant in most of Pennsylvania but in the west of the colony the Presbyterianism of the Scotch-Irish colonists prevailed. Baptists and Methodists were strong in Virginia. The religious culture of the colonies has left an enduring legacy of great religious diversity, with no denomination allowed to dominate the others, of fervent popular piety, and a sense  of America’s divine mission: 'a city upon a hill'.


  1. The thirteen colonies had come into being for different reasons, and within them there were many cultural differences. However, they were governed in a broadly similar manner. All the colonies had their charters and constitutions, based on English common law. Most were ruled by a governor appointed by the Crown or by the proprietor(s) and had a legislature divided between an upper house, appointed by the governor, and an elected lower house. This governing arrangement was to have important consequences. While the British government claimed ultimate power, in practice the colonies were managing their own affairs and coming to see themselves less and less as British.
  2. From the start the colonies were involved in confrontation with the Native Americans and with other Europeans. Fear of attacks helped to bring them together.
  3. The economies of the colonies, especially in the south, were bound up with black slavery. Racial distinctions were there from the start.
  4. By the early eighteenth century the English had outstripped the French and the Spanish in the New World. British America was the most prosperous, and powerful region on the continent. But no-one could have anticipated that these very diverse colonies would ever come together to form a single nation.

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