Colonial America, 1607-1763: A Story of Discontent Full-Circle

John Smith’s “A Map of Virginia: With a Description of the Countrey, the Commodities, People, Government and Religion” / Library of Congress

By Henry J. Sage / 12.05.2016

The First Americans, 1607-1700

This illustration of Roanoke Island, Virginia, is a detail from a map in the 1590 edition of Thomas Hariot’s Briefe and True Account of the New Found Land of Virginia. / Wikimedia Commons

Most Americans generally assume that our history began in 1607 with the settlement of Jamestown. While that may be true, in that Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in North America, a great deal had happened before that traditional date. The English had attempted a few settlements that failed, including the well-known one at Roanoke Island in North Carolina. The city of St. Augustine, Florida, predated the English development by over 40 years. Spanish priests and explorers also established settlements or missions in the Southwest. French, English and Dutch explorers visited various parts of North America throughout the 1500s. The Vikings had visited North America centuries earlier. All of the earliest settlements either failed or were abandoned.

Here I focus primarily on the English colonization of North America, including, or course, settlements composed of Germans, Dutch, Swedes and others. Here we discuss the early years when the first arrivals began building new lives in the wilderness. The land they discovered was, as is well understood, already inhabited by Indians (so named by Columbus, who thought he had landed in India), and the interaction between Europeans and Native Americans is an important and often tragic component of our development as a nation. That part of our story, it is safe to say, is still being written.

“History is our collective memory. If we are deprived of our memory we are in danger of becoming a large, dangerous idiot, thrashing blindly about, with only the dimmest understanding of the ideals and principles that formed us as a people, and that we have constantly to reinterpret and affirm if we are to preserve a sense of our own identity.”

—Page Smith, from A People’s History of the United States

“If you don’t know history, you don’t know anything; you’re a leaf that doesn’t know it’s part of a tree.”

—Michael Crichton in Timeline

“I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience.”

—Patrick Henry, Speech, 1775

“A nation that forgets its past can function no better than an individual with amnesia.”

—David McCullough

Why Study History?

Henry Ford once said, “History is more or less bunk.” To an industrialist who revolutionized the automobile industry by discarding old methods and creating new ones, the past may have seemed irrelevant. But it is clear that Henry Ford understood thoroughly what had occurred in industrial America before his time when he developed the assembly line and produced an automobile that most working Americans could afford. Whether he was aware of it or not, Henry Ford used his understanding of the past to create a better future. (In fact, what Henry Ford really meant was that history as being taught in the early 1900s was bunk.)

Ford’s opinion aside, history is about understanding. It would be easy to say that “in these critical times” we need to know more about our history as a nation. But even a cursory study of America’s past reveals that relatively few periods in our history have not found us in the midst of one crisis or another—economic, constitutional, political, or military. We have often used the calm times to prepare for the inevitable storms, and in those calm times we ought to try to predict when the next storm will arise, or at least consider how we might cope with it.

Because the best predictor of the future is the record of the past, we can learn much of value even when the need for such learning is not immediately apparent. Once the inevitable crisis is upon us, it may be difficult to reflect soberly on what we can learn from the past. As philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel said, “Amid the pressure of great events, a general principle gives no help.” A modern version of that dictum, often used in a military context, goes something like this: “It’s hard to remember that your mission is to drain the swamp when you’re up to your butt in alligators.” In any case, without looking backward, we may find the road ahead quite murky.

No matter how much American history keeps presenting us with trying new situations, we discover from looking backward even to colonial times that we have met comparable challenges before. Conditions change, technology provides new resources, populations grow and shift, and new demographics alter the face of America. Yet no matter how much we change as a nation, we are still influenced by our past. The Puritans, the early settlers, founding fathers, pioneer men and women, Blacks, Native Americans, Chinese laborers, Hispanics, Portuguese, eastern Europeans, Jews, Muslims, Vietnamese—all kinds of Americans from our recent and distant past—still speak to us in clear voices about their contributions to the character of this great nation and the ways in which we have tried to resolve differences among ourselves and with the rest of the world.

Everything we are and hope to be as Americans is rooted in our past. Our religious, political, social and economic development proceeded according to a pattern—whether random or cyclical—and those patterns are intelligible to us when we study our heritage. The men who wrote our timeless Constitution, the most profound political document ever produced by man, were acutely aware of what had gone before as they fashioned a document that would serve millions of Americans yet unborn. The power of our form of government comes from the fact that our fathers took the best of the past and built upon it.

Our success as a nation depends on how well we know ourselves, and that knowledge can only come from knowing our history. Without hindsight we are blind to the future; without comprehending our past—the positive and negative aspects—we can never truly know where we want to go. History is an essential element of the chain of events that defines our road ahead. As the quotations at the top of this section suggest, we are all part of the American tree, and its roots go very deep.

What Is American History About?

For most historians the fundamental question to be answered in the study of history is, “What really happened?” In studying American history we know a great deal about “what happened,” and relatively few serious questions exist about the basic facts of American history. We have fought wars, elected presidents, built factories, cultivated millions of acres, produced enormous wealth, seen immigrants flock to our shores, driven the Indians off the plains and onto reservations, ended slavery, and so on. If our concern with history stopped there, we would mere chronology. The study of history goes beyond chronology and into the how and why things happened in the past. History, in other words, soon becomes complicated.

We know, for example, that the American Revolutionary War began when shots were fired at Lexington and Concord in 1775. We are still undecided, however, about the exact nature of that experience—was it really a revolution, or merely a transfer of power across the At-lantic Ocean? We know that the Japanese empire bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, but controversies have raged over the causes of that aggression, and about how much was known of the impending attack on that fateful morning. The real causes of the Civil War continue to be debated, and hundreds of books have been written about the events sur-rounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. As soon as we begin to ask how and why things happened, consensus disappears.

Sometimes explanations for historical events breed conspiracy theories. Did President Roosevelt really know about the impending attack on Pearl Harbor? Was the CIA involved in President Kennedy’s assassination? Did we really land on the moon? Was the plot to destroy the World Trade Center really hatched in Washington by our government? Is the earth really round? Conspiracy theories spread rapidly and die hard even when overwhelming evidence to the contrary exists. (There really is a Flat Earth Society.) Our job as historians is to pene-trate the myths about our past in order to discover the real truth of American history.

Our Roots Are Deep and Wide: America and the Rest of the World

The Roman Empire at its greatest extent under Trajan / Wikimedia Commons

American history did not occur in a vacuum. Thousands of years of human history preceded the discovery and colonization of the North American continent, and much of that prior history had a direct or indirect bearing on how this nation was formed. Some historians view American history as an extension of the history of Europe, or of the history of the “Western world.” On the other hand, some claim that American history tells a tale that has no real parallel in the histories of other nations, even though Americans have much in common with other peoples. That view is sometimes referred to as “American exceptionalism,” the idea that America’s history is unique. Both views have some merit, but the important point to remember is that Americans sometimes fail to see themselves in their proper relationship to the rest of the world, often at their own peril. In other words, we are not alone.

As we shall see, American history has strands that find their roots in the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome. Indeed, the “American Empire” has been compared—for better or worse—with the Roman Empire, and much of our political philosophy, as well as our literary and social concepts, can be traced to the ancient Greeks. The scientific discoveries associated with the Renaissance were frequently based in the work of Muslim scholars and historians, who kept classical ideas of the ancient world alive during Europe’s so-called Dark Ages. The advances of the Renaissance led in turn to the discovery and exploration of new worlds, of which our ancestors were the beneficiaries.

When the Europeans left their homes to come to America they did not leave everything behind, but brought with them their religions, their cultural ideas, their values and concepts of justice and freedom. They named their colonies, cities, towns, and villages after their Old World homes and in some measure tried to recreate them on virgin soil. For reasons we will discuss later, that attempt at re-creation was futile if not actually undesirable, for the movement to the New World was inevitably a transforming experience. But the colonizers felt their roots deeply, and those roots persisted in influencing their decisions for generations. American history was shaped by strong currents that go back hundreds or even thousands of years.  We are connected to the past as surely as the roots of a tree are anchored in the ground. And while the investigation of all that prehistory is essential for a full understanding of the modern world, most of it necessarily lies behind the scope of this basic course.  No matter how much we read or study, we are never capable of seeing more than a small portion of the great panorama that is the history of the United States, which, even for us, is just a small part of the greater history of the world.

Although America is necessarily connected with the rest of the world in profound ways, for significant periods in American history events in this country occurred without being influenced from without. The colonists who arrived here in the 17th century, for example, were largely untouched by events occurring elsewhere except as they stimulated further emigration from Europe. In the 18th century, however, a series of dynastic wars among the European powers were often played out on the battlefields of North America. In the latter decades of the century, the influences of the American and French revolutions were felt strongly on both sides of the Atlantic.

Later, as America filled up its frontiers, 19th-century Americans went about their business without much reference to the rest of the world, except, of course, for the influence of millions of refugees and immigrants who poured in through Ellis Island and other ports in the latter decades. Because the European world was relatively free from conflict during the so-called “Hundred Years’ Peace,” America was relatively untouched by major events beyond our shores. Eventually, perhaps inevitably, America was dragged into conflicts with foreign powers, but those periods were typically followed by periods of withdrawal—or isolation, as it is sometimes called. It was only during the 20th century, beginning with World War I, that the United States became a major player on the international scene. Since the end of World War II America has been a dominant force in international affairs.

To go back to our origins, however, we may start with the proposition that American history did not begin with Jamestown, nor the Spanish settlement of North America, nor Columbus, nor even with the arrival of the Native Americans. For America is a Western nation, a nation whose roots lie deeply in Europe, albeit with powerful strains of Native American, African, and Asian cultures mixed in. America is an outgrowth of the evolution of European society and culture. From our politics to our religion to our economic and social behavior, we follow patterns that emerged over time from the ancient civilizations of the Western world—Greece, Rome, the Middle East, and the barbarian tribes that ranged across northern Europe before the rise of the Roman Republic and the Greek city-states.

Our principal religion is Christianity. Our drama is tinged with the influence of Greek tragedy. Our laws have grown out of the experiences of the Roman Republic, the Greek city-state and English common law. Our philosophy is heavily derived from Plato and Aristotle, and our science and mathematics also stem from the ancient world, often via Islamic and African scholars who picked up long-lost threads and wove them into new shapes that were embraced by Europeans during and after the Renaissance. Those developments in science and mathematics made possible the great age of exploration, which led to the discovery of America (or “rediscovery” if you prefer) by Columbus and his successors.

Following are some of the ways in which the pre-Columbian world touched American history:

  • Religious: The Judeo-Christian heritage of America is strong and still has enormous influence over our attitudes and beliefs. The Crusades, the Reformation, and the entire religious history of Europe are part of the background of America. Our religious heritage helps determine our relationships with the rest of the world.
  • Political: Early concepts of democracy were Greek—the funeral oration of Pericles from Thucydides could be used at a present-day 4th of July celebration. The Roman Republic was the last great republic before the United States. The founding fathers were aware of that history and used it in making their revolution and writing our Constitution.
  • Philosophical: As Alfred North Whitehead remarked, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” In other words, our ideas of self, society, and government, and the nature of our universe, have roots in ancient and medieval philosophies.
  • Cultural: Our poetry, drama, music, literature, and language are all part of the Western European heritage. We formed our own culture, but it was informed by all that had gone before.
  • Economic: From mercantilist beginnings America became the most successful capitalist nation in the history of the world, partly because of our adoption of the Protestant (Puritan) work ethic and the notion that God helps those who help themselves. Banks, publicly owned stock companies, corporations, insurance companies, and other economic enterprise systems had their roots in Europe, but were refined and expanded in America.

In beginning our study of American history, then, it is important to enter it with an open mind and a broad vision. This introductory text of necessity covers only the surface of America’s past. As one delves deeper into the course our nation has taken from its origins to the present day, one’s focus must narrow. More advanced courses in history dig deeper into history’s different components. Many hundreds of historical works cover specific events and individuals in great detail. Political figures like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson, and both Roosevelts have attracted dozens of fine authors, as have inventors, scientists, artists, athletes and countless other figures. The American Civil War alone has bred tens of thousands of books, and they are still coming out. In studying history we quickly realize that the overall picture is even larger than it may at first seem; in our first journey through the past we will leave out many details. This is just the beginning.

Prehistory: The Origins of the Age of Discovery

Posthumous portrait of Christopher Columbus, by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519 / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The year 1607, which marks the settlement of Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in North America, is certainly one of the more significant dates in early American history.  Itwould be wrong, however, to think that American history started there—after all, many peoples were here before the English.  Spaniards roamed parts of North America 100 years before the English arrived, and as is well known, Native Americans were here tens of thousands of years before that.

As we have already noted, the origins of American history go back in other directions besides those that lead to what actually happened on this continent.  The explorations of Christopher Columbus began an earlier phase of the story of the settlement of the New World, but that story also had roots that go even further back in time.  The scientific discoveries of the Renaissance that made oceanic travel possible are part of the background of the discovery story.  The Crusades generated interest among the the European powers in trading with the Far East, which in turn led to the desire for better communication between Europe and Asia.

For reasons we will not take time to explore, Pope Urban II ordered the first Crusade in the year 1099. The Crusades lasted for about 200 years, and during part of that time the Holy Land, the area that is now Israel, was occupied by European princes and their followers who tried to organize a Christian empire in the midst of the Islamic world.  One byproduct of that occupation was enhanced contact with traders and travelers from the Far East who journeyed overland to the Mediterranean region, bringing silks, spices and other goods.  Much of the commerce between the Middle East and Western Europe went through Italy, where merchants found that dealing with goods originating in Asia was quite profitable. Thus it was no coincidence that the first mariner to set out for Asia across the Atlantic was Italian.

The difficulty with trading with the Far East was that the overland routes were long and tedious, and caravans were subject to various taxes and raids along the way.  Conducting commerce with the Far East by ship was faster and safer, though the trip was long.  For a time traders seeking to deal with Asia sailed around the Horn of Africa, along its East Coast and then across the Indian Ocean until they reached ports and East and Southeast Asia.

Sea borne travel was at that time still dangerous because of limited knowledge of celestial navigation and the lack of accurate timepieces, which combined to make any ocean voyage that got outside the sight of land quite precarious.  But with the Renaissance came advances in knowledge of navigation and the ability to determine longitude, which meant that vessels could proceed farther out to sea and maintain some sense of their whereabouts.  Since the trip around Africa was long and difficult, and since it was known (despite myths to the contrary) that the world was round, sailors came to imagine traveling to the far east by sailing west.

Those ideas, of course, led to Columbus’s discovery of what he thought was a direct route to India, but which was actually the ocean path to America.

The Crusades influenced events America’s roots in another way.  In our discussion of the Reformation we will point out that Martin Luther’s frustrations with the Roman Church were a product of corruption which had in part begun during the time of the Crusades.  Crusaders who died fighting in for Christ were granted by Pope plenary indulgences, which meant that they had a direct, rapid path to heaven in case of their death while fighting for God.

Since the Crusades were expensive, in order to raise funds to support those journeys, indulgences were eventually offered to those who supported the Crusades financially.  That idea soon evolved into the concept of granting indulgences for other good works, such as supporting the building of St. Peter’s in Rome.  By Luther’s time, indulgences were being sold with all the crassness that suggested the church was selling tickets to heaven.

Martin Luther found those and other practices of the church corrupt and issued his famous complaints against the church; thus began the Protestant Reformation.  It often happens that once a revolution has begun, it is difficult to contain it, and from Martin Luther’s first break with the Church of Rome, various other reformers took his ideas off in even more radical directions.  Even in his own lifetime, Martin Luther was involved in disputes with other reform theologians, not only with Catholic authorities.

One of the defenders of the church against what was seen as the heresies of Martin Luther was King Henry VIII of England, who, in appreciation for his writing of a defense of the Roman Church, was granted the title of “Defender of the Faith,” an appellation which British monarchs carry to this day. For reasons explore more fully below, Henry eventually became disgruntled with the pope, and therefore separated his church from Rome, an event known as the English Reformation.  But some of the advocates of Protestant Reformation ideas took more extreme positions, saying that the Anglican Church had done little to reform itself except to replace the Pope as the head of the church with the King of England.  Some of those reformers were upset by what they called “remnants of popery,” and sought to purify the Anglican Church from its “Romish” influences.  Important among such groups were the Puritans who would eventually settle Massachusetts Bay.

The colonization of North America by the English which took root at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 was also driven by additional forces emanating from the Crusades, namely, the Spanish and Portuguese conquests of Central and South America which had brought them enormous wealth.  As more and more nations sought to expand trade as the key to national wealth, and saw acquisition of colonies as a way to facilitate that trade, exploration and colonization were advanced by ideas that have come to be identified as capitalism.

Along with the events described above are, of course, other major factors such as the religious movement begun by Mohammed which resulted in the religion of Islam; the rise and decline of the Roman Empire, which included the spreading of Christianity throughout most of  the European world; the Viking explorations and Norman conquest of England.  All those things and more have contributed to the chain of events which resulted in the nation we see today.

A Beginning, A Middle and an End

One way to look at history—perhaps the easiest way—is to view it as a narrative. Rather than trying to learn history as a series of more or less unconnected events, if we see it as a story with a plot, much as a novel or a movie, we can grasp the big picture as a frame in which we can look at particular events.

The Susan B. Constant at the Jamestown Historical Site, Virginia / Photo by Cindy Vallar, Wikimedia Commons

Early American history is indeed a story with a beginning, a middle and an end.  The plot of the story is full of interesting characters, conflict, resolution of conflict, more conflict and more resolution. Since we know the end of the story of early America, as it turned out in 1865, the dramatic tension may be slight. But while it was happening, the outcome was uncertain, and in no way inevitable.

In the beginning they came—in a trickle at first, and then a growing tide of humanity escaping from the frustrations of life in the old country.

They saw—they liked what they saw, and more came and spread inward and up and down the coasts, along rivers, into the valleys and over the mountains.

They conquered—they conquered their loneliness, they conquered the land, they conquered the rivers and the fields and the forests, and they conquered the natives.  And within 150 years the first part of the American story was ending, and a new chapter was beginning

The Plot Thickens

The second part of the story is that of revolution, which began when the frustrations of Europe reached America’s shores.  The new country in the old country had parted ways—partly because of distance and the newness of life in America, but also because the old systems did not work here.  Life was different, labor was more valuable, land more plentiful, opportunities less restricted.  Although the differences between the Old World and the New were not at first irreconcilable, they were sharp.  Had relations been managed better from the British side, and had Americans been less impatient, things might have been resolve peacefully, although the eventual independence of America over time must be seen as having been inevitable.  In any case, the protest began, spread to open defiance and finally to armed rebellion, and the war came.

The revolutionary war was not the bloodiest in American history in absolute terms, but in terms of its impact on the population, the percentage of people who participated and died, it was a great war.  It was fought badly for the most part on both sides, and although George Washington was not a great general on the model of Napoleon or Caesar or Lee, he managed to hold the cause together until the British tired of the game.  With help from the French and pressure from the other European nations, the British let go of their rebellious cousins.

The second part of this chapter was the creation of a government and a nation.  Compared with conditions which have accompanied most modern revolutions, the Americans had the extraordinary luxury of a period of six years during which Europe ignored the new nation.  Absent any threats from without, America was allowed to find its own constitutional destiny.  The original government created, the Articles of Confederation, could not have lasted as the nation expanded—there was too little power at the center; something more substantial, more permanent, more profound was required, and in Philadelphia in 1787 what has been called a “miracle” was wrought, and the Constitution was written.

Under Washington’s leadership the new ship of state found its way, though the waters were often rough and choppy.  Turmoil erupted in Europe just as the new government under the Constitution began, and the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars threatened the stability of the nation,  But with firm hands on the helm, the ship kept on course and did not founder.

The first great test came in 1800, when political power changed hands peaceably for the first time in the modern world.  So tense had been the politics in the 1790’s that at least one historian has opined that the nation might have descended into Civil War had Jefferson’s Republicans not won the election of 1800.  With that victory a new phase of American history began—the Jeffersonian-Jacksonian era.

During Jefferson’s two terms as president the nation spread and prospered, but also slowly drifted towards war.  His successor, James Madison, challenged the British, and the War of 1812, sometimes called the second war for independence, was fought.  Again, it was fought badly if valiantly by the Americans, but the British, fatigued from years of struggling against Napoleon,  were willing to call it quits with after having punished the Americans by burning their capital.

Then follow what has become known as the “era of good feelings,” although sectional tensions over economic issues, including slavery, were developing underneath the placid surface.  In 1828 a new revolution was underway.  The “Age of Jackson” is also known as the age of  the common man—American democracy spread from wealthy landowners to virtually all adult white males.  During the 1820s and 30s American democracy move forward at a steady pace, even as it left women and blacks behind.  In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville visited America and wrote his famous “Democracy in America,” an explanatory history of the nation which emphasized the spirit of egalitarianism that pervaded everything American, with the notable exception of slavery.

The final chapter in early American history began with expansion, which led to further struggles over slavery and how to deal with the peculiar institution.  War with Mexico expanded the country to the coast and opened new areas of conflict.  The most difficult issue to resolve—largely because it was embedded in the Constitution—continued to be slavery.  Through the 1850s virtually every public issue of national import was related to it, and as 1860 approached,  the tension on both sides became unbearable.

The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 signaled the beginning of the end of early American history, and the greatest war our nation has ever indulged in began.  It was fought with the ferocity only possible when brother fights brother and friend fights friend.  The devastation in the South was enormous, the losses grievous on both sides, but in 1865 the end of the end came when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox.

Thus the first half of American history drew to a close, and as northerners and Southerners buried their dead, they looked ahead to new and unforeseen challenges as America entered the modern world.

Introduction to American Colonial History


Historian Page Smith wrote the only full-length history of the United States written in the 20th century. His “People’s History of the United States” covers the time from the American Revolution through World War II in eight volumes of 800-1000 pages each. I have found him to be a thoughtful, careful historian who sees beyond the mere chronology into the deeper meanings of historic events. In his first of two volumes on the American Revolution he briefly describes the principle elements of colonization, then concludes as follows:

In this hasty review of the founding of the principal colonies, I have tried to convey a sense of the remarkable diversity represented in these ventures. A number of human varieties and social forms, some as old as England itself, others as new as the new commercial and mercantile spirit of the age, were planted in the virgin soil of the New World. There they would grow luxuriantly, each in its particular way, in a vegetative mold made up of new ideas and opportunities. There religious enthusiasm and rigid orthodoxy would shape one colony, while tolerance and a vigorous commercial spirit would place an unmistakable stamp on another. In the South, the best traditions of the English landed gentry would grow on the incongruous foundation of black slavery. In the North, the democracy of the New England village would be nurtured by a spirit that seems to the modern consciousness to be marked by simple religious fanaticism. America was like some strange new garden where all kinds of transplanted vegetables and flowers lived together in vigorous incompatibility, growing with astonishing speed in that fertile ground and developing, in the process, new strains and varieties. The New Englanders indeed liked the image of a new land of Canaan, a refuge for a new Chosen People; other colonists spoke of a Garden of Eden, a world of innocence where humanity might start anew. Perhaps it was this vision of a new world and a new opportunity that ran as a common theme through all the colonies. North or south, all reverberated to that grand chord, a silken thread that tied them all together and that, in time, would become a mighty rope. (Page Smith, A New Age Now Begins: A People’s History of the American Revolution, Vol. I, p. 27)

Smith’s history of America is not what is sometimes called “triumphalist” history, meaning a history that celebrates everything American without being overly critical, even when criticism is warranted. Smith presents the American story without pulling any punches, warts and all, as it were. In the process he takes on some American myths and puts them to rest.

Myths about American history began with the colonial period, and we will discuss some of them as we proceed. Perhaps the first thing to discuss would be the so-called “push-pull effect,” which would evaluate the colonial process both by what attracted immigrants to America and by the conditions in Europe that “pushed” them to leave their homeland. In England and in much of Europe, the poor were chronically unemployed, and opportunities to rise out of poverty were scarce; by comparison, almost any alternative might have seemed promising—Europe in 1600 had lots of push. On the other hand, conditions in early America were difficult, to say the least, but the “pull factor” was helped by what can only be characterized as propaganda. Proprietors of the companies that sponsored American colonies quickly realized that settlers were needed if their investments were to show a return, and their efforts to recruit settlers made the New World appear far more attractive than conditions warranted. Thus the first myth which we might challenge is that of the New World as “Utopia—the land of opportunity.”

Despite Smith’s rather positive description above, he understands that the  settlement of America was neither easy nor simple—the forces that brought colonists from Europe were complex, as were the many changes that being in a new, alien environment engendered in the colonists.  The odds were high that those brave souls would meet an early death, either during the dangerous sea voyage—when storms often alternated with periods of little wind, when food and water would go bad and sickness rampaged through the passenger holds—or from disease, Indian attack, or even starvation once they arrived in the New World.  They came for a variety of reasons, but all wanted a better life. Carving a better life out of the vast wilderness the early colonists found in North America challenged even the hardiest of those early pioneers.

Colonization of the New World: Early European Exploration

Statue of Leif Erikson near the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul / Wikimedia Commons

The Spanish, Portuguese, and English were not the first Europeans to come to North America. As far as is known, the first to arrive on the continent of North America were from Scandinavia.  The Norse explorer Eric the Red traveled through Greenland and founded a settlement around the year 985. His son Leif Ericsson also explored the area of what is now Northeastern Canada and spent some time in that region.  It is possible that Viking explorers sailed farther south along the Atlantic coast, perhaps as far as the Caribbean islands. Some evidence has been found in North and South America to suggest that other contacts occurred between North America and explorers from either Europe or Asia, but all such ideas remain in the realm of speculation pending further evidence. In any case, Columbus’s journeys traditionally mark the beginning of the period of European settlement of the New World.  John Cabot, Amerigo Vespucci, Ponce de León and others soon established territorial claims for Spain and Portugal, and Vespucci’s name was eventually attached to the continents of the New World. (He probably had a better publicist than Columbus.) But Columbus was the first to arrive after 1400.

The great irony of Christopher Columbus, of course, is that he never really knew what he had discovered; indeed, he never set foot on the continent of North America. Yet the first explorations of the area that eventually became the United States started from the Spanish settlements begun by Columbus in the Caribbean. The oldest settlement in North America is the city of St. Augustine in Florida. Spanish explorers such as Hernando De Soto and Francisco Coronado ventured widely into the southeastern and central parts of North America and as far west as Colorado and the Grand Canyon. It was Coronado’s men who introduced the plains Indians to the horse, which, as stated elsewhere, resulted in a remarkable transformation of their culture. Other Europeans such as Giovanni da Verrazano sailed along the east coast as far as New York harbor, and Frenchman Jacques Cartier sailed into the St. Lawrence River, establishing the French claims on what became Canada.

English Colonization of North America

The Mayflower on Her Arrival in Plymouth Harbor, By William Formsby Halsall, 1882 / Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth

In the broadest sense the American colonial experience was not unique in history.  Following the discovery of the New World by Columbus, the European nations—primarily Spain, Portugal, Netherlands, France, and England—set out to build colonial empires based on certain assumptions:  First, colonies would make them wealthy and powerful and give them advantages over their neighbors.  Second, the acquisition of colonies would enable them to solve various social problems such as overpopulation (relative to available land and food supplies), poverty, and the crime that was often associated with chronic lack of work for the

unemployable poor.  Third, a general sense prevailed among prosperous members of society that since the poorer classes knew they had little chance of improving their lives, which might tend to make them rebellious, colonies could serve as a sort of escape valve for pent-up frustrations.  Whatever the motivations, most major European nations vigorously pursued colonial policies.

England began to venture out into the North Atlantic in the latter half of the 15th century, in search of gold and other precious metals, better fishing areas and, possibly, a short route to Asia, the mythical northwest passage. In 1585 Sir Walter Raleigh established the first British colony in North America off the coast of North Carolina—Roanoke Island off the coast of what is now North Carolina. Although the “lost colony” failed, it was the first step in the English settlement of the New World.  Although little is known of the Roanoke colony, it was where the first English child born in America first drew breath—her name was Virginia Dare. (The story of the Roanoke Island colony, the “Lost Colony,” is replayed dramatically every summer in Manteo, North Carolina.)

The North American colonies were English for the most part, excepting Spanish Florida and French Canada.  But those English colonies included numerous immigrants from other nations.  Along the Delaware River was a small colony known for a time as New Sweden, and in parts of Pennsylvania there were more German settlers than English.  French Huguenots came as well, and the New York colony started as the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. Within the English communities one could find diversity of another sort—Puritan Congregationalists in New England, Catholics in Maryland, Anglicans in Virginia and the other southern colonies, Presbyterians in the regions settled by Scottish and Irish Protestants from Ulster (Northern Ireland), Jews in Rhode Island, Quakers in Pennsylvania, along with German pietists, and a smattering of Methodists, Baptists, and other Protestant sects throughout moat of the colonies.  Religious differences were more important than they are in the United States today, and were often the source of conflict.  No matter the religious or ethnic makeup of each colony, whether they were proprietary colonies governed by entities such as the London Company, or Crown colonies under the direct control of the British government, all were governed according to British law.

Why Did They Come?

Obverse and Reverse of the Seal of the King in his capacity as President of the Council of Virginia, the inscriptions signifying: “Seal of the King of Great Britain, France and Ireland”; “For his Council of Virginia” / Wikimedia Commons

We have already discussed the push-pull factor, forces operating in both directions, east and west. The English and other colonists who came to America voluntarily came for different reasons, but virtually all could be boiled down to one essential point: They wanted to improve their lives. Behind that self-evident fact was the additional idea that they had different backgrounds and different primary motivations. Some were seeking economic advantage—most of all, a chance to become landowners. The decision to emigrate was also often spurred by conditions in England and elsewhere in Europe—during times of strife or economic hardship, the impetus for emigration was stronger than in good, stable times. Some emigrants were moderately prosperous, and saw the New World as an opportunity for investment that would allow them to move up a few notches on the economic scale. In general, however, the very well-to-do did not emigrate because they had everything to lose and could gain only at great risk.

The very poor did not come at first because they had nothing to offer—no skills, no money for passage, and so on. To obtain a contract as an indentured servant, one had to have something to offer—a skill such as blacksmithing or farm experience or the price of passage—so the poorest of the poor, who were generally chronically unemployed and had no skills to speak of, tended not to be among those who came voluntarily. Later many poor people came against their will—some were prisoners who were offered a chance to go to America in lieu of a prison sentence, and others came as indentured servants, some sold into that temporary form of servitude by parents or families. Both convicts and indentured servants had a chance to succeed because labor was dear in America and they were valued far more than they might have been at home.

In 1618 the Virginia Company instituted the “headright” system, which guaranteed that any person who immigrated into Virginia or paid for another person to settle in Virginia would receive fifty acres of land for each immigrant. The person entitled would get a certificate entitling him to a tract of 50 acres. People already settled in Virginia would get two headright grant, or 100 acres. The purpose of the headright system was to encourage immigration, a measure of how valuable labor was where land was cheap. (The United States government later used a similar policy to stimulate settlement of the West.)

Things began slowly. By 1620 maybe 2,500 colonists existed in all the English colonies in North America. A great migration of Puritans and others occurred from 1630 to 1642. Because of the need for labor to “develop” America, as mentioned above, vigorous recruiting methods were used—inmates of jails and poorhouses were loaded into the ships. The fundamental economic fact about America was the opposite of what existed in Europe: America was land rich and labor starved—much of Europe almost an exact mirror image.

Some settlers came to America for religious freedom, to be able to practice their faith as they wished. But as we shall see, however, the desire for religious freedom did not necessarily mean the desire to have everybody share that freedom. In Puritan Massachusetts, for example, members of other faiths were not welcome. And in Anglican Virginia, it was virtually impossible up to the time of the Revolution for a minister other than Anglican to obtain a license to preach. Maryland became a refuge for Catholics, and the religious diversity of Pennsylvania was an exception.

Gradual Expansion: English and Other Colonies

By the time the first English colony in North America was established in Jamestown in 1607, Spain and Portugal had colonized much of what we now call Latin America, and French and Dutch settlements were being established in the Caribbean area as well as in East Asia and elsewhere around the globe. The French and Dutch began colonizing North America as well soon after Jamestown was settled. By the time of the American Revolution, Great Britain possessed thirty-one colonies around the world, including some—Canada, Florida, and New Netherlands, for example—wrested from colonial competitors such as France, Spain and Holland. Thus the American colonies in 1776 were but thirteen small parts of a vast colonial empire that had been growing since the 1500s.

(It may be noted that Great Britain acquired Spanish Florida in the Treaty of Paris of 1763 that ended the French and Indian War. But Florida had a negligible English population and did not participate in the Revolution. Florida reverted to Spain in 1783, and was later added to the United States in a treaty negotiated by John Quincy Adams with Spain in 1819.)

Acknowledging the debt Americans owe to the past, we can still assert that in many ways the American experience was unique, as are all national experiences. What brought about the American colonial experience? What was its character? What was the colonial experience really like?

The Colonial Experience: No Free Lunch

The Mayflower voyage was cramped and tumultuous, by Mike Haywood

Imagine climbing aboard a ship in which you and about one hundred other people, mostly strangers, have not much more space than exists in your college classroom or perhaps a small house, carrying only as much personal property as you can fit into a medium sized suitcase. You sit in that ship in port for days or even weeks until suitable winds and tides take you out to sea, and then you toss and rock for more weeks or months, as food spoils, water becomes foul, people get sick and often die, storms threaten life and limb of everybody on board. If you survive that ordeal, you finally arrive on a distant shore, disembark with whatever provisions have not been ruined by saltwater, and set out to make yourself a life. Particularly in the earlier years of colonization, there was not much on those shores to greet you when you arrived.

Try to place yourself in that time: Imagine: No hotel to check into, no shops in which to purchase what you need (even if you had money), no restaurants, hardware stores, or theaters—not even a 7-Eleven! But don’t sell yourself short—people are adaptable, and those hardy colonial souls would be completely unable to comprehend our world.

Who Were They?—The Gene Pool

The second point about the colonial experience has to do with the people who came.  Of all the things that can be said about the settlers who came to America, one thing can be claimed without much fear of contradiction: Those who came differed from those who did not.  The settlement of America was not easy; consider the warning at the top of the list of instructions provided to colonists heading to America, “Make Thy Will!”  The odds were very high that those brave souls would meet an early death, either during the dangerous sea voyage—when storms often alternated with periods of little wind, when food and water would go bad and sickness rampaged through the passenger holds—or from disease, Indian attack, or other causes once they arrived in the New World.  The risk of failure was unavoidable, but overriding the fears that such conditions engendered was hope of improvement, willingness to gamble, to bet one’s life on the chance of being able to make a fresh start.  Those who were prepared to take the necessary risks came.  Those who could not face those odds stayed home.

We should remember that what happened in the colonial world two to three hundred years ago helped to shape us into the nation we are today. Those early colonists were our spiritual ancestors, and the things we admire in them are aspects of our own character that we would emphasize.  Their flaws are often shared by us.  If we wish to understand who we really are, we must know where we came from. The physical and emotional demands of colonization were such that one needed to be a certain type to try it—one had to be a bold, adventurous spirit, with a work ethic and a determination to prosper—and those traits became basic elements of the American character.  In a real sense the broad outlines of the American experience were formed before the colonists left their homeland because of the differences between those who were willing to take that gamble and those who were not.  Thus the first seeds of the American Revolution were planted among those early risk takers and their offspring.

Summary. Many came voluntarily, many came under duress of some kind.  (We will discuss the African experience, which brought thousands of slaves to the New World, below.)  Those who came voluntarily thought they could make a better living.  They dreamed of finding gold or silver, or of a life that would reward them in ways that were impossible in their circumstances at home.  Some felt oppressed by political conditions that required obedience to king, duke or other landlord, which many found intolerable and which often involved involuntary military service.  Those who came involuntarily, aside from African slaves who were brought to America, included prisoners, debtors, young people who were sold by their parents or people who sold themselves into indentured servitude.

The Lives of Indentured Servants

The text of an advertisement about two run away indentured servants. The development of the indentured-servant system allowed Europeans who could not afford the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean the opportunity to immigrate to the Pennsylvania Colony in exchange for labor. Immigrants who entered into indentured-servant contracts were temporarily limiting their freedoms and worked in strenuous working conditions for up to seven years to gain skills, tools, clothing, and land. Although contractually obligated to finish their term, some indentured servants ran away from their masters. This 1769 advertisement offers an eight-dollar reward for two runaway indentured servants named William Quirk and John Dyllywy. The advertisement describes their physical appearance, the belongings they were carrying, and their masters’ names. / Historical Society of Pennsylvania

One method of addressing the problem of labor shortages in America was that of indentured servitude. An individual or a family wishing to migrate to America but lacking funds to pay for the voyage might offer their services by means of a labor contract under which they would agree to work for a specified period of time for whoever owned the contract. Such contracts were negotiable in the sense that they might be signed with the owner of a vessel heading to America who would then sell the contract to someone in need of labor. Needless to say, it was an imperfect system subject to various kinds of abuse.

The experience of indentured servitude was as varied as the people who practiced it, either as owners of their servants’ time for a stipulated period or those whose time belonged to somebody else.  Some indentured servants—say, a young married couple with skills to offer, the husband perhaps as a carpenter and the wife a seamstress—might make a decent bargain for themselves, and given a decent person for whom to work, come out of the experience with a little money, some land, an animal or two or perhaps a set of tools that they could use to start their own lives.

Periods of service varied from two or three to seven years or more, depending on all kinds of variables.  Quite often, possibly in the majority of cases, indentured servants found their lives less than ideal.  Laws tended to protect the masters, punishments for laziness or attempting to run away were frequently harsh, and both men and women were subject to various kinds of abuse.  For most, the period of indenture was most likely seen as a trial to be endured as best one could, with a reasonable hope of some sort of a stake in the future when the service was complete.

In some cases, very warm relationships no doubt developed between servants and owners, and indentured servants might find themselves more or less adopted into the family, perhaps through marriage or formal or informal adoption.  Whatever the odds may have been at any given time for any person or group, indentured service was a gamble.  When the contracts were signed in Europe, those offering themselves for service had little knowledge or control over who might eventually buy those contracts.  If they survived the voyage to America, they then had to go through a period of acclimatization, and if they were not brought down by diseases to which they had never been exposed, then they had at least several years of hard work before they could again call their lives their own.

Two documents about the experience of indentured servants can be found on the Academic American web site and in the appendix for this section.

Both of the above documentary descriptions of the lives of indentured servants present an extremely negative view of the experience.  In many cases that description would have been accurate.  But by no means should we conclude that all indentured servants’ lives were so afflicted.

Brief mention is made of indentured servants in the film “The Last of the Mohicans”—the family of John and Alexandra Cameron, whose farm is attacked by Indians early in the movie.

Most of the cases of indentured servants probably fell between the extremes of abusive, exploitative contract owners and those who, with a generous spirit, for all practical purposes adopted the indentures into their families.  Where indentured servants got along well with the contract owners, both parties undoubtedly benefited.  The host benefited from the labor provided by the indentured servants, and the indentured servants honed the skills they would need to survive on their own and built up some sort of equity upon which they could trade when their indenture was completed.

We know little about the many individual cases of indentured servants, but we have a sense that many landowners in the later colonial period and in the years after the Revolution had risen from the ranks of those who temporarily sold their services to another person.  The practice continued in somewhat modified forms well into the 19th century.  Tenant farmers in the Reconstruction era had something like indentured contracts.  And even in modern times, those who contract with an employer to provide services over a fixed period are entering into a similar type bargain.

The point here is simply to observe that the Frethorne letter and the description written by Gottlieb Mittleberger do not tell anything like the whole story. As Page Smith makes clear in his history of the American Revolution, many poor people, including those sent to America as prisoners, managed to prosper because labor in America was so valuable.  As Smith puts it, many of those prisoners “went straight.”

Many prisoners were also sent to America by the English courts, generally as a means of ridding the mother country of the chronically unemployable or incorrigibly criminal.  So many were sent in one period, in fact, that the governor of Virginia sent a letter of protest to England complaining about the influx of lawbreakers.  Given the conditions of chronic underemployment and want, the vast majority of crimes at that time were property crimes, sometimes accompanied by violence. Many imported thieves, however, finding opportunities available in the New World that did not exist in the old, managed to go straight and become productive citizens.  Others, of course, continued their disruptive ways, to the consternation of the colonial population.

Early Capitalism

The basic idea of capitalism is that one invests one’s capital resources in order to increase wealth.  The idea is no different from what occurs today when people invest in the stock market, rental properties or businesses. People who put part of their earnings into 401(k) plans are practicing basic capitalism. The early colonial stock companies were based upon the same principle.  Investors in the London company expected that the colonial economy would make a profit, and that they would share in that profit.  The fact that many investment ventures could not prove to be profitable does not undermine the basic theory.  Throughout history businesses have failed; companies have gone bankrupt; schemes and scams have cost investors millions upon millions of dollars; areas of the market that proved extremely profitable for a time eventually ceased producing wealth; but over the course of the years, wealth has been used to create more wealth, and putting money to work has always had an appeal to investors.

From mercantilist beginnings America became the most successful capitalist nation in history, partly based on the Protestant (Puritan) work ethic and the notion that God helps those who help themselves.  The institution of capitalism flourished in America with its valuable labor supply, seemingly endless natural resources, broad rivers and sheltered harbors, all of which fostered a booming trade both within the colonies and with the rest of the world. (Mercantilism was a system of government moderated capitalism—discussed further in a later section.)

Over the years people have tried to create formulas to ensure profitable investments, but capitalism is a human endeavor, and human beings, imperfect creatures that we are, do not always make wise decisions.  As a result, the progress of capitalism has not been an upward moving curve, but rather a jagged line with highs and lows, rises and falls. For the early colonists the most reliable form of investment was to engage themselves in hard work.

THEMES OF COLONIAL PERIOD: What do we take from our colonial ancestors?

Much that is uniquely American derives from the colonial period. To start with, we should recognize that the development of America was rooted in competition.  The notion of “social Darwinism”—the idea that the laws of nature, sometimes characterized as survival of the fittest, does or should obtain in political and economic society—has been discredited.  Yet life in the early modern world was often about survival, and survival involves competition, both as a personal and family level, and at higher levels of political society.

The early impetus for colonization in England was about competition with Spain and Portugal and later with Holland. In order to be great, England felt she needed colonies, not only in America but everywhere.  The English had multiple goals: to produce, consume, and protect the British economy against weaker rivals, and to convert the heathens to Christianity by carrying out the missionary spirit.

The Entrepreneurial Spirit

The English colonies were also exercises in an early form of capitalism, which is essentially the creation of wealth through investment. In his Out of Our Past, historian Carl N. Degler notes that “Capitalism came in the first ships.” The growth of modern capitalism parallels the growth of America—in many ways America has been history’s most successful experiment in capitalism. That entrepreneurial spirit was seen not only in the investors who sunk their pounds into the chartered companies, but also in the colonists themselves. People in those times, not unlike today, wanted to improve the material quality of their existence, not so much out of greed or a desire to accumulate luxury items, but simply to make the bare survival for existence less burdensome.

The joint stock companies hoped that by investing in colonial enterprises they might get rich quick through the discovery and mining of gold and silver.  But the colonists quickly discovered, sometimes more rapidly than their proprietors, that the real gold in America was the land—land that produced tobacco, rice, timber, and later cotton and other crops. Thus when the promise of profits from gold and silver did not materialize, the companies  declared dividends of land, their only asset.  The great problem in Europe was finding enough land for the people:  in America, the reverse was true.  The fact that labor was scarcer than land made it worthwhile to trade land for labor, which constantly undercut European notions of class differences:  In Europe landowners were aristocrats; in America, landowners were beggars.

The quest for religious freedom is often stated as a motivating factor in the colonization of North America, but its exact nature is often misunderstood.  Our concept of religious freedom today means that people of all faiths Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, or any other, including those who lack faith, should be free to follow their own religious inclinations without interference from others and especially not from the government. During a time of colonization England and the rest of Europe were in the throes of monumental religious controversies.  The religious tension was more than just Catholic and Protestant; Puritans, Presbyterians, Quakers, Methodists, Baptists and others all had their own particular forms of worship and systems of belief.  People who came to America in the 17th and 18th centuries were not seeking land of religious freedom for all so much as a land where they could practice their own form of religion free of interference from rival denominations.

One overriding theme of religion in colonial America was hatred of everything connected with the Roman Catholic church.  Thousands of people died in Great Britain in struggles between Catholics and Protestants, beginning with King Henry VIII’s replacement of Catholic Rome with his own Anglican structure, a conversion that was later rejected by his daughter Queen Mary, who clung tenaciously to her Catholic faith.  When the Protestant Elizabeth came to the throne, she was constantly advised to be wary of Catholic suitors for her hand as well as Catholic threats to English sovereignty.

That religious tension was carried into the colonies, as much of British colonial policy—such as it was—was directed against Spain.  Catholic Maryland was an exception to religious exclusivity, but even there problems existed, as tension existed between Maryland and surrounding colonies. The famous Maryland Act of Religious Toleration passed in 1649 was repealed before very long.

In a word, colonization involved exploitation—exploitation of human and natural resources.  Life was fragile, and the first step people took before coming to America was often making a will. Colonization had a fearful price; it has been said that more people died as a result of colonization than perished on all the beachheads of World War II.  In one single year in Jamestown, 80 percent of the population perished. Despite the hardships, colonization proved to be a study in the concept of the social contract:  Survival conditions required contributions by all,  regardless of birthright or other status symbols, and it eventually made republicanism and later democracy a natural solution to problems of government. The colonists were gradually liberalized—they got used to doing things their own way, all the while realizing that cooperation with others was necessary for survival.  Experiments in communal living, however, failed.

Native American Cultures

Indian Cultures: The “Noble Savage”

The King of the Maquas (or Mohawk tribe) is depicted with black linear patterns covering his chest and lower face, 1710. / New York Historical Society Museum & Library

At the time Columbus discovered America millions of Indians had been living in the Western Hemisphere for tens of thousands of years.  During the latter part of the Ice Age, a land bridge existed between Asia and Alaska across what is now the Bering Strait, and all evidence indicates that the Native American tribes migrated from Mongolia, through Alaska and Canada and eventually all the way down to South America, with some settling in favorable locations in the north and others moving on.  Over time, they developed into distinct, separate Indian cultures.

Thus North and South American Indians were extremely diverse, with varied physical traits, linguistic groupings, ethnic characteristics, customs, cultures, and so on.  Indeed the Indians in North America were probably far more diverse than the people of the nations of northwestern Europe in 1500.  In Central America the Aztecs had a large powerful empire, while along the eastern coast of North America Indians lived in smaller tribes and subsisted by both agriculture and by hunting and gathering.  Farther south the Mayas and Incas had advanced civilizations that had progressed far in mathematics, astronomy, and engineering.  In the western part of North America nomadic tribes roamed over the Great Plains in search of buffalo and other game and often came into conflict with other tribes over the use of their hunting grounds.

When game became more scarce, perhaps due to over-hunting or from other causes, many American Indian groups turned to agriculture as a means of subsistence.  In so doing American Indians became perhaps the best farmers in history, developing new crops and refining farming methods that they later shared with the colonists from Europe.  Dozens of foodstuffs consumed in the world today, including corn, potatoes, various beans, squash, and so on, were developed by Native American farmers.  When the European colonists first arrived, their survival often depended on their adoption of Indian hunting and farming practices.

Indians also understood the use of natural medicines and drugs, and many of their healing techniques are still used by medical people today.  Indian foods, especially corn and the potato, transformed European dietary habits, and in fact the impact of the potato on Ireland’s population was so great that it led to much of the Irish immigration to America in the 1800s.

A thorough investigation of Native American cultures, even those in North and Central America, is an apt subject for lengthy study; the literature on pre-Columbian America is rich indeed.  What is important to know is that Indian and European cultures affected each other profoundly, a phenomenon that has been called the Colombian Exchange—the exchange of habits, practices, living techniques, and resources between the Indians and the Europeans.

The Native American cultures in the Western Hemisphere found their societies disrupted or even destroyed by the impact of the Europeans, some of which was deliberate, and some of which was a result of the transmission of diseases to which the American Indians were not immune.  The introduction of firearms, alcohol, and other European artifacts also had deep and unpredictable effects.  But the impact of the Indians on European culture was also deeply significant.

For reasons that are not fully understood, some groups of Indians vanished without being affected by the Europeans.  One such group were the Anasazi of the southwestern United States.  They built spectacular dwellings in the cliffs in New Mexico; some of their settlements carved into the rocks contained hundreds of rooms.  But somewhere around the year 1300 they left their rock palaces, never to return, for reasons unknown.

Native Americans and Europeans

This is compiled from information dating to about 1700 (map taken from The Indians New World, by James H. Merrell. It is captioned ‘Carolina and Virginia. Colonial settlement distribution adapted by Herman R. Friis, A series of population maps of the Carolinas and the United States, 1625-1790, rev. ed., New York 1968. Drawn by Linda Merrell’). Notice most of the bands have not moved a great deal. Other that the Shakori having gone inland since Spanish times, and we see the Saponi have moved further south, most of the rest as in virtually the same place.

Ironically, in North America the presence of the native cultures made it possible for the first English settlers to maintain a foothold on the new continent.  The Jamestown colony and the New England Pilgrims certainly owed their mere survival to the help and assistance of Indians.  The Indian cultures that the Europeans encountered were in many ways just as sophisticated, or in some instances even more sophisticated, than the European cultures that arrived in the first ships.  The Indians never thought of themselves as inferior to whites; in fact, the opposite was often the case.

The arrival of the Europeans also upset the balance of power among the North American Indian tribes, both in the eastern woodland regions and later on the Great Plains and in the deserts of the Southwest.  Europeans frequently had a romanticized view of the Indians as “noble savages,” and some Europeans believed them to be one of the ten lost tribes of Israel.  In eastern tribes women frequently held power, and in fact some were tribal chiefs.  Europeans often rated Indians as inferiors, which then justified their harsh treatment of the Indians later on.

Probably the greatest misunderstanding between Europeans and Indians was their differing concepts of land, or land ownership.  The European believed that you could drive four stakes in the ground, parcel off a square of land, and claim ownership of that piece of ground.  Such individual ownership of a section of land was completely alien to the Indian way of thinking.  Certainly Indian tribes fought over the use of land on which to hunt or fish or even practice agriculture, though the agricultural tribes tended to be less warlike than hunting tribes.  But the idea of “ownership” of land was something they did not understand.  For some Indians the land itself was sacred, held as a mother goddess.  For many Indians the idea of plowing soil to plant crops was as good as blasphemy, and many aspects of nature—rivers, ponds, even rocks—performed similar functions as the saints in Christian cultures.  Even after they had made deals with the Europeans for the purchase of land, the meaning of what they had done was often unclear and led to further conflict.

Many Indians tribes were traders and had built complicated economic relationships with their neighboring tribes, so they understood the idea of commerce as is existed within their own system of barter and exchange.  The European impact on this trading culture was often destructive, however, as the Europeans sought to trade and exchange different kinds of goods from what the Indians were used to.

The nature of warfare also illustrated cultural differences and heightened the conflict between Europeans and Indians.  Native Americans fought hard, and the ability to sustain pain and suffer physical punishment with stoicism was a sign of honor.  The loot in Indian warfare was often the capture of women and children of enemy tribes, especially when the population of an aggressor tribe was threatening for some reason.  Thus many Europeans saw Indian ways of warfare as primitive and barbarous, while Indians in turn thought European practices such as hanging were destructive of the soul.

Despite all the conflicts, in certain ways the Indians benefited from the contact with the Europeans.  The horse, for example, had become extinct in North America long before the Spaniards arrived.  But when the Spaniards brought their superior breed of Arab horses to North America, within a few generations the Indians of the Southwest had taken to the horse with amazing speed.  The horse transformed the culture of the Plains Indians almost immeasurably; consider the difficulty of tracking and killing a fast-moving buffalo on foot, compared with the ability to run down one on horseback.  Plains Indians became the greatest light cavalry in the history of the world.  Armed with rifles or bows and arrows, Plains Indians could hold their own against any cavalry detachment anywhere on the open plains.  That they eventually succumbed to the superior military power of the United States was less a factor of individual skill than it was of organization and numbers.

The history of the interaction between the Indians and whites begins with Columbus, and the story is a long, tragic tale of greed; relentless pushing, shoving, and grabbing of land; insensitivity; xenophobia; and even genocide.  The cultural differences between Indians and Europeans and their American descendants continue to this day.  As we go through the history of Americans and the United States, we will pick up the thread of this story again.

Culture Clash

Native Americans were seen in various ways:  The “noble savage” was a common characterization, though others thought of them as barbarians.  Some religious groups saw the Indians as the lost tribes of Israel.  Both sides took from each other—both good and bad—in what became known as the “Colombian exchange.” In the end, tragically but almost inevitably, the Indians were the losers in the colonial and later revolutionary experiences. The conflict between Indian and white society has continued into modern times.

Despite the pressure toward egalitarianism, some elitism existed in the colonies.  It was commonly felt that “God’s will” mandated that some people be rich, some poor.  Social mobility was more possible than in England, but was still seen as threatening.  (For a time, wearing clothes above one’s station was considered a crime in New England at one point.)

Probably the most important point in considering the development of America was that the North American English as well as other European colonists were freer than their European counterparts. The colonists were European in character but were nevertheless different; early on they developed a sense of independence and to a certain extent contempt for authority.  Americans did not have the luxury of holding onto the old ways because of “tradition”; they had to go with what worked. Flexibility was an American characteristic. The frontier experience tended to favor individualism and a certain egalitarianism. It mattered less who your parents were than how well you could survive.

It is not easy to make the case here in the 21st century that the colonial American experience influences the way we live today. There can be no doubt that events since the turn of the millennium in the year 2000 have shaken our perceptions of our place in the world. Nevertheless, the past is still part of us; our roots are deep. And no matter the origins of our most recent wave of immigrants, men and women who come to America inevitably become connected with our history. For many, in fact, the opportunity to achieve the connection with our deepest roots is the reason why they have come.


  • Native Roots:  How the Indians Enriched America, by Jack Weatherford
  • Indian Givers:  How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World, by Jack Weatherford
  • Custer Died for Your Sins:  An Indian Manifesto (Civilization of the American Indian), by Vine Deloria
  • Native American Testimony:  A Chronicle of Indian-White Relations from Prophecy to the Present, 1492–2000, by Peter Nabokov
  • North American Indians:  A Comprehensive Account (2nd ed.), by Alice B. Kehoe

Early Virginia: Jamestown

The London Company

The Virginia Company dispatched the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery from England in December 1606. Among the 104 passengers was John Smith, who later wrote the first account published of what is now called Virginia. The source was a letter Smith wrote in 1608 to an unidentified person in England, and the Virginia Company rushed the letter into print. Despite the terrible reality of life in the struggling colony, Smith gave an optimistic report of his explorations and encounters with the Indians. A True Relation remains an invaluable eyewitness account of America’s first permanent English colony. / Virginia Historical Society

In 1606 King James I issue a charter to a group of investors to establish the Virginia Company. The company was formed into two groups, the London and Plymouth companies, and each was given rights to colonize the North American coast from south to north, with some overlap. The purpose of the companies was to help make England stronger and reap rewards for those who dared to “adventure” their capital—or their persons—in America.

The company soon discovered that the gold in America was the land, but that money and labor were needed to exploit it. Therefore the company used various recruiting schemes in an attempt to lure more people to invest in and/or go to Virginia, but its only real asset was the land and what could be produced on it. As has been noted already, the problem in Europe was finding enough land for the people: in America, the reverse was true—there was plenty of land but too few people to develop it profitably. The fact that labor was more valuable than land constantly undermined traditional European ideas of class and position in America; in fact, one can detect early seeds of rebellion and faint democratic stirrings even in the early colonies.

Many plans were used to try to increase the labor supply, including the use of Indians as slaves. The critical shortage of labor also contributed to the growth of slavery. While the Indians were excellent farmers, they did not take to slavery, and because they could easily escape, that experiment failed. Even as farmers, Indians were not as wedded to the idea of land ownership as Europeans; in fact, most Indians did not understand the concept of individual ownership of land. Furthermore, idleness was a virtue among male Indians. They often laughed at white men farming, or doing “women’s work.”

(We should mention here that Africans did not take to slavery any more than Indians, but were much less able to escape, because they were in alien country and had no place to which they could safely flee.)

The Virginia settlers were patriots, Christians, men seeking personal profit and betterment of their economic circumstances. They were urged to come “for the good of your country and your own, to serve and fear God . . .” Emigration to America became a selection process. The temperament and personality of the settler was that of someone searching for the unknown, escaping from the intolerable.

The goals of the companies and to some extent of the settlers were to secure a place, find gold, civilize the natives, and find a passage to India. Indians were seen both as laborers and as potential consumers of European goods: It was a form of economic imperialism, later called the “last stage of capitalism.” As it turned out, opportunities of all kinds were indeed plentiful, including opportunities for political power not available in England.

Note: A class system did evolve in Virginia, which was the most aristocratic of the colonies; Virginians believed in rule by elite, though that elite might be based on achievement and wealth rather than by name or birthright. Virginia started as a “white male democracy,” in a limited sense, but that system also evolved. The Virginia House of Burgesses, established in 1619, is the forerunner of today’s Virginia Assembly.

The Jamestown Disaster

The Burning of Jamestown by Howard Pyle (signature lower right corner). It depicts the burning of Jamestown, Virginia during Bacon’s Rebellion (A.D. 1676-77); used to illustrate the article “Jamestown” in Harper’s Encyclopaedia of United States History: from 458 A.D. to 1905

In May, 1607, three ships belonging to the London company, the Susan B. Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery, arrived in the Chesapeake area under the command of Captain Christopher Newport. The ship put over 100 colonists ashore, and England had what would become its first permanent settlement in North America. (In August, 1607, at the Plymouth Company established a colony on the Kennebec River in what later became the state of Maine, but it failed within a year.) Things began badly. The location—in a swamp—had been a mistake, but even worse was the failure of the colonists to work together for the common good. Captain John Smith saved the colonists by imposing order, but conditions became so bad by 1610 that the colony was almost abandoned. As late as 1616 the colony seemed to be incapable of returning a profit to the investors. Eventually it went bankrupt and its charter was revoked.

It is not clear why the Virginia settlers were so reluctant to work, but it may have had to do with attitudes from home. Because there was not enough work to go around, the chronic condition of English workers was one of underemployment. Even when work was available, it was cyclical or irregular. Furthermore, probably as a result of those conditions, English workers lacked what we would call a work ethic. People were used to being idle and were frequently short of basic necessities. The working poor lived marginal lives at best. They knew that there must be greener pastures somewhere, and many came to believe that “Utopia” could literally be found across the Atlantic. And so they came, by the hundreds, thousands, and eventually by the millions.

For an account of the difficulties in Jamestown, read the excerpt from Captain John Smith’s “Generall Historie of Virginia,” which was printed in 1624. He describes his own adventures but also offers a grim account of the “starving time.”

Summary: The Jamestown experience was ten disastrous years—every possible mistake was made and then some. Murphy’s law was in effect—everything that could go wrong did go wrong, or so it seemed.

Jamestown Chronology


Charter issued.  (See Virginia Company Charter.)


The first ships arrive. (See John Smith’s history.)


Company stock is open to public investors—membership cost 12 pounds.10.  By May 9 vessels with six hundred passengers are underway.  Wealthy London merchants invest in hopes of making profits, but no one ever makes a farthing.


Expedition is shipwrecked underway, leaders lost.  Survivors bicker among themselves; in this winter of horror, four-fifths of the colonists die.


Lord Delaware arrives with reinforcements. The Company Council in London realizes that Virginia is a long-term investment that will pay off in national prosperity if successful.  Thus raising additional funds is seen as a patriotic chore. By 1611 the purpose is understood to be the use and exploitation of land, but that requires people.


A new charter adds Bermuda to the London Company as an added incentive.  Company control is granted to the owners and members, and the Council serves as their liaison with the Crown.  A new legal code is passed that guarantees rule according to the principles of English law.


Settlers are now becoming “seasoned”—accustomed to the climate and more resistant to disease.  The colony is somewhat more stable, after having nearly been abandoned a few years earlier.


The colony had originally been organized with community ownership of all assets.  The settlers shared food, tools, products, jobs, and theoretically even the profits.  In 1616, however, that experiment is terminated and all the assets are divided up among the members. The conclusion is that the first experiment in pure communism in America was a failure.

By now the trial and error period is over, and Jamestown begins to function as a cooperative enterprise.  The leaders of the colony turn out not to be the well-born, but those who can function and survive in the wilderness.


Tobacco takes hold. Growing requires little skill, so landowners can do well if they can find people to work the crops. By 1688 Virginia is producing 18 million pounds of tobacco annually. About this time the headright is established, which gives one fifty acres to those willing to settle the land as well as fifty acres for each person they can bring over at their own expense.


The first representative assembly in North America is created.  Its purpose is to advise Governor Yeardley—the Company is struggling, so perhaps those on the scene can help with the management.  The best way to get the cooperation of the settlers is by allowing them to participate in government in a limited way.


A “Dutch man of war” drops anchor in Jamestown and trades twenty African slaves for food. (Lerone Bennett, Before the Mayflower:  A History of Black America)Slave owners begin to establish the power structure and lifestyle of the southern colonies.


An attack of the plague and raids by Indians nearly wipe out the colony—only twelve hundred are left alive by the end of 1623.  The company is bankrupt and all support is gone.


The London Company charter is revoked.  The survivors inherit the land in the colony—within ten years, they own it free and clear.

Lessons of Virginia and Jamestown:
  • The Virginia Company charter determined the structure of the colonial government so long as it conformed to English common law.
  • London established rules of conduct. The Charter was kept in London—Virginians never had as much freedom from control as New England.
  • A steady money supply was needed to keep a colonial investment going. Eventually that need was seen as throwing good money after bad, and the charter was revoked.
  • A steady supply of people to settle and work the land was also necessary, but it was not an easy life, despite promises made to and by investors.
  • In order to get people to continue to invest, it was necessary to promise a return on investment. Company officials kept “sweetening the pot,” but ultimately it was not enough.
  • Capitalism was at the center of the early Virginia experience. The planters learned management and government systems that helped mercantile capitalism develop in America.
  • Bottom line: Colonies are expensive to support and maintain; there is no easy road to riches. The real “gold” in America is the land, but to be profitable, the land has to be developed and worked. The work was never easy.
Noted with Irony:
  1. Without intervention of the Indians, the Jamestown colony would probably not have survived. Those same Indians later tried to exterminate the colony.
  2. After the charter was revoked and the colony became a crown colony, the survivors eventually inherited the land and became the wealthy Virginia planters, among whom were the famous “First Virginia Families,” whose descendants have been around ever since.
  3. Virginia was closer to England than New England—in religion, commerce, politics, economics. But in the early years, New England was healthier and stronger in many ways.

Bacon’s Rebellion Of 1676

In 1676 settlers in western Virginia started a revolution against Governor William Berkeley, led by a recent immigrant named Nathaniel Bacon. The settlers in the Piedmont region of western Virginia were going through difficult economic times as newly arrived immigrants competed for good land. Frontier settlers were also still dealing with hostile Indians, and when the government seemed unable to respond to their requests for assistance in suppressing Indian harassment, the western citizens revolted. After fighting the Indians, they marched on Jamestown, led by the young firebrand Bacon. They drove Governor Berkeley over into Maryland and then set fire to the capital.

When Bacon suddenly died, the rebellion collapsed for lack of strong leadership, but repercussions were felt back in England, where even the king was aware of the uprising. When he heard of the punishments handed down by Governor Berkeley, who hanged twenty-three of the rebels, King Charles II complained that Berkeley had hanged more people than the king himself had over the execution of his father, Charles I.

The rebellion is an interesting forerunner of the American Revolution and pointed up the differences between Tidewater and inland Virginians. The episode also faintly foreshadows the rebellion of the western Virginia counties in 1861, who broke away over the secession issue and became the state of West Virginia in 1863.

The Puritans of New England



Left: Portrait of Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop, 17th century / American Antiquarian Society
Right: Roger Williams statue, by Franklin Simmons / Wikimedia Commons

The forces that led to the settlement of New England both at Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay stemmed from the religious controversy begun by Martin Luther’s Reformation movement.  When Luther attacked the church for the failings he perceived, he opened the door for even more radical theologians such as John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli.  They preached such matters as predestination and the need to rid the Protestant church—or churches, as was soon the case—of remaining elements of Roman Catholicism, the so-called “remnants of popery.”

Those in England who felt the strongest need to “purify” the Anglican Church were called Puritans, and they divided themselves into two groups, one of which felt it was possible to live under the rules of the Church of England (they believed they could continue to push for reform from within the system), and the other of which felt they could not.  The latter were called “Separatists,” and the best known of them moved to Holland for a time and then contracted to come to America under the aegis of the London Company.  They were the famous Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower in 1620.

The other group of Puritans discovered that although they could get along under the relatively benign reign of Elizabeth I, they did not do so well under James I, who threatened to “hound them out of the realm.” During the reign of King Charles I they decided that the only way to find the religious environment they were seeking was to go to America.  Thus the Massachusetts Bay Company was founded, and the great Puritan migration began.  The governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, laid out the plans for the colonists during the journey to America in his “Model of Christian Charity.”

The New England experience was similar in some ways to that of Virginia, but with a much stronger emphasis on religious practice and a theocratic form of government.  Virginia’s Anglicans were also very religious, and the Anglican Church was “established” in Virginia, but it was not as intense as Puritan New England in matters of religion.  Capitalism—the desire for material improvement—was  part of the cultures of both Virginia and Massachusetts, but it is safe to say that capitalism tended to be the primary motive for all that happened in Virginia, whereas religious motives were more controlling in New England.  Additional differences existed between Virginia and Massachusetts generally and, as time went on, between the northern and southern colonies, and those differences were the root of the sectionalism that would later divide colonies and country.

Both Virginia and Massachusetts came to be based on systems of governance that had roots in British philosophy, although those roots are easier to find in the New England case.  Thomas Hobbes wrote in “Leviathan” that man first existed in a state of nature, where he was born absent any constraints and therefore could live in absolute freedom.  Man in nature, however, lived “in continued fear and danger of violent death,” and found that life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  Man’s natural freedom therefore needed to be curbed so that civilization could develop, and because human nature was inherently sinful, man needed to be controlled by a strong authority to control nature.  In other words, in order to live together in harmony, men (and women) are required to give up a portion of their natural freedom so that society can function.

Another facet of the Puritan experience that comes down to us can be seen in the struggle between John Winthrop and Roger Williams over the proper role of the state in matters of religion. Roger Williams was a brilliant man, educated at Cambridge University, with connections to some of the most important figures in England. He came to New England during the harsh first winter in February, 1631. Williams was what we might characterize as a hard-core separatist; he would have nothing to do with the Church of England, and he would not even worship with those who failed to denounce the Church of England. John Winthrop found Williams’s views dangerous. Although Winthrop and Williams remained friends, for Williams was personally a very charming man, their differences of opinion over the roles of church and state kept them at odds throughout their lives. Because of his extreme views, Williams had difficulty finding a position as a preacher in one of the New England churches. For a time he served at Salem, then moved to the Plymouth colony, which was more separatist than Massachusetts Bay. Even Governor William Bradford, however, found Williams’s ideas excessive.

Williams rejected the right of the state to interfere in religious matters in any way; he even went so far as to denounce what he called “the lies of the King” in calling people to worship or in his writing colonial charters. Williams was constantly in conflict with Winthrop and other leaders of Massachusetts Bay and was eventually banished from the colony. He retreated to the wilderness and eventually formed a new settlement called Providence in what later became the colony of Rhode Island. Roger Williams’s insistence on the separation of church and state is a legacy that was carried forward through the revolution, and provides some of the basis for the First Amendment to the Constitution, which calls for a separation of church and state.

See more about William in the section on the Rhode Island colony.

Later, philosopher John Locke wrote that in finding ways for controlling man, good institutions were needed, for man was a blank slate (“tabula rasa”) at birth and his nature would develop according to the kinds of mechanisms that were used to control his baser instincts.  Thus both Locke and Hobbes provided the fundamental concepts that shaped English and, later, American political philosophy, though Locke’s ideas tended to support more republican forms whereas Hobbes leaned more toward the absolutism that is sometimes called “the divine right” of kings.

The Mayflower Compact: A Social Contract

Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1899 / Private Collection, Wikimedia Commons

The basic idea that grows out of the philosophy of Hobbes and Locke and that was later elaborated upon by Jean Jacques Rousseau was the social contract, or social compact.  This theory of the social contract—that man is born free, but willingly gives up some freedom in exchange for the benefits of civilization—is at the heart of most Western political thought.  The social contract theory is embedded in our Constitution, which is designed “to promote the general welfare.”

Another example, as nearly pure and perfect as one is likely to find, is the Mayflower Compact.  Looking at that document one is struck by its simplicity, yet it contains everything that is essential in the United States Constitution—all that is missing are the details.  Look at it carefully and see if you agree with that assessment.  The Plymouth colony survived and was later absorbed into Massachusetts Bay.

Massachusetts Bay:  A Puritan Commonwealth

How did the Puritans construct a society from scratch, based on religious belief?  It was not easy, but the New Englanders did it.  People have images of Puritans as somber, sour-visaged people who were, in the words of a famous American journalist, “desperately afraid that somebody, somewhere might be having a good time.”  That image is inaccurate.

Puritans were in fact very passionate people who lived their lives as fully as they could.  They often wore colorful clothes, danced, and even drank “strong waters” on occasion.  They believed that sex was a blessing from God to be enjoyed to the fullest, though within the confines of marriage.  They had large families.  What Puritans opposed was anything that wasted time or resources.  For example, they thought gambling and card playing were sinful, not because they were inherently evil but because they wasted time.

Puritans worked very hard and saw themselves as stewards of God’s bounty—the so-called Protestant work ethic originated with the Puritans and is the source of folk wisdom such as “Early to bed, early to rise . . . ,”  “A penny saved is a penny earned,’ and so on.  The Puritans believed that if one worked hard and pleased God, one would be successful in this life, so prosperity was seen as a good thing—a measure of God’s favor.  Because it is safe to say that hard work will tend to make people prosperous whether or not God is involved, their prosperity—the “serpent prosperity,” as they called it—tended to dilute their intense religiosity.  Their church became the Congregational Church, a religious system that emphasized local control and independence.  Religion was closely connected with the Puritan political structure, so the congregational system spilled over into their civic institutions, which gave us the famous “New England town meeting”—a form of pure democracy, though the church itself was not democratically organized.

The Puritans believed beyond much doubt that they were absolutely on the right track.  John Winthrop’s “Model” describes a society that, if the Puritans had been able to achieve it, would have been a reasonable facsimile of paradise on Earth.  Being human, they could not sustain their religious fervor, nor live up to the idealized conditions Winthrop laid out, but they created a strong, vibrant society that prospered and influenced American behavior and attitudes far beyond their temporal and geographical boundaries.  Highlights of the Puritan era:

  • For some time only those who were theologically acceptable could enter Massachusetts.  The Puritans felt that rigid orthodoxy was necessary for their survival:  “We believe in liberty,” they claimed, “and others are at liberty to stay away from us!”  They meant to create a “New Jerusalem”—Winthrop’s famous “city on a hill”—and were willing to pay a high price to try to achieve that state.
  • When the English Civil War broke out in 1640, Puritan life changed.  Many Puritans, feeling that their time had come or perhaps wanting to get in on the struggle, returned to England.  The center of the Puritan world shifted back to England, and the effects on the colony were sharp.  Immigration into New England slowed markedly, and various adjustments had to be made to keep the colony thriving.
  • By 1660 Massachusetts Puritans were concerned over the restoration of King Charles II to the throne.  Stronger mercantile laws changed economic conditions in all the colonies, and in that decade the Puritans also adopted the “halfway covenant”—a sort of agreement that one was acceptable if one was at least trying to live the right kind of life—and numbers continued to grow.
  • In 1684 the Massachusetts Charter was revoked, and Massachusetts became for a time a crown colony.  Then in 1686 James II issued a new charter for Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire.  Yet another charter was issued in 1691 by William III, which provided for two elected assemblies.  In 1700 the Massachusetts colony was fully absorbed  into the  British Empire.

The “New England Way.”

The Puritan way of life consisted of a mixture of religion and politics based on principles called the New England Way. First, they believed in both personal and collective autonomy within each village or settlement. Their faith, which survives to this day, was known as Congregationalism. That gave them local control over both religious and political matters. The well-known New England town meeting was testimony to their idea of self-government. They recognized no higher authority than the Bible, which was the basis of much of their antipathy to the hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic church. Along with their congregational approach to community, they believed in individualism to the extent that everyone should be able to interpret the Bible for himself or herself.  That reliance on the Bible had an obvious effect on education and literacy for the obvious reason that in order to interpret the Bible, one had to be able to read it. Teaching Puritan children to read was the mother’s job, which in turn gave women a strong voice in family matters.

Second, while the principles above might suggest that Puritans enjoyed religious freedom, that freedom existed only within very strict limits. Their communal approach to society meant that the community had the right to exercise control over individuals tin order to promote the common interest. Thus rigid enforcement of rules and laws was necessary whenever the community was thought to be threatened from within or without. At the same time, they did not believe in unlimited government, for if man is conceived in original sin, how can he be trusted to exercise unlimited power over others? Although man had a one-on-one relationship with God, those whose interpretation of that relationship or of the Bible strayed beyond the bounds of Puritan orthodoxy could be punished, as Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams discovered.

Note:  New England colonies were healthier than those in the South despite—or perhaps because of—the cold winters. Their first winter, however, was very difficult, and many suffered.

Another View of the Puritans

Anne Hutchinson on Trial, a woman standing before a table behind which are seated several men, with several other men occupying seats against the walls of the room, by Edwin Austin Abbey, 1901 / John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery

Puritans have a bad name among most Americans. We think of them as dour, stubborn, cold, unfeeling, anti-romantic prudes who, in the words of H. L. Mencken, were “desperately afraid that somebody, somewhere might be having a good time.” When people think of the Puritans, they think of the Salem witch trials, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter,” Jonathan Edwards’s fire-and-brimstone sermons, the persecution of Anne Hutchinson and other real and perceived wrongs. Yet alongside those real and alleged traits of intolerance, obstinacy, stubbornness and infuriating self-righteousness, there is far more to their story.

Much of what was important about Puritanism is very much alive in the U.S. today. Early in the 20th century the German sociologist Max Weber wrote a book called “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” That Protestant work ethic to which Weber referred originated among the Puritans, who believed above all that their time on this earth should be spent in productive labor—the benevolent and efficient use of God-given resources; they were thrifty, industrious, and wedded to their religious beliefs. They opposed card-playing and gambling, not so much because each was an evil in itself, but because they were considered a waste of time. Furthermore, Puritans did not eschew pleasure by any means; these were people who obviously enjoyed conjugal love. They had very large families; in fact, one of my Puritan ancestors had 107 grandchildren and 227 great-grandchildren. They wore bright clothes on occasion, and they celebrated successful harvest, and drank alcoholic beverages. They sang and danced and made music, but they did so at times they considered appropriate, and always in moderation. They did not regard sex as evil, only that it should be conducted within the sanctity of marriage. In fact, once a Puritan couple were engaged, if they had intimate relations it was not considered a fatal flaw.

The Puritan political system, which was rooted in their Congregational religious organization, also grew in the North and spread across the Midwest. In the New York village where I grew up, our population was under 5,000, yet we were fully incorporated political entity with our own mayor, police and fire departments, school system, public works department, and so on. Where I now live, in Virginia, we are governed by counties for the most part, which arises from the fact that colonial Virginia was dominated by the Anglican Church, which was organized in parishes, which in turn became counties. In other words, New England local governments down to the town level, made famous by the “town meeting,” is a part of our political heritage that survives in substantial portions of the nation. Just as the Puritans is rejected the idea of higher religious authorities such as bishops and cardinals and all the —as they put it—remnants of popery, they resisted the powers of higher authorities, unless of course they were their own ordained ministers. The Puritans, after all, were on the Whig side in the war against King Charles I. (During the subsequent period of Puritan rule under Cromwell, many Puritan colonists returned to England.)

It is no surprise, then, that much of the revolutionary fervor which erupted in the colonies in the 1760s and 1770’s had its roots around Boston. The British army was sent to Boston in the 1760s for the purpose of rooting out the seeds of the incipient rebellion. The “Intolerable Acts” passed in reaction to the Boston tea party were directed exclusively against the Massachusetts Bay colonists. Indeed, John Adams and other revolutionary leaders were descendants of those early Puritans and carried much of their spirit with them.

For these and many other reasons the Puritan legacy is still with us—their blood runs in our veins, much deeper and stronger than many of us might wish to admit. On the other hand, there is much about their legacy that is positive—ideas of political and individual freedom, liberty, hard work, perseverance, dedication, stewardship: All those features of the American character are owed in great measure to the Puritans.

Characteristics of Puritanism:  Myth And Reality

Myth:  Puritan—someone who is desperately afraid that somebody, somewhere might be having a good time.
Fact:  Puritans were not somber, morose people.  They wore colored clothes, had games, celebrations, feasts, partook of “strong waters”—had strong aesthetic sense (architecture).

  • Puritans were not opposed to pleasure, but saw its regulation as part of a well-ordered society.  They were moral athletes who strove to standards higher than one had a right to expect.  They drove themselves to great achievements—there was no rest short of the grave.
  • Puritanism was very similar to Judaism—they saw themselves as spiritual heirs of Abraham who had entered into a covenant of Grace. They believed they were God’s chosen people who were creating a “New Jerusalem.”  Never was a people so sure it was on the right track.
  • Puritans were not high-minded theorists but rather pragmatic people who were concerned with the way things worked in the real world.  They fought among themselves over power, not how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.  The were indeed frequently narrow-minded, but that can often be a source of strength.
  • Puritanism was a very comforting religion despite harshness because it placed God in charge and eliminated worldly vanities.  The Puritans were bookish and literate:  They created the first college, the first bookstore, and the first newspaper in America.  See Anne Bradstreet’s poems.
    Marriage was for joy—to escape “burning” in hell; men and women were created different for each other’s pleasure; divorce laws were relatively mild, and separation could be based on sexual incompatibility.
  • There was much premarital sex—about 10 percent of brides were pregnant at the time of marriage.  (Anglicans in the South were much stricter.)
    Because Puritans expected very little from life, few of them were disillusioned.  The world was filled with evil—it was not a playhouse but a workhouse.
  • American individualism can be traced to the Puritans.  Faith was their rock, but human intellect was highly valued:  “Ignorance is the mother of heresy,” they said.
  • The Puritans could be self-righteous and intolerant, although such tendencies have been exaggerated.  Nevertheless, Puritans were hated by others.  Their view of the world was very harsh:  They saw the world as filled with depravity.  Yet Puritans, Anglicans, Catholics, and Separatists were not that far apart; they shared many fundamental beliefs.
  • The sermon tradition of Puritanism still lives (as seen in TV preachers today.)  Puritan sermons were lengthy exercises in logic—more like legal documents than literary events.  See Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.
  • All government in the Puritan colonies was based on the shaky assumption that the Bible is clear and unambiguous, which is not true.  (Faith/works controversy, etc.)
  • Laws were strict:  Crimes included blasphemy, perjury (death), cursing of parents, idolatry, adultery, fornication.  Laws followed commandments and Deuteronomy; they also wrote laws as existed back home.
  • Whatever the drawbacks, the church was the central unifying force in Massachusetts, which led to the famous town meeting.  First held in churches, then separately, the town meeting is the “most remarkable if not the most influential institution to emerge in early America.”
  • Connection exists between American public school tradition and Puritans—also with higher education.
  • Dissenters:  Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams both ran afoul of Puritan authorities and were banished from the colony.  Fear of dissension also led to the Salem witch craze, a terrible event but one that had far more gruesome parallels in Europe.

Virginia-Massachusetts Comparisons:

  • Two different kinds of people emerged. The Massachusetts Bay bay colonists were people of proven ability at home who came in family units. The Virginia colony was populated in the beginning by single men who were able to survive in wilderness.
  • Massachusetts aristocrats created a working democracy.
  • Virginia planters replaced defunct London leaders and formed their own local aristocracy.
  • The Massachusetts Puritans brought their charter with them, which gave them much firmer local control earlier.  Congregationalism as a religion gave people local control over their churches, and in the political arena that concept was translated into the New England town meeting.
  • The House of Burgesses and the Assembly formed the basic political structure of Virginia.
  • Virginia became in many ways a model/miniature England—much closer than New England to the mother country, but still different.  Maybe more conservative, much more self-conscious.  Differences between Virginia and New England are precursors of North-South differences of the antebellum period.
  • Carl Degler:  The Virginia Assembly was the first democratic (republican) body in North America, but it began almost by accident in 1619.  Charles I terminated the  assemblies in 1624, but later authorized their return.
  • An important precedent was established by the colonists, including the idea of prohibition on taxes “other than by authority of the grand assembly.”  Englishmen had always guarded their right to tax locally.
  • Early, dogmatic insistence on self-government was important in American political development.  Representative government was born in the 17th century (Virginia assembly and New England town meeting).
  • Most New England immigrants arrived as members of a nuclear family in which the father exerted strong authority.  They therefore found it easier to cope with the wilderness and to preserve English ways.  It was even possible to reproduce an English family structure in New England because the sex ratio was about even.
  • New England families differed from the English pattern in only one important aspect—people lived longer in New England.  This meant that parents could expect to see their children grow up, marry, and have their own children.  New England may have “invented” grandparents, who gave an additional measure of stability to society.
  • Life expectancy was apparently much longer in New England than in the Chesapeake colonies because climatic and economic conditions were more favorable there.

Books about the Puritans

Edmund Morgan and Perry Miller are two of our most distinguished historians of the colonial era. Understanding our Puritan heritage is necessary for comprehending the American soul and spirit. Many aspects of our “value system” have their roots in Puritan New England, including our “Protestant work ethic,” which Max Weber called “the spirit of capitalism.”

Anne Bradstreet was America’s first poet of note, and her work demonstrates the deep affection Puritans felt within their families. Her poems also convey a deep sense of the strength and courage Puritan women gained from their faith in a world that was often harsh and unforgiving, as she recounts in the poem, “Upon the Burning of our House July 10 1666.”

John Winthrop defined the goals of the Puritan colony of Massachusetts Bay during the voyage from England. His vision was large and hopeful, and although the ideals he laid down were probably unachievable by mere mortals, they nevertheless reflect the intentions of a determined people bent on proving that a New Jerusalem could be created in America.

  • Perry Miller. The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century
  • Edmund S. Morgan. Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea
  • Edmund S. Morgan. The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop (Library of American Biography)
  • Francis J. Bremer. The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards (Library of New England)
  • Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750
  • Anne Bradstreet. The Works of Anne Bradstreet (John Harvard Library) eds. Jeannine Hensley and Adrienne Rich

Colonial Life: Faith, Family, Work


Colonial life was hard. Whether you were a colonist in New England, where winter blasts brought cold, sleet and snow, or in the southern colonies, where oppressive heat and mosquitoes made the summers torturous, or anywhere in between, life was challenging, especially in the earlier decades of colonization. Everybody had to be productive for families to survive. Men and women, even in their separate spheres, had to work hard to support life. Conflicts with Indians could threaten life and limb, and on the edge of the frontier, other dangers lurked. Although colonial life could be healthier than in the teeming cities of Europe, colonists were exposed to diseases they had not encountered in the old countries. Nevertheless, though thousands died, thousands more prospered.

These were hardy folk who had risked everything to cross the ocean and embark on a new life, or they were descendants of those who had. With a little luck, they would become landowners, growing wheat, barley, and the newly discovered corn, while raising cattle, pigs and chickens. They had little chance of becoming wealthy, but they were able to keep from starving. Families grew stronger, and neighbors help one another. While not necessarily welcomed with open arms, newcomers were brought into the fold as extra hands who could help the community grow with whatever labor they were fit to perform. As people of faith, most believed in some kind of God; with work always left to be done, however, Sunday’s would be more likely to find them in the fields than in a church. They saw few miracles, and they believed in the notion that God helps those who help themselves.

Religion and Colonial History

The Protestant Reformation in Germany and England

Martin Luther, workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1529 / Wikimedia Commons

In order to fully understand American history one must have a grasp of the role that religion has played in the development of this nation.  In fact, the history of religion in the Western world going back hundreds of years before the discovery of America has affected this nation to the present time. The origins of much of our religious heritage can be traced to the major upheaval in western religion that began in the 16th century with the Reformation. The dominant theme in the history of religion in the Western world has been the conflict between different faiths: Christianity and Judaism; Christianity and Islam; Catholicism and Protestantism. It is the last of those conflicts, the struggle between Catholics and Protestants, that dominates colonial American history. Although we like to think of religion in government as separate realms, politics and religion have always been intertwined. Even the creation of what we now call the Roman Catholic Church under the Emperor Constantine was done with political considerations in mind. For centuries the church was instrumental in the affairs of governments and Kings. The Pope in Rome depended on the support of secular rulers, and those rulers depended upon the moral support of the Vatican for their legitimacy. The “divine right of kings” depended on the constancy of religious leaders in support of that allegedly God-given right. Thus it was inevitable that when the Christian world, which in an earlier time had separated into Eastern and Western branches, became divided between Catholic and Protestant faiths, political matters would become embroiled with religious issues.

In the early 1500s, Martin Luther, a German priest, became scandalized by the degree of corruption he observed in the Catholic Church.  Today we refer to Luther’s church as the Roman Catholic Church, but at that time it was the only church that existed in the Western world, although Catholicism varied in certain ways from country to country.  For all kinds of reasons stemming from the church having wielded extraordinary social and political pressure over the Western world for more than a thousand years, the corruption in the church touched the lives of many people. Luther was an extremely pious and devout priest, so much so that even on the day of his ordination, he was not confident that he was holy enough to be able to conduct his first mass.  It is understandable that a man with serious concerns about his own holiness would be shocked to discover corruption in an institution he revered.

Luther began to collect his complaints and finally delivered them in the form of ninety-five theses that he nailed on the door of the cathedral in Wittenberg, Germany.  To say that his complaints were timely doesn’t quite capture the impact; within one generation of Martin Luther’s protest, Protestantism, consisting of a number of Christian sects that had rebelled against the leadership of the Roman authorities, had spread over much of northern Europe.  As frequently happens in cases of such revolution, after the initial revolution was complete, it fragmented further into various segments.  Thus the Protestant Reformation led to the creation of a variety of churches:  Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Calvinist, and many other varieties.  (More than one hundred different Protestant denominations exist in America today.) The political implications of the Protestant Reformation soon emerged, as the Roman Catholic church was deeply embroiled in matters of government throughout the European world.

Most interesting for American history is the fact that at the time the Reformation was beginning, a young English prince had fallen in love with his brother’s widow; he was Prince Henry, she was Catherine of Aragon.  At that time it was considered incestuous for a man to marry his brother’s widow, so Henry appealed to the Rome to nullify the marriage between his brother Arthur and Catherine so that he would be free to marry her.  The Pope in Rome, nervous over the fragmentation of his religious domain, was happy to grant an annulment to keep the English monarch in good favor.  The prince became King Henry VIII, and his story is well known.  What is not so well known is that several years into his reign Henry argued forcefully against the reforms of Martin Luther and defended the Roman church from what he saw as false accusations.  In recognition of his faithful service, he was named “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope, a title borne by British monarchs to this day.

The story does not end there, of course.  After twenty years of marriage to Catherine of Aragon, with no male heir to show for it, Henry became disenchanted with his wife.  At the same time he was becoming attracted to a handsome young woman of the court, Anne Boleyn.  The story of Henry’s infatuation with Anne is less important than the fact that eventually he sought an annulment from Catherine on the grounds that the original annulment had been against God’s favor.  He claimed to believe that the reason he had no male heirs was because God was displeased with his marriage to Catherine.  Now the pope was in a very difficult position; he was being asked to declare that the daughter of two powerful Catholic monarchs of Aragon and Castile, which eventually became the kingdom of Spain, had been living in sin with the English king for decades, and that their child, a girl named Mary, was a bastard.  In addition, Catherine’s nephew was the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, a powerful political figure and staunch supporter of the Catholic Church, who would also have been outraged by the annulment.  So the pope denied Henry’s request.

Infuriated and infatuated, Henry decided to break with Rome, and thus came about the English Reformation, so-called because Henry made himself head of the Church of England, which became known as the Anglican Church.  Although the Anglican Church had formally severed its ties with Rome, the Anglican faith kept many of the trappings of what was now known as the Roman Catholic religion.  Many Protestants, who felt that Martin Luther had not gone far enough in his reforms, objected to the continuing “remnants of popery” that emanated from English cathedrals and demanded that the church be further purified of Catholic influence.  The most vociferous of these were known as Puritans, who divided themselves into two camps, Puritans and Separatists.

The Puritans were those who stayed in England during the reign of Henry’s heirs, especially during that of Queen Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry and Anne Boleyn.  They tried to work within the system to help reform the Anglican Church.  They were willing to conform to the political demands of the church, for church and state were one, because the king was head of both.  The Separatists, however, being more radical, were unwilling to continue to live under the domination of the church and sought their salvation elsewhere.  The Separatists eventually became the Pilgrims who settled in Plymouth in 1620, and the Puritans were the great mass of people who came to America’s shores in Massachusetts Bay, beginning in 1630.  The influence of the Puritans and the Anglican faith and many other religious convictions that colonial Britons brought with them from England and other countries has become part of the legacy of American religious history.

We should keep in mind here that conflict between Catholics and Protestants has persisted into modern times. Even now in the 21st century, some religious leaders continue to claim that the Catholic Church is corrupt, even to the point of asserting that the Pope himself is the Antichrist. (Not long ago I happened to be taking some relatives through Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol. We were standing in front of the statue of Father Jacques Marquette, known as Père Marquette, one of the founders of what became the state of Michigan. Marquette’s Catholic faith was evident from the rosary beads in the statue. As we stood there, a young many behind us said in an outraged tone, “Do they even let Catholics in here?!”)

Religious Freedom

The quest for religious freedom is often stated as a motivating factor in the colonization of North America, but its exact nature is often misunderstood. Our concept of religious freedom today means that people of all faiths Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, or any other, including those who lack faith, should be free to follow their own religious inclinations without interference from others and especially not from the government. During a time of colonization England and the rest of Europe were in the throes of monumental religious controversies. The religious tension was more than just Catholic and Protestant; Puritans, Presbyterians, Quakers, Methodists, Baptists and others all had their own particular forms of worship and systems of belief. People who came to America in the 17th and 18th centuries were not seeking land of religious freedom for all so much as a land where they could practice their own form of religion free of interference from rival denominations.

One overriding theme of religion in colonial America was hatred of everything Catholic. Thousands of people died in Great Britain and elsewhere in Europe during the struggles between Catholics and Protestants, beginning with King Henry VIII’s replacement of Catholic Rome with his own Anglican structure, a conversion that was later rejected by his daughter Queen Mary, who clung tenaciously to her Catholic faith. When Henry died, another claimant to the throne, Lady Jane Grey, assumed the crown for a brief period. A staunch Protestant, Jane was removed in favor of Mary after nine days and was later executed because of her faith. When the Protestant Elizabeth came to the throne, she was constantly advised to be wary of Catholic suitors for her hand as well as Catholic threats to English sovereignty. When her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, a Catholic, was implicated in a plot to overthrow Queen Elizabeth and replace her with Mary, Mary was tried and found guilty of treason. Elizabeth signed her execution order, and she was beheaded. During Elizabeth’s reign, her counselors were constantly aware of threats to the person of Elizabeth because of her Protestant faith.

That religious tension was carried into the colonies, as much of British colonial policy—such as it was—was directed against Spain. Catholic Maryland was an exception to the religious exclusionism, but even there problems existed, as tension existed between Maryland and surrounding colonies. The famous Maryland act of religious toleration passed in 1649 was repealed before very long.

The religious origins of American colonization are very deep and are also part of the larger history of Christianity in the Western world.  The Crusades of the Middle Ages are part of that story, for they helped to inspire the desire for exploration and contact with the Near and Far East.  The Crusades also contributed indirectly to the forces that led to the Reformation, and such religious practices as the prosecution of witches, fear and oppression of heretics, and various other negative—as well as many positive—religious impulses were transmitted by the colonists across the seas.

The Protestant Reformation itself, begun by Martin Luther, is probably the single largest event that impacted on Europe and therefore on its colonies in modern times.  The Reformation set off, among other things, a shattering conflict between the Roman Catholic Church and the different Protestant groups, a conflict that was often played out on bloody battlefields between nations that adhered to the Roman faith and those that had broken away.  Lesser conflicts, such as those that continue to plague such places as Northern Ireland, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, are further dimensions of that great religious struggle that has been going on for four hundred years or more.  The troubles to which the Reformation gave birth played a direct role in the colonization of America, most notably in the desire of English Puritans to escape what they saw as intolerable conditions in England.  That struggle in turn had its root in the English Reformation, by which King Henry VIII separated the English church from Rome.  By that time Protestantism itself had further subdivided into different sects and churches, and much of the religious disharmony in the early modern period occurred among Protestant sects as well as between Protestants and Catholics.

Americans to this day are inheritors of traditions and ideals passed down from the early Puritan settlers.  Early in this century the German sociologist Max Weber wrote a book called The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  Under various rubrics—the Yankee work ethic, for example—those ideas of Weber’s are still with us, and they have their origins in Puritan New England.  From the Congregational religion, the Puritans also contributed to our political structure, initiating what became the “New England town meeting,” a still viable form of direct democracy.  That localized means of government, whose origins were religious, helped define the way localities in that part of the country are governed to this day.  Similarly, in the southern colonies, where the Anglican Church was dominant, the county, or parish, was the basic structure of church rule and therefore also of political rule.  Government by county instead of by township or village is still the norm in much of the South.

Perhaps the most important legacy of religious attitudes that developed in colonial America was the desire of the colonists not to let religious differences infect the political process as had for so long been the case in Europe.  Thus our First Amendment to the Constitution may be traced to colonial times as part of the religious legacy of that era.

The Role of Religion

James Nayler, a prominent Quaker leader, being pilloried and whipped / University of Wisconsin-Madison

To say that religion played a large role in American history is an understatement.  The section you have read on the Reformation in Germany and England (above) should have led you to understand that religion was an important factor in bringing early colonists to America.  Whether they were Puritans escaping what they saw as Anglican persecution, Anglicans settling for the glory of God and country, German pietists, Dutch reformers, Quakers, Catholics or whatever brand of Christianity they practiced, many early colonists came here for religious purposes, and they brought their religious attitudes with them.

The varieties of religious experience in the colonies were widespread:  Puritans in Massachusetts, who practiced the Congregational religion and made it part of their political structure; Quakers in Pennsylvania, whose faith influenced the way they treated Indians, and who issued the first formal criticism of slavery in America; Catholics in Maryland, who passed a law of religious toleration, only to repeal it when religious conflict sharpened.  All colonies had strong religious values and strict practices; even Virginia Anglicans accepted readily the notion that the state should support the established religion.  A part of the taxes Virginians paid went to the parish to pay Anglican ministers and other church personnel.

The American colonists knew that religious wars had torn Europe apart from the time of the Reformation, including such bloody events as the Thirty Years War, the English Civil War, and the fights between Catholics and Protestants in France.  All of these events convinced the colonials that if they brought their religious conflicts to America and allowed them to continue, their lives would become as full of bloody persecutions as those they had left behind.  Gradually a sense of religious harmony began to emerge, and although it was interrupted from time to time in the course of American history (as when Irish Catholics began to arrive in large numbers in the 1800s), by the time of the American Revolution Americans had decided that they wanted a life free of religious strife.  Just as Roger Williams, a dissenter from the Massachusetts Bay Puritan colony, argued that the state had no right to dictate religious practice to its citizens, many more leaders such as Jefferson,  Madison, and others urged that a line of separation between church and state be established and made permanent, as was done in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

It would be wrong, however, to think of religion in America as a completely oppressive institution.  Read, for example, the poetry of Anne Bradstreet and see how her religious faith could bear her up in time of great sorrow, such as in the poem she wrote on the burning of her house.  Preachers such as Jonathan Edwards are remembered for their “fire and brimstone” sermons, and in fact the very term fire and brimstone comes from Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  But if you study all of Edwards carefully, including some of those thundering sermons, you will discover that Edwards ultimately carried a message of hope and salvation, arguing that in spite of our sinful natures God loves all of us.

The Great Awakening

The first truly American event during the colonial period, according to some historians, was known as the “Great Awakening,” an event that took place in the early 1700s.  This was a revival kind of experience where itinerant preachers, the most famous of whom was George Whitefield, traveled around from colony to colony urging the citizens to return to their faith in God.  Jonathan Edwards, mentioned above, is also a figure associated with the Great Awakening.

The Great Awakening was the first of many periods of religious enthusiasm that seem to come and go cyclically in American history.  Later on we will discuss the Second Great Awakening of the 1840s, out of which emerged, among other things, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, otherwise known as Mormons.

A great controversy goes on among observers of American history as to whether God played a real role in the American Revolution and early history, or whether Americans rejected the whole idea of religion as a significant value in American society, as suggested perhaps by the First Amendment.  If one searches the Internet for information about religion in America, one will find a variety of opinions, many of them quite strong.  Struggles over religious belief have come down into modern times; religious fundamentalism is still a lively part of American life.  The conflict between America’s concept of itself as a Christian nation and those who object to such formulations, both in the United States and in other places in the world, continues to appear on the front pages of our newspapers and magazines.  So one ignores religion and its role in American history at one’s peril—its influence is profound and its effects varied, but its role has continued through the ages.

Religion and the Revolution

Although the American Revolution was not fought over religious matters, the legacy of the religious strife in the world preceding the revolution provided the impetus for the American founding fathers to see to it that religion would not become a divisive issue in the new republic.  Starting with George Mason’s Virginia Bill of Rights, written in 1776, which stated that “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience,” the state of Virginia and the nation followed a policy of keeping religion and politics officially separated.  With the Virginia statute on religious freedom written by Thomas Jefferson, endorsed by James Madison, and enacted in 1786, the states gradually began to remove all connections between governments and churches.  (Note:  Mason’s Virginia Bill of Rights formed the basis for the Declaration of Independence and parts of the Constitution.)

The First Amendment to the Constitution, which stated that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” although it did not apply originally to the several states, did nevertheless foster an atmosphere suggesting a wall between church and state.  Anyone who follows current events even in the 21st century understands that religious conflicts have not disappeared from American culture.  All the same, the steps taken by the founding fathers to minimize religious controversy have stood the country in good stead.

An additional note should be added here about the relationship of colonial American attitudes toward religion and the coming of the American Revolution. As discussed above, a large number of the colonists who came to America did so in order to be able to a practice their religion freely, without interference from any higher authority.  As we have seen, that desire for religious independence was not a cry for universal religious freedom, although in colonies such as Pennsylvania religious diversity was not only tolerated, it was encouraged.

As the colonists became ever more independent-minded in the 1760s and 1770s, however, it could not escape many of them that the British desire to increase its dominion over the American colonies was to be done with the complicity of the Anglican Church.  The Anglican Church, after all, was the Church of England, and it was supported by English law with King George at its head. Thus the state controlled religion, and the Church of England helped the state control its people.  This propensity to enforce political control through religious doctrine was recognized by the colonists.

As John Adams later noted in a letter to Dr. Jedediah Morse in December 1815, the “apprehension of Episcopacy” was part of the revolutionary ideas percolating among the American colonists. He went on: “Passive obedience and non-resistance, in the most unqualified and unlimited sense, were [the church’s’] avowed principles in government, and the power of the church to decree rites and ceremonies, and the authority of the church in controversies of faith, were explicitly avowed.” Thus was the power of Parliament, and the colonists soon began to see “that parliament had no authority over them in any case whatsoever.”

With those ideas as background, Adams, Madison, Jefferson and others sought to ensure the American government would never be allowed to use religion as a device to ensure political control. Thus the separation of church and state, embedded in the Bill of Rights, was seen as yet another safeguard against tyranny.

Women and Families in Colonial America

Colonial women /, Creative Commons

Early life in the American colonies was hard—everyone had to pitch in to produce the necessities of life.  There was little room for slackers; as John Smith decreed in the Virginia colony, “He who does not work, will not eat.”  Because men outnumbered women by a significant margin in the early southern colonies, life there, especially family life, was relatively unstable.  But the general premise that all colonials had to work to ensure survival meant that everyone, male and female, had to do one’s job.  The work required to sustain a family in the rather bleak environments of the early colonies was demanding for all.

While the women had to sew, cook, take care of domestic animals, make many of the necessities used in the household such as soap, candles, clothing, and other necessities, the men were busy building, plowing, repairing tools, harvesting crops, hunting, fishing, and protecting the family from whatever threat might come, from wild animals to Indians.  It was true that the colonists brought with them traditional attitudes about the proper status and roles of women.  Women were considered to be the “weaker vessels,” not as strong physically or mentally as men and less emotionally stable.  Legally they could neither vote, hold public office, nor participate in legal matters on their own behalf, and opportunities for them outside the home were frequently limited.  Women were expected to defer to their husbands and be obedient to them without question.  Husbands, in turn, were expected to protect their wives against all threats, even at the cost of their own lives if necessary.

It is clear that separation of labor existed in the New World—women did traditional work generally associated with females.  But because labor was so valuable in colonial America, many women were able to demonstrate their worth by pursuing positions such as midwives, merchants, printers, and even doctors.  In addition, because the survival of the family depended upon the contribution of every family member—including children, once they were old enough to work—women often had to step in to their husband’s roles in case of incapacitation from injury or illness.  Women were commonly able to contribute to the labor involved in farming by attending the births of livestock, driving plow horses, and so on.  Because the family was the main unit of society, and was especially strong in New England, the wife’s position within the family, while subordinate to that of her husband, nevertheless meant that through her husband she could participate in the public life of the colony.  It was assumed, for example, that when a man cast a vote in any sort of election, the vote was cast on behalf of his family.  If the husband were indisposed at the time of the election, wives were generally allowed to cast the family vote in his place.

Women were in short supply in the colonies, as indeed was all labor, so they tended to be more highly valued than in Europe.  The wife was an essential component of the nuclear family, and without a strong and productive wife a family would struggle to survive.  If a woman became a widow, for example, suitors would appear with almost unseemly haste to bid for the services of the woman through marriage.  (In the Virginia colony it was bantered about that when a single man showed up with flowers at the funeral of a husband, he was more likely to be courting than mourning or offering condolences.)

Religion in Puritan New England followed congregational traditions, meaning that the church hierarchy was not as highly developed as in the Anglican and Catholic faiths.  New England women tended to join the church in greater numbers than men, a phenomenon known as the “feminization” of religion, although it is not clear how that came about.  In general, colonial women fared well for the times in which they lived.  In any case the lead in the family practice of religion in New England was often taken by the wife.  It was the mother who brought up the children to be good Christians, and the mother who often taught them to read so that they could study the Bible.  Because both men and women were required to live according to God’s law, both boys and girls were taught to read the Bible.

The feminization of religion in New England set an important precedent for what later became known as “Republican motherhood” during the Revolutionary period.  Because mothers were responsible for the raising of good Christian children, as the religious intensity of Puritan New England tapered off, it was the mother who was later expected to raise children who were ethically sound, and who would become good citizens.  When the American Revolution shifted responsibility for the moral condition of the state from the monarch to “we, the people,” the raising of children to become good citizens became a political contribution of good “republican” mothers.

Despite the traditional restrictions on colonial women, many examples can be found indicating that women were often granted legal and economic rights and were allowed to pursue businesses; many women were more than mere housewives, and their responsibilities were important and often highly valued in colonial society.  They appeared in court, conducted business, and participated in public affairs from time to time, circumstances warranting.  Although women in colonial America could by no means be considered to have been held “equal” to men, they were as a rule probably as well off as women anywhere in the world, and in general probably even better off.

Although women in colonial America were subject to the same prejudices that had existed in Western culture for centuries, the nature of life in America brought about more favorable circumstances for women. Because everybody had to work, and because labor was viable in America, the presence of women was seen as a blessing or leased a necessity. Men worked hard, and the women were responsible for the raising of the children. The children in turn were expected to be productive members of the family and as soon as they were old enough they began performing various chores and tasks around the household and farm to help ease the burdens of their hard-working parents. Girls learned the chores that were traditionally a woman’s lot, while boys learned how to assist their fathers in the fields and workshops. Family discipline was of necessity often strict; children who are slackers constituted a burden rather than an aid to their families. They expected to lead lives similar to those of their parents, but in a land that offered a modicum of opportunity for prosperity, such expectations were reasonable.

The Colonial People at Work

Indentured servant contract dated 1746 / Library of Congress

Life in colonial times was hard. Everyone, save for the very few wealthy persons, had to work. Most were farmers, and in colonial families both men and women, as well as girls and boys, toiled daily for most of the daylight hours. Sunday was often a day of partial rest, but animals still had to be cared for, food prepared and other field and household chores attended to. Certain hours were set aside in many families for worship or lessons for children, but hours of leisure were rare in most households and treated more as necessary pastimes than as free time. In the letter of an indentured servant you get a sense of the hardship of life, and many indentured servants worked very hard and were treated harshly. They had the advantage over slaves of knowing that there was a light at the end of the tunnel–that their indentures would eventually expire and they would be free, with perhaps something of value to show for their years of work. Gottlieb Mittelberger’s

The important point to remember about working conditions in colonial America is that land was plentiful and labor was very scarce. In the old countries chronic underemployment was the norm. There were simply not enough work to go around for people who had no access to land ownership. People with farming skills could work for hire, but the work was often seasonal and otherwise unreliable. In the towns and cities unless one had a skill such as blacksmithing, printing or tannery, any work was hard to find, let alone steady work. Thousands were constantly on the verge of starvation and sought relief through such activities as petty thievery or prostitution. That was why so many were willing to take a huge risk of traveling across a wide ocean to an unknown land far away.

As a letter of Gottfried Mittelberger and the Frethorne letter demonstrate, life could be just as difficult on the other side. But there was one great difference: in America land was plentiful, and those who owned land or access to it needed workers. Labor was hard, but it was available. The possibility of land ownership was open to anyone with reasonable intelligence and willingness to labor long and hard to achieve that elusive goal, the goal it was virtually impossible for common people in most of Europe.

It is no surprise then, that when a ship with a cargo slaves landed in Virginia in 1619, they were quickly accepted and put to work. In the early days many of those slaves were treated like indentured servants, and some managed to work toward freedom and even land ownership. When the slave traders discovered a market for their products in North America, however, the influx of slaves quickly transformed the institution into one of lifelong servitude. Because many of the slaves who came to America had been captured in tribal conflict back in Africa or had Artie served time as slaves elsewhere in the Americas, the practices attendant to the ancient institution developed in America as they have for thousands of years. The section below discusses slavery in colonial America in greater detail.

New England Expands to New Colonies

The Puritan Diaspora

Not everything in New England was agreeable.  The Puritans were passionate people with strong beliefs, and like all human beings, they had differing opinions on important matters from time to time.  Although their thinking was rooted in the Bible, the Bible is sometimes ambiguous in terms of religious doctrine.  For example, in one book of the New Testament claims that man is saved by faith alone; in another it is claimed that faith without works is dead. Thus, when arguments arose, they could not always be resolved by resorting to the scripture.  Within a few years of the settlement of Massachusetts Bay, various groups began to break off and establish new colonies towns and eventually new colonies.  Because of the way New England expanded, however, the similarities among the New England colonies probably outweigh the differences.  Throughout the 17th century, the New England colonies were dominated by the Puritan faith.


Detail from a facsimile printed in The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut / Connecticut State Library

Not all the motivation was over religious differences, however; the relatively rocky and unfriendly coast of Massachusetts was not as appealing as, for example, the Connecticut River Valley.  Thomas Hooker was the pastor in Newtown, Massachusetts, in the early 1630s.  Because of his differences with the leadership of the Massachusetts colony in the person of Governor Winthrop, Hooker decided to take his flock westward, and in 1636 his entire congregation set out for the Connecticut River Valley, which had been discovered by Dutchman Adrian Block some years earlier.  There Hooker founded the town of Hartford.  Other groups from Massachusetts later founded additional towns in the Connecticut Valley.  The colony of New Haven, led by the Reverend John Davenport, was founded in 1637, and Stamford  was settled in 1641.  Additional towns joined with them to create the New Haven colony.

The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut were written in 1639.   Although the Mayflower compact had laid down the broad outlines of government, the Fundamental Orders filled in the details and became the first full-blown constitution written for government in America.  The orders contained no reference to the British government; thus the document occupies an important place in American political history.

Eventually the settlers on the north shore of Long Island Sound merged with the Puritans in the Connecticut River Valley.  Although the Dutch colony at New Amsterdam had claimed parts of Connecticut, the English settlers eventually controlled the colony.  Following a bloody war with the Pequot Indians, known as the Pequot War, the people of Connecticut obtained a charter from Charles II.   As was the case with most colonial charters, the only restriction was that the laws of the colony must conform to the laws of England.

Rhode Island and Providence Plantations

The founder of the Rhode Island colony was Roger Williams, a dissenter from Massachusetts who had more liberal ideas than some of the Puritan fathers in the Massachusetts Bay colony. A very learned man and a brilliant thinker, Williams had been closely acquainted with some of England’s leading figures before coming to America. As a young man Williams came to the attention of Sir Edward Coke, a famous English jurist, who supported Williams’s education, which he completed at Cambridge University. He was also acquainted with Sir Francis Bacon, who no doubt influenced Williams’s thinking, contributing to his intellectual rigor.

When banished from Massachusetts for his religious beliefs, Williams established a colony in a unsettled area after purchasing land from Indians. He named his settlement Providence, which eventually merged with other settlements such as Newport and eventually became the colony of Rhode Island.  Williams obtained a charter from Parliament in 1643 for Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, which gave the colony the right to govern itself.

Williams believed in the separation of church and state, and thus is a revered figure in the history of American ideas of religious freedom. In his most famous work on theology, Williams argued that because of all the blood that had been spilled over religious issues in wartime, governments should not take it upon themselves to enforce religious views on their people. He claimed that civil officials had no right to judge people’s religious views. He based his views on the Bible and claimed that Scripture prohibited “uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state.”

The colony attracted freethinkers of all kinds, including Anne Hutchinson, who was found guilty of heresy in her famous trial in Massachusetts, as well as her followers.  Although the government of Rhode Island was not fully democratic, the settlers nevertheless felt free to express themselves in various ways, with the result that Rhode Island was one of the more turbulent colonies in early America.

Because of the conflict between King Charles I and Parliament that led to the English Civil War, Rhode Island’s charter was declared invalid following the restoration of Charles II.  Rhode Island then got a new charter, which affirmed the rights granted under the first charter and included a land grant. It also declared that people should be free of any sort of persecution “for any difference in opinion in matters of religion.” That provision reflected the feelings of Roger Williams himself, and the idea continued to grow as the American colonies developed. So liberal was the religious posture of Rhode Island that Roman Catholics, Jews and even non-believers were welcome in the colony. Rhode Island remained, however, something of an outcast among the rest of the colonies for its different ways. (Following the American Revolution, Rhode Island was the only state that did not send a delegation to the Constitutional Convention in 1787.) Yet the people of Rhode Island felt strongly about their views and defended their positions against the other New England colonies.

New Hampshire

The territory that became New Hampshire was part of a 1622 land grant established by the Council for New England.  The first small settlement was eventually expanded by colonists from Massachusetts.  A number of small towns were created.  They had difficulty establishing a system of government and remained under the jurisdiction of Massachusetts until 1679, when they were separated by the Crown.  James II rejoined them again in 1686, but in 1691 New Hampshire became a royal colony.  The colony grew slowly because of conflicts over land ownership, but in 1717 a group of Scotch-Irish settlers entered the colony and established the town of Londonderry, and a thriving textile business soon grew up.

The western portion of the New Hampshire colony was also claimed by New York, which eventually won the territory, but later it broke off and became a separate colony of Vermont, which in turn became the 14th state in the Union.  The territory of Maine remained part of Massachusetts until 1820. Although the separate New England colonies developed separately, often as a result of theological disputes, the general character on New England was not only consistent within its colonies, but many cultural ideas spread from New England across New York and into the Middle West.

The Middle Colonies


A small broadside reprint of the Maryland Toleration Act / Assembly of the Province of Maryland, Wikimedia Commons

George Calvert, who became the first Lord Baltimore, was granted territory in the American colonies north of the Potomac River in 1632. The charter authorized the proprietor, Cecelius Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore, to recognize religions in the colony other than Protestants, and thus the Maryland colony became a haven for Catholics. The first Catholics arrived in 1634 and settled at St. Mary’s in the southern part of the colony. The Virginia colony had established a trading post within Maryland’s boundaries, leading to conflict between the two colonies, which was eventually resolved in favor of Maryland.

In 1649 Maryland passed its famous Toleration Act, which assured religious freedom to anybody who recognized the doctrine of the Trinity. A later assembly repealed the toleration act, however, and conflict between Catholics and Protestants within the colony continued until the early 1680s. Additional conflict arose between the Maryland and Pennsylvania colonies regarding the southern boundary of Pennsylvania. Two English surveyors, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, surveyed the line that eventually became known as the Mason-Dixon line, later recognized as a dividing line between slave and free states. Following the Glorious Revolution of 1688 it was thought that the Maryland colony would once again be turned over to Catholics, but in 1695 the capital was moved from St. Mary’s to Annapolis, located in the more “Protestant” area of Maryland. For a time Maryland was a royal colony, but eventually the charter was restored and the fourth Lord Baltimore continued as proprietor.

New York

In 1609 Henry Hudson explored for the Dutch East India Company in the Hudson Valley area, and additional exploratory journeys followed along the New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey coasts. In 1621 the Dutch West India Company was founded, and its charter granted the company the right to colonize in the New World. The first permanent settlement of New Amsterdam was created in 1624, and Peter Minuet arrived in 1626 with a group of settlers and purchased Manhattan Island from the Native Americans for about $24 in trading goods. He named the colony New Netherland. The Dutch settlements expanded up the Hudson River as far as Fort Orange opposite what became Albany. Large landowners were known as patroons and received favorable treatment from the owners of the company.

Although the British and Dutch had been on friendly terms for some time, the Dutch colony separated New England from Virginia; as economic competition between the two nations grew, the Dutch colony began to be seen as an impediment. King Charles II granted the territory between the Delaware and Connecticut rivers to his brother James, the Duke of York, but this claim challenged the Dutch claim of the same area. The authority of the Navigation Acts began to be enforced against the Dutch trading competition, and in 1664 ships of the Royal Navy sailed into New Amsterdam harbor and forced the Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant to surrender. (More about Navigation Acts below.)

The Duke of York renamed the New Netherland territory New York, and although it was now under English control, the Dutch settlers were indifferent to the change in rule as long as they retained their holdings, as the period of Dutch rule had not been amenable to them. Soon large English landholders existed along with the Dutch patroonships. Seeking to strengthen his political position within the realm, James granted a portion of his holdings to Sir John Berkley and Sir George Carteret, whose territory eventually became the New Jersey colony.

Both New York and New Jersey were exceedingly diverse with Dutch, Scandinavians, Germans, French Huguenots, and African slaves. To the south of New Jersey the colony of New Sweden was established on the Delaware River in 1637. Settlement began in 1638. Fort Christina, which eventually became the city of Wilmington, was the center of New Sweden. Settlers also moved into the area that bordered Pennsylvania.

Ties between the English and Dutch were once again strengthened by the marriage of the Dutch Prince William of Orange to James’s daughter Mary. When James openly avowed his Catholic faith and was removed from the throne in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the Crown was offered to William and Mary jointly and they acceded in 1689. When Mary died in 1694, William continued as King William III.

In 1735 an event occurred in New York that had significant implications for the future of the freedom of the press in America. The governor of New York lost a case before the Supreme Court of New York and subsequently fired the judge. Peter Zenger, a newspaper publisher, criticized the governor in his New York Weekly Journal, and the governor angrily ordered Zenger arrested for libel and that his paper be shut down. Defense attorney Andrew Hamilton of Philadelphia defended Zenger and obtained for his client the decision of the jury, which overruled a decision of the judge, a stunning victory for the liberty of the press in America, an important precedent that carried over into and beyond the American Revolution.

The Colony of New Sweden, 1638–1655

The Swedes were the first to make permanent settlement in the Delaware region, beginning with the expedition of 1637–1638, which occupied the future site of Wilmington, Delaware. In 1643 Governor Johan Printz of New Sweden established his capital at Tinicum Island within the present limits of Pennsylvania, where there is now a state park bearing his name.

Dutch Dominion on the Delaware, 1655–1664, and the Duke of York’s Rule, 1664–1681

Trouble broke out between the Swedes and the Dutch, who had trading posts in the region. In 1655 Governor Peter Stuyvesant of New Netherlands seized New Sweden and made it part of the Dutch colony. In 1664 the English seized the Dutch possessions in the name of the Duke of York, the king’s brother. Except when it was recaptured by the Dutch in 1673–1674, the Delaware region remained under Duke of York’s jurisdiction until 1681. English laws and civil government were introduced by the Duke of York’s Laws in 1676.


The founding of the Pennsylvania colony began when King Charles II awarded a charter in 1681 to William Penn, son of Admiral Sir William Penn, to whom the king owed a debt. The charter, the largest grant ever made to one man in America, was awarded in discharge of the debt on the condition that it would be named for the king’s patron. The resulting Pennsylvania colony took shape as a refuge for Quakers, a radical sect that had been persecuted in England for their unorthodox views. The Quakers were pacifists who refused to pay taxes, did not respect social ranks, and were branded by Parliament as “dangerous.”

Following the tenets of their founder, George Fox, Quakers found themselves unwelcome in the existing American colonies, especially in Massachusetts, where several of them were hanged as heretics. By the mid-1600s their members numbered in the tens of thousands, and by the time William Penn received his grant from King Charles, he was the best known Quaker in England.

The charter situated the colony to the north of Maryland, but the exact boundary was a bone of contention between Penn and Maryland’s Lord Baltimore. It was not until 1767 that the exact boundary was determined by the English surveyors Mason and Dixon. As the proprietor of the colony, Penn was allowed to determine the shape of the government of Pennsylvania by establishing courts and judges and forming a militia; but the tax power under the charter was retained by Parliament. To expand his domains and give them access to the oceans, he purchased the three counties of the Delaware colony.

The first colonists arrived in Pennsylvania in 1681 under Pennsylvania’s first appointed governor, William Markham. William Penn himself arrived a year later and began to build a city on the spot that became Philadelphia, soon to become the most important city in colonial America. Penn’s approach to the Indians was unusual in that he believed that the Indians were legitimate owners of the land, and he was prepared to pay them a fair price for the areas that Pennsylvania took over. Shortly after arriving, Penn made a formal treaty with the Delaware Indians and promised friendship with them. The treaty remained in effect for decades, and the Indians always considered the Quakers their friends.

In 1683 the colonial legislature of Pennsylvania had begun to function, and it passed laws granting citizenship in the colony to all free Christians. Penn temporarily lost his charter because of issues relating to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and his friendship with the Duke of York, who would become King James II. Other business affairs kept him in England for an additional time, but when he returned to Pennsylvania he found that the economy had grown and changed considerably in his absence. To revise the government he turned the three counties that constituted Delaware over to the people of that colony to govern themselves.

Noted for its openness to various religions, the Quaker colony soon attracted large numbers of Germans fleeing from religious wars, as well as a stream of Scotch-Irish from the Northern Ireland province of Ulster. The Germans in particular were hardworking, humble, and pious people, many of whose descendants still inhabit Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and surrounding areas. In their religious devotion, the German sects tended to be very much like the Quakers themselves. Their descendants, the Amish, still live peacefully in Lancaster County.

In 1723 an event occurred in Pennsylvania that did not seem significant at the time, but over the course of the life of the colony it would grow in importance. In that year a young apprentice printer by the name of Benjamin Franklin arrived in Philadelphia from Boston. Franklin’s influence would help to shape not only the colony of Pennsylvania but the destiny of the future United States.

The Southern Colonies

The Carolinas

Engraving of Giovanni da Verrazano / Wikimedia Commons

Many parts of the New World were explored before actual settlements were created, and the southern North American colonies were no exception.  Giovanni da Verrazano visited the Carolina coast in the early 1500s, and Spanish explorers from Florida also traveled northward as far as North Carolina.

The first attempt to colonize North Carolina occurred in the 1580s under Sir Walter Raleigh. The first of these attempts failed, but the second colony was established in 1587 under the leadership of John White.  This settlement on Roanoke Island eventually became known as the “lost colony.”  Because of Great Britain’s preoccupation with the invasion of the Spanish armada, the colony was left to itself for several years.  When John White, who had returned to England, sailed back to the colony in 1590, no trace remained except for the word “CROATAN” carved on a tree.  The colony is distinguished by the fact that the first English baby born in America was born on Roanoke Island; her name was Virginia Dare.  Other than that, little is known of the colony or what became of it. National Geographic page on The Lost Colony.

The early settlement of North Carolina occurred in the coastal region in the 1650s as settlers from Virginia drifted into the area, but the Carolinas remained thinly populated until French Huguenots arrived in 1704.  Carolina was established under a charter from King Charles II in 1663, given to a group of noblemen who had assisted Charles in regaining the throne during the Restoration. The name Carolina is in honor of Charles II, whose name in Latin is Carolus. The two parts—North and South Carolina—remained a single political unit until 1712, and North Caroline became a crown colony in 1729. Although the two colonies were separated at that time, their histories are similar.

On April 12, 1776, North Carolina became the first colony to vote for independence. Carolinians are quite proud of that fact and have memorialized it on their state flag and the state seal. Above the star on the flag is the date of May 20, 1775, which commemorates the “Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.”

In 1670 additional settlers arrived from Barbados in what became the area of Charleston, South Carolina, where the Ashley and Cooper rivers join and flow into the Atlantic Ocean.  The chief sources of revenue for the Carolinas were labor-intensive crops such as rice, indigo, and (later) cotton, as well as exports of wood, resin, and tar from the thick pine forests.  The city of Charleston, long the leading city of the South, was actually founded in 1680 and quickly became a leading economic center. The profits from rice and indigo made South Carolina farmers and merchants some of the wealthiest men in that future part of the United States.

Although attempts were made to create an aristocratic government based on heredity in the Carolinas, the American colonies were not favorable to such a social structure.  With seemingly unlimited tracts of land available for settlement, attempts to tie the lower classes to a landed gentry proved unsuccessful.  Education was not pursued as vigorously in the South as in New England and Pennsylvania, although the wealthier landowners often sent their sons to school in England.  Partly because of the more rural nature of the southern colonies, public education was more difficult to sustain.  By 1750 the population of the Carolinas was more than 100,000.

The Yamassee War of 1715 between white settlers and Indians disturbed the peace of Carolina for almost a year, and the whites eventually prevailed.  Later the people revolted against proprietary rule and requested that their colony be made a royal colony; in 1719 that request was granted and the South Carolina charter was ended, making South Carolina a royal colony.


The last colony of the original thirteen was the southernmost colony of Georgia, named for King George II and established in 1732.  Georgia founder James Oglethorpe had served under Prince Eugene of Savoy in a war against the Turks. Later, as a member of Parliament, he advocated for a new colony in America as a refuge for poor people and prisoners. Oglethorpe and his partners received a charter for the new colony of Georgia in June 1732, and James himself accompanied the first colonists to Georgia, where he built the settlement of Savannah. General Oglethorpe petitioned the King to allow prisoners, especially those in debtors’ prisons, to be released and sent to Georgia.

The colony was later conceived as a buffer area between the English settlements and Spanish Florida to protect the other southern colonies from invasion. Oglethorpe built Fort Frederica on St. Simon’s Island, where in 1742, he repulsed a Spanish invasion in a fight known as the Battle of Bloody Marsh, for which Oglethorpe was promoted to brigadier general in the British Army. The Governor treated the people well, and they were very loyal to him. Oglethorpe initially prohibited slavery in the colony, believing that the slaves might flee south to Saint Augustine. Instead, slaves from South Carolina fled into Georgia, and popular pressure led to the eventual establishment of slavery within the colony.

As we will see in the next section, the Florida colony was granted to England in the Treaty of 1763 that ended the French and Indian War. Thus it was actually an English colony during the time of the American Revolution, though it did not participate in any meaningful way since it had practically no English-speaking population. At the time of the treaty of 1783 that ended the American Revolution, the colony was once again restored to Spain, and Georgia remained the most southern state.

Slavery in the Colonies

Diagram of a slave ship from the Atlantic slave trade. (From an Abstract of Evidence delivered before a select committee of the House of Commons in 1790 and 1791.) / Lilly Library of Rare Books and Manuscripts, Indiana University

Early American history is a story of three cultures:  European, Native American, and African. The impact of African culture on American society is indisputable.  Because of the institution of slavery, which began in America in Virginia in 1619, great numbers of Africans were brought to North America against their will, and they suffered huge deprivations and oppressive conditions as part of their lives as slaves.

It is important to remember, as one African American historian has noted, that “slavery was old when Moses was young.”  Slavery existed from ancient times well into the modern period, and, sad to say, in parts of the world slavery, or a condition very much like slavery, still exists today.  None of that changes the fact that American slavery is the great paradox of American history.  That a nation “conceived in liberty” could have been built on the backs of thousands of African slaves is certainly one of the most troublesome features of the American past.

The legacy of slavery continued long after its ending with the American Civil War.  During Reconstruction and the times that followed, into the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the legacy of slavery has remained part of American culture.  Of all the millions of slaves taken from West Africa into the Western Hemisphere, about 5 percent wound up in what became the United States.  They came from all parts of the west coast of Africa, and the cultural differences among them were certainly as great as those of Europeans and Native Americans, yet almost all Africans were treated identically, not much different from beasts of burden.

Most slaves started as prisoners captured in African wars or raids and were sold to white traders for transport across the Atlantic. The middle passage was notoriously inhumane and the conditions in the slave ships were so intolerable that slaves often tried to commit suicide by jumping over the side or refusing to eat; anything was better than rather than the horribly painful existence in the slavers.

When the slaves arrived in American trading centers they were sold off to the highest bidder, and to the extent that any human connections remained among the slaves, they were almost certainly broken. Little or no recognition was given to slave families, let alone friendships or marriages. Slaves often wound up on plantations with other Africans from different regions, with different customs and languages. They soon learned that survival, which generally depended on the sort of treatment they received from their masters, required that they suppress their African origins and adapt as best they could to life in this strange, new world. All they knew for sure was that there was no going back.

The institution of lifetime slavery in America did not occur immediately.  The first slaves to arrive were treated more or less as indenture servants, and many of them eventually became free; some became landowners, and some of them, paradoxically, even became slave owners themselves.  But within a few short decades, the lot of slaves had evolved into one of permanent lifetime servitude from which there was no escape, save by the voluntary manumission on the part of the owner, which was not likely to occur.  Colonial America was chronically labor poor, and labor was valued highly, so slaves became an economic commodity whose monetary worth rose steadily as the economic fortunes of America rose.

One can understand the evolution of slavery by looking at the evolution of the Virginia slave statutes.  By 1670 a code indicated that because corporal punishment was the only means of chastising a slave, and because no one would willfully destroy his own property, the death of a slave as a result of corporal punishment could not have been deemed intentional. Thus the death of a slave was not considered a felony, which meant that slave owners gained virtual life-and-death authority over their slaves.

Religion was no consolation for the slave.  Very early it was decided that even though slaves could be Christianized for the salvation of their souls, the fact that they became Christians did not entitle then to freedom.  In addition, the religious practice of slaves was monitored to prevent religion from becoming a call for liberation.

The Middle Passage / PBS, Creative Commons

The daily life of slaves was hard.  They were given the bare essentials for life:  a place to sleep, clothing, enough food to keep them healthy enough for work.  Luxuries of any kind were virtually unknown; they worked six or seven days a week, for most of the daylight hours.  And although their health was often protected because of their economic value, they were worked as hard as a body can physically tolerate.  African slaves increased in number through natural reproduction at approximately the same rate as whites for most of the colonial period.  Thus relationships between male and female slaves were encouraged, and something resembling marriage was occasionally recognized; however, if economic conditions demanded, marriages were severed, and the selling of partners and children from the plantation to another location was common.

The literature of slavery is now vast.  Many historians have examined the African cultures from which the slaves came.  The slave cultures in the American South have been documented through slave codes and records of slave owners to the point where we have an excellent view of the life of the slave.

To say it was hard is inadequate, for it does not fully convey the agony that the slave existence could always be.  On the other hand, life was difficult for everybody in colonial times, except for those who managed to accumulate some wealth and position.  If one looks at the histories of indentured servants such as those contained in the documents for this part of the course, one can see that indentured servitude could also be a brutally harsh existence.  The main difference seems to have been that for the indentured servant, there was a light at the end of the tunnel; eventually if he or she survived, the indentured servant would become free, perhaps with a little property to get a start of one’s own.  But for the slaves there was no light at the end of the tunnel; they knew they would spend all their lives in slavery and that their children would spend their lifetimes as slaves as well.

Although many slaves were in fact eventually freed by their masters long before the end of slavery in 1865, no slave could reasonably expect to be freed except by the most generous masters in what could only be called unusual circumstances.  As much of the literature has borne out, economic conditions for the slave owner, which were generally favorable, often took unexpected downturns, so that even when slave owners had an abundance of slaves, they would hold onto them as a hedge against more difficult times.  Often those with more slaves than they could profitable employ rented them out to other plantations, or sometimes got them jobs in villages or towns in blacksmith or harness shops.  Slave wages would be paid to the slave owner, and if he were generous perhaps a portion of that income would go to the slave himself.

We shall return to the institution of slavery later in this course, but in the colonial period one sees the gradual adoption of slavery as an economic resource, devoid of human considerations, that would remain a major component of American history for centuries to come.

This brief overview of life in colonial America in no way portrays the complexity and diversity of colonial life. We have already seen that the inhabitants of the colonies, while mostly English, included Dutch, German, Swedish, Scottish settlers, with a smattering of immigrants from Portugal and other European nations, including some who came from earlier settlements in the Caribbean. Colonial life on the coast in settlements slowly growing into cities differed from life on the frontier, where practices were often influenced by contact with the Indians, both friendly and confrontational. Those who had come to America from rural areas and were competent farmers led lives often different from those who had come from the cities to escape from the specter of poverty. Judges in English courts frequently offered convicted felons, including those guilty of petty crimes, the option of jail or deportation to the colonies. In later years many criminals were exported to Australia, but America certainly had its share. The abundance of land and the need for labor in North America made it possible for many so-called criminal types to go straight, especially since the majority of crimes in the old country where those related to poverty and need.

In any case, as the quotation from Page Smith in an earlier section makes clear, society in America was to a large extent more diverse than the individual societies from which the settlers had come. A personal account of a wedding ceremony in New Jersey includes a description of a confused attendee who was befuddled by the mixture of English, German, Swedish, and other nationalities among the wedding guests. Although almost exclusively of Northern or Northwestern European stock, the thirteen American colonies were anything but uniform.