- “The Colonies” refers to the thirteen original colonies that comprised pre-revolutionary and revolutionary America (1607-1776). All located on the East Coast, the colonies included New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. The term “the colonies” has been in use since the early 1700’s. Each colony was founded on different principals based on its original settlers. For example, Massachusetts served as a refuge for English Puritans and its society and cultural norms mirrored their strict religious practices.
- What is colonialism? Colonialism is widely understood as political system that involves one country asserting economic and military domination over another. This relationship takes on many forms depending on the conditions of the colonizer and colonized. Due to Western technological advances in the 1500’s colonialism as it is currently understood started to take form: “it became possible to move large numbers of people across the ocean and to maintain political sovereignty in spite of geographical dispersion”. The colonization of the early United States can be best represented by the system of settler colonialism, which consists of a foreign population replacing the indigenous populations of an area. This system differs from the imperial systems of exploitation that was experienced in Latin America, Africa and, Asia for centuries.
- The Jamestown Settlement in Virginia was the first successful British colony in the United States. The first English ship arrived on April 26, 1607 carrying 143 Englishmen who would establish a proper colonial outpost modeled after the French and Spanish models in Louisiana and Florida, respectively. What differentiated Jamestown from other colonies was that its original inhabitants were all men seeking fortunes through landownership, as opposed to families escaping religious persecution. The colonists’ survival was dependent on a trading relationship with local Native American tribes, despite seemingly constant violent outbreaks between the two groups. Through this relationship, the early colonists learned how to grow tobacco, which became wildly popular in both the colony and in England. The tobacco industry ensured the economic success of Virginia, but required a larger workforce. Therefore, in 1619 the first slaves arrived from Angola, as well as an abundance of indentured servants from the Netherlands and England.
- The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded in 1620 when the Mayflower arrived in Provincetown Harbor on Cape Cod. Those aboard the Mayflower were British Puritans seeking religious freedom for their separatist protestant beliefs. The pilgrims on the Mayflower intended to create a settlement in Virginia, but harsh weather conditions and a taxing 65-day journey across the Atlantic made finishing the voyage to Virginia implausible. The Mayflower Compact was signed by all the surviving men on the ship and founded the legal basis for the future Massachusetts Bay Colony by establishing a voluntary government in Massachusetts instead of Virginia. The colony continued to grow and soon Boston was established as the commercial center of the colony, creating a burgeoning merchant class. Boston would later become a place of key importance during the Revolutionary War.
- The Colonial Economy: The American colonies grew to be an economic success in each region (South, Middle Colonies, and New England). Most of these economies were agricultural, but areas with poor soil or terrains that made farming difficult found success in industries such as trapping or fishing. Regional specialization and seemingly abundant land gave the colonies a comparative advantage over their European counterparts and allowed for their entry into the global economy. Rice and tobacco that was grown in the South and grains that were grown in the Middle Colonies (the area between the Potomac River and the Hudson River) were referred to as cash crops. Despite unfavorable agricultural conditions, the New England colonies rose to economic prominence due to their involvement in fishing and shipping industries. Other colonial industries included shipbuilding, resource extraction, fur trading, and textile production.
- Colonial Society: The character of the societies of the colonies was dependent on its geographic location, their economies, and the general values held by its inhabitants. What remained constant throughout all thirteen colonies, however, was that white, landowning, protestant men maintained a privileged role in society. Furthermore, most societies were more or less based on social structures in Europe, creating highly stratified communities. Slavery and indentured servitude were staples of colonial society until the Revolutionary period in some colonies and remained until the Civil War in others. Interestingly, due to the seasonal agricultural practices of the Middle Colonies and the lack of a strong agricultural economy in New England, the need for slavery was not as strongly felt: leaving a dramatically different legacy than in the South. Native Americans were forcibly removed from their lands and were deemed inhuman. Women occupied an interesting role within the home and in the greater community. At the dawn of the Revolution, women were expected to raise families based on the notions of republicanism, which turned the norm that a woman’s place was in the home into a patriotic responsibility.
- The Seven Years Year/ the French and Indian War: Many consider the catalyst for American independence (and the end of the colonies) to be the Seven Years War (also referred to as the French and Indian War), fought from 1756 to 1763. The war began as an imperialist conflict due to Britain’s desire to expand westward the French controlled Ohio Valley to expand the capacity to trade. Despite the British victory, the expense of the war caused the British monarchy to levy a series of controversial taxes, such as the Stamp Act in 1765, that was ultimately part of the driving force that led the American colonists to seek independence.
- Historic Preservation: A number of colonial settlements and areas have been preserved to educate the public about a previous era and how it has informed American life today. Historic districts bring revenue to cities and states through investment and tourism and can regenerate struggling local economies. Additionally, they provide a sense of identity and community for the area they are located in. Examples of colonial historic districts and sites today include Colonial Williamsburg, the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia and Valley Forge, and the Paul Revere House in Boston.
9. In popular culture, the colonies are portrayed in a number of freely interpreted ways that fail to properly depict what the typical day to day would have been for a colonist. The motifs used most often are the puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the relationships between the colonists and Native Americans. The New England settlers are often depicted as narrow minded, religious zealots, or used as a vehicle for depictions of horror, often associated with the Salem witch trials. For example, in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, he conflates narratives of the Salem witch trials with Puritan settlements, while depicting few positive characters (Miller wrote the play as an allegory for McCarthyism in the 1950’s).
Popular culture also has a habit of romanticizing the relationships between indigenous Americans and the colonists. For example, Disney’s Pocahontas uses real historical figures to tell the story of a Native American princess and British soldier defying their superiors by falling in love. While Pocahontas did marry an Englishman (John Rolfe, not John Smith), it was largely a political relationship and grounds for a truce after her abduction by the Jamestown settlers.
10. When studying colonial America, it is important to recognize that most scholarship on the subject has a colonial bias that can best be described using the saying “history is told by the victors”. For example, the history of the relationship between Native Americans and the colonists seems to end after the initial settlements of the colonies in the 1600’s, when in reality the effects of these early relationships are still felt in many native communities today. The current understanding of a number of tribes is based off of primary sources recorded by European explorers and settlers, which creates a seemingly unavoidable conflict when trying to accurately understand the colonial community at the time: “In the past many historians…[portrayed] the Indians as the helpless victims of European colonizers who had superior technology, broader worldly experience, and more lethal diseases” (Lombard and Middleton, n.p.). In addition, the role of Native Americans in the survival of many early colonists is quite large, but often overlooked.
Baker, Paula. “The Domestication of Politics: Women and American Political Society, 1780-1920.” The American Historical Review 89, no. 3 (1984): 620-47. doi:10.2307/1856119.
Bremer, Francis J. The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards. University Press of New England, 1995.
Heinemann, Ronald L. Old Dominion, New Commonwealth: A History of Virginia, 1607-2007. University of Virginia Press, 2007.
Kohn, Margaret and Reddy, Kavita, “Colonialism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2017/entries/colonialism/
Lombard, Anne and Richard Middleton, Colonial America: A History to 1763. John Wiley and Sons, 2011.
Phil Rabinowitz, “Changing the Physical and Social Environment: Encouraging Historic Preservation”. https://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/implement/physical-social-environment/historic-preservation/main
Rockoff, Hugh and Gary M. Walton, History of the American Economy. Cengage Learning, 2013.
Rollins, Peter C. The Columbia Companion to American History on Film: How the Movies Have Portrayed the American Past. Columbia University Press, 2004.