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American Colonial period

colonies england english century

Colonial period, American, nearly 170 formative years of settlement and adventure before U.S. independence. The first colonies were established by chartered trading companies, groups of commercial speculators who shared the profits of the colony in return for putting up the capital necessary for its establishment. The first permanent English settlement in America, at Jamestown (1607), was the project of the London Company, which failed to exploit its new colony of Virginia and surrendered its charter to the crown in 1624. The Pilgrim settlement at Plymouth (1620) merged with the later Puritan settlement at Boston, and the 2 were governed by the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company until 1691, when it, too, became a royal province under an appointed governor. Connecticut (1662) and Rhode Island (1663) were established by settlers from Massachusetts. New York, originally New Amsterdam, was founded by the Dutch West India Company in 1625 and captured by the English in 1664. Delaware, founded by a Swedish company in 1638, later fell under the control of the Penn family. Under the system of proprietorship, the crown also granted huge tracts of land to individuals or groups. Of the 13 colonies, 7 were founded as proprietorships: Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, the Carolinas, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. All except Pennsylvania and Maryland became royal provinces before 1776.

Economic life

Despite rocky soil and a short growing season, many crops were raised on the small farms of New England. Fishing employed 10,000 people by 1765, and some 300 vessels were engaged in whaling. Shipbuilding was the main industry, though woolen textiles, leather goods, and iron tools and utensils were also produced. In the 18th century the distillation of rum from West Indian molasses became the second most important industry. The Middle Atlantic colonies—New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania—supplied New England and Europe with food and raw materials. Manufactures consisted of textiles, paper, glass, and iron. In the 17th century an important fur trade was carried on through the Iroquois country from Albany. In the Plantation Provinces, from Maryland south to Georgia, production became increasingly concentrated on great staple crops—tobacco, rice, and indigo. By the 1770s tobacco exports were around 50 million pounds a year, rice half a million. The forests of the Carolina uplands also furnished lumber for shipbuilding and “naval stores” (pitch, tar, and turpentine), which were vital for the British navy.

Scarcity of labor was a problem common to all the colonies, for the ease with which land could be acquired meant that industrious colonists quickly became landlords in their own right. One solution was the employment of “indentured” servants who were obliged to serve for a fixed period of years, in return for payment of their passage across the Atlantic or sometimes as a punishment for political or religious offenses or crimes. From Virginia southward, African slaves were employed. The first shipload arrived as early as 1619; by 1760 there were 400,000 blacks in the English colonies.

Social and cultural life

The major colonial cities were ports whose main connection with each other was by sea, since roads were very poor. For more prosperous city dwellers life differed little from what they had left behind in England. On the frontier, however, life was crude and hazardous. Hostility from Native Americans encouraged communal settlement, and stockades surrounded the early villages. Food was obtained by hunting and fishing, clothing was made from animal skins, and the log cabin was the standard dwelling. In the cities class distinctions were evident; however, on the frontier a rough democracy prevailed. There were many sects and religions, but toleration was achieved only gradually. The early colonists took an active interest in providing schooling, particularly in New England, where each town maintained a school. In the Middle Colonies schools were run by religious organizations, while in the South private tutors were employed. For the poor, apprenticeship took the place of schooling. Nine colleges were founded in the colonial period. Established primarily for the training of ministers, the colleges at first taught theology and the classics; in the 18th century science, medicine, and modern languages were introduced. Over 50 newspapers were established in the colonial period. The first printing press went into operation in Massachusetts in 1639. Private and public subscription libraries were founded in the 18th century, and the American Philosophical Society (1743), led by Benjamin Franklin, strove to unite scientists and philosophic thinkers. In painting the 18th century produced artists whose reputation reached as far as Europe: John Singleton Copley, Benjamin West, Charles Wilson Peale, and Gilbert Stuart. Singing societies and chamber concerts were popular outside the Puritan areas, and the Moravians were noted for their performances of German church music.

Migration from countries other than England brought new cultural influences to the colonies. King Louis XIV's revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685) compelled many French Protestants to flee to America, where they became prominent in trade and industry and brought French styles of dress, furnishing, and architecture to Boston, New York, and particularly Charleston. Germans, mostly peasant farmers, settled in Pennsylvania, the Shenandoah Valley, and the Piedmont region of Virginia and North Carolina. Scotch-Irish from Ulster also settled in Pennsylvania and the colonies to its south. By 1775 there were probably 200,000 Germans and 300,000 Scotch-Irish in America as well as Swiss, Welsh, and Dutch. Nevertheless, the English inheritance was predominant: English was the main language and also the basis of a shared literature, legal system, and political outlook. In the free and vigorous atmosphere of colonial America the British tradition of personal liberty was to culminate in revolution and independence.

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