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Thinking Questions

The Thirteen Colonies


The British were late bloomers when it came to colonizing the Americas. But what they lacked in punctuality they more than made up for in their determination to dominate the North American continent. 

Colonists had their own personal reasons for undertaking the one-way trip into the wild and untamed wilderness of North America. Some came to shake off religious persecution back home. Some came to escape a jail sentence. Some were trying to dodge an unhappy marriage. But many were victims of charter company propaganda who falsely advertised the New World as a get rich quick scheme.


Tens of thousands made the voyage across the Atlantic. Many died of disease once they arrived. A few colonies-- like Roanoke and Popham-- didn't make it at all. Jamestown and Plymouth barely survived their first few years. 


But no matter who you were or where you landed the one thing that every colonist had in common was that with each passing year, the  New World landscape made them less British and more American. By the time of the American Revolution in 1776 the thirteen British colonies had formed themselves into three distinct regions: New England, Middle, and Southern.





British America

New England -Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut


The colonists who came to New England didn't have a clue about farming. These guys were small townsfolk who worked with their hands. The leaders of New England were selective in who they let into their community. People with skills such as blacksmiths, shipwrights and carpenters were welcome. So too were the intellectual set such as preachers, lawyers, and doctors. New England was planned to be a family place.


Small towns where hard work meant building a comfortable life for you and your family. A community of like-minded individuals who were free to persecute anyone who didn't think like they did. In other words, just one happy Puritan community. 


New Englanders tended to arrive in packs. Most of them having known one another back home. Your typical New England colony was organized around a town center: The Meeting House, the village green, and the tavern. The Meeting House was the center of Puritan life, doubling as a courthouse, town council, church, and community center. This was where the Puritans gathered to worship every Sunday, this is where criminals were brought to justice, and where the town leaders made laws and dealt with boring everyday issues like who’s cow ran amok in whose field, or whose husband slept with another man’s wife. In 1692 it was in the Meeting House where nineteen witches were sentenced to death in Salem, Massachusetts.


Like back home, the town village was organized along a main dirt road that widened once you got to the town center. Here lay the village green, where the militia trained (translation: the men of the town now had an excuse to get together once a month, get drunk, fire their guns, and march around the town playing soldier) and the people brought their sheep and cows to graze. All of these activity made the village green anything but grassy. Most “greens” were little more than muddy paddocks with a few sprigs of grass that had gotten lucky.  And of course, despite the Puritan’s reputation for being religious sticks-in-the-mud, every New England town made sure to build a tavern: a sort of cafe, motel, ale house type of establishment.


85% of colonials made their living by subsistence farming. Even if most colonists came over knowing next to nothing about farming or building houses, they were forced to catch on fast. Depending on what part of Old England you hailed from, New England farms were either worked by the entire community--communist style-- or by individual families. Once you got out of town, which wasn’t more than a short walk, you reached the fields. Here, using the fish-in-the-hole techniques first introduced to the Pilgrims by Squanto, the New Englanders grew corn, barley, peas, pumpkins, and bunch of other vegetables that were overcooked and turned into a nutritionally-empty mush that every Englishman liked to call supper. The English were carnivores at heart, preferring to their steak and kidney (animal not bean) pies to a steaming plate of broccoli. This, along with the amount of sugar that the colonists ate (which is still far less than us 21st Century folks) explains the bad teeth that European visitors liked to write home about. Ever hear about George Washington’s wooden teeth? Bingo. (author’s note: George Washington never had wooden teeth, because well that would be a really stupid thing to make teeth out of. Instead, they extracted teeth from the dead or paid poor people and slaves to make a donation.

Puritan towns were tight knit and suspicious of strangers. They came seeking religious freedom but they didn’t tolerate even an ounce of dissent. Puritan or Non-Puritan, you were expected to tow the Puritan line. The New England community revolved around the church. Unlike those "heathen" Virginians who were mainly Anglicans, the Puritans were rebels for Christ who had made their stand against the Anglican Church as soon as their feet touched the deck of the Mayflower.


At first, the Puritans tried to purify the Anglican Church of its Catholic ways. But when they didn’t win that battle, they simply--and illegally-- started their own church, who came to be known as Congregationalists. To the Puritans, the congregation of church members was where God could be found. God was where the prayer was. But they wouldn’t let just anyone in their midst. You had to prove that you were worthy. Church membership was a valued prize and applicants had to prove to the Congregation that “god dwelt in them”.


Made of rough logs and mud coating, the early colonial churches looked nothing like the white buildings with picturesque steeples that we see today. Men and women sat separately on hard benches. Native Americans and Africans sat up in the loft with no benches. Services on Sunday could last for five hours, sometimes more. If you were caught talking you got rapped on the head with a stick. Don't even think about sneaking out, the doors were closed and closely watched.

Up until the Mid-1700's Church and State were definitely not separate. Puritan beliefs about how people should behave created a whole slew of laws that we might find ridiculous today. For example: those who skipped church services could be fined or spend a day in the stocks. Even though people didn't have watches or clocks, sleeping in wasn't an excuse. Important events were always announced by the ringing of the church bells.


In 1642, Massachusetts passed a law requiring parents to educate their children in reading and in matters of religion. Education was very important to the people of New England; all towns with more than 50 people had to hire a school teacher. Puritans believed that everyone should be literate to be able to read the Bible for themselves. The earliest colleges in America, like Harvard and Princeton, came from this time and place.


Back in England, not being a member of the Anglican Church could  get you tossed into the brink, but in New England being outside of the congregation translated to your not being a true member of society. Everyone had to pay their taxes, but being a Church member gave you the right to vote and receive the sacraments. The Puritans were so suspicious of strangers that they refused to allow their members to sell their homes to anyone who had not been approved by the community. The New England towns were dead serious about keeping out the riff raff that seemed to be making havoc down in Virginia. But often, it didn’t work. The misfits simply moved deeper into the woods where they could live their lives free from Puritan control. And for those who just couldn’t get with the program, the Puritans wouldn’t think twice about banishing you to some remote corner of New England. That’s how Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire got their start.



New England colonies Map
plymouth plantation (recreation)
Town Green in Woodstock, Connecticut
salem massachusetts court square
1839 Cleveland Ohio Militia
Puritan Meeting House

The Inside of a Puritan Meeting Hall (which also doubled as church and courthouse)

Puritan Laws

Except for attending church, The Puritan leaders of New England made it a crime to celebrate Christmas.

Puritan Punishment
colonial stockcade punishment

The Middle Colonies


The governors of the Middle Colonies weren't interested in creating a religious utopia and they didn't have the favorable weather to create a tobacco empire. Instead, the Middle Colonies worked what God gave them by advertising its two biggest assets: water and land. The region was blessed with rich soil and deep harbors. The economy of the Middle Colonies was built around trade. Towns like New York City and Philadelphia grew up around ports deep enough for large ships to dock. The area was also rich in timber and iron-- two jackpot ingredients for starting an industrial revolution. The Puritans might have ruled New England and the planters dominated the Southern colonies but here the merchants became the Lords of their domain. The most successful merchants built their empires by keeping the other English colonies well-supplied.


 But one of the biggest strengths of the Middle Colonies lay in the ability of its governors to not be narrow-minded bigots. The intolerance of the New England Puritans drove many innovative thinkers out of its colonies. Too bad for them. To their credit the governors of the Middle Colonies had the foresight  to promote their colonies as a haven for religious freedom and tolerance. This had the intended affect of attracting settlers from every corner of Western Europe. Each of which came with their own unique perspectives and skills that when they came together created an industrial powerhouse unseen anywhere else in colonial America. 


The Middle Colonies became a cultural stew that left its mark on colonial America. The Swedes introduced the log cabin, the Germans bred giant horses and created the prairie schooner-- a wagon so large that it was named after a ship. The Continental Europeans had different methods of farming than did the English. The New Englanders had their village green and the Virginians just let the hogs and cows run wild through the woods. The Germans brought the concept of the barn to the Middle Colonies where they settled. You might even say that colonial life was pretty much a community affair. When a house needed to be built, or a barn raised, a field planted the community would pitch in and make it a festival.


To the land starved Europeans,  it was worth risking malaria, explosive diarrhea and bear attacks to get a piece of the American Dream. After all land meant wealth and back in Old England only 20% of the people owned land, while the rest were tenant farmers paying high rents to greedy landlords. In the New World, farming may be hard work but at least it was your hard work. Farming, once a job fit for peasants, became a respectable career move made by hardworking, honest people. Thomas Jefferson once quipped that those who ‘labor in the earth are the chosen people of God’. How much better of an endorsement could a farmer hope to get?

Being isolated from the rest of the world changed the way colonists bought and sold goods. Although English pounds and shillings were used to buy their imports, the colonial economy was more about barter than cold, hard cash.  Eventually the colonies would print their own money but in the early days the most common way of paying the doctor or buying a new dress was to barter for it. Bartering worked like this: you had a surplus of eggs (everyone loves eggs) so you agree to pay Doc Jones in eggs for treating your kid's sniffles.  Often farmers couldn't do all the work themselves (even with 8 kids). So, the whole community came to pitch in during big events like a barn raising or harvest time. Of course, it was expected that you would show up when a neighbor needed your help (another example of the barter system in action).



middle colonies map

Southern Colonies-Maryland, Virginia, North & South Carolina, Georgia.

The southern colonies almost flopped for a second time when settlement of Jamestown turned to cannibalism to survive the winter of 1609. But with the discovery of tobacco, the colonists were willing to forget the whole starvation and eating corpses and get down to the business of establishing plantations.


Climate and geography had a huge impact on how the culture of the southern colonies. The hot and wet summers and mild winters combined with rich fertile soil created agricultural magic. Just a few years before, the Virginia colonists had been cannibalizing one another to stay alive. But once people back in England realized that Virginia was flush with “brown gold” you couldn’t stop the flood of colonists from coming.


In its golden years, the tobacco boom lured young men looking to own land. But tobacco is a demanding plant and wears out the soil  so quickly that farmers were forced to move on to the next spot every five to seven years. (You could of course keep the soil healthy through fertilizers but tobacco that tasted like cow manure didn’t tend to sell too well back in Europe). Tobacco farming caused the colonists of Virginia to keep on the move and spread out.  


Thousands of armed young men constantly on the move doesn’t make for much a community. In contrast to the New England colonies which had more of a small town family vibe, the Virginia colonies took on a loner mentality. The governors who ran 17th Century Virginia complained about the lack of morals and breakdown of religion. Young men who work all day toiling in their fields are more likely to spend the Sabbath day drinking and gambling rather than canoeing 10 miles to church and back. The Southern colonies tried to pass laws to enforce church attendance and create a sense of community, but most people tended to ignore them and do their own thing. This isolation led to one of many ways that the southern colonists became so different from their northern counterparts. The agricultural economy of the south led to many small isolated farms that pretty much what they darn-well felt like doing.


The poor moved inland and had to battle the Indians for their land. These farmers had large families to help with the task of running a farm. Many farmers also learned to do most of the odd jobs themselves such as making their own clothing, butter, and tools. The subsistence farms grew corn, wheat, raised cattle and pigs, and if they had a little extra, planted tobacco to sell. The ultimate dream of these farmers was to own a few slaves and maybe make it big and become a plantation owner. It was rare but not unheard of.

Along the rivers wealthy plantation owners set up their huge estates dedicated to providing everything the plantation family needed. In fact, they were like the large estates back in the Old Country. A plantation ranged from a small 100 acre operation to thousands of acres. The main house would be about 2,500-3,000 square feet (a middle class home by today's standards) with all of the finest furniture imported from Europe. The plantation owners tried to re-create themselves as the aristocratic class that existed back home. On the grounds would be a warehouse for drying tobacco, a kitchen, slave quarters, a blacksmith, a chapel, and a winery. 


The lifestyle of the colonial planter class became the ideal for the southern colonies. They owned most of the land, dominated the government and lived in large mansions. Back in England they would have been small fish in a big pond but in Virginia and Carolina they became the new aristocracy. And to the southern planter nothing mattered more than showing off your social status. They dressed in the latest European fashions. Imported fancy furntiture from European manufacturers. Their kids were educated in elite boarding schools in Europe. These southern fat cats might have made up less than 5% of the population but their way of life loomed larger than life. 


But stop and consider what all of this means. Up until the American Civil War the southern colonies were actually recreating the European feudal system right here in the good ol’ U.S of A. The vast majority of white people were tenant farmers or backwoodsmen whose lives were defined by miserable poverty. Think rednecks and tin shacks, these stereotypes come from somewhere. Nearly all blacks were held against their will to be bought and sold like animals in order to enrich the lives of barely 2% of the population. For the next two hundred and fifty years the planter aristocrats will dominate the south and southern culture so much that movies like Gone With the Wind turn their pampered lifestyle into the southern ideal.


Within a few decades the southern colonies had put all of their chips in the plantation basket. The economy of the Southern states were built around supporting a few rich families who owned vast fields dedicated to a single cash crop. Such an agricultural economy is very time consuming and backbreaking. Not the sort of work you’d catch an English gentlemen doing. Each decade tens of thousands of new laborers were brought to the southern colonies, either by choice or by force. At first the English used indentured servants to work the fields. Indentured servitude is not much different from slavery except that those desperate enough to sign an indentured contract could be beaten and abused but they still had rights as Englishmen and had to be given their freedom after seven years when their contract expired.


Slaves on the other hand made an excellent source of cheap labor. The most expensive part of owning a slave was at the auction block but after that minimal food and housing became the rule. In 1619, a Dutch ship dropped off the first cargo of slaves from West Africa. Now the story is a bit fuzzy on the legal status of these unlucky individuals.Some claim that they were indentured servants others say they were officially slaves. But soon Virginia and the other colonies had begun making slavery based on skin color a colonial institution. Slavery was not only legal in the southern colonies, it was a way of life. Within 100 years, blacks outnumbered whites in some counties.

southern colonies map
Byrd Plantation
Byrd Plantation . James River, Virginia 
tobaco plant drawing
southern aristocrats

"Don't forget your musket, dear. It's family portrait day!"

"Mr. and Mrs Andrews". 
The Happy Southern Aristocrats get their portraited painted. 
slaves on a tobacco plantation
slaves working a tobacco plantation. c. 1700

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