The Thirteen American Colonies

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A painting of colonists building a fort at the Jamestown, Virginia, settlement

In the 1500s, North America was a wilderness. A few Spaniards lived in St. Augustine, Florida. French traders were in Nova Scotia. But the continent still belonged to Native Americans.

In the 1580s the English tried to start a North American colony on Roanoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina. The settlers stayed for a year. Then they went home. A second group arrived in 1587, but they mysteriously disappeared.

Later, another group settled in Jamestown, Virginia. The colony faced great difficulties, but it was successful. Over the next century, the English established 13 colonies. They were Virginia, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. By 1750 nearly 2 million Europeans lived in the American colonies. Still others came from Africa. Most of the Africans were transported to America as slaves.

The Settlers and Why They Came

Why did these people leave their homes in the Old World?

Most people in England were farmers. A few nobles owned the land. They rented plots to small farmers. But England was changing. Landowners made more money raising sheep than renting to farmers. Farmers were turned out of their homes. For them, America was the only opportunity.

Others came to the colonies in search of religious freedom. In Europe each nation had an official state church. Everybody had to attend the church. Those who refused were sometimes sent to prison. Religious dissenters voyaged to America to practice their own religion.

Virginia: The First Successful Colony

In 1606 King James of England gave two companies the right to settle the Atlantic coast. The Virginia Company of London was assigned to Virginia. The Plymouth Company got New England.

In 1607 three Virginia Company ships set sail. They anchored off a marshy island, where colonists built a settlement called Jamestown. The colony struggled against disease, famine, and hostile Indians. But Jamestown eventually flourished.

By 1619 more than 1,000 settlers lived in Virginia. Each settlement was allowed to elect two men to represent them in the government. These men, called burgesses, met with the colonial governor and helped make laws. Representative government had begun.

New England

Meanwhile, in England, a group of Puritans was fleeing religious persecution. Some decided to go to America. In September 1620 these Pilgrims sailed to the New World. They chose Plymouth as the site of their colony.

In 1629 John Winthrop led a much larger group of Puritans to New England. They founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop became its first governor. By 1640 more than 20,000 settlers were living around Boston. Puritan leaders tried to control the colony, but settlers demanded the right to representation. In Massachusetts, as in Virginia, colonists developed a democratic government.

One early protester against the Puritans was Roger Williams. In 1636 he founded Providence, which became the colony of Rhode Island. That same year, another group from Massachusetts settled on the Connecticut River. They built a village called Hartford. They were soon governing themselves as the colony of Connecticut.

In 1622 the king allowed Sir Ferdinando Gorges and John Mason to settle farther north. Later, the two men divided the land. Gorges took the Maine section. Mason took New Hampshire. Pioneers from Massachusetts moved north. They built farms and villages. In 1679 New Hampshire became a separate colony. But Massachusetts still claimed the coast. Maine never became a colony.

The Middle Colonies

In 1609 Henry Hudson sailed to America. He was an Englishman who had been hired by the Dutch. The Dutch claimed the territory Hudson explored, and they called it New Netherland. Dutch businessmen sent out traders to build trading posts. The largest stood at the mouth of the Hudson River. The Dutch called it New Amsterdam.

In 1638 Swedish settlers sailed into the Delaware River. They built Fort Christina, named for the queen of Sweden. But this colony lasted only a few years. In 1655 Dutch troops seized the Swedish settlements.

However, less than ten years later, an English fleet sailed into New Amsterdam. Its commander forced the Dutch governor to haul down his flag. New Netherland was renamed New York, in honor of the king’s brother the duke of York. The city of New York soon became a large seaport. New Jersey grew as settlers moved in from the east.

William Penn founded Pennsylvania in 1681. Penn had left the Church of England to become a Quaker. He built the colony so people could worship in their own way and share in the government. In 1682 Penn was given another grant of land south of Pennsylvania. It became the colony of Delaware.

The Southern Colonies

George Calvert, Lord Baltimore, was a Roman Catholic. He wanted to build a colony for all Christians, including Catholics. In 1632 King Charles I of England granted him land north of Virginia. A group of 200 settlers landed in Maryland in 1634. They bought land from the Indians. They built large farms called plantations. Tobacco became their cash crop.

Meantime, pioneers from Virginia had been moving south. They lived by hunting, fishing, and raising crops in the forest clearings. They planted tobacco. They sold forest products to shipbuilders in England. In 1663 the king of England named this region Carolina. The king later divided the region into two royal colonies. In 1721 he created South Carolina. And in 1729 he created North Carolina.

South Carolina attracted settlers from many countries. They built a seaport named Charles Towne (Charleston). It soon became the most prosperous southern seaport. Settlers started rice plantations in the rich swampland along the coast. They brought in slaves to work on the plantations. By this time tobacco planters in Maryland and Virginia were already using slave labor. Slavery became firmly established in the South.

The last of the 13 colonies, Georgia, was founded by James Oglethorpe. In those days English debtors (people who owed money they could not repay) were sent to jail. Many remained behind bars for years. Oglethorpe knew that many prisoners were poor but honest. They could become good colonists. In 1732 Oglethorpe attained a land grant between South Carolina and the Spanish colony of Florida.

Oglethorpe arrived in 1733 with a group of debtors. They settled at a site they called Savannah. Savannah became a thriving seaport.

By then, the English flag flew all along the coast of North America. The colonists were building a new way of life, and they also built a new nation that would become the United States of America.

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