A History of Colonial America

By Tim Lambert

The Earliest Colonies

The first Europeans to establish colonies in North America were the Spanish. In 1526 a Spaniard called Lucas Vasquez de Allyon attempted to found a colony in Carolina. (He also brought the first black slaves to North America). However, the attempt failed. Many Spaniards died of disease and the survivors abandoned the colony.

In 1565 Pedro Menendez de Aviles founded a settlement at St Augustine, Florida, the first permanent European settlement in what is now the USA. The first English attempt to colonize North America was made by a man named Sir Humphrey Gilbert. In 1578 Queen Elizabeth granted him permission to establish a colony there. In 1583 Gilbert sailed with a small fleet of ships to Newfoundland. However, Gilbert soon abandoned the venture. Gilbert was lost on the voyage home.

However his half-brother, Walter Raleigh made another attempt to found a colony. In 1584 he sent two ships to explore the coast. They found what they thought was a suitable place for a colony. In January 1585 Queen Elizabeth the ‘Virgin Queen’ allowed him to call the place Virginia, after her. In April 1585 an expedition was sent led by Richard Grenville. They arrived in July 1585. Grenville left men on Roanoke Island then left for England to obtain more men and supplies. However, while he was gone the colonists ran very short of supplies. In 1586 the colonists abandoned Virginia and returned to England.

In 1587 another attempt to found a colony was made by a man named John White. He led an expedition of men, women, and children to Virginia. However White returned to England to seek more support for the colony. Because of a war between England and Spain he was unable to return to Virginia until 1590. When he arrived he found the colony deserted. The fate of the colonists is unknown.


The first attempts to found a colony in North America were made by gentlemen adventurers. But they failed. Success came only when a group of men joined together and pooled their resources to found a colony. The Virginia Company was founded in 1606. They sent two expeditions to North America. Raleigh Gilbert (Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s son) led one of them. They landed in Maine but soon gave up. They returned to England in 1609. The second expedition founded Jamestown on 14 May 1607.

More settlers arrived in 1609. However, the shortage of food, disease, and conflict with the natives caused many deaths among the colonists. In 1610 the survivors were on the verge of leaving. They were dissuaded from doing so only when more ships from England arrived. In 1611 Sir Thomas Dale became the Governor of the colony. He introduced strict discipline with a code of laws called ‘Laws, Divine, Moral and Martial’. Penalties for disobedience were severe.

In 1612 a man named John Rolfe began growing tobacco. In 1614 the first Virginian tobacco was sold in England. Exports of tobacco soon became the mainstay of the Virginian economy.

Gradually the colony expanded. In 1618 the Company offered 50 acres of land to anyone who could pay for the cost of their voyage across the Atlantic. If they could not pay they could become indentured servants. When they arrived they were not free. They had to work for the company for several years to pay back the cost of their passage. In 1619 the first slaves arrived in Virginia. Also in 1619, the first representative government in North America was created when the House of Burgesses met.

In 1624 the Virginia Company was dissolved and the Crown took over the colony. By 1660 the population of Virginia was 27,000. By 1710 it had risen to 78,000. However, in 1699 the seat of government of Virginia was moved from Jamestown to Middle Plantation (Williamsburg). Afterward, Jamestown went into decline.

The Pilgrim Fathers

Another English colony was founded 1620. In England, people called Separatists were strongly critical of the Church of England and they did not wish to belong to it. They faced persecution in England so in 1608 a group of them fled to Holland where they were allowed to practice their religion.

However, they grew dissatisfied there and a London joint-stock company agreed to finance a voyage across the Atlantic. The colonists set out in a ship called the Mayflower and they arrived at Plymouth in December 1620. Many of the colonists did not survive the first winter. However, a Native American taught them how to grow crops. Another colony was founded at Salem in 1628.

The Massachusetts Bay Company was formed in 1629. From 1630 large numbers of settlers were transported to New England and its population swelled. Furthermore, English colonists spread over the coast of North America. In 1634 people from Massachusetts founded the town of Wethersfield in Connecticut.

In 1636 a group of people left the Massachusetts Bay Colony and settled on Rhode Island. The first settlement was at Providence.

Meanwhile, a fishing settlement was founded in New Hampshire in 1623. In 1629 the area between the Merrimack River and the Piscataqua River was granted to a man named Mason. It was named New Hampshire. Portsmouth, New Hampshire was founded in 1630. Officially New Hampshire was part of Massachusetts until 1679.

Unlike the southern states, which were overwhelmingly agricultural New England developed a partly mercantile economy. Fishing was an important industry. Exports of timber and barrels were also important. There was also a shipbuilding industry in New England.

The Europeans introduced many diseases to which the natives had little or no resistance. As a result, many natives died and their number declined sharply. As the British colonies grew they inevitably came into conflict with the natives. The Pequot War was fought in 1637-1638 and it ended in the destruction of the Pequot tribe.

Another desperate struggle took place in 1675-1676. Colonist’s heavy-handed treatment of the natives led to King Philip’s War. King Philip was actually a native called Metacom and the war ended with his death. Although great damage was done on both sides the defeat of the natives effectively meant that the colonists now had mastery of New England.

In 1692 twenty people died as a result of the Salem Witch Trials In 1624 the Dutch West India Company founded a colony called New Netherland. The first settlement was at Fort Orange (Albany). In 1638 Swedes formed a colony at Fort Christina (Wilmington). The Dutch captured this colony in 1655 and made it part of New Netherland. The British captured New Netherland in 1664 and renamed it, New York, in honor of the king’s brother the Duke of York.

King Charles II granted the colony to his brother. He, in turn, granted the land between the Delaware and the Hudson to two men, Lord John Berkeley (1607-1678) and Sir George Carteret (1615-1680). Carteret came from the island of Jersey in the English channel and he named the area New Jersey after his home. In 1676 the colony was divided into East and West Jersey. Carteret took East Jersey. In 1681 his widow sold it to William Penn and 11 other Quakers. Penn hoped to turn this new colony into a haven of religious tolerance for Quakers and others. In 1682 the area now called Delaware was ceded to William Penn. In 1704 it was allowed its own assembly. However, until the revolution, Delaware and Pennsylvania shared a governor. Meanwhile, East and West Jersey were reunited in 1702.

Maryland was founded as a haven for Catholics (though by no means all the early colonists were Catholic, some were Protestant). A man named Cecil Calvert was granted territory north of the Potomac River. His brother Leonard led 200 settlers there to found a colony in 1634. It was named Maryland after the king’s wife, Henrietta Maria. By 1640 there were about 500 people in Maryland. It soon became another tobacco-growing colony. Charleston, South Carolina was founded in 1670. Settlers came from islands in the Caribbean as well as from Virginia and New England.

However, from the end of the 17th century, many African slaves were transported to work on the plantations. In the early 18th century the African slave population in North America increased rapidly. In 1701 Carolina was divided into North and South Carolina. Georgia was founded in 1732 when George II gave it a charter. It was named after him. The first settlement in Georgia was Savannah, which was founded in 1733.

In the early 18th century there was a great religious revival in the North American colonies. (Later it was given the name ‘The Great Awakening’). Leading figures in the revival were William Tennent 1673-1745, a Scottish-Presbyterian preacher, Jonathan Edwards 1703-1758, a Congregationalist, and John Davenport 716-1757. The English preacher George Whitefield 1714-1770 also visited the colonies and won many converts.

Growing Tensions With Britain

As the North American colonies grew tension with Britain was inevitable. The British felt that the colonies existed for the benefit of the mother country and this attitude was bound to cause resentment.

As early as 1651 the British Parliament passed a navigation act. It stated that any goods grown or made outside Europe must be transported to England in English ships. Other Navigation Acts followed it. The 1660 Navigation Act stated that certain goods (cotton, indigo, sugar, and tobacco) could only be exported from the colonies to England or to other colonies. It was followed by acts in 1670 and 1673. However the British made little attempt to enforce these acts and they were widely ignored by the colonists. (After 1763 the British tried to enforce them more rigorously, causing great resentment among the colonists).

In the early 18th century the population of the North American colonies grew rapidly. It was probably about 300,000 at the end of the 17th century but by 1760 it was over 1 million. By 1780 it had doubled. In the early 18th century the population was boosted by immigrants from Northern Ireland (most of them descended from Scottish Presbyterians). There were also many immigrants from Scotland. Also in the early 18th century, there were many German immigrants. The land was cheap in North America and it attracted many people hoping for a better life.

However relations between the colonists and the mother country turned sour after 1763. The British had just finished fighting the Seven Years War against France. They had won Canada but the war was very expensive.

The British were keen to prevent any wars with the Native Americans, which might prove expensive. In 1763 a royal proclamation known as the Great Proclamation sought to ban any further westward expansion. It forbade people to settle in ‘any lands beyond the heads or sources of any of the rivers which fall into the Atlantic Ocean from the West or Northwest’. This proclamation was ignored by the colonists but it also caused great resentment. The colonists objected to being told by the British government that they could not expand westwards.

Furthermore in 1763 Americans paid few taxes, certainly less than the British. The British felt that the Americans should pay a greater contribution to the cost of their defense.

In 1764 the British Prime Minister, George Grenville, passed the Sugar Act. (So-called because it affected imports of molasses from the West Indies. Its proper name was the American Revenue Act.) The act actually reduced the duty on molasses but steps were taken to make sure it was collected! (smuggling was widespread). The Sugar Act antagonized the Americans and they were alienated further by the Currency Act of 1764. The colonies were printing their own money because of a shortage of currency but the act banned the issue of paper money in the American colonies (and so hindered trade).

However, the most offence was caused by the Stamp Act of 1765 which imposed a duty on legal documents, newspapers and playing cards. It was not just that the Americans hated paying the tax but that they felt a constitutional issue was involved. They believed that since they were not represented in the British parliament it had no right to impose taxes on them. In the immortal phrase ‘no taxation without representation’.

The Stamp Act soon proved to be unenforceable. Colonial assemblies denounced it and in October 1765 a number of colonies sent delegates to a ‘Stamp act Congress’ to organize resistance. Imports of British goods were boycotted and debts to British merchants were suspended. Rioters attacked tax collectors and their property. Eventually in March 1766, the British were forced to repeal the Stamp Act. However, at the same time, they passed the Declaratory Act, which said that parliament was sovereign over all American colonies. This stupid act simply annoyed and antagonized the colonists.

The British had learned nothing. In 1767 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Townshend, imposed duties on lead, glass, paint, oil, and tea. Once again the colonists boycotted imports of British goods and once again the British government was forced to back down. By March 1770 all duties except those on tea were removed. n The Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party

However American public opinion was galvanized by the ‘Boston massacre’ of March 1770. A group of people in Boston threw snowballs at British soldiers. The soldiers opened fire, killing 5 people and wounding 6. Worse all 6 of the 8 soldiers put on trial for the deaths were acquitted. Two were found guilty of manslaughter and branded on the thumbs. The British failure to execute anybody for the massacre outraged American opinion.

Then in 1773, the British East India Company sent tea to the American colonies to sell. Three ships were sent to Boston with 298 chests of tea. However, Boston was a center of resistance to the British. On 16 December 1773 men dressed as Indians boarded the ships and threw the tea into the sea.

The British Prime Minister, Lord North, behaved very unwisely. In 1774 a series of laws were passed called the Coercive or Intolerable Acts. The port of Boston was closed and the seat of government was moved to Salem. The charter of Massachusetts was changed to give the royal governor more power.

The Americans were also annoyed by the Quebec Act of 1774. This was an attempt by the British parliament to make the French Catholics loyal to the British Crown. The Act extended the boundaries of Quebec southward and westward. The Americans feared the king intended to settle loyal French-speaking Catholics in the West to increase his own power in the region.

The Continental Congress

Finally in September 1774 a Continental Congress met to decide policy. They demanded the repeal of the Coercive Acts and of the Quebec Act. Congress also denounced British interference in American affairs and asserted the right of colonial assemblies to pass laws and raise taxes as they saw fit.

In September 1774 a man named Joseph Galloway put forward a compromise plan. The king would be allowed to appoint a president-general and the colonial assemblies would elect a grand council. However, Congress rejected his plan.

Furthermore the British refused to compromise. On 5 February 1775, they declared that Massachusetts was in a state of rebellion. British troops were given a free hand to deal with it.

However the American colonies had militias made up of civilians and they resisted the British. Fighting began on 19 April 1775 when British soldiers attempted to seize a colonial arms dump near Concord. The militia was warned that the British were coming. At Lexington, the British were met by the militia. The British opened fire killing 8 Americans. Meanwhile, the Americans had removed the weapons. The British advanced to Concord and fired upon the militia but then withdrew. They retreated back to Boston with the Americans firing at them along the way. During the march, the British lost 73 dead and 200 wounded or missing. The American Revolution had begun.

From April 1775 to March 1776 the British army was besieged in Boston. They could be supplied by sea by the British navy. Nevertheless, they soon ran short of supplies. On May 25 the British were reinforced but they were unable to break out. Eventually, they were evacuated by sea to Canada.

The Continental Congress met again in May 1775 and agreed to raise an army. George Washington was made its commander in chief. Congress hoped they could force the British to negotiate but George III refused to compromise. Instead in August 1775, he declared that all the American colonies were in a state of rebellion.

Meanwhile, rule by the royal governor broke down and the people demanded government without royal interference. In May 1776 Congress decided that the royal government should cease and the government should be ‘under the authority of the people’. Subsequently, the colonies drew up state constitutions to replace their charters.

The fire was stoked by Tom Paine 1737-1809. In 1776 he published a pamphlet called Common Sense, which rejected all talk of negotiation with the British and demanded complete independence. Common Sense became a best seller.

On 7 June 1776 Richard Henry Lee of the Virginia Assembly presented Congress with resolutions declaring the independence of the colonies, calling for a confederation, and expressed the need to find foreign allies for a war against Britain. On 11 June Congress appointed a committee to write a declaration of independence. It was signed on 4 July 1776.

Plymouth Massachusetts