Colonial America


*Most scientists believe that the first people to come to America were the ancestors of the American Indians, and that they came across the Bering Strait land bridge about 10,000 B.C. during the last ice age, when the seawater was lower.  Some have suggested, though, that they might have come during a previous ice age, around 35,000 B.C.


*Corn was first grown in what is now Northern Mexico, and it spread from there across North America (reaching the Eastern Seaboard around A.D. 1000).  Later, cultivation of corn was combined with the farming of beans and squash, and these three crops, often grown together in mounds, were known as the Three Sisters.  Other crops such as tomatoes, potatoes, chocolate, and tobacco, all unknown in Europe, were important in the lives of some Indian groups as well.


*In most of what is now the United States, large empires or centralised kingdoms or even big cities like those found in Central America and the Andes did not exist, although there were some exceptions.


*In the Southwest around the Colorado River, corn-based agriculture aided by irrigation systems did allow the development of a large and fairly cohesive culture, known as the Pueblo.  By the time the Spanish discovered them in the 1500s, they lived in large villages made up of houses built of mud bricks called adobe.  In many cases these houses contained many apartments of multiple storeys.  In the past, the Pueblo’s ancestors had often lived in dwellings carved out of the ground or in cliff faces. The largest of the cliff dwellings that remain can be found around the Four Corners region in the Southwest, especially at Mesa Verde, Colorado, and Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.


*In the Mississippi valley and many of its tributaries, another culture developed between about AD 800 and 1500.  This culture is known as the Mississippian Culture or the Mound-Builders.  Their economy was based on agriculture, hunting, and trade along the waterways of the Mississippi watershed.  They are known as mound-builders because many of their towns were built on large raised areas, often with smaller mounds for important structures on the main mound.  Burial mounds were also common, and some large mounds were built in the shapes of animals (particularly snakes).  The largest of the Mississippian cities was at Cahokia, in Illinois, right across the Mississippi River from Saint Louis, Missouri.  Unlike most North American Indians, the people of Cahokia even worked with metal, producing decorations out of copper.  Cahokia began to decline in the 1200s, and was abandoned by the early 1400s, for reasons that are not clear, although over-hunting and deforestation may be part of the reason.  The Mississippian culture as a whole also declined in the 1400s and 1500s, in large part due to contact with European diseases in the 1500s.


*The Indians of the Pacific Northwest were particularly notable for their woodcarving (such as totem poles) and for their practise of celebrating major occasions with feasts called potlatches held by a noble member of their society in which gifts (including food and slaves) as well as titles and hunting and fishing rights would be bestowed. 


*In many coastal areas, shells were used as currency and trade goods.  These included cowrie shells, the wampum beads made from quahog and whelk shells along the East coast, especially in New England, and other shells on the West coast.


*The American Indians in Central and South America, unlike those of North America, had created several large and powerful empires prior in 1492 the pre-Columbian period.


*Southern Mexico and Central America were dominated by the Maya, who had a network of independent city-states that covered the Yucatan and much of southern Central America between 250 AD and about 900 AD.  Some northern Mayan cities survived longer, but often made war on one another, with a particularly destructive rebellion in 1450 that left them weak enough for the Spanish to conquer.


*The Aztecs were the dominant empire of what is now southern central Mexico, with their capital at what is now Mexico City.  Their society was based on agriculture and on conquest. 


*The major empire of South America at the time Europeans arrived was that of the Inca, in the Andes, in what is now Peru, and parts of Bolivia, Chile, and Ecuador.  The Inca domesticated the llama, built roads across their Empire, created impressive irrigation systems to water their terraced farms, and built a vast empire while peacefully assimilating the empires around them.  They did this partly through the mita system of taxation which required labour rather than money be paid.  While the Inca had no system of writing, they kept records on knotted strings called quipus.


*When the Spanish arrived in the New World, they came to conquer and convert the Indians, and did destroy millions with their diseases and did convert millions at sword-point.  However, once Indians were converted to Christianity, they were afforded a measure of protection and allowed to retain many parts of the native culture, and the Spanish colonists and the Indians eventually developed an ethnically and culturally mixed culture in their weakly-governed colonies stretching from San Francisco to the southern tip of South America.  In this empire, they found gold and especially silver, making the Spanish empire wealthy (but dependent on precious metals rather than industry or more advanced commerce).


*After the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, other Europeans could explore and settle the New World, too.


*The French came to convert the Indians and to trade furs with them.  The French themselves came in small numbers and mostly settled in a few small cities and trading posts, so they Indians tended to have a favourable view of them.


*The Dutch also came to trade (although large farms owned by Patroons were also established in the Hudson River Valley), and sometimes even bought their land from the Indians.  Although they did fight with the Indians some, their relatively small numbers and lack of interest in changing Indian culture meant they were not seen as a serious threat by most Indians.  Later New Netherland and New Amsterdam would be conquered by the English and become New York.


*The English came to settle the New World in large numbers, although they never found the gold or other mineral wealth that the Spanish did.


*The first permanent English settlements were at Jamestown, Virginia.  They hoped to find gold, but instead found tobacco, saving the colony after several years in which many colonists died of disease, starvation, or Indian attacks.  In 1619 Virginia created both the best and worst of America by importing their first slaves and creating the first representative government, the House of Burgesses.  Over time the two would go together, as their feeling of racial superiority over African-Americans allowed all whites to feel a certain measure of equality regardless of other class distinctions, although there would be one great class conflict in Bacon's rebellion in 1676.  However, Virginia's dependence on tobacco also left many planters in debt to their agents in London as the price of tobacco fell as production rose.


*Maryland also had a tobacco monocrop plantation culture, although it was founded as a haven for Catholics to protect them from religious persecution.  The Maryland General Assembly passed the Act of Religious Toleration in 1649, offering toleration to all Christians (but not other groups) so that they would still be safe once they ceased to be the majority.  Catholics were eventually outnumbered by Protestants in Maryland, but remained quite numerous and influential.


*Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware are called the Chesapeake Colonies, and their slaves mostly worked in the gang system, where groups of slaves were made to work as long as their overseers felt it was needed.  This was seen as harsher than the task system that was used in rice-growing areas such as South Carolina and Georgia.


*New England was founded by Pilgrims (Separatists), Puritans, and other Dissenters who wanted to create a City upon a Hill, a perfect society based on their Calvinist Christian beliefs that would be an example to the world of how to live, forming theocratic governments in the process.  Disputes over how to build a perfect Christian society led to the formation of several colonies, including Rhode Island which rejected government interference in religious leadership, out of fear that politics would corrupt the Church.


*The power of the Church over society diminished over time, as younger generations did not have the dramatic conversion experiences of their elders and had trouble making the confessions that let them become church members (and thus full citizens).  This led to compromises such as the Half-Way covenant, allowing partial membership in the Church (and thus society) for the children and grand-children of Church members, but such compromises watered down the spiritual nature of New England theocracies.  These tensions may also have contributed to the Salem Witch Trials of 1691.


*New Englanders tried to convert the Indians, too, and some did so, but they also fought with them in the Pequot War and King Philip's War.


*Most New Englanders were small farmers, but shipbuilding, fishing, and trade were also important to the region.


*At first, the colonies of New England were self-governed, but King James II tried to unite all of New England, New York, and New Jersey as the Dominion of New England.  This was unpopular and unsuccessful, but foreshadowed later efforts at colonial unity.


*New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania are known as the Middle Colonies, and commerce and farming (mostly small farming, outside the Patroonships of the Hudson River Valley) were important there.  The Penn Family tried to deal fairly with the Indians (mostly) and set up their colony as a haven for Quakers (New Jersey also had a large Quaker population).  New York, after the English took it from the Dutch, was a cosmopolitan and tolerant place based on trade.

*An example of the openness of New York was the case of Peter Zenger.  In 1733, he began printing a newspaper in New York City that was sometimes critical of the colonial government, who was viewed as tyrannical and greedy by many New Yorkers and who had a number of accusations against him, including rigging elections, stealing tax money, and neglecting to defend the frontier from the Indians. 

*In 1734 the governor had Zenger arrested, and in 1735 he was put on trial for libel.  Under the law at the time, speaking ill of or publishing something excessively critical of someone in authority could be considered a crime, even if what was being told was true.  Zenger's lawyer, however, argued that something could not be libel if it was true, and that publishing the truth was in the public interest.  After ten minutes of debate, the jury determined that Zenger was not guilty.  This is considered the foundation of freedom of the press in America, and a very active press would also play a large role in spreading the ideas of revolution in a generation to come.


*There was also slavery in the Middle Colonies areas, particularly New York (where many slaves were craftsmen and house servants), and one of the largest colonial slave uprisings was in New York in 1712.


*South Carolina and later Georgia (originally founded as a place for debtors to start a new life) became dependent on rice and slavery.  There a few wealthy planters controlled society and were the richest group in British America (aside from the planters in the Caribbean with whom they had the most in common). 


*Slaves there, at least, worked in the task system, and once their tasks were done, they could relax or even grow crops or make crafts for their own use or for re-sale.  Still, the Stono Rebellion of 1739 was the deadliest slave revolt in the history of the Thirteen Colonies.  During the fighting, twenty-one whites were killed along with forty-four slaves.


*North Carolina, like Rhode Island, was populated by Dissenters and non-conformists who were difficult to govern.  It was not a wealthy colony, with small farmers and some producers of tar.


*In the 1720s and 1730s, a religious revival began in England, the New England, then elsewhere in the colonies known as the Great Awakening.  It led to a revival of religion, and also to a more individualistic approach to both religion and society, as each person's relationship with God and personal salvation was emphasised by very emotional preachers such as George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards.  Some have suggested that this contributed to a sense of individualism (and perhaps a sense of religious destiny) that in turn contributed to the American Revolution.


*As the English colonies grew more populous but remained crowded into the Eastern seaboard, they came into conflict with the French who controlled the rich hunting grounds of the Ohio River Valley and beyond.  This led to the French and Indian War.


*Early in the War, Benjamin Franklin played a leading role in the Albany Conference, an attempt to win the friendship of the Iroquois and to unite the colonies under common leadership for the duration of the War in order to defeat the French.  This attempt at unity was not successful because different colonial leaders were unwilling to give up their authority.


*At first, the British soldiers were led very poorly, leading to contempt for them among some Americans (including George Washington).  On the other hand, American militia were often poor fighters or unwilling to fight at all, leading to contempt for them among British leaders.  Eventually, under Prime Minister William Pitt, the British had greater success, eventually seizing control of everything east of the Mississippi River from France (who also gave Louisiana to Spain to make up for Spain losing Florida). 


*Pitt had won by focusing on winning the war in America and winning it at all costs, but this meant heavy loans that needed to be repaid, and some of that cost would be passed on to the American colonists in the form of new taxes that were low compared to taxes in Britain, but much higher than those levied in America before.  Furthermore, to  avoid conflict with the Indians, the new land west of the Appalachian mountains would remain off-limits to American settlers, leaving many resentful of the British.


This page last updated 15 April, 2016.
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