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Early centuries
16th - 17th century
17th century
     Pilgrim Fathers
     Massachusetts and New England
     Dutch in America
     New France
     Proprietary colonies
     Ohio and Mississippi
     Newfoundland and Nova Scotia

18th century
Adjusting the boundaries

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Virginia: 1607-1644

In 1606 James I supports new English efforts (the first since Raleigh) to establish colonies along the coast of America, north of the Spanish-held territory in Florida. A charter for the southern section is given to a company of London merchants (called the London Company, until its successful colony causes it be known as the Virginia Company). A company based in Plymouth is granted a similar charter for the northern part of this long coastline, which as yet has no European settlers.

The Plymouth Company achieves little (and has no connection with the Pilgrim Fathers who establish a new Plymouth in America in 1620). The London Company succeeds in planting the first permanent English settlement overseas - but only after the most appalling difficulties.


In April 1607 three ships sent out by the London Company sail into Chesapeake Bay. They continue up a broad waterway, which they name the James river in honour of their king, and a few weeks later they select an island to settle on. They call their settlement Jamestown. But to the territory itself they give a more romantic name, honouring England's late virgin queen - Virginia.

More than 100 English settlers attempt to make their home in 1607 on the island of Jamestown. A year later disease, privation, hunger and attacks by local Indians have reduced their number to less than forty. But the hardship has produced the first notable leader in British colonial history.


John Smith is one of seven men appointed by the London company to serve on the colony's council. His energy, his resourcefulness and his skill in negotiating with the Indians soon establish him as the leader of the community.

Smith soon becomes involved in a famously romantic scene (or so he claims many years later, in a book of 1624). He is captured by Indians and is about to be executed when Pocahontas, the 13-year-old daughter of the tribal chieftain, throws herself between victim and executioner (or so Smith maintains). Smith is initiated into the tribe and returns to Jamestown - where Pocahontas becomes a frequent visitor, often bringing valuable information about the Indians' intentions.


Four more ships reach Jamestown in 1609. The number of settlers is up to 500 when Smith is injured, later that year, and has to sail home to England. During the next winter, in his absence, there is appalling famine - the 500 are reduced to 60. They are joined by another group (survivors of a shipwreck in Bermuda), but only after further reinforcements arrive, in 1610, is it finally decided to persevere with this difficult attempt at colonization.

The town of Williamsburg, first called Middle Plantation, is founded in 1633. By mid-century (in spite of an Indian attack in 1644 which kills 500 colonists) Virginia is at last secure. Ten or more counties, on the English pattern, have their own sheriff, constable and justices.


Pilgrim Fathers: 1620-1621

The most famous boatload of immigrants in north American history leaves Plymouth in September 1620. Thirty-five of about 102 passengers in the Mayflower have sailed once before from England to live according to their Christian consciences in a freer land. They were part of a Puritan group which moved in 1608 from Boston in Lincolnshire to Holland, famous at the time for religious toleration. Now, in spite of the dangers involved, they want to be even more free in a place of their own.

Their sights are set on New England, the coast of which has been explored in 1614 by John Smith, the leader of the Jamestown settlers. His book A Description of New England, naming and describing the region, has been published in 1616.


The journey lasts eight weeks before they make their first landfall, on the tip of Cape Cod. It is not until mid-December that the little group selects a coastal site suitable for their village. They name it Plymouth, echoing their port of departure from the old world. To their surprise there appear to be no Indians in the vicinity.

New England winters are notoriously severe and the pilgrims have, in a phrase of the time, 'all things to doe, as in the beginning of the world'. Only half the group survive that first winter and spring. Of eighteen married women, just five are alive when the first harvest is reaped in 1621.


The survivors thank the Lord for nature's bounty in the ceremony of Thanksgiving, with the local Indians sharing in this first annual celebration. A large indigenous fowl, the turkey, makes an admirable centrepiece. The settlers have found it living wild in the forests of New England.

These pioneering families become known to their contemporaries as the Old Comers (they are first referred to as Pilgrim Fathers in 1799, and are more often known now in the USA simply as the Pilgrims). The ritual of Thanksgiving is not the only great tradition which the pilgrims bequeath to modern America. Their example of self-reliance becomes a central strand in the American ideal. It will be fully maintained by other English communities establishing themselves, just ten years later, further north in Massachusetts.


Massachussetts and New England: 1629-1691

The success of the Plymouth settlers soon causes other Puritans to follow their example. The situation at home adds a further incentive. England is undergoing a recession; and William Laud (bishop of London from 1628, archbishop of Canterbury from 1633) is trying to impose the episcopalian form of Christianity on the country by force. Economics and conscience pull in the same direction. America beckons.

In 1629 a Puritan group secures from the king a charter to trade with America, as the Massachusetts Bay Company. Led by John Winthrop, a fleet of eleven vessels sets sail for Massachusetts in 1630. The ships carry 700 settlers, 240 cows and 60 horses.


Winthrop also has on board the royal charter of the company. The enterprise is to be based in the new world rather than in London. This device is used to justify a claim later passionately maintained by the new colony - that it is an independent political entity, entirely responsible for its own affairs.In 1630 Winthrop selects Boston as the site of the first settement, and two years later the town is formally declared to be the capital of the colony.

This concept chimes well with the settlers' religious attitudes. They are Congregationalists, committed to the notion that the members of each church are a self-governing body. The towns of Massachusetts become like tiny city-states - each with a church at its centre, and with the church members as the governors.


This is oligarchy rather than democracy, but it is an oligarchy based on perceived virtue rather than wealth or birth. All male church members have a vote. But a man may only become a church member on the invitation of those already enjoying this exalted status. Since God's approval is not to be devalued, his elect remain a minority in each community.

The Massachusetts system proves an extremely efficient way of settling new territory. A community, granted a tract of land by Winthrop and his governing body in Boston, immediately becomes responsible for making a success of the new enterprise - building a church and houses while bringing the surrounding land into cultivation.


Standards of education and literacy are high in the colony (the university of Harvard is founded as early as 1636). The appeal of Massachusetts proves so great that in the first eleven years, to 1640, some 20,000 settlers arrive from England.

In subsequent decades, as the population grows and colonization extends further afield, regions evolve into separate colonies. Connecticut emerges in 1662, and New Hampshire in 1679. In a reverse process, the original settlement of Plymouth becomes absorbed within Massachusetts in 1691. (Vermont and Maine remain part of Massachusetts until 1791 and 1820 respectively).


Rhode Island is an exception within New England, going its own way very early (from 1636) because of the religious intolerance in self-righteous Massachusetts. It is founded by Roger Williams, a clergyman banished by the Boston authorities for his radical views.

Williams establishes the town of Providence on land which he buys from the Indians (itself a novelty among English settlers). He welcomes persecuted sects, such as Anabaptists and Quakers, and turns Rhode Island into a haven of tolerance. In this respect the small colony prefigures Pennsylvania. But meanwhile New England's immediate neighbour to the south and west attracts English attention. This region is being colonized by the Dutch.


Dutch in America: 1624-1664

In 1621 the States General in the Netherlands grant a charter to the Dutch West India Company, giving it a monopoly to trade and found colonies along the entire length of the American coast. The area of the Hudson river, explored by Hudson for the Dutch East India Company in 1609, has already been designated New Netherland. Now, in 1624, a party of thirty families is sent out to establish a colony. They make their first permanent settlement at Albany, calling it Fort Orange.

In 1626 Peter Minuit is appointed governor of the small colony. He purchases the island of Manhattan from Indian chiefs, and builds a fort at its lower end. He names the place New Amsterdam.


The Dutch company finds it easier to make money by piracy than by the efforts of colonists (the capture of the Spanish silver fleet off Cuba in 1628 yields vast profits), but the town of New Amsterdam thrives as an exceptionally well placed seaport - even though administered in a harshly authoritarian manner by a succession of Dutch governors.

The only weakness of New Amsterdam is that it is surrounded by English colonies to the north and south of it. This place seems to the English both an anomaly and an extremely desirable possession. Both themes are reflected in the blithe grant by Charles II in 1664 to his brother, the duke of York, of the entire coastline between the Connecticut and Delaware rivers.


New Amsterdam, and in its hinterland New Netherland, lie exactly in the middle of this stretch. When an English fleet arrives in 1664, the Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant accepts the reality of the situation and surrenders the territory without a shot being fired. Thus New Amsterdam becomes British and two years later, at the end of hostilities between Britain and the Netherlands, is renamed New York. The town has at the time about 1500 inhabitants, with a total population of perhaps 7000 Europeans in the whole region of New Netherland - which now becomes the British colony of New York.

The Dutch have recently begun to settle the coastal regions further south, which the British now also appropriate as falling within the region given by Charles II to the duke of York. It becomes the colony of New Jersey.


New France: 1608-1671

The founder of Quebec in 1608, Samuel de Champlain, works ceaselessly to explore the region and to build up the French fur trade with the help of the Huron Indians. But progress is slow. By the time of Champlain's death, in 1635, the settlers in Quebec number fewer than 100. And this is in spite of the personal involvement of Richelieu.

Richelieu forms in 1627 the Company of New France, consisting of One Hundred Associates (of whom Champlain is one). The Associates pledge themselves to transport at least 200 settlers to the colony each year, but this target is never reached. By 1660 New France still has only about 2300 European inhabitants (Boston at the time has a larger population).


In these circumstances the French fur traders find it very hard to get their wares to the St Lawrence, particularly after the friendly Huron have been driven west by the Iroquois in 1648-50. In 1660 the settlers appeal to Louis XIV for help. He responds by turning New France into a royal province.

It will henceforth be ruled by a governor, with military, religous and educational support supplied by France. The new resolution is accompanied by a rapid increase in settlement. During the 1660s more than 3000 colonists are sent out, including a due proportion of girls of marriageable age.


The decade proves a turning point for New France. The level of population reaches a point where it is able to increase by natural growth (most of the inhabitants of the thriving French colony in the next century descend from this first major influx of settlers), and explorers now begin the process of pressing west and south from the Great Lakes.

In 1668 a Jesuit mission is established at the junction of the three western Great Lakes, in a settlement which the missionaries name Sault Sainte Marie. This pivotal point is selected in 1671 as an appropriate place from which to claim the entire interior of the American continent for the king of France.


Proprietary colonies: 1632-1732

The granting of New York and New Jersey by Charles II to his brother, in 1664, is typical of the way British colonies are founded along the American coast south of New England. Whereas the New England colonies are in the hands of independent Puritan communities, creating their own future as small farmers in a relatively harsh environment, the southern colonies are given by the British monarch to powerful aristocrats under whose protection settlers are shipped across the Atlantic.

The first such grant is that of Maryland to Lord Baltimore in 1632. Baltimore's concern is to establish a haven for English Roman Catholics, of whom the first shipload arrives in the colony in 1634.


The next grant is that of Carolina, given to a consortium of eight proprietors in 1670. The two parts, north and south, develop rather differently. In the south, where rice proves a profitable crop, large plantations are established using African-American slave labour. The north, relying more on tobacco grown in small holdings, is less prosperous. (The most famous product of the region, cotton, must await Eli Whitney's invention of the Cotton gin.) The north becomes a separate colony in 1712, introducing the lasting division between North and South Carolina.

The last of these proprietary colonies is Georgia, granted in 1732 to a group of British philanthropists. Their aim is to give a new start in life to debtors and to others with no means of support.


The philanthropic trustees impose various idealistic restrictions - no alcohol, no large estates, no slaves - which initially prevent Georgia from becoming as prosperous as its northern neighbours (though the new colony fulfils from the start a useful subsidiary role, as a buffer zone beween British America and the Spanish colony of Florida to the south).

While restrictive idealism holds Georgia back, a different sort of idealism has made the most interesting of the proprietary colonies extremely prosperous. Pennsylvania, granted to William Penn in 1681, is founded on the principle of freedom of conscience. Its capital, Philadelphia, soon becomes the leading city of British America.


Pennsylvania: 1681-1737

William Penn is a well-connected young man in England when he profoundly shocks his father, a friend of Charles II, by landing in gaol in 1667 for attending a Quaker meeting. In this radical Christian group the young Penn finds a lifelong commitment to the cause of religious liberty. He is able to turn his ideals into practice thanks to a loan of 16,000 which his father has made to the king. After the elder Penn's death, the son accepts the grant of a tract of land in America, in 1681, in discharge of the royal debt.

Penn names the new colony Pennsylvania (Penn's woodlands, in honour of his father) and sets about putting into effect what he calls a 'holy experiment'.


Colonists settling in Pennsylvania are expected to believe in one God, the creator of the universe, but that is the limit of religious conformity required. This is to be a community based on the gentle ethics of the Sermon on the Mount. Its main city is named by Penn in accordance with this ideal; it is to be Philadelphia, Greek for 'brotherly love'.

Penn has travelled much in Europe, making contact with other persecuted Christian minorities - in particular Anabaptist groups in Germany. They too flock to his colony, forming a significant and early German presence in British America. They are the group known now as the Pennysylvania Dutch (from deutsch, meaning German).


Penn's profound tolerance and common sense is evident when a woman is brought before him in Philadelphia in 1682 on a charge of witchcraft. He asks her whether she has ridden through the air on a broomstick. There must have been a gasp in the court when she answers 'Yes'. Penn's reply is that if she is able to do this, he knows of no law against it. He recommends that she be set free. The jury agrees. No more is heard of witchcraft in Pennsylvania but ten years later, in 1692, some thirty people are executed in Salem on the same preposterous charge (see Witches of Salem).

Applying the same high but easy-going principles, Penn is the early colonial leader who has the greatest success in his relationship with the American Indians.


In a series of meetings with the local Lenape tribes, in 1682-4, Penn achieves mutual trust in agreements unrecorded in formal treaties. His meeting with the Indians at Shackamaxon (made famous by Benjamin West's painting of the Great Treaty) is pure legend but nevertheless contains the essence of a historical reality. This is true also of the treaty by which the Lenape (referrred to by Europeans at the time as Delaware Indians) cede to Penn as much land, between rivers west of a certain creek, as can be walked in a day and a half.

Penn never measures this distance, but his grasping successors do - half a century later - in a notorious example of British betrayal of the Indians.


In 1737 the colony of Pennsylvania decides to claim the full extent of this supposed agreement. Athletes are trained for the occasion; a path is cut through the scrub; on August 25-6 the quickest among them covers sixty-four miles in the day and a half, bringing some 1200 square miles of Indian territory securely into British hands.

There is a further irony attached to this loss by the Lenape. When they reject the so-called Walking Purchase, both sides agree to accept arbitration by the Iroquois League. This confederation of powerful Indian tribes gives judgement in favour of the British. Their cooperation is part of a long-standing alliance between the Iroquois and the colonists.


Ohio and Mississippi: 1669-1682

The great central valley of north America, watered by the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri rivers, is first visited by Europeans during the late 1660s and 1670s. This development is the direct result of the growth of the colony of New France during the 1660s. As the French explore through and around the Great Lakes, they begin also to move down the rivers running south from this region.

The nearest large river to the eastern lakes, and the first to receive attention, is the Ohio. Robert de La Salle explores the Ohio valley during 1669, in a journey which provides the basis for the later French claim to this area.


Four years later a much more dramatic expedition is undertaken by a trader, Louis Jolliet, and a Jesuit priest, Jacques Marquette (founder in 1668 of the mission at Sault Sainte Marie). With five companions, in 1673, they make their way round Lake Michigan in two birch bark canoes. From Green Bay they paddle up the Fox river, before carrying their canoes overland to the Wisconsin and thus on to the Mississippi.

They travel down the Mississippi as far as its junction with the Arkansas river, by which time they are convinced that it must flow into the Gulf of Mexico rather than the Pacific. With this information they make their way back to Lake Michigan.


Inspired by their example, La Salle becomes determined to reach the mouth of the Mississippi. After two false starts, several disasters and a long struggle for funds, he finally achieves the task in 1682. At the mouth of the great river he claims possession for France of the entire region drained by the Mississippi and its many tributaries, naming it Louisiana - in honour of his monarch, Louis XIV.

It is some time before the southern region becomes a desirable colony, though there is a brief flurry of excitement with John Law's Mississippi Scheme of 1717 and the founding of New Orleans in 1718. But the Ohio valley is a region of great significance in the 18th century, being hotly disputed between the French and the British.


Newfoundland and Nova Scotia: 1670-1745

During the 17th and early 18th century the main area of friction between France and Britain is in northern waters, on the approach to the St Lawrence seaway. This region has long been disputed for its valuable cod fisheries. With the growth of imperial and trading interests on the mainland it also becomes of strategic importance.

The Cabot Strait, between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, is the only practical route to the territory of New France, strung out along the St Lawrence river and seaway. It is also the route to the Hudson Bay, where the British have fur-trading interests after the foundation of the Hudson's Bay Company in 1670.


The land on the south side of the strait changes hands several times during the 17th century between the French (who call it Acadie, its American Indian name) and the British (who prefer Nova Scotia, 'New Scotland').

Similarly there are regular skirmishes in Newfoundland in the late 17th and early 18th century. The French attack British trading settlements on the coasts of Newfoundland during the European wars of the Grand Alliance and of the Spanish Succession. But the treaty of Utrecht, in 1713, brings considerable advantages to Britain in the region.


France accepts British sovereignty in Newfoundland (though retaining fishing rights) and on the shores of Hudson Bay. Moreover Nova Scotia is ceded to Britain, except for the island of Cape Breton at its northern and most strategic point.

On Cape Breton the French build the powerful fortress of Louisbourg, to protect their maritime interests. It proves, however, less impregnable than expected. It is even besieged and captured rather cheekily, in 1745, by a volunteer militia of colonists from New England during the war of the Austrian Succession.


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