31 2. Colonial Period 1492-1776

After a period of exploration sponsored by major European nations, the first successful English settlement was established in 1607. Europeans brought horses, cattle, and hogs to the Americas and, in turn, took back to Europe maize, turkeys, potatoes, tobacco, beans, and squash. Many explorers and early settlers died after being exposed to new diseases in the Americas. The effects of new Eurasian diseases carried by the colonists, especially smallpox and measles, were much worse for the Native Americans, as they had no immunity to them. They suffered epidemics and died in very large numbers, usually before large-scale European settlement began. Their societies were disrupted and hollowed out by the scale of deaths.

Spanish, Dutch, and French colonization

Juan Ponce de León (Santervás de Campos, Valladolid, Spain). He was one of the first Europeans to arrive to the current U.S. because led the first European expedition to Florida, which he named.

Spanish explorers were the first Europeans with Christopher Columbussecond expedition, to reach Puerto Rico on November 19, 1493; others reached Florida in 1513. Spanish expeditions quickly reached the Appalachian Mountains, the Mississippi River, the Grand Canyon and the Great Plains. In 1540, Hernando de Soto undertook an extensive exploration of the Southeast. That same year, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado explored from Arizona to central Kansas. Small Spanish settlements eventually grew to become important cities, such as San Antonio, Texas;Albuquerque, New Mexico; Tucson, Arizona; Los Angeles, California; and San Francisco, California.

European territorial claims in North America, c. 1750

New Netherland was a 17th-century Dutch colony centered on present-day New York City and the Hudson River Valley; the Dutch traded furs with the Native Americans to the north. The colony served as a barrier to expansion from New England. Despite being Calvinists and building the Reformed Church in America, the Dutch were tolerant of other religions and cultures. The colony, which was taken over by Britain in 1664, left an enduring legacy on American cultural and political life; this includes secular broad-mindedness and mercantile pragmatism in the city as well as rural traditionalism in the countryside (typified by the story of Rip Van Winkle). Notable Americans of Dutch descent include Martin Van Buren, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt,Eleanor Roosevelt and the Frelinghuysens.

New France was the area colonized by France from 1534 to 1763. There were few permanent settlers outside Quebec and Acadia, but the French had far-reaching trading relationships with Native Americans throughout the Great Lakes and Midwest. French villages along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers were based in farming communities that served as a granary for Gulf Coast settlements. The French established plantations in Louisiana along with settling New Orleans, Mobile and Biloxi.

The Wabanaki Confederacy were military allies of New France through the four French and Indian Wars while the British colonies were allied with the Iroquois Confederacy. During the French and Indian War – the North American theater of the Seven Years’ War – New England fought successfully against French Acadia. The British removed Acadians from Acadia (Nova Scotia) and replaced them with New England Planters. Eventually, some Acadians resettled in Louisiana, where they developed a distinctive rural Cajun culture that still exists. They became American citizens in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase. Other French villages along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers were absorbed when the Americans started arriving after 1770, or settlers moved west to escape them. French influence and language in New Orleans, Louisiana and the Gulf Coast was more enduring; New Orleans was notable for its large population of free people of color before the Civil War.

Main articles: Colonial history of the United StatesSpanish colonization of the Americas, Dutch colonization of the AmericasFrench colonization of the Americas

British colonization

The Mayflower, which transported Pilgrims to the New World. During the first winter at Plymouth, about half of the Pilgrims died.

The strip of land along the eastern seacoast was settled primarily by English colonists in the 17th century along with much smaller numbers of Dutch and Swedes. Colonial America was defined by a severe labor shortage that employed forms of unfree labor such as slavery and indentured servitude and by a British policy of benign neglect (salutary neglect). Over half of all European immigrants to Colonial America arrived as indentured servants. Salutary neglect permitted the development of an American spirit distinct from that of its European founders.

The first successful English colony, Jamestown, was established in 1607 on the James River in Virginia. Jamestown languished for decades until a new wave of settlers arrived in the late 17th century and established commercial agriculture based on tobacco. Between the late 1610s and the Revolution, the British shipped an estimated 50,000 convicts to their American colonies. A severe instance of conflict was the 1622 Powhatan uprising in Virginia in which Native Americans killed hundreds of English settlers. The largest conflicts between Native Americans and English settlers in the 17th century were King Philip’s War in New England and the Yamasee War in South Carolina.

The massacre of Jamestown settlers in 1622. Soon the colonists in the South feared all natives as enemies.

New England was initially settled primarily by Puritans. The Pilgrims established a settlement in 1620 at Plymouth Colony, which was followed by the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. The Middle Colonies, consisting of the present-day states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, were characterized by a large degree of diversity. The first attempted English settlement south of Virginia was the Province of Carolina, with Georgia Colony – the last of the Thirteen Colonies – established in 1733.

The colonies were characterized by religious diversity, with many Congregationalists in New England, German and Dutch Reformed in the Middle Colonies, Catholics in Maryland, and Scots-Irish Presbyterians on the frontier. Sephardic Jews were among early settlers in cities of New England and the South. Many immigrants arrived as religious refugees: French Huguenots settled in New York, Virginia and the Carolinas. Many royal officials and merchants were Anglicans.

Religiosity expanded greatly after the First Great Awakening, a religious revival in the 1740s led by preachers such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. American Evangelicals affected by the Awakening added a new emphasis on divine outpourings of the Holy Spirit and conversions that implanted within new believers an intense love for God. Revivals encapsulated those hallmarks and carried the newly created evangelicalism into the early republic, setting the stage for the Second Great Awakening beginning in the late 1790s. In the early stages, evangelicals in the South such as Methodists and Baptists preached for religious freedom and abolition of slavery; they converted many slaves and recognized some as preachers.

Each of the 13 American colonies had a slightly different governmental structure. Typically, a colony was ruled by a governor appointed from London who controlled the executive administration and relied upon a locally elected legislature to vote taxes and make laws. By the 18th century, the American colonies were growing very rapidly as a result of low death rates along with ample supplies of land and food. The colonies were richer than most parts of Britain, and attracted a steady flow of immigrants, especially teenagers who arrived as indentured servants. The tobacco and rice plantations imported African slaves for labor from the British colonies in the West Indies, and by the 1770s African slaves comprised a fifth of the American population. The question of independence from Britain did not arise as long as the colonies needed British military support against the French and Spanish powers; those threats were gone by 1765. London regarded the American colonies as existing for the benefit of the mother country. This policy is known as mercantilism.

Political integration and autonomy

Join, or Die: This 1756 political cartoon by Benjamin Franklin urged the colonies to join together during the French and Indian War.

The French and Indian War (1754–63) was a watershed event in the political development of the colonies. It was also part of the larger Seven Years’ War. The influence of the main rivals of the British Crown in the colonies and Canada, the French and North American Indians, was significantly reduced with the territory of the Thirteen Colonies expanding into New Franceboth in Canada and the Louisiana Territory. Moreover, the war effort resulted in greater political integration of the colonies, as reflected in the Albany Congress and symbolized by Benjamin Franklin‘s call for the colonies to “Join or Die”. Franklin was a man of many inventions – one of which was the concept of a United States of America, which emerged after 1765 and was realized in July 1776.

Following Britain’s acquisition of French territory in North America, King George III issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763 with the goal of organizing the new North American empire and protecting the native Indians from colonial expansion into western lands beyond the Appalachian Mountains. In ensuing years, strains developed in the relations between the colonists and the Crown. The British Parliament passed the Stamp Act of 1765, imposing a tax on the colonies without going through the colonial legislatures. The issue was drawn: did Parliament have this right to tax Americans who were not represented in it? Crying “No taxation without representation“, the colonists refused to pay the taxes as tensions escalated in the late 1760s and early 1770s.

Two ships in a harbor, one in the distance. On board, men stripped to the waist and wearing feathers in their hair are throwing crates overboard. A large crowd, mostly men, is standing on the dock, waving hats and cheering. A few people wave their hats from windows in a nearby building.
1846 painting of the 1773 Boston Tea Party.

The Boston Tea Party in 1773 was a direct action by activists in the town of Boston to protest against the new tax on tea. Parliament quickly responded the next year with the Coercive Acts, stripping Massachusetts of its historic right of self-government and putting it under army rule, which sparked outrage and resistance in all thirteen colonies. Patriot leaders from all 13 colonies convened the First Continental Congress to coordinate their resistance to the Coercive Acts. The Congress called for a boycott of British trade, published a list of rights and grievances, and petitioned the king for redress of those grievances. The appeal to the Crown had no effect, and so the Second Continental Congress was convened in 1775 to organize the defense of the colonies against the British Army.

Ordinary folk became insurgents against the British even though they were unfamiliar with the ideological rationales being offered. They held very strongly a sense of “rights” that they felt the British were deliberately violating – rights that stressed local autonomy, fair dealing, and government by consent. They were highly sensitive to the issue of tyranny, which they saw manifested in the arrival in Boston of the British Army to punish the Bostonians. This heightened their sense of violated rights, leading to rage and demands for revenge. They had faith that God was on their side.

The American Revolutionary War began at Concord and Lexington in April 1775 when the British tried to seize ammunition supplies and arrest the Patriot leaders.

Population density in the American Colonies in 1775.

In terms of political values, the Americans were largely united on a concept called Republicanism, that rejected aristocracy and emphasized civic duty and a fear of corruption. For the Founding Fathers, according to one team of historians, “republicanism represented more than a particular form of government. It was a way of life, a core ideology, an uncompromising commitment to liberty, and a total rejection of aristocracy.”

Main article: British colonization of the Americas

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