The 13 Colonies: Life in Early America

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  1. 0:06 British America in the…
  2. 1:36 Life in the Northern Colonies
  3. 4:14 Life in the Southern Colonies
  4. 6:36 Life in the Middle Colonies
  5. 8:31 Lesson Summary
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Taught by

Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

What was it like to live in America during the colonial period? Just like today, it depended where you were. Learn about the factors that categorized all of the American colonies, as well as the differences between the northern, middle and southern colonies.

British America in the Colonial Period

If a foreigner asked an American what life was like in America, the answer would depend greatly on where a person lived in the country. That was just as true in the 1700s as it is today.

Overall, America's colonial population increased from about 250,000 in 1690 to 2.5 million in 1754, fueled by natural increase and political turmoil in Europe. Poor Scots-Irish immigrants settled in the wilderness of North Carolina and the Appalachian Mountains. Wealthier German immigrants fled war and religious persecution. They felt most welcome in Pennsylvania and pushed the frontier steadily westward.

The population in America increased from 250,000 in 1690 to 2.5 million in 1754
Population Increase

This steady stream of non-English immigrants, combined with a significant American-born population, meant the New World was soon filled with people who had very little, if any, direct connection to England. Still, thousands of Americans fought on England's behalf in four wars against Spanish, French, and Indian enemies.

In our modern, developed world, it can be difficult to imagine how isolated the colonies were from each other. We get news and information at the touch of a button. But in the 17th and 18th centuries, there were few roads that linked one colony to another, and few forms of information other than word of mouth. Most people received more news from Europe than from another region of America. So, each colony grew distinctly from the others, following the local patterns established by the earliest settlers.

Life in the Northern Colonies

Geography led New England to develop into a commercial and industrial region. The land and climate doesn't support large-scale farming, but natural harbors made fishing, shipping, and shipbuilding profitable. Fast-moving rivers ran mills and machinery to manufacture goods. A strong working class developed.

Immigrants tended to come in families, and 90% of them lived in or near small villages along these rivers. Homes and businesses were literally built in rings around a common building, and there were often shared woodlands and pasture lands for livestock. Since New England farms were fairly small, homes were pretty close together.

This compact design encouraged commerce and made community schools practical. New England was the first region in which public education appeared. But the most important aspect of community life may have been the town meeting, held in the common building. These provided an opportunity for townsmen to voice their concerns and interests and planted the seeds of democratic government.

New England women enjoyed a higher social standing than their counterparts in Europe. A competent wife was an important asset in the new world. All women were educated, since everyone needed to study the Bible. They were even allowed to cast their husband's vote at town meetings if he were absent.

Women in New England could vote at town meetings if their husbands were absent
Women at Town Meetings

But not everything was perfect in New England. In 1675, a Wampanoag chief named Metacomet (known to the colonists as King Philip) organized local tribes in an attempt to exterminate all of the whites. He completely destroyed 12 towns, damaged half of them and killed more than 10% of the militia before the colonists finally defeated him. King Philip's War was the last time Native Americans played a significant role in New England history.

The Puritan church continued its powerful influence over government and daily life by offering the 'half-way' covenant - partial church membership to those who drifted from the faith. But dedicated Puritans continued to watch themselves and each other for signs of evil. In 1692, a few teenage girls in Salem, Massachusetts, came under scrutiny. They blamed their troublesome behavior on a slave who practiced witchcraft. Soon, they pointed fingers at other people as well. Over the next year, 150 people were arrested on suspicion of witchcraft, a crime punishable by death. In the end 20 people were executed, and at least five more people died in prison. Just as quickly as the hysteria began, the Salem Witch Trials came to an end.

Life in the Southern Colonies

Whereas Northerners came to start a new life away from religious persecution, families and homesteads weren't part of that picture. Adult male immigrants to the South outnumbered female immigrants by seven to one.

But few Southerners achieved the dream of owning a plantation. The overwhelming majority of them were indentured servants, slaves, or yeoman farmers. A lucky few became wealthy planters who owned fabulous houses and vast stretches of land with their own access to the waterways.

Few Southerners were wealthy and owned plantations
Few in South Wealthy

The plantation system limited commerce and discouraged urbanization. Plantations evolved into little towns that produced almost everything they needed for day to day operations. Planters could import directly from European markets, and they could buy or hire a skilled servant to create items that weren't practical to import. With few cities, there was only a small middle class of urban professionals like teachers, merchants, artisans, or lawyers. This meant there was almost no opportunity for social mobility. The distance between plantations made community schools and sometimes even churches impractical.

During the 1700s, the average life expectancy in the South was 10 to 30 years lower than other English colonies due to disease and malnutrition. This had a dramatic effect on the development of family life and other aspects of society. Few children reached adulthood with two surviving parents. A web of step-parents and half-siblings meant kinship was often a powerful factor when it came to connections in business or leadership.

All of these factors created a unique culture for Southern women. The gender imbalance increased their power and status. Single and widowed women were highly sought after and protected once they were married. But women were still a minority group that played no role in the political process, and this reality persisted even after women balanced the population. Female slaves and indentured servants were often the victims of aggressive male masters, and they had no legal recourse.

For all of its uncertainty, many poor Englishmen thought life in the Southern colonies was still more attractive than life in the Old World. Those who remained in England would never own land, would often go hungry, and could easily end up homeless and jobless with nothing better on the horizon. An immigrant in the South still had a glimmer of hope for a better life, however small.

Life in the Middle Colonies

Life in the middle colonies took on aspects of both the North and the South. Like the North, many immigrants came in family units. Though many of the people were religious, government and society as a whole were not. Like the South, the middle colonies had large farms. But rather than cash crops, the mid-Atlantic region produced food. This, combined with a healthier climate, created a longer life expectancy than the South. The economy also supported many businesses and had the largest cities.

Since New York had been the commerce center for the Dutch empire, that city had connections to the rest of the world since its beginnings. Philadelphia flourished because of the careful urban planning by its founder. Throughout the middle colonies, land ownership was high; so was productivity. A Frenchman visiting the region first explored the concept of the American dream, and described the area in a letter, saying 'Here (one) beholds fair cities, substantial villages, extensive fields...decent houses, good roads, orchards, meadows, and bridges, where a hundred years ago all was wild, woody, and uncultivated.'

The innovative middle colonies became the colonial leader in printing and publishing
Printing in Middle Colonies

Stable families and society, a healthy population, and a steady influx of new ideas contributed to greater innovation during the 16- and 1700s than other regions. For example, the middle colonies were the birthplace of many items commonly associated with American pioneers, including the Kentucky Rifle, the Conestoga Wagon, and the log cabin. The mid-Atlantic region also became the colonial leader in printing and publishing. When a New York publisher named John Peter Zenger was taken to court for printing unflattering stories about the royal governor, his 'not guilty' verdict gave rise to America's free press, an essential factor in all democracies world-wide.

Lesson Summary

The British colonies grew tremendously during the late 17th and 18th centuries both from natural increase and immigration from several countries. But they continued to be relatively isolated from one another and developed distinctly different lifestyles. The Northern colonies featured tightly-knit communities with intact families, a commercial economy, and America's first public schools. Town meetings engendered democratic government. Two setbacks disrupted the economy and society of New England in the late 1600s: King Philip's War and the Salem Witch Trials.

By contrast, the rural plantation economy in the South affected every aspect of society. Homes were spread far apart, limiting the development of towns, schools, and churches. Seven times more men than women immigrated, land ownership was low, and death rates were high.

The middle colonies were physically and symbolically in the middle of these two regions. Many immigrants came in families, and Germans pushed the frontier to the west. There were large farms and big cities. The region supported large and small businesses and produced many commercial innovations. The trial of publisher John Peter Zenger resulted in America's free press.

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