For a timeline of events, see timeline of Colonial America.
"American colonists" redirects here. For other uses, see American colonists (disambiguation).
"Colonial America" redirects here. For other uses, see Colonial America (disambiguation).
"American Colonial Period" redirects here. It is not to be confused with American Colonial Period (Philippines).
The colonial history of the United States covers the history of European settlements from the start of colonization in the early 16th century until their incorporation into the United States of America. In the late 16th century, England, France, Spain, and the Netherlands launched major colonization programs in eastern North America. Small early attempts sometimes disappeared, such as the English Lost Colony of Roanoke. Everywhere, the death rate was very high among the first arrivals. Nevertheless, successful colonies were established within several decades.
European settlers came from a variety of social and religious groups, including adventurers, soldiers, farmers, and tradesmen, and some from the aristocracy. Settlers traveling to the new continent included the Dutch of New Netherland, the Swedes and Finns of New Sweden, the English Quakers of Pennsylvania, the English Puritans of New England, the English settlers of Jamestown, the "worthy poor" of Georgia, the Germans who settled the mid-Atlantic colonies, and the Ulster Scots people of the Appalachian Mountains. These groups all became part of the United States when it gained its independence in 1776. Russian America and parts of New France and New Spain were also incorporated into the United States at various points. The diverse groups from these various regions built colonies of distinctive social, religious, political, and economic style.
Over time, non-British colonies East of the Mississippi River were taken over and most of the inhabitants were assimilated. In Nova Scotia, however, the British expelled French Acadian inhabitants; many relocated to Louisiana. No major civil wars occurred in the thirteen colonies. The two chief armed rebellions were short-lived failures in Virginia in 1676 and in New York in 1689–91. Some of the colonies developed legalized systems of slavery, centered largely around the Atlantic slave trade. Wars were recurrent between the French and the British during the French and Indian Wars. By 1760, France was defeated and its colonies were seized by Britain.
On the eastern seaboard of what became the United States, the four distinct English regions were New England, the Middle Colonies, the Chesapeake Bay Colonies (Upper South), and the Lower South. Some historians add a fifth region of the Frontier, which was never separately organized. By the time that European settlers arrived around 1600–1650, a significant percentage of the Indians living in the eastern region had been ravaged by disease, possibly introduced to them decades before by explorers and sailors (although no conclusive cause has ever been established).
The goals of colonization
Colonizers came from European kingdoms that had highly developed military, naval, governmental, and entrepreneurial capabilities. The Spanish and Portuguese centuries-old experience of conquest and colonization during the Reconquista, coupled with new oceanic ship navigation skills, provided the tools, ability, and desire to colonize the New World. These efforts were managed respectively by the Casa de Contratación and the Casa da Índia.
England, France, and the Netherlands had also started colonies in both the West Indies and North America. They had the ability to build ocean-worthy ships but did not have as strong a history of colonization in foreign lands as did Portugal and Spain. However, English entrepreneurs gave their colonies a foundation of merchant-based investment that seemed to need much less government support.
Initially, matters concerning the colonies were dealt with primarily by the Privy Council and its committees. The Commission of Trade was set up in 1625 as the first special body convened to advise on colonial (plantation) questions. From 1696 until the end of the revolution, colonial affairs were the responsibility of the Board of Trade in partnership with the relevant secretaries of state, which changed from the Secretary of State for the Southern Department to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1768.
Mercantilism was the basic policy imposed by Britain on its colonies from the 1660s. Mercantilism meant that the government became a partner with merchants based in England, with the goal of increasing political power and private wealth, to the exclusion of other empires and even other merchants based in its own colonies. The government protected its London-based merchants and kept out others by trade barriers, regulations, and subsidies to domestic industries in order to maximize exports from the realm and minimize imports.
The government also fought smuggling, and this became a direct source of controversy with American merchants when their business activities became classified as smuggling according to the Navigation Acts—including activities that had been considered business as normal previously, such as direct trade with the French, Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese. The goal of mercantilism was to run trade surpluses so that gold and silver would pour into London. The government took its share through duties and taxes, with the remainder going to merchants in Britain. The government spent much of its revenue on a superb Royal Navy which protected the British colonies and also threatened the colonies of the other empires, sometimes even seizing them. Thus, the British Navy captured New Amsterdam (New York) in 1664. The colonies were captive markets for British industry, and the goal was to enrich the mother country.
Freedom from religious persecution
The prospect of religious persecution by authorities of the crown and the Church of England prompted a significant number of colonization efforts. People fleeing persecution by King Charles I were responsible for settling most of New England, and the Province of Maryland was founded in part to be a haven for Roman Catholics.
Early colonial failures
Anonymous Portuguese explorers were the first Europeans to map the eastern seaboard of the U.S. from New York to Florida, as documented in the Cantino planisphere of 1502. However, they kept their discoveries a secret and did not attempt to settle in North America, as the Inter caetera had granted these lands to Spain, issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493.
Other countries did attempt to found colonies in America over the following century, and most of these attempts ended in failure. The colonists faced high rates of death due to many reasons, including disease, starvation, inefficient resupply, conflict with American Indians, and attacks by rival European powers.
Spain had numerous failed attempts, including San Miguel de Gualdape in Georgia (1526), Pánfilo de Narváez's expedition to Florida's Gulf coast (1528–36), Pensacola in West Florida (1559–61), Fort San Juan in North Carolina (1567–68), and the Ajacán Mission in Virginia (1570–71).
The French failed at Parris Island, South Carolina (1562–63), Fort Caroline on Florida's Atlantic coast (1564–65), Saint Croix Island, Maine (1604-05), and Fort Saint Louis, Texas (1685–89).
The most notable English failures were the "Lost Colony of Roanoke" (1587–90) in North Carolina and Popham Colony in Maine (1607–08). It was at the Roanoke Colony that Virginia Dare became the first English child born in the Americas; her fate is unknown.
Main articles: Viceroyalty of New Spain and Spanish colonization of the Americas
Starting in the 15th century, Spain built a huge colonial empire in the Americas, consisting of New Spain and other viceroyalties. New Spain included territories in present-day Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, much of the United States west of the Mississippi River, parts of Latin America (including Puerto Rico), and the Spanish East Indies (including Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands). New Spain encompassed the territory of Louisiana after the 1762 signing of the Treaty of Fontainebleau, though Louisiana reverted to France in the 1800 Third Treaty of San Ildefonso. Many territories that had been part of New Spain would become part of the United States after 1776 through various wars and treaties, including the Louisiana Purchase (1803), the Adams–Onís Treaty (1819), the Mexican–American War (1846-1848), and the Spanish–American War (1898). Spain also sent several expeditions to the Pacific Northwest, and it transferred its claims to the Pacific Northwest to the United States in the Adams–Onís Treaty. In terms of Spanish settlers, there were several thousand families in New Mexico and California that became American citizens in 1848, plus small numbers in the other colonies.
Main articles: History of Florida and Spanish Florida
Spain established several small outposts in Florida in the early 16th century. The most important of these was St. Augustine, founded in 1565 but repeatedly attacked and burned by pirates, privateers, and English forces. Its buildings survived, even as nearly all the Spanish left. It claims to be the oldest European settlement in the continental United States.
The British attacked Spanish Florida during numerous wars. As early as 1687, the Spanish government had begun to offer asylum to slaves from British colonies. In 1693, the Spanish Crown officially proclaimed that runaways would find freedom in Florida, in return for converting to Catholicism and a term for men of four years' military service to the Crown. In effect, Spain created a maroon settlement in Florida as a front-line defense against English attacks from the north. Spain also intended to destabilize the plantation economy of the British colonies by creating a free black community to attract slaves seeking escape and refuge from the British slavery.
In 1763, Spain traded Florida to Great Britain in exchange for control of Havana, Cuba, which had been captured by the British during the Seven Years' War. Florida was home to about 3,000 Spaniards at the time, and nearly all quickly left. Britain occupied Florida, but did not send many settlers to the area, and control was restored to Spain in 1783 by the Peace of Paris, which ended the American Revolutionary War. Spain sent no more settlers or missionaries to Florida during this second colonial period. The inhabitants of West Florida revolted against the Spanish in 1810 and formed the Republic of West Florida, which was quickly annexed by the United States. The United States took possession of East Florida in 1821 according to the terms of the Adams–Onís Treaty.
Main article: History of New Mexico
Throughout the 16th century, Spain explored the southwest from Mexico, with the most notable explorer being Francisco Coronado, whose expedition rode throughout modern New Mexico and Arizona. The Spanish moved north from Mexico, settling villages in the upper valley of the Rio Grande, including much of the western half of the present-day state of New Mexico. The capital was Santa Fe. Local Indians expelled the Spanish for 12 years following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680; they returned in 1692 in the bloodless reoccupation of Santa Fe. Control was by Spain (223 years) and Mexico (25 years) until 1846, when the American Army of the West took over in the Mexican–American War. About a third of the population in the 21st century is descended from the Spanish settlers.
Main article: History of California through 1899
Further information: Spanish missions in California and Territorial evolution of California
Spanish explorers sailed along the coast of present-day California from the early 16th century to the mid-18th century, but no settlements were established over those centuries.
From 1769 until the independence of Mexico in 1820, Spain sent missionaries and soldiers to Alta California who created a series of missions operated by Franciscan priests. They also operated presidios (forts), pueblos (settlements)s, and ranchos (land grant ranches), along the southern and central coast of California. Father Junípero Serra, founded the first missions in Spanish upper Las Californias, starting with Mission San Diego de Alcalá in 1769. Through the Spanish and Mexican eras they eventually comprised a series of 21 missions to spread Roman Catholicism among the local Native Americans, linked by El Camino Real ("The Royal Road"). They were established to convert the indigenous peoples of California, while protecting historic Spanish claims to the area. The missions introduced European technology, livestock, and crops. The Indian Reductions converted the native peoples into groups of Mission Indians; they worked as laborers in the missions and the ranchos. In the 1830s the missions were disbanded and the lands sold to Californios. The indigenous Native American population was around 150,000; the Californios (Mexican era Californians) around 10,000; with the rest immigrant Americans and other nationalities involved in trade and business in California.
Further information: Spanish Texas and Spanish missions in Texas
Further information: History of Puerto Rico
In September 1493, Christopher Columbus set sail on his second voyage with 17 ships from Cádiz. On November 19, 1493 he landed on the island of Puerto Rico, naming it San Juan Bautista in honor of Saint John the Baptist. The first European colony, Caparra, was founded on August 8, 1508 by Juan Ponce de León, a lieutenant under Columbus, who was greeted by the Taíno Cacique Agüeybaná and who later became the first governor of the island. Ponce de Leon was actively involved in the Higuey massacre of 1503 in Puerto Rico. In 1508, Sir Ponce de Leon was chosen by the Spanish Crown to lead the conquest and slavery of the Taíno Indians for gold mining operations. The following year, the colony was abandoned in favor of a nearby islet on the coast, named Puerto Rico (Rich Port), which had a suitable harbor. In 1511, a second settlement, San Germán was established in the southwestern part of the island. During the 1520s, the island took the name of Puerto Rico while the port became San Juan.
As part of the colonization process, African slaves were brought to the island in 1513. Following the decline of the Taíno population, more slaves were brought to Puerto Rico; however, the number of slaves on the island paled in comparison to those in neighboring islands. Also, early in the colonization of Puerto Rico, attempts were made to wrest control of Puerto Rico from Spain. The Caribs, a raiding tribe of the Caribbean, attacked Spanish settlements along the banks of the Daguao and Macao rivers in 1514 and again in 1521 but each time they were easily repelled by the superior Spanish firepower. However, these would not be the last attempts at control of Puerto Rico. The European powers quickly realized the potential of the newly discovered lands and attempted to gain control of them. Nonetheless, Puerto Rico remained a Spanish possession until the 19th century.
The last half of the 19th century was marked by the Puerto Rican struggle for sovereignty. A census conducted in 1860 revealed a population of 583,308. Of these, 300,406 (51.5%) were white and 282,775 (48.5%) were persons of color, the latter including people of primarily African heritage, mulattos and mestizos. The majority of the population in Puerto Rico was illiterate (83.7%) and lived in poverty, and the agricultural industry—at the time, the main source of income—was hampered by lack of road infrastructure, adequate tools and equipment, and natural disasters, including hurricanes and droughts. The economy also suffered from increasing tariffs and taxes imposed by the Spanish Crown. Furthermore, Spain had begun to exile or jail any person who called for liberal reforms. The Spanish–American War broke out in 1898, in the aftermath of the explosion of USS Maine in Havana harbor. The U.S. defeated Spain by the end of the year, and won control of Puerto Rico in the ensuing peace treaty. In the Foraker Act of 1900, the U.S. Congress established Puerto Rico's status as an unincorporated territory.
Main articles: New France and French colonization of the Americas
New France was the vast area centered on the Saint Lawrence river, Great Lakes, Mississippi River and other major tributary rivers that was explored and claimed by France starting in the early 17th century. It was composed of several colonies: Acadia, Canada, Newfoundland, Louisiana, Île-Royale (present-day Cape Breton Island), and Île Saint Jean (present-day Prince Edward Island). These colonies came under British or Spanish control after the French and Indian War, though France briefly re-acquired a portion of Louisiana in 1800. The United States would gain much of New France in the 1783 Treaty of Paris, and the U.S. would acquire another portion of French territory with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The remainder of New France became part of Canada, with the exception of the French island of Saint Pierre and Miquelon.
Pays d'en Haut
By 1660, French fur trappers, missionaries and military detachments based in Montreal pushed west along the Great Lakes upriver into the Pays d'en Haut and founded outposts at Green Bay, Fort de Buade and Saint Ignace (both at Michilimackinac), Sault Sainte Marie, Vincennes, and Detroit in 1701. During the French and Indian War (1754–1763) many of these settlements became occupied by the British. By 1773, the population of Detroit was 1,400. At the end of the War for Independence in 1783, the region south of the Great Lakes formally became part of the United States.
The Illinois country by 1752 had a French population of 2,500; it was located to the west of the Ohio Country and was concentrated around Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and Sainte Genevieve. According to one scholar, "The Illinois Habitant was a gay soul; he seemed shockingly carefree to later, self-righteous Puritans from the American colonies."
French claims to French Louisiana stretched thousands of miles from modern Louisiana north to the largely unexplored Midwest, and west to the Rocky Mountains. It was generally divided into Upper and Lower Louisiana. This vast tract was first settled at Mobile and Biloxi around 1700, and continued to grow when 7,000 French immigrants founded New Orleans in 1718. Settlement proceeded very slowly; New Orleans became an important port as the gateway to the Mississippi River, but there was little other economic development because the city lacked a prosperous hinterland.
In 1763, Louisiana was ceded to Spain around New Orleans and west of the Mississippi River. In the 1780s, the western border of the newly independent United States stretched to the Mississippi River. The United States reached an agreement with Spain for navigation rights on the river and was content to let the "feeble" colonial power stay in control of the area. The situation changed when Napoleon forced Spain to return Louisiana to France in 1802 and threatened to close the river to American vessels. Alarmed, the United States offered to buy New Orleans.
Napoleon needed funds to wage another war with Great Britain, and he doubted that France could defend such a huge and distant territory. He therefore offered to sell all of Louisiana for $15 million. The United States completed the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, doubling the size of the nation.
Main articles: New Netherland and Dutch colonization of the Americas
Nieuw-Nederland, or New Netherland, was a colonial province of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands chartered in 1614, in what became New York State, New Jersey, and parts of other neighboring states. The peak population was less than 10,000. The Dutch established a patroon system with feudal-like rights given to a few powerful landholders; they also established religious tolerance and free trade. The colony's capital of New Amsterdam was founded in 1625 and located at the southern tip of the island of Manhattan, which grew to become a major world city.
The city was captured by the English in 1664; they took complete control of the colony in 1674 and renamed it New York. However the Dutch landholdings remained, and the Hudson River Valley maintained a traditional Dutch character until the 1820s. Traces of Dutch influence remain in present-day northern New Jersey and southeastern New York State, such as homes, family surnames, and the names of roads and whole towns.
Main articles: New Sweden and Swedish colonization of the Americas
New Sweden (Swedish: Nya Sverige) was a Swedish colony that existed along the Delaware River Valley from 1638 to 1655 and encompassed land in present-day Delaware, southern New Jersey, and southeastern Pennsylvania. The several hundred settlers were centered around the capital of Fort Christina, at the location of what is today the city of Wilmington, Delaware. The colony also had settlements near the present-day location of Salem, New Jersey (Fort Nya Elfsborg) and on Tinicum Island, Pennsylvania. The colony was captured by the Dutch in 1655 and merged into New Netherland, with most of the colonists remaining. Years later, the entire New Netherland colony was incorporated into England's colonial holdings.
The colony of New Sweden introduced Lutheranism to America in the form of some of the continent's oldest European churches. The colonists also introduced the log cabin to America, and numerous rivers, towns, and families in the lower Delaware River Valley region derive their names from the Swedes. The Nothnagle Log House in present-day Gibbstown, New Jersey, was constructed in the late 1630s during the time of the New Sweden colony. It remains the oldest European-built house in New Jersey and is believed to be one of the oldest surviving log houses in the United States.
Main articles: Russian America and Russian colonization of the Americas
Russia explored the area that became Alaska, starting with the Second Kamchatka expedition in the 1730s and early 1740s. Their first settlement was founded in 1784 by Grigory Shelikhov. The Russian-American Company was formed in 1799 with the influence of Nikolay Rezanov, for the purpose of buying sea otters for their fur from native hunters. In 1867, the U.S. purchased Alaska, and nearly all Russians abandoned the area except a few missionaries of the Russian Orthodox Church working among the natives.
See also: English overseas possessions, British America, British colonization of the Americas, and Thirteen Colonies
England made its first successful efforts at the start of the 17th century for several reasons. During this era, English proto-nationalism and national assertiveness blossomed under the threat of Spanish invasion, assisted by a degree of Protestant militarism and the energy of Queen Elizabeth. At this time, however, there was no official attempt by the English government to create a colonial empire. Rather, the motivation behind the founding of colonies was piecemeal and variable. Practical considerations played their parts, such as commercial enterprise, over-crowding, and the desire for freedom of religion. The main waves of settlement came in the 17th century. After 1700, most immigrants to Colonial America arrived as indentured servants, young unmarried men and women seeking a new life in a much richer environment. The consensus view among economic historians and economists is that the indentured servitude occurred largely as "an institutional response to a capital market imperfection," but that it "enabled prospective migrants to borrow against their future earnings in order to pay the high cost of passage to America." Between the late 1610s and the American Revolution, the British shipped an estimated 50,000 to 120,000 convicts to its American colonies.
Dr. Alexander Hamilton (1712 – 1756) was a Scottish-born doctor and writer who lived and worked in Annapolis, Maryland. Leo Lemay says that his 1744 travel diary Gentleman's Progress: The Itinerarium of Dr. Alexander Hamilton is "the best single portrait of men and manners, of rural and urban life, of the wide range of society and scenery in colonial America." His diary has been widely used by scholars, and covers his travels from Maryland to Maine. Biographer Elaine Breslaw says that he encountered:
- the relatively primitive social milieu of the New World. He faced unfamiliar and challenging social institutions: the labor system that relied on black slaves, extraordinarily fluid social statuses, distasteful business methods, unpleasant conversational quirks, as well as variant habits of dress, food, and drink.
Chesapeake Bay area
Main articles: Jamestown, Virginia; Colony of Virginia; and Province of Maryland
The first successful English colony was Jamestown, established May 14, 1607 near Chesapeake Bay. The business venture was financed and coordinated by the London Virginia Company, a joint stock company looking for gold. Its first years were extremely difficult, with very high death rates from disease and starvation, wars with local Indians, and little gold. The colony survived and flourished by turning to tobacco as a cash crop. By the late 17th century, Virginia's export economy was largely based on tobacco, and new, richer settlers came in to take up large portions of land, build large plantations and import indentured servants and slaves. In 1676, Bacon's Rebellion occurred, but was suppressed by royal officials. After Bacon's Rebellion, African slaves rapidly replaced indentured servants as Virginia's main labor force.
The colonial assembly shared power with a royally appointed governor. On a more local level, governmental power was invested in county courts, which were self-perpetuating (the incumbents filled any vacancies and there never were popular elections). As cash crop producers, Chesapeake plantations were heavily dependent on trade with England. With easy navigation by river, there were few towns and no cities; planters shipped directly to Britain. High death rates and a very young population profile characterized the colony during its first years.
Randall Miller points out that "America had no titled aristocracy... although one aristocrat, Lord Thomas Fairfax, did take up residence in Virginia in 1734."Lord Fairfax (1693- 1781) was a Scottish baron who came to America permanently to oversee his family's vast land holdings. Historian Arthur Schlesinger says that he "was unique among the permanent comers in bearing so high a rank as baron." He was a patron of George Washington and was not disturbed during the war.
Main articles: History of New England, Connecticut Colony, Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts Bay Colony, Province of New Hampshire, and Colony of Rhode Island
Main articles: Puritans and Pilgrims (Plymouth Colony)
The Pilgrims were a small group of Puritan separatists who felt that they needed to physically distance themselves themselves from the Church of England. They initially moved to the Netherlands, then decided to re-establish themselves in America. The initial Pilgrim settlers sailed to North America in 1620 on the Mayflower. Upon their arrival, they drew up the Mayflower Compact, by which they bound themselves together as a united community, thus establishing the small Plymouth Colony. William Bradford was their main leader. After its founding, other settlers traveled from England to join the colony.
The non-separatist Puritans constituted a much larger group than the Pilgrims, and they established the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629 with 400 settlers. They sought to reform the Church of England by creating a new, pure church in the New World. By 1640, 20,000 had arrived; many died soon after arrival, but the others found a healthy climate and an ample food supply. The Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies together spawned other Puritan colonies in New England, including the New Haven, Saybrook, and Connecticut colonies. During the 17th century, the New Haven and Saybrook colonies were absorbed by Connecticut.
The Puritans created a deeply religious, socially tight-knit, and politically innovative culture that still influences the modern United States. They hoped that this new land would serve as a "redeemer nation
American literature, the body of written works produced in the English language in the United States.
Like other national literatures, American literature was shaped by the history of the country that produced it. For almost a century and a half, America was merely a group of colonies scattered along the eastern seaboard of the North American continent—colonies from which a few hardy souls tentatively ventured westward. After a successful rebellion against the motherland, America became the United States, a nation. By the end of the 19th century this nation extended southward to the Gulf of Mexico, northward to the 49th parallel, and westward to the Pacific. By the end of the 19th century, too, it had taken its place among the powers of the world—its fortunes so interrelated with those of other nations that inevitably it became involved in two world wars and, following these conflicts, with the problems of Europe and East Asia. Meanwhile, the rise of science and industry, as well as changes in ways of thinking and feeling, wrought many modifications in people’s lives. All these factors in the development of the United States molded the literature of the country.
This article traces the history of American poetry, drama, fiction, and social and literary criticism from the early 17th century through the turn of the 21st century. For a description of the oral and written literatures of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, seeNative American literature. Though the contributions of African Americans to American literature are discussed in this article, seeAfrican American literature for in-depth treatment. For information about literary traditions related to, and at times overlapping with, American literature in English, seeEnglish literature and Canadian literature: Canadian literature in English.