Sunday, July 23, 2017

Episode 002: The American Background

Before we get into the war, I want to talk about the people who would be a part of the fight.  Today’s episode will give a brief background of the people who came to colonize North America.

National Origins of Colonists

By the mid-1700s, North America was well populated with European colonists.  It’s economy, or should I say various economies, were growing at an amazing rate.  The colonies had taken on distinct characters of their own as they evolved into economic and political structures that suited their individual needs.

Not all the colonists in the English colonies were English.  Large numbers of Germans, Swedes, and Dutch colonists had settled alongside English, Scottish, and Irish colonists.  Quite a few of the Germans had been French a few generations earlier.  French Protestants, known as Huguenots, had to flee their native country after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.  The Revocation essentially outlawed tolerance of Protestants in France.   Many had fled to southern Germany, but within a generation or two looked for greener pastures in America.

Whatever their origin, colonists had to swear loyalty to the King of England and submit to the law as a British subject.  Many of them retained their own language, customs, and religious practices, as long as they agreed to obey the King and his laws and remain loyal to their adopted country.

Colonists practiced a variety of religions, although almost all were a variant of Protestant Christianity.  Europe had suffered centuries of Protestant-Catholic wars.  Many feared that a mix of religious groups would only lead to more conflict and war in America.  During much of the colonial period, Britain was competing primarily with Catholic France and Catholic Spain for control of territory.  One’s religion typically indicated one’s political identity. Catholic colonists were seen as potentially disloyal to Protestant Britain.

For the most part, practice of Catholicism was illegal throughout the colonies, as it was in Britain.  Beyond that though, members of the Church of England, who were Anglicans, later called Episcopalians, mixed with Presbyterians, Quakers, Lutherans, Reformed Calvinists, and a host of other Protestant variants. Some Colonies required taxes to support the Church of England only.  But once the taxes were paid, most colonists were free to practice their Protestant faith as they saw fit.

Beyond the draw of religious freedom, which admittedly varied greatly among the colonies, economic appeal was probably the strongest incentive for new colonists to make the journey. This is not to say the colonies offered an easy path to riches. Most colonists came to the new world to face devastatingly hard work, combined with the risk of early death from disease, starvation, exposure, or Indian attack.  This made colonization a very risky venture.  Most colonists took this risk because staying home was even worse.  Disease, starvation, and exposure were also common ends in Europe, unless you were among the very small minority who had wealth and power (those known as the nobility).  Add to that the endless wars that ravaged the continent, and the risks of life in the colonies did not seem worse. By contrast, if you were lucky to survive and thrive in the colonies, you would have a much better chance to obtain your own land.  That reward was virtually impossible in much of Europe.  In America, you could build a life for your children and take advantage of the New World’s great growth potential.  Even the small chance of success was enough for many Europeans to try their luck in America.

Indentured Servants

The journey across the Atlantic was the first hurdle for many.  In addition to lasting 2-3 months under terrible conditions, the voyage was expensive, more than most commoners could afford. The solution to this was indentured servitude.  Essentially, an immigrant would agree to work for a period of years in exchange for the cost of transport to America.  An indenture would last 2-7 years (typically 3-5 years) after which time the servant would become a free person, able to start his or her own life in the new world.  Nearly half of all immigrants to the colonies arrived as indentured servants.
1774 Ad to sell Indentured Servants in Virginia

Many historians minimize the harshness of indentured servitude when compared to slavery.  Slavery was a life sentence for you and your children.  Indentured servitude was only temporary.  But during the time of service, indentured servitude was as hard, and often harder than being a slave.  It was not simply working off a debt like paying off a student loan today.  Indentured servants were bound to their master and obligated to do whatever work was demanded of them.  Indentured servants were often used for more dangerous work than slaves. Work might involve laboring in mines or clearing mosquito-infested swamps.  An indentured servant’s death was less of an investment loss to the owner than that of a slave.  Servants could not leave their employer before the term was up, regardless of conditions.  A master could sell their contract to someone else.  Servants could not marry without their master’s permission.  They could be whipped for disobedience or other infractions.

Many indentured servants did not enter service voluntarily.  Some had the option to enter servitude instead of prison or other punishment for a crime.  Others were simply kidnapped and sold into servitude.  Like anything, people had mixed experiences with indentured servitude.  For some, it was almost like being adopted into the family.  For others it was worse than slavery.  One’s experience was largely a matter of luck.


African immigrants arrived almost exclusively as slaves.  There were some early Africans who were treated as indentured servants, and a handful who arrived as free men, mostly sailors.  The overwhelming majority came as chattel slaves.  Many were sold into slavery in Africa either due to inability to repay a debt, as punishment for a crime, or captured in war.  Of course, many tribes went to “war” for the sole purpose of capturing and enslaving members of other tribes. Once sold to European slave traders, it mattered little how one became a slave.  All slaves were reduced to property for life, as well as were all of their children.

Most of the millions of of slaves who made the Atlantic crossing went the the Caribbean or Brazil.  Only a few hundred thousand ever arrived in the British colonies that became the United States.  All 13 colonies permitted the practice of slavery, although the slave populations were much larger in the southern colonies.  During the colonial period, it was possible for slaves to obtain freedom.  Some owners freed slaves, often in their wills.  More often, slaves were permitted to work on outside jobs and keep some of the money they earned.  Some were able to purchase their own freedom or those of family members with these extra earnings.  Some blacks even became slave owners themselves.  Of course, these were in an extreme minority.  Most Africans and their descendants remained slaves until their State emancipated them.  In the case of the South, this was not until after the Civil War.

Because the horrors and details of slavery are covered much better and in much more detail elsewhere, I will not get into a detailed discussion here.  Suffice it to say for the purposes of the American Revolution, slaves were numerous, not terribly happy with their situation, and willing to support whichever side gave them a better chance at freedom.

Native Americans

At the outset of the Revolution, Native Americans controlled large portions of the colonies as well as lands to the west.  Native Americans had no strong loyalty to either side.  Different tribes took different sides based on local circumstances.  I will discuss some of the specific tribal loyalties in future episodes as we move into the French and Indian war.  I know that the term “indian” is sometimes considered politically incorrect since it was a title foisted on Native Americans by Europeans who originally mistook America for the Indies.  However, the term is what was used at the time and avoids the confusion of using the term “native” which can also refer to people of European descent who were born locally.  For this reason, I will frequently use the term Indian when generically referring Native American tribes.

Colonial Regions

If you took US history in high school,  you were probably subjected to the idea that there were  three regions on the continent that developed differently based on geographical or other factors.  These classifications tend to drive me crazy because the idea is often presented in such a simplistic way that it does not give a realistic idea of the diversity of experiences within each region.  Nevertheless, I will borrow that concept of three geographic divisions to go over a few basics.

New England

The most northern British colonies were known as New England.  The name “New England” was not very original.  After all, other countries had created New Spain, New France, and New Netherlands.  An early claim to the name goes to the Council for New England, founded in 1620 to distribute land in North America to various Nobles seeking to create estates in the new world.  The Council received a grant to colonize land between 40 degrees and 48 degrees latitude.  This is much of the area we consider modern New England today, although the grant went all the way across to the Pacific Ocean.  The Council ended up having competing claims with the Massachusetts Bay Company, which later received a Royal Charter directly and defeated the Council’s claims.

The Pilgrims who founded Plymouth Colony in 1620 were first permanent British colonists in the region.  The Pilgrims had a charter from the Virginia Company.  When they arrived in America, they ended up settling outside the Virginia Company’s territory, which extended only as far north as modern day New York.  The Pilgrims, therefore, really had no legal justification for colonizing the Plymouth Colony where they did. The British government, however, was not terribly concerned about this experimental colony.  It was happy to have a British presence that might give Britain a claim to land that the French and Dutch also claimed.

A decade later, the Plymouth Colony was dwarfed by the Puritan-governed Massachusetts Bay Colony which settled nearby in present day Boston.  Soon, other colonies sprouted nearby. Colonists who could not live under the religious rules in Massachusetts established Rhode island and Connecticut.  New Hampshire and Maine grew from small trading outposts from Massachusetts.  New Hampshire eventually got its own Royal Charter, but Maine remained part of Massachusetts until well after independence.

For several decades, the British government allowed the colonies to grow on their own.  Funding largely came private investors who sent colonists as indentured servants to acquire profits for the company.  For the most part, these investments were economic failures.  The indentures ended before they were in a position to provide much return to the investors.

Adding to the neglect, the English Civil War distracted officials for decades.  Officials had to focus on controlling England itself, not some tiny far off colonies.  The New England colonies thrived under the neglect, building their own society, based largely on religious (Calvinist) principles of prayer and hard work.  The land was not particularly amenable to large farms.  Much of it was rocky.  Growing seasons were also much shorter than further south.   Many New Englanders found a better life, in timber, ship building, fishing, mercantile trading, and manufacturing.  Most local farming was for food.  Cash crops never became big business in New England during the colonial period.

With the end of the English Civil War, King Charles II decided to reassert some order over the region.  Colonial merchants were trading not only with other English colonies, but also colonies from France and Spain.  Colonial traders and manufacturers were now in competition with English traders and manufacturers.  They were also largely avoiding payment of any tariffs to England.  King Charles sought to revoke the colonial charters and create a single Dominion of New England, headquartered in Boston and controlling the entire region, which eventually also included New York and both East and West Jersey.  Charles died before his vision could be fully implemented.  His successor King James II, followed through, revoking the colonial charters and creating a central government for the region operating out of Boston.

The New England colonies greatly resisted this governmental intrusion.  Many traders became smugglers to avoid paying tariffs.  They also did not want to give up valuable trade with other colonies in the Caribbean.  Lax enforcement made it easy to ignore these trade rules, so most colonists did.  The two sides were clearly headed toward a fight in the 1680’s.

Fortunately for the colonies, the British aristocracy overthrew King James II in the Glorious Revolution of 1689.  The Dominion of New England got tossed aside and colonists went back to their old ways.  One change was that the Massachusetts Colony took control of Plymouth Colony. Beyond that, the colonies largely went back to self-rule.  Only the name “New England” remained to describe the region.

Although the colonists pretty much won the battle because of internal political issues in Britain, many took the lesson to mean that they could challenge British policies and prevail.  It also taught them to be highly suspect of any British government involvement in their affairs.  These dangerous ideas of resistance would be part of colonists’ general attitude, continually frustrating Governors, Generals, and other leaders sent from England to impose order.

Middle Colonies

The Middle Colonies were probably the least English of the English colonies.  New York had gotten its start as New Netherlands, settled by Dutch colonists, who remained after the British took control of their colony.

East and West Jersey eventually merged into the single colony of New Jersey, but remained largely unpopulated in this early period.  For much of its early history, it was governed by New York.  Like neighboring colonies, New Jersey offered religious freedom to attract colonists.  However, the nobles who ran New Jersey also required payment of high annual “quitrents”, essentially a form of property tax on land.   With lower costs in neighboring colonies, many colonists skipped New Jersey.  High property taxes that discourage more population growth is a tradition that New Jersey carries to this day.

Despite the costs, some Quaker groups joined the Dutch settlers in New Jersey.   In the late 1600’s, Quaker groups purchased New Jersey from the original nobles and began to settle the land in larger numbers.
William Penn

Pennsylvania was founded by another Quaker, William Penn. The King gave the land to Penn to pay off a large debt owed to William’s deceased father.  Penn realized he needed a large population quickly. English colonists were not terribly interested in populating an inland wooded area still thick with Indians who might not take kindly to new immigrants.  Some Quakers settled in and around Philadelphia, but large numbers of colonists to fill out all of his lands would require another source. Penn decided to turn to the German States.

Germany did not exist as a single nation at this time, but the heavily populated German States of northern Europe were teaming with poor hardworking people who could be convinced to take a risk. Penn’s guarantee of religious freedom was also particularly attractive to people who had been on the front lines of religious wars for several centuries.  Cheap obtainable land was also a big draw to farmers sick of paying heavy rents to minor nobility.  Germans settled Pennsylvania in huge numbers.  Although they swore loyalty to the British King (who, by the way, was a German) they retained use of their German language well into the 20th Century.  They also retained their own German Protestant religions and created their own communities that remained relatively separate from the English.  These eventually became known as the “Pennsylvania Dutch” (Dutch being a mispronunciation of Deutsche).

Delaware originally began as a Swedish colony.  The Dutch took the colony from the Swedes in 1655, making this the southern part of the Dutch claim of New Netherlands.  The English then came along and took all of that area away from the Dutch in 1664.  The colonists living there were forced to swear allegiance to the British King, but remained in place with their own language and customs.  There was some question as to what colony actually controlled the area.  Maryland laid claim, as did Pennsylvania after its establishment.  Pennsylvania’s claim finally prevailed in 1681.  The people of Delaware, however, maintained their own colonial legislature, separate from that of Pennsylvania’s.  No one seemed inclined to press for a clearer delineation of how independent Delaware would be from Pennsylvania  The matter persisted up until the time that the colonies declared independence from Britain.

Maryland was originally established by English Catholic nobles who were trying to get away from the anti-Catholic laws in England.  Lord Baltimore created a colony where both Catholics and Protestants would be welcome.  Despite the origin and early governance by a Catholic family, the colony quickly became populated largely by Protestants with a small Catholic minority.  Around the same time the Glorious Revolution was dumping the pro-Catholic King James II in England, Marylanders rose up against their Catholic leaders, installed a Puritan Government in Maryland and outlawed Catholicism.  The Church of England became the official religion much like neighboring Virginia.

Southern Colonies

Virginia typically considered itself a middle colony rather than a southern one. Part of this may have been due to the fact that Virginia’s land claims extended all they way up into what it today Pennsylvania and Ohio.  Early on, Virginia claimed that all of what today we call mid-Atlantic region, all the way up to what is today New York City.  These eastern claims were extinguished early, while claims to what we today consider the mid-west remained until after independence.

Virginia was home to the oldest successful British colony in North America.  It was managed by a private company, the Virginia Company, which held a royal charter.  Founded during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the “virgin queen” - hence the name.  It was really the official English colony.  Its land supported large farms and quickly developed cash crops for sale in England, particularly tobacco.

The colony became home to lesser nobles who would not inherit land at home because they were not the eldest son.  Virginia offered them an opportunity to have their own large estates.  Many commoners came as well, including the Scotch-Irish.  Those were descendants of Scottish Protestants who settled in Northern Ireland during the Cromwell era, benefiting from land taken from the Irish Catholics.  With land in Ireland harder to obtain by the early 1700’s, many families decided to move once again.  Many Germans also settled in Virginia. Some came directly.  Others were Pennsylvania immigrants, or their children, looking for better land further south.  The Scotch and Germans tended to settle in the less valuable lands further west in the mountains.   The nobles in the eastern areas, the Tidewater region, established larger estates.  Nobles were not much interested in doing their own labor and poorer Europeans were more interested in obtaining their own cheap land rather than working for someone else.  As a result, wealthy landowners began importing large numbers of Africans, first as indentured servants, but quickly becoming chattel slaves.

The Carolinas were originally one big colony, although they broke into North and South rather quickly.  South Carolina tended to have more of the wealthier noble colonists, while commoners moved to what became North Carolina. Like Virginia, many poorer people lived in the western mountainous regions.  The wealthier eastern landowners grew reliant on slave labor.  Major cash crops including tobacco, rice, and indigo made plantations in this region very profitable.

Georgia became the last of the established English colonies in North America.  Many of the original settlers were poor Londoners looking to pay off debts and establish new lives.  The Colony’s primary purpose was to serve as a barrier colony between wealthy South Carolina and the French, Spanish, and Indians to the south and west.  Of course, it grew in its own right into a sizable colony, but tended to less wealthy and contain less nobility.


The establishment of the colonies could probably constitute several books on this one topic alone.  My point in providing this brief background is to show that there was a diverse assortment of colonists with no single unifying language, custom, religion, or political belief.  The Colonies frequently disputed among themselves over borders and other issues.  They maintained a sense of loyalty to Britain, but largely hoped to govern their own affairs and be left alone in most day to day matters.

Britain provided some legal, diplomatic, and military cover from foreign invasion.  But beyond that interference from the mother country usually meant more taxes or costly regulations. The colonies tried to keep that to an absolute minimum.

Next Week: we will cross the Atlantic to go over a short history of Britain during the colonial era.

Next Episode 3: The British Background

Previous Episode 1: Introduction

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Further Reading


Chart of the founding of the original 13 Colonies - A good summary of basic facts and dates:

Land of the Brave - 13 Colonies List - More summary information:

US History - More information about the Dominion of New England:

The Dominion of New England:

The Massachusetts Bay Colony:

The Pennsylvania Colony:

Colonial Virginia:

An interesting article on Indentured Servitude (requires PDF Reader):,_The_Rise_and_Fall_of_Indentured_Servitude_in_the_Americas.pdf

Life in the Southern Colonies, by David Lee Russell Journal of the American Revolution:
Part 1:
Part 2:
Part 3:

Free Books:
(from unless otherwise noted)

The History of the Thirteen Colonies of North America, by Reginald Jefferey (1908).

Redemptioners and indentured servants in the colony and commonwealth of Pennsylvania, by Karl Frederick Geiser, (1901).

The Thirteen Colonies, by Helen Ainslie Smith (1901).

The New England Mind: From Colony to Province, by Perry Miller (1953).

The Puritan age and rule in the colony of the Massachusetts Bay, 1629-1685, by George Ellis (1888).

Books Worth Buying:
(links to unless otherwise noted)*:

Bernhard, Virginia A Tale of Two Colonies: What Really Happened in Virginia and Bermuda?, Univ. of Missouri 2011.

Hawke, David The Colonial Experience, Prentice Hall, 1966.

Richter, Daniel K. Before the Revolution, Belknap Press, 2011.

Simons, R.C. The American Colonies From Settlement to Independence, Longman, 1976.

Wright, Louis The Thirteen Colonies, American Heritage, 2014.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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