Middle Colonies: 1681–1730

Life in the Middle Colonies

Economy of the Middle Colonies

The geography of the middle colonies provided fertile land suitable for large-scale agriculture as well as harbors on the Atlantic Ocean to support substantial port settlements.

The economy of the middle colonies was developed primarily around agriculture. The region's fertile soil allowed farmers to produce a surplus of grain, flour, and bread and export their excess to the other colonies, Europe, and the Caribbean. These colonies are sometimes referred to as the "breadbasket" colonies. The middle colonies also exported raw materials such as lumber, iron, and coal.

New York, Philadelphia, and other port settlements were crucial to the economy of the middle colonies. Access to the Atlantic Ocean was necessary for the transport of goods and raw materials. About 90 percent of early colonists lived in rural areas. However, the development of Philadelphia as a center of trade encouraged growth. By 1699 Philadelphia had a population of about 10,000 people. The city's location at the meeting place of the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers provided farmers and traders access to the farms and land where goods and raw materials originated. They also had access to the Atlantic Ocean, where the products could be shipped to other colonies and abroad. The money colonists earned through export of lumber and other raw materials was often used to purchase manufactured goods, which were shipped to the colonies through Philadelphia.

Located on the island of Manhattan where the Hudson River meets the Atlantic Ocean, New York City was another important commercial center in the middle colonies. First settled by the Dutch West India Company as a trading post, by 1700 New York City had a population of about 5,000 people.

Map of Middle Colonies, c. 1700

The middle colonies included New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware (a semiautonomous part of the Pennsylvania Colony). In 1609 explorer Henry Hudson traveled the river that later was named for him, thinking it might be the Northwest Passage leading to Asia. New York's capital, Albany, was founded at the Hudson's northern reaches.

Government and Social Structures of the Middle Colonies

Residents of the middle colonies formed local governments, embraced religious tolerance, and were influenced by diverse ethnic groups.

Although under British control, the colonies maintained a large degree of autonomy when it came to local governance. There was no centralized government in the colonies. For example, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania were proprietary colonies. A proprietary colony was formed when Britain's King Charles II awarded land in North America to an individual, or proprietor.The king gave out many of these proprietary land tracts as repayment of financial or political debts. Governors in these colonies were appointed by the proprietor.

The colonies were ultimately under control of the governor, but settlers set up local governments. The middle colonies tended to form local governments around counties, in contrast to the town governments set up in New England. Pennsylvania's Charter of Liberties, adopted by the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1701, was a new constitution for the colony. Under the new charter, William Penn granted assembly members the power to create legislation and to select their own officers.

Delaware was a part of the Pennsylvania colony. Delaware leaders in the Pennsylvania Assembly strongly resented the dominance of Pennsylvania representatives. In 1704 the governor of Pennsylvania allowed the Delaware representatives to form their own assembly. Delaware remained under the control of the Pennsylvania governor.

Religious and Ethnic Diversity in the Middle Colonies

Religion played an important part in the social structure of early colonial settlements. The middle colonies' population was more ethnically diverse and had greater religious tolerance than the colonies of New England. A quest for religious freedom had been a primary motivation for many of the settlers who came to the middle colonies. In contrast to the staunchly Puritan inhabitants of New England, settlers in the middle colonies embraced a wide array of faiths. In addition to Pennsylvania's Quakers, settlers here included Amish, Huguenots, Jews, Lutherans, Catholics, and Presbyterians, among others. Having escaped religious persecution in their home countries, immigrants adapted to the colonies' atmosphere of religious tolerance.

Although they were all under British rule by the end of the 17th century, the middle colonies were initially settled by non-English Europeans. This created a culturally diverse population. In the mid-1600s the population of the New York colony included immigrants from the Netherlands, France, Scandinavia, Germany, England, Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and other countries.

Tolerance for other faiths and ethnicities allowed such groups to retain their cultural practices. One group in particular—the strict German-speaking Anabaptists, which included the Amish—preferred to keep themselves apart from the society around them. As a result, they retained their language, which came to be known as Pennsylvania German, or Pennsylvania "Dutch" (from the German word for German, Deutsch).

Status of Women in the Middle Colonies

In the middle colonies, as in the South and New England, women were generally expected to be subordinate to their husbands and fathers. However, in some instances the experiences of women in the middle colonies differed from those of other colonial women. Their status often varied by the cultural norms of the ethnic group in which they resided.

On the farms of Pennsylvania's German settlements, women were expected to work in the fields alongside men. This differed from the norm on the farms of English colonists, where women were more often expected to concentrate on household tasks.

Under the influence of English common law, single colonial women were allowed to hold property but were required to relinquish those rights when they married. Widows regained their property, as well as assuming ownership of their husbands' properties and businesses. In German and Dutch immigrant communities, wives retained ownership of personal items such as clothing and could create some legal documents, including wills.

Voting rights in the colonies were usually restricted to landowning white males. Throughout most of the middle colonies, women were prohibited from owning land and voting. For the most part women filled domestic roles—managing households, raising children, and assisting with the family farm or business. They might also work outside the home as seamstresses, midwives, or nurses.

Social activities were generally divided by gender and class. Women often gathered to socialize while performing homemaking tasks such as quilting. However, men and women gathered together for harvesting activities, religious services, and community dances.

Religious affiliation influenced women's roles. Unlike the more rigid Puritans of New England, the Quakers of the middle colonies allowed significant participation by female congregants. Women led church services, and congregations believed that husbands and wives could be equal partners in marriage.